SERENA WILLIAMS – 2 FOR 2

Today a question was asked and answered. Would Serena Williams be able to win another tournament in her comeback. The answer was an emphatic yes.

Today in the finals of the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Canada, 2 of the best servers in women’s tennis went toe to toe and the steadier and for me personally, the better of the 2 servers prevailed. Serena Williams showed once again, as Judy Murray pointed out on twitter, Serena is all class.

The match started out like any other with a few tentative moments by both players in holding serve, although Stosur had an easier time of it. She started the match serving at a high of 76% first serve and was looking quite comfortable. Serena on the other hand seemed a bit out of sorts but she maintained her composure and did what she needed to do. There would be no breaks of serve in the first 8 games played, but at 4-4, with Stosur serving, something changed. I will definitely have to watch the repeat on Tennis Channel later tonight. Suffice it to say that Stosur was 2 games point away from holding for a 5-4 lead in the first set. She would fault on her first serve and Serena punished her second serve. 40-30. Stosur would then miss her first serve again. Serena stepped inside the baseline for the second serve and a short rally ensued which Stosur lost. Deuce. It was telling that before Stosur served that second serve, Serena stepped away from the line and turned her back and mumbled to herself. One can only surmise that she was remembering and repeating what coach Venus had told her to do in her match against Stosur.

Serena would go on to break the Stosur serve for a 5-4 lead. She would serve out the set comfortably. In the second set it was all Serena. There was nothing that Stosur could do and the look of bewilderment that usually accompanies Stosur when she is playing maintained its hold over her until 5-1 in the second set when she held serve. She would get her one and only break point in the match on Serena’s serve when Serena served for the match, but even that faint spark of hope went away when Williams served an ace that left Stosur hanging.

The joy and celebration on Williams’ face was great to see. She played tennis that was out of this world during her semifinal and final and she looked absolutely happy and relaxed during her on-court interview. She says she will be playing Cincinatti where she is slated to meet Stosur in the 2nd round. Word is that Stosur is currently suffering from wrist tendonitis so there is a possibility that she may either rest her wrist for the Open or she may decide to play and who knows maybe get a win and build more confidence going into the Open.

It is really good to see Williams back and playing top level tennis once again. She has been missed and it was really good to watch a women’s match where the conversation in the booth was more about the quality of the serving display, rather than who was throwing in the most double faults.

As with all the Majors this year, the women’s storyline is much more enticing than the men. As it is we may have another 3 Grand Slam in a season winner on the men’s side, while on the women’s side there are so many contenders as well as the return of a great champion.

I am looking forward to Cincinatti and coverage of that tournament will be on Tennis Channel tomorrow (Monday). I would think that coverage on ESPN2 may not be before the quarter-finals. Hopefully, they will take the opportunity to share matches with Tennis Channel

ONWARDS

Today I learned via twitter that recently retired pro Patty Schynder has not only been left hanging by her husband but apparently she has filed for bankruptcy and has lost everything, including her cat. I am not sure how much of this story is true as it has not been picked up by the English media and the article that I saw posted on twitter was in German. However, if this is indeed true, I hope for Patty’s sake that there are many tournaments as well as clubs who would be lining up to offer her employment in order that she can see better days.

This incident with Patty has me thinking about a recent article that someone posted in relation to the players on both Tours needing a Union. I am in agreement with this. I would go even further and say that both Tours should seriously think about starting some type of pension plan that could allow retired players to have a small nest egg upon their retirement from the sport.

Tennis is an exceptionally tough sport and the men and women who play it day in and day out are not only working their bodies to the bone, but their bank accounts as well. Unless you are a top pro, travelling first class and being given large appearance fees by tournament directors, you are basically living hand to mouth. I really think that the Tours should look into having something to aid players who for one reason or another have fallen on hard times.

USO SERIES … THE WORST ROAD TRIP IN SPORTS

It started about 6 or 7 years ago and billed itself as the USO Series… The Greatest Road Trip in Sports. It offered millions of dollars in prize money and promised fans that they would get the best in tennis that the ATP and WTA had to offer. It starts in July and ends at the US Open with the winner of the Series getting a chance to double their prize money if they win the Series and win the US Open. Since the start of the Series we have 2 players who have won the Series and won the Open. They are Kim Clijsters in 2005 and Roger Federer in 2009.

One of the worst things about the USO Series is the lack of coverage that fans have to put up with. This is not only true of the Series but really of most tournaments held in the US. What is the use of having a channel that is solely dedicated to tennis when most of the tennis that is occuring is blacked out because a major network (ESPN2) decides when and what time fans should get to see matches and even worse, picks and chooses which matches fans want to watch.

A case in point. Yesterday was semifinal day at the Toronto and Montreal events. Most of us who rely on American television for our tennis were disappointed when a really good match featuring Radwanska and Stosur was not aired anywhere in the US. Fans in Europe and elsewhere were able to see this match. For people like me who tried to watch the match on a livestream, it was extremely frustrating as the stream would die right in the middle of a rally and then commence once the players were at the service line or at the changeover. I checked in on ESPN2 and Tennis Channel and neither channel was broadcasting this match.

However as soon as the Fish v. Tipsaravic semifinal was on ESPN2 was ready to do its broadcast. Because that match finished quite early, we were then treated to the last 3 games in the women’s semi played earlier. Later in the day we got the second women’s semi featuring Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka and later that night the Djokovic v. Tsonga semifinal.

Today is the start of main draw play from Cincinatti, another combined event. As I am writing this, Tennis Channel is showing a Fed Cup match between Russia and Italy to be followed by a fan’s guide to the US Open. Coverage of Cincinatti does not begin until Monday afternoon on Tennis Channel and of course ESPN2 will perhaps not come online until about quarter-final day, at which point all we will get are selected matches featuring only the top players.

Why can it not be a case of ESPN2 and Tennis Channel sharing the coverage of these combined events. It could be that one could do the men and another network the women, or they could share which matches they cover. If ESPN2 wants only the marquee players, Tennis Channel could, of course, take those matches that feature lesser known players, but who have reached the quarter-final of these events.

We saw earlier this year at Wimbledon when only matches featuring marquee players were featured on tv. Turns out that it was a player that was hardly featured on either ESPN2 or Tennis Channel who ended up winning the Ladies Singles title.

I cannot imagine why Tennis Channel makes such a hue and cry about getting equal access to cable providers in the US. It could be said that it is a chicken and egg situation. If we had more markets, we would make more money and therefore able to carry more live events, or if we covered more events, we would be able to say that we have a wider audience clamouring for our channel and therefore deserve to be treated on par with Golf Channel etc.

I don’t know what the solution is to this problem, but it cannot be that every time tennis gets to the US, the visibility of the sport dies a natural death.

COMBINED EVENTS – ARE THEY DESTROYING THE WTA PRODUCT?

In recent times there have been much ado about the fact that many big tournaments are now combined events. This means that events which feature both men’s and women’s events and which would be held in back to back weeks, they are now incorporating these events and they are held in the same week.

The Canadian Open, aka The Rogers Cup is now a combined event. They have made this happen by holding the men’s event in Montreal as well as the women’s event in Toronto taking place at the same time. As with all combined events, the women’s event usually gets shafted in favour of the men.

Thanks to Eurosport I have been able to enjoy some of the women’s matches, but for the matches which are played in the evenings, the women’s event gets shafted in favour of the man of the moment who may be playing.

Last night was a case in point. If not for the rain delay which was happening in Montreal, most of us would never have seen Sharapova’s match against Jovanovski and forget about seeing Azarenka against Dubois. Livestreaming was your friend last night in order to even see that particular match.

The disappointment in the voices of the commentators was palpable when they had to keep announcing a rain delay happening in Montreal.

I have no idea whose bright idea this was to have 2 simultaneous large events, happening in the same country and expect that both tournaments would garner the same level of enthusiasm amongst fans.

Even worse, if it was not bad enough that the women get short shrift in terms of television coverage even when they are on their own, how is it possible that they would get equal coverage when the so-called “big names” of men’s tennis are playing at the same time.

Next week there is another combined event in Cincinatti and again I am not optimistic that the women will get equal coverage at this particular event.

While most of us who are tennis fans realise that the economy is in a downward spiral and that there is not much money in the pockets of fans to attend tennis tournaments, the fact remains that the product that the women produce is equal to or even surpasses that of the men. The accomplishments of the top women are on equal footing as that of the men. However, you cannot tell this when you have combined events as not only does the coverage for the men’s events overshadow that of the women, but the voices of those in the booth lends credence to the fact that the women’s tour is weak.

Take for instance what has been happening in both tournaments. During the first few days both tournaments lost top ranked players. The men losing the No. 4 and No. 2 seeds, while the women have lost the No. 1 and No. 2 seed. The narrative that has been written is that the No. 4 seed was having a post Wimbledon lull while the No. 2 ranked player was having issues with his foot, his opponent played out of his mind and he had a cold. The narrative written by the loss of the top seeds on the women’s side went something like this: weak No. 1 who could not handle the conditions or her opponent and for the NO. 2 seed – this may well spell her retirement. There were also talks about the depth in men’s tennis but for the women it was about a bunch of head cases who cannot string 2 points together.

Commentators, both those in print and electronic have consistently berated the women’s game. They find nothing exciting about the new crop of players and they spend most of their time writing about the screaming, grunting and otherwise peripheral things of women’s tennis, while on the men’s side the narrative is always about how tough and focused certain players are and the diversity at the top of men’s tennis.

On tap at today’s events, there are 14 matches scheduled that fans will be able to watch. Of those 14, 4 of them are women. They have even scheduled a doubles match with the men for viewing.

It would be good if at some point the narrative changed, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

This is today’s Order of Play

IN DEFENCE OF WOZNIACKI

Caroline Wozniacki is the current resident of the WTA Penthouse. She has occupied this apartment since the latter part of 2010 when she overtook Serena Williams, who was out injured from mid-2010 and who has been out for most of the 2011 season with various ailments.

Recently, Wozniacki has come under attack, subtly by the media and more vigorously from tennis fans. I am here to defend not only Wozniacki, but the WTA as well.

Unless you were a hardcore tennis head and a true fan of women’s tennis, Wozniacki’s arrival on the tennis scene was not a surprise. The first time I saw her play was in 2006. At that time she was playing a small tournament alongside what was then the Tennis Channel Open or Las Vegas Open. She played a Japanese player, a veteran of the women’s tour and she won the match quite handily. Most people who followed junior tennis, already knew about Wozniacki and her penchant for blowing up on court, so we all knew that she had fight and that she was as tough as nails.

Wozniacki Overachieved

In 2009 when Clijsters returned to the women’s tour, all the talk was about her return and what it would mean for women’s tennis. Commentators and the media were in a frenzy. Meanwhile, players like Wozniacki who had been carrying the Tour since Clijsters’ break were barely given the time of day. Until Wozniacki beat Oudin in the quarters of the US Open, I doubt if many in the commentary box even knew who she was. Comparisons were made to Hingis, Jankovic and other players who are known for their defense, rather than their offensive games. On her way to her first and only major, Wozniacki did not take down any ‘big’ name players. She played steady, made few unforced errors and even fewer winners and the holes in her game were so big that you could shoot an elephant through it, but despite all that, Woznaicki gave Clijsters a very good match, even though she lost. In 2009, Wozniacki ended the season ranked No. 4, from being ranked in the top 20. She would end the season with 3 titles and 67 match wins. The talk then was that she would lose to players who were either ranked No. 1 or who were formerly ranked No. 1. This list would include Safina, Jankovic, Ivanovic, both Williams Sisters, Sharapova, and Clijsters.

In 2010 Wozniacki went on a tear, posting some of the most incredible numbers that the women’s tour had ever seen. She would end the season ranked No. 1 and 6 titles and posting a 62 match win streak.

Since 2011, Wozniacki has won 4 titles and reached the semis of the Australian Open. Why then is she getting so much schtick from commentators and fans alike? Grand Slams.

Grand Slams are the pinnacle of our sport. Most players will tell you that their dream is to win Wimbledon or some other of the Grand Slams. Wozniacki has never said that this was her goal. Her goal has always been to win titles and be the No. 1 player in the world. However, as a top ranked player and the leader of her Tour she should try to win one, but if she does not, does that make her not worthy of occupying the top spot.

Many fans say that Wozniacki just plays a lot of tournaments and that is why she occupies the penthouse. I disagree. They are of the view that the women should have a ranking system similar or tournaments based on what the men have. They do.

The WTA Tour has 8 Premier Mandatory tournaments. The men’s tour has a similar or greater number. Within those Premier Mandatory tournaments, there are also tournaments called Premier events. These tournaments are scattered throughout the season and while they are not mandatory, they go a far way in building ranking points for players. In addition to the Premier tournaments, there are also International events, which are similar in stature to the men’s 500 or 250s. They are not mandatory, but players can get a hit on their rankings or loss in prize money if they don’t at least play some of these International events. As the No. 1 ranked player in the world, Wozniacki has a responsibility not only to the WTA Tour, but also to herself. Tennis is her career. She plays tournaments to earn money and ranking points. Every season not only does she have to defend those ranking points in order to keep herself in the penthouse, but she also has to make sure that she stays ahead of the competition.

Wozniacki’s career is compared to that of Serena. Serena, even while she was No. 1 made the decision that rather than playing tournaments day in and day out, she would save her energy for the biggest stage, i.e. the Grand Slams. Critics of Serena often say well if she played a full schedule then perhaps she would not perform so well in the Slams. On the other hand you have players like Wozniacki who dedicate themselves to the day in and day out grind of the Tour. Not only does Woznaicki have to be the face of the Tour, she is also its chief spokesperson, sits on the Player’s Council and is a brand ambassador for Adidas. As Roger Federer, former No. 1 on the men’s tour will tell you, being No. 1 not only means occupying the penthouse, it also means a level of responsibility that is thrust upon one’s shoulder.

For years Nadal was a chasing player and you heard no complaints from him in relation to the grind of the tour. As soon as he got to No. 1 and had to defend that position, he started to complain. Credit to Woznaicki, but I am yet to read a quote of hers in which she has even expressed any notion that the season is too long or that it is an arduous task to commit to so many tournaments, or indeed to show up for the Premier Mandatories, unlike say Kim Clijsters who recently remarked that the Mandatory tournaments are a pain in the you know what and she preferred when she was not a top 10 player as she would not have to commit to those events.

It was not too long ago when there were critics of Clijsters for holding the No. 1 ranking without winning a Major. At that time her defenders stated that she was consistent and that she was nice and she was a great ambassador for the sport, especially with the Williams Sisters being MIA. Clijsters also defended her position as No.1. Now, her utterances, are for the most part about finding balance in her life and not playing a heavy schedule and winning Grand Slams, which at that time, did not seem to be a major flaw in her number of titles.

Does Wozniacki play too many tournaments? Some would say yes, and I would agree. It is ridiculous that she continues to play tournaments in the lead up to the Majors and then crash and burn at the first sign of a struggle.

It is unfortunate for Wozniacki that as talented as she is, she is playing in an era where there have been so many dominant champions who are still wielding a racquet and whose game has transformed the sport for all time. It does not help that one of her peers has finally been able to break through the pack and win herself a Major, while Wozniacki is still sitting in the penthouse surrounded by lesser titles.

I do believe that Wozniacki’s time will come. I don’t believe the criticism of her occupying the No. 1 spot is justified. She has earned her spot in the rankings. She does not need a Major to justify that position. She needs a Major to show the tennis world and herself that she is able to win the biggest tournaments. With her game as it is now and her schedule as jam packed as it is, I am not optimistic that this will happen, but for what it is worth, Wozniacki is a worthy No. 1 and a fit and proper person to lead the women’s tour based on her performance on the Tour.

WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH MELANIE OUDIN?

In 2009 during Wimbledon, a young, blonde American player was playing someone who earlier in the year was a former No. 1 ranked player in the world, Jelena Jankovic. On an outside court, watched by hundreds of fans, the young upstart beat Jankovic, who informed everyone who would listen that she was having her monthly cycle and that was the reason for her loss.

Later that summer during the US Open, little known Melanie Oudin, standing all of 5 ft nothing proceeded to take down some of the biggest names in tennis. The biggest name was Maria Sharapova who she beat in a highly contested 3 set match on Arthur Ashe stadium. She had the whole of America rooting her on to win the title and for a moment after she lost to Caroline Wozniacki, the announcers in the booth implied that she was the last American standing. The then No. 1 ranked player in the world and the defending champion, an American, Serena Williams was still in the tournament. This is not about Serena however, but about Oudin.

Prior to her amazing summer run, Oudin had been a standout in Fed Cup competition. She had fire running through her veins and while most of us who are ardent tennis watchers saw gaping holes in her game, the announcers were so happy to at least have someone blonde and blue eyed playing for the Stars and Stripes that it did not matter that Oudin did not have a serve worth anything and that her forehand and backhand were rudimentary to say the least.

It has been 2 long seasons since that amazing run by Oudin. She was ranked in the top 30 and the sky was the limit. Today in San Diego she got handled by Elena Baltacha 0 and 1. Of the 72 points played, Oudin won 28% of the points played. In the first set, of the 35 points played, she only won 29% of the points. In today’s match she served at 68% first serve but only won 46% of her first deliveries and only won 19% on her second serve.

In today’s game of power tennis you live and die by your serve. No matter how fierce a competitor you are, you have to be able to hold your serve as much as your nerve in order to compete and Oudin’s serve, no matter how high a percentage she is getting, is just not getting it done.

I am sure that her coach and the team around her at Wilson (she is no longer with Adidas) are striving to ensure that she gets a little bit more pop on her serve, as well as add some offense to her game. It can be done. We only need to look at Justine Henin, one of the smallest players who ever played this game and look at the results that she has had against players who were bigger and stronger than she was. Granted Henin had more talent than Oudin, but even closer to home, we look at Dominika Cibulkova. Cibulkova, 5 years ago was known more for her defensive play, rather than offense. These days, Cibulkova stands on top of the baseline and belts the ball as if she is 6 ft tall.

The last time I saw Oudin play was during Fed Cup last year. Once she serves, instead of standing on top of the baseline, she back pedals to the back of the court to start the rally. She does not do this because she is a defensive player, she does this because her serve is so weak that it gives her opponents time to start dictating from the first ball. Because Oudin is aware of this, she immediately goes on the defence.

What to do

You have to think that the members of the USTA have been trying to help with her development. The first thing she needs to work on is her fitness. She has started to carry a little bit of weight around her mid-section and for an elite athlete, this has got to go. In addition, she needs to work on her game. She needs to add more offense. She needs to learn how to dictate.

However, all the offense in the world cannot help Oudin if she no longer believes. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that her previous clothing sponsor, Adidas has dropped her after her results started falling away. She is currently ranked outside the top 100 (111) and no doubt she will be granted copious amounts of wild cards during the USO Series in order for her to compete.

Looking at Oudin’s stats page on the WTA website, her results are littered with bagel sets. This usually shows that the belief which was a major part of her game 2 years ago has completely disappeared.

I am aware that Oudin has been playing Challenger events in order to rebuild her confidence, but that does not seem to have worked as she has lost in those events as well. With this loss in San Diego her ranking and confidence will continue to plummet. At this time my suggestion would be that a strong dose of reality should enter into the picture. The first would be to rid herself of her current coach. It is interesting that there are calls from the pulpit for Wozniacki to ditch her father as coach. Her father has taken her to the No. 1 ranking, a Grand Slam final and semi and while there is much room for improvement, or indeed for another voice in Ms. Wozniacki’s ear, it is interesting that there are no calls for Oudin to get herself a new coach. It could be that the relationship between Oudin’s mother and her coach is one that requires Oudin to not shake the tree too much, but you would think that her mother’s first instinct would be to try and have her daughter get the best possible help for her chose career.

I am no big fan of Oudin, but it is disheartening to see a player with so much fight become relegated to so much fodder for other players to just have their way. I am hopeful that her game will rise again.

I am not sure if it is possible, but perhaps Oudin could consider going back to college and hone her game or taking some time away from the pro tour and rebuild her game on the challenger or futures circuit. She has to do something because another loss similar to the one she suffered today may just put the end to an otherwise bright career.