Maria Sharapov

The Road to Roland Garros: What we learned on the way to Paris

The dust has settled in Madrid and Rome. The French Open is less than a week away. Most big-name players are enjoying a week off from tournament play before zeroing in on Paris. Grand Slams are a different animal than regular tour events. It is always hard to predict what will carry over from one to the other. Even so, here are a couple safe conclusions to draw for the second major of the season after its two biggest lead up events.

Sharapova will be a factor, Djokovic could be one too:

If you are still in the camp that thinks Meldonium was the dark secret to Maria Sharapova’s success, you are starting to look really foolish. The five-time Grand Slam winner secured the 28th seed at Roland Garros with a quarterfinals appearance in Madrid and a run to the semis in Rome.

Rome was the second week of back to back events for Sharapova and many others. At that event alone, she spent almost 13 total hours on court. This included a dramatic three-set win over reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and was punctuated by a tight three-set loss to World No. 1 Simona Halep.

One of the effects of Meldonium is increased stamina. After her performance over the last month, it is clear that whatever edge the substance gave Sharapova either was not real or she has found a legal substitute.

Either way, the two time French Open winner failed a drug test, admitted it and was suspended for over a year. It is time to move on. Sharapova’s chances of achieving the ultimate redemption in Paris and winning a third title there will largely depend on where she lands in Friday’s French Open draw, but she has proven that she can still go toe to toe with the world’s best and has to be on any list of title contenders.

Also, remember who we are dealing with here. When Sharapova came back from major shoulder surgery in 2009, the entire tennis world rolled its collective eyes when she said she would win majors and become World No. 1 again. The Russian certainly proved to be right on that occasion. The same eye roll happened earlier this year. After an opening round loss in Stuttgart that brought her losing streak to four matches, Sharapova said that she was not far off and very happy with the work that she was putting in on the practice court.

Once she showed up in Madrid, she was proven right again. She has given herself a realistic chance at achieving yet another last laugh when almost everyone in the sport had written her off.

Serena Williams

Photo: twitter.com/rolandgarros

One name Sharapova does not want to see anywhere near hers in the draw is Serena Williams. The 23 time Grand Slam winner has not played since March after giving birth to a daughter in September but is already in Paris practicing. Sharapova has not beaten Williams since 2004. Williams will be unseeded, meaning she could land anywhere in the draw. An early meeting with Serena would be the only sure fire bet to derail Sharapova’s chances at a deep Roland Garros run.

The reason for Novak Djokovic’s recent absence from the game was far more traditional. The 12-time major winner missed the back half of the 2017 season with an elbow injury.

He had been a shell of himself for much of this year, but the European clay was fairly good to him. He defeated former U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori in both Madrid and Rome. His best result of the season by a significant margin was reaching the semifinals in the Italian capital. There, he lost a competitive straight sets match to longtime rival and eventual tournament champion Rafael Nadal.

This is the first time all year there has been reason to be optimistic about the Serb. He is moving well, does not appear to be in pain, and has stopped tinkering with his game and coaching team for the moment. While being a real threat to Nadal’s Roland Garros dominance is probably a stretch this year, a run to the quarterfinals is realistic. That is never where a player with Djokovic’s resume wants to exit, but it would be a great result under the current circumstances.

Nadal Djokovic

Photo: latestly.com

 

There is opportunity for the men, but not at the top:

As mentioned above Rafael Nadal won the Italian Open on Sunday. It was his eighth career title at the event. The Spanish lefty lost a grand total of one match on clay leading into the French Open. There, he has a career record of 79-2 with 10 titles. So, barring a random case of food poisoning or some other freak injury, Nadal is going to win the French Open again this year.

Still, with Djokovic not quite at his best and Roger Federer and Andy Murray out, the race to oppose Nadal in a semifinal or final is wide open. Alexander Zverev will be seeded second in Paris. Thus, he is guaranteed not to have to deal with Nadal until the final. The 21-year-old German picked up two clay court titles of his own in recent weeks, but has never been passed the fourth round of a major.

Former U.S. Open winner Marin Čilić has never been all that successful in Paris or on clay in general. However, the Croat did reach the Rome semis and has made the final at two of the last three majors.

Winning the French Open this year appears to be wishful thinking for anyone not named Nadal. However, getting to the final weekend would be an incredible result for Zverev, Čilić and so many others in the field. We will begin to see who can take advantage of the opportunity this Sunday.

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Rome Tennis Roland Garros

The road to Roland Garros: Rome

Madrid is in the rear view mirror. It is now time for one of the longest running events on tour to take center stage once again. Rome has played host to the Italian Open since 1930. It is the crowned jewel on the road to Roland Garros for the world’s best tennis players as the last major stop before the French Open. Here are some things to watch for.

Madrid surprises in a tricky spot 

Rome Tennis Roland Garros

(Photo from skysports.com)

Dominic Thiem ended Rafael Nadal’s 50-set, 21-match win streak in the quarterfinals of Madrid. The fifth seed lost in the final to second seed Alexander Zverev. These are great, somewhat unexpected results for this pair. However, clay is hard on the body and Madrid-Rome is the toughest back-to-back the calendar has to offer. Zverev and Thiem have been around the top of the game for a while now, but neither has figured out how to be a consistent factor at the Grand Slams.

So much of doing that is not overplaying in the lead up to the majors and peaking at the right time. Withdrawing from Rome is a bit extreme, but early losses for Zverev and Thiem might not be the worst thing in the world. The same can be said for surprise Madrid ladies finalist Kiki Bertens. Champion Petra Kvitova has already withdrawn from Rome. Kvitova is a two-time Grand Slam winner.

Nadal attempts to restore order

As mentioned above, Nadal lost on clay in Madrid last week. Anytime that happens, it is big news. Beating Nadal on clay best of three sets in a regular tour event is one thing. Beating him best of five sets at Roland Garros is entirely another.

This is probably the biggest reason for Nadal’s 79-2 lifetime record at the French Open with 10 titles. For reference, Nadal lost in Rome last year and quickly rebounded to win the French Open without dropping a set. So there is no reason for the panic alarm if you are a Nadal fan.

Still, this year’s Rome event is significant for him. Nadal does not want the rest of the field to start thinking they have a shot in Paris. A sixth Rome title would go a long way towards reaffirming his dominance. It would also return Nadal to the top ranking that he relinquished to an absent Roger Federer with his loss in Madrid.

Sharapova hunts French Open seed 

Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova showed signs of life in Madrid by reaching the quarterfinals after three fairly routine wins. She eventually lost a tight three-setter to Bertens.

The result boosted her ranking to 40th in the world. The top 32 will be seeded at the second major of the year in about two weeks. In an honest moment, both Sharapova and her competitors will tell you that they do not want her name just floating in the draw and able to land pretty much anywhere. To have a chance at avoiding that crapshoot, Sharapova must at least match her Madrid result. Then, it would come down to other results. The three-time Italian Open winner will start against 16th seeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia.

Remember, Sharapova was unseeded at last year’s US Open and knocked off second-seeded Simona Halep in the first round. As fun as matches like that can be for the fans, they are a nightmare for players that early in a Grand Slam. We already know that Victoria Azarenka will be unseeded in Paris. The same can be said of Serena Williams if she decides to play. Adding an unseeded Sharapova to that mix would make for a lot of very nervous people on draw day.

Women’s top ranking on the line

Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki have had somewhat disappointing clay-court seasons. Wozniacki has never done well on clay, but Rome is a big week for Halep, who has twice been French Open runner-up.

The Romanian needs to reach at least the quarterfinals to retain her top ranking heading to Paris. The rest will come down to Wozniacki’s result. Halep could open against Azarenka, who is a two-time major winner. Being the top seed at a major is a noteworthy honor and could serve as a nice confidence boost for either woman.

 

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Madrid tennis

The road to Roland Garros: Madrid

With the French Open starting at the end of the month, the road to Roland Garros is in full swing. Madrid plays host to the first of two prestigious combined lead-up events. Thanks to a rare weekend start, the tournament is already underway. Here are some things to watch for.

Nadal’s dominance 

If you are tired of hearing about how good Rafael Nadal is on clay, please scroll to the next part of the article. The Spanish lefty has won 46 straight sets on the red dirt. He is fresh off wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He has now won those events 11 times each in his illustrious career. Nadal has had the title of greatest clay-court player ever locked up for a while now. Still, he had not played an official tournament match since January prior to Monte Carlo two weeks ago.

He flipped some sort of switch and looks unbeatable again on his favorite surface. He is as overwhelming a favorite as the sport has ever seen to pick up his 11th French Open title in about a month. While it is somewhat tiresome to see one player dominating everything at the moment, sometimes you just have to marvel at greatness. In the more immediate future, Nadal’s quest for a sixth title in Madrid will be challenged by Alexander Zverev and Juan Martin del Potro among others.

Sharapova and Djokovic look to get on track 

Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova have been two of the more disappointing players in 2018. Sharapova entered Madrid in the midst of her first four-match losing streak since 2003. Djokovic comes in with just five match wins on the year after an injury-plagued 2017.

Sharapova has struggled with injuries and poor form since returning to the tour from suspension a little over a year ago. However, there is reason for cautious optimism in Madrid. The Russian finally got back in the win column with a straight sets victory on Sunday. Moreover, the two seeded players Sharapova would have had to play early on are already out of the event.

Madrid tennis

(Photo from si.com)

You can only play the players the draw puts in front of you, and Sharapova has had her fair share of tough matchups since she returned to the game. This week though, she finds herself poised to make a run to at least the quarterfinals in the Spanish capital. This would be a much-needed boost to the 2014 Madrid winner’s ranking.

Every match is a test for Sharapova right now. Still, if she can win over three quarters of points on her first serve the way she did in her opener, a deep run is not only attainable, but likely.

The tennis draw gods were not nearly as friendly to Djokovic. The Serb opens up against Kei Nishikori Monday morning. Nishikori is a former Grand Slam finalist, who is also coming back from injury. These two have battled it out for Olympic medals and trips to major finals fairly recently. It will be strange to see them play so early in a tournament. Djokovic dominates the head-to-head matchup, but is tinkering with both his game and coaching team constantly as his struggles have continued.

Nishikori reached the final in Monte Carlo a few weeks back. The last thing the 12-time major winner needs is another early loss, but Djokovic will have his work cut out for him to avoid that fate.

Ladies title contenders 

World No. 1 Simona Halep has to be considered the favorite this week. She is the two-time defending champ in Madrid. The Romanian is perhaps more comfortable at this event than any other on the calendar. Halep’s slant towards a defensive style of play has always translated well to clay.

Caroline Wozniacki has an outside chance to retake the top ranking from Halep this week. However, the Dane has been fairly pedestrian since winning her first career major in Australia in January. Also, she has never been much of a threat at the more prestigious clay-court events. Elina Svitolina is a more realistic threat to Halep. The Ukrainian has a good draw as the fourth seed and won a big title on clay in Rome last year.

Serena Williams is sitting this one out as she continues to try and find the right schedule for her body post childbirth. Still, it would be foolish to completely discount the old guard like Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, who appears to finally have her child custody dispute straightened out.

Even with Roger Federer voluntarily passing on playing on clay for the second year in a row and question marks surrounding Williams, there is no shortage of stars and storylines to watch as the second major of the year creeps closer.

 

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Roland Garros tennis

The road to Roland Garros: Monte Carlo and Stuttgart

The clay-court season is almost in full swing on both tennis tours. The stretch of calendar from now until the end of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 10 is the most grueling the sport has to offer. Playing on clay lessens power a bit while forcing players to grind, build points and play long rallies. Some players thrive while others disappear until the grass-court season. This year will be no different.

Monte Carlo

With 54 career clay-court titles to his name, Rafael Nadal is the undisputed “King of Clay.” However, prior to this past week in Monte Carlo, Nadal had not played an official tournament since retiring from January’s Australian Open with a hip injury. His knees are also a never-ending concern.

Roger Federer is skipping this part of the season for a second straight year. These injury concerns combined with Federer’s absence had to give the rest of the field more hope than usual as they headed to the clay.

Nadal squashed those feelings like a bug. He raced through the field. He did not drop more than four games in a set on his way to his 11th career Monte Carlo Masters title and retained his No. 1 world ranking.

Roland Garros tennis

(Photo from epa.eu)

The return to form of Japanese star Kei Nishikori was also a big story in Monte Carlo. The former US Open finalist came in unseeded after spending much of last year dealing with a slew of injuries. He fell to Nadal in the final, but defeated three seeded players to get there, including two in the top five.

Clay is not a surface Nishikori is great on, but he is far from terrible on it. He really seemed to turn a corner at this event. His movement on any surface is a great asset. For the first time in a long time, there is reason to be optimistic about his chances to get back near the top of the game.

Novak Djokovic also returned to the tour in Monte Carlo. He retooled his coaching team yet again after a disastrous spring swing in the US. For a 12-time major champion, losing in the round of 16 at any event is never going to be good enough, but he picked up his first match wins since January and reported that his elbow was pain free for the first time in two years.

Nadal emphatically staking claim to his clay turf again was the big take away from Monte Carlo, but a healthy Djokovic is one of few things that could trouble him throughout the clay season should they meet.

Stuttgart

The first key stop on the road to Roland Garros for the women begins Monday at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany. With only a 28-player singles field and eight of the top 10 players in the world in the draw, some first-round matches could pass for finals.

Two-time major champs Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber will battle as will Americans Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe. There is also sixth-seeded Caroline Garcia taking on wild card and three-time event winner Maria Sharapova.

Each matchup has its own story. Kerber and Kvitova have both played pretty well this year. Neither is particularly comfortable on clay, but there is opportunity in the ladies game this clay-court season. A quality win could set the tone for the next two months for either Kerber or Kvitova.

Sharapova and Garcia is a battle of two players who desperately need something good to happen to kickstart their years. Garcia is just 10-8 on the year. Stuttgart marks the one-year mark for Sharapova in her return from suspension. Her ranking is still stuck in the 40s.

Roland Garros tennis

(Photo from Jimmie48 Photography)

She returns to an event that has been very good to her over the years. Sharapova is also reunited with former coach Thomas Högstedt. The Swede helped Sharapova win the 2012 French Open and Olympic silver medal. Sharapova has never lost to Garcia in four career meetings, but this is a winnable match for both. Whoever loses it will continue a downward spiral. The longer those go on, the harder they are to get out of.

Stephens and Vandeweghe were teammates on the American national team this past weekend in France. That dynamic will change in a hurry. Stephens just won the big event in Miami over Easter weekend. Vandeweghe is a two-time major semifinalist, but has won just one official tour-level match all year. Still, her power against the speed of Stephens should make for an entertaining match.

 

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Indian Wells tennis

What we learned in Indian Wells and Miami

The two biggest tennis tournaments of the year outside of the four majors are in the books. Most of the men are enjoying a week off from official tournament play. The women are already hard at work on the clay courts in Charleston, South Carolina. This is always a good time to take a look at the top storylines on both tours.

Uncertainty reigns supreme

Injured stars or just big names playing poorly have made many of the big tournaments a crapshoot over the last couple years. Indian Wells and Miami were no exception. Juan Martin Del Potro and Naomi Osaka took home the singles trophies in California. Americans John Isner and Sloane Stephens emerged victorious in Florida.

Del Potro is the only singles champion that is not a major surprise. He had his 15-match winning streak snapped in the semifinals of Miami. Osaka came into Indian Wells unseeded and ranked outside the top 40. She is an immensely talented young player, but no one saw this coming. The 20-year-old who represents Japan blasted her way through names like Maria Sharapova and former World No. 2 Agnieszka Radwańska, dropping just one set on her way to her first career title.

Indian Wells tennis

Photo from skysports.com

John Isner had just one official tour match win on the year prior to Miami. The window for winning prestigious titles looked to be closed for the big-serving 32-year-old. But something clicked and Isner rode his big serve all the way to what is by far his biggest tournament victory on Easter Sunday.

After winning last year’s US Open, Sloane Stephens went on an eight-match losing streak that did not end until late February. She had started to show signs of life again, but beating four Grand Slam champions on her way to the title in Miami was well beyond realistic expectations before the tournament began. This year’s United States spring swing further reinforced what anyone who follows tennis already knew. The only sure thing the sport has to offer at the moment is that nothing is a sure thing. Whether this is good or bad for the sport is another debate for another day.

Some stars have a long road back

Sharapova, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have been dominant forces atop women’s tennis for over 10 years now. However, all three of them are finding it very difficult to reclaim their turf after long absences.

Sharapova lost her Indian Wells opener to Osaka before withdrawing from Miami and splitting with her longtime coach. The 30-year-old has made it perfectly clear that she wants to keep playing and is training hard for the clay season. The problem is that it does not appear her body will allow her to play this game at a high level anymore. She was never considered durable even before her 15-month suspension. Her career is at a crossroads. It is hard to forecast any kind of future for the five-time Grand Slam champion.

New moms Williams and Azarenka also hit roadblocks on the American hard courts. Williams had difficult draws at both events, but this is a bottom-line sport. She won a grand total of two matches during the month of March. It is foolish to put anything past the younger Williams sister, but clay is by far the surface where she has been most vulnerable over the years. Knowing that we are entering that part of the calendar only adds to the sting of a disappointing March.

Despite winning multiple matches at both events in March, Azarenka was completely out of gas by the time she reached the Miami semis. Worse yet, she said after the match that her ongoing child custody battle may still dictate her upcoming playing schedule. Clay has also presented the most problems for the Belarusian over the years, but that is completely irrelevant if there is still question as to whether she is legally allowed to travel to Europe and play the tournaments leading into the French Open.

All three of these legends appear to have underestimated the difficulty of getting back to the top of the game. They all still seem to be dealing with their own very unique set of problems. Lastly, the emergence of young players like Osaka makes the climb back all the more difficult. The great ones don’t forget how to win. Thus, it is silly to write any one of them completely off, but reaching the peak of the sport again might be the toughest challenge that they have dealt with on the court in their storied careers.

Federer is human and the clay season is wide open

Roger Federer entered March as the top-ranked player in the world. He did not start April that way. The reigning Australian Open champion failed to convert match points in the Indian Wells final against Del Potro and followed that up by losing his opener in Miami to an Australian wild card. After that match, the 20-time major champion announced he will skip the entire clay season to preserve his body for the second straight year.

Indian Wells tennis

Photo from 24houronlinenews.com

Rafael Nadal has won the French Open a staggering 10 times. He has proven to be virtually unbeatable on clay throughout his career, but has spent the vast majority of the last six months on the shelf due to injury. No one would be surprised if the Spaniard still dominates the second he steps foot on a clay court to play the first tournament of his French Open preparation. However, with question marks surrounding him, Federer out of the picture until mid-June’s grass court season and Novak Djokovic winless since reaching the round of 16 in Australia, the rest of the field has to feel like they have more of a chance to win big clay-court events this year, including the French Open.

The same can be said for the women. Williams and Sharapova were by far the best clay-court players in the world prior to their absences. At least one of them reached every French Open final from 2012-16, but their current issues are well documented.

Only time will tell if any man or woman can take advantage of the situation this clay season, but there is certainly opportunity on both sides.

 

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Venus and Serena Williams

Venus and Serena: Never before never again

On Monday in Indian Wells, California, Venus Williams defeated her younger sister Serena 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open.

Venus backed that up with another victory and is now in the quarterfinals, but the matches with Serena always take the headlines. Over more than 20 years, we have seen this matchup 29 times. However, this particular match felt a little different than the previous 28. It goes deeper than Venus picking up what is just her 12th win in this spirited sibling rivalry. Some outstanding qualities of both Venus and Serena were clearer than ever, both as tennis players and as people.

Maturity

Venus and Serena have other siblings, but they do not have to compete with those other siblings for trophies and prize money in order to establish a legacy in a truly global sport. So, they have never made a secret of the fact that they have an incredibly close relationship.

Given the above paragraph, it has always been and always will be somewhat awkward to watch Venus and Serena play each other, both for fans and the sisters themselves. Even little things like the chair umpire using first rather than last names when calling the score add to that feeling. Every time the score is announced, the sisters are reminded that their own flesh and blood is on the other side of the net.

Venus and Serena Williams

Photo from tennisforum.com

Early in their careers, this dynamic often swallowed up their head-to-head meetings. Both sisters wanted to win, but clearly hated the thought of the other having to lose. They would almost never look each other in the eye and the quality of play was not exceptional. The winner would always be careful not to celebrate too much. It was also not uncommon for the losing player to take pictures of her sister with a Grand Slam winner’s trophy.

As brilliant as both Venus and Serena are, they are still human beings. So, it is always going to be challenging for them to play each other. Serena has stated that she would rather face anyone else besides Venus.

Still, they have both learned how to manage their head-to-head meetings better in recent years. Both coaching teams readily admit to giving their respective player a scouting report before recent matches as opposed to doing nothing to prepare for earlier matches between the sisters. There are even occasional fist pumps by both Venus and Serena when they win a big point against each other now.

With both sisters well into their 30s, Serena now a mother and Venus now an aunt, their maturity both on and off the court was on full display in Indian Wells. The venue of Monday night’s match was also significant.

In 2001, Serena and Venus were slated to play each other in the semis of Indian Wells. Venus withdrew just minutes before the match with a knee injury. Fans perceived this as the sisters not wanting to play each other and their father deciding who would advance to the final.

As you can see and hear in the YouTube video below, Serena and her family were booed loudly in the final against Kim Clijsters. The entire Williams family was deeply affected by the ordeal and the word racism was thrown around. Both Venus and Serena vowed never to return to Indian Wells.

(YouTube video by robmercer2009)

In 2015, Serena announced her return to Indian Wells in a Time Magazine essay. Venus returned to the event the following year. As recently as five years ago, if you had told anyone who follows tennis that Serena and Venus would play each other in Indian Wells during Serena’s first official event as a mother, you would have been laughed out of the room for more than one reason. The fact that things did happen this way speaks the loudest volumes possible about the kind of women Serena and Venus have become.

Both all-time greats

At this point, the above heading is beyond debate. However, the Williams sisters have been so good for so long that it is easy to forget just how much they have accomplished. Also, they are still going strong.

Serena is just one Grand Slam singles title away from tying the all-time record of 24. As if that is not impressive enough, her most recent Grand Slam win came at last year’s Australian Open. She won the event without dropping a set. She beat her sister in the final. They were two of just a handful of people who knew what the rest of the world would soon find out. Serena was pregnant.

Winning a Grand Slam title under ordinary circumstances is incredibly difficult. Many great players have never done it. Doing so while carrying another human life inside you is one of the most jaw dropping feats that can possibly be imagined.

Coming back to the tour after a long absence is a huge challenge, no matter the reason for the absence. Victoria Azarenka played her third event since becoming a mother in Indian Wells. The two-time Grand Slam champion has not reached a quarterfinal and is still ranked well outside the top 100. Five-time major winner Maria Sharapova has been back from a 15-month suspension for almost a year and still cannot string more than one or two good matches together.

Meanwhile, Serena defeated two top-60 players in her first event back from maternity leave. She followed that up by going toe-to-toe with a top-10 player for the better part of two hours. There is not another human being on the planet who can pull that off. She is more than six years older than Sharapova and Azarenka.

The later years of Venus’ career have their own incredible backstory. She is now 37 years old. Tennis has skewed towards older players in recent years. Accomplishing big things in your 30s is not the eye-popping achievement it used to be.

However, Venus was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome during the 2011 US Open. This is an autoimmune illness with fatigue and joint pain being its primary symptoms. These are the last things anyone who is trying to play tennis at a world class level in their 30s needs to deal with.

Yet, Venus is still plugging away. The world No. 8 has reached the second week at four of the last five Grand Slam events. This includes two finals last year. Prior to that, she had not played for a singles trophy at a major since 2009. The sisters seem intent on playing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Venus will be 40.

Often times, it is difficult to appreciate the greatness of an athlete until after their playing days are done. However, the Williams sisters are an exception. There are around seven billion people in the world. Now, consider the odds of two people from the same family spending over two decades as the dominant forces in women’s professional tennis. When you really think about it, it is staggering.

So, with Venus and Serena still doing amazing things in the twilight of their careers, enjoy it while you can. It will not last forever. There will be other great quarterbacks in the NFL after Tom Brady retires, but the sports world will never again produce anything that comes close to Venus and Serena.

 

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Tennis Indian Wells Key Biscayne

March Madness: The tennis version

College basketball is not the only sport with madness in March. The world’s finest tennis players are in the states for the two biggest events in the sport outside of the Grand Slams. Indian Wells, California and Key Biscayne, Florida always serve as beautiful backdrops for tennis this time of year.

However, two prestigious events back-to-back with no week off in between make it one of the toughest stretches on the tennis calendar. There is no shortage of storylines worth keeping an eye on in the next few weeks.

The WTA’s big 3 are hopefully back

When they are happy and healthy, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are still the three best female tennis players in the world. The inconsistency at the top of the game while this trio has spent much of the last two and a half years on the sidelines has only reaffirmed that notion. They have 30 major singles titles and numerous Olympic medals between them.

Tennis Indian Wells Key Biscayne

Photo from zambio.com

Pregnancy, motherhood, injuries, suspension and a child custody dispute have not allowed these three incredible athletes to compete at the same event since January, 2016. That is scheduled to change next week in Indian Wells.

Williams will play her first official event as a mother. She has had this tournament scheduled as her comeback event ever since choosing not to defend her Australian Open title at the start of the year. She will spend the next few days playing one last exhibition event in New York before flying to the California dessert.

Azarenka returned to play two events after giving birth last year, but was then forced out of action again by a custody dispute that became very public and personal at times.

Apparently, things are straightened out enough for the Belarusian to compete for a third title at this event. She has become a master of the last-minute withdrawal in recent months. However, her social media shows her traveling to the event. So, there is more optimism than pessimism that Azarenka will answer the bell this time around.

Sharapova is fast approaching the one-year mark on her comeback from suspension. There have been some flashes of brilliance from the Russian, but also lots of setbacks.

She finds herself ranked just 41st in the world. She has said nothing publicly since losing her first-round match in Doha and withdrawing from Dubai with an arm injury that has been a lingering problem since late 2015. However, Sharapova remains on the entry list in Indian Wells for now. There is some question as to whether her name will actually show up on Monday’s draw.

Expectations should start out low for these three in Indian Wells. Each of them are still dealing with significant issues that will affect their game on the court.

However, they are also three of the fiercest competitors ladies tennis has ever seen. It would be foolish to put anything past them. It will just be great for the sport to have all three of them competing at the same time again. Hopefully, it does indeed happen next week in Indian Wells.

Interestingly, they will all be unseeded. That means they could play top seeds like Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Garbiñe Muguruza very early on, or even each other in the first round. For that reason, more than any other, Monday’s draw will be fascinating.

No Nadal

The injury bug continues to bite one of the game’s biggest stars. Since winning the US Open last year, Rafael Nadal has more withdrawals and retirements than match wins.

The 16-time major winner withdrew from a mid-level event in Acapulco this week, citing a recurrence of the hip injury that forced him to retire in the Australian Open quarterfinals. He followed that up by announcing his withdrawal from Indian Wells and Miami/Key Biscayne Friday.

Tennis Indian Wells Key Biscayne

Photo from readtennis.co

The good news for Nadal and his fans is that the knee issues that have plagued his entire career seem to be under control at the moment. The bad news is another body part is now an issue.

The Spaniard will not attempt to return to the tour until the clay court season. The 10-time French Open champion has almost always been able to dominate on clay regardless of his health or form heading into that part of the calendar.

Even if that turns out to be the case again this year, Nadal is now 31 years old and has always produced the most physically demanding style of tennis the sport has ever seen. One has to begin wondering how much more his body can take and how much more his mind is willing to take.

Does anyone have anything for Federer?

With American tennis going through a changing of the guard in 2018 from familiar names like John Isner and Sam Querrey to fresh faces like Frances Tiafoe and top contenders like Nadal and Stan Wawrinka sitting out the entire month, the answer to the above question is probably no.

If you are rooting against Federer defending his 2017 titles from these two events, your best hope is Juan Martin del Potro. The big-hitting Argentine finally seems healthy enough to play well every week after over half of a decade of wrist issues. He has overpowered Federer on big stages before, including last year’s US Open. He will also play for the Acapulco title before heading to Indian Wells.

It is foolish to completely discount Novak Djokovic, but the Serb underwent another procedure on his elbow a few weeks ago and is still finding his way this year.

With Federer undefeated on the year and firmly entrenched at the top ranking spot, the rest of the field has their work cut out for them this month and beyond.

 

Featured image from federerfan07.com

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post australian open storylines

Aussie aftershocks: A spin around the tennis world

With the Australian Open now firmly in the rear view mirror, tennis typically struggles for storylines until a pair of huge hardcourt events in Indian Wells and Miami come around. This year appears to be a welcome exception to that rule.

Serena is officially back

If you guessed Ashville, North Carolina as the place where Serena Williams would officially start her tennis career as a mother, you could have made a lot of money. The 23-time major winner is there along with her older sister, Venus, as the American national team begins its Fed Cup title defense against The Netherlands.

She will play doubles alongside Lauren Davis on Sunday, but could also be substituted in to singles as well. Williams’ return to tournament play will come in Indian Wells next month, where she will be unseeded. Slowly building up to that occasion is probably wise.

For now, all eyes will be on Ashville to see where Serena’s game stands.

Federer chasing history… again

Believe it or not, there are still records out there for Roger Federer to break. The 20-time Grand Slam champion has taken a late Wild Card into next week’s Rotterdam Open. If the reigning Australian Open title holder reaches the semifinals, he will once again become World No. 1.

post australian open storylines

Photo from tennisworldusa.org

The historical context here is the eye opener. Not only would Federer extend his own record to 303 weeks at the top ranking spot, he would also become the oldest man ever to be World No.1. The current mark is held by Andre Agassi, who got to the top spot at age 33. Federer is 36.

His road to the semifinals and back to the top spot could include a clash with his compatriot and friend Stan Wawrinka. As those two have grown closer over the years, their meetings have been tricky for both players.

From a tennis perspective, Federer has always been guarded about publicly stating his goals. However, getting back the top ranking is clearly one of them. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be playing next week.

Whether Federer gets the title of World No. 1 back next week or not, the fact that it is even a realistic conversation again given his age, and the fact that he was written off less than two years ago speaks to Federer’s greatness as much as anything ever has.

Can Zverev get going?

World No. 5 Alexander Zverev is still very much ahead of schedule as the youngest player in the top 30. However, the Australian Open was his 11th career major. The 20-year-old German has still not reached a quarterfinal.

Time is still on his side, but at some point he can no longer live on the unlimited potential label. This part of the calendar needs to be the spark that gets his year going. Before coming to the states, Zverev will be among the top seeds in Rotterdam and Acapulco. He has held his own against the living legends of the sport, beating Federer and Novak Djokovic in finals last year.

So, Zverev has all the shots and the game to make an impact at the majors, but until he does, he is just another pretender who can catch lightning in a bottle once in a great while. Even with the French Open a long way off, Zverev’s only chance at a deep run is to have a solid few months leading in. Rotterdam and Acapulco are as good a place as any to start building some much needed confidence.

Women’s top ranking also on the line

The vast majority of the ladies top 20 are in Qatar prepping for a hardcourt event that starts on Monday. Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and runner-up Simona Halep lead another wide open field.

post australian open storylines

Photo from reuters.com

Halep needs to reach at least the last eight to have a chance to retake the top ranking from the Dane. The tennis draw gods clearly have a sense of humor when it comes to next week. Wozniacki could run into Maria Sharapova in round three. Wozniacki and Sharapova have had a hotly contested rivalry over the years. Sharapova holds a 6-4 edge

The Russian is still unseeded and making her first appearance on the Middle Eastern swing since 2013 in an effort to raise her ranking and avoid draws like the one she has at this event. Anytime the top ranking is on the line at an event, a layer of intrigue is added. A five-time major champion like Sharapova being a dangerous floater, who could directly affect the situation, certainly adds another.

 

Featured image from wlos.com

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Roger Federer Tom Brady

Federer and Brady: The two ageless wonders of our time

Tom Brady is about to be the centerpiece of yet another Super Bowl, and Roger Federer is fresh off his 20th major victory in Australia. We are witnessing two of the greatest athletes ever still at the peak of their powers.

Comparing individual sport athletes to team sport athletes is difficult. However, these two are running out of suitable comparisons in their respective sports. So, here it goes.

What makes them similar?

Unprecedented longevity

The Swiss icon and the former sixth-round draft pick are in uncharted territory for their age brackets in their sports. At age 40, Brady will become the oldest non-kicker to take part in a Super Bowl. This makes the fact that he is still playing quarterback at an MVP level all the more impressive.

The closest thing Brady has ever had to a consistent rival was Peyton Manning. Despite winning the Super Bowl in his final game at age 39, Manning was a shell of himself in his last year. He missed a handful of games due to injury and accounted for more turnovers than touchdowns. Yet, Brady just keeps rolling.

So does Federer. With his win in Australia, he joined Ken Rosewall as the only men to win multiple majors after the age of 35. Rosewall did it in the early 70s. The game is infinitely more physical now and has much more depth. Also, the 36-year-old has six Australian Open titles. Every player he beat to win his first in 2004 is now retired.

We keep waiting for these two to slow down. They seem intent on keeping us waiting a little while longer.

The ability to stay healthy

There is an old saying in football that availability is your best ability. The same is true in tennis or any other sport.

Whether you look at Federer’s younger challengers in tennis or Brady’s in football, almost every one of them has dealt with major injuries as their careers have worn on. Brady missed the 2008 season after a knee injury in the opener. Federer’s knee kept him off the tour from the summer of 2016 to January of last year. Other than that, neither have missed extended time due to injury.

Brady’s commitment to keeping his body fresh is well publicized. Other than very smart scheduling, Federer’s is less so, but clearly just as effective. To be a living legend at any sport, you have to almost obsess over your craft. These two have always had that covered.

A second run of dominance 

It would be a stretch to say either of these incredible athletes was ever an afterthought in their sport, but not much of one. Following a third Super Bowl in four years after the 2004 season, Brady’s Patriots were always in the mix for more titles, but were dealt a string of tough playoff and Super Bowl losses.

Had he walked away from the game without more Super Bowl wins, his legacy as the greatest quarterback ever would not be as secure as it is. This is especially true once we all learned of the Spygate and Deflategate scandals.

Minus the scandals, everything above can be said of Federer had he not won more majors following his win at Wimbledon in 2012. He already had the greatest of all time title in hand in 2012. Still, he was in danger of becoming something we see all too often in sports. A legend who held on too long.

Now, three more majors for Federer and another chance for Brady to win three titles in four years has us in awe of both of them. No matter what happens for the rest of their careers, they each have cemented their legacies as the best to ever undertake their respective crafts.

What makes them different?

Brady is a little more clutch

In football, history judges the best of the best based on the playoffs and the Super Bowl. In tennis, it is about major finals and head-to-head rivalries. Federer has contested 30 major finals and Brady has played 36 playoff games. Despite Brady’s teams having six more chances to lose on the biggest stages, they still have only nine playoff losses while Federer has 10 losses in major finals.

Moreover, Brady’s head-to-head edge over other great quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger has long been established.

Conversely, Federer’s chief rivals have been Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. When you take into account all meetings, Federer only has the edge against Murray. There is much more to be said about Federer’s competition later.

You don’t get as good as these two without being clutch, but Brady has the advantage in this area.

Brady has had better help 

At its core, tennis is obviously an individual sport. Despite that, it is also more of a team sport than people realize. There are many coaches and trainers that put a ton of work into getting a player on the court and in a position to be successful.

Roger Federer Tom Brady

Photo: si.com

Federer has had some legends like Paul Annacone and Tony Roche in the coaching box over the years. Even so, Switzerland did not have a rich tennis history prior to Federer. So, he likely didn’t have access to great facilities growing up.

Meanwhile, Brady was drafted to what many people feel is the greatest coach and owner ever. He would have been very good no matter where he ended up. Still, he would not be what he is today had he ended up in a place like Cleveland or Cincinnati. Brady has made the careers of several castoffs. However, he has also been surrounded by his fair share of all-time great talent like Bill Belichick, Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski just to name a few.

Federer has had stiffer competition

This is the most glaring difference between the two. Brady and New England have to beat great teams in the playoffs every year. However, the best way to ensure playoff success is playing at home.

Roger Federer Tom Brady

Photo: talktennis.com.

The best way to make that happen is winning your division. New England shares a division with Miami, Buffalo and the Jets. For the vast majority of the last 20 years, these organizations have not been able to get out of their own way. New England has failed to win the division just twice since 2001. You only need two hands to count the total number of playoff wins to count the rest of the division has combined for during the Brady-Belichick era.

On the other hand, Federer has had to deal directly with Nadal, Djokovic and Murray for 11 months a year for the past decade plus. All three of those guys will likely join Federer in the greatest of all time discussion when their careers are over. The only question mark is Murray. The other two are already well into double-digits as far as major titles.

As noted earlier, Federer’s record against his chief rivals is not all that convincing. Still, the fact that he has been able to rack up 96 total titles and 20 majors in an era of such great players speaks for itself.

Who is better

Tennis people are going to say Federer and football people are going to say Brady. I am a rarity in that I am both. I say who cares? They are both awe inspiring. Whether you tune in to see them win or to hope they lose, enjoy greatness while it lasts, because it does not last forever.

 

Featured image from SI.com

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2018 Australian Open men

2018 Australian Open grades: The men

With the ATP World Tour currently enjoying a rare week off from official tournament play, the world is still digesting everything we saw over the last two weeks in Australia. Here is how some of the big names stack up.

Roger Federer

There are no longer sufficient adjectives in the English language that do Roger Federer justice. As the bodies of his much younger rivals continue to break down and be put back together again, the 36-year-old Swiss icon is coasting along, having just picked up his 20th major title.

Not only did he extend his own record for men’s major singles titles, but the way he did it was just as impressive. He did not have to break a sweat until his up-and-down performance in the final, where he won in five sets.

Federer’s biggest attribute has nothing to do with a serve, forehand or backhand. His ability to stay healthy is what we all should marvel at. At this particular tournament, Rafael Nadal was struck down by injury, Novak Djokovic was clearly not fully healthy despite playing his first tournament since Wimbledon last year and Andy Murray had to sit this one out altogether.

Meanwhile, Federer has been on the tour since 1999 and has had one extended injury layoff. Father time will eventually win, but Federer continues to milk the clock as well as anyone ever has.

Grade: A+

Rafael Nadal

With the way he started at this event, it sure looked like Nadal was headed for a rematch of last year’s final with Federer. However, he was forced to retire from his quarterfinal match with a hip injury and could barely walk in the press conference afterwards.

The good news is it is not another knee injury. The bad news is another part of the body is apparently now an issue for the 31-year-old Spaniard. He showed up and played well in Australia, which was in doubt until the last possible moment.

Even so, his extremely physical playing style continues to catch up with him. The clay court season is the one part of the calendar where Nadal is still the unquestioned man to beat. His upcoming schedule is in question, but not seeing him back on court until April or May is a possibility.

Grade: B

Underdogs

The top of the men’s game has been so good for so long. Thus, we do not see many fresh faces when we get deep into a major at the moment, but we got three in Australia.

2018 Australian Open men

Photo from news.com.au

Hyeon Chung used a unique blend of power and speed to become the first Korean man ever to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. The 21-year-old upset Djokovic and has a bright future. The same can be said of 23-year-old Brit Kyle Edmund, who upset a pair of top 12 seeds on his way to his first Grand Slam semifinal.

The loan bright spot for the American men was 26-year-old journeyman Tennys Sandgren, who came from nowhere to upset two top-10 seeds and reach the last eight. He had never previously won a main draw singles match at a major.

Cinderella stories in moderation are a good thing in tennis. They help balance out a top heavy sport.

Grade: A

Stan Wawrinka

Here we have another athlete with multiple Grand Slams that returned from a long injury layoff in Australia. Perhaps he should have waited a little bit longer. He was dismantled in straight sets by Sandgren in the second round.

It is always great to have the best players playing at the majors, but Wawrinka is currently a shadow of the player that has won three of them. Coming back from knee surgery at 32 years old is a tall order. He clearly has a lot of work to do.

Grade: C-

Novak Djokovic

Ordinarily, going out in the fourth round of a major would be disastrous for a 12-time major champion like Djokovic. It was his earliest exit at a Grand Slam since 2007. However, when you take into account that this was his first event in over five months due to an elbow injury, the result is not terrible.

It is obvious that he is still tweaking his game to protect his injured elbow, but coming out of this tournament healthy was the main objective. Mission accomplished as far as we know.

Grade: B-

Marin Čilić

2018 Australian Open men

Photo from USA Today

The Croat was the benefactor of Nadal’s injury in the quarterfinals and got the soft draw of Edmund in the semis. It was his performance in the final that had to turn some heads. He pushed Federer to five sets. Federer blew out an injured Čilić in last year’s Wimbledon final.

The 29-year-old is quietly putting together a really solid career in an era of all-time greats. The new World No. 3 has now reached at least the final in three of the four Grand Slams, including a surprise victory at the U.S. Open a few years back.

Each time he reaches the second week of a major, he looks like he belongs. That is half the battle.

Grade: A

Alexander Zverev

Quit is a very strong word in the context of sports, but that is exactly what the 20-year-old German did in the fifth set of his third-round defeat to Chung. He failed to win 10 total points in the set. The new World No. 5 has the game to make it big.

He defeated Federer and Djokovic in the finals of regular tour events last year and can be as great as he wants to be, but Zverev is still looking for his first appearance in a major quarterfinal.

This is the kind of performance that raises questions as to whether or not he has the mental toughness needed to go with his immense physical gifts.

Grade: D

Nick Kyrgios

Before the event, Kyrgios would have been a safer bet than Zverev as far as a talented youngster quitting at the business end of a match. After all, he was fined for “lack of best effort” in the not too distant past.

However, the controversial 22-year-old played well enough to back up his 17th seeding on home soil. He was taken out by Grigor Dimitrov in the round of 16, the third seed was just a tick better. There is no shame in that.

It has never been a question of talent with Kyrgios, but rather desire. With his early results in 2018, he has gone a long way towards answering those questions in a positive way.

Grade: B+

You can check out my grades for the women here.

 

Featured image from SI.com

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