Thursday, November 28, 2013

Radwanska is fan favorite for third straight year

World number 5 Agnieszka Radwanska has been voted the 2013 WTA Fan Favorite. Radwanska also received the fan award in 2011 and 2012. 80,000 fans voted this year.

Fans also voted Radwanska's Miami 360 spin backhand volley (see number 10) as the Shot of the Year. The thing is, she made some other shots this year that could also qualify, though--for most of us--the Miami shot was especially spectacular.

The Fan Favorite Doubles Team is Elena Vesnna and Ekaterina Makarova, a Russian fire and ice combo who are especially fun to watch.

Maria Sharapova got the nod for both Fan Favorite Facebook and Fan Favorite Twitter. 40 LOVE Story, episode 10 was named Fan Favorite Video of the Year.

Fan Favorite Match of the Year was the semifinal played between Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova at the French Open.

Finally, here's a little something in honor of Radwanska:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Serena Williams named Player of the Year

Serena Williams, the world's number 1 ranked player, was named Player of the Year today by the WTA. Williams won 11 titles this year, including the French Open, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. At age 32, Williams is the oldest player to ever receive the award, and this is the fifth time that she has received it.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the number 1 doubles team in the world, were named Doubles Team of the Year. Errani and Vinci won the Australian Open and the Paris indoor tournament. And as much as I thoroughly enjoy and respect the Italians, I do have a quibble about this award. Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai won Wimbledon, the WTA Championships, Rome, Cincinnati, and Guangzhou. They didn't knock Errani and Vinci out of the number 1 spot, but their performance in 2013 was the one that was truly outstanding.

Who do you pick--the number 1 team, or the team who won a major, the year-ends, two premier titles, and another title? I woud have gone with the latter, but I understand the decision.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sweeping the court

Everyone likes a class yearbook, and there's no yearbook quite like the one published by the Backspin Academy. It's all there in photos, videos, student election results, lecture series, classes--everything. The Radwanska Abbey "lost footage" has been restored, too, so if you missed the tour the first time, be sure to check it out. Do your homework.

Maria Sharapova has hired Sven Groenefeld as her coach. I didn't see that one coming.

Sloane Stepehens has entered a trial coaching agreement with Paul Annacone, who--until recently--coached Roger Federer.

Laura Robson has hired Jesse Witten as her traveling coach and hitting partner, and Nick Saviano as a coaching consultant. The word is that she wanted to hire Mark Woodforde as her coach, but that the two could not come to a financial agreement.

Elena Baltacha has retired from professional tennis. The veteran Brit (born in Scotland) player was a lot longer on talent than she was on luck. At age 19, Baltacha was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, but didn't let a compromised immune system stop her from playing. She and her coach, Nino Severino, currently run the Baltacha Academy of Tennis. The 30-year-old Baltacha, who has suffered numerous injuries, said, in announcing her retirement, that all those injuries have finally taken their toll. Bally will be missed, for sure.

Bouchard, Halep and Kleybanova get WTA awards

The WTA is handing out its annual awards on a gradual basis this year. Newcomer of the Year is Eugenie Bouchard, Most Improved Player of the Year is Simona Halep and Comeback Player of the Year is Alisa Kleybanova. This is the second time that Flavia Pennetta has staged an unbelievable comeback from lengthy rehab, and, for the second time, that comeback wasn't recognized. But that doesn't mean that Kleybanova's comeback shouldn't be recognized with the award; I thought both players were equally qualified to receive it.

Bouchard began the season ranked number 144 in the world, and ended it ranked number 32. The numbers say it all for the Canadian player. Halep, of course, went on a tear (beating Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Vinci, and Jankovic) in Rome, and then won six tournaments on three surfaces. She is now number 11 in the world.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sweeping the court

Maria Sharapova will join the NBC broadcasting crew for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Sharapova spent her early childhood in Sochi, and was an ambassador for Sochi when the city made its bid to host the Olympic Games.

Here's Petra Kvitova on CNN World Sport.

The Backspin Awards continue with Performance and Match lists. Don't miss it.

You can get to know Ajla Tomljanovic.

Nuria Llagostera Vives has been suspended for two years after testing positive for methamphetamine at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford. The Spanish player actually withdrew from the tournament because her doubles partner, Francesca Schiavone, was ill.

Here's Victoria Azarenka and Redfoo at the MTV EMAs.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2013--a French twist

2013 was a year of surprises for a lot of tennis fans. As a whole, the season was packed with unexpected events for all of us. The season's news was both good and bad, as a few players made comebacks or banished demons, but some continued to deal with chronic health issues.

Maria Sharapova's shoulder gave her problems again, and caused her to withdraw from the U.S. Open and finish her season early. That meant she also had to withdraw from the WTA Championships. Petra Kvitova continued to struggle with asthma, but--perhaps more significant--she suffered from a series of infections that leads one to come to the logical conclusion that something is amiss in her immune system. There is reason to be concerned about both players.

Vera Zvonareva stayed out with injury, but recently announced her 2014 return. Venus Williams, however, actually demonstrated some improvement in her stamina, which had decreased dramatically because of her autoimmune illness.

One of the comeback stories of 2013 belonged to Flavia Pennetta, who had to have wrist surgery last year. She's been through a long rehab before, and she's figured out how to come back, so it was no surprise that in 2013, the Italian put on quite a show at the U.S. Open. Pennetta, who was ranked number 83 in the world when the year's fourth major began, went on an upset tear reminiscent of Flavia from long ago. She beat Sara Errani, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Simona Halep, and Roberta Vinci. One defeated opponent was a former U.S. Open champion, one was the hottest player of the second half of the season, and the other two are her close friends. Pennetta lost to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals, but it was quite a run.

Andrea Petkovic also experienced a positive return to the tour, and we should keep an eye on her (and hope she doesn't get injured) in 2014. Alisa Kleybanova, having undergone treatment and rehab for Hodgkin's lymphoma, made a real comeback this year, and should also be someone we watch in 2014.

In 2013, we learned that Kristina Mladenovic and Anyone equals a great doubles team. The Frenchwoman won six doubles titles this year--with six different partners. One of those titles was the mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon, which she won with Daniel Nestor (they were the runners-up at the French Open). In Charleston, Mladenovic stepped onto the court with defending champion Lucie Safarova for the very first time in their careers, and--despite their unfamiliarity with one another--Safarova defended her title.

While I'm on the subject of doubles, it was a bit of an odd year in that no one team really dominated. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the Australian Open and retained their number 1 ranking, but 2013 was not the banner year for them that 2012 was. Meanwhile, young Austalian Ashleigh Barty continued to demonstrate that she is already a force in doubles, and can only become more of a force in the future. She and Casey Dellacqua were the runners-up at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

Martina Hingis returned to the tour to play doubles with Daniela Hantuchova. On paper, that's a dream team, but the reality was that the pair struggled, and Hingis sounded discouraged at the end of the season.

The other big doubles news this year was that the formidable Czech team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, after winning the U.S. Open, split. Hlavackova will play with Lucie Safarova next year, and Hradecka will pair with Michaella Krajicek.

One of the players who made a big splash in doubles this year was Elena Vesnina. With partner Ekaterina Makarova, Vesnina won both Indian Wells and the French Open. The Russian's other breakthrough was in singles. After being a runner-up six times, Vesnina won her first title in Hobart, and then she won her second one in Eastbourne. It was a long time coming.

Sam Stosur parted ways with coach David Taylor, after six years. She has since named a new coach, but during the interim, she looked to Australian Open Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik to help her out, and made a huge end-of-season sweep upward. There's reason to believe that the Australian star is headed for a big 2014 season.

Some of the tour's younger players made quite an impression in 2013. Eugenie Bouchard showed us that she has pretty serious game and is perhaps "the" player to watch next season. And then there was Sloane Stephens.

Stephens had an interesting year, to say the least. She put herself into a "feud" (it was one-sided) with Serena Williams, of all people, and she told us she was looking forward to the European clay court season because there's nothing much to do in boring old Europe. The most striking thing about Stephens' season, however, was that she continued her pattern of making big runs on big stages, and then giving us performances she could have phoned in at other events.

I have to give a shout-out to Alexandra Panova, who played the match of her career in the Fed Cup final, and--even though she held four match points against an injured opponent, but still lost--she reminded us all what Fed Cup competition is all about. It was a great match, and Panova is to be commended for giving it her all. Her performance represents why I love Fed Cup.

Kristina Mladenovic and Flavia Pennetta came close to making my personal top 10 for 2013, but wound up as "honorable mentions." Here's my top 10:

10: Oh no, she didn't:

9. You can't win 'em all: But if you're Esther Vergeer, you can come pretty close. The world's "winningest" athlete retired in 2013. Vergeer won 700 matches and lost 25. She was ranked number 1 for 14 years. She won 42 majors (singles and doubles combined), 22 year-end-championships and 7 Paralympic titles. She had a 95-game win streak in which she was taken to match point only once. Vergeer was undefeated for 10 straight years--from 2003 to 2013--and retired while on a 470-match win streak.

8. Praise the tennis gods: She's back--rubber body, concrete hair, red Porsche with matching shoes, and all. Jelena Jankovic, who--all by herself--is a reason to watch pro tennis--returned to the top 10 this year. Queen Chaos, as she's known on one of my very favorite tennis sites, won the tournament in Bogota, and put in a solid performance in many other tournaments. She's still not as fast or as accurate as Jelena of 2008, but there's reason to hope. (As one of WWS's readers commented this past spring, "She's so fabulous it hurts.")

7. You've got a friend: The doubles team of the year has to be Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. They've been friends for many years, and at times, they were doubles partners. This year, they got serious about beingh a doubles team, and it paid off. Hsieh and Peng won Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, as well as three other tournaments.

6. Dai!: In 2013, Italy won Fed Cup--again. The Italian team defeated the USA, the Czech Republic and Russia to take the title for the fourth time. Roberta Vinci didn't get a chance to play doubles in the final, but Fed Cup Queen Flavia Pennetta did. It was a dead rubber, but it was still good to see Pennetta on the court.

5. More like habanero: Simona Halep received the nickname "Halepeno" this year, and with good reason. The talented Romanian went crazy on everyone in the second half of the season and won six titles. She did this on all three surfaces, and one of her titles was achieved at the Tournament of Champions. She may be considered "too small" to compete at a serious level, but she should nevertheless be taken seriously, and especially on clay courts. Halep is a joy to watch. With some improvement in her service game, she becomes even more of a threat.

4. Unloved, undefeated: Victoria Azarenka had an amazing start to her 2013 season, and that start included defending her title at the Australian Open. But this was no ordinary title defense. Azarenka played against crowd favorite Li Na (who was significantly injured twice during the bizarre match), while she herself was the crowd "unfavorite"--in a big way. Australian fans and sports media combined to conduct an anti-Vika campaign, and the crowd actively cheered against her. And while it helped that her opponent twisted her ankle and bashed her head during the final, it was nevertheless a special victory for the former world number 1 to defend her title. She didn't celebrate the win on court--that would have been too strange, I guess--instead, she sat down and wept. Azarenka would go on to win Doha and Cincinnati, defeating Serena Williams in both finals.

3. Parlez vous Francais?: Serena Williams does, and so does her racket. Williams was already living part-time in Paris when she was upset in the first round of the 2012 French Open, so it was no surprise that she went to the Mouratoglu Academy for help. Williams hadn't won at Roland Garros since 2002, so it was one of those very personal "Serena" victories when she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 2013. Williams delivered her victory speech in French, just as she had delivered her Rome victory speech in Italian.

2. She's still number 1: Williams didn't win just the French Open; she also won the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. She won 11 titles in 2013 and ended the year with the number 1 ranking. At age 32, the world number 1 looks and feels as confident as ever. Oh, and her game is better than ever; expect the best in 2014.

1. "I'll have a cup of tea and tell you of my dreaming": Right before the 2011 French Open began, Petra Kvitova went to sleep one night, and--the next morning--told her coach, "I dreamed I won the Wimbledon." A few weeks later, she won The Wimbledon. We don't know how many times Marion Bartoli went to sleep and dreamed that she won that title, but we do know that her waking dream for 22 years was that she would win it.

From age 6 on, the Frenchwoman's goal was to lift the Venus Rosewater dish at the All England Club. To the surprise of a lot of people, she reached the final in 2007. Possessed of a mighty return game, Bartoli always had the grass court skills. But her serve could go off at a moment's notice, as could her physical stamina.

Bartoli, who plays two-handed on both sides, has marched to her own drumbeat her entire career. Put through rigorous and often very unusual training by her father and coach, Walter Bartoli, she was easy to dismiss. Bartoli's on-court intensity, which included a never-to-be-emulated Death Glare, made her a one-woman theatre project. There has just never been anyone like her in professional tennis.

She had a disappointing 2013 season, but perked up in time for Wimbledon. Knowing that she needed to lighten up, she brought 2006 champion and fellow Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo along with her to the All England Club. If the easy-going and witty Mauresmo can't lighten you up, no one can. Not that Bartoli is without humor--off the court, she's very funny. Guided by Mauresmo and pal Kristina Mladenovic, Bartoli brought that humor to the tournament, and--instead of training every moment she was off the court--the Frenchwoman was dancing in the locker room. She also worked on her serve, then worked on it some more.

Bartoli's opponent in the final was crowd favorite Sabine Lisicki, known for her service game. But Lisicki is not the mentally toughest player around, and Bartoli was able to get the job done in straight sets.

And there's more! Six weeks after winning Wimbledon, Bartoli announced her retirement from professional tennis. There's some speculation that she'll return, but I wonder about that. Marion is having such a great time. Since winning the biggest title of her career, she has sung "La Marseillaise" for a gathering of important people at the All England Club, become the first Wimbledon champion to play mixed doubles at the All England Club's end-of-season tournament, taken a final trip to the gym, and worn a chocolate dress on the runway in Paris.

Bartoli now has time to paint her landscapes and buy her Christian Louboutins. But whatever she decides to do, we can be sure of one thing: She'll do it her own way, in her own style, and without regard to what anyone else thinks.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An all-Belgian final

Wait--that was another decade, wasn't it?

But what do you know? Two Belgians wound up competing for the title in the OEC Taipei Ladies Open, a WTA 125 Sereis event that concluded over the weekend. 2nd seed Yanina Wickmayer lost to the unseeded Alison Van Uytvanck, who defeated her 6-4, 6-2. Van Uytvanck never faced a break point.

Van Uytvanck and parter Anna-Lena Friedsam were the runners-up in doubles. The title went to Caroline Garcia and Yaroslava Shvedova. Garcia says she had been trying to get Shvedova to play doubles with her for a long time, but Shvedova wasn't available in the past. The Taipei tournament marks their debut as a team.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sweeping the court

Pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine, sit back, and enjoy the 2013 Backspin Awards. You won't find a more thoughtful or detailed review of the season.

Sam Stosur has named Miles Maclagan as her new coach. Maclagan formerly coached Laura Robson. Stosur and coach David Taylor recently after working together for six years.

Maria Kirilenko does a photo shoot for Glamour Russia. Kirilenko's photo shoots aren't what they used to be, are they?

The ITF shows "flexibility and concern."

If you aren't following the Scoreboard for Equality, you should be.

Be sure to check out the Sofia player party gallery.

40 LOVE to see some real change

Dear WTA:

You did an outstanding job with the 40 LOVE campaign. I'm sure I speak for most fans when I say how great it was to see so much attention paid to the Original 9, and to have the WTA's impressive history talked about so much by the sports media. Well done.

However, an excellent marketing campaign about the spirit and intention of the Original 9 isn't the same as really honoring the spirit and intention of the Original 9, which was to grant women what was rightfully theirs--to compete on an equal level with men.

The prize money issue is a big one, and great strides have been made in that area. But sexism is still sexism and there's a lot more to the concept of equality than just prize money. I'd like to see the WTA take an authentic position on behalf of women that would benefit the players, all sportswomen, and women and girls everywhere. As WTA player Sania Mirza (and what a wonderful spokeswoman she is) said recently: "When a woman wants to do something on her own way, she is criticised, dubbed as a rebel." She's right, and when a man wants to do something his own way, he's called "an individual" and "a maverick."

As Mirza points out, sportswomen (and all professional women, I'll add) are asked about what they wear, about when they're going to have babies, etc., while the media concentrates on men's athletic endeavors. The sports media calls male athletes "warriors" while it creates gossip about female athletes' private lives and encourages the "cat fight" mentality among fans.

I was around when the WTA was formed, and believe me--we haven't really come that far, baby, in sports or in any other area of society. In fact, we've gone backwards. In the U.S., bigoted attitudes toward women and girls that were at least held up for inspection in the 70s are now condoned and even encouraged. Sexism and misogyny are such a part of the fabric of world culture, girls grow up not even realizing that they are being treated as people who are "less than" men.

In no particular order, these are things I'd like to see from the WTA:

1. Get rid of on-court coaching. 
I don't want anyone, male or female, to receive on-court coaching because on-court coaching goes against the spirit of the game of tennis, which is a sport that's as much mental as it is physical. The tennis player stands alone (unless it's a doubles match), and has to figure things out for herself. In the case of the WTA, on-court coaching--and this is especially true since there is no ATP on-court coaching--makes the women look as though they can't figure it out for themselves. To make matters worse, almost all of the coaches are men, so there they are--young women being directed by older men on how to play an opponent. It reeks of paternalism.

2. Create a program to encourage the development of female coaches.
We have so few of them in professional tennis. (And by the way, ATP--you need to do the same thing; where are the female coaches?) You can encourage girls all you want to be anything they can be, but until they see women coaching players, the message won't be transmitted.

3. Do not ever threaten to create a device that intrudes on a woman's body. Ever.
The concept of using a grunt-o-meter is not only ridiculous, it's offensive. I've never known what all the "grunting" (most of it isn't) fuss was about. No one complains about grunting on the ATP. As far as I can tell, the sports media created the "controversy" and people hopped onto the bandwagon.

But even if there are legitimate reasons (I don't think there are, but for the sake of argument....) to stop players from making noise, the idea of using a measuring device is really no different in spirit than previous concepts like putting female flight attendants on weight scales, requiring women in certain professions (or relationships) to get plastic surgery, and conducting "virginity tests" on adolescent girls. Women and girls have had our bodies measured and encroached upon enough.

4. Stop calling the head of the WTA a man.
An organization that claims to promote the well-being and advancement of women and girls really needs to stop saying "chairman" when it refers to the current head of the organization. What decade are we in, anyway?

5. Find some female masters of ceremony.
Tournament after tournament, including those that are women-only, the person doing the on-court interviews, making the announcements, and conducting the activities is a man. Often, it's a man who is sexist and/or paternalistic. (I heard a master of ceremonies tell a little girl who had won a competition that she couldn't make a celebratory run around the court because "girls don't do that." Another, ubiqitous, master of ceremonies calls grown women "young ladies" every time he interviews them or talks about them.) At the very least, get men who show more respect to the female players. But we really need some female masters of ceremonies.

6. Don't just sit there--fight sexism when it occurs.
When members of the sports media always compare female players with male players and never the other way around, say something. When an ATP player declares that women can't possibly compete as well as men because of our hormones, show your outrage. When members of the media make wink-nudge jokes about what that ATP player said, put them in their place.

When masters of ceremonies patronize players, educate them. When commentators assume that a female player is "copying" an ATP player and she isn't, complain. When commentators call women "girls," correct them. When the sports press (I'm talking to you, Great Britain) makes sexually oriented comments about WTA players' bodies and refers to the tour in demeaning ways, call them out and make them stop doing it.

The Original 9 were women with spine. The WTA couldn't have better role models.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Zhang wins Nanjing Ladies Open

Zhang Shuai won the WTA 125K Series Nanjing Ladies Open today. Zhang won the first set 6-4, and then it was all over when her opponent Ayumi Morita had to retire because of a hamstring injury. And yes, we've seen Morita retire and give walkovers more times than we like to think about, but this time, it wasn't exactly unexpected. The Japanese player saved mutiple match points during the week, and played two three-hour matches back-to-back (one of them was interrupted by rain, but still, Morita went through a lot during the week).

Zhang won her first WTA title this year, in Guangzhou. She has won 19 of 23 matches since the U.S. Open.

The champion had to settle for runner-up status in doubles. She and partner Yaroslava Shvedova, the top seeds, lost the final. The doubles champions are Misaki Doi and Xu Yi-Fan, who won the final 6-1, 6-4. Doi and Xu were unseeded.

Halep goes six for six

Whatever psychological demons haunt the likes of Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic--those demons leave Simona Halep alone. The Romanian, whose psyche appears to have been purified in the sanctuary of the Holy Church of Chris Evert, won the Tournament of Champions in Sofia today. Dropping her first set of the tournament, Halep defeated Stosur 2-6, 6-2, 6-2.

My only concern about Halep as she went into the final was her leg. It did bother her from time to time during the match, and she said that she, too, was worried about it before the match began, but that she really wanted to win, and that's apparently what she focused on. She was also fortunate that the injury didn't get worse.

Other than the injury issue, the match was kind of predictable. Stosur came out ready to control things, and control things she did--during the first set. After that, Halep's now-characteristic comeback began, enabling her to win the second set. In the final set, Stosur looked better and there was every reason to believe that the last set would be the most competitive one--but then, Stosur was broken. And she was broken. Unable to scare Halep away with her heavy topspin, the Australian instead struggled to find a Plan B, and allowed Halep to extract errors from her, just as she had in the previous set.

Though she has done well on a variety of surfaces, clay really make's Halep's game deadly. She has just enough time to get a good reading of exactly what her opponent is up to, and then she's ready with a counter-plan. She hits the ball deceptively hard when she needs to, and specializes in luring her opponent to a defensive position. And Stosur, for all her gifts in the serving and forehand departments, can be pushed around by a clever opponent.

With Halep, it's all about whether her serve is on. If it is, she can almost relax into her aggression. She's got the movement, the shots, the footwork, and the confidence. Developing a more consistent serve would really take some pressure off of her.

Halep has played in six finals this year, and has won all of them. For those of us who have been watching the Romanian and waiting for this for a long time, this year was the pay-off. For others, it must be quite a surprise. Romania has a strong WTA contingent, and now it has a leader. When the new rankings are published, Halep will be number 11 in the world.

Italy wins 2013 Fed Cup

It wasn't that long ago that we used to say that Russia had enough good players to put together two winning Fed Cup teams. Actually, that's still true, but they have to be uninjured and they have to want to play--and it would also help if they weren't sabotaged by the WTA, which schedules Fed Cup the same time as the Tournament of Champions. A lot of problems plagued the Russian Fed Cup team this year, and as a result, a very beatable team showed up for the final.

Italy led 2-0 going into today, and--not surprisingly--Alisa Keybanova took over for what must have been an exhausted Alexandra Panova in the third rubber of the Fed Cup final. But Kleybanova hadn't set foot on a clay court in a long, long time, and that made it easy for Sara Errani to beat her 6-1, 6-1 in just under an hour.

Errani's victory sealed the title for Italy, but the teams opted to play the dead doubles rubber, which Italy also won. Karin Knapp and Flavia Pennetta (the Queen of Fed Cup had to make an appearance, right?) defeated Margarita Gasparyan and Irina Khromacheva 4-6, 6-2, 10-4.

It should be noted that, in the four rubbers played, Russia won two sets. That statement comes over as a bit sarcastic, but I don't mean it that way at all. The Russians took a set in doubles, and Panova--as already noted--made a memorable Fed Cup debut.

This is Italy's fourth Fed Cup title. The Italian team has won four titles in the last eight years.

Don't forget to check the photo gallery on the official website.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sweeping the court

Italian Fed Cup captain Carrado Barazzutti has received the 2013 Fed Cup Award of Excellence. Barrazutti. The annual award goes to an individual who represents the ideals and spirit of Fed Cup. Barazzutti led Italy to its first Fed Cup final in history, in 2006. Italy won that year, and also in 2009 and 2010; the Italian team was the runner-up in 2007. It was Barazzutti, incidentally, who coached Italian Fed Cup team regular Francesca Schiavone during the 2010 French Open, which she won.

Speaking of Fed Cup--unless something really dramatic occurs tomorrow--the player who will probably be most talked about is Alexandra Panova. Yes, she let four match points slip away and her opponent was injured, but it was Panova's first Fed Cup match, and she gave it all she had. She said afterwards that she was disappointed that her serve had let her down. I'm sure she's very disappointed, but Panova's performance is the kind of thing that makes Fed Cup so special.

Caroline Wozniacki says that Thomas Hogstedt will be her coach in 2013. Such "coaching" arrangements have not worked in the past because Piotr Wozniacki has always assumed the authority of a coach, even when he wasn't the "official" coach.

I miss the Fed Cup blogs. What happened to them? They were always so much fun to read. The live blog is still being pubished, but it's the only one.

Heather Watson said recently that she had such a tough time coming back and competing after a long bout with glandular fever, she actually considered retiring from the sport.

Sugarpova is great, but how about some chocolate?

Look who showed up in Sardinia!

Drama, drama, drama!

Those Italians. When Russia had a medical timeout during one of today's Fed Cup rubbers, the hosts cued up "Funiculi, Funicula" while the trainer was working. Funny. Not so funny was what Roberta Vinci went through to defeat Alexandra Panova. Vinci has been injured for a while, and undoubtedly wasn't expected to be at her best today. To make things tougher, Panova threw everything at her that she had.

I wasn't sure I was even going to watch the Fed Cup final, but when I got up this morning and saw what was going on, I bought my viewing pass. Somewhere in Sardinia, as I write this, poor Panova is probably struggling to stay away from the Chianti (she has to play again tomorrow) and drown her memories of today. The Russian led Vinci 7-5, 5-2, 40-15. She held four match points, and saw them all disappear; Vinci won the three hour and thirteen-minute affair 5-7, 7-5, 8-6.

Sara Errani then defeated Irini Khromacheva 6-1, 6-4. Khromacheva gave the world number 7 something to think about in the second set. The Russian player got her rhythm, used her second serve to her advantage and hit winners off of both sides.

There was more drama at the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, as top seed Simona Halep took on two-time champion and wild card Ana Ivanovic. It was hard not anticipate drama in this semifinal, as a matter of fact. Ivanovic, when she's on, is exactly the kind of player who can give Halep trouble. In this case, the Romanian star was ripe for an upset because of a niggling leg injury.

But you know how it can go with Ana Ivo. She took the first set 6-2, after winning five games in a row. Halep's serve was off, and she was making too many unforced errors. Between sets, Halep received medical treatment for her injury, then calmly walked back onto the court, made the needed adjustments, and won four games in a row. She took the second set 6-1.

"Momentum" isn't a four-letter word, but it might as well have been in this match. Because, before you could say "I'd like the next flight to Belgrade,"  Halep was down two breaks and serving at 1-3, 0-40. And that was it.

That was it for Ivanovic, not Halep.

At one point, toward the end, Ivanovic called for the trainer, who appeared to be working on practically everything on the Serb's body, but really--it was the "throat constriction" problem that needed tending. Ivanovic could hardly get a ball over the net, and Halep--not one to miss an opportunity--won 25 of the last 32 points. Her 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory puts her into the final. The Romanian player has yet to drop a set in Sofia.

Her opponent tomorrow will be Sam Stosur, who beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. The scoreline says it all: Stosur dominated the opening set, Pavlyuchenkova dominated the second, and the third was pretty competitive.

Stosur last played Halep in the final in Moscow, which Halep won 7-6, 6-2.

A couple of side notes:

Brit commentator, whoever you are, those WTA players cannot possibly be "countrymen"--you know, on account of their being women.

And I really enjoyed Stosur's walk onto the court for the final. The little girl who accompanied her adopted the same stoic-cool expression and gait as Stosur, and they made quite a pair.

Finally, in Nanjing, Ayumi Morita and Zhang Shuai emerged as the finalists. Morita is showing some fitness; she spent the week playing marathon matches and saving match points. Today, she had a straight set victory over Jarmila Gajdosova, while Zhang needed three sets to beat Yanina Wickmayer. The question now is: Will Morita have enough energy left to win her first WTA title? Zhang won her first title this year, in Guangzhou.

With partner Yaroslava Shvedova, Zhang is also into the doubles final. The top seeds will take on Misaki Doi and Xu Yi-Fan.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fed Cup final not an exciting concept

I usually can't wait for the Fed Cup final, but this year, I haven't even bought a viewing pass. Alexandra Panova and Irina Khromacheva are playing singles for Russia, and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci are playing singles for Italy. And in the unfortunate case that one of the Italians is injured, Flavia Pennetta--the Queen of Fed Cup--is there and available.

Pennetta are Karin Knapp are scheduled to play the doubles rubber, should there be such a match. Margarita Gasparyan and Alisa Kleybanova are scheduled to play doubles for Russia. Kleybanova, of course--despite her lengthy absence from the tour--would be the logical choice to compete against Errani and Vinci in singles, but Russia appears to have written this one off.

I still don't know what happened to Camila Giorgi, who was supposed to be on the Italian team, but at this point, she probably isn't missing much.

Strange things do happen in Fed Cup, and upsets aren't unusual, but the morale of the Russian team can't possibly be very high, given the snubbing its own regular players have given it. One of those players, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, has made it to the semifinals in Sofia, which take place tomorrow, which is day 1 of the Fed Cup final.

Ivanovic and Stosur go to Sofia semifinals

Poor Elena Vesnina. She came back from 2-5 down in her round robin match against Ana Ivanovic, forced a tiebreak, and won it 7-1, only to see Ivanovic wind up in the Sofia semifinals. If Sam Stosur had lost her match to Tsvetana Pironkova, Vesnina would have been in, but the Australian easily beat the wild card, 6-1, 6-4. Stosur plays Simona Halep in the semifinals, and Ivanovic plays Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

In Nanjing, Ayumi Morita was at it again, playing three hours, and--this time--saving only one match point. She defeated Anna Schmiedlova 6-7 (8), 7-6 (0), 7-5. Morita, who must be exhausted, is now into the semifinals, in which she'll face Jarmila Gajdosova. In the other semifinal match, Yanina Wickmayer will face Zhang Shuai.