I almost had the feeling that Tipsarevic would ride negative energy a la Lleyton Hewitt in 2001 after his bout with controversy. I am glad that did not happen and that tennis, rather than sexism, will be the story of the weekend.
Warning Signs for Wozniacki
The US Open was Even Worse for Caro than SW19
Caroline Wozniacki’s loss at the US Open may have had injury elements thrown into the recipe, but this is an ominous sign. Last year, many said Wozniacki is uber fit, works hard on her game, and she is the youngest player in the top 10. The Dane winning a Grand Slam did not seem inevitable, but it also did not seem far fetched. 2012 has been a disaster for Wozniacki. She could still turn the tide, but she also seems to be the latest victim of the WTA’s Byzantine ranking system frequently rewarding players with the #1 ranking minus a Grand Slam title. I thought it was bad enough when Lindsay Davenport was routinely claiming the #1 ranking when her most recent slam was years prior. Wozniacki has only reached one Slam final. Caroline is a great ambassador for the sport and is popular with existing fans. Tennis does not need for her to succeed, but success would be a jolt for the sport. Instead, I worry that she is going to make Dinara Safina look like a dominant #1. Safina reached 3 major finals and won a Silver medal in singles in 2008. Wozniacki has time on her side, but she needs to start winning while simultaneously adding a few wrinkles to her game (an improved serve, a few net approaches etc.). My advice to Wozniacki would be to pick the brain of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Kim Clijsters.
Kim Clijsters had one of the most odd winning streaks at the US Open snapped today. Clijsters won the 2005 US Open and retired shortly thereafter. She returned to win the 2009 and 2010 US Opens only to miss the 2011 event with an injured ankle. She won her first round match in 2012 to stretch her winning streak in New York to 22 matches contested over a period of 8 years. Clijsters’ career ends with 4 Grand Slam singles titles, 2 Grand Slam doubles titles, multiple stints as the #1 ranked player in the world, 3 season championships and a sparkling reputation. Clijsters close loss in the 2001 French Open final and a frustrating loss to Jutine Henin at the 2004 Australian Open seemed to doom her to a fate of never winning a slam. In 2005, she reversed that fortune. In 2010, Clijsters backed up her 2009 US Open win with another US Open crown. Clijsters won the season ending title to cap 2010 and won the 2011 Australian Open. A period of dominance from Clijsters seemed to have arrived. Injuries put an end to that. My best Clijsters memory was seeing her daughter on court after both the 2009 and 2010 US Open finals. She also deftly handled an awkward question from Dick Enberg* during the 2005 award ceremony.
John Isner & the McEnroe Brothers
He did Break Milos Raonic in Canada
I have been fortunate enough to interview John Isner on 2 occasions (after his 2009 Indianapolis loss to Robby Ginepri and after his 2009 Cincinnati win over Tommy Haas). John struck me as a nice guy with a good perspective on tennis and on his life. I say this to point out that I personally like and root for John Isner. The McEnroe Brothers have put some heavy expectations on Big John in 2009. I think their predictions are wrong-headed even if I hope that I am wrong myself.
Patrick McEnroe predicted that Isner would make the final weekend at the French Open this year. He had taken Nadal to 5 sets in Paris in 2011, he had beaten Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon on clay in Davis Cup play, he had beaten Roger Federer on an apparently awful indoor clay court in Switzerland in Davis Cup play, and he had finished as the runner-up at the 2012 Houston event on clay. Patrick McEnroe had some justification for this prediction, but come on … it was not going to happen.
John McEnroe recently asserted that Isner landing in David Ferrer’s quarter at the US Open was an opportunity for Isner to make the final four in New York. Isner did reach the finals at Indian Wells in March and won Newport and Winston Salem this Summer. Still, Isner lost a set to Xavier Malisse and needed 2 tie-break sets, & 4th set tie-break heroics to beat a player in his 30′s who last made an impression at the US Open by pushing Andre Agassi to 5 sets in 2005.
Isner’s match vs. Malisse is the perfect example of why he is threat in Davis Cup, but not nearly as much of a threat in Grand Slam play. Isner’s serve gives him a chance to play a lot of close sets. In a one or two match situation like Davis Cup, fatigue from earlier matches does not impact Isner. Also, odd things can happen in one or two matches. If Isner gets stretched out to needing to win 5 three out of five set matches to reach a semifinal, the odds shift against him. Isner’s serve may allow him to put scoreboard pressure on elite players and take his chances in tie-breaks, but his lack of a return game makes journeyman players a risk to him. If Xavier Malisse wins a 4th set tie-break that went 11-9 in favor of Isner, the former Georgia Bulldog is headed to a 5th set.
Isner plays close sets against just about everyone. That means a lesser player can put scoreboard pressure on him by hanging around. Then, these lesser-ranked players can take their chances in tie-breaks against him. Even if Isner disposes of lower-ranked players, long sets and matches take a toll on his conditioning for the next round. I’d love to see Isner in the semi-final, but I think he will be fortunate to replicate last year’s final 8 appearance (the only Grand Slam quarterfinal finish of his career).
* Enberg asked Clijsters what she was doing 1 year ago when she missed the 2004 US Open. Kim was in New York in 2004 cheering on her then fiance Lleyton Hewitt in his 2004 US Open (Rusty was runner-up). Somewhere between September 2004 and early 2005, their relationship had ended in a less than ideal manner.
My Projected Winner will be placed in BOLD
ROUND OF 16 MATCH-UPS (Listed in order of seeds)
 MARIA SHARAPOVA (RUS #1) vs.  SABINE LISICKI (GER #15) Sharapova leads 3-0
Lisicki is capable of winning, but Sharapova is on a great roll and should win this match.
 ANA IVANOVIC (SRB #14) vs.  VICTORIA AZARENKA (BLR #2) Series tied 2-2
Ivanovic is playing well enough and is obviously talented, but Vika is the clear favorite here.
 AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA (POL #3) vs. [Q] CAMILA GIORGI (ITA #145) First meeting
It is a great story to see a qualifier in the second week at Wimbledon. I think the story ends here as Radwanska advances.
 FRANCESCA SCHIAVONE (ITA #26) vs.  PETRA KVITOVA (CZE #4) Kvitova leads 2-1
The defending champion should win, but this could be an upset in the making as Schiavone is not apt to implode.
 SERENA WILLIAMS (USA #6) vs. [WC] YAROSLAVA SHVEDOVA (KAZ #65) S.Williams leads 1-0
Serena avoided elimination in the 3rd round. Shvedova hung a golden set on the French Open runner-up. I’ll take the 4 time champion to advance.
KIM CLIJSTERS (BEL #47) vs.  ANGELIQUE KERBER (GER #8) First meeting
Clijsters is going to make her final Wimbledon more memorable than a round of 16 loss.
 MARIA KIRILENKO (RUS #19) vs.  PENG SHUAI (CHN #34) Series tied 1-1
Kirilenko is one of my favorite players on either tour so it is hard to pick against her, but she has not had a great 2012.
TAMIRA PASZEK (AUT #37) vs.  ROBERTA VINCI (ITA #23) Paszek leads 1-0
A lot of Italian players have done well at majors since the 2010 French Open. I think the trend continues.
Men’s Picks (Winner’s Name in Bold)
1 Novak Djokovic vs. 5 David Ferrer – Djokovic should win, but Ferrer is going to be tougher than Hewitt was. My guess is Nole raises his game and wins in 3 or 4 sets.
4 Andy Murray vs. 24 Kei Nishikori – I think Murray calmly makes another slam semifinal. Nishikori pulled a great upset over Tsonga, but Murray looks pretty solid to me. I pick Murray in 3 sets.
11 Juan Martin del Potro vs. 3 Roger Federer – This is the hardest match to predict. Federer benefits from the day time heat. I think that may be the difference. Delpo has played quite well since a sluggish first round. A win here would signal that Delpo is indeed fully back in the hunt. I originally picked Federer for the final four so I am sticking with that, but JMDP winning would not be even a small surprise. My pick is Federer in four.
7 Tomas Berdych vs. 2 Rafael Nadal – This could have been a close match. However, I think Berdych failing to shake Nicolas Almagro’s hand will make Spanish pride a factor. I think that unless Nadal pulls up injured he beats Berdych in 3 sets.
Women’s Picks (Winners in Bold)
1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. 11 Kim Clijsters – Clijsters’ ankle is a question mark, but I think this being her final Aussie Open will help Kim dig deep and dispatch the world #1 in 2 tough sets.
3 Victoria Azarenka vs. 6 Agnieszka Radwanska – Azarenka certainly could lose this match, but it will be decided on her terms. If she makes her shots, she wins. If she sprays too many errors, Radwanska wins. I think Azarenka is close to breaking through so I pick her in 2 sets.
Ekaterina Makarova vs. 4 Maria Sharapova – Makarova pulled a great upset, but Sharapova wins here pretty easily. Maria wants to get back into the winner’s circle.
Sara Errani vs. 2 Petra Kvitova – Kvitova will set up a Wimbledon rematch with Sharapova. I pick Kvitova in 2 sets.
Interesting Potential Early Matches
Kim Clijsters vs. Li Na could be a great re-match in the round of 16.
Maria Sharapova could have a nice match with Serena Williams, but I don’t think Sharapova will get there without having a reliable serve. My gut says Sabine Lisicki clips Sharapova.
Final 8 Picks
1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. 11 Kim Clijsters (although 5 Li Na could make it this far)
3 Victoria Azarenka vs. 10 Francesca Schiovone
12 Serena Williams vs. 14 Sabine Lisicki
6 Sam Stosur vs. 2 Petra Kvitova
Final 4 Picks
11 Kim Clijsters vs. 3 Victoria Azarenka
12 Serena Williams vs. 2 Petra Kvitova
3 Victoria Azarenka vs. 12 Serena Williams
12 Serena Williams
Serena Williams looks fit and prepared. Having a day off between matches that are not any longer than regular WTA matches will help with her ankle injury. She has also had her greatest success down under, so I am picking Serena. I think this may be her last Grand Slam title because Kvitova is coming on strong, but Serena likely has one more big run. Since she is looking fit, I think she wins. As a fan, I think Kvitova winning a 2nd slam and taking over the tour is the best result for women’s tennis. However, many good stories can emerge in Melbourne so this should be a great event for the women’s game.
The Sky is Falling?
Those who follow tennis have often made complaining about the admittedly convoluted leadership structures in professional tennis into an art from. Beyond that, the ATP Tour has enjoyed a lot of continuity among top contenders since 2004. This continuity has allowed for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to be marketed globally. The male side of the draw at big events has typically had top talent competing late into tournaments. To make matters worse, the WTA has not had a consistent final weekend draw such as Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf to serve as a counter balance to sometimes one-sided early round matches. Women’s tennis has been hurt by a rash of injuries, burn-outs and early retirements that have mangled the tour’s one-time clockwork consistency.
2011 Worked Out Well
Kim Clijsters despite a lot of hard luck later in 2011 posted her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. She defeated Li Na in a competitive final. Li Na representing a country with a population of over 1 billion did not hurt the WTA or the Australian Open. Clijsters solidified her status as a historically significant champion. The French Open witnessed Li Na win her first Grand Slam singles title. The importance of the Chinese market for tennis cannot be overstated. Li Na splitting with her coach and posting patchy results since Paris is not going to completely deflate what was a monumental win for tennis. Francesca Schiavone reaching a second consecutive French Open final also removed concerns about her 2010 title being a fluke. Petra Kvitova winning Wimbledon added an aggressive-minded contender for future majors. Once again Kvitova has posted patchy results since winning her first major. Still, she plays a good game and should/might be a consistent contender in 2012 and beyond. Maria Sharapova’s Wimbledon runner-up and French Open semifinal resurrected the career of one of tennis’ most recognized players. The US Open also produced a champion in Sam Stosur from a country with great tennis tradition. Her title also perhaps adds a consistent contender on the WTA Tour for the next 2-4 years. Serena Williams’ winning summer run and US Open runner-up finish offered a similar story to Sharapova’s return to the rank of the contenders on tour. Caroline Wozniacki has also continued to be consistent on tour even if she has not yet won a major title.
At the end of the day, two players with great name recognition rebounded while three new Grand Slam champions were crowned that offer something of value to the WTA and ITF women’s events. Women’s tennis is still looking for a super-consistent player who also wins Grand Slam titles. The next Graf or Navratilova has not emerged. Still, Li Na winning the French Open and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova playing relevant tennis again makes 2011 a good year for the women’s game. Stosur, Kvitova, Wozniacki and Schiavone’s results in 2011 are also pluses going forward.
Work Left to be Done
Some things still need to go well for the women’s game to reclaim some lost territory.
- A consistent player committed to a full-time schedule, such as Wozniacki, needs to win several major titles. Kim Clijsters winning three out of six slams in her comeback proves this is possible. Novak Djokovic winning seven non-Grand Slam titles in 2011 helped to tie the ATP Tour’s weekly events into the larger Grand Slam picture. If Serena Williams wins multiple majors while playing fewer than ten total tournaments, the normal portion of the tour seems irrelevant.
- Players who break through and win majors need to become consistent forces on tour. Ana Ivanovic’s disappearing act cannot be the blueprint for Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur. At least one of those three players needs to be in contention at (nearly) every event she enters in 2011.
- The Hindrance Rule may need to be expanded to encompass grunting. There is clearly a big element of gamesmanship in the grunting and shrieking on tour. Fans seem to be turned off by it, and without fans these events would turn into highly skilled weekend hacker sessions at a park. I am not advocating mob rule, but the shrieking is hurting the sport period.
- Serena Williams needs to take some ownership of her role as an elder stateswoman on tour. I did not think her 2011 US Open outburst was all that bad or shocking. She should have avoided saying, “avoid me” to the umpire, but far, far worse things have been said on court. Still, the 2009 outburst was so bad that Serena needs to take her remaining years on tour to try to mend some fences that need not have been ruptured. Serena has absorbed her fair share of unwarranted criticism and bad breaks from officials and that damage need not be mended (We have a challenge system now because of a terrible error in one of her matches.) Still, the 2009 incident was bad and any ripple effects from that behavior should be addressed.
- Victoria Azarenka needs to find a way to round out some corners of her game and win a major in the next two years. She simply has too much game to be ranked so highly yet have only reached one Grand Slam semifinal. If Azarenka and Wozniacki start winning majors, women’s tennis would be in a much better place. They are of the right age to take the weekly tour reigns from the still relevant Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. If those four players are near the top and Li Na regains her form while Stosur has Australia reinvested in women’s tennis, the WTA would see an upsurge in popularity.