Sunday, February 28, 2016

We'd Better Get Used To It

by Savannah

Sloane Stephens Acapulco 2016 photo 9b9a1ecc-a696-4039-9839-970bb81b9f1f_zpshiaw6cq7.jpg
via TennisTV

I've been dragging Sloane Stephens for a couple of years now right? Her attitude that one victory made her a superstar for life was as annoying as her unwillingness to get down and dirty to win a match. She hired and fired coaches in rapid succession before settling on Kamau Murray as the new person on her team. Murray, based in Chicago, briefly coached Taylor Townsend but is known for his Academy. From what I saw last night whatever Sloane needed to stop playing "do you know who I am" tennis she is now playing focused strategic tennis. No more baffling runs to the net or trying to hit a bomb when a light touch would be more than enough. Watching her play Dominika Cibulkova
last nigt in Acapulco was like seeing a different player. When Domi started pushing her back behind the baseline Sloane didnt'try to blast her way out. Instead she worked her way back in and got shots she could work with. In the end she was just that little bit better than Cibulkova and won an emotional match.

If she wants to stop being another talented US failure she has to build on her win last night. She's ranked around #25 and still gets direct entry into big tournaments like the upcoming Indian Wells. I just hope that she doesn't let last night's win go to her head and set herself back another two years. Murray thought he could get the star he needs with Townsend but the issues there were too deep. He may find his success with Sloane IF he can stop her from making herself a legend in her own mind.

Should We Forget February?

Roberta Vinci Premier Level St Petersburg Champion
Sara Errani Premier Level Dubai Champion
Francesca Schiavone International Level Champion Rio de Janeiro
Carla Suárez Navarro P5 Level Doha Champion
Sloane Stephens International Acapulco Champion

Roberta Vinci believes. After stopping Serena Williams at the US Open she's played with a confidence she didn't display before. Francesca Schiavone is maybe playing her last year, a late bloomer who found herself a Slam champion and who hasn't done much since. Sloane Stephens was discussed above. So let's talk about Carla Suárez Navarro and Sara Errani, starting with their most obvious similarity: they're both small women. Errani is listed at 5'5" (1.64m). CSN is listed at 5'4" (1.62m). We know how reliable these things are in tennis so let's accept the height measurements as fact. That is where the similarity between the two women ends however. CSN has a good game with a decent serve. Errani, well, that she is in the top 10 of the WTA feeds the talk of lack of depth on the women's tour. If you notice there were mostly cheers for CSN winning in Doha. Compare that to the howls of outrage and disgust at Errani's win in Dubai. What does that mean as we plunge headlong into the Post Serena era of the WTA? Are the people bemoaning the upcoming years as weak jumping the gun or are they merely stating the obvious based on what we've seen from the future "stars" of the WTA.

I think that sadly the upcoming years will not be good ones for the WTA. I've said that before but I do like to point out that I was saying it two years ago when rabidly pro WTA fans began calling the weakness "depth". The lack of mental maturity, lack of sound technique and lack of PR savvy (treating your coach as someone beneath your contempt is not a good way to build your reputation among fans, coaches or tennis off court professionals) is glaring. If newer fans wonder why there is so much lingering dislike of Martina Hingis despite her seemingly nice disposition these days check back on some of the things she did and said earlier in her career. How often do you have to say that tennis fans have very long memories and first impressions are lasting. Brattiness and other displays of pique because the world is not conforming to your point of view are not good looks for top players but that seems to be the default position for many of the future "stars" of the sport. Sad.

What's also sad is that there was no way to see any of the WTA tournament unless you were physically in Acapulco until the later stages of the event. That's not a good way to build your brand WTA people.

As for the ATP things are looking a bit shaky too.

First off when your top player retires due to an eye infection after having once retired with a sore throat all of your narratives about a changed man fly out of the window. If said player couldn't see he should've given his opponent the walk over. I watched a replay of the match and it seemed as if he was upset at the crowd lustily cheering his opponent and not him. It was stunning to see how quickly he retired after the end of the first set, almost running off court as if he had somewhere to be. If a woman had done that (Serena Williams) the tennis press would've been up in arms about disrespect for the sport, etc, etc. Instead there was an almost deafening silence from the usual suspects. A leopard can't change it's spots.

The men's tournament at Acapulco, the official warm up for Indian Wells for many, was interesting on many different levels, not all of them positive for the ATP.

Two years ago David Ferrer was making the long journey from South America to Mexico without too many problems. This year the wear and tear showed. Another late bloomer he's not able to get down and dirty consistantly anymore. At times he looked like an old lion prowling the baseline instead of a coiled beast ready to pounce.

The US has its hopes pinned on young Taylor Fritz who aquitted himself well but seems to have lingering physical problems at the tender age of 18. As regular readers know he's my young man to watch this year so I'll cut my comments short for now. My review of what I've seen of him, as well as my young woman to watch Naomi Osaka should be up before the start of Indian Wells.

Australia has two men it hopes will revive it's fortunes - Nicholas Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic. Tennis Australia has spent a lot of money trying to rehab the images of both men. Tomic, threw a hissy fit during the Golden Swing saying, in true entitled brat manner, that he'd rather be in Miami driving his Ferrari. I almost typed Porsche because of Sam Querrey who said almost the exact same thing a few years ago except he said that losing wasn't a big thing since he could go home and drive his mother's Porsche. Is it me or did Querrey, after being dragged on Tennis Channel of all places for being a lazy sumbitch start playing better?

Back to the Australian Golden Children. Kyrgios had a much anticipated rematch with Stan Wawrinka who he'd famously insulted during a match last year. Epic? Great shot making? Kyrgios retired with a back injury. If you remember Wawrinka retire during that previous encounter with, if I recall correctly, a back issue. As for Tomic who had escaped the jungles of South America and it's clay courts and was now playing on hard he found himself in the Final facing press favorite Dominic Thiem.

I've seen Thiem play live. I was sitting on a bench on one of the outer courts at the US Open so I got to watch his game as well as his technique. I'm obviously missing something. I don't see what all the fuss is about. His game is solid, evenly paced and dull as dishwater. There is nothing special about him from what I can see. Favorable draws will go a long way to advance his move up the ranks especially in the weak era that's coming.

Before talking about the Final I have to mention the much anticipated match that came before it in the semi finals: Dominic Thiem vs Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov is another player the press loses its collective shit over. First he was crowned "Baby Fed". That got old real fast so now he's just one of the top up and comers. Has been for awhile now. Watching him play Thiem the other night you could see the point where he went off the rails. It's not that he lost interest he lost focus and couldn't get it back. Racquet tosses, emotional displays, none of that helped. Thiem just had to continue to play steadily and he did, winning a match that should've been a firecracker and instead was predictable after Dimitrov lost his way.

For Thiem the final was more of the same. TA has invested a lot of time and money into Bernard Tomic and his fmily. I was watching TennisTV and one of the comms, an Aussie, was trying to flog Tomic's incipient superstardom. I can't tell you how many times he repeated that Tomic got off to a slow start against Alexandr Dolgopolov in the previous round and went on to win. I'm sure it was obvious to him, and to anyone watching, that Tomic didn't give a damn about the match. Thiem would've won in straight sets except that Tomic realized he had to do something to keep TA off his ass so he pulled himself togther enough to win the second set. By the end of the match I'm surprised he wasn't openly yawnig while hitting returns and glancing towards the parking lot to make sure his wheels were there waiting.

The ATP is going in on promoting the generation born in the '90's and is constantly releasing stats about them. The latest is focused on who has won the most titles.

@ATPWorldTour title leaders born in 1990s:

Milos Raonic 8
Dominic Thiem 5
Grigor Dimitrov 4
Bernard Tomic 3
David Goffin 2

None have won a Slam.

The WTA 1990's babies feature a Slam winner in Petra Kvitova who is showing that being thin doesn't mean that you are fit.
The other 90's babies?

Caroline Wozniacki 23 WTA Level Titles
Petra Kvitová 17 WTA Level Titles
Simona Halep 11 WTA Level Titles
Karolina Pliskova 4 WTA Level Titles
Garbine Muguruza (She did reach a GS Final) 2 WTA Level Titles
Belinda Bencic 2 WTA Level Titles
Jelena Ostapenko 7 ITF Level Titles

I know I'm leaving people out. Both Wozniacki and Kvitova were born in 1990 by the way.

I admit it. I've been spoiled. The last few years have been great tennis wise. Civility, feigned or otherwise, became the norm. The generation of cussers, racquet breakers and pary goers was succeeded by players focused on fitness, mental strength and respect for the sport on and off court. Heaven knows what we're getting now. We're going to have to get used to mediocre, overly emotional, brainless tennis on court and frat boys and brats off court. What a big comedown it's going to be.

© Savannah's World All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 22, 2016

Marketability and Tennis

by Savannah

An interesting interview with Marin Čilić's agent Vincent Stavaux by @franckramella of L'Équipe appeared over the weekend. In it he addressed the issue of his client's lack of popularity in what passes for tennis media and why companies like Nike haven't pursued him. Thanks to @markalannixon for the translation.

Tell us why we should like Marin Čilić?

"People need to find out who he really is. He's atypical on the tour. His natural kindness, not false, his amenability, his availability are to me exceptional. Everyone says: "Yes, but he lacks charisma and that sort of thing", but as soon as they meet him, they change their minds about him. We had a meeting here (in Marseille) with seniors, they were astonished by his kindness. He spoke to them in French, they were touched. And every tournament director will tell you: "Marin Čilić is special because everything he does he does with a smile." He's available when that's not always the case. He plays the game and never shows up just for the appearance money. In Rotterdam, he asked me Saturday morning, because he lacked a bit of confidence: "You believe in going to Marseille? I don't want to go there if I won't do well." I swear he said that!"

But he's not mentioned much - not by the media either -, while attention is paid more easily to the more extroverted ones ...

"To me, that's an excellent societal question. Everyone screams about and spits on the paparazzi and the sensationalist tabloids, but they have readers. It's a bit the same here. I have trouble understanding that, in relation to Marin, people prefer watching Kyrgios who throws his racquet and spits, though I have nothing against him. But hearing that sort of thing is problematic. Because what? For tennis to be fun you have to insult the umpires? Shout "fuck" everywhere? Watching a Roger at the top of his art entertaining the crowd, that's tennis to me. Not smashing racquets or whatever .. That's hypocritical."

Do you think we push too much for excess while constantly complaining that the sport is too policed?

"Stop! If people don't want to watch that sort of tennis, they can watch another sport. I'm against all rules that that make the game colourless under the pretext of making it more pleasant for the majority of people."

How do you fight for Čilić's existence in that world?

"What's a shame is that sponsor brands look strongly for that. Either you're right at the top or you're outrageous. But if you're in the category of player like Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer or Marin Čilić, you're nothing.Every time. They hide behind excuses like: "He's from Croatia, it's not a market." It's a very small argument."

Go ahead. We're giving you the chance to sell us Čilić ...

"His generosity. I think Marin Čilić is Pat Rafter's successor in the sense that he does a lot of things for a lot of people. He helps without talking about it. I was astonished when I found out years after that Rafter had built a hospital from the ground up with his own money. Marin gets involved, gives quite a lot to foundations. If people only knew what a big heart he has ..."

The thing is many of the players, male and female, coming up are in the category of Tomáš Berdych, David Ferrer and Marin Čilić. The problem is tennis has never been good at marketing players like them and worse at marketing players from Eastern Europe.

Players from Eastern Europe who play for Western European countries like Belinda Bencic and before her Martina Hingisová Molitor who played as Martina Hingis do get/got the full star treatment. Angelique Kerber is Polish but plays for Germany. And there's Simona Halep of Romania. None of them, not one, can headline an event. None of them have that "thing" that draws people to them.

It's the same on the men's side. The top male player, despite all of the effort his people put into promoting him, is not as charismatic as the two men who despite their current woes are still the biggest stars in the sport. And he doesn't wear Nike either. Let's look past him at the up and comers. Alexander Zverev is of Russian descent but both he and his brother who plays as Mischa Zverev play for Germany. Borna Ćorić of Croatia has the good looks that could get him places à la Marat Safin but none of them have the star power to draw casual fans to the sport. Čilić is a very handsome man but as his agent opines he comes from an area of the world that is not considered "a market". The same thing is said of Tomáš Berdych.

Since Čilić brought up David Ferrer I'll mention him briefly. People rant and rave about Feliciano López but in person Ferrer is the much better looking man. Still, neither one of them wear Nike or Adidas, the top brands in sports.

And yes there is Maria Sharapova who, to put it mildly does get a lot of publicity. The WTA has a type and she is still it. Did she get the push because she is based in the States while players like Maria Kirilenko, Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva were unknown outside the world of tennis fanatics?

So what is going on? Why are players who have been consistently top ten so hard to market? Why is there such a push for players like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic but not for men and women, with few exceptions, out of Eastern Europe? Is it language? Is it that many of the Eastern European countries are poor? When the duopoly is gone who will replace them in terms of marketing? I have no answer and from the interview posted above agents are hitting a brick wall with the big ad agencies and clothing purveyors. If a marketing strategy can't be created now what is going to happen in the next two or three years? Who will be the standard bearers for a sport that will be dominated by players from countries that are not "markets"?

If tennis doesn't want to fade in the minds of sports fans a solution to the marketing problem will have to be found.

© SavannahsWorld 2016 All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ennui and Ego Do Not Champions Make

by Savannah

Where to start?

Let's look at the top eight seeds at the WTA tournament in Dubai.

After Serena's official withdrawal from the event (that's part of the story by the way)the seeds were as follows:

1. Simona Halep
2. Garbiñe Muguruza
3. Carla Suárez Navarro
4. Petra Kvitova
5. Belinda Bencic
6. Karolina Pliskova
7. Roberta Vinci
8. Svetlana Kuznetsova

Second round play ended a few minutes ago. The highest ranked player left is Ana Ivanovic who is currently ranked #20 in the world.

It's easy to say that the appearance fees paid to show up and play in Dubai are staggering. I'm sure they are. There's also Doha next week, a slightly higher ranked tournament at the P5 level where many of the players are schedule to play next week. World #1 Serena Williams will not play there either due to flu like illness. If she's got the version that leads to bronchitis she's really sick. It takes a lot of time to get over it. With Serena out of two high profile tournaments this week and next could have provided the stage for the top women to show their stuff, to prove that there is depth in the WTA and not mental weakness. Sadly, the matches I saw today did nothing to show that there is depth. Garbiñe Muguruza ended her day with a total of 68 unforced errors, 40 in the first set. An error prone Petra Kvitova threw in a multitude of errors and lost to Madison Brengle 6-0, 6-7(1), 3-6. Simona Halep was defeated by Ana Ivanovic and she didn't look as if she could be arsed to play her match today. Petra Kvitova is a two time Wimbledon Champion. Simona Halep has played her way to the number three ranking. Muguruza is on many lists as the one who will be the next dominant #1 in the world.

Muguruza has played listless tennis the last two times I've seen her. During a coaching break the top tier coach she hired, Sam Sumyk, gave her specific, and very good ways to counter what her opponent Elina Svitolina (now coached by Justine Henin) was doing to her. More off speed shots, more variety. Don't come out swinging for every shot. Muguruza looked bored with his instructions and started the second set doing exactly what her coach had just told her not to. During his second visit where he gave her another dose of specific instructions she looked like she was more interested in digging wax out of her ears. She lost a miserable, late night match to a player one tennis head described and "basic and nothing special".

Petra Kvitova, coachless since the beginning of the year, started off on fire taking the first set 6-0 vs Brengle, a journeywoman who has had some decent results lately but who was widely expected to submit quietly to Kvitova especially after that first set. But it was Brengle who signed the camera at the end of the match and Kvitova who walked off looking as if she was trying to figure out what had just happened.

Simona Halep looked as if she had no idea what she was supposed to do. And yes that's a knock on Darren Cahill, one of the most highly respected coaches of the current crop of people coaching top ranked players. He was part of the Adidas consortium of coaches and was talked about as a super coach but none of the players who worked with that group did very well.

Bençiç has played a lot of tennis in the last few weeks and has broken into the top ten but has already been declared a "legend" by some commentators at the age of 18 with no major wins. Sveta is Sveta. Vinci has played a lot recently too as she tries to break into the top ten late in her career. Pliskova has played a lot recently too. I've gone into her technical issues before so I'll just add that she's played a lot recently.

So what am I saying when I called this post the "hunter vs the hunted". Not one of these women showed the competitive spark you'd expect to see from "legends" or double slam winners or "next best things". I saw tentative play, brain farts and bad technique. Are they saving it all for Doha and after that Indian Wells and Miami?

One of the reasons I wanted to nmake this post now is because that huge back to back is coming and these women are the future of the WTA. Serena is not going to play much this year outside of the Slams and big tournaments like IW and Miami. Even the haters are saying this is a wise course for her as she winds down her historic and precedent changing career. She's been the big dog for a number of years now. This is the time for the puppies to show they can go balls to the wall and not only ball bash but think and play lower ranked players off the court. None of the pretenders has earned the right to show up at a tournament, bank the appearance fee, and walk. Kvitova maybe with her two Slam wins but she's never shown any consistency away from SW19. Is she a great? No. The word "potential" should still be used when discussing her. Halep seems to be afraid to step out into the wider world. She can be intimidated on court and has been. She's also afraid of the net.

Muguruza is a curious case. When she dumped the coach she'd been with for a long time he intimated that she had changed, the implication being that she considered herself among the elite and that she needed a big time coach. Her blatant disrespect for her coach today was shocking. Most players spend coaching time hydrating or adjusting their gear but it's clear that they're listening. Muguruza was obviously not listening and her play showed she wasn't. Svitolina may be nothing special but she wanted the win and she got it.

I've said since last year the level of tennis starting in 2017 was going to be much lower than we've been used to of late. If this is what we're going to see, ennui and ego, then the WTA, already considered the weaker tour by some, is in for a bad time. The ATP isn't really in much better shape but at least their matches the last two weeks have been competitive and interesting. Young players like Alexander Zverev, Taylor Fritz, Borna Çoriç and Chung Hyeon have been working on their games and are showing progress towards the top of their sport. What I'm seeing from the WTA is disheartening. I'm thinking we'll see players like Agniezska Radwanska, and a suddenly injury free Maria Sharapova fighting to hold onto the top ranking in women's tennis. Hell, even Angelique Kerber could be in the running no? She's alread ranked number two.

It's easier being the hunter than the hunted, a wise woman named Marion Bartoli said awhile back. Self induced ennui and a huge sense of self does not mean that your opponent is going to roll over and play dead. You've got to earn respect from your peers. So far very few seem to understand that.

© SavannahsWorld 2016 All rights reserved unless otherwise indicated

Monday, February 8, 2016

Is This The End?

by Savannah

There are those who have been railing against Fed Cup and Davis Cup. It's inconvenient. Players have to break their routines. It needs revamping for the modern tennis world. All of this can be argued yea or nay and has been. Change would take a year or two to implement and while a lot of lip service has been given to "change" but as with anything else in tennis movement will come at a glacial pace.

That said I think it's valid to say that in 2016 Fed Cup was irrevocably, perhaps fatally broken. It was broken by the antics - there is no other way to describe what happened - of one country, one that has a great history in women's tennis and now seems to have become something else, something not good for the sport of tennis specifically women's tennis.

It started in Melbourne Australia when Maria Sharapova announced that she would travel to the venue but had no intention of playing due to her latest mystery injury. The head of the Russian Tennis Federation returned fire saying if you don't play you don't go to the Olympics. Standoff? A duel at noon seemed to be imminent when Sharapova was penciled in to play doubles with up and comer Daria Kasatkina. With a lineup that included players ranked in the top 30 - Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova - it was a given that the Russians would romp against the lowly Netherlands in straight rubbers. A funny thing happened on the way to that romp though. Both Makarova and Kuznetsova lost, Sveta after playing a grueling four hour match. Speculation ran wild. Who would Anastasia Myskina play in order to give her country a chance to win the tie? In the midst of the speculation talk was that Sharapova had not brought any racquets with her and so she could not play. Add to that her mouthpiece/agent Max Eisenbud went on one of his anti Serena Williams rants and included the news that his client would no longer play Fed Cup, that this was her last appearance. My reaction was a huge so what? His client knows that she can't beat Serena and was almost in tears during their match in Melbourne. 2020 is four years away. His client will be 29 this year and 33 in 2020. With all of her ailments it's hard to see her playing much longer. (Of course if Serena retires this year we'll see a rejuvenated, injury free Sharapova working hard to try and win more titles and Slams but I digress).

Imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to find that Myskina played Svetlana Kuznetsova? I was not surprised that she lost. I was also convinced by that move that Myskina had no intention of winning the tie, that in the end Sharapova got her demands met - she only had to be present to make the Olympics - and that Russia thought so little of Fed Cup that it seems to have deliberately tanked a tie.

via Reutes photo 7312c48d-1520-42e0-942f-4067a71f88ae_zpsqxfakmo1.jpg
Kiki Bertens via FedCup

I'm not angry. I'm disappointed. I don't know much about what goes on in Russian tennis. I only know what I read by those who read and speak the language and are better equipped to comment on what goes on in that country. The women from The Netherlands played their hearts out and their joy comes through in the still photographs I've seen. What a shame that the team they played rolled over and played dead for all intents and purposes. The Netherlands team will face France next. I wish them well.

© SavannahsWorld 2016 All Rights Reserved unless otherwise indicated