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Wimbledon semis prove strength of WTA

Radwanska Wimbledon  Pete Edgeler, flickr

Wimbledon boasts two stellar semi-final matches in the women’s draw this summer despite the lack of apparent ‘big’ names Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

The big three all fell before the quarters even though they were tipped for major success this July and have been replaced by lesser-known yet by no means less deserving talent. Their absence should not take away the magnificent achievement of these four semi finalists, all of who are big players in the WTA but sadly lack the profile their Grand Slam competitors receive.

Agnieszka Radwanska is up against Sabine Lisicki on Thursday while Marion Bartoli makes the Wimbledon last four for a second time against Kirsten Flipkens, who has impressed the most this fortnight.

It has been voiced on forums and social networks that a lack of the big three has taken away some gloss in the women’s draw. Just like the men’s side, where Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer fell early, armchair fans voiced their displeasure of seeing the top seeds crash out so soon.

Unfortunately, this view is never going to leave tennis as fans forget it’s a sport you win on merit and instead expect the players they’ve actually heard of to progress to the finals stages. Often lower seeds are disregarded as underserving opponents and when they win it’s the ranking system to blame.

Not so. The rankings are rarely a true reflection of who is going to beat who as they are taken from results spread over such a long period of time. Different surfaces also produce different champions, which is maybe why Radwanska gets further at Wimbledon than any other slam.

Unknown profiles

Lisicki is a great example of a player who deserves more profile in the women’s game but barely receives it. Her victory over Serena Williams was a shock but we shouldn’t be surprised to see this 23rd-seed in the semis. Lisicki made the Wimbledon quarters last year before falling to Angelique Kerber and the semis in 2011. She is a grass expert and certain to reach a Wimbledon final one day – maybe even this year.

Don’t let Lisicki’s seed, or indeed Bartoli’s or Flipkens’ at that matter, fool you; she is far better than 23rd in the world on this surface. In 2012 she was 15th seed and on the up but slumped after the grass season and suffered disappointing first-round defeats at the US Open, Linz and Luxembourg.

Lisicki should get more recognition Photo:  Carine06, flickr

Lisicki should get more recognition
Photo: Carine06, flickr

The same can be said of Bartoli, who has struggled this season yet always poses a threat on her side of the draw, and Radwanska, who either performs or flops in tournaments.

The lesser talents on the WTA don’t get the credit they deserve and that’s mainly because the broad sporting media – via whom we fans get all our news – focus on the big three. Occasionally they’ll do a feature on Petra Kvitova or interview Caroline Wozniacki but bar Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka the representation of women’s tennis in our newspapers outside a Grand Slam is staggeringly bare.

Granted, the big three deserve as much attention as they can get. Tennis is a short career and you’ve got to make the most of it. Li Na rivals this trio as her 2011 French Open victory saw her become a household name in China overnight, but these sorts of successes are few and far between.

A lot of the big three’s success is down to their off-court presence as well as sporting prowess. Because the lower ranks go about as near unknowns, they’re not signed to huge sponsorship deals and the media don’t pry into their private lives.

The women suffer from bad media representation

On the first Monday of these Championships the British newspapers all led with a women’s tennis story about the relationship between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. One had said something about the other’s boyfriend; the other replied frostily and the media staged their verbal showdown. There were double-page spreads on this chitter chatter and only by the close of each article was tennis actually discussed – “oh, by the way, they’re playing some sport this week.”

The top players – Serena, Sharapova and increasingly Azarenka – court far too much attention that goes way beyond their talent. Is it really in the interests of the sport that we know Sharapova is dating (I hate that word) Grigor Dimitrov from the men’s tour? How disappointing is it that Azarenka is known as much for her Australian Open victories as her relationship with LMFAO’s Redfoo.

Li is huge in China but hardly a household name elsewhere Photo: Christopher Johnson, flickr

Li is huge in China but hardly a household name elsewhere
Photo: Christopher Johnson, flickr

Yes, these controversial players are great for the profile of the game as they raise the bar and prove just how sporting and commercially successful female athletes can be, yet that attention has come at the sacrifice of the rest.

Most armchair fans would struggle to name 10 players on the WTA circuit without asking “is Kim Clijsters still around?” I’d be one of them two years ago – not because I didn’t choose to follow the women’s game but, when I did and do read something about female players, the media focus on off-court stories instead of what’s happening on it.

This Wimbledon has given those players who advance in tournaments but rarely earn the major victories a chance to prove themselves to an otherwise ignorant public and media. It’s not even our fault; few of us would be able to name the England women’s football XI and that’s partially down to a lack of representation.

When the Wimbledon circus leaves us for another year two of this quartet will be forgotten almost instantly. Can anyone remember who played who in the semis last season? It’s all good and well the media focussing on tennis for this two-week period but if the women’s game is ever to earn the profile it deserves we need column inches dedicated to the sport every week.

If you hear anyone moan about the standard of Wimbledon this year just show them a replay of Radwanska v Li from Monday afternoon. Their chess-like quarterfinal was exactly the sort of on-court quality you can expect on the WTA but rarely do we hear of it when the Serena, Azarenka or Sharapova parades march into town.

Photo:  Pete Edgeler, flickr

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Patronising BBC relegates Date-Krumm talent

Date-Krumm,  y.caradec flickr

The BBC did women’s tennis no good at all on Saturday night after match commentators Barry Davies and Sam Smith patronised 42-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm repeatedly during her third-round clash with Serena Williams.

Date-Krumm was never realistically going to win the clash and fell to a predictable 6-2 6-0 defeat but that didn’t stop the BBC mooning over her with sickening adoration as though surprised she’d made it this far without breaking a hip.

Their main focus was less on her tennis but instead how a professional sportswoman could compete with the might of Serena. There are apparently two types of tennis in the women’s game: one you play against the rest of the field and the other you play against the American – the latter impossible to uphold over three sets. Yet tell that to Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens who have both scalped Serena this year.

Even before the players had entered Centre Court the denigrating parade was marching in full voice and splendour, with a little montage from the BBC about how this ‘veteran’ had seen it all in the women’s game but just refused to give up on her dream.

Steffi Graf was mentioned five or six times because Date-Krumm had once – presumably when television was in black and white – faced the 22-Slam champ in a Wimbledon semi and almost beaten her.

There was never going to be any sort of competition against Serena but for the BBC to so openly admit that by instead focussing on her age, the erroneous fact she once ran a marathon and speculating whether she has a teapot in her kit bag is just appalling – is there anything this woman cannot do?

A delightful tale about how she met her husband and fell romantically in love – getting married at St Mary’s Church in Tokyo, if you’re interested – filled a space between the change of ends. How sweet and charming and absolutely irrelevant to the scenes on court.

After a particularly inspiring rally where the Japanese player earned a point off the world number one, Smith confirmed “it’s not normal to play like this at 42.” Well, clearly it is normal if you’re a professional athlete who has already come through two rounds of a Grand Slam to play tennis to a half respectable level.

Let’s talk about bagels

Yet the worst was saved until last as the BBC commentators picked up on the term ‘bagel’. A bagel is when a player loses without winning a single game, something Date-Krumm avoided. So why did the commentators go on about it? If Petr Cech concedes a goal you don’t mention the possibility of a clean sheet, nor do you express hope of a hat trick when James Anderson takes a wicket.

If the bagel reference wasn’t bad enough then the discussion over whether or not this match would last even an hour was. I assume a 42-year-old cannot play past 60 minutes the way the commentators pointed to the clock and the BBC did itself more damage by focussing in on the scoreboard when the match ticked past an hour – how impressive such a poor woman managed to survive this long!

The TV director will have given that order to show the clock, meaning it wasn’t just the commentators who steered the patronising parade.

You forgot about the first round!

Through all the mock humour over Date-Krumm’s age and fitness, her inability to match the world number one and how great it is just to see her smiling on court, the BBC forgot to mention she’d actually won her first-round match 6-0 6-2 against qualifier Carina Witthoft in 44 minutes.

Clearly Date-Krumm isn’t such a no-hoper after all but let’s forget about that… oh, look at her smile! She’s so happy just to be at Wimbledon for a 12th time in her career… aww.

Lack of analysis

The most frustrating thing of all is that neither commentator particularly discussed Date-Krumm’s tennis and instead just goggled at her when a point was won and consoled her when Serena got the upper hand. Compare this to Laura Robson’s performance earlier in the day where the BBC’s commentators discussed how she must up her game to beat Marina Erakovic, get her feet working at the back of the court and come forward more on serves.

Where was the advice during this match? It was nowhere, for there’s surely nothing a 42-year-old could do to beat Serena.

Social network response

Twitter had its fair share of disappointed viewers too. Granted, many tweets expressed admiration that Date-Krumm is still playing at this age and, indeed, it is impressive. But appraisal should only go that far and not descend into denigrating the player purely because she’s older than her competitors. Smith took the brunt of the criticism on the social networking site but Davies didn’t escape blame either.

Serena deserved her victory Photo:  left-hand, flickr

Serena deserved her victory
Photo: left-hand, flickr

So what does this say about tennis, and women’s tennis in particular? We know Serena – a player we’ll never see the likes of again – skewers the WTA because of her sheer brilliance on court but that doesn’t mean the rest of the field is second-rate.

It’s bad for the game if a national broadcaster so timidly accepts a televised match is a foregone conclusion and even worse if they then focus on the loser’s other qualities, like being able to stand up and showing she can still enjoy herself after all those years.

At the end there was a standing ovation but for what? Date-Krumm was rubbish and lucky enough to earn those two games during the first set. If you’re good enough to compete then it doesn’t matter how old you are and Date-Krumm lost not because of creaky joints or a lack of green tea (thanks Barry) but because she wasn’t as good as her opponent.

Date-Krumm made the quarters at Wimbledon in 1995 and the semis a year later, retiring from the sport for over a decade. Upon her return at 37 she was a different player yet won the Seoul title in 2009 and was 2010 runner-up in Osaka.

She also made the third round of the Australian Open this year and, to my knowledge, does not own the Zimmer frame Sam Smith could be mistaken for suggesting she does.

Photo:  y.caradec, flickr

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Robson proves she can advance to Wimbledon quarters

Laura Robson  Carine06 flickr

Laura Robson must quickly recover from her scrappy victory over Marina Erakovic and prepare for a gruelling fourth-round encounter with Kaia Kanepi this Monday, a match that will define her success at this year’s Wimbledon Championships.

The British number one came through Saturday’s clash 1-6 7-5 6-3 but her performance was far from what the Court Two crowd expected from this promising 19-year-old. Having performed a masterclass of tennis just a day before the fans expected Robson to power through an opponent ranked 33 places lower than the world number 38 but early proceedings suggested this wouldn’t be the case.

Robson lost the first three games and was easily broken twice in the opening set as the Wimbledon home crowd’s expectations got to her. Her footwork on the baseline was off and she failed to make those powerful backhands that proved so significant during her routine victory over Mariana Duque the previous round.

Robson looked like a rabbit in the headlights and only after a sit down and introspective critique of her own game did she come out of her shell and prove just what potential she has to impress on the WTA. A close second set saw the Brit find her serving mojo and by the third there was only one player in it.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Robson has struggled with third-set confidence over the past two months but there was no lacking here as she thumped her opponent around the court, using that springing muscle in her backhand to carve open Erakovic.

Disappointing first-set stats

Disappointing first-set stats

Now into the last 16, the left-hander faces her toughest challenge yet in Kaia Kanepi, the Estonia world number 46 who breezed through the third round with an untroubled straight-sets victory against wildcard Alison Riske.

The last-16 tie is set to dominate Wimbledon’s headlines on Monday as British support gets behind their last remaining women’s star. Robson has the ability to overcome Kanepi with ease but how she handles the pressure will again come under scrutiny. The difference may even fall to who serves first in the match, for Robson struggled to recover in the opening set after going a game down so easily to the imposing Erakovic and only began her comeback when back level in the second.

She proved her mettle in the third set and that pressure visibly lifted. Her head was up and shoulders back that gave her the imposing, confident posture to reverse her fortunes. This was missing at Roland Garros and previous spring tournaments but that glimmer of class should see her through to the last eight.

Although hopes are high for Robson’s further advance, the quarters are as far as anyone can expect her to go, for Serena Williams lurks in the top side of the draw and is deserved favourite to win Wimbledon for a sixth time. Robson has the power to match Serena for about three shots a rally but her arm just isn’t developed enough to handle the 31-year-old’s punch.

Make no mistake, a Robson v Serena clash on Centre Court would be fitting for a tournament that has already seen major upsets this summer but we should not ask too much of a player so new to the Grand Slam game.

Photo: Carine06, flickr

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The outer-court Wimbledon experience

Konta Wimbledon 2013

Monday was the second time I’ve ever been to Wimbledon and it turned out to be a far more rewarding experience than the first.

Last year I arrived at 7am to the queue outside the Wimbledon grounds, didn’t bring enough reading material and got badly sunburnt. When finally in at 11:30 I managed to sneak onto one of the side courts and watch a women’s match.

Klara Zakopalova upset 13th seed Dominika Cibulkova 6-4 6-1 in my first real-life Wimbledon tennis match. Simply hearing the aggression on court, Cibulkova’s shouting at her own coach (sat just behind me) and the grace of underdog Zakopalova in victory was reward enough for the long queue.

Yet I didn’t really feel connected with the match as I barely knew either player well enough to back them. I was an indifferent admirer and watched simply for the tennis.

This year was different. I managed to secure a seat on number 12 court for Jelana Jankovic against home favourite Johanna Konta. The match was a dead rubber after 16th seed Jankovic pulled away in the first set and although Konta offered resistance in the second there was only going to be one winner.

Jankovic en route to rouns two

Jankovic en route to rouns two

The Serb ran out 6-2 7-5 victor and deserved her passage into the second round. What was interesting, however, was the clear vacant detachment between the fans and the match. I sat there in bewilderment as the crowd sat there watching tennis with no real care who won, despite Konta representing the UK. Of course the crowd cheered louder when Konta won a point but there was never any sense of loss or dejection as Jankovic powered through.

There was as much indifference in the stands as the Cibulkova-Zakopalova clash last year and this is where Wimbledon – and maybe tennis in general – has a problem.

Everyone knows the top players in the WTA and ATP and most fans support one over the rest. The media follow Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic like hawks and their opponents are often discarded as forgettable obstacles in the path of these great players. Even when you’re watching a homegrown talent like Konta it appears no one cares whether she wins or loses.

Maybe that’s why disillusioned fans and pundits criticise the pay rises lower-ranked players now receive to contest the early rounds. It’s not their fault no one watches them – and even when people do there seems to be little care in the stands over the eventual result.

Average fans don’t care about players outside the top ranks, which makes matches on the Wimbledon outer courts such fleeting events so easily forgotten. As it happens, I managed to sneak onto Number One Court and watch Rafael Nadal crash out to Steve Darcis. It was an incredible match and the quality on show far outstretched the previous men’s game I glimpsed on my way round – Matosevic v Rufin.

Darcis v Nadal on Court One

Darcis v Nadal on Court One

I’m sad to admit it but I’ll certainly remember the Nadal clash over Konta’s, and as for Matosevic the only reason I’ll remember him is because he swore at us after netting another forehand.

Tennis needs revamping throughout the hierarchy so that fans genuinely give a damn about the lower seeds in rounds one and two. Only then can the atmosphere of Centre Court and Court One filter into the rest of Wimbledon, which can be a pretty quiet place when ‘big names’ aren’t on show.

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AEGON International preview

AEGON International

Wimbledon is just a week away and for many in the WTA the AEGON International at Eastbourne is the last chance to get some game time before Grand Slam tennis begins.

The top seeds have all come through difficult clay seasons and now it’s time to concentrate on grass. While Roland Garros finalists Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova take an extended break from their efforts in Paris, five of the WTA top 10 are in town ready for the Wimbledon precursor.

First seed Agnieszka Radwanska deserves her favourite tag but will come up against a tough Li Na if the pair reach the final. Radwanska has had a difficult time on clay and is far more adept to grass; she was unlucky to have drawn clay specialist Sara Errani in the fourth round at the French Open but last year’s Wimbledon finalist will have her heart set on singles glory this July.

A victory at Eastbourne would greatly boost Radwanska’s chances in SW19, something that can also be said of Li. The Chinese world number six has also had an uneasy few months but did make the Stuttgart final in April. Since then, however, early defeats in Madrid and Rome made her an unlikely prospect in Paris and she failed to perform, crashing out in round two to the USA’s Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

If neither top seeds make the most of their tournament then Petra Kvitova – Wimbledon champion in 2011 – is a great shout to win Eastbourne. The Czech has an easy route to the quarters – where she’ll face either Maria Kirilenko or the in-form Bojana Jovanovski – and should beat assumed semi-finalist Anna Ivanovic.

Ivanovic at Eastbourne Photo: jamesboyes, flickr

Ivanovic at Eastbourne
Photo: jamesboyes, flickr

As for the fellow high seeds – Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki – neither carry any sort of form that suggests they’ll turn heads next week. Kerber is much better on clay than grass and didn’t perform on the red surface this spring, while Wozniacki is in terrible form and is a good punt to crash early against Austria’s Tamira Paszek.

While Kvitova looks good for the title this summer Britain’s four hopefuls are unlikely to shine. Elena Baltacha is out of form and condition, losing in the first round at Nottingham this week, while Johanna Konta shouldn’t be much of a threat for Taiwan’s impressive Hsieh Su-wei.

Both Laura Robson and Heather Watson boast the potential to win this tournament but they’ve stuttered in 2013 and neither are ready to challenge for titles this season. The pair meekly dropped out in round one of Nottingham and Watson may suffer the same ignominy against Varvara Lepchenko on Monday.

Watch the AEGON International on Eurosport and the BBC next week, although the former do a lot more for women’s tennis throughout the year so that’s where I’ll be watching.

Head photo: bertiebassett25, flickr

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Serena Williams eases to Charleston title

Serena Charleston

Serena Williams won her third title of the season on Sunday after surviving a first-set scare to beat Jelena Jankovic 3-6 6-0 6-2 at the Family Circle Cup final in Charleston.

The victory puts Serena in good stead heading into the clay season, where she faces a tough few weeks in Monte Carlo and Madrid before heading into the summer’s first grand slam at Roland Garros.

Not that Serena had it all her own way under the North Carolina sunshine; Jankovic served with supreme accuracy to boss Serena in the opening set but couldn’t continue her momentum into the second, collapsing to the American’s power to lose six straight games.

Jankovic on serve

Jankovic on serve

The 2012 defending champion wowed the crowd with some impressive base-line rallies and was quick to pounce on Jankovic’s serves, especially in a match-turning second set.

Serena remained calm and collective into the third, broke twice and served out for the match in style with a strong serve-volley.

It was the third time the 31-year-old has won the Charleston title and her first clay title of the season. What was most impressive was not only her fitness – that has put her in good stead all week – but the fact she used the home crowd to her advantage with some fairly vocal performances after nailing crucial points.

The combination of power and momentum eventually did it for Serena – who beat her sister Venus 6-1 6-2 in the semis to reach her fourth final on the Charleston clay.

Match Summary:

Charleston 2013 final serena

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Serena v Venus – Williams rivalry returns at Charleston

Serena 1

American tennis fans are in for a real treat on Saturday afternoon as Serena Williams takes on bigger sister Venus for the first time in four years.

The siblings will clash in the 2013 Family Circle Cup in Charleston this weekend with a place in Sunday’s final at stake.

Serena is clear favourite after winning the Miami Masters just last week and has looked comfortable on the Charleston clay. On her first clay event of the season, the world number one hasn’t dropped a set and has reeled away in the last set in each of her three matches.

That sort of fitness and confidence should prove the difference against Venus, who has been pushed to three sets twice already this week. A 6-4 6-4 victory over Madison Keys will give her confidence but without a win over her sister in their last four meetings the ball is very much in Serena’s court.

Only once have the sisters met on clay – at the 2002 French Open – and Serena took the match 7-5 6-3. Expect her to do the same again without the aid of a tiebreak.

Photo: Jet Magbanua, flickr

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