Archive for June, 2009

Stanislas Wawrinka: Flying Under The Radar At Wimbledon And Elsewhere

June 29, 2009

Stanislas Wawrinka is the second most famous Swiss player and well used to being kept in the tennis shadows.  The experience of flying under the Swiss and international tennis radar due to Roger Federer’s huge success means that he has been able to work diligently on his game and work his way into the top ten (he was ranked No.9 in June 2008).  

He admits that playing Andy Murray on Centre Court at Wimbledon, in front of a nigh-on jingoistic crowd, will be one of the biggest matches of his life. 

Yet it must be remembered that Wawrinka, ‘Stan the Man’, is not averse to pressure.  Who can forget his antics when collaborating with Federer during last year’s Olympics doubles tournament, conquering world-renowned doubles specialists Bob and Mike Bryan in the semifinals and triumphing in the final to win the Olympic Gold medal for Switzerland.  

Wawrinka was able to enter the tennis top ten last year after reaching the finals of the Masters 1000 Event in Rome, eventually loosing to Novak Djokovic; throughout the tournament he demonstrated considerable skill, technique and tenacity to win over the likes of Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and James Blake. 

He also beat Federer on clay earlier this year in Monte Carlo (before loosing again to Djokovic) showing that he is not afraid of counterpunching with the best players on tour.  

The 24-year-old Wawrinka from Lausanne is a softly spoken man, which only adds to his anonymity in tennis circles.  Despite this, he has reached the fourth round at Wmbledon for the second year in a row with a 5-7 7-5 6-3 6-3 victory over the American qualifier Jesse Levine. 

Currently the No. 19 seed and ranked 18 in the world, Wawrinka certainly merits his place among the elite.  He possesses one of the best backhands on tour, all of his groundstrokes are heavy and loaded with spin, but his favourite surface is clay, arguably the antithesis of the Centre Court grass at Wimbledon. 

No doubt the grass has slowed down in SW19 to rival clay court characteristics (has the baseline ever been so dusty so early in the tournament?), but he will be very much the underdog when he takes on the world No. 3 on Centre Court.

Murray and Wawrinka are good friends on the tour, but good feelings will be left in the lockeroom as Murray continues his quest to become the first male Wimbledon champion since Fred Perry in 1936.  Murray leads Wawrinka 4-3 in their head-to-head meetings, the most recent of which was at the US Open last August, a match Murray won in straight sets.

Aggressiveness, consistent serving, solid groundstrokes and an occasional venture to the net are the key tactics to assume in this match.  Whether Wawrinka can actually enact this, on the most famous and one of the largest courts in all of tennis while facing a popular, talented, and dangerous opponent, remains to be seen.

Privatising Universities: An Unattainable Dream Or Impending Reality?

June 20, 2009

Sir Roy Anderson, rector of Imperial College London, has recently stated that the elite universities in Britain should form a US-style Ivy league system and be able to charge much higher fees. 

Anderson believes that institutions including his own, as well as Cambridge and Oxford universities, should be freed from state control to allow them to charge students more than the current £3,140 capped fees and recruit greater numbers of international students to boost their income. 

According to him, elite universities are in danger of loosing their high national and international standing because of underfunding and a lack of government vision. 

The “top” universities – which would also include the London School of Economics and University College London – could be allowed to “float free” of government funding.  With university enrollment already a multi-billion pound industry for ‘UK plc’, privatised universities would give the potential to earn income for Britain while attempting to offer large bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds in order to maintain equal opportunities. 

Nevertheless it remains to be seen whether the government would agree to elite academic autonomy and such a ‘capitalist’ venture.  Equally critics argue that although the very poorest students may benefit from enhanced bursary or scholarship schemes, the ‘middle ground’ of society, in which the largest amount of elite universities’ current intake is contained, may loose out financially and academically as a consequence. 

Others complain that if universities were free to charge what they wanted, the economic value of a place at an elite university would considered more greatly than its academic integrity, quite possibly leading to a backward step for many middle-income household students. 

Privatising a university makes the institution dependant on a market that cannot always support it, exemplified by Harvard’s recent cuts in academic spending and bursary allowances due to the current economic climate.  It is contested that privatised education leads to the embellishment of class antagonisms and slowdown of social mobility, particularly in times of economic slowdown.

The government is due to launch a review of higher education funding by the end of the year that will consider whether to lift the cap on fees or more radically overhaul the funding system for students.

Roger Federer, Andy Murray And Other Contenders For Wimbledon 2009

June 19, 2009

Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis tournament of them all, begins next week with a new roof over Centre Court. But will new stars also rise to the occasion?  

It will be hard to top the culmination of last year’s tournament, with the drama and excitement of the five-hour, five-set marathon men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But are there potential surprises in store now that the draws and seedings are complete?

Of course, the most dramatic revelation is that in a 7 p.m. BST press conference at Wimbledon on Friday evening, Rafael Nadal took the decision to withdraw from Wimbledon due to tendinitis in his knees.  He will be unable to defend his Wimbledon title, the fourth champion to not defend his Wimbledon title after Don Budge, Fred Perry and Goran Ivanisevic.  

Now, Juan Martin Del Potro, the No. 5 seed, will take Nadal’s position in the draw, meaning that he will be the highest seed that Britain’s Andy Murray could possibly face before the final. 

On paper, Murray is tough to beat. But how will he react on the second Sunday, especially if Roger Federer stands across the net?

Nevertheless, does Nadal’s early exit raise Murray’s chances of being the first British men’s Wimbledon champion since Fred Perry in 1936?  Certainly. Yet in reality, this news opens up the tournament for everyone on both sides of the draw. 

Indeed, Murray has plenty of other hazardous opponents in his half. Andy Roddick is placed in his section; Nikolay Davydenko, Lleyton Hewitt and potential giant killers, Ernests Gulbis and Jeremy Chardy, are also looming. The talented likes of Stanislas Wawrinka and Marat Safin are also in this side of the draw. Can the latter further bury his feelings that ‘grass is for cows’ and repeat his excellent run of last year, where he reached the semifinals?

Andy Roddick always performs well on grass with his booming serve, especially at Wimbledon where he has reached the final twice (in 2004 and 2005, where he lost both times to Roger Federer). He injured his ankle last week at Queen’s Club in the semifinals of the Aegon Championships, a warm-up tournament for Wimbledon, but it seems that the injury is not severe. 

Roddick is having one of his best seasons for many years—with a new coach, Larry Stefanki, and new bride—Brooklyn Decker—supporting him, so hopes are high. The fact that he is in Murray’s half, far away from the Federer foe, is another possible mental advantage for him. Expect big things from the consistent American this fortnight.  

Roger Federer is clearly the big favourite to reach the latter stages of the tournament in the other half of the draw, but it must not be forgotten that he has not played a warm-up tournament and could still be emotionally drained from his French Open title. 

If his opponents in the first few rounds come out all guns blazing, there could be small opportunities for an upset, especially if Federer plays as listlessly as he appeared in several rounds of the French Open, where he clearly felt the pressure of his chance to complete a career grand slam. Will he be locked in, or distracted by, the intoxicating combination of his Paris breakthrough and Nadal’s early exit?

A sixth Wimbledon title is no doubt possible—Federer adores Centre Court and the grass of Wimbledon—and Nadal notwithstanding, no player has been able to touch him on this unique surface for seven years.  Could this be the tournament where Federer could break Pete Sampras’ all-time Grand Slam titles record of 14 Majors?  It would certainly be sweet to complete the accomplishment on the hallowed turf of Centre Court.

Novak Djokovic has many questions to answer over the next two weeks. After a dismal showing at Halle on grass, where he lost to 31-year-old wild card Tommy Haas in the final, not to mention a loss to Philip Kohlschreiber in the fourth round of the French Open, will he be able to find some consistent form once again? 

Additionally, there are some intriguing matchups in the first round that will whet all tennis fans’ appetites around the world. James Blake versus Fabrice Santoro could be a dangerous match for the American, with the aging magician still able to perform some mesmerizing tricks. Lleyton Hewitt versus Robby Ginepri could be a great showcase for thunderous shots and fiery attitudes. Sam Querrey versus Ivan Ljubicic will be full of thunderous serves and probably few service breaks. 

Will Robin Soderling be able to capitalise on his French Open success by prevailing over Gilles Muller, another Major wild card (remember his exploits at last year’s US Open, where he was beaten in the quarterfinals by, you guessed it, Roger Federer)? 

Overall, it must be stressed that grass is unpredictable in that there are so few tournaments on the surface in the ATP Tour season—it is difficult to assess the quality of various players on this most unique of surfaces after usually only one small warm-up tournament, for example. 

The outcomes of potential matchups are hard to determine as grass is an unknown variable in proceedings.  Who, for example, would bet against the likes of Andy Roddick and Roger Federer—whereas the progress of Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is tough to call. 

Equally the sudden growth of young, up-and-coming talent in the past 12 months has been incredible, but we have yet to see whether Juan Martin Del Potro, for example, will conform to their Wimbledon seeding and reach the late stages of the tournament, adding yet another ingredient to the potent mixture.  

Who will be the sun be shining on—or alternatively, who will the new roof protect—at the end of the fortnight? Should we expect a true-to-seeding final, or a potential upset to rival that of the recent French Open?

(Published on Bleacher Report; June 19th, 2009)

Federer, Nadal And Healing The Wounds of Wimbledon 2008

June 17, 2009

Being ill can sometimes have some small advantages.  Yesterday I spent the afternoon in bed, totally engrossed in L. Jon Wertheim’s latest publication, ‘Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played’, a 300-page emotive, dramatic and detailed investigation of last year’s Wimbledon 2008 Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

With Wertheim, an esteemed and popular tennis journalist, being present at the epic final, only eight rows behind the court, he could fully translate the unique atmosphere in Centre Court to the pages of his book.

For many Federer fans, this book may seem anathema, a publication never to be bought, let alone opened; but being the sadist that I am, I insisted on purchasing the piece if only to marvel at Wertheim’s stunning descriptions and extensive knowledge.  Here is an author that truly knows his stuff—and appears to enjoy writing about the minutiae of the tennis world. 

Strangely, I managed to read—no, devour—the entire book in just a few hours.  Even the intense emotions that reverberated off the final pages of the book, which brilliantly echoed Federer’s despair and Nadal’s jubilation at the end of the final, failed to prohibit my snapping the book shut.

A million things flew through my head as I flew through the chapters that broke down the background of the match and each dramatic set.  Yes, reliving the events of the darkness of Sunday, July 6, 2008 was upsetting for me, a viewer who strongly desired Federer to win a sixth consecutive Wimbledon title.  However, almost one year on, am I, along with other Federer fans, really still hurting that badly? 

I began to ponder the events of the past few months.  Certainly there have been many peaks and troughs, ups and downs, in Federer’s performance, both before and after the crucial Wimbledon loss. 

Yet have the events at Roland Garros a few weeks ago—where Federer won the French Open, his 14th major, completing a career Grand Slam—affected Federer fans, Federer himself, if not the whole tennis world, so deeply and fundamentally that one is actually able to accept gargantuan defeats such as Wimbledon 2008 with a little more ease and fluidity?

Surely the recent news and events do help this feeling.  When Federer was defeated once again at the Australian Open at the beginning of February this year in a five-set final against Nadal, many believed it truly was the beginning of the end for Federer. 

The schism between Federer and Nadal fans deepened, the rivalry truly registering across global sports audiences.  The Wimbledon 2008 final, with its unparalleled location, length, and drama really penetrated the international consciousness, which only increased after Melbourne.

It seemed that Federer’s despair and desolation of 2008—the frightful combination of mononucleosis, the symbolic ‘turbo-zit’ (Wertheim’s phrase, not mine), the loss of his hegemonic No.1 position and Wimbledon—was set to continue for the foreseeable future of Federer’s tennis career. 

Federer’s crushing defeat at the French Open last year only exacerbated the opinion that his chances of winning majors, especially if facing Nadal in the final—and certainly achieving the career Grand Slam—was effectively zero.

Nevertheless, richly needed highs in the season came from Federer’s Olympic gold medal with Stanislas Wawrinka in doubles which propelled him to his triumph at the US Open in New York in September.

These victories notwithstanding, the consensus was that last year’s Wimbledon signalled the coronation of a new king and Federer was irreversibly damaged.

Yet by April 2009, a shift in the tennis sphere—barely perceptible but present nevertheless—began to manifest.  Federer’s private life became, by his own high standards, ‘practically perfect’, with a private marriage with his longtime sweetheart Mirka Vavrinec over the Easter weekend in his hometown of Basel and a baby on the way.

With Roger the person and all private matters running as smoothly as Swiss clockwork, Roger the tennis player seemed to settle down too. 

A great performance at the Rome Masters 1000 event was topped by a magnificent tournament and straight sets victory against Nadal in Madrid on clay.  Consequently hopes were indeed higher for Federer’s French Open prospects, yet nobody could bet against the king of clay ruling supreme in Paris once again. 

But then the shocks came.  Novak Djokovic defeated—then Nadal defeated at the French Open.  Federer hung in the tournament, feeling the mounting pressure, fighting with his heart and soul in order to create his dream against almost every opponent. 

This year, not even an intruder could stand in his way.  June 6, 2009, 11 months exactly from that fateful Wimbledon 2008 day—Roger Federer becomes the French Open champion.  The career Grand Slam, the 14th major. 

Suddenly, Federer has won two of the three Slam events since Wimbledon 2008, now with his first French. Nadal has won Olympic gold and another hardcourt slam in the Australian Open. This rivalry still lives and breathes.  Federer is still the great player he always was, seemingly only slightly affected by his Wimbledon loss. 

Of course, the tennis season is far from over—there are still two slams and many Masters 1000 events, not to mention the World Tour Finals, to complete—and Federer, like Nadal, has not played a competitive match since that monumental day in Paris. 

But somehow, it seems that Federer’s Parisian victory has melted the pressure.  Across the world, it has enabled Federer fans to relax (if only fleetingly); it has enabled them to believe that there really is such a thing as tennis karma.  What goes around comes around, one could say. 

Nevertheless, clearly the Spanish nemesis still poses a problem for Federer.  A 13-7 record in Nadal’s favour does not bode well for future match-ups, even if the latest meeting was won by Federer. 

Crucially, Federer may play with a little more ease at this year’s Wimbledon, given that he does not need to ‘chase history’ as urgently or fervently as was suggested in the darkest moments.  However, Federer has always been pushed by history; he is too competitive and too aware of competitors to truly relax. 

This is a Slam, after all.  Moreover, Nadal will enter SW19 as the No.1 seed and defending champion, with more motivation than usual after his early exit at Roland Garros; Federer will be desperate to reclaim his most prized crown and simultaneously surpass Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major titles. 

To a certain extent, ATP ranking points also come into play.  Currently, Nadal is 2000 points ahead of Federer.  A win at Wimbledon for Federer, or on the flipside, a poor showing by Nadal, could kick-start a forceful numerical comeback by the former World No.1, especially as Nadal has many points to defend in the coming months.   

It is clear that there is still an incredible amount riding on this forthcoming Wimbledon once again, without even considering the hopes of the likes of Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and even 31-year old Halle champion Tommy Haas. 

Nadal’s knees and the suspected flare-up of patella tendonitis are of much concern.  Could any more stress and strain on punishingly hard grass courts add insult to injury (only small pun intended) and leave Nadal in turmoil for not only a defense of his WImbledon title, but also his chances in the rest of the season’s events?

Is it dangerous to consider Federer a favourite, given his lack of competitive grass-court preparation and the fact that he could still be emotionally drained? 

Will the coming fortnight prove to be another turning point in the Federer-Nadal rivalry?  Another blow to Federer on Centre Court, or indeed now Nadal, could have tumultuous consequences for the remainder of the season.

Tennis lends itself to a coup d’etat and even the occasional restoration of ‘traditional’ power, but the past few months have created the most radical and oscillatory shifts between two individuals for many years. 

The sheer accumulation of matches and twists in momentum and victories in recent months between these two tennis giants mean it is certain that any clash will be full of tension, drama, and excitement.    

The wounds from Wimbledon 2008 are indeed healing, slowly but surely—with the essential help of time and, of course, the silhouette of the Coupe des Mousquetaires firmly fixed at the forefront of Federer’s mind at least for one year.  Still, time is a fickle creature.  We will know in only a few weeks if the wounds are to be reopened, deeper and more poisonous than ever before.

A Tale Of Two Cities – Add A Sporting Dimension

June 15, 2009

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’

A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

Charles Dickens set this illustrious work in the era of the French Revolution, telling the story of Paris and London.  The novel has fewer characters than a typical Dickens novel and was published in weekly installments. 

Although anathema to traditionalists, it is true that the schism between these two metropolises, the renewed weekly anticipation, excitement and drama, and the limited number of protagonists, are elements that remain in sporting reality today for many tennis fans.

Paris: the city of clay; the city of Roland Garros; the city in which Rafael Nadal’s feat of clay turned to dust, out of which a triumphant Roger Federer rose, capturing his 14th Major title, a Career Grand Slam.

London: the city of grass; the city of Wimbledon; the city in which Federer’s five year Centre Court dream ended last July, in a still darkness that was punctuated only by the glow of scoreboards that clarified the numerical story of a great battle.

Two cities, two characters.  The dichotomy of the two protagonists: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—inclusive of their heritage, styles and fates—fascinates even the most neutral of viewers, listeners, and readers.  The discourse continues unrelentingly, the weekly outcome of their contests difficult to reveal. 

The best of times: We were rewarded with the ‘Greatest Match Of All Time’ at Wimbledon.  A seven hour marathon, punctuated by two nerve-tingling rain delays, resulted in a five hour, five set thriller between Federer, the ailing five-time consecutive Wimbledon champion and Nadal, the rising grass matador and French Open annihilator. 

A practically anachronistic defeat, given Federer’s supreme reign on grass that had lasted since 2002.  Hope balanced by despair, belief overriding incredulity.  The match will forever be remembered as an event that surpassed all expectations. 

The worst of times: Roger Federer’s definitive defeat in the French Open 2008 final—an almost embarrassing show for the then World No.1 and 12-Major champion.  The bizarre one-sided scoreline, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, only underlined the annihilation that was suffered, contrasted the unyielding ascendancy of the clay-court king, under grey Paris skies.  Clay wisdom and clay foolishness.  Promise and desperation.  Wounds that seared deep into the soul were formed. 

In these cities’ recent tennis showcases, Wimbledon 2008 and Roland Garros 2009, the stories of these capitals and the traditions of the characters, have been turned upside down, removing all predicted convention and outcome from the tennis world. 

In the aftermath of Roland Garros 2009, where Nadal was ousted in the fourth round and Federer was triumphant under the most extreme pressure, the traditional tale has twisted once more.

The belief of Nadal, juxtaposed with the incredulity of Federer, has flipped.  Federer’s despair has transformed into hope and wisdom that he can prevail against Nadal, he can prevail in testing circumstances. 

Nadal’s belief has been replaced by despair over his knee injuries.  His hope for a second Wimbledon title is ebbing gently away as new contenders emerge. 

Now the momentum is in Federer’s favour. 

As in Dickens, the superlative degree of comparison between these two cities, these two protagonists, cannot be more distinct. 

London and Paris.  Only separated by a sliver of water, yet fundamentally diverse.  English versus French, practicality versus beauty, irregularity versus symmetry.  Grass versus clay, Wimbledon versus Roland Garros, Centre Court versus Philippe Chatrier.

Federer and Nadal, one of the most discussed sporting rivalries of recent times.  The most artistic versus the most warrior-some. The ethereal versus the earthly, lithe versus pumped, fluency versus staccato.

The texture of the relationship between these two players is consistently adapted, then synchronised, then separated again, to provide yet more compelling drama to the overriding story of these two tennis cities. 

Now Wimbledon 2009 awaits.  Which dramatic characteristics will manifest?

Do we wait in anticipation, expectant of another moment of history?  Will hegemony be exchanged once more?  Do we have everything new before us, or nothing at all?  Who will be ‘Light’, and who will be ‘Darkness’?

Yet in the midst of these direct contrasts remains a clear imbalance.  Gain and loss are not symmetrical; the reactions to these emotions are not equal and opposite.  Victory does not feel as fulfilling as loss feels ruinous.  In SW19, 127 players will feel loss; only one player will experience victory, relief, jubilation.  This year, that person is truly unknown.  

Is there yet another twist in the tale?

(Published on Bleacher Report; June 15th, 2009)

Archive: Enchantment Is Lacking In The Madrid ‘Magic Box’

June 11, 2009

The new Masters 1000 series tournament in Madrid should be taking the form of a popular and prodigious event. Yet it seems that many fundamental elements still need maturing and developing, even as the important tournament is in full swing.  

Varying shades of slate, concrete and asphalt still characterize the principal image.  Players are raising complaints over the consistency and texture of the clay courts.  

Ion Tiriac, the developer and ardent supporter of this event, is a businessman, well-known for his uncompromising and ruthless nature. Sentimentality is an unknown emotion.  His mighty mustache and tinted glasses, seemingly relics from the 1980s, hide any emotional impulses from the outside world.   

However he has created one of the most delicate and fiercely contested matters in recent tennis history: the loss of the Hamburg Rothenbaum Masters tournament to make way for the new Spanish clay spectacle.

The notions that Tiriac ‘stole and ruined’ the Hamburg event, he vehemently denies.  Nevertheless it is true that the conditions surrounding the downgrading of the admired German Masters event were controversial and somewhat mysterious for the majority of tennis spectators.  

The headlines and media coverage may have indeed been too hostile towards the Romanian last year; yet there is no doubt that Tiriac unleashed one of the most powerful and influential campaigns on ATP tour officials and the tennis scene in order to make his Spanish vision a reality—at the expense of the traditional Hamburg event.

Thanks to his relentless campaigning, the Madrid Masters 1000 event has been changed from an indoor, hard court tournament that is played in late Autumn, towards the end of the tiring tennis season, to an open air, joint clay-court men’s and women’s event in May, in the heart of the tennis year.  

Tiriac wants this tournament to be a huge event—supposedly even to rival the Grand Slams—and to form one of the perfect stages to demonstrate Madrid’s capabilities to hold the 2016 Olympic Games. 

‘Today, Madrid is what Germany was in the 1980s,’ Tiriac argues, somewhat pointedly.     

With Tiriac generating more and more funding, it became possible for the world-renowned French architect Dominique Perrault to design the 165,000 square-meter development, at the heart of which would be the ‘Caja Magica’, or Magic Box.  

But the magic is yet to materialise in the Box or the three additional outside courts; so far the premiere event is showcasing only sterile steel constructions punctuated with hard lines and linear shadows.   

The intimate, traditional and gregarious atmosphere of a Masters Series event seems to be missing. The stands are empty, exposing the harsh structures further.  

What a difference from the long-standing Rome Masters 1000 tournament a fortnight ago, where the atmosphere was visibly amiable and the stands were packed to the rafters.

‘I have certainly seen better’, commented Federer.  ‘Even the practice courts aren’t that great and on Manolo Santana Centre Court there are many bad bounces.  Much of the complex needs improving’.  

The courts in the Magic Box were in optimal condition for play only ten days before the start of the tournament, according to organisers.  One of the five practice courts has taken the true shape of Tiriac’s dream—he wants all courts to be made of blue clay—but as far as the players are concerned, the court is just for show.

Nadal, Federer and others have clearly stated: blue clay courts have no chance.  For now, despite all attempts at its integration, the court remains abandoned.

Neither have spectators rushed to endorse the tournament or ‘TennisTainment’, as it is marketed by Madrid organisers. Of course, opinions could change, perhaps even by the end of this frenetic first week.  

Nonetheless, without the blessing of players and approval from viewers, it appears that there are many kinks for businessman Tiriac to iron out before next year.  

(Published on Bleacher Report; May 14th, 2009)

Maria Sharapova – The Fairy Tale Continues

June 1, 2009

As Maria Sharapova enters the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, it is incredible to believe that she has not played in a Grand Slam in a little under one year. 

Indeed, her first WTA Tour comeback from a rumoured career-threatening rotator cuff injury was a minor clay court event in Warsaw, Poland, where the Russian struggled to reach the third round of the tournament. 

Since late last year, she has been rehabilitating from her shoulder operation and from the injury that has plagued her for many months, only being able to pick up a racket in February of this year.

In evidence of her desire to return to the courts, when she watched her fellow competitors at the Australian Open in January this year, she became so enthused by the infectious competitive spirit spilling through the television screens that she insisted the organisers open the gym at night, just for her, so that she could channel her competitiveness into fitness training.   

This spirit has been Sharapova’s distinguishing trait for years—indeed, she won the ladies’ Wimbledon Championship aged only 17 against the odds—not to mention her childhood travels with her father from Siberia to Florida, USA, when she spoke no English and could not see her mother for years, just to practice her tennis. 

Still, expectations for this Slam from the Russian herself were set at extremely low levels.  “I’m going to take one match at a time,” she maintained.  

Nevertheless, with her intense drive, sedulous effort, and immense motivation, she has proved in the past week that she is still the phenomenal competitor that she has always been.  Each match that she has played at this year’s French Open has proceeded to three sets.

Indeed, in her recent fourth round match against 25-seeded Li Na from China, she did not play consistently, but excellently at just the right times, drawing on her prodigious match experience to know just the right moment to attack and pounce. 

The score of 6-4, 0-6, 6-4 to the Russian does not correctly convey the nail-biting exchanges and high tensions in the match, with momentum consistently swinging between the two women.  Yet once again, the imitable Russian proved the stronger, mentally outmaneuvering her opponent.

The joy on Sharapova’s face was clear to see.  This is a fairy tale for her, completely unexpected—and she is reveling in the dream. 

The French crowd have never been especially favourable towards her; but now that she is an underdog, there is a warm appreciation for her, a fervent murmur of excitement when she hits winner after winner against each and every opponent. 

There is a mutual understanding and visible sympathy of her recent injury hardship, making her victories all the more delightful to experience. 

She has extended her stay in the French capital much longer than many expected, with many commentators expecting her to struggle through only a few of the early rounds. 

Yet after her grueling win against fellow Russian Nadia Petrova in the second round, a match-up that she was not expected to win, she has hurdled over every obstacle that has been placed in her path. 

Now that the defending champion, Ana Ivanovic, has been ousted from the tournament, is it reasonable to suggest that Sharapova is now a real contender?  Perhaps not right now. 

The likes of Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova have been blitzing through the women’s draw, meaning that little energy has been expended and their confidence is growing ever harder to break down. Safina was runner-up to Ivanovic at last year’s Roland Garros, equally to Serena Williams earlier this year at the Australian Open—could this slam be her time to shine?

Moreover, there are small but growing worries that the physical strain of numerous three-set matches is affecting Sharapova, wearing her down slowly, despite her trademark audacity and great endurance.  

The lady herself still believes otherwise.  “If it takes three sets, if it takes two sets, if it takes two sets in five hours, I don’t care. I’m willing to be out there for as long as I need to be in order to finish the match.  I manage to get through and win.”

Is it safe to say that Sharapova is back?  Perhaps not quite yet.  But it is certain that the fire inside her is burning just as brightly as it ever was.

Rafael Nadal – As Gracious In Defeat As In Victory

June 1, 2009

There has been a strange undercurrent to Nadal’s dominance of the ATP Tour in recent months; in particular, a growing schism between fans of Nadal and fans of Federer, with seemingly no conciliatory ground in between. 

As Nadal’s trophy cabinet swells, there too has been a growing adoration in media circles.  Athleticism, virility, kindness, humility—these are all words that spring to the mind of the average tennis viewer that listen to or read a commentator’s obsequious remarks about the Spaniard.

Oftentimes the latter characteristic above is taken with a pinch of salt; for even the biggest tennis fan, there are only so many humble words one can withstand from the ‘great one’, often not enough vomit in the world to demonstrate one’s maturing aggravation and irritation at the phrases that resonate like clock chimes from the World No.1’s mouth in every press conference and every interview. 

To paraphrase; ‘I am not the favourite’; ‘It was a very tough match, no?’; both key examples of the seemingly over-saturation of grace and humility that punctuate the Spaniard’s answers to journalists’ questions. 

Surely this warrior-like competitor cannot be so sincerely lacking in confidence and self-worth off the court?  The dichotomy between an on court and off-court personality has never been so distinct, ensuring that all those who doubt Nadal and his veracious nature constantly reiterate their claims of dishonesty and showmanship.

Of course, the language barrier does not help.  Perhaps if Nadal were as eloquent in English as he is in Spanish, there would be little need to doubt his assiduousness and modesty.  

For when a neutral reads one-off comments in news articles and magazines, one gets the impression that the humble varnish is slicked on thickly and heavily for sound-bites alone.

Yet on the day of utmost shock and disbelief in the tennis world, when Rafael Nadal was defeated on his kingdom of clay at Roland Garros in the fourth round against World No. 25 Robin Soderling, all was forgiven. 

The walk away from the battlefield, with his head held high and his dutiful acknowledgement of the Philippe Chatrier crowd, were only simple actions, repeated by him many times previously; yet in this single instance they symbolised a great deal about the former king of Roland Garros, the man who had just been defeated in his kingdom.

The man really is gracious, really is genuine, truly is the epitome of sportsmanship and virtue. 

Even in the aftermath of this gargantuan defeat—with the added dimension that the victor was Robin Soderling, a player with whom Nadal has a turbulent history—the Spaniard’s integrity, honesty and clarity shone through his clear disappointment like beams of sunlight piercing through dark, dappled shadows.

His acceptance of his defeat, the sheer acceptance that his ‘unprofessional’ opponent played better, was truly admirable, bearing in mind that the loss would have with no doubt come as a shock to the king of clay.

‘It was my fault, and more than—well, sure, he did well. He did very well, but I didn’t.  I think I didn’t play my best tennis. I didn’t play my tennis, and for that reason I lose. That’s it. I congratulate him and keep working hard for the next tournament.’

Moreover, his press conference was interspersed with humour, a lesson that many players could learn to adopt for their interactions with the media. 

When asked what Nadal would do now that his time at Roland Garros was over for another year, he replied, ‘Right now, my preparation is for the swimming pool of my house. Yes, it will give me three more days to think about preparation for Wimbledon.’  

A simple way of lightening the mood, to give a semblance of reality to the situation.  Even to him, there are other things in life to enjoy as well as tennis. 

Poignantly, a sense of perspective from the defeated man himself was the main souvenir from the day.  

‘I have to accept with the same calm when I win than when I lose. After four years I lose here, and the season continues.

‘You cannot collapse, either because you’ve won a match or because you’ve lost it. This is sport, and you can have victories or defeats. No one remembers defeats in the long run. People remember victories.

No, defeats never make you grow, but you also realize how difficult what I achieved up until today was, and this is something you need sometimes. You need a defeat to give value to your victories.’

Other sportsmen take note.  This is how to act on the world stage, in victory and in defeat.