Thursday, February 13, 2014
Time to hand out our tennis medals
By Richard Pagliaro
Maria Sharapova spent her younger years in Sochi driving herself up the wall against an unerring opponent. The wall where she hit her first ball is a Sharapova mural now, ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-O3Qi-8qbc#t=33) and she returned to hit against herself before bringing sizzle as the torch bearer for the Sochi Olympic Games.
Sharapova and longtime tennis junkie Bode Miller give tennis a stake in Sochi. Imagine ice and snow as surfaces in the tennis landscape. Grading the first month of the tennis season on the Winter Olympic scoring system, here are some performances that made a mark.
Gold Medals: Stanislas Wawrinka and Li Na
Wawrinka faced a mountain of misery, carrying both a winless career record against Rafael Nadal and an ignominious 0-15 record against world No. 1 players into the Australian Open final but played fearless tennis and timed the ball beautifully in breaking through for his first Grand Slam title in his 36th major appearance. Wawrinka, who defeated defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, has reached the past eight or better in three of his last four majors and with Roger Federer back on board for Switzerland the pair could make a run for the Davis Cup.
Li couldn’t find the finish line in two prior Australian Open finals, but those setbacks -- particularly the 2013 final, when she scraped herself off the court after suffering a pair of left ankle injuries and banging the back of her head after a nasty fall -- strengthened her resolve as she joined Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles as the four woman in the Open era to win the Aussie Open after saving a match point. “In China, we say if you have a tough time, you pass that, it means you be so lucky,” Li , who will rise to a career-best No. 2 in the new WTA rankings, told reporters.
Silver Medalist: Gael Monfils
A year ago, Monfils’ matches were jarring rides as he slapped his flying forehand around and slid to No. 108. He’s soared to a 12-2 start this season (with both losses coming to world No. 1 Rafael Nadal), reached two finals in three tournaments and dismissed No. 9 Richard Gasquet for the second time in five weeks to win his fifth title in Montpellier on Sunday. If the flashy thrill seeker can stay healthy, sharpen his second serve -- Monfils is 13th on at the ATP in first-serve points won (78 percent), but just 38th in second-serve points won (53 percent) -- and temper his flights of high-risk shot-making whimsy, he can continue an ascent back to the top 10.
No Medal: Mikhail Youzhny
Advancing age can draw veterans down like gravity, but Youzhny was up to his all-court tricks in 2013, earning his 400th career victory, winning two titles and finishing in the top 20 for the first time in three years. He has struggled to stick the landing this year. The rugged Russian may be beating up on himself after a 1-4 start with three of his four losses coming to players ranked outside the top 50. But he’s an all-surface threat -- Youzhny posted winning records on hard court, clay and grass last season -- who can halt the fall at any point.
Silver Medal: Dominika Cibulkova
The shortest member of the top 50 sped past four seeds -- No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 11 Simona Halep and No. 5 Agnieszak Radwanska -- in succession to become the first Slovak to reach a Grand Slam final. Cibulkova lost to Li Na in the final and hasn’t won a match since. Her size may limit elite staying power, but Cibulkova plays with bold strikes and buzzing intensity that make her a contender in major races.
Silver Medal: Eugenie Bouchard
The stuffed animals fans feed her after matches are typically the spoils of figure skaters, but the 2013 WTA Newcomer of the Year uses her legs to stay lower and drive through her shots like a speed skater powering through the corners. Bouchard followed up her run to the Australian Open semifinals by surrendering just four games in two matches to lead Canada past Serbia in the Fed Cup World Group II tie in Montreal.
Giant Parallel Slalom
No Medal: U.S. Davis Cup and U.S. Fed Cup teams
Home soil was a slippery slope as skittish American Davis Cup and Fed Cup players struggled with nerves and inspired opponents before crashing off the World Group course.
Gold Medal: Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor
Capturing the Australian Open mixed-doubles title without dropping a set, these two are so in sync at net, their moves could have been choreographed by Evgeni Plushenko. It was the second mixed-major crown in the past three Grand Slams for the 20-year-old Frenchwoman and 41-year-old Canadian, who partnered to win Wimbledon last July. Given the fact they were 2013 French Open finalists and U.S. Open semifinalists, it’s conceivable they could make a run at the mixed doubles Grand Slam this year.
No Medal: Caroline Wozniacki and Thomas Hogstedt
The former world No. 1 nicknamed “Sunshine” hit Hogstedt with burn notice in firing her coach after less than three months together. Hogstedt, who previously coached Maria Sharapova for two-and-a-half years, was encouraging Wozniacki to use her speed moving forward to create more offense. Now, she’s working with Danish coach Michael Mortensen and trying to reverse course, apply her counter-strike skills and change up her spins to halt a slide in which she’s failed to survive the third round in seven of her past eight major appearances.
The former No. 1 known for his flat strikes fantasizes about sweeping up on ice. Jimmy Connors says if he could play any other sport at an elite level, he would chose … “Curling. Every time I see it just mesmerizes me.” Connors told Tennis.com.