Audible Obscenity: The Legend of Sesil Karatantcheva

 

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As night fell in Bulgaria’s capital, a sickly sinister haze swept across its streets, swooping and swirling as it stole into every home, indiscriminately engulfing each inhabitant in turn and dragging them under some deathly trance. The clouds rapidly assembled with military efficiency, and before long were unleashing a torrent of showers; the rain drops seeking out every last millimetre of the city, leaving no spot untouched. The freezing night air carried with it the sound of rustling and scuttling and hooting and hawing as the deadly creatures of the night furiously rose at once. Eventually, however, the noise had given way to a even more suspicious silence, as the world appeared to freeze in grim anticipation of what was to follow.

In a flash, a slab of lightening slashed through the rain and the night sky, momentarily lighting up all that lay below. By the time the light was out, a solitary figure had appeared. A girl of no older than 15 or 16, her mouth slowly opened as her eyes panned up above. Everything happened at once. A crash of thunder erupted across the night sky, the creatures sprung up and roared, the skies rumbled once more, the citizens snapped back into life. Chaos reigned. And then those legendary, iconic words tumbled out of her mouth.

“I’ll be back,” she screamed, her voice piercing through the noise and drowning out every last sound as the words shook the city off its axis, as if consumed by a deadly earthquake. “And my return will be thunderous.”

The girl was Sesil Karatantcheva, a young Bulgarian who, by 14 years old, had already flitted straight into the limelight with blistering pace. She was a prodigy, a candidate for the coveted category of Supernova – those increasingly rare players who seemingly burst out of the womb innately equipped with the weapons, talent and confidence to immediately succeed at the highest levels of professional tennis. Half-way through her fourteenth year on the planet, she had already eased through the junior circuit, triumphing in Roland Garros without the loss of a set before immediately declaring herself far superior to her age group and retiring from juniors forever. Her story, however, is best told through her own confidence-infused words.

“I started when I was five and a half. I’m telling you right now I hated tennis. I thought this is the most ridiculous, boring, unbelievable game anybody ever made in this world, okay? It wasn’t even funny. I’m like, “Why am I wasting my time instead of going to the movies, playing with my friends?” Then when I started getting better eventually, you know, when I started actually winning some matches, it was like, “Hey, that’s not that bad.” People come tell you congratulations, parents are happy, you get everything you want, that’s all I need. I was like, “Yeah, why not?” Basically like the age of seven, I start liking play tennis. By the age of nine, I start actually want to play more and more. When I got like the age of 11, I was like, “You know what, that’s the thing I want to make my life with. That’s the thing I’m going to prove I’m something in this world.”

“Then when I was 11, my dad was always, by the age of 14, 15, need to prove in the pros that you’re something. Then I decided start playing ITF. I did pretty well. I did pretty well, won a couple grade three tournaments when I was 11. Then when I turned 12, I decided when I like turned 13 to go play under-18. I got the ranking. I got into the main draw. Then last year — no, not the last year, the year before, December, I went to Eddie Herr. I didn’t do good. I lost first round. But then I saw Nick. My dad was, “Go talk to people. Speak to him.” I’m like, “Dad, that’s Nick Bollettieri. You just don’t go to speak to him; you have to have like a special request to go talk to him.” I just went. I was like, “Mr. Bollettieri.” He was like open, really nice. He was like, “Yeah, hello.” I was like, “Whoa, really nice.” I was like, “How much will cost for me to go to Bollettieri tennis academy?” He said, “Three weeks for free. I’m going to give you a scholarship, see how things going to go.”

“I still don’t know what I did. I still don’t know what game I played then, but he liked it. He was like, “You can win everyone. You can have scholarship. I’ll be coach. I’ll travel with you.” Then last year I decided to go start playing WTA tournaments. My first WTA tournament I won in Greece when I was 14. That’s when I started. I won two more tournaments, one more 10,000, and then one 50,000. That was my big shot, when I won the 50,000 in China. Then I came back. You know, honestly from the whole academy, even how unbelievable it sounds, Nick the only one who thought I would win. Every single coach was saying, “She’s too young. She’s just ‘boom boom,’ she doesn’t have anything in her head. All she knows is smack the hell out of the ball. No way she going to make it.” So, you know what, I went, I made it. I came back. Nick was, “I knew you were going to make it.” He supported me. Then I got offer from IMG to sign a contract. It was unbelievably excited. Now Nick is my coach. I have a contract with IMG. Everything’s going good for me. I showed that I came here and I didn’t screw myself up, I actually did something. I’m proud of it.”

On the court, Karatantcheva’s bread and butter was the ballistic backhand that had already demonstrated its immense versatility throughout her short career, producing searing up-the-line winners at will that left scorch marks on the white lines, the ball connecting with her racquet with a sound so right that it was like hearing a gospel choir in that final glorious crescendo. Invariably, a perfectly stroked angle would follow as she constantly nonchalantly demonstrated her talent to all onlookers. Forming a formidable bridge between offense and defense were those smooth and silky feet that enabled her to navigate the court with effortless speed. Attack and Defense. Defense and Attack. He game was honed on the grounds that spawned tennis’ most abhorred acronym, BBBBB (Big Blonde Bollettieri BallBasher) but with a defensive edge that suggested that once she matured, learnt how to serve and understood the tactical aspect to the game, there was every chance she would thrive. But while her game required time to grow and evolve, her trash-talking was already at its peak. Famously, ahead of her Indian Wells match against fellow young Bollettieri-er Maria Sharapova, the Bulgarian sent shots straight at her Russian rival with formidable precision.

“You know what, that’s the match I’ve waited for very long time. So, trust me, I won’t play 100%, I’ll play 200%…I was actually supposed to play in Bollettieri Tennis Academy (two weeks ago). I was so prepared. I mean, it was unbelievable. I was just, “Come on the court, you’ll see what happen.” Then I was, you know, talking to people. You know, I was really into the match. I was like, “You know, I’m going to get there and play my best tennis, I’m going to do everything I can.” The day when we were supposed to play, two hours before the match, my agent comes and he goes, “She called it off.” I’m like, “Why did she call the match off?” “Because you said you going to kick her ass off.” I’m like, you know what, it’s my business who I’m telling I’m going to kick his ass off or not. If I said it, I meant it, and I’m not sorry about it. If she’s too scared to come on the court, her problem – her problem. I was like, “Whatever. I’m going to get you.”

“Even then I said, “I’m going to meet you soon.” It comes right next to me, right here. She can’t call it off this time, that’s for sure (laughter) […] I don’t think that a player from her rank can call a match off only because somebody said it’s going to kick her ass off. If she had the guts, she’s going to come kick my ass off and leave.”

“You know what, I say I’m going to play my best tennis. Normally when I do that, I beat people that are very good. You know, I believe in my game. I believe that my game is something I worked on a lot. I think that if I play it and if I concentrate a hundred percent on something, I can do something unbelievable tomorrow. I mean, that’s the way I think. Yes, I do think I can kick her ass off. Yes, I do think that. I’m saying that, I can kick her ass off.”

“I don’t know (if she knows me). I mean, you know, who knows. I mean, if she’s too scared come on the court play against me, hey, she must know me. […] I (saw Sharapova here). Not really charming. Not really charming. Not really charming. That’s what I can say, not really charming (smiling).”

Although Sharapova’s ass would remain intact, Karatantcheva’s comments put herself firmly on the tennis map, and when she upset Venus Williams a year later at the French Open, the tennis world simply nodded in unison. But by year’s end, it was all over. She tested positive for nandrolone, claimed that the positive test was the result of an aborted pregnancy at 15, served her two year ban before returning to a severely underwhelming comeback which has seen only a brief top 100 stint after 5 years, and now carries with her a truckload of “what ifs” to every new ITF event and WTA qualifying tournament she contests. But we’ll always have Indian Wells.

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But Just How Successful Was Maria Sharapova Under Thomas Hogstedt?

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By Wimbledon, the desperation had escalated. Maria Sharapova had successfully completed her conquest of The Rest, arriving at The Championships on a 31-match winning streak against all but one player. She had imposed her majestic superiority over every last serf to wearily cross her path. With two victories across two surfaces, she had even seemingly ousted the omnipresent irritant Victoria Azarenka, a player who – at least in Sharapova’s eyes – had ripped-off her entire approach to the game, tainted it with her typically unsporting antics and laughable injuries, then had the audacity to batter her with it. Repeatedly. Happy days should have been here again, but one vital piece of the jigsaw remained elusive; one final hurdle left to clear, one last player to defeat. Problem was, Sharapova wasn’t even remotely close to usurping Serena Williams.

Perhaps that’s why, when presented with the piece of bait to end all pieces of bait just a few days before Wimbledon, the woman who knows how to play the media game better than any tennis player on the planet so uncharacteristically took it with both hands; launching a peaceful yet sinister verbal missile squarely at the American, with deadly precision. As the drama publicly simmered and Williams rushed for damage control, Sharapova privately attempted solve the considerably more problematic issue of Serena Williams on-the-court through the medium of video analysis. It wasn’t the first time Sharapova had sought out video replays of her opponents to help shape her tactics – it played a vital role in her masterful victory over Justine Henin at the US Open final all those pre-shoulder years ago in 2006, where for 90 minutes she determinedly pounded the ball down the middle in order to rob the Belgian of time and take advantage of her time-consuming extreme grip changes. In general, this type of detailed video dissection that has swept most other sports is wasted in tennis and should be used more proactively, but this new attempt to oust Williams spoke more of a lingering desperation to overturn 8 years of humiliation.

Regardless, it all proved pointless when Sharapova was booted out of the All England Club by the world number 131 after two rounds. The hammer quickly fell, and Thomas Hogstedt was gone. In her statement, the world number two pointed towards personal problems that would restrict the Swede from traveling in the future, but perhaps the fear that she had hit a glass ceiling and was moving in the opposite direction once more prompted Sharapova to take advantage and search out for a new opinion and new beginnings, regardless of how much good had been achieved on Hogstedt’s watch.

And there can be no doubt that much was achieved.

It all came into fruition as Sharapova fell into the bitter nadir of her career. As a new season dawned in 2011, the comeback which had been so well-anticipated and hinted at a triumphant return in its first slam and the subsequent first big victory in Tokyo at the end of 2009, had since crumbled into pitiful pieces. Barely gripping to her place in the top 20, the R-question slowly circulated, and it was quite understandable. How could Sharapova, the richest player in history who commands a multitude of interests light years beyond the sport, hopelessly continue to trawl around the tour in the desperate hope of reclaiming a career that had seemingly been irreversibly shattered? It was a question she admitted was also asked by herself to herself, and she deliberated all the possible answers for weeks during her third consecutive WTA Championships-less off-season. In mid-November, she finally saw the light. Out went her long-term coach, Michael Joyce, and in came the Hog.

The issues that plagued Sharapova at the time of Hogstedt’s decision to shamelessly break-up with Li Na via email and inconspicuously move under Sharapova’s guard were multiple and endless. Her serve may have been the one glaring, infamous problem that caused double faults to leap up at the most inopportune points and made success but a pipe dream. However, the 9 month injury break saw colossal cracks envelope her entire game. The lack of athleticism and speed that was notorious throughout her career had sunk to new, unspeakable lows. The ballstriking, previously so reliant on laser-like precision to simultaneusly overwhelm opponents with heavy depth and surgically dissect them with glorious angles had disintegrated into linear nothingness; lacking any sort of width or depth and allowing her opponents to simply use the pace she offered them against her, all but her trusty and eventually overused cross-court backhand a model of error-strewn inconsistency. Even her famous competitive instincts were dramatically disturbed.

In short, it was any coach’s dream. In front of Hogstedt stood a champion who had previously scaled the highest heights, and it was his job to patch together her game and offer her the best opportunity at glory once again. The 2012 French Open forever sealed this partnership as a success, but whether she could have achieved far more is another question. What Hogstedt did achieve with Sharapova was consistency. Without disturbing her aggression, much of their work together focused on using more intricate wrist-work to incorporate marginally more topspin into her strokes, particularly on the forehand side. He perhaps saw what Azarenka had achieved in this era, much of it merely through rallying, and ironically sought to replicate aspects of her play in Sharapova’s own way. The increased spin is even more notable on her serve, which has developed a weighty quality in stark contrast to the precise and flat serve before her shoulder, rendering it most effective on the red clay.

Although Sharapova has developed a knack of tactfully brushing aside any comparisons to The Old Her, the glaring problem was that she simply isn’t as good as she was before the shoulder. It is of course partly down to issues that directly stem from the famous shoulder, but unrelated problems since her return have been just as notable. For example, part of the reason why her grass results strike such an inconsistent anomaly is that her forehand is still simply unable to hold its own pace, depth and consistency in the high-pace and high-octane rallies that arise against fellow elite big hitters. The slower hard courts and, of course, clay often help to enshroud this, but it is invariably exposed on the grass and in her complete inability to compete with Serena or an in-form Li Na. Moreover, her offence is simply less potent and more one dimensional than in her previous years. From impressively coping with a multitude of players considerably more athletic, versatile, resourceful and powerful than her before her hiatus, competing fiercely even when against the very best and when odds were stacked heavily against her, she now mentally folds with an alarming regularly at the slams. It is one problem of many that, alongside Hogstedt, she has failed to overcome.

But they are Thomas Hogstedt’s problems no more. A success his period with Sharapova has certainly been, restoring her as an elite player and amusing us with his hilariously inane on-court coaching speeches. Within the next couple of days, the baton will pass to someone new (or, well, old), someone who will be charged with the role of building on these successes and attempting to make the jump from elite player and champion, back into the the circle of elite champions before it’s too late.

A Dirtballing Hell – By Lourdes Dominguez Lino and Alexandra Dulgheru

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If the crusty, flickering and static security camera that provided the pictures for this monumental matchup didn’t, in itself, shrilly scream out “DO NOT ENTER” to those who attempted to watch; then the placement of this match-up on an inglorious court Z, a court inherently opposed to the mere notion of spectators by way of its lack of seating was warning enough. Only a handful of crazed onlookers – probably of some relation to the competitors – braved the match from pillar to post. The rest of the spectating was accomplished – and it was an accomplishment – by passers by, most of whom had come to a intrigued halt as they strode past. To their credit, the majority at least attempted to offer the match their full attention, but upon first sight of the ball flying high over the moon and kissing the stars, those who had no vested interest in the match made their brisk and understandably frantic exits.

What made this match-up so shockingly un-watchable had, in reality, little to do with this deserted back-court in Palermo, the onlookers or the tournament itself. Rather, the onus laid solely on the players. Fifth-seeded Lourdes Dominguez Lino – whose nickname “LiDL” stands as perhaps the most snugly-fitting nickname in the history of the universe – was the first problem. LiDL, the 1999 Junior Roland Garros champion, has been an omnipresent fixture on the WTA since breaking the top 100 in 2005, finishing only once outside of the. Standing at 5ft4, her intentions around the court are notoriously clear – moonballs, grinding and everything in-between. She is neither particularly athletically gifted, nor in any other field, and yet here she is. After 17 years as a pro she has risen to top 40, earnt $1.6 million in prize money, captured two WTA titles and crashed the third round of two slams with the most loathed style of play in the sport, one that juniors are routinely warned will be obliterated at senior level.

The other problem came in the form of Alexandra Dulgheru. Queen Alexandra to all Warsawians, she just hasn’t been the same since the WTA threw the Warsaw Premier event – and in the process her monarchy and crown – straight into the rubbish dump. It was one of the most bizarre and random achievements in the history of this bizarre and random tour; after barely scraping through her first qualifying rounds and into the main draw, five matches later this unknown, 201-ranked 20 year old was clutching gleefully onto her first WTA trophy in her first main draw appearance on the WTA. She then had the outlandish audacity to return a year later and defend the damn thing with the loss of only one set, defeating Li Na, Jie Zheng, Sara Errani, Daniela Hantuchova and both Bondarenko sisters across the two glorious, anomalous weeks. A year later, perhaps due to the fear of a dreaded three-peat, the tournament was done away with.

From a tennistical perspective, Dulgheru is infinitely more talented than her Spaniard counterpart, which, of course, is a statement that means positively nothing given the talent levels on show from the Spaniard, but hey. Dulgheru too has earnt her keep on offensively defensive tennis, prowling behind the baseline, attempting to orchestrate her desperate pursuit of errors and general scrappery through an assortment of junk. However, at her most confident, moments of inspiration have arisen – usually either led by her smooth and sporadically potent backhand, or else genuinely resourceful endeavour through dropshots and an assortment of angles. Still, such tennis has only surfaced when the Romanian is in full flight, a long way from Dulgheru’s current predicament as she continues her stuttering fight back to the top 100 after a serious knee injury.

It was only too predictable that the first game would erupt into a splattering of countless deuces. The most dynamism on show during both the game and the entire match came after each of LiDL’s serves, when the Spaniard would – upon contact with the ball – invariably immediately sprint at Bolt-speed back miles behind the baseline. For most of her time on the near side, she stood so far back that she was well out of the fixed camera’s view, and her presence was only known thanks to the sporadic glimpses of her racquet, the ball flying high above the clouds and the amusingly typical long, drawling clay grunt that greeted every strike or, rather, push of the ball.

But this mammoth first game continued. On and on – game point eventually became break point, and back again, the ball seemingly scaling miles up into night sky. If any extra-terrestrials do roam outer space, it would have been tediously tempting for them to stick a hand out and catch the ball as it rose past them – in the process revealing themselves at long last. But if they did exist, they abated, and the ball returned from its monumental space mission each and every time. At one point, LiDL seemingly bored of her own style of play, sliced the drearily monotonous rhythm of a long point by bringing the Romanian forward with a drop shot. A handy lob followed, which Dulgheru surprising reached with impressive athleticism and looked odds-on to finish the point with aplomb. She chose to simply place the smash straight down the line and it seemed for a second that the point was finished, but suddenly, out of nowhere, the ball was once again flying back over the net in slow motion as LiDL, once more hidden from view and presumed out of the point, returned the ball. The Romanian scuttled back to the baseline and the long, monotonous moonball rally simply resumed. That handful of onlookers were perhaps in the middle of discussing a suicide pact when, finally, the point finished with a Dulgheru error and what felt like 900 strokes of hurt were finally over.

Dulgheru eventually broke, but it was to be her only victory of the day. Two games later, the the fifth-seed had pushed back and found herself up a hold of serve and 2-1 at the first changeover. Immediately, Dulgheru called for the trainer and it was at that moment that seemingly all the most loathed aspects of women’s tennis were shockingly converging at once. First there was the grunting, the interminable moonballing and the general uselessness of these random lowly clay events dotted about after the slams that come with the sole purpose of appeasing and inflating the rankings of the claytariat. Then came the medical timeout that, although legitimate, led the Spaniard veteran to bring on her coach as the timeout occurred.

A double fault from Dulgheru symbolised the resumption of the match, which was then followed by a completely disheveled forehand into the net from the Romanian. Something was clearly wrong, and the latter error elicited a long, curious stare down the court from the veteran. Perhaps this is the most intriguing aspect of women’s tennis; those who aren’t attempting to break their opponent’s spirit through intentionally obnoxious fistpumping and cheering straight down the court, even those people still often peer intensely at their opponent, scanning for both physical and mental weaknesses to exploit. Dominguez Lino clearly found one, as even more moonballs to the forehand of Dulgheru followed and the errors that ensued were enough to widen the gap between the pair to a quick break of serve.

Out of nowhere, LiDL hit her first winner. An endlessly floating snail of a forehand down-the-line winner it was, but a winner all the same. Again, there was clearly something genuinely wrong with Dulgeru. A dropshot winner followed on the very next point and the one-way traffic continued. As Dulgheru emerged, down 1-4 at the side closest to the security camera, a strap on the knee – as well as a slight hobble – became visible as she edged towards the baseline. More errors and more hobbling followed, but it wasn’t actually the injury that finished her. Instead, what finished her off was the indignity of once again watching as a second slow-mo winner off the racquet of LiDL floated helplessly past her.

After that she decided to retire, and who could blame her?

Marion Bartoli’s Final Flourish

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There is nothing more perpetually frightening in women’s tennis than the sight an opponent, finally free from all the crippling shackles of nerves bred by pressure, bombastically swinging back from out of a seemingly impossible hole. On the 6th year anniversary of her rise to elite prominence after downing Justine Henin in the semifinals of the same event, Marion Bartoli found herself in this very position as she closed in on her childhood dream. In fact, her 6-1 5-1 lead in a Wimbledon final was probably far beyond the imagination of any tennis player. It felt too perfect – too easy. As she scaled to within points of those hopes transforming into life-altering reality, the feeling of an uneasy balance lingered in the air – while she had executed an extremely bold and intelligent match to position herself within the touching distance of glory, her opponent Sabine Lisicki, who had promised so much, had been far too poor. Even most past finals where players, usually of the Russian variety, have collapsed under pressure and into the ground haven’t yielded such one-sided results. Not even when facing Serena Williams. Surely a rebuttal would come?

It did come. Standing one point from pure agony, the German wiped the tears from her eyes and contorted her features into that familiar steely and determined look worn uniformly by all WTA players as they enter the fray and fight for their lives. Three match points came and went – the first set of two saved by a dismissive backhand putaway followed by a typically monstrous first serve from the German. Complacently surfaced as Lisicki appeared to momentarily assume she was briefly out of the woods, and a rash error from the German offered Bartoli a third shot at a painless victory. But the mental damage had been done. The third was squandered with a frail backhand into the net and it was clear that the woman who had refused to allow the occasion to hold anything but a nervy first game over her, was finally breaking.

In a flash of two more explosive serves, the game was saved and Bartoli was left with a 90-second changeover to pitifully dissect how she had managed to lose her way on the simplest path to glory. The roles the pair had seemingly permanently assumed after the first game were suddenly reversed; thunderous Lisicki winners streaked across the court while nervy errors seeped from the comically oversized racquet face of Bartoli. Two further games were secured by Lisicki, and Bartoli found herself that awkward position of serving for a match for a second time after failing at the first attempt. The good news? There was still one service game to go, one more shot at a somewhat stress-free victory, one more chance to kill it off for good. But the momentum had swung so far from her that the match was on the verge of transforming beyond salvation. The simultaneous greatness and tragedy of women’s tennis is in these these brief lapses that almost always transform into dramatic momentum swings that change the face of matches and often end only with one outcome – tears. When players blink, they don’t merely lose a point or even a game, it’s usually the small, honest beginnings of a dramatic landslide. And so although Bartoli was no further from this heavenly victory she envisioned since she was a child than when she first received for the match while up 5-1, the depths of hell had opened up underneath her, ready to swallow her should she have hesitated just one more time.

But this is Marion Bartoli. Even before she could call herself a Grand Slam champion, even before she even found herself back once again in a Wimbledon final, there was no doubt that she had maximized her abilities; taking all opportunities presented to her with, quite literally, both hands. Of all tennis players on the planet, surely Marion Bartoli would not let this opportunity slide. As she began her serve, Lisicki’s forehand assault continued, eventually forcing the Frenchwoman to throw one arm desperately into the air. The ball floated over in the air for what felt like an eternity. Lisicki could have finished it – she should have finished it – but it was Lisicki’s time to hesitate, and that was all the assurance Bartoli needed. The Frenchwoman immediately neutralized the point. Before long, the champion-in-waiting uncorked a ballistic angle worthy of even her idol, Monica Seles, frantically throwing both hands far above her head as she desperately steered the ball to bounce less than half-way up the court at speed. The point, and probably with it the match, was won.

A service winner took the game to 30-0, which Bartoli reacted to not with her usual vigorous fistpumping. This time, she slowly walked towards the back wall and touched it with her racquet; as if to absorb the famously calm and serene characteristics of Centre Court as she approached the two most important points of her career. Whatever the reason, it worked. After yet another strong delivery, a bold cross-court forehand was enough to cripple Lisicki and a second wrong-footing cross-court hammer blow sealed three further shots at greatness. Three points to write her strange, quirky and single-minded self indelibly into the history books. Only Marion Bartoli knows how many thoughts were flashing through her mind as she collected the ball that would hopefully seal the deal, and then calmly walked to her baseline. She stepped up. She served an ace. She completed a glorious, perfect final game. She won Wimbledon.

That’s Marion Bartoli. That is what she does. We can talk for eternity about her route to the final which, indeed, could probably compare with some of the weaker runs to a Birmingham title. Standing in the way of a Grand Slam title for Bartoli in its three latter stages was the illustrious threesome of Sloane Stephens in all her lethargic glory, Kirsten Flipkens, whose top 20 ranking was already the source of much head-shaking before she transcended her journeywoman reputation to pitch her tent in the final four of a Grand Slam. And then there is Sabine Lisicki. But that is all irrelevant. The relevance is in how Bartoli, who arrived at Wimbledon in some of her worst form of these six years, sniffed out the sweet smell of opportunity as the favourites around her collapsed under it, and rose to the occasion fabulously. She didn’t bullshit her way to the title with three horrifically, hideous three-setters so disgusting that they forced all onlookers off sick from work the following day. Instead, she crushed her final two opponents and snatched the nicest-looking trophy in sport with an incredible, gutsy final flourish.

Comparisons have been drawn to Francesca Schiavone, who similarly gloriously ambushed her 2010 French Open final opponent, Sam Stosur; who had triumphed over Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic in succession to reach the final, but even that is quite different. Throughout the years, Bartoli has shown, albeit inconsistently, that she is one of the most prominent grasscourters on the tour. In addition to that famous Henin upset six years to the day before this new triumph, she won at Eastbourne with three straight top ten wins over Azarenka, Stosur and Wimbledon champion to-be, Kvitova. Plus, she has taken out Jankovic on the lawns of Wimbledon – not that this means too much – and smacked down Serena Williams as she returned from injury in 2011.

Bartoli also reminded us that, irrespective of the phantom IQ figure that is sarcastically interjected at every possible moment, she is genuinely one of the smarter players on tour. The Frenchwoman is not remotely athletic, nor is she in possession of much natural power, but as evidenced by she and her father’s manic obsession with improving them through her famous training techniques, her greatest strengths of all are her reflexes. Those reflexes allow her to push so far up to the baseline against even the most powerful players and servers, taking the ball inhumanly early and brutally robbing her opponents of often the most valuable asset in women’s tennis – time. Unlike most aggressive, early ballstrikers who attempt to finish points as quickly as possible, her aim isn’t to blast opponents off the court. Rather, she uses this troublesome triad of depth, weight and early ballstriking to obliterate her opponents’ weaknesses and mercilessly force them backwards. For Stephens, Flipkens and Lisicki, this meant that all three sub-standard backhands were heinously humiliated.

For Bartoli, this meant that she won Wimbledon.

Is Serena Williams Headcase-y?

2013 French Open - Day Ten

A pout – it always begins with that pout. Slowly the pout morphs into a frown, which in turn makes way for the infamously melodramatic “crying face”. Before long, loud and pitifully desperate sound effects compliment her facial expression, and the alarm bells ring in Serena Williams’ head as she panics and descends in complete meltdown.

Despite the luxury of a 6-1 set under Williams’ belt, this is exactly what happened as Kuznetsova broke her serve in the opening game of their second set and toiled to finally make her presence known in the match. The same could be seen a round earlier as Sorana Cirstea merely found herself with two break points in the second second set. When Caroline Garcia simply held serve twice at the beginning of set two, Williams’ volume rose again as she painfully killed the match. Even in her first round against the lowly and laughably under-powered Anna Tatishvili, the one single competitive game in the second set was enough to send Serena into a tailspin.

So, what is the root of this bizarre behaviour from the world number one? Between last year’s full-scale meltdown and her countless infamous chokes at Roland Garros over the past decade, many believe her lack of composure is only natural. Others, of course, brand her actions arrogant and disrespectful to the opponents she has mostly demolished en-route to her first semi-final in a decade. Regardless, this behaviour appears to be symbolic of a fundamental flaw that has enveloped Serena’s game over the course of the last few years.

It’s easy to forget that long before the foot and health issues of 2010-2011, Serena saw constant criticism for her attitude towards competing. It was no secret that, to her, only the slams mattered. When she didn’t withdraw and actually bothered to show up at WTA events, it was clear that she simply didn’t care enough. However, the ends justified the means. She would arrive at the slams having suffered shameful defeats to the likes of Sybille Bammer just days before, only to snatch the big prizes with aplomb. When players did push her to the limit of her powers, despite not properly warming up her competitive juices up at the warm-up events, she would dig deep and showcase the supreme mental strength that has become synonymous with her success. Between her record in finals, her famous ability to launch roaring comebacks against the very best and the sheer clinical manner in which she peaked on the stage it most mattered, it fast became clear that Williams had become one of the most mentally supreme champions ever to play the game.

Since her return in 2011, things have have changed. Given her previous reputation, perhaps one of the most remarkable stats in recent history is that, excluding walkovers, Williams has won 12 of the 15 WTA non-slam events she has entered since Stanford 2011, with her total win-loss record in non-slam events standing at a breathtaking 85-3. By comparison, she managed only four WTA titles between 2007 and 2010 – a period that yielded 6 slam titles – with a 75-18 record at non-slam tournaments.

There has been constant talk about Williams’ domination during this period, and it is certainly true. Time and time again she has proved that the gulf between her and her rivals is greater than it has ever been, with her inflicting countless straight-sets dismissals on all her nearest opponents. It is interesting, however, to compare her performances across slam and non-slam events. Her shaky and unconvincing performances against Zheng, Shvedova, Azarenka and Radwanska at Wimbledon bear a stark contrast to her outlandish demolition of the field on the same courts three weeks later at the Olympics. The same was true of her near-bottling of the US Open final against Azarenka in comparison to her dominant performance at the Istanbul season-ending finale. Accompanying those unconvincing performances are a collection of embarrassing losses to the likes of Makarova, Stephens and Razzano.

Just two weeks ago in Rome, Williams looked supreme and calm as she eradicated the field once more. Though her level hasn’t dramatically suffered, that the hysterical reactions to any resistance have been a fixture since the early rounds is telling. In a way, she has become what she previously abhorred – from the player who rose dramatically when it mattered most, she now only plays her best tennis when the stakes are lower and suspiciously resembles a headcase when pressure is high. Serena’s form and results suggests that she remains the overwhelming favourite to finish the job and complete her two-fold Career Grand Slam, but will her mind follow or will she collapse once again with the trophy in sight?

Piotr Wozniacki Retires From Professional Tennis (Coaching)

In a year that has already forced the world of sport to deal with the deeply-bruising blow of losing the great Sir Alex Ferguson to retirement, a second uppercut has landed squarely in its chin with the news that his tennis equivalent, Sir Piotr Wozniacki, will be also stepping away from the sport he revolutionized so dramatically. Speaking in Paris with dr.dk, Mr Wozniacki spoke in length about this shocking revelation, revealing that Caroline is already close to finding his permanent replacement.

“We have a couple of advisors who help us with, but they also have other responsibilities. This will change soon. The aim is that one of the will be Caroline’s full time coach, and it’s just a question of whom we trust the most.

“What happened last year didn’t change anything with the fact that we wanted a fundamental change. I need to get away from this circus, so I can stay home, watch the matches on TV, and only go to a few tournaments, while another coach directs the work with Caroline. We’ve found the pieces, now we just have to make them fit.

“The new coach will have full responsibility, that’s been the aim the whole time. The coaches last year just weren’t optimal for Caroline. Of course, they did their best with the tools they had, but it didn’t feel right for Caroline, so she decided herself to say stop and take stock as to what she wanted before making a final decision.

“We want someone who can be with her the rest of her career and not just for a half year, because that’s no good and wrecks things. Caroline’s old enough to make her own decisions, even if it’s not easy, because she has to find someone who understands her game and personality. She’ll never play like Serena Williams. Every player has has a different understanding of the game, technique and strengths, and now we’ve found the two we believe in, and we hope to make a decision soon.”

(translation via @markalannixon)

In all seriousness, many will automatically be ecstatic to see the back of Mr Piotr and consider a new coach progress for Caroline. Despite that, it’s certainly interesting and notable that Caroline’s rapid demise can be traced back to the moment she and her camp crumbled under the media pressure and attempted to appease the so-called “experts” with the infamous mystery coach charade during the 2011 US Open series. Since then, her results have steadily crumbled and her enlisting of a new coach in Thomas Johansson only proved a catalyst for this fall.

This time, though Wozniacka’s recent horrendous form may have played a part, they have correctly reached a decision without any outside interference. While the route back to the top is in considerably greater shape than the derelict, injury-laden wasteland Wozniacki sauntered through in 2010, who she hires and how they at least attempt to rediscover her old results will make for interesting viewing.

As for Piotr, good on him for finally deciding to sever ties with the often exhausting traveling tennis circus in favour of his sofa and TV. Considering all that his daughter has achieved in tennis and how she has turned out personally, he has certainly earnt it.

Sloane Stephens Criticizes Serena Williams Once More. It Must Be Thursday.

Either every single reporter across the entire 313.9 million strong population of the USA is conspiring against Sloane Stephens to publish as many damning off-the-record quotes of her criticizing Serena Williams as is humanly possible, or else the current world number 17 has a slight problem with the size of her mouth. It was only a week ago in Rome that the American spoke to Sports Illustrated and claimed that the comments that had sparked much controversy had been poached opportunistically from an off-the-record conversation over “pizza!!!” It was all the fault of this unethical journalist, she said:

“I’m really disappointed in the lady who wrote it [..] It wasn’t a good reflection and it’s not what I meant. That’s why I had to talk to Serena about it because it was not good at all.”

As if its sole intention was to make a mockery of Stephens’ defence, an entirely separate interview was published shortly, with Stephens once again having much to say about the world number one.

Today, TIME magazine has decided to wade into the fray, the American publication releasing yet more quotes of Stephens laying into Williams in February. Interestingly, this time the topic centers around an incident before Stephens defeated Williams in Melbourne – rather two weeks earlier in Brisbane when the youngster repeatedly called Williams “disrespectful” for fistpumping and shouting ‘c’mon’. Just as she was rebuffed after attempting to place blame on the journalist, she stated after her loss to Williams that her comments were simply a joke. This time, she exposed herself:

“That’s insane,” Stephens says. “Just intimidation. That’s just what happened. That’s what she does. She scares people.” At the press conference after Stephens dumped Williams out of the Oz, Williams referred to Stephens as “my opponent” and called her a “good player” but took no pains to praise her. Stephens calls such tactics mind games. “I would never do that to anyone,” she says. “So I don’t understand how some people do the things they do. That’s life. What can you do? You can’t change that. She is who she is, so you just move on.”

If one thing is for sure, it’s that this topic is boring, old and there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been argued ten times over. However, Stephens should probably spend a little less time and effort focusing what her opponents are doing – which includes reacting with faux outrage to non existent “mind games” – and a little more on her own game and the endless stream of words exiting her mouth.

Benoit Paire And The Pursuit Of Sanity

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 - Day Seven

On some cold winter’s day once upon a time, a tennis coach found himself in the bizarre position of attempting to convince his charge to undertake exactly what he had hired a coach for – competing at a tournament. The player in question asserted that he had no intention of traveling to this tournament, but the coach persisted and the pair quietly argued amongst themselves. Eventually growing tired of such unnecessary deliberation, the player walked slowly to his racquet bag, emptied its contents and then calmly began to smash each and every piece of vital equipment to rancid smithereens. Once satisfied with the irreversible damage inflicted upon his racquets, Benoit Paire looked up at his coach, momentarily scanning his horrified expression, before slowly and quietly asking: “Are we still going now?”

Needless to say, they did not go.

Long before his first appearance in the top 500, Benoit Paire had already carved out a reputation for himself in the sizable circles of tennis’ working class. Despite the seeming vital requirement of all tennis players to come innately equipped with a figurative screw loose in order to cope with the demands of travelling around the world, inflicting irreparable damage to their bodies and bank account as they chase measly pots of money and almost non-existent points in the hope of one day breaking that tiny glass ceiling; the Frenchman somehow pushed boundaries of batshit insanity beyond what the human mind could ever envision. That these stories – and there were numerous – were stretched to their very limit and perhaps carried barely an atom of truth to them was quite irrelevant. As the Frenchman rose, his on-court demeanor spoke louder than any old fable, and the noise his behaviour emitted was pure garbage.

By October 2009, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) had enough, eventually deciding to kick Paire out of their facilities and withhold his financing. Considering the FFT are well known for affording their top talents more freedom than almost any other major Federation, offering their players the opportunity to grow at their own pace and in their own time, this decision conveys just how staggeringly poor Paire’s attitude was. It came as no suprise that Paire’s reaction to this news was akin to a baby tossing toys out of the pram, but the lesson was learnt and his rise up the ranks slowly resumed:

“I got fired in October by the French Tennis Federation. For two months I did not really want to play tennis. But frankly since I calmed down. I feel good in my head and everything is better. I want to prove to everyone that I can play tennis and mentally I’m not crazy.”

Three and a half years later, Paire’s career stands in far greater stead. One of the most curious and irony-laced features of his rise is that, despite all his physical and mental ebbs and flows, his ranking has seen such a steady and seamless ascension from derelict obscurity to the privileged top end of the spectrum. Though the disappointing, braindead and cringeworthy losses remain omnipresent, not once has his mental deficiencies threatened to obstruct his immense talent and force him on a backwards rut. In fact, with each season has come a major milestone – after finishing 2009 outside the top 300, he halved his ranking and broke the top 175. A year later he had successively navigated his ranking into double figures. And by the end of 2012, Paire was a certified top 50er.

And now? Now Paire stands at 26th. Just last week he achieved his major breakthrough, dispatching the likes of Juan Monaco, Julien Benneteau, Juan Martin Del Potro and Marcel Granollers in a variety of different tests. First he was forced to fight through gritty early wins, and then before he knew it, he was soaring. A career-best victory over Juan Martin Del Potro was backed up emphatically with a spectacular lights out, all guns blazing 6-1 6-0 demolition of the Granollers in the quarterfinal. Throughout this grand dissection and in his following contest against Federer too, one of Paire’s early comments rang through for varying reasons:

“People must think I’m crazy. My philosophy is that if I have to play a point, try to play a beautiful one, no?”

Not much has changed since he uttered these words, and yet everything has. The entertaining silky tennis was still there, clear as day – the equal-parts bombastic and smooth backhand, the silky dropshots that constantly tread the perilously thin line between genius and unspeakable foolery, the unannounced forays to the net that have the power to thrill and embarrass, and that’s not forgetting the athleticism that makes a mockery of his tall and skinny 6ft5 frame.

Despite all that, as Paire took to court against Federer, there was such a unforeseen simplicity to his play. Rather than over-complicating thins by trying to thread that perfect, beautiful point, the Frenchman simply went for it. He served to the limit of his capabilities, aiming for the corners and firing down warning shots. Off the ground, he launched a single-minded assault on Federer’s favoured forehand. This isn’t exactly an approach that many attempt when facing Federer, but after being sliced apart by the 17 time slam champion in their previous meeting, it an ingenious adjustment. From the very first point he produced an array of dazzling winners off the ground into Federer’s forehand corner. Most came from his brilliant backhand, but his notoriously less reliable forehand kept Federer guessing with a surging display too. With each hold and every winner, the confidence seemed to vibrate through him. Even when lazy footwork proved his undoing and he found himself at Federer’s mercy and down three break points, he calmly served his way through five consecutive points to hold once more.

Suddenly, he broke. He was playing well. He was dominating. He had come to win. It seemed that in his mind, he was going to win. At *4-3 deuce, with all the adrenaline pumping through him, he lost himself – or at least, he lost this new self. Out of nowhere, he attempted a terrible dropshot, which Federer happily brushed aside. Floundering and panicking, he then attempted another. It failed again. In the blink of an eye, the spell was broken. From the privileged position of a break lead, he suddenly found himself chasing again. More chances came and went, but the initiative he had held appeared to have been surrendered for good.

This time however, he didn’t descend to smashing every racquet in his possession with childish frustration. He didn’t stand on the side of the court, hollering at his coach in an unintelligible yell. He didn’t throw his toys out the pram and shamelessly intentionally gift Federer the remainder of the match. Once again, it was this newfound simplicity that impressed as he simply fought until the final ball. Other chances came and went – and the first set should have undoubtedly been his – but he left Rome with his head held high and the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, he really isn’t that crazy anymore.

Serena Williams Changes Her Spots Again

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 - Day Eight

There she stands again; trophy in hand, smile on face and right leg bent just that tiny bit at the knee as she assumes the pose. As always, Serena Williams is accompanied by a taller but less enamored blonde who carries the consolation plate for walking helplessly into yet another defeat by the American. On days she is dispatched with ease, there is usually a smile too. As the loser takes her final bow, Williams invariably busts into a variety of gleeful poses, hamming it up to the delight of the flashing cameras.

The scene has become all too familiar.

The reactions are familiar too. If Spain, the site of Williams’ title-before-last, stood to gain a Euro every time it was suggested that Williams is currently “better/fitter/faster/stronger than ever”, their insolvency woes would have long since become a figment of a past long ago, making way for gleeful affluence.

As it stands, they don’t. Nor does this statement – irrespective however many times blindly repeated – carry any truth whatsoever. Of course it’s not true. Is she great, brilliant, spectacular, and majestic? Oh yes. But the idea that this 31 year-old is somehow greater than a decade younger version who shrugged at one of deepest elite fields in WTA history, tearing it apart as she waltzed to four straight grand slams? Such absurdity is enough make even Yanina Wickmayer chuckle.

The greatest compliment that can be paid to Serena after a renaissance that has seen her at least attempt to fit 12 singles trophies in 13 months into the surely already overstuffed Williams trophy room, is that she has adapted like no other player in the history of tennis. So often it is her power that captures all the attention, but what catapulted her to such unrivaled dominance during her peak and formed the centerpiece of her game was her athleticism. In addition to her technical and mental gifts, Williams brought to tennis such an unheard of physicality to her tennis. On the ball she was impressive enough, but between strokes she demonstrated such a breathtaking level of intensity, speed and intricate footwork.

As the unavoidable nemesis of age grows stronger, it’s only natural that these physical gifts begin to wane. Age has, of course, proved the ultimate rival of many greats before her. But unlike most, Williams’ talent is so great that age has simply forced her to remortgage her game to rely more heavily on different strengths – to change her spots. As she began to navigate her late twenties, a deadly concoction rapidly bubbled under the surface. Though always a great and iconic weapon, slowly but surely Williams’ serve has transformed and improved beyond the realms of human imagination. With her smooth and effortless motion, she has achieved technical perfection, which allows her to create maximum power, deadly placement and unreadable variety with seemingly minimal effort.

The security Williams’ serve offers her cannot be understated. It has opened up a whole realm of new possibilities, allowing her to be more consistently aggressive than ever, ensuring that points are even shorter and offering her the opportunity to consistently take great swipes at both first and second serve returns. Though she remains one of the quickest players on the tour, the result is that this reliance on her athleticism, movement, footwork and intensity has shrunk considerably. It’s a maddening sight for her fans, as she has abjured almost the entire concept of footwork, but the result is that her game less intense, less physical and, therefore, less taxing to her body. In short, over the latter part of her career Williams has completely changed the nucleus of her game yet, despite that, still stands as the undisputed number one.

It was curious then that one set into this tussle with Victoria Azarenka, the world number one had landed a pathetic 45% of her first serves against the best returner in the world and the woman who had defeated her in their previous meeting. Despite that, as she strutted to her chair, only one single game had been offered to the Australian Open champion. For a player so reliant on her serve on the surface that, in theory, requires her to be at her sharpest and most efficient on serve simply to have a chance, how could this be possible?

Judging by Williams’ play throughout the final, the answer is quite simple. She simply tossed aside every pre-conceived notion of her game. In stark contrast to the risk-taking aggressive mentality that she has become so renown for, she appeared transfixed on making as few errors as possible and adhering to the surface’s core rules. She continued to play aggressive tennis, of course, but her aggression was tempered and cushioned with margin and care. Rather than any blistering forehand or nuclear backhand, her biggest asset throughout the match was the manner in which she manipulated the ball into every single angle of the court and picked apart her opponent rather than blasting through her.

The flat-footedness onlookers have become accustomed to was offered a temporary on holiday as Williams focused so diligently on her movement. At times she even happily offered Azarenka the initiative in points because she was so comfortable on the run. Not only did she navigate the court magnificently, the movement that was so uncomfortable on the surface a weak earlier had seen such a dramatic improvement – both from the small balance-ensuring slides when the ball was close by, to the long and effortless sliding at full stretch. So often the Belarusian would attempt to either pin Williams into a corner or force her on the run, but Serena would simply wait patiently until a gap appeared, before ruthlessly uncorking an angle to send her opponent scuttling after it. The match proved a perfect demonstration of just how sizable the distance between good and great is, with Azarenka unable to attempt anything other than her standard, regular brand of tennis against Williams, while Williams chopped and changed certain aspects of her game yet the outcome remained the same.

And so they stood there once again. Of Serena’s eight Tier I, Olympic and Slam titles over the past 13 months, seven times (Azarenka 3, Sharapova 4) this scene has repeated itself. The world number one has now won 82 of her last 86 matches. If this dominance isn’t reason enough for her to pose and milk the cameras for all she’s worth, then not much is.

From The Vault: Monica Seles

Only a few weeks ago I randomly decided re-read Monica Seles’ first auto-biography for the first time since I was barely able to comprehend the contents. So often we criticize athletes and celebrities who toss out books at a young age without actually living life. It was far from the case with Seles, who had been attacked at 19 on a tennis court, suffered depression, an eating disorder, a dreadful court injustice, the wrath of sponsors and the media that eventually turned on her, and then came back from it all in remarkable style.

Rather than posting a video of the attack or a long-ass post, above is simply her speech after her first tournament back at the Canadian Open in 1995. A tournament she won, defeating Po (133) 6-0 6-3, Tauziat (17) 6-2 6-2, Huber (10) 6-3 6-2, Sabatini (8) 6-1 6-0 and Coetzer (27) 6-0 6-1 en-route to the title. Before the stabbing, she was easily on her way to becoming one of the greatest of greats and received universal acclaim for her mental strength, but it goes without saying that her resilience and mental strength in overcoming far worse than some 1-4 third set deficit catapulted her to heights far greater than she could have ever achieved. A legend.