Wednesday, February 26th, Maria Sharapova, in a story written for Vanity Fair and Vogue, announced she was retiring from competitive tennis. The resulting Maria features created an avalanche of hurrahs. The tales touched on the youngster coming, practically penniless, to the US from Russia with her father; her scoring a career Grand Slam winning all the majors, (including Roland Garros twice). Some mentioned that since the age of 21 she has contended with not only with formidable opponents but nearly constant right shoulder pain. The financial success she enjoyed on and off the court was detailed. Her suspension for using Meldonium was widely covered, as was the fact that the former No. 1 had seen her ranking slip to No. 131 at the end 2019. It disintegrated further, bottoming out at No. 373 when she called it a day. There were enough Hallelujahs to complete an oratorio. There were also a few “she’s not a saint” exhalations. They touched on her being a loner, standoffish and seemingly, haughty. Reading the Maria narratives caused me to reflect on one of tennis’ most unique players who transcended the game.
Sharapova was born April 19, 1987 in Nyagan, Russia, after her parents Yuri and Yelana had left the area near Chernobyl where the nuclear meltdown changed their lives as they knew it, in 1986. Two years after her birth, the family moved to Sochi. Shortly before her seventh birthday, she and her father arrived in the US. Her mother, who was unable to obtain a visa, didn’t make the journey.
Most tennis fans are aware that she and her father, Yuri Sharapov, migrated to the US in 1994. They ended up in Bradenton, Florida, after the six-year-old had impressed Martina Navratilova at a 1993 clinic that was held in Moscow. The Hall of Famer suggested that Yuri, who was coaching his daughter, should find an established instructor and suggested contacting Nick Bollettieri, who was based at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.
I first met Sharapova and watched her practice in the spring of 2001, just before she turned 14. She was working with legendary coach Robert Lansdorp in Southern California. He had begun mentoring her when she was 11.
Over the years, Bollettieri has received Clio Prize winning PR concerning his relationship with her. Overlooked is the fact that Rick Macci provided direction after Sharapova first arrived in the United States. But when she signed with IMG in 1995, Macci’s mentoring came to an end.
Lansdorp, who developed a legion of formidable players including Grand Slam tournament winners, Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport (to name but a few of the standout players he tutored), has received plaudits for his work with Sharapova. Long ago, he brought out that Yuri Sharapov had seen Davenport play and wanted his daughter to have a forehand like hers. So, when she was 11, Maria and Yuri came to Southern California and teamed up with Lansdorp.
The forehand he teaches, as it is produced along with the results it brings about, is distinctive and renowned. The relaxed, almost rubbery, right arm is pulled wide from the side of the body. The elbow bends and flares out as the racquet extends into the contact point and carries the ball through the hitting zone. The stroke finishes above the left shoulder in a high follow through. The “Lansdorp Drive” uses the entire arm and more important, a “classic” grip, (not an extreme version like the one Nadal employs).
Over the years, having watched countless elite juniors hit forehands, I can quickly identify a player who has worked with Lansdorp based on his/her forehand – bent elbow on the take-back, then the long follow through. The mechanics seem to have been instilled in his players like a tattoo on their psyche. Videos of Austin, Sampras and Davenport hitting forehands during their pro careers clearly marked them as his pupils.
The Story Of Indian Wells 2023
At this same time of the year in 2022, Carlos Alcaraz announced to the tennis community that he was ready to propel himself into the forefront of the sport. He reached the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells before losing to countryman Rafael Nadal amidst almost impossibly windy conditions in the California dessert. Although Alcaraz had already reached the quarterfinals of the 2021 U.S. Open, the stellar Indian Wells showing last year propelled him to another level.
In short order, Alcaraz won his first Masters 1000 title in Miami, captured another of those elite crowns in Madrid, and, at the end of last summer, took the U.S. Open title in New York. With that breakthrough triumph at a major, Alcaraz went to No. 1 in the world, and he concluded the season still stationed at the very top of tennis. He has been hobbled by injuries too often since last November and consequentially missed the Australian Open, but now this 19-year-old sensation is back on top of the world at No. 1 following a 6-3, 6-2 final round victory over Daniil Medvedev in the final at Indian Wells.
That was no mean feat for this strikingly mature champion. He is the youngest man ever to secure both the Miami and Indian Wells titles. Not since Roger Federer in 2017 had a male player taken this prestigious crown without losing a set. Medvedev was enjoying the second longest winning streak of his career of 19 match victories in a row. He was striving for a fourth consecutive ATP Tour title in a debilitating five-week span. He had seemingly almost forgotten how to lose after finding his form in Rotterdam in mid-February. He won there by toppling Jannik Sinner in the final. On he went to Doha, where he stopped Andy Murray in the final. The following week in Dubai, Medvedev ended a four match losing streak against Novak Djokovic with a 6-4, 6-4 semifinal win and then obliterated countryman Andrey Rublev 6-2, 6-2 in the title round.
Medvedev’s form fluctuated at Indian Wells but he seemed to be progressing as he headed into the final. But he had faced Alcaraz only once before. That was in 2021 at Wimbledon and Medvedev came through easily when Alcaraz was not the same player. So this collision at Indian Wells in the final was going to be revealing one way or another for two great players who figure to meet many more times on big occasions in the years ahead.
Some authorities believed Medvedev would exploit his experience, maintain his winning streak, and add another title to his collection. Of the 18 tournaments Medvedev has amassed starting in 2018, all but one have been on hard courts. But seldom has he been beaten as soundly as was by Alcaraz at Indian Wells. The Spaniard put 76% of his first serves in play compared to 65% for Medvedev. Alcaraz won 81% of his first serves points while Medvedev finished 20% behind his opponent in that department. Meanwhile, Alcaraz secured 58% of his second serve points and Medvedev finished well below that mark at 41%. Not once did Medvedev even reach break point. That is a rarity.
The humiliation for Medvedev transcended those facts. Time and again, Alcaraz set the tactical agenda. He caught Medvedev off guard with selective serve-and-volley combinations. He used the drop shot magnificently. He went for his shots freely and stayed away from the rhythmic long rallies on which Medvedev feasts. He kept Medvedev guessing for 70 painful minutes. For his part, Medvedev inexplicably attempted to match or surpass the Spaniard’s backcourt pace. He pressed off both sides. His forehand was well below par. And when Medvedev had the chance to prolong rallies and play more on his own terms, he impatiently went for bigger shots which backfired almost completely. His mind was muddled. Essentially and surprisingly, Medvedev was not ready to fight with his usual ferocity. He collapsed against an unrelenting Alcaraz.
Alcaraz was primed from the outset. He raced to 3-0 in the opening set, sweeping 12 of 15 points on the process. Medvedev professionally started imposing himself and held serve three times after falling behind. In his last two service games he conceded only one point as he located his delivery more accurately. But Alcaraz was unswerving on his own delivery, winning 20 of 26 points in five service games. Serving for the set at 5-3, he held comfortably at 15, closing out that game by serve-volleying on the last two points.
Medvedev had seemingly found his bearings after a slow start, but Alcaraz pounced in the opening game of the second set and broke his dispirited opponent at love. Medvedev gave that game away with two unforced errors off the ground, an errant backhand volley and a double fault. Alcaraz swiftly held at love and moved ahead 0-30 on Medvedev’s serve in the third game. He had won ten points in a row.
Alcaraz went on to break Medvedev again for 3-0 and surged to 4-0 with another routine hold. It had taken him only 17 minutes to build that second set lead. The rest was a formality. Alcaraz closed out the account without stress despite being taken to deuce when he served for the match at 5-2.
That it all came down to a duel between Alcaraz and Medvedev— the last two U.S. Open champions—for the first Masters 1000 crown of 2023 made perfect sense. As an unvaccinated player, Novak Djokovic was not permitted to enter the United States to compete at Indian Wells and Miami. Rafael Nadal—three time champion at Indian Wells and runner-up to Taylor Fritz a year ago—was not ready to return to the ATP Tour after his latest injury that led to a second round loss at the Australian Open.
With the two icons absent, the cognoscenti of tennis hoped for an enticing final round confrontation between Alcaraz and Medvedev. The match did not come even close to delivering on its considerable promise, but the fact remained that they both deserved to be there. The beguiling Spaniard took apart the Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-3 in the second round, ousted the tall Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor 7-6 (4), 6-3 in the third round, and then needed less than 47 minutes to defeat an ailing Jack Draper of Great Britain. Alcaraz led 6-2, 2-0 in that clash when the left-hander was forced to retire.
Alcaraz was rolling now. He had lost all three of his previous appointments against the charismatic Felix Auger-Aliassime, who had improbably erased six match points against him in a round of 16 win over Tommy Paul. But this time around against FAA, Alcaraz was exhilarated under the lights and he came through comfortably 6-4, 6-4. The serving statistics from this encounter are telling. Alcaraz won 81% of his first serve points, which was 11% better than the Canadian. The Spaniard took a respectable 59% of his second serve points, while Auger-Aliassime stood far below at 42%.
Alcaraz was the superior performer across the board during this quarterfinal encounter. He was sounder and cagier, quicker and sprightlier. His return was first rate across the two sets, and he backed up his own delivery with uncanny efficiency. It was a confidence building triumph in every respect, and just what he needed as he headed into the semifinals to take on Jannik Sinner.
The Italian had overcome the defending champion Fritz in a sparkling quarterfinal skirmish lasting three absorbing sets. Sinner blasted away spectacularly against the Californian and he had the upper hand in the vast majority of long rallies contested on an exceedingly windy night.
Sinner is industrious, unwavering and often enterprising. He had been victorious in two of his four showdowns with Alcaraz, prevailing in a memorable four set, round of 16 clash on the Centre Court at Wimbledon last year before losing what may well have been the best tennis match in all of 2022 at the U.S. Open. In that quarterfinal confrontation under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Sinner had a match point in the fourth set of a pendulum swinging contest before Alcaraz rallied again from a break down to take the fifth set and prevail 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3 in five hours and fifteen minutes of spellbinding tennis.
No wonder so many learned observers were looking forward to the fifth career collision between two players who will surely be taking prestigious prizes away from each other for the next decade. Alcaraz moved out in front 4-2 before Sinner took eleven points in a row (and 12 of 14) on his way to a 5-4 lead. Sinner needed that first set more than Alcaraz. The Italian reached 15-30 in the tenth game but narrowly missed a return. Alcaraz held on for 5-5 but soon faced a set point in the twelfth game. Sinner was right where he wanted to be, on the edge of a first set victory.
But Alcaraz is frequently at his best when faced with the sternest of challenges. He took a short blocked return from Sinner and released one of his patented drop shots. Sinner chased it down, but his passing shot was much too high. Alcaraz moved easily to his right and punched a forehand volley winner into the open court. The set would be settled in a tie-break, and Alcaraz was too good, breaking a 4-4 deadlock by sweeping three points in a row, sealing that sequence 7-4 with a scorching flat backhand winner crosscourt. Alcaraz made one break count in the second set and succeeded 7-6 (4), 6-3. It was a remarkable performance highlighting Alcaraz’s match playing acumen.
As for Medvedev, making it to the final was a much tougher task. He handled Brandon Nakashima 6-4, 6-3 in the second round, although the match was more competitive than the score would indicate. Then he overcame Ilya Ivashka 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 to reach the round of 16 and an eagerly awaited clash with Sascha Zverev.
Zverev has had a difficult time rediscovering the heights of his game after missing the second half of 2022 following the abysmal ankle injury he suffered against Nadal in the semifinals of Roland Garros. But he had started playing better tennis in Dubai a few weeks back before losing a semifinal to Andrey Rublev. Zverev largely outplayed Medvedev at Indian Wells but, three times over the course of the match, he squandered 0-40 openings. He also missed out on 15 of 17 break point opportunities.
On top of all that, Medvedev rolled his ankle in the middle of the second set and needed the trainer. Somehow he survived despite the injury, winning 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5 despite getting broken at 5-4 in the final set when he served for the match the first time. Zverev then played horrendously at 5-5, double faulting on break point. Medvedev escaped.
He remained concerned about the ankle in the quarterfinals against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, and fell again, cutting his thumb in the process. Nevertheless, he got the win 7-5, 6-3. Two days off helped his cause considerably, and Medvedev looked fine physically on all fronts during his semifinal against Frances Tiafoe.
In fact, Medvedev was near the top of his game in establishing a 7-5, 5-3 lead. Seldom if ever has he produced so many breathtaking forehand passing shots, and, in turn, he was hardly missing from the baseline. But Tiafoe is doubly dangerous when he is behind, as he demonstrated so boldly last year in the U.S. Open semifinals against Alcaraz when he got up off the canvas after looking down and out to force a fifth set.
In this case, Tiafoe serve-volleyed his way out of two match points in the ninth game of the second set, and saved a third by provoking a forehand error on the stretch from Medvedev. Medvedev could not serve out the match at 5-4 but he broke right back at love in the eleventh game and served for the match a second time at 6-5. He reached 40-0 but Tiafoe erased four more match points in that astounding game. On they went to a tie-break, but an unruffled Medvedev did not fret. He took that sequence seven points to four, concluding the contest with a service winner and an ace. Medvedev was deservedly victorious 7-5, 7-6 (4). Not until he captured that match was his head cleared and his outlook altered. In the middle of the tournament, the 27-year-old was complaining vocally about the conditions, claiming that the slow conditions were not really hard court tennis as he knew it. That was a simple case of Medvedev irrationality.
A day later, Medvedev was trounced by a top of the line Alcaraz. He took the defeat graciously, recognizing that he had hit a physical and emotional wall after so much success in recent weeks. He also realized that Alcaraz had played a magnificent match. The Spaniard will be buoyed by the victory and confident that he has all the tools to confront Medvedev in the years to come. But Medvedev is a very studious fellow who will go back to the drawing board and examine what it will take to unsettle a surging Alcaraz the next time they meet.
Despite the setback, Medvedev has moved back to No. 5 in the world. It won’t be long before he finds himself in the top three, right up there with the pace setters Alcaraz and Djokovic. They are clearly the three best players in the world right now. It will be fascinating to follow their exploits. Djokovic, of course, was easily the best in the game across the second half of 2022 from Wimbledon on. He then opened his 2023 campaign by winning a tenth Australian Open and a 22nd major in the process. After his loss to Medvedev in the Dubai semifinals, the Serbian has been unable to play. That clearly contributed to Alcaraz regaining the top spot in the ATP Rankings, although the Spaniard must hold onto his crown in Miami to prevent Djokovic from taking back the No. 1 ranking.
A revitalized Djokovic will surely return at full force on the clay starting in Monte Carlo and perform purposefully as he chases a third French Open crown. Medvedev will need to prove that he can raise his clay court standards from years gone by. Alcaraz is riding high right now and will be tough to beat as he defends his crown in Miami. I expect him to realize that feat.
All signs point to some gripping battles between Djokovic and Alcaraz on the clay in Europe. If Nadal is healthy, he will be right there with them vying for the titles on the dirt. He will be determined to play his typical brand of unimaginably effective and inspiring clay court tennis. We are in for some astonishing matches in the coming weeks among these top players.
But, for a few days at least, Carlos Alcaraz should celebrate one of the best weeks of his young career at Indian Wells, and try to appreciate how well he is playing before he shifts his attention to winning again in Miami and pursing other primary targets. He owes it to himself to briefly but completely enjoy his latest triumph as much as possible. I suspect he will do just that.
United Cup Daily Preview: The United States Plays Italy in the Final
On Sunday in Sydney, the champions of the inaugural United Cup will be decided.
In the semifinals, the United States completed a clean sweep of Poland on Saturday, while Italy defeated Greece 4-1 despite Matteo Berrettini’s loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in an excellent three-setter. Sunday’s play will feature four singles matches and a mixed doubles contest, with the first nation to win three matches to be crowned the United Cup champions.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most prominent matches on the schedule. Sunday’s play gets underway at 1:00pm local time.
Jessica Pegula [USA] vs. Martina Trevisan [ITA] – Starts at 1:00pm
This will be the first match of the day. Pegula has gone 3-1 at this event, losing to Petra Kvitova in her first match, but defeating World No.1 Iga Swiatek on Friday. Trevisan is 2-2, though she helped propel Italy into this final with an epic victory over Maria Sakkari on Friday.
In their first career meeting, Jessica is a significant favorite. Pegula was 42-21 last season, reaching a career-high of ranking of No.3 thanks to her consistency at big events. And the fast-playing hard courts strongly favor her game, as they helped her reverse her lopsided rivalry with Swiatek in dominating fashion. By contrast, Trevisan had a losing record on hard courts last season, claiming just six tour-level matches in main draws on this surface.
The second match of the day will feature Frances Tiafoe taking on Lorenzo Musetti. Both men are 4-0 to this stage, and this matchup feels like it could easily go either way.
Taylor Fritz [USA] vs. Matteo Berrettini [ITA] – Not Before 5:30pm
This will be the third match of the day. Both players are 3-1 thus far at this event. Fritz’s loss came to Cam Norrie in the city finals, while Berrettini’s loss came in Saturday evening’s semifinals to Stefanos Tsitsipas. Notably, Matteo spent about an hour longer on court Saturday than Taylor, with the Italian’s match ending much later in the day.
Fritz is 2-0 against Berrettini. His victories came four years ago in Davis Cup on an indoor hard court, and two years ago at Indian Wells on in outdoor hard court. Taylor should be the fresher player on Sunday, and with the decided edge in their head-to-head, the American is the favorite to prevail.
The fourth match of the day sees Madison Keys take on Lucia Bronzetti, with Keys heavily favored. And the mixed doubles at the end of the day is scheduled to feature Pegula and Fritz against Trevisan and Berrettini. Overall, the United States is the favorite to win the first-ever United Cup.
The United Cup daily schedule is here.
LGBT Rights: Is It Fair To Criticize FIFA For Staging Its Event In Qatar When Tennis Have Been Doing So For Years?
Is it time for tennis to take note of the concerns raised over the staging of the FIFA World Cup?
November 20th will mark the start of one of the world’s most-watched sports events.
32 teams and thousands of fans will travel to Qatar for the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup which is being held in the Middle East for the first time in history. In what is set to be a landmark event for the region, the build-up to Qatar 2022 has been marred by concerns such as corruption in the bidding process, the controversial treatment of migrant workers and LGBT rights in the country.
LGBT football fans have expressed fears about travelling to Qatar where its penal code states that those living in the country can be jailed for up to seven years if they are found guilty of committing same-sex sodomy or sexual intercourse. The country’s World Cup Chief, Nasser Al Khater, recently told Sky News that LGBT fans will ‘feel safe’ at the event. Not that this is of any consolation to those who have to follow such strict rules or risk prosecution.
Whilst it is highly commendable that the World Cup has triggered a discussion about the topic, other sports have managed to stage their events in Qatar without having to address these concerns with tennis perhaps being the best example.
Doha, which is the capital of Qatar, has been staging top-level ATP and WTA events since 1993. On the men’s Tour, the country holds a prestigious ATP 250 in January which has been named the best tournament in that category four times between 2015-2021 in the annual ATP Awards. The event has been won by each member of the Big Four at least once and a sponsorship deal with ExxonMobil has guaranteed it will continue until at least 2027.
As for the women, the TotalEnergies Open is categorized as a WTA 1000 event and was won by Iga Swiatek earlier this season. Doha has also staged the WTA Finals three times between 2008-2010.
So is there some hypocrisy surrounding criticizing FIFA for staging its premier event in a country which is hostile to LGBT rights when tennis has faced no such backlash?
“The two are not comparable as the (tennis) tournaments in the Middle East are nowhere near as high profile or prestigious as the men’s football World Cup,” Pride In Tennis founder Ian Pearson-Brown told Ubitennis.
“The process is also very different to that of FIFA’s to allocate the area which hosts the World Cup. In turn, the LTA is working with the ATP to ensure any LGBTQ+ athletes are properly supported to create a healthier environment for players to play as their authentic selves. So I’d be wary of drawing comparisons.” he added
Parson-Brown makes a legitimate point. The 2018 World Cup in Russia had a global audience of 3.57 billion viewers which is more than half of the global population aged four and over, according to FIFA.
“In terms of visibility, we are working with the LTA to improve things domestically like our Friday Pride days during the grass-court season,” he continued.
“It is better for Sport to make a presence in countries where it is illegal to be gay in the hope that the values held by sports international governing bodies contributes to changes to a more progressive culture over time. It’s a better way than to force people to change their cultures after banning, disengaging and cutting ties with them.”
Pride in Tennis is a network supporting all British-based LGBTQI+ tennis players, coaches, officials and fans. The network was officially launched in February 2022 in partnership with the British LTA.
Qatar’s treatment of LGBT people has once again come under scrutiny following a new report published by the Human Rights Network which has revealed that as recently as September 2022, there has been evidence of LGBT+ people being arrested by authorities and subjected to ill-treatment.
Between 2019-2022 HRW has documented 11 cases of abusive treatment. Six of those cases were repeated beatings and a further five were sexual harassment. One woman said she lost consciousness during her beatings. Security officials are said to have inflicted forced confessions and prevented those arrested from accessing legal help. Transgender women were released on the condition they attend a government-sponsored ‘behaviour support’ centre.
“I saw many other LGBT people detained there: two Moroccan lesbians, four Filipino gay men, and one Nepalese gay man,” a Qatari trans woman told HRW. “I was detained for three weeks without charge, and officers repeatedly sexually harassed me. Part of the release requirement was attending sessions with a psychologist who ‘would make me a man again.’“
Rasha Younes is an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch who published the report. In an email exchange with Ubitennis, she said it was the duty of all sporting bodies to ensure that their events are staged in countries which respect human rights.
“Sports’ governing bodies have a responsibility to avoid infringing on the human rights of others and address adverse human rights impacts. This includes staging any major events in countries that do not protect human rights, including the rights of LGBT people,” Younes told Ubitennis.
Tennis’ governing bodies have all previously stated their commitment to making the sport open to the LGBT community. Earlier this year, the ITF told Ubitennis they ‘embrace the LGBTQ community and full support any initiative, such as the celebration of Pride Month, that continues the conversation and furthers progress in ensuring sport and society are free from bias and discrimination in any form.’
The WTA, which was co-founded by Billie Jean King, says that their Tour was founded on the ‘principles of equality and opportunity.’ Finally, The ATP has recently launched a multiyear education programme with You Can Play, a foundation which works to eradicate homophobia in sport.
Tennis is in a strong position when it comes to its approach to the issue of LGBT inclusion. However, it is a tougher situation when it comes to staging events. Will the uproar surrounding the FIFA World Cup change things? In reality most probably not. But that doesn’t mean that concerns shouldn’t be raised.
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