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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

US Open: As Seeds Fall, Venus Withdraws

The opening days of the US Open have been rather dangerous for the women's seeds as gutsy opponents made their marks. Three of the top ten seeds  and five of the top 15 suffered early exits, including French Open winner Li Na (no. 6) and the newly crowned Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova (no. 5). With other big names like Maria Sharapova (no. 3) and Vera Zvonareva (no. 2) narrowly escaping defeats of their own, it seemed no player was safe and a true tournament favorite was unknown—unless of course, you favored the Williams sisters.

But just as 19-year-old American Christina McHale added Marion Bartoli (no. 8) to the growing list of WTA casualties, a devastating news alert was released from Arthur Ashe Stadium: Venus Williams had withdrawn from the tournament.

Moments before her second round match, Venus Williams told officials she would not be able to compete. The seven-time grand slam champion was preparing to play German hot-shot, Sabine Lisicki, in what was expected to be one of the best collisions of week one at Flushing Meadows. Instead, Venus exited the facility head down.

Venus Williams releases news of her withdrawal from the US Open.
"I'm really disappointed to have to withdraw from this year's US Open," Williams said in a statement to reporters. "I have been recently diagnosed with Sj√∂gren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease which is an ongoing medical condition that affects my energy level and causes fatigue and joint pain." (via

Venus has not played a match since losing to Tsvetana Pironkova in Wimbledon's fourth round (highlights from the match here). She was expected to compete in both Toronto and Cincinnati, but deferred from both with a mysterious "viral illness."

In her first round match, Venus defeated Russia's Vesna Dolonts 6-4 6-3, but according to the American who has only withdrawn from a grand slam once before in here 17-year career, the victory took every ounce of energy she had left. She leaves New York disappointed and it is unknown if she will be able to return to the game at all for the rest of the 2011 season.

Looking at Venus's performances in the last year, it seems her body can no longer keep up with the high pace, high power style of play that has earned her fame. Venus withdrew from the Australian Open earlier this year during her match against Andrea Petkovic due to a hip injury and has only played in 5 tournaments since Wimbledon 2010. Questions about her retirement have flared across the tennis world, but there's no sign that she is ready to hang up her racket.

If Venus were to retire, what would come of American tennis? For nearly two decades we have sat and watched the Williams sisters stun us with incredible wins, controversial losses and jaw-dropping outfits. Yes, we have newcomers like Christina McHale, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens climbing the ranks, but are we really ready to say goodbye to two of the most dominant players in the women's game? Surely not. But if it is time to bid Venus farewell, something tells me Serena will pick up the slack. After all, the younger sister did win two US Open series tournaments in the previous month and earned a clean-sweep of editors picks to win this grand slam.

Whether you lose in round two, or in the championship, only one player can hoist the US Open trophy at the end of these two weeks. Unfortunately for Venus, it was not a big-hitting young gun who removed her from contention, but rather her own body. Although she was unseeded, she joins the rest of the unlucky WTA stars who were sidelined earlier than expected and will have to wait for another chance at glory. In the meantime, we'll see what little sister Serena (no. 29), has to say about the importance of seeds...

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Pre-US Open: Tournament Preview

Maybe it's a little dramatic, but the arrival of hurricane Irene almost seems appropriate considering the swirling chaos of this year's US Open draw. The top half features names like Wozniacki, Serena, Azarenka, Jankovic, Ivanovic and more, all of whom will be locked in a dogfight for the sole championship opportunity. The bottom half is a little more open, with questionable seeds like Zvonareva and Kvitova looking to validate their rankings while Maria Sharapova tries to cap off what has been a spectacular summer season. Should they falter, big hitter Sabine Lisicki could wreak havoc on the draw—that is, if she survives an early clash with Venus Williams.... All together it's another power struggle for the WTA's big stars, but someone has to win. Here's a look at the tennis storm hitting New York City.

First Quarter: 
Caroline Wozniacki sits at the very top of the draw, enjoying what might be her last few months as world no.1. If she wants to keep her ranking and prove me wrong (by all means, Caro, I would love that), she will have to settle into a rhythm quickly. She's on a straight path to either Hantuchova or Kuznetsova, the former of which knocked her out at Roland Garros and the latter being a former US Open champion. Hantuchova is the more likely adversary in my mind, considering Kuznetsova's growingly inconsistent play, but the Russian definitely has more fire power and would love a chance to rekindle her fire. Either way, I'm predicting the upset. Wozniacki's win in New Haven just isn't impressive enough to block out memories from her two stunning losses. The first quarter also hosts Andrea Petkovic, the hotshot German looking for her first big breakthrough. I imagine she will struggle but survive against the two-time grand slam semifinalist Zheng Jie, but will later fall to this year's Paris champion, Li Na. Any bets on Kaia Kanepi? Ed McGrogan of Tennis.Com calls her a dark horse, but I'm not convinced.

Quarterfinalists: Hantuchova v. Li

Possible Bracket Busters: Vesnina and Kanepi

Second Quarter:
The second quarter of the draw is easily the most terrifying and talented section of this year's tournament. What predictions can you really make when Azarenka, Serena,  Ivanovic, Jankovic, Pavlyuchenkova and Schiavone are all grouped together? The easy choice is Serena, and I'm jumping on that prediction trend willingly, but who's to say someone else doesn't have the flare to take on New York City? The likely third round match between Azarenka and Serena will be the blockbuster event of the tournament should it happen—the winner of which will surely surge to the finals on confidence alone. Don't count out the Serbians, though, both of whom have upped their level of play in recent months. Jankovic fell to Serena in the US Open championship only a few years ago, so a rematch with her in the quarterfinals would be dramatic to say the least, but don't expect Russia's rising star, Pavlyuchenkova, to let her squeeze by the third round too easily. Regardless of the results, this section should give fans the tennis they want.

Quarterfinalists: S. Williams v. Jankovic

Possible Bracket Buster: Jovanovski

Third Quarter: 
The top and bottom of the third section are headlined by Wimbledon finalists Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova, and wouldn't a rematch between those two be thrilling? Having dropped her level since winning in London, however, Kvitova will have to work hard to earn another crack at the Russian. She is due to face tricky Dulgheru in the first round and big serving Safarova in the third, either of whom could send the Czech packing. Sharapova, on the other hand, has been consistently successful since May, and should she keep errors at a minimum, is a serious contender for the title once again. Radwanska, however, will be looking to pick Sharapova's game apart and take advantage of her ailing serve should they meet in quarters. The silent killer in this section is Pironkova. She has a fairly tame draw, facing Peng Shuai for her first seeded match and word on the Chinese woman's health is questionable. Should she rise to the occasion, she may play Julia Goerges in the third round, and who knows how the German will play.

Quarterfinalists: Radwanska v. Sharapova

Possible Bracket Buster: Oudin (Can she author another Cinderella story?)

Fourth Quarter:
Bartoli and Zvonareva are the final section's highest seeds, but danger lurks elsewhere in the draw. Both Venus Williams and Sabine Lisicki will be looking to hack their way through unlucky seeded opponents, but unfortunately only one of them will have the chance to do so as they are due to face-off in the second round. Whoever prevails will likely face self-proclaimed pocket-rocket, Cibulkova, in the third and no.2 seed Zvonareva in the fourth. If the top ranked Russian wants to make the final for the second year in a row, she will need to play some of her best tennis. Bartoli, too, will need to be on her A-game as she works her way through names like Christina McHale and Maria Kirilenko (I'm predicting a McHale upset). Sam Stosur will also be looking to enforce herself, having made the Toronto finals and looking strong despite crumbling under Serena's power. She may take on Nadia Petrova in the third round and I expect the match to be tight. Lucky for Nadia, the rest of her draw seems rather doable.

Quarterfinalists: Petrova v. Lisicki

Possible Bracket Buster: McHale

* * *

Championship Prediction
We've all been wondering the same thing since we heard she was coming back in May: When will Serena Williams win the first grand slam of her return? My answer: this is it. Though she faces a strenuous draw, Serena Williams is a born champion and she didn't win two USOpen series titles just to come to New York City and lose. Since demolishing her competition in Stanford, Serena's engines have been firing full-blast and the momentum will carry her through the upcoming weeks. Having pulled out of Cincinnati, the 13-time grand slam champion will be well-rested and fully recovered (not that any of us really believed she was hurt when she withdrew) so fatigue shouldn't affect performance. Her biggest task may be defeating Victoria Azarenka in the third round, but after the 6-3 6-3 schooling she unleashed on the Belarusian two weeks ago, there's little one can say against Serena's chances at victory. If there is anything Serena struggles with at the US Open, it will be containing her emotions on championship point. It has been a long road of recovery for the American super star, so although she's hoisted the trophy in Flushing Meadows three times before, something tells me number four will be a little bit sweeter.

Final: S. Williams def. Lisicki

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Friday, August 26, 2011

Pre-US Open: Early Round Collisions

It's that time of year again. The fourth and final grand slam is upon us and quality tennis looks to be as imminent as Hurricane Irene. The top half of the draw hosts a variety of the WTA's best in what could be the most hectic and vicious fight for a championship birth all season. Should the draw fall accordingly, these are some of the matches to watch in the first three rounds.

Round 1:
Serena v Jovanovski
There's a lot of chatter about Serena Williams this year and she earned a clean sweep of's editors picks for the title. She will be tested, however, right from the gates as she takes on Serbia's rising star, Jovanovski. The young gun is armed with heavy ground strokes that may push Serena back, but regardless of her fight, Serena will almost definitely advance. A lack of focus from the 13-time grand slam champion, however, could make this match a dogfight.
Prediction: Serena in straights.

Kuznetsova v Errani
Not a match to watch for quality, but one that could see our first seed sent home. Errani is no dumby on court and with Kuznetsova's unpredictable game, all bets are off. I imagine the Russian will be steady enough to advance, but she might fall behind at some point in the match.
Prediciton: Kuznetsova in 3.

Jankovic v Riske 
We watched Riske slowly pick apart Zvonareva in Wimbledon, so a first round match against Jankovic has to be on your radar for a possible early exit. The rookie failed to convert, though, and might have missed her chance to knock out a seed. Jankovic is coming in to the US Open with the confidence of her best result in a long time, so expect her to be on her game.
Prediction: Jankovic in straights.

Round 2:
Lisicki v Venus
Things really heat up as Venus Williams takes to the court against the returned and much improved Sabine Lisicki. After Venus's struggles to shutdown Date-Krumm during Wimbledon and her fight with injury and illness afterward, no one really knows how she will do in New York. Lisicki, however, has no where to go but up, having reached her first slam semifinal and competing at a high level since. Should be a good match between the two biggest servers in women's tennis.
Prediction: Lisicki in 3.

Petkovic v Zheng
Remember our article on German tennis? Well things could get tricky for the German front-runner, Andrea Petkovic. She has to deal with Zheng Jie, a feisty Chinese player who has made the semis in both Wimbledon and the Australian Open. This match should go 3, but the victor is a tricky pick. Petkovic is good, but not consistent. Zheng is talented, but not overly powerful. Flip a coin.
Prediction: Petkovic in 3.

Wozniacki v Vesnina
Wozniacki has been playing awful lately and could lose to just about anyone who knows how to keep the ball in the court. Vesnina could easily do that and send the world no.1 packing in the second round. It won't be the match of the ages by any means, but you won't want to miss an early exit by the first seed if it's going to happen.
Prediction: Reluctantly, Wozniacki in 3.

Round 3:
Wozniacki v Gajdosova 
Like we said, Wozniacki's fate is up in the air. Gajdosova hits the ball hard and, like we saw with Cibulkova in Wimbledon, Wozniacki isn't always capable of keeping hard-hitters at bay. Gajdosova isn't the kind of player you usually see with a low number of unforced errors, though, so she'll really need to be on her game to out-wit Wozniacki. If she's smart, she'll play to the Dane's forehand.
Prediction: Reluctantly, Wozniacki in 3.

Li v Kanepi
Li suffered a surprising loss to Cetkovska in New Haven and hasn't been on point since winning the French Open. Some people are saying Kanepi is a dark horse for the title in NY and, although I won't jump on that bandwagon, I could see her knocking out China's no.1. Watch out for what will surely be a slug-fest. My prediction will likely be incorrect, but no one can really say much against it.
Prediction: Kanepi in straights.

Serena v Azarenka
Here it is, folks, the blockbuster match of the year. Many believe the winner of this match could win the championship and, to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised. Victoria Azarenka is the no.4 seed and one of the best players on tour in every category. Serena Williams is Serena Williams, enough said. Despite a one-sided victory for Serena in Toronto, this third round match has the makings of a grand slam classic. All you need to do is watch highlights from Miami 2009 championship and the 2010 AO quarterfinals to understand how brutal the face-off could be.
Prediction: Serena in 3. But I won't be surprised if Azarenka takes the bull by the horns.

Jankovic v Pavlyuchenkova
Out of the top 10 for the first time in years, Jankovic has to face some challenging players a little earlier at this year's US Open. A real under-the-radar match is Jankovic v. Pavlyuchenkova—a collision that should host huge hitting from the Russian and magnificent defense from the Serb. If JJ really is making a comeback, she should have no problem redirecting Anastasia's power, but if not, she will definitely crumble.
Prediction: Jankovic in straights.

Kvitova v Safarova
A battle of the lefties, Kvitova has a lot to live up to now that she's a grand slam champion. She hasn't done much to impress her supporters lately and she could very well be in trouble with Safarova's huge serve. If you picked Kvitova for a deep run in NYC, I'm going to have to say otherwise.
Prediction: Safarova in 3.

* * *

Welcome to New York City, tennis fans—where dreams are born and anything can happen.

Stay tuned for a full draw analysis this weekend.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Grading the Pros: US Open Series Review

Maria Sharapova - Sloppy Success (8/10)
Maria is a player that truly decides her own fate in a match. When she's on point, she's great, but when she's bad, things get ugly. You wonder how she can be losing when her opponent has hit only three winners, and then you notice another statistic: she has 40 unforced errors...You might question the 8 out of 10 I've given her considering she exited Stanford in the quarterfinals and Toronto in just the round of 16, but there's more to Sharapova than the results. She peaked when she needed to and dominated play, taking Cincinnati by storm and denying Jankovic what could have easily been her title. Her wins weren't always pretty, but the aggression and passion are there and she's starting to look like the stone-faced champion she used to be. Also, you can't say her Stanford performance was too awful considering she lost to Serena—a player she hasn't beaten since 2004. All in all, she picked up her game at the end of the series and, if she keeps the double faults to a minimum, she could ride that momentum into a deep US Open run. Might she make the semis or better of a grand slam for the third time this year? The decision is hers.

Caroline Wozniacki - Worst Performance (2/10) 
What can you say about a world no.1 who loses her opening matches in two premiere tournaments in a row? You laugh and say something is wrong with the ranking system, but I digress. Caroline Wozniacki is by far the US Open series' biggest story and biggest failure. She lost to Roberta Vinci in Toronto (read "Sweet Caroline's Bitter Struggles" here) and to Christina McHale in Cincinnati, both in straight sets, both 6-4 7-5. What? Clearly she entered the tournaments with the wrong game plans and will need to get her head back on her shoulders if she wants to do well in New York; well, that and figure out how to hit a forehand. I can't give her a 1 out of 10, however, because I'm certain she'll do well in New Haven (again), unless of course McHale decides to ruin her day a second time. But should we really praise the world's best for winning at Yale? A title is a title, I guess... but it's not a grand slam trophy, and unless Wozniacki really turns things around now that she's dumped her father as a coach, I don't think she'll be hoisting one of those three weeks from now.

Jelena Jankovic - Most Improved (5/10)
Just when you thought Jelena Jankovic had given up on tennis, she decides to show off her skill again. Out of no where, JJ was buzzing around Cincinatti with as much defensive prowess as she did three years ago, slicing, lobbing and launching lethal backhands at will. It's been awhile since Jankovic has impressed anyone (she lost in the first round of Toronto) so it was refreshing to see a little life in her game. She is the easiest choice for "most improved," but I want to see more than just a one tournament surge. She has made the US Open final before and I want to see it again—I just won't make any bets on it just yet. Like Wozniacki, she needs to do more than just push the ball back into the court or else big hitters will trounce her when they find a rhythm. And for goodness sake, JJ, remember to use that backhand! (Read "Serb-Resurgence" here)

Serena Williams - Series Champion (10/10)
She won Stanford and Toronto as an unseeded competitor, she rose in the ranks from 160 something to 29, then she ditched Cincinnati for the Kardashian wedding (don't lie to us Serena... we know). Everyone knows she's back. Everyone knows she is a force to be reckoned with. She's the clear US Open favorite and the definite US Open series champion. Ladies and gentlemen, Serena Williams. (Read "Unstoppable Serena" here)

Vera Zvonareva - Head-Scratcher (6.5/10)
Known for being a headcase on tour, Vera Zvonareva messes with our heads too. Do we ever really know what to expect from her? She has the game to beat just about anyone, and the same game to lose to just about anyone. She won a tune-up tournament in Baku, then used that confidence to make the final of Carlsbad where she lost to Radwanska. Obviously, then, she lost to Radwanska again a week later in the round of 16 in Toronto, but then regrouped to make the semifinals in Cincinatti. Life is always full of ups and downs for the current top Russian, but what does that say about her chances in NYC? She made the final last year and, though I don't think she'll go as far,  I expect another good result this year. Overall she had a fairly good hardcourt series and earned a solid 6.5 out of 10.

Petra Kvitova - Lackluster (3/10)
After Wimbledon, I didn't know how Petra Kvitova would handle her newly acquired champion status. Would she crack under the pressure or continue her flawless play? Unfortunately, it was the former. She botched her appearances in both Toronto and Cincinnati, losing to Andrea Petkovic in both during the round of 16. Petkovic is a great player, but she is someone Kvitova should be able to go blow for blow against, especially considering the German's streaky play. Instead of being the calm and collected star we saw win Wimbledon on an ace, Kvitova played some really lackluster tennis. Maybe she'll rise to the occasion at the US Open.

Christina McHale - Cinderella Story (6/10) 
Ranked 66th in the world and only 19 years old, McHale gained a lot of fans this past week. The American earned the best win of her career by defeating a sluggish Wozniacki 6-4 7-5. How did she do it? Simply put, she out-Wozzy'd Wozzy. McHale put everything back into the court and played clean, forcing Caroline into long and exhausting rallies. The difference? When given the opportunity, McHale switched from rallying to attacking, and she did it with shocking success, especially when she clobbered forehands and backhands up the lines and out of the Dane's reach. She may have lost in the next round and she might not have done well in any other tournaments, but beating the world no.1 definitely deserves some recognition.

Other mentions:
Agnieszka Radwanska - Miss Consistent (7.5/10)
Good results. Nothing astonishing.
Li Na - Post-Clay Struggles (3/10)
She needs to make it past a second round soon,
Samantha Stosur - Finding Form (7/10)
Doing better, but still can't beat Serena.
Andrea Petkovic - Burnout (6.5/10)
She beats the players she shouldn't, then fizzles to someone she should beat.
Victoria Azarenka - Silenced (6/10)
She may grunt loud, but she hasn't been making much noise lately. Best match against Serena all series.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Monday, August 22, 2011


After the up and down final in Cincinnati between Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic, fans of Serbian tennis might feel they have a little more to look forward to at the US Open.

Jankovic, who has been struggling to win matches and fell out of the top 10 for the first time in nearly four years, made a surprise run last week that showed glimpses of the game that once made her a world no. 1. Her national compatriot and friend, Ana Ivanovic, has also been seeing improvements of late, recovering from a cataclysmic drop out of the WTA's top 50 after winning the 2008 French Open. What's been the difference?

For JJ—an on-court diva who likes to play quickly (and challenge slowly...)—this week's performance seemed to showcase the magnificent counterpunching style that she once used to absorb and deflect the power of big-hitters like Serena Williams. At the peak of her game, Jankovic was always capable of out-rallying her opponents, seemingly tireless as she sliced, chipped and pushed shots back on court before rocketing a backhand for a winner of her own. But somewhere along the line, all of that changed.

Since flubbing her semifinal match against Sam Stosur in the 2010 French Open, Jankovic seems to have altered her game, focusing more on her serve and whipping harder forehands that, say two years ago, she would have been content rolling into corners. Maybe the style change came as a result of the passive mind-set that allowed Stosur to dictate their match in Paris, or perhaps she was finally just getting tired from all the long rallies. Regardless, her new game has earned her a few more aces, but a lot more errors, and for someone that was once described as a wall, that just doesn't work.

In Cincinnatti we saw a bit more life from Jankovic. Instead of forcing her shots, she maneuvered the ball at will and waited for the right shot to put away. No longer did we see her second-guessing and dumping forehands into the net, but instead we watched with our mouths dropped as she collected winner after winner on impossible backhand angles. Like the good old days, she scurried around the court, cat-like, forcing her opponents to hit another shot—a perfect shot. Granted, these moments of brilliance were just that: moments—but who's to say she can't build a bit more consistency and find her way back into the top 10?  JJ, like Wozniacki, is a pusher and there's no denying it, but she has more experience, more fire power on both wings and more attitude than the Dane. If she put's it all together (with her new serve, of course) there's no reason why she can't.

Ana Ivanovic is another toss up as we move closer to New York City. An emotional mess only a year ago, the beautiful 2008 French Open champion has upped her level quite a bit. She isn't smacking the electric forehands that made her a grand slam threat three years ago, but she's starting to hit the ball with more pace and sting.

Ana's best work in the last year came at the end of 2010 when she collected titles in Linz and Bali, defeating the likes of Goerges, Vinci, Pavlyuchenkova and Kleybanova in order to do so. Immediately following, the Serbian began to suffer from various injuries including a stomach tear and wrist strain which, paired with a first round exit at the Australian Open, seemed to kill her momentum.

Still, the battle is on as the final grand slam of the year draws near. Ivanovic performed well in a number of events during the hardcourt series, including a tight three set loss to Zvonareva in the semis of Carlsbad and second set tiebreak loss to Petrova in Cincinnati. Though a few more deep runs would have given the Serb a bit more confidence, Ivanovic will be happy to move forward with her new world ranking of 17 and some excellent matches under her belt. For the fans, it's at least been something worthy a few "ajde!"s.

The days of the "Serbian Summer" have come and gone indeed, but that doesn't mean the sun has set on the careers of the WTA's top ranked Serbian women. A resurgence is due, and with a few deep runs, the results will come. Even more, there is the rise of young players like Jovanovski—players who will take the torch from their national heros when the time comes. For now, I'm still holding out for that JJ slam.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unstoppable Serena?

Since losing to Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon, Serena Williams has begun an intimidating surge. She has competed in two of the most recent premiere events (Bank of the West and the Rogers Cup) and won them both in dominating fashion. At Stanford, Serena clobbered her opponents while dropping only one set, then in Toronto, regrouped from a few early round troubles to crush Azarenka and Stosur for the title.

Serena's return is, to say the least, an inspiring story for athletes of any degree. To overcome a year's worth of injury and illness and compete at such an extraordinary level illustrates the power and passion of sport. To viewers, the story is something to watch in awe. To her opponents, it's a startling and terrifyingly simple message: Serena's back

The journey to her two recent championships began with a ominous double bagel victory over Anastasia Rodionova and ended with a four-ace service game against Samantha Stosur. Along the way, Serena had her share of hiccups, including two slow starts in Toronto where Zheng and Safarova both nabbed first set surprises, but the major theme of Serena's performance was domination.

Perhaps the most impressive win came in the Canadian semifinal, where Serena faced off against world no.4 Victoria Azarenka. The big hitting Belarusian was playing some of the best tennis of the season leading up to the match, not having lost a set in the tournament and earning her second double-bagel victory of the year. Surely, then, we expected a grinding three setter in the semi, but instead, we needed only watch for 74 minutes...

Despite the one-sided scoreline (6-3 6-3), the match showcased some of the most powerful and exciting rallies we've seen in some time. Azarenka did well to keep shots deep, to attack the Serena serve when she could and to use her athleticism to force errors, but regardless of her efforts, Serena was too powerful, to focused and too good. Can she stay so hot?

With two titles under her belt, Serena leads the WTA pack in the race for US Open series points and will jump to a ranking of about 30. Not bad considering she was above 150 three weeks ago... Her next stop will be in Cincinnati, where she will look to earn her third consecutive championship and secure a spot in the top 16 for New York seeds.

While an improved ranking for Serena would ensure the safety of top seeds like Li and Zvonareva until the second week of the slam (that is, unless they get walloped by a no-name...), viewers like us can't help but crave a few big-name battles, specifically Serena vs. Caroline. For now, we can only watch the tune-up tournaments and start picking favorites.

So, tennis fans. Is it Serena we see in the US Open spotlight?

For now... all signs say "Yes."

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sweet Caroline's Bitter Struggles

Just when we convinced ourselves Caroline Wozniacki would verify her no.1 ranking during the US Open series, she baffles us with a jaw-dropping loss. The Danish all-star looked messy on court and could not find a rhythm as world no. 22, Robert Vinci, pushed hard for her first career top-10 win.

So far in 2011, Wozniacki has hushed critics with her terrifyingly consistent play outside of the slams, collecting five titles along the way. You can only nag a player so much for being a slamless no.1 when she leads the WTA tour for most titles won—her most impressive being Indian Wells—but her ugly falter in Toronto rekindles the fire of debate: does she really deserve her ranking?

Every player has his or her bad days (check the highlights to see just how bad...) and you can't belittle Vinci's efforts. The 28-year-old Italian did well to earn her "greatest victory ever" and whether she's crushed in the next round or not, she will look back on the 2011 Rogers Cup fondly. Here's a post-match interview with Vinci, courtesy of the WTA.

The draw for Toronto looked to be the ideal battleground for big names like Clijsters, Williams, and Wozniacki... but with Kim's injury retirement and Caroline's flop (let's just call it what it is), it looks like we'll have to wait a bit longer. In the meantime, Serena will be happy to pick up the slack.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Monday, August 8, 2011

A German Trifecta

There's a lot of talk buzzing around about German tennis, and rightly so. After a semifinal birth in Carlsbad last week, Andrea Petkovic, the German no.1, cracked the WTA's top 10 to reach a new career-high ranking.

Petkovic is the first German top 10
since Anke Huber in Oct. 2000
Petkovic is best known for her on-court shenanigans and sparky personality, but she's beginning to prove that she's more than just a funny dancer. The 23-year-old baseliner has had a productive year, jumping from a ranking of 30 to 10 with a championship in Strasbourg and a handful of other deep runs. Perhaps her best activity came in the very beginning of the season, when she snagged the runner-up spot in Brisbane after falling to the soon-to-be Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, and obliterated Maria Sharapova 6-2 6-3 in the 4th round of the Australian Open.

Petkovic surely has threatening potential, but her consistency and go-for-broke attitude can leave fans scratching their heads in confusion. Those who watch her matches are definitely familiar with her streaky forehand—a shot that she smashes 10 feet off the court almost as often as she keeps it in play. Perhaps it's those dips in focus that explain why she will flub a set 0-6 after winning the first (like she did against eventual champion Aggie Radwanska in the Mercury Insurance Open semifinal).

Still, Petkovic has quickly earned a spot in the top 10, and has a posse of equally-as-talented Germans to back her up. Sabine Lisicki, now ranked 21 after needing a wild card entry for Wimbledon, has proven she is due for more than her semifinal at the All-England club as she made the semi of Stanford (losing to  an in-form Serena Williams) and the quarters in Carlsbad (losing in 3 sets to runner-up, Zvonareva). She will likely be a contender at the US Open, regardless of her draw. Then there's Julia Goerges, the third German worth noting with a current ranking of 20. In the spring, Goerges earned fame by defeating world no. 1 Wozniacki twice in a matter of weeks. Since then she has struggled (three first round losses in a row, to be exact) but if she can find her feet on the hardcourt, she could play with the same impressive aggression we saw earlier this year.

This new 'German Trifecta' could very well do damage during the US Open series, but what will they be capable of in New York? Rankings aside, Lisicki might be the most dangerous combatant, delivering booming serves and more consistent ground strokes than her countrywomen. She'll be taking a break from this week's Premiere5 event in Toronto, but we'll have plenty to look forward to from Petkovic and Goerges. Andrea will take on a wildcard in her first round while Goerges matches up with Jankovic tonight.

For more info on the latest German surge, CLICK HERE.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Makes Us Win

Every player on tour has his or her own style—this is something we know. We might see some overlapping qualities among the very best, but each athlete brings his or her own unique flare to court, whether it be a favorite shot, eye-popping outfits or even sing-song grunting. What we often overlook, however, are the special ways players pull the very best from themselves in difficult moments. It's easy to comment on a player's inability to maintain focus or to say that someone is very collected on court, but what else boosts tennis players to their very best? For some, it's the love of victory. For other's, the pure hatred of defeat. Two women on the circuit portray these vastly different motivations above all others and they are two of the most well-known names in sports:

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

For 13-time grand slam champion Serena Williams, winning seems to be the ultimate reward. We've seen her claim many titles in her career, and every time it happens she looks just as thrilled as she was the first time; granted, some victories may taste sweeter than others (no one feels great walloping their sibling in a tournament final). Need proof? Just look at her reaction in the 2008 US Open final when she defeated Jankovic 6-4 7-5. This is a woman who loves to win.

At the same time, Serena is someone who doesn't seem to fear a loss. Down match point, Serena often looks lethargic, straight-faced or even downright bored with playing. She'll put on an "I'm over this" attitude, but then does the unthinkable, slapping untouchable winners at will. (Remember how she steamrolled Azarenka in the 2010 AO quarterfinals despite a set and double break deficit?) She allows instinct to take over, and for someone as talented as her, the only instinct she has is to win. It's in that moment, when she has denied her opponents a quick victory, that she begins to sense a new chance at life in the match, and if players are unable to shut her down immediately, she will see the finish line and get there herself. But if her bombs miss their marks and she is forced to take a loss, she accepts it for what is is. At no point was she afraid of defeat, but more so upset that she couldn't enjoy victory.

We see a very different style of mental toughness from big hitting Maria Sharapova. A 3-time grand slam champion herself, Sharapova has the skill and maturity needed to be a big-stage staple, but she handles herself quite differently. While Serena bursts with emotion her entire time on court, Sharapova maintains stern composure, only releasing signature "come on!"s after high-stake points. Commenting on her strict and silent intensity is always fairly ironic, however, considering quiet is rarely a word associated with Sharapova...

Regardless, the WTA's beautiful banshee is accustomed to victory herself, but in a noticeably different way, and not just in her on-court presence. Sharapova is an athlete that some might consider to despise loss as much (if not more so) than relish a victory. Clearly Sharapova cherishes each and every opportunity she's had to lift a grand slam trophy—I'm not saying she didn't—but never does she look more fired up and disgruntled than when she falls behind in a match. Whether it be break point or match point down, Sharapova forces herself to hit the ball harder and go for more even at times when she might need a little less. Her instinct, unlike Serena's, is not just to win, but to force the subject—crush your opponent before she can crush you. You might compare Sharapova down match point to a wild animal locked in a cage; she will find a way out with brute force.

In some cases, Sharapova's tactics work, and that's what has made her a champion. She's not a low-quality athlete throwing her weight around without reason; she's a tennis player who uses high risks to earn her high rewards. When she's ahead, she's ahead, and there's little chance for someone to break her confidence and power. In that moment, it's Sharapova at her best—a natural born winner taking the lead like she is comfortable doing. But when she's behind, it's a different story. She's not accustomed to losses and will go for broke in order to avoid it. This style is different and sometimes self-destructing, but it's who she is, how she plays, and what she knows. Sometimes a little fear is all a player needs to unleash greatness.

Pushing too hard, however, can result in 77 unforced errors.
With a 7-2 record against her Russian rival, Serena's love of victory seems to have an edge, but that's not to say Sharapova's can't-back-down attitude doesn't have it's advantages. Check the head-to-head between these two stars HERE for a look at the blowouts and marathons these players have endured against one another.

For now, all momentum appears to be on the racket of Serena Williams. Returning from a year without tennis and a ranking of over 150, Serena stormed Stanford with intimidating ease. It looks as though she has missed raising trophies.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor