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TEBBUTT: SERENA/RAFA TO LOSE IN ROME

Credit: atpworldtour.com / wtatennis.com

Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal won their respective titles with decisive victories at the Madrid Open on Sunday.

Williams, for the 12th time in a row since 2005, beat Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 with a superb display of first-strike tennis. It seemed like any time Williams wanted to hit a winner – forehand, backhand, service return – she could. It was her 50th career title.

Nadal defeated No. 15-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka 6-2, 6-4.

Wawrinka, who was playing his ninth match in 10 days after winning the ATP 250 event in Oeiras, Portugal, a week earlier, was no match for Nadal as the Spaniard racked up his 40th clay-court title (six behind Argentine great Guillermo Vilas’ record 46), coasting to victory after taking a 4-0 lead in the opening set.

Despite their success in Madrid, neither Williams nor Nadal will hoist the champion’s trophy at the end of this week’s Italian Open in Rome.

Is that an educated guess or a bold prediction? Take your pick.

Williams, who is on a 24-match winning streak dating back to Doha in February, desperately wants to win the French Open beginning in 12 days in Paris. Of her 15 Grand Slam victories, only one came at Roland Garros – 11 years ago in 2002.

A year ago, she suffered a shocking first-round loss to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros. So, she wants to redeem herself for that crushing, tear-filled debacle, and also to please her current boyfriend and coach, Patrick Mouratoglu, a Frenchman who runs his eponymous tennis academy in Paris.

As much as it would boost her confidence to win this week in Rome, it would also increase the pressure on her in Paris because she would become an even more prohibitive favourite.

Also, at 31, is it really worth playing five matches to win the title if there’s a risk of injury? A year ago, she pulled out before her Rome semi-final with a back problem.

A loss might also make her a bit more motivated and vigilant heading into Roland Garros, and guard against any complacency.

With the withdrawal of potential quarter-final opponent Angelique Kerber, Williams’ draw is a little easier, but it is still Laura Robson (who beat Venus on Monday) in her opener on Tuesday followed possibly by Dominka Cibulkova and then Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Carla Suarez-Navarro before the semi-finals. In the semis, it could be Agnieszka Radwanska or Li and then the possible opposition in the final might be Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Sara Errani or Petra Kvitova.      

It’s never wise to pick against a player as dominant as Serena, but a hunch says she doesn’t win the Italian Open this year. Ironically, the only time she won in Rome was 2002 – right before that lone victory at Roland Garros.

As for Rafael Nadal, I think he’s still bothered by his chronic left knee problem.

After his first round win over Benoit Paire in Madrid, this is what he said about the joint, “to be honest, I’m not feeling really comfortable with my knee. It’s not forgotten, of course. I haven’t forgotten it. It’s the only thing that I have in my mind that creates some doubts.”

During his narrow escape against David Ferrer in the Madrid quarter-finals, Nadal played poorly at times and his movement was not quite up to his usual standard. Following his loss to Nadal in the semi-finals, Pablo Andujar said about his Spanish compatriot, “maybe he’s not moving as good as before – a little bit worse.”

Surely, the knee didn’t get any better over the five matches he played in Madrid.

If Nadal were to win in Rome, he would move up to No. 4 in the rankings and therefore be seeded No. 4 at Roland Garros – instead of being a dangerous No. 5 and a very tricky opponent for one of the top four seeds in the quarter-finals.

But he faces a real tough run of opposition after facing Fabio Fognini in his opening match in Rome. From the second round (after a bye) on it could be Ernests Gulbis or Viktor Troicki followed by David Ferrer, Novak Djokovic (in the semis!) and then the best of a bottom half that includes Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro, Nicolas Almagro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Like Serena, Rafa might be better off not putting the pedal all the way to the metal in Rome because he could end up paying the price in Paris.

 

MILOS – GALO SPLIT

It was a surprise when the news came out late Saturday that Milos Raonic and his coach Galo Blanco (above in Barcelona in 2011) have ended their two-and-a-half year relationship.

Raonic, No. 16 this week, had a fantastic rise over about a month in early 2011 when he reached the round-of-16 at the Australian Open and then won the ATP 250 event in San Jose. He went from No. 152 to No. 37 in just five weeks of ATP rankings.

Since last August, he has been inside the top-20, reaching a personal best of No. 13.

But there has been a sense of stagnation over the past few months and when that happens in any sport, the coach or manager is always on the hot seat.

There has been persistent criticism of Raonic’s return of serve and his backhand, but he has lost several matches in 2013 more because he has simply made bad shots in crucial situations: a missed volley against Grigor Dimitrov when he lost his serve late in the second set of a first-round defeat in Brisbane this year, unforced errors and a match-point double fault late in the third set of his match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Indian Wells, a double fault at 6-6 in the third set tiebreak against Fernando Verdasco in the first round in Madrid last week and an inability to win any of his four service points in a first set tiebreak against Philipp Kohlschreiber in a loss at the Italian Open on Monday.

Those are not Blanco’s fault, or errors of basic technique. They are related to confidence and that’s all that really separates Raonic from making another serious move up the rankings.

That’s likely the principal reason for him making the change.

And who is it going to be the new coach? Well, there are the usual suspects – ESPN commentators and former coaches Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert – as well as the retired Todd Martin who was once before considered as a potential Raonic mentor.

Then there are more unlikely options such as the Good To Great tennis academy in Sweden run by former players Magnus Norman, Mikael Tillstrom and Nicklas Kulti. They currently handle Grigor Dimitrov and Stanislas Wawrinka.

He could also opt for a French coach, like Frédéric Fontang with Vasek Pospisil, maybe with the help of Tennis Canada’s Louis Borfiga in Montreal.

Then, there could be someone else who is from Spain like Blanco (above with Raonic during Davis Cup last month) or a person with a playing background who speaks Serbo-Croatian, as does Milos. Ivan Ljubicic comes to mind and he apparently is interested and sat beside Raonic’s manager Austin Nunn on Monday in Rome during the loss to Kohlschreiber.

Whoever it is, it’s hard to see Raonic, at 22, regressing. So, a coaching change has to be viewed as a positive move.

 

PLAYER – UMPIRE KARMA

There was a relaxed exchange at a tense moment in the Madrid Open semi-final on Saturday between Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych.

Wawrinka, from 2-4, 15-40 down, rallied and was sitting down at the change-over (see at the 35-second mark above) leading Berdych 5-4 when he had a conversation with umpire Damien Dumusois.

Wawrinka looked up at Dumusois, who is from Paris, and said in French, “every time I talk to you, afterwards I feel good and I play well.”

Dumusois seemed amused but admonished him, saying, “(you should) concentrate.”

Then Wawrinka replied, “you concentrate – you haven’t made any mistakes…at least for the moment.”

It was all in good fun and then Wawrinka proceeded to go out and break Berdych to win the match and reach the final versus Rafael Nadal.

 

GRATUITOUS SHARAPOVA PICS

Hola Maria! Click here for swimsuit shots of the World No. 2 in Esquire Latin America.

 

QUOTES-OF-THE-WEEK

  1. Serena Williams after winning her 50th career title in Madrid: “Like I say every day, who knows if I’ll ever win another title? I just want to live the moment and the dream every chance I get.”
  2. Commentators Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall during Monday’s Italian Open match between Potito Starace and Radek Stepanek after Starace hit a passing shot.

Koenig: “You’ve got to pick your spot, and know which way the wind’s blowing.”

Goodall: “That’s always a good mantra for life, isn’t it?”

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