Over the next few months, tennis fans on this side of the Atlantic will have to get used to rising early to watch the best players in the world.

With the European red-clay season leading up to Roland Garros followed by the grass-court preps preceding Wimbledon, a lot can happen before people even get out of bed over here.

Last Saturday there was certainly a reward for getting up to watch Caroline Wozniacki play Simona Halep in the Stuttgart semifinals. It was arguably the best women’s match of the year – with all due respect to the Williams – Sharapova Aussie Open final.

Wozniacki, who held the No. 1 ranking for a total of 67 weeks between 2010-2012 and reached two US Open finals, has longed been criticized for being too defensive a player – replying on her exceptional athletic skills and stamina to wear down opponents.

But in modern tennis that doesn’t necessarily work – about 15 years ago Martina Hingis learned that when confronted with bigger hitters like Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport. In recent years, with players such as Serena, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova hitting big, it has seemed like Wozniacki is fated to never win a Grand Slam title.

Caroline Wozniacki
Photo: Porsche Team Germany

It was surprising to see just how aggressively the 24-year-old Dane played against Halep, who was equally aggressive so the rallies were side-to-side and frenetic – with defense a high priority just to stay in the points.

Vladka Uhlirova, a 37-year-old Czech who lives in London and was once ranked as high as No. 400 (2003) in singles and No. 18 (in doubles), is a new commentator on TennisTV.com. While her English is heavily accented, that is compensated for by her knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the sport of tennis. At one point during Saturday’s thriller semifinal, she exclaimed, “these are the kind of matches that you remember for the rest of your life.”

Wozniacki beat Halep 7-5, 5-7, 6-2 and, while the Romanian may have been bothered by a back issue, she tried her best right to the end of a mammoth match lasting two hours and 58 minutes.   

Sunday’s final with Wozniacki against Angelique Kerber wasn’t of quite the same calibre because Kerber was not nearly as aggressive as Halep had been a day earlier. Ahead 5-3 in the final set, it looked as if Wozniacki’s superior firepower and willingness to go for her shots would be rewarded with a victory. But Kerber, with a wrap on her right thigh and obviously weary playing on three continents (winning Charleston, then Sochi, Russia for Fed Cup and Stuttgart) in three weeks, was iron-willed. She never gave up in front of a home crowd, even though she was two points from defeat at 4-5 in the final set.

In the end, Wozniacki got a little tentative and made unforced errors, particularly on the forehand side. It’s noteworthy that players, tired and leg-weary late in matches, often miss the forehand long because they don’t quite have the strength and co-ordination to hit through the ball and keep it in the court.

Below is a video of a goofy point between Wozniacki and Kerber from their 2013 semifinal in Indian Wells. Except for the very last shot, it was totally different from the vast majority of their points last Sunday. 

Wozniacki was able to see a positive side after the loss. “I felt good right through until the end,” she said. “I love these long matches and, if I can run a marathon (in three-hours and 26 minutes in the New York City Marathon last November), then I can play in great games like that. We needed nearly three hours and that would be a pretty good marathon time.”

There’s still a lot of tennis to play before Roland Garros, but it will be intriguing to see if Wozniacki can continue to play as aggressively. The French Open has been by far her worst Grand Slam – with nothing beyond a third round, except for a quarter-final finish in 2010, to show for her eight appearances. Maybe now that she is playing better on both sides of the ball – offence and defense – she can become a real factor in 2015.

Pablo, Rafa, Fabio and Kei

Kei Nishikori
Photo: Barcelona Open Banca Sabadell

Kei Nishikori repeated as Barcelona champion on Sunday, defeating the surprising Pablo Andujar 6-4, 6-4 in a competitive encounter that nonetheless always looked like it would be won by the Japanese top seed.

Pablo Andujar
Photo: Barcelona Open Banca Sabadell

The Andujar match in Barcelona that was the most memorable was his 7-6(6), 6-3 victory over David Ferrer in the semifinals. The 29-year-old from Valencia (above) is from a long line of handsome Spaniards – Carlos Moya, Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez and the list goes on. Ranked No. 66, Andujar had been as high as No. 33 in 2012. His greatest claim to fame had been holding two match points on a rusty Rafael Nadal in February 2014, before losing 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(10) in Rio de Janeiro.

Against Ferrer, who had beaten him easily in three previous meetings, Andujar had two first set points before the tiebreak, one saved by a superb running backhand pass down-the-line by Ferrer. In the tiebreak, Ferrer looked to have weathered the storm leading 5-1 and 6-2. However Andujar, whose game is a bit mechanical but features a sublime down-the-line backhand, won an astonishing six points in a row to take the set and eventually pull off the big upset. Ferrer, runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros in 2013, had earlier in the week said that his dream was to win Barcelona.

Rafa Nadal
Photo: Barcelona Open Banca Sabadell

Before the Andujar – Ferrer shocker, the tournament was jolted by eight-time winner Rafael Nadal’s 6-4, 7-6(6) third-round loss to Fabio Fognini. It takes a superior, aggressive shotmaker to beat Nadal on clay and Fognini was impressive off both sides. Of course, true to his tetchy temperament and inconsistent form, he lost 6-1, 6-3 to Andujar the next day.

“It was a disaster today,” Nadal said about losing to Fognini. “Fabio played better than me and he deserved to win. I didn’t deserve to win. Until I sort out these ups and downs I’m suffering from this season, I will continue to be vulnerable.”

A lot of people are piling on Nadal, but it’s way too early to count him out of the title hunt at the French Open. Does anyone really believe that Fognini – talented as he is – would have beaten Nadal if their match had been best-of-five sets?

Something else related to Nadal: it was surprising to learn that he has scheduled a grass-court event in Stuttgart the week after this year’s French Open. The whole idea of creating an extra week between Roland Garros and Wimbledon was to give players – foremost himself and Novak Djokovic and anyone else reaching the semifinals and final in Paris – time to de-compress before gearing up for the grass in London SW 19.

In tennis terms, it’s almost inhumane to be playing on a different surface just three or four days after the Roland Garros final. Obviously there’s money involved but you would think it could be dangerous for Nadal, 29 by that point, to be pushing the envelope. 

  • Tebbutt Tuesday was planning on writing this week that Novak Djokovic would be better not playing both upcoming back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome when news came out on Monday that he will skip Madrid this year. The TT reasoning was that he had a super-charged schedule in March and early April while winning Indian Wells, Miami, and, with just one week off, Monte Carlo. It seemed like Madrid and Rome back-to-back was a risk in terms of mental and physical burn-out, especially with so much riding on the French Open for him this year. But it appeared to make more sense to play Madrid, in case he lost early and then wanted to add Rome. But it looks like he needs the rest now and that playing Rome, a week off and then Roland Garros is the best way for him to be in peak form.
  • On Tuesday at the ATP 250 event in Munich, Vasek Pospisil lost a heart-breaker to No. 44-ranked Dominic Thiem of Austria by a 5-7, 6-4, 7-6(9) score. Pospisil, No. 61, had two match points and had saved two match points. As for Milos Raonic, word on Monday from his camp was that his foot injury is progressing and that he is hopeful about being ready for next week’s ATP Masters 1000 event in Madrid. Genie Bouchard is also scheduled to play the WTA Premier Mandatory tournament.
  • When will this ever happen again? The No. 6 player in the ATP rankings this week is a Canadian, Milos Raonic, and the No. 6 player in the WTA rankings is another Canadian, Genie Bouchard. Not only two Top 10 players – something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago – but two players in the exact same slot.

Genie going forward

Eugenie Bouchard

There’s a quick and easy way to defuse all the negative publicity that has surrounded Genie Bouchard’s refusal to shake hands with Alexandra Dulgheru during the traditional, Fed Cup draw ceremony photos in Montreal two weeks ago.

The next time Bouchard sees Dulgheru, likely sometime between now and the French Open, she just smiles, sticks out her hand and shakes hands with the likeable Romanian. In one quick, easy gesture – facilitated by Bouchard’s winning smile – all is forgiven.

Then whenever in the future Bouchard is in the situation to do the perfunctory Fed Cup handshake, it will not be awkward or nearly as big a deal. All that will have been made good by the handshake in Madrid, Rome, Paris… or wherever.

Looking ahead at the next few months for Bouchard – even if it takes a while for her to break out of her current slump, that doesn’t have to be a disaster. Hypothetically, if she didn’t win a single match from now through the end of Wimbledon – including defending points from winning the title in Nuremberg, a semifinal at Roland Garros and a final at Wimbledon (a total of 2,342 of her current 4,122), Bouchard’s ranking would only fall to about No. 28. That would still get her a seed for the 2015 US Open and entry to all the autumn tournaments with plenty of time to rebuild her game.

That is, of course, the absolute worst case scenario, and reminder that there’s no need to push the panic button.

Franckie ‘en anglais’

The following tweet perfectly describes the remarkable progress made in her second language by 18-year-old Francoise Abanda of Montreal.

Roger: Dentist with a view

Who wouldn’t want to see this scenery – from the chair of Roger Federer’s dentist?