Milos Raonic: It's not just that Raonic beat Andy Murray in the quarterfinals at Barcelona last week. It's the persistence with which this big specimen from Canada keeps building on his resume—and reputation.
Raonic got off to a great start this year, winning titles in Chennai and San Jose, then making the final in Memphis. That yielded a ranking of No. 27, after which Raonic hit a few speed bumps—one named Roger Federer (third round, Indian Wells) and an unexpected injury (sprained ankle, Miami). In his first event since Miami, Raonic lost in Monte Carlo to Albert Montanes. It looked as if Raonic, who's just 21, might be heading for the dreaded sophomore slump after his breakout year.
But Raonic rained down 14 aces and scored repeatedly with his forehand in that upset of second-seeded Murray, and—perhaps more important—the win suggested that the Canuck once again has hardly missed a beat in his rise to the elite level (he's at a career-high No. 23 now). After shocking Murray to make the semis, Raonic said, "For me, it was a big win regardless of the (clay) surface."
And that's one of the most convincing things about this 6'5" power server. He plays pretty much the same, aggressive way on every surface, and at his best he can make the differences between them trivial.
Agnieszka Radwanska: Alright, everybody loves Aggie, she of that mesmerizing, almost soporific game that's based so solidly on excellent anticipation, good movement, and a cunning use of the full court. But at some point she's going to have to find a way to compete with world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.
Radwanska, now No. 4, lost to Azarenka in the semis of Stuttgart, 6-1, 6-3. It was her fifth loss of the year to her Belarussan rival; in fact, if you disregard a walkover with which Radwanska bowed out of Kuala Lumpur, she's undefeated in 2012 against everyone but Azarenka. Some pundits make much of the rumor that these two women have fallen out and dislike each other. So what? You can still play the game to win. Radwanska was 3-5 against Azarenka before this year, so clearly she has the ability to do better.
Radwanska received treatment on her back in the second set of her latest loss to Azarenka, but played her best tennis of the day after the visit with the physio. Nevertheless, she headed back to her native Poland after losing with her tail firmly tucked between her legs. "Clay is not my favorite surface," she said, "But playing against the same player all the time isn't really fun."
It's time for Aggie to suck it up and figure out a way to get over what is starting to look suspiciously like a psychological block.
Fabio Fognini: It's tough to be a male Italian tennis pro. Utterly overshadowed by surprise 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, with the country's Davis Cup team mired in the second division of the World Group while the Fed Cup squad built a dynasty in recent years, the Italian men have just two representatives inside the Top 50, and those just barely.
Those two—Fognini and Andreas Seppi—met in the third round at Bucharest, where Seppi was the No. 6 seed and Fognini was a floater. With the bragging rights to Bologna and Brindisi at stake—and (I imagine), playing before excitable spectators wearing sunglasses by Bulgari, feasting on prosciutto and melon, and quaffing an excellent Chianti—Fognini battled through to take the match, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-4.
Fognini continued to the final, where he lost to Gilles Simon, 6-4, 6-3.
Stay tuned: Fognini is now No. 48, but just two notches ahead of Seppi.
Serena Williams: In an act of just the kind of solidarity you might expect from a pair of single 30-year-old sisters who live together, Serena has declared that she's trying to embrace the raw diet adopted by her sister, Venus. Serena doesn't want to tempt her sister's discipline by sitting down to a great big cheeseburger and fries. Venus is trying the raw diet because it might help her cope with Sjogren's syndrome, the autoimmune disease that can cause fatigue and joint pain.
Serena recently told a reporter that while Venus has struggled to get accustomed to the diet, she's experienced no such difficulties herself, saying: "I've always been a better eater than her, even though I'm a lot thicker. . ."
Does this mean that, come Grand Slam event time, we'll see a leaner, swifter, more explosive Serena on the red clay or green grass? Or would a raw diet (if you remember, it was wholeheartedly endorsed and promoted by Martina Navratilova late in her career) diminish her much-celebrated predatory instincts?
Rainier Hoffman: Now 33 and retired, Patty Schnyder made it as high as No. 7 in the WTA rankings (in late 2005); had numerous wins over the likes of Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf, Justine Henin, and many other top players; and hauled off $8.4 million USD in prize money. Although she hit her career-high ranking sometime after her marriage to Hoffman in 2003, his controversial "coaching" techniques and seemingly Svengali-like influence on Schnyder were thought to have a deleterious effect on his wife, whose results became prone to wild fluctuations. There was never any shortage of drama where Schnyder and Hoffman were concerned.
The drama has become sordid. The Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger reported a few days ago that Hoffman and Schnyder allegedly owe nearly $500,000 USD to various creditors (including Swiss tax authorities). Apparently, Hoffman and Schnyder have fled Switzerland and moved to Germany. Creditors recently forced an auction of Schnyder's personal belongings, including tennis racquets, some trophies, and—this one is the heartbreaker—her junior tennis diaries.
Steve Johnson: The senior at the University of Southern California hasn't lost a collegiate tennis match since January of 2011. He won his 59th consecutive collegiate match last week at the big gathering in Ojai, Ca.
Johnson is ATP-ready. The first word that pops into my mind to describe his game is "intriguing," based on a combination of homemade-looking strokes, great court sense, and a wonderful competitive temperament. But Johnson stayed at USC for his senior year to help the Trojans to their fourth straight NCAA title. USC coach Peter Smith has nothing but praise for Johnson; he told the LA Times, "He is, for sure, a top-100 player. After that, it's up to him."
Wouldn't it be interesting if the U.S. ended up with another John Isner-like character—a kid who joined the pro tour relatively late after college—and still succeeded?
Ana Ivanovic: Found: A big-time tennis star who does not—repeat does not—want to be an actress or have a second (or parallel) career in show business, even though her Serbian countryman and friend, Novak Djokovic, has a cameo in the upcoming film, "The Expendables 2", and Serena Williams is still keen to make a mark in Hollywood.
Ivanovic, a former No. 1 and French Open champ, isn't even tempted by the idea of a career in film. As she told ESPN.com: "I live a public enough life as it is, and I really want to do something different. I know that I would love to have a nice husband and kids, maybe two or three."
Maria Sharapova: If there seemed to be a ho-hum quality to Rafael Nadal's win in Barcelona on Sunday, you should have hunted up the Sharapova-Azarenka final in Stuttgart. I compare the accomplishments of Nadal and Sharapova in this post over at ESPN.
It was a great job by Sharapova, winning a clay event in which the top eight women in the world—including French Open champion Li Na—were entered. Sharapova lost the last two finals she played against Azarenka in straight sets, but she blasted her rival in this one, hitting 31 winners on clay as she won, 6-1, 6-4. That's the thing with Sharapova: You can't ever count her out.
Gilles Simon: Simon may be in that sub-elite class of players, but he had the honor of being top-seeded in Bucharest last week. For players unaccustomed to that degree of pressure, that's often the kiss of death. But Simon came through with an utterly commanding, professional series of wins, losing just one set on his way to the title (d. Fognini in final, 6-4, 6-3). The win bumped Simon up to No. 11 in the rankings.