First Ball In, 5/22: Looking for Traction

Thursday, May 22, 2014 /by
Wikimedia Commons, AP Photos
Wikimedia Commons, AP Photos

The players have, by and large, arrived in Paris and settled into their practice routines at Roland Garros. The weather, not surprisingly, hasn't exactly cooperated so far; it appears to have brought its traditional share of spring gloom to the sometime City of Lights. Tomorrow, when the draws are made, the French Open will begin to feel official; for today, here’s a last look at its tune-ups.

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Thursday Review

The WTA and the Fed Cup have been waging a turf war in recent years. The two entities tussle over players and dates on the calendar, a clash that was intensified in 2012 when the ITF, which runs the Fed Cup, mandated that the women, if they want to be eligible for the Olympics, must commit to playing more ties for their countries.

Germany’s Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic can testify to how difficult it can be to fit those ties into tour schedules. In April, Angie and Petko flew halfway across the world with their German teammates to play Fed Cup in Australia, a tie that the two women won by going 3-0 in singles together. Two days later, they were back in Europe, starting their clay seasons at home in Stuttgart. Not surprisingly, each lost in the first round, and each has struggled to recover her momentum since. Coming into this week, Kerber and Petkovic had gone a combined 1-6 since their patriotic heroics.

Their struggles don’t appear to be over. Despite being back on home soil in Nürnberg, the top-seeded Kerber was upset today by Karolina Pliskova in straight sets, while Petkovic went out to Monica Puig, also in straights, in Strasbourg.

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Time to Cue the “Americans Really Can Play On Clay” Story?

Perhaps not quite yet, but today Christina McHale and Madison Keys did reach the semifinals on dirt in Strasbourg. 

While those wins are welcome, they’re also a reminder of how hard it is for the U.S. to gain any serious traction on clay. Last year Jamie Hampton, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Sloane Stephens surprised most of us when they joined fellow American Serena Williams in the round of 16 at Roland Garros. A new era in American women’s tennis appeared, at least tentatively, to be around the corner. A year later, Stephens is 3-5 on clay for the year and 9-10 overall, and both Hampton and Mattek-Sands have been sidelined by hip injuries that required surgery. Is it possible that all that clay-court tennis actually hastened those hip problems?

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Going to 11

When John Isner beat Ernests Gulbis in two tiebreakers at Indian Wells in March, he was informed that he had re-entered the Top 10. His first reaction was, “I’m ecstatic about that.” But his second reaction seemed to be even better, from a U.S. tennis fan’s perspective:

“I want to keep going,” Isner said. 

Isner, of course, had been in this position before and faltered. In 2012 and 2013, he and his buddy Mardy Fish had both grabbed the U.S. men’s tennis baton from Andy Roddick and quickly left it clattering on the ground. This year Isner vowed it wouldn’t happen again, but...is it happening again? He has dropped back to No. 11 in the rankings, and with his loss in a third-set tiebreaker to Federico Delbonis in Nice on Thursday, he’s now 5-6 since his win over Gulbis in March. 

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OOP Analysis

ATP: See Friday’s Order of Play in Nice here, and in Düsseldorf here

Most interesting to me are the fates of Gulbis and young Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic. Gulbis could do damage at Roland Garros next week, and Vesely, 20, could do damage in the near future.

WTA: See Friday’s Order of Play in Strasbourg here, and in Nürnberg here.

Last year when Keys, then 18, played Puig, then 19, at Roland Garros, it was billed as a glimpse into the WTA’s future. The future has slowed down a bit for both women in the 12 months since, but the result of their semi in Strasbourg tomorrow will still be worth noting.

French Open: See Friday’s qualifying-draw Order of Play here. It's getting down to qualie crunch time.

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For Further Reading

Pro tennis and banks go way back. In 1964, the U.S. Pro Championships at Longwood Cricket Club was sponsored for the first time by a Boston-based financial institution. The $10,000 in prize money that the bank ponied up turned out to be a crucial milestone in the rise of Open tennis.

But not all alignments with the 1% have ended up working out so well for the game—AIG was deep into tennis until it cratered in 2008. 

May of 2014 has been an especially bad period for tennis’ most prominent financial backers. At the start of the month, British regulators announced that they would bring fraud charges, stemming from the 2012 LIBOR rate-rigging scandal, against employees at Barclays, the title sponsor of the ATP’s World Tour Finals in London. The bank, which recently said it will “get leaner” by laying off 7,000 employees and scaling back its operations severely—it has also witnessed a mass exodus of top executives this year—has ended its sponsorships of soccer's English Premier League and London’s bike-rental program. Will its tennis commitments be on the table soon?

This week an even bigger backer of tennis, French bank BNP Paribas, has found itself in hot water. Yesterday Bloomberg reported that “regulators and prosecutors are now seeking more than $5 billion in fines and a guilty plea to criminal charges for violating U.S. sanctions” on doing business in Iran, Sudan, and Cuba. BNP’s share price has dropped 10 percent in 2014.

Even Roger Federer’s major sponsor hasn’t escaped the notice of authorities. This week Credit Suisse, a partner in Federer’s charitable foundation, was convicted by the U.S. of “aiding in tax evasion.” 

Naturally, according to the New York Times, the punishment wouldn’t “materially impact” Credit Suisse's operations—“and in many ways, that was exactly the outcome that American authorities desired.” In other words, Credit Suisse was “too big to jail.”

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On This Day...

27 years ago, Novak Djokovic was born. Nole has been busy doing good lately. On Sunday he beat Rafael Nafal in Rome, and this week he helped spread the word about the floods in the former Yugoslavia. Below is a look back at his first brush with media mega-stardom, at the age of 7.

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