Best of Five: Career week for MJMS; reason to worry for Fed
Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez's victory was a great treat for tennis fans
Federer's loss at Estoril doesn't bode well for his French Open defense
Serbian tennis experienced as unstable a week as the U.S. stock market
1. Pause for Applause: Already Maria Sharapova (minor upset) and Justine Henin (major upset) have lost this week. The top men -- at least those not among the disturbingly large number who are injured -- are playing a big-ticket event in Madrid. The French Open is a few weeks away. But before the plotlines move on, let's pause to acknowledge the performance Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain delivered in Rome last week. A journeywoman who's been grinding for more than a decade and has endured some personal challenges along the way, MJMS had a career week, taking the title by beating Jelena Jankovic in the final with a mix of deception, tactics and brilliantly deployed drop shots. If you saw her reaction in victory, you knew instantly what this meant to her. Bless Federer, Nadal, the Williams sisters et al. But stories like this have lots of appeal, too.
2. Roger Watch: You would be in your rights to wonder what Roger Federer was doing last week playing an event in Estoril, especially since he passed on Monte Carlo -- the tournament he felt so strongly about preserving just a few years back. But, hey, it was a chance to get in some clay matches, regain his mojo and do so under soft lighting. Unfortunately, last week only amplified questions about the state of his game. The Mighty One lost to Albert Montanes (the event's eventual winner) in the semis. You pick against champions at your own peril (See: Williams, Serena). But, man, it's hard to see Federer defending his title in Paris. And provided his form and his body hold (the latter more of a concern than the former) Rafael Nadal remains the French Open favorite.
3. American Beauty: Who says Americans can't play on clay? A week after the Bryan Brothers won the doubles title in Rome, we had -- sitting down? -- a pair of Americans reach the finals of a European claycourt event. (What? Next thing you know Craig Kilborn will get his own talk show.) As it turned out, Sam Querrey staved off a match point and beat John Isner in the third set to take the Belgrade title. Quietly, "Quisner" is turning into a hell of rivalry. For good measure, Teavis Rittenmaier, a Californian who played for UCLA, won the doubles.
4. State of Serbia: Another weird week for Serbian tennis. Imagine charting this on a (Steffi) graph -- it would look like the Dow Jones last Thursday. There was an event in Belgrade, in itself an indication of how far the sport has come. Then Novak Djokovic, the headliner, suffered another strange midmatch breathing issue and had to retire. (Stop with the Breathe-Right jokes; this is cause for concern.) In Rome, Ana Ivanovic returned to the top 50 with some of her better wins in recent memory, in what we can only hope denotes the end of her epic slide. Jelena Jankovic did likewise, beating both Venus and Serena Williams. Then they both lost to Martinez Sanchez. Go figure.
5. Serena's Grudge: For all of her heroic twittering and photos ops, Serena Williams remains fairly opaque. Is she the winsome, composed adult who opens schools in Africa and represents herself and tennis beautifully on Oprah's couch? Or is she the petulant child who vulgarly threatens an official, denies saying anything untoward and then declines to apologize until reading the p.r. tea leaves a day later? Or, most likely, is she some of both? Whatever, she offered a bit of insight into her personality last week in Rome when she was involved in a minor dispute with Jankovic. By way of apology, she explained that she was no cheater a la Justine Henin.
The incident Serena refers to took place seven (!) years ago, a lifetime in the dog years of women's tennis. While Serena was totally in the right that day in Paris, you'd think it would be but a blip on her radar, particularly given her success since then. Yet it's clearly still an open wound. She can't remember her losses (or so she claims). But what she perceived as a breach of honesty is still stuck in her craw. This is not meant to pass judgment one way or the other. Just an interesting little revelation.