News & Press

Friday, February 26, 2010

On the Tennis Tour with Benjamin Becker

onthetourbenjaminbecker.jpgBenjamin Becker (left) with doubles player Jeff Coetzee (right) at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships. Photograph courtesy of the A.T.P. World Tour.
The professional tennis circuit isn’t just about the Grand Slams. In the “On the Tennis Tour” series, goes behind the scenes at the many tournaments that lead up to the U.S. Open, in August.
One of 32 men playing in this week’s Delray Beach International Tennis Championships, in Delray Beach, Florida, is Benjamin Becker, currently ranked No. 40 on the A.T.P. World Tour. You might remember this big-serving German as the guy who knocked Andre Agassi out of the 2006 U.S. Open, in what turned out to be Agassi’s final career match. Born in Merzig, Saarland, then part of West Germany, 28-year-old Becker turned pro in 2005.
DELRAY BEACH DIFFERS FROM THE REST OF THE TOURNAMENTS because it’s not usually common that you have a basketball court as a players' lounge and eating area.
MY FAVORITE TOURNAMENT is Helle, first of all because it’s in Germany, second of all because the hotel is on-site and the food is amazing.
THE MOST MEMORABLE TOURNAMENT I’VE PLAYED IN is the U.S. Open ’06. A close second is Holland, where I won my first tournament.
MY BIGGEST CAREER WIN is beating Nikolay Davydenko in the first round of Wimbledon, in 2008.
I USUALLY TRAVEL WITH my coach, but sometimes by myself. I have two bags that I check and carry one little backpack.
I’VE NEVER HAD A TRAVEL DISASTER and I’ve been very lucky because I haven’t really missed many planes. And I haven’t really lost my bags. I usually check my tennis racket, so as soon as I lose my tennis racket once, I won’t check it again. My tennis bag only came late once, but it didn’t hurt my match.
THE HARDEST PART ABOUT TRAVELING FOR WORK is checking in and waiting at the airport.
THE BEST PART ABOUT TRAVELING FOR WORK is seeing many different places and getting to know different cultures.
—By Jessica Flint

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Benjamin Becker looking to make name for himself at ITC tennis event in Delray

DELRAY BEACH — For Benjamin Becker, it's always been a case of the company he keeps.

Early in his career, he was "Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris)."

Although he still gets asked about that, oh, every day, he also has to deal with The Andre Agassi Question, since he's the guy who sent Agassi into retirement.

It's tough for anyone in that position to make a name for himself, but at least Benjamin Becker is understanding. He can put himself in fans' shoes because he once was one of them, growing up idolizing — wouldn't you know it? — Boris Becker and Andre Agassi. Even now, Benjamin Becker has mixed feelings about being the qualifier who bounced Agassi out of the third round of the 2006 U.S. Open, his final tournament.

"People talk to you and say, 'I hated you for this,' " Becker said Tuesday after his 6-3, 1-6, 6-0 victory over Kei Nishikori in the opening round of the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships.

"Obviously, I understand because I would be the same. I was a big Agassi fan and somebody else who was a nobody would come and beat him, I would be, 'Who is this guy? What is he thinking?' "

Well, what was Becker thinking?

"It wasn't easy for me because I couldn't be too happy," he said of the four-set victory. "It was tough to accept that I was the one who did it on such a big stage, but you know, looking back, for me it was a great experience that I'll always look back on and enjoy."

Becker is the third seed at the Delray Beach Stadium & Tennis Center, still fighting for a taste of the fame his German compatriot enjoys. The former standout at Baylor is now 28, living in Fort Lauderdale and ranked 40th, just two spots off his all-time high.

Tuesday's outing was an up-and-down affair against Nishikori, coming off an elbow injury.

"I knew it's tough for him to come back," Becker said. "I don't know if he's going to break down physically or mentally — it's his first match — so I just really tried to stay calm. I came out right after the changeover in the third set and I felt good, was a little bit more aggressive and attacked the ball and that helped me at the end."

One thing that isn't helping anyone in this tournament is name recognition.

The only defending champion left in the field is Mardy Fish, formerly of Boca Prep. Champions here before Fish were Nishikori ('08), Xavier Malisse ('07 and '05) and Tommy Haas ('06). Haas was upset Monday; Malisse lost Tuesday to No. 4 Jeremy Chardy 6-3, 7-6 (5).

Fish was neck-and-neck with Belgium's Christophe Rochus when Rochus retired at 3-3 in the third set with a back injury. Rochus won the first set 7-5; Fish took the second 6-3. Fish, coming off an injury-plagued year, is unseeded.

Vincent Spadea, another fixture both in Boca Raton and at the Delray tournament, was eliminated by Santiago Giraldo 6-2, 6-3. At 35 years, 7 months, Spadea was the oldest player on the draw sheet.

Second-seeded Ivo Karlovic defeated Philipp Petzschner 6-3, 7-6 (3), but No. 8 Michael Russell, formerly of the University of Miami, lost to Mischa Zverev 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. Zverev will face Fish in tonight's highlight match.

No. 7 James Blake played Taylor Dent late Tuesday in a match delayed by rain.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Glimpsing Flavia

Fp It was a weekend of small surges and modest triumphs. Lucie Safarova flashed across the radar screen again in Paris, her Selesian bashball game and preposterously youthful features unchanged since we last saw her. Sam Querrey returned to form in San Jose, where, by extending Andy Roddick to a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinals, he showed that he might just be ready to challenge the guys at the top in 2010. Robin Soderling silenced any murmurs of a post-breakthrough slump by winning in Rotterdam. Fernando Verdasco produced a rare victory over a Top 10 player—Roddick—in the San Jose final. And most significantly, Israel’s Shahar Peer won two matches in Dubai, where she had been denied entry a year ago. I wrote about that development, and who might have the most to gain the most from it, over at earlier today.
For me, though, the small triumph of the weekend was the chance to see another woman briefly flash across the radar screen before vanishing again, the way she always does. That was Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, who made a strong run in Paris before finally getting out-bashed by Safarova 6-4 in the third in the semifinals. This is the way it works with Pennetta. She shows up on the fringes of my tennis-viewing life—saving multiple match points in a dramatic win over Vera Zvonareva at the U.S. Open before losing in the next round, upsetting Maria Sharapova in Los Angeles, belting out a victory song with her teammates after their Fed Cup title victory, and giving the chair umpire the finger in another Fed Cup match (I think it’s the same ump who did the Serena-tirade semi at the Open, ironically enough). Maybe it’s because my sightings of Pennetta are so limited that makes them such a pleasure.
Or maybe it's something more, something slightly indefinable about her and the way she carries herself. Like all Italian players, from Adriano Pannatta and Antonio Zugarelli in the 1970s to Francesca Schiavone and Potito Starace today, the pleasure begins with the musical quality of her name. But what’s striking about Pennetta is that, compared to most of her peers, she makes you feel like you’re watching a woman rather than a girl play tennis. This is partly a function of her age—she’ll be 28 on Thursday—but it’s a quality she’s had for a while now. It’s also a function of her nationality; rather than being limited to a fist-pump and a pony-tail flip, Pennetta expresses a wide range of emotions on court without ever getting depressingly negative. It may even be partly a function of her dress; I always liked the clean, elegant white Tacchini number that she’s sported over the years. 
But what Flavia offers as much as anything else is a change of pace from the WTA norm, circa 2010. She has black hair rather than blonde. She isn’t rail thin, 6-feet tall, or a physical specimen. Like the rest of the women, she’s a baseliner with a two-handed backhand, but she’s not a flat-hitting basher, either. There’s a satisfying straightforwardness and simplicity to her game, but it never appears one-dimensional. If Pennetta lacks killer power from behind the baseline, she can nevertheless hit every shot with authority. It may be meat and potatoes tennis, but it has flavor and low-key flair. Watch Pennetta set up to serve; instead of Sharapova-esque calculation, she does it with the fluid little strutting ball bounce of the born jock. She’s a link to the women’s game before the more programmatic Eastern bloc brigade was loosed on the sport.
That’s also why Pennetta, despite playing virtually every week and working her way up from No. 292 in 2001 to No. 11 at the end of 2009, will remain on the tour’s fringe. Against Safarova in Paris, she hung with the younger player by defending well and taking her opportunities to attack when they came. But in the middle of the third set, the Czech took control with the depth and flat force of her strokes, particularly her service returns. Pennetta couldn’t defend against that forever. Having come up in the late-90s, before the Russian revolution and the consequent spike in power and athleticism, she doesn’t hit with the same abandon as the women ahead of her in the rankings. Pennetta may not melt down too often, but there’s a ceiling to her game.
After 13 years as a pro, she knows it. Pennetta can show deep anger and histrionic frustration on the court—witness the aforementioned middle finger—as well as despair, which is often accompanied by a weird gesture where she holds her racquet strings a centimeter from her face. It’s hard to tell whether she wants to hide behind them or smack them straight into her forehead, à la Mikhail Youzhny. Either way, you feel her pain. But she doesn't let it drag her all the way down, like, say, Zvonareva does at her worst. There's a sense of stability to Pennetta that may paradoxically allow her to show as much emotion as she does. And when the pain and the match are over, there’s her smile, full, toothy, genuine.
Last week, I talked about how tennis is often reduced to a single either/or—Roger or Rafa, Chrissie or Martina. The tours are often reduced in a similar way—10 years ago, it was “all the men can do is serve”; today it’s “all the women can do is bash and shriek.” But again, the diverse, individualistic, world-spanning nature of the pro game always comes back to prove otherwise, to prove that with each match you might just see something different, something you like. And then it might be gone again, off the radar screen, the way Pennetta disappeared before I could see her play a full set on Saturday. Before she left, I had time to notice, with some dismay, that she had ditched the classic Tacchini for a more standard yellow-and-black Adidas get-up. I also had time to notice that, like everything else with Flavia—her name, her age, her rage, her wins, her losses, her smile, her career-long struggles to improve—she wore it well.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pennetta advances to Paris semifinals

PARIS — Flavia Pennetta and Lucie Safarova advanced Friday to the semifinals of the Open GDF Suez.

The second-seeded Pennetta cruised past Tathiana Garbin 6-1, 6-3 in an all-Italian matchup and will face Safarova, who defeated sixth-seeded Shahar Peer 6-3, 6-0.

"It was not easy because we know each other very well," Pennetta said. "We are friends, we spend time outside the court. But when you go in the court, you just have to concentrate on your game and try to forget there is a friend on the other side."

Garbin saved four match points at 5-2 after Pennetta had took a 3-0 lead in the second set. But Pennetta converted her fifth match point in the next game when Garbin netted a forehand.

Pennetta broke Garbin three times in the first set.

Peer held serve to lead 3-2 but Safarova won 10 straight games to clinch the first set and the match.

Safarova lost the 2007 final to Nadia Petrova.

"I have really good memories from 2007," Safarova said. "The crowd was great in supporting me. I was really surprised that they remembered me from three years ago."

Later on Friday, top-seeded Elena Dementieva faces Andrea Petkovic, while American teenager Melanie Oudin will play 2008 finalist Agnes Szavay.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pennetta lays down her logic

Flavia Pennetta will be present in the quarter finals after her victory over Kleybanova, who only lasted one set 7-6, 6-1 in 1h26.
While Alisa Kleybanova isn't the circuit's most harmonious and easy to watch, she is still a worthy opponent for each point. Julie Coin discovered this sadly yesterday, while the Frenchwoman was leading 4-0 in the second set!

The Russian is physically imposing, measuring 1m81 for 72kg and uses her bodily force to knock out her opponents. With each blow, it seems like her head might fly off with the ball, which is not always the best method, but very effective! Her moves aren't though, giving way to a game at the back of the court. Her first two volleys end up as faults which hand over the first break to her opponent (1-2). Kleybanova hangs on, and comes back to the score, but Pennetta cranks up her game (2-4). Kleybanova doesn't abdicate, turning around a set that got off to a bad start and grabbing a tie-break. Just like the first set, keenly contested, but Alisa Kleybanova quickly sends out a last volley to the net, handing over the first set to her opponent (6-7).

Silent strength! Like a Maestro Raro (fine Italian wine), Flavia Pennetta seems stronger year after year. World 39th in 2007, 13th in 2008, and 12th in 2009. Pennetta, number 2 seed has business to tend to in Paris. Except that she doesn't have a very flattering record: 2 defeats in two visits to Coubertin. However, the lovely Milan native is just back from a tiring weekend. Victorious this weekend at the Fed Cup with Italy (4-1 against Ukraine), she lost her strength in the battle, but that doesn't stop her from breaking her opponent early in the second set (0-2). Flavia Pennetta then unwinds, sets her game straight, and smothers Kleybanova who is visibly shaken. The Milan native finally wins 7-6, 6-1 in 1h26. In the quarterfinals, she will face her friend and compatriot Tathiana Garbin. Italy was and still will be a guest of honour in this year's Open GDF SUEZ !

By Robert Kemp

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Pennetta ties Italy with Ukraine in Fed Cup

KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) -- Flavia Pennetta beat Kateryna Bondarenko 7-5, 6-3 to level defending champion Italy's Fed Cup quarterfinal against Ukraine at 1-1 after the opening singles.

Earlier Saturday, Alona Bondarenko beat Francesca Schiavone 6-1, 6-4 to give World Group new comers Ukraine a 1-0 lead.

Pennetta took a quick 3-0 lead before Bondarenko fought back to level at 5-5, but the Italian secured the decisive break in the next game.

Pennetta clinched the match in 1 hour, 39 minutes.