TENNIS FANTASY OPPORTUNITIES WITH EDBERG, COURIER, SAFIN AND CHANG IN GRAND CAYMAN

NEW YORK, October 6, 2010 – Ever wanted to play doubles with Stefan Edberg?

Or wonder what feels like to be in the firing line of a Jim Courier forehand?

Ever wanted to have a beer with Marat Safin or see if Michael Chang could run down your drop shot?

Tennis fans can find out first hand at The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Legends Championships to be held November 5-7 in Grand Cayman, where, for the first time, an exclusive and intense pro-am tournament has been added to the event, providing some of these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Edberg, Courier, Safin and Chang will be joined in Grand Cayman by former top 10-ranked Americans Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias for the six-player Champions Series event and the pro-am activities.

In addition to the competing for a first-prize paycheck of $45,000 and Champions Series ranking points, the players will participate in the pro-am that will see the legends playing matches and enjoying meals and social time with participating amateurs over multiple days. Tennis fans interested in participating in the pro-am with the legends can find ticket, travel and tournament information by visiting www.ChampionsSeriesTennis.com.

“This is an ultimate, once-in-a-lifetime tennis fantasy opportunity to have the chance to play with and against some of the biggest legends in the game – and have quality social time in an amazingly beautiful luxury resort,” said Jon Venison, co-founding partner of InsideOut Sports & Entertainment, the owners and operators of the Champions Series tennis circuit. “In addition to playing and socializing with these greats of the game, fans will also have up-close and personal access as they compete for prize money and ranking points in the official Champions Series event held in Grand Cayman for the third year at The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman.”

Edberg, Courier, Safin and Chang have combined to win 13 major singles titles, with Edberg, Courier and Safin having achieved the world’s No. 1 ranking and Chang reaching a career-high ranking of No. 2. The event will be played on red clay courts in a single-knockout format event with each player vying for a first-prize paycheck of $45,000 and ranking points that determine the year-end No. 1 ranked player on the Champions Series circuit.

To be eligible to compete on the Champions Series, players must have reached at least a major singles final, been ranked in the top five in the world or played singles on a championship Davis Cup team. Courier finished the 2009 season as the top-ranked player on the Champions Series, followed by Pete Sampras and Todd Martin. Courier won the 2009 edition of The Residences At the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Legends Championships beating Arias 6-4, 6-2 in the final.

Earlier this year on the Champions Series circuit, former U.S. and Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis defeated John McEnroe in May to win the Staples Champions Cup in Boston and take over the No. 1 Champions Series ranking. Former French Open semifinalist Fernando Meligeni of Brazil was the surprise winner of the opening event on the 2010 Champions Series, winning the title in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil by defeating Philippoussis in the final in March.

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InsideOut Sports + Entertainment is a New York City-based independent producer of proprietary events and promotions founded in 2004 by former world No. 1 and Hall of Fame tennis player Jim Courier and former SFX and Clear Channel executive Jon Venison. In 2005, InsideOut launched its signature property, the Champions Series tennis circuit, a collection of tournaments featuring the greatest names in tennis over the age of 30. In addition, InsideOut produces many other successful events including “Legendary Night” exhibitions, charity events, corporate outings and tennis fantasy camps such as the annual “Ultimate Fantasy Camp”. Through 2009, InsideOut Sports + Entertainment events have raised over $4 million for charity. For more information, please log on to www.InsideOutSE.com or www.ChampionsSeriesTennis.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Djokovic Wins Dogfight With Federer To Get To Finals

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Arthur Ashe Stadium was rocking in rumbling roars in anticipation of the first Roger vs. Rafa US Open final as Roger Federer stood one point away from the creating the most electrifying encounter in recent US Open history. Firing his forehand with ambition, Novak Djokovic stood up to the five-time champion and more than 20,000 screaming fans in pulling the plug on the Big Apple buzz with audacious shotmaking.

In a dramatic duel that saw tension escalate with each brilliant baseline exchange, Djokovic fought off two match points with successive scorching forehand winners in the 11th game of the final set then withstood a break point in the 12th game to subdue five-time champion Federer, 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 and advance to his first US Open final.

When Federer’s final forehand sailed wide, Djokovic stood wide-eyed on the court as if frozen in utter disbelief of completing his comeback and snapping Federer’s streak of six straight US Open finals. Thrusting his arms in triumph, Djokovic crossed himself, pressed his palms together as if in prayer then knelt down and kissed the court.

“It’s really hard to describe the feeling I have right now; 10 minutes ago I was a point from losing this match and now I managed to come back,” said Djokovic. “It’s one of those matches you will always remember in your career. I’m just so happy to be in the final.”

It is Djokovic’s second US Open final in the past four years, but he won’t have much time to celebrate. The 2007 runner-up will face World No. 1 Nadal in Sunday’s 4 p.m. final.

The top-seeded Spaniard stormed into his first Flushing Meadows final, overwhelming 12th-seeded Russian Mikhail Youzhny, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in a two hour, 13-minute semifinal that started the day of play on Ashe Stadium.

Continuing his quest to complete the career Grand Slam and become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in succession, Nadal may well be reveling in the fact he made quick work of Youzhny while Djokovic, who has been dogged by breathing issues, survived a physically-demanding five-setter with Federer.

“Having three sets match and two hours, or a little bit more, of the match always is great, no?  I gonna be in perfect conditions tomorrow, so that’s very positive,” Nadal said.  “We will see what happen.”

Given the fact Nadal has not surrendered a set so far, has only dropped serve twice in this tournament, owns a 14-7 career edge over Djokovic and Djokovic is coming off a a grueling semifinal with little turnaround time you might think the final could be as closely contested as an arm-wrestling match between the Incredible Hulk and Olivier Rochus.

The final is not a foregone conclusion though. Djokovic has won seven of 10 hard-court meetings with Nadal, including three in a row without dropping a set. Nadal’s last hard-court win over Djokovic was a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 triumph in the semifinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

It might sound borderline blasphemous to even suggest it, but could Djokovic, whose two-handed backhand is a more effective hard-court shot than Federer’s one-handed backhand, actually be better equipped to challenge Nadal on the US Open Deco Turf than 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer?

“When he’s playing well, probably (he) is the player who can play at high level for moments, no?  Because he can have winners from every part of the court.  He serve, when he’s serving well, help him a lot, because he can have very good serves,” Nadal said of Djokovic. “He’s a very difficult opponent for me, especially I had a lot of loses against him in this kind of surface.  I have victories, too, but I have loses.”

Djokovic’s recent US Open have been littered with a littany of loss all at the hands of Federer.

Down 15-30, Federer pulled out the slice forehand for the first time all day and moved forward behind that shot, slicing a sharp-angled backhand crosscourt to draw even. A scrambling Djokovic dug out a difficult running forehand to elicit the error and it was deuce. Two points later, Federer fired his 10th ace to take a 2-1 lead in the fifth set.

Deadlocked at deuce at 3-all, Djokovic was in control of the point and hit a backhand that landed on the line. The shot was incorrectly called out, chair umpire Enric Moline overruled, the point was replayed and Federer hit a service winner. On the second deuce, Federer fied a backhand down the line to open the court followed by an inside-out forehand winner for ad.  Djokovic was beyond ball boy territory, nine feet off the court when he made a spectaculaar get. Federer netted an open-court forehand to face another deuce.

After a fourth deuce, Federer held when Djokovic netted a return for 4-3.

In the eighth game, Federer was racing off the doubles alley aiming for an open area down the line. If he connected on the shot it would have been a sure winner and given Federer double-break point, but he flattened a backhand into the net near the Mercedes symbol and Djokovic dug out a difficult hold for 4-all.

More than two hours into the match, Djokovic, a man whose past questionable conditioning, breathing issues and willingness to tap out in major matches has haunted him, showed resilience in his spirt and spring in his step.

Storming the net, Djokovic deflected a series of reflex volleys then leaped to snap off an overhead winner for break point. He broke for 2-1 and quickly consolidated for 3-1.

A distracted Federer sprayed a backhand long as Djokovic earned double break point at 15-40. Federer fought off the first two break points, but did not move his feet and laced a backhand into the net to hand Djokovic a third break point. Cutting quickly to his right, Djokovic drilled a forehand pass down the line that ricocheted off Federer’s Wilson racquet and he trotted to the side line raising a clenched fist toward his parents, who leaped out of their seats in support, holding a 4-1 fourth-set lead.

Despite serving just 48% in the fourth set, Djokovic permitted only five points on serve to seize the set in 31 minutes.

The fight for the final would go the distance.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Wawrinka Wins A War Over Querrey

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Dancing behind the baseline like a man ready to burst out of the blocks, Stanislas Wawrinka could see the finish line as clearly as the service line in front of him. Wawrinka and Sam Querrey engaged in a four hour, 28-minute duel on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court this afternoon. In the end, Wawrinka withstood Querrey’s mammoth forehand and the pressure of the moment with some sustained forward thinking and fast feet.

Chipping and charging on his second match point, Wawrinka knifed a sharp backhand volley winner to complete a 7-6(9), 6-7(5), 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 victory over the 20th-seeded Querrey and advance to his first career major quarterfinal in a win that eradicates American hopes and ensures there will be a European US Open men’s champion.

There is now no US in the US Open men’s singles as Wawrinka took down the last American man standing. It marks the second straight year there will be no American man in the quarterfinals. It happened for the first time in Open Era history last year.

Switzerland, a nation about the size of Massachusetts and New Jersey combined, has two men in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in Open Era history. Wawrinka joins five-time US Open champion Roger Federer in giving Switzerland two of the last eight men in the field.

While Querrey gave a valiant effort in a magnificent marathon match, Wawrinka pounced when Querrey blinked.

“For sure it is an amazing match to finish here against Querrey, who is a great player,” Wawrinka said. “It’s crazy. I was just trying to fight for every point. I’m very very happy to be in the quarterfinals.”

Querrey, who has never come back from a two set to one deficit to win a Grand Slam match, played with patience and power in converting his seventh set point to level the match at two sets apiece.

Blasting a bullet serve into the body that Wawrinka could only fend off with his frame, Querrey collected his seventh set point then smacked his 17th ace wide to level the match after three hours, 36 minutes of play.

Wawrinka has the weathered, leathery face of a fighter and the burly upper body and strong shoulders of a bouncer, enabling him to turn his torso into his one-handed backhand that is one of the most brilliant shots in the sport. For all his physical gifts, the knock on Wawrinka in the past was his tendency to go soft at crunch time.

Working with new coach Peter Lundgren, who guided Roger Federer and Marat Safin to Grand Slam titles and was trading confident fist-bumps with his friend in the player box at match point moment today, Wawrinka has become a much more confident and aggressive player seeking to step into his shots and impose pressure on opponents by getting to the front court.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Is Isner America’s Best Hope?

FLUSHING  MEADOWS, NY – With Andy Roddick and now Ryan Harrison out of the tournament, is John Isner America’s best champ in bringing back the Men’s Singles championship to the United States?

If his ankle holds up, then sure, but that’s a big if.

“Yeah, it’s definitely been tough,” said Isner who beat Marco Chiudinelli in four sets, 6-3 3-6 7-6 6-4. “You know, I started feeling it in the third set of my first match.  I felt great.  I actually felt pretty good right from the get‑go of my first match.  I was thinking, Hey, this is a good omen.

“But then kind of hit me in the third set, and really throughout the whole match today I was feeling it.  I don’t feel like I had the pop on my shots that I normally would out there today.”

“So, yeah, I’m struggling a bit physically.  But, you know, I’m going to have to do my best to get myself up to 100%.  I’m getting stronger.  Although I’m out there and playing these long matches, I feel like I’m getting stronger, and I should be better for the next one.”

The winner of the Eternal Match back in Wimbledon hurt his ankle back in Cincinnati and what was originally thought to be torn ligaments turned out to be just a sprain and he was cleared to play just a few days before the Open.

So without any practice or conditioning, the 18th seeded Isner is taking it one match at a time and hope he will be continue to get into better game shape.

“Yeah, I am going to need that,” he said.  “I think, you know, the focus, the rest of today and all day tomorrow, is going to be just to try to rejuvenate my body as much as possible to get me feeling as good as I possibly can going into that match.

“I’m going to have to play really well, do the same thing essentially today:  serve well, hit my forehand well.  Those are my two strengths.  That’s no secret.

“He’s just ‑‑ I played him in Montreal last year and it was three sets.  But, you know, he kind of ran me off the court the last two sets.  When he’s on, he’s really, really tough.  For me, I kind of hope he’s not on.”

Even with his own problems to deal with, the 25 year-old is still keeping his eye on the up and comers like Harrison, especially after he lost that five-set heartbreaker today.

“Yeah, it’s so tough,” he said of Harrison.  “I mean, personally I don’t know how many fifth set sets I’ve played in.  I think I’ve played in two this year, maybe four or five in my career, so it’s not that ‑‑ I’m not seasoned at it, either.  It’s something that obviously with maturity and the more times you’re in that situation, the better you’re going to be.

“But, I didn’t see the match today.  I don’t want to say that ‑‑ I mean, probably just have to give credit to Ryan’s opponent.  Ryan, he’s obviously playing well and he’s a huge future in this game.”

Harrison’s time is in the future, but right now, Isner may be America’s great hope.

Elena and Stasur To Meet In the Fourth Round

Elena Dementieva has been to the US Open final before. Samantha Stosur is striving to get there. They will square off for a spot in the US Open quarterfinals in a clash of one of the best hard-court returners in the women’s game, Dementieva, against one of the most reliable servers in Stosur.

The 12th-seeded Dementieva deconstructed Daniela Hantuchova, 7-5, 6-2, to advance to the fourth round for the eighth time in 12 career Flushing Meadows appearances. Dementieva lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the New Haven semifinals and has continued her solid form in Flushing Meadows this week in winning all six sets she’s played.

French Open finalist Stosur smacked seven aces in sweeping Sara Errani, 6-3, 6-2. Since surrendering the first set of her opening-round 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-1 win over Elena Vesnina, Stosur has not dropped a set.

Dementieva has beaten Stosur four times in five meetings, including a 6-7(3), 6-1, 6-3 victory in their last meeting in Toronto last summer. Three of those five matches have spanned the three-set distance.

“We’ve had some good matches in the past.  I’ve beaten her once or twice, and then she’s obviously beaten me, as well,” Stosur said.  “So I think it’s gonna be whoever can, you know, execute the game plan better on the given day. But I know what I’m gonna want to do against her.  If I can do that, I think I have a chance.”

Dementieva has worked diligently to transform her serve from the side-arm, slingshot slice it was when she reached the 2004 US Open final, falling to Svetlana Kuznetsova, and though her serve is not a weapon it has become a much more stable shot.

Stosur is at her best hitting the kick serve to set up her favored forehand and in past matches Dementieva has tried to prevent the muscular Aussie from creating one-two combinations off her serve and forehand by directing her inside-out forehand to Stosur’s weaker backhand wing.

The fact that Stosur will hit the kick on both first and second serves can pose problems for some women, who are unaccustomed to returning off shoulder high balls.

“Samantha, Serena, they both have a very powerful serve, and especially second serve,” Dementieva said. “They have such a good kick.  The women don’t usually have this. It’s always very difficult to play against her.  She puts a lot of pressure on you when she’s serving.  But also, I think she’s very solid on the baseline, and, you know, very experienced player, singles and doubles. She covers the court very well and, you know, can finish the point at the net.  She has a great variety to her game.  It’s never easy to play against her.”

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Blake Storms Into Third Round With Impressive Win

James Blake has delivered dazzle and disappointment in some enthralling New York nights. Honored on opening night at the US Open earlier this week, he’s heard the whispers wondering if this might be his Flushing Meadows Farewell. But dancing on his toes behind the baseline tonight like a boxer eager to beat his opponent to the punch in an entertaining brawl, Blake showed he still knows how to throw a block party and brought a few thousand of his fans along for another memorable ride.

Exhorting the fans inside Louis Armstrong Stadium with the wave of his hand, Blake drew a double fault from a rattled Peter Polansky to break serve then put the hammer down in closing a 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 crowd-pleasing win to surge into the US Open third round tonight.

The Yonkers, N.Y. has spent part of his injury-ravaged season fielding questions about his future, but showed he still has juice left in his 30-year-old legs and plenty of lightning in his electric forehand in reaching the third round for the eighth straight time.

Based on the way Blake worked the crowd into a rousing state it looked like he spent some of his Wednesday evening watching good friend and former Davis Cup teammate Andy Roddick lose focus over a foot fault call in the third set and ultimately fall in four to Serbian Janko Tipsarevic.

A cranky Roddick did not engage a crowd eager to impose itself in that match. Blake wisely broke down the barrier between athlete and audience tonight in bouncing in exuberance on his toes, waving the fans on as the 205th-ranked Canadian qualifier stepped up to serve down break point at 4-all.

The crowd responded with a roar, Polansky’s right arm tightened slightly and he sent a double fault beyond the service box as Blake broke for 5-4.

“People  say I’ve been struggling and everything, but I’m still having fun. I’m still having a great time competing,” Blake said. “I still love what I do. Our here, I love it even more.”

As a kid, Blake and older brother Thomas, who was in the support box, tried sneaking into the Open. He needed a wild card to gain entry into his 10th Open and the 108th-ranked Blake played with the passion of a man eager to extend his stay for at least another couple of days.

Hobbled by a right knee injury that sidelined him for two months, caused his ranking to plummet to outside the top 100 for the first time in five years, Blake has looked distracted and disconnected at times this year.

Returning to the place where he’s produced some of his most memorable tennis, Blake regained the buzz in his game and reconnected with the fans all too eager to show their support. The result was Blake turning a two-man competition into a festive match in which he fed off the crowd participation.

“When I have the fans behind me, they helped me get through that at the end,” Blake said. “I’m going to show some emotion out there and try to get the fans involved. I’m going to do my best. That’s what they can expect from me.”

Of course, working in concert with the crowd to dispatch a qualifier playing in his first Grand Slam main draw appearance is one thing, can Blake lift both his level of play and the fans along with him in a potential third-round clash against third-seeded Novak Djokovic?

“I would expect it to be a pretty good match,” Blake said. “He has one of the more underrated serves in the game. He’s got a great service motion, a great serve, one of the best backhands in the game. His movement is unbelievable. I’m going to have to play well, that’s for sure.”

Blake can still unload on his mammoth forehand that sometimes comes off his strings sounding as if its hit with all the force of a steel door slamming shot.  But he will be up against one of the best athletes and hard-court movers in the sport in Djokovic, who induces errors out of opponents with his ability to transition from defense to offense and run down virtually any shot. Djokovic is a more consistent player, which puts more pressure on Blake to squeeze shots closer to the lines in a search for open space.

“If I got out there and I start dictating, I feel like I have a good shot,” Blake said. “But there’s also a good shot that he comes out and plays great tennis and proves why he’s No. 3 in the world right now. But it will be on Ahse Stadium. I think I’ll have pretty good crowd support. Hopefully, I can come up with some of my best as I’ve been known to do before.”

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

No Oudin Run In 2010

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Melanie Oudin turned her back to the court, faced the blue back wall and stared at her Wilson racquet as if searching the strings for solutions to the problems posed by Alona Bondarenko. Oudin mastered the art of the comeback during her rousing run to the 2009 US Open quarterfinals, but the resignation on her face in the final game today revealed a woman well aware Cinderella stories only come once in a career.

This time, the ferocious forehand was weighted with worry, the “courage” emblazoned on her shoes contrasted with the concern on her face and the crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium waited for a moment that never came.

The 29th-seeded Bondarenko ran off 10 consecutive points to send Oudin out of the US Open second round, 6-2, 7-5.

Oudin conceded she felt a bit overwhelmed by the occasion.

“I think the nerves got the best of me today a little bit, especially in the first set,” Oudin said.  “Second set I started playing a lot better, making the points a little bit longer. But, yeah, the first set definitely like the crowd was like really, really loud.  It was just like a lot. The second I got out there, I guess it kind of overwhelmed me a little bit, so.”

On match point, Oudin pushed a running backhand down the line wide, looked down with vacant eyes then walked to the net to shake hands as the crowd, which was nearly mute during the final two games, offered appreciative applause.

The 18-year-old Oudin, who made “believe” her personal mantra in etching the word on her adidas in playing with resolve and resilience at the ’09 Open, snapped a four-match losing streak in her first-round win over 143rd-ranked qualifier Olga Savchuk. But she has not beaten a top-30 ranked opponent since scoring three consecutive comeback wins over Russians Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova at the Open last year and could not hold off the 33rd-ranked Bondarenko today.

A nervous Oudin could not find her first serve at 5-all in the second set. She slapped her forehand into the net, netted a backhand down the line and missed another forehand before lofting a running lob long to drop serve at love.

Oudin won just eight of 25 points played on her second serve. Unable to break Bondarenko down in baseline rallies, Oudin began to play closer to the lines.

“I mean, it’s tough coming back, especially after like the US Open I had last year, coming back and expecting to do that well again,” Oudin said. “And, yes, the expectations for me I think from like the fans were extremely high.  You could tell by the crowd.  Even the second I walked out there, people like expected me to win again like last year.”

Tennis is all about adjustments and opponents have learned that Oudin thrives off pace, particularly to her forehand. She has worked with coach Brian de Villiers to move forward in the court on her terms, but at 5-feet-6 Oudin does not have a lot of sting on her serve and her reach can be exposed when opponents draw her into net with short slices.

Oudin is at her best when she’s running around her backhand and hammering her favored forehand, but Bondarenko refused to let Oudin find her comfort zone in the final stages of the match.

The match showed Oudin’s game is still very much a work in progress and she views every match as another credit course on the learning curve that is the pro circuit.

Five minutes after her post-match press conference concluded, a relieved Oudin was on the receiving end of a hug from her younger brother as they walked down the hallway inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“I guess I’m a little tiny bit relieved now,” Ouudin said. “I can kind of start over, I guess like start over from all the expectations from like last year.  And now I can just go out and hopefully do really well the rest of the year and keep working hard.”

Her US Open dream may be over for this year, but Oudin is still part of the tournament, playing mixed doubles with Ryan Harrison.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Ana On The Move Again

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Tennis is a numbers game, but Ana Ivanovic refuses to be defined by the digits next to her name. The former World No. 1 is not seeded in this US Open, but that hasn’t stopped her from surging into the third round for the first time in three years. Ivanovic stomped 21st-seeded Zheng Jie, 6-3, 6-0, in a commanding conquest and has a shot to go deeper in the draw with the departure of 13th-seeded Marion Bartoli.

In a match of French women, 157th-ranked wild card Virginie Razzano surprised former Wimbledon finalist Bartoli, 7-5, 6-4. It’s a break for Ivanovic, who will face Razzano rather than Bartoli. Two-handed terror Bartoli beat Ivanovic in straight sets in Stanford last month.

The 40th-ranked Ivanovic has surrendered just eight games in reaching the third round and is playing with much more confidence than she was two years ago when as World No. 1 she fell to 188th-ranked qualifier Julie Coin in Flushing Meadows.

“I think rankings obviously tell a lot about the player, but I think just the way you feel about your game at the time,” Ivanovic said. “I remember a couple years ago when I was here and I was saying, ‘Even though I’m No. 1, I don’t feel I’m playing as No. 1.’  Now I’m ranked,  I really don’t know what. But I feel like I’m playing like a top 10 player, you know, and I have confidence that I can beat these players.  That’s huge for me.”

She looked particularly pumped up for today’s rematch with Zheng and with good reason. Two years ago, the then 133rd-ranked Zheng became the third lowes-tranked player to defeat a World No. 1 when she pounded out a 6-1, 6-4 win over Ivanovic at Wimbledon.

This time around, Ivanovic played first-strike tennis in firing her forehand with ambition and accuracy.

The tennis treadmill seemed stuck in reverse for Ivanovic, who had won back-to-back matches at just three of the first 11 tournaments she played this season, reaching the semifinals at Brisbane in her first event of the season and advancing to the Rome semifinals in May.

With her confidence in tatters and game leaking errors, Ivanovic watched her ranking fall to No. 63 and was denied a Rogers Cup wild card as the tournament director publicly suggested she was not worthy of a wild card. That rebuke seemed to fire up Ivanovic and she surged to the Cincinnati semifinals last month.

Ivanovic played with a fearlessness on her ascent to the top of the tennis rankings and admits she played with the apprehension of a woman bearing the burden of trying to defend ranking points.

“I see myself also as two different persons,” Ivanovic said. “Once you’re actually coming up and you have no expectations, you are hungry for success, and you really don’t know what the stakes are.  You just go for it.  You have no fear.  You play freely against anyone you come up against.”

The pressure constricted Ivanovic’s competitive instincts and she broke down in tears after losses earlier this season.

“Once you actually get in a position to defend some points and there is more outside pressure coming in, it is a lot different story,” Ivanovic said. “Because even though you perceive yourself the same or maybe even better, if you’re improving, still there is a lot of outside effect. That creates some doubts and obviously pressure.  Everyone deals with it differently.  That’s what I feel it was the biggest change with me, is that I managed to sort of let go of this.”
Winning six of her last seven matches has been emotionally liberating for Ivanovic, who looks like a player no longer afraid of losing.

“Now I feel, you know, as I am just coming up again, and I have really nothing to lose.  I got that joy of competing again,” Ivanovic said.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

The Pizazz Is Back With Henin Returning

The worst kept secret is finally official. Justine Henin is returning to tennis. The seven-time grand slam champion announced her intentions earlier today.

“Justine Henin is one of the great champions in the history of women’s tennis, and we, along with millions of her fans around the glob, are thrilled with her announcement today,” said Tour CEO Stacey Allaster. “Justine was that rare athlete who decided to step away from the game at the height of her powers, and no doubt she will be a force to be reckoned with from the get go. Her career was marked by so many amazing moments, and a new chapter begins today.”

One of the biggest reasons for her return to a sport she once was on top of ranked first over a year ago when the gritty Belgian called it quits is because she’s never won Wimbledon. The only major that’s eluded her from achieving a career grand slam.

“It is a dream of mine,” the 27 year-old Henin said who lost twice in finals (2001, 2006) while also coming close in a 2007 semifinal loss to runner-up Marion Bartoli. “I want to work to get it. I make it a priority.”

“I can see her winning it,” long-time coach Carlos Rodriguez told RTL-TVI network. “This fourth title, it is one of the reasons for coming back.”

During her impressive WTA career, Henin’s captured one Australian Open (2004), four French (2003, 2005-07) amd two U.S. Opens (2003, 2007) while totaling 41 singles titles, taking her place among the best. Pretty amazing stuff considering her small frame that lists her under 5-6 at 126 pounds.

On a tour dominated by heavy hitters Serena and Venus Williams along with Maria Sharapova, the feisty Henin proved her mettle by being able to go toe to toe with her bigger competition. Thanks to a solid forehand along with her signature one-handed backhand which is easily one of the best in the game, Henin has proven size doesn’t matter as much as heart to win. Along with her speed, she’s been able to come up with great angles keeping points alive while also faring well during exchanges, making for fun tennis.

Indeed, there’s plenty to admire about one of a handful of players who defeated both Williams sisters en route to winning a slam. Something her one year younger countrywoman Kim Clijsters accomplished in a successful comeback following a two and a half year break, finishing it off by besting Caroline Wozniacki for her second U.S. Open.

“Subconsciously, it might have had an impact,” Henin admitted of seeing what Clijsters accomplished in just her third event. “But it certainly was not the most important reason.”

“The last 15 months, I’ve been able to recharge the batteries, emotionally as well.”

During her time away, she became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador focusing her attention on finding cures for struggling children in Congo, Cambodia and Denmark. Certainly admirable work from a player who made history by becoming the first ever No.1 to retire, stunning the tennis world following some early exits prior to defense of Roland Garros.

That included a three set defeat to current No.1 Russian Dinara Safina in Berlin. At the time, Safina was ranked outside the top 10. It turned out to be Henin’s final match. She seemed fairly certain a return wouldn’t happen. But as so often happens in sports, the burning desire to compete never goes away.

“A flame I thought was extinguished forever suddenly lit up again,” she pointed out on a TV appearance while also noting a desire to play at the 2012 London Summer Games. Henin won gold in singles in 2004 at Athens.

“Adrenaline is part of my life, my existence. It is in my character.”

That character is ready to be tested with her scheduling exhibitions in Charleroi, Belgium and Dubai as preparation before returning to compete down under in next year’s first slam, the Australian Open.

“The fire within burns again. I want to come back in January.”

If she still has it and there’s no reason to believe she won’t, the WTA just got a lot better. With both Clijsters and Henin back along with emerging 19 year-old Dane Wozniacki and soon to be 18 year-old American phenom Melanie Oudin plus Svetlana Kuznetsova, it looks like Serena and Venus will have plenty of competition in the future.

So, while Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva continue to struggle for that elusive slam, it promises to be much more challenging. Especially if Sharapova returns to form. Keep a close eye on talented Bulgarian Victoria Azarenka who has a big enough game to make a dent. Ditto for 20 year-old German sensation Sabine Lisicki who made a surprise quarter run at Wimbledon that included wins over Kuznetsova and Wozniacki.

Can Yanina Wickmayer carry forward her surprise semifinal Open appearance? Will the Ana Ivanovic that won a French and made it to No.1 ever return? What about talented Russians like Nadia Petrova or Vera Zvonareva? Can they ever get over the hump?

The women’s game just improved leaps and bounds. The pizazz is back.

A Five-Set Classic Goes To Del Potro

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – There’s a new U.S. Open men’s champion. His name is Juan Martin Del Potro, who overcame a one set deficit against the game’s best, coming back to dethrone five-time winner Roger Federer 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 before an electrified Ashe Stadium in Flushing.

The first Argentine to win the Open since Guillermo Vilas (1977), who was in attendance for an epic four-plus hour match was at a loss for words after winning his first ever grand slam title.

“When I would have a dream, it was to win the U.S. Open, and the other one is to be like Roger. One is done,” an emotional del Potro told a cheering crowd during a nice on-court ceremony in which he also asked CBS’ Dick Enberg if he could speak in Spanish for all his special fans back home.

“Well, because my parents want to come watch the final and say, no, be there. Of course they are part of this moment. They believe in me a lot like my coaches. It’s a special moment for me, for my parents and my friends. This trophy is for these, too.”

The victory was extra special for the lanky 6-6 man who became the tallest player ever to win a major. Thanks to a huge game featuring a lethal forehand that did plenty of damage producing nearly 40 of his match best 57 winners, he finally got the better of his well accomplished opponent who was aiming for more history- trying to become the first player to win six consecutive Opens since Bill Tilden and also win three slams in a row in the same season since Rod Laver (1969).

All that stood in the way was Del Potro of the all-time slam champion adding more impressive accomplishments to his Hall of Fame career. From the outset, it looked like the world’s best was intent on making quick work of an opponent who nearly got him in a French Open semifinal before running out of gas in five sets.

“I got off to a pretty good start, and had things under control as well in the second set. I think that one cost me the match eventually. But I had many chances before that to make the difference,” Federer assessed.

“So it was tough luck today, but I you thought Juan Martin played great. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”

Indeed, a sharp Federer came out smoking converting on his fifth break opportunity for an early 2-0 lead when he ran down a backhand from one side, steering Del Potro wide for a half volley before going full steam for an amazing running forehand cross which left the Argentine in disbelief.

A timid Del Potro struggled to get first serves in but finally got on the board for 1-3. Still, it was Federer who was more aggressive pinning the soon to be 21 year-old behind the baseline with precision hitting that also allowed him to finish points off at net where he had large success going 10 for 11 in the opening set.

“Yes, the beginning of the match I was so nervous, I can’t sleep last night. I don’t take a breakfast today. That’s part of the final, you know,” del Potro said.

“But Roger start very good. I start little down. I miss    I was bad with my serve, and that’s important weapon of my game. When I broke his serve for first time, I start to believe in my game. To change.”

Despite the slow start, Del Potro did exactly what he promised a day before after defeating Rafael Nadal by giving maximum effort every point. That kind of desire would be necessary if he was going to have a shot. In the sixth game, he fought off a break point then delivering a pair of aces to hold for 2-4. In the next game, he finally put pressure on Federer taking the first two points but the more experienced 28 year-0ld Swiss Maestro used a couple of big forehands to get out of the jam for 5-2.

It looked like Federer would finish off the set with a double break but again the feisty Del Potro saved three set points capturing the final five, holding with an ace to stay alive.

However, that didn’t deter Federer who still served it out with an ace out wide to take the set. History was on his side with the last 16 champions winning the first.

Things continued to look good for the reigning five-time champ who was handed the opening game of the second set due to four Del Potro miscues including two double faults.

Following a hold, Del Potro finally had his first looks at breaking Federer but the 15-time slam winner didn’t oblige dodging all three for 3-1. Somehow, he was still in comfortable position despite struggling on his serve like never before. For some reason, Federer missed a lot of first serves and was in the low 40’s yet hadn’t been broken, even throwing in double faults serving an uncharacteristic 11 to his younger foe’s six. Del Potro couldn’t make him pay but that eventually changed.

Del Potro nearly went down double break but held to hang around for 2-3. With his serve finally in gear, he began steadying from the baseline with his monster forehand and underrated backhand starting to turn the tide. Suddenly, he was getting looks at Roger’s serve but couldn’t cash in falling behind 3-5.

Following a love hold, things looked pretty dicey when Federer easily took the first two points serving for the second set. That’s when a desperate Del Potro stepped it up winning the next four points with some great hustle and unbelievable shots to get back even five all.

It began with an innocent backhand lob which a running Federer couldn’t save this time looking like he might try another tweener like the one versus Novak Djokovic that setup match point yesterday. Instead, his desperating lob floated long helped by Del Potro.

After he took the next point, the turning point came when a gliding Del Potro ripped a forehand down the line which initially was ruled out. He challenged and replays showed that it just caught the edge upsetting a stunned Federer who pointed to the mark thinking, ‘No way.’

Suddenly with break point and the crowd on his side, Del Potro rode the momentum with another great forehand pass pumping his fist to capitalize.

The set would need a tiebreaker. Never before had Federer dropped one in four previous tries in the final. But this time, Del Potro was a little better using a Federer forehand mishit for the only mini-break he’d need to go up 4-3. He then backed it up with forehand and backhand winners giving him three set points.

After Federer saved the first two on his serve, an inside out forehand gave a pumped up Del Potro the set.

“I thought I had him under control for the first two sets. I should never have lost so many chances. It was just a pity. I think if I win the second set, I’m in a great position to come through. Unfortunately, I didn’t win that and that was it,” Federer accurately pointed out.

With it all even, Del Potro continued to grow in confidence going for his shots willing to trade from the baseline. His forehand continued to get to Federer who was still having serving issues. Finally, the Argentine moved ahead 4-3 in the third set thanks to a huge forehand drawing a Federer miss which was followed by an emphatic yell from the underdog.

But as usually is the case, Federer broke right back flustering Del Potro who looked pretty mad at himself. Yet he stayed strong producing a ridiculous 110 mph forehand winner for another break chance but Federer dug out for 5-4.

The unpredictable set concluded with Del Potro having a rough 10th game with an unlucky net cord giving Federer Love-30. Following taking the next point, he fell apart with back-to-back doubles donating the set to Federer who by that point was antsy due to the chair umpire allowing a late challenge by Del Potro the previous game.

In the set, Federer held a 13-4 edge in winners while converting two of four break points to Del Potro’s one for three. He also finished off five of seven at the net where he went 66 percent (31 of 47) overall.

“Well, when I won the second set, I think if I continuing playing same way, maybe I have chance to win. But after, when I lost the third set, going to break up, I start to think bad things, you know,” del Potro analyzed while admitting to being very nervous when he threw in the doubles to fall behind adding:

“Yeah, but that moment I start to think the final, playing with Roger, the best player of the history, nothing to lose. And be two sets to one down, but I think, okay, you never lose until the last point, so keep fighting. The crowd help me, and they saw my fight in every point.

So I think that’s help me.”

Federer was just a set from more history but could Del Potro rebound? He proved to have plenty of ammunition left cracking another forehand winner to squeeze out of trouble for two all. The forehand barrage continued breaking Federer at love for 3-2.

“Big focus every time and good feeling with my forehand I think was the key of the match,” explained del Potro who continued using his biggest weapon to rain on the Federer Express.

One of the match’s highlights included a 21-stroke rally that a hustling Del Potro ended with a running forehand even high-fiving fans. But just when things seemed alright, Federer cameback with a service hold and then broke back for four all. He then held for his third straight game getting within a game of the trophy.

By this point, one thing was noticeable. Del Potro alternated his strategy opting not to go big on the serve instead spinning it in for a higher percentage which Federer surprisingly didn’t adjust on.

It had worked all set but a tight Del Potro ran into deep trouble losing two of the first three points in the critical 10th game to stay in the match. Only a couple of points from losing, he stepped it up big time taking the final three including a 131 mph ace along with a lethal winner for five all. That kind of guts allowed him to believe he could beat a player for the first time in seven tries.

“It was so difficult to keep trying to keep fighting. But one more time the crowd and the fans helped me a lot to fight until last point. I think I have to say thank you to everyone for that,” an appreciative del Potro said after winning his favorite slam he dreamed of winning as a kid.

The set would go to a breaker where once again, the younger player was a little better. Using a Federer double, he carried through forcing two errors to take it 7-4, forcing a deciding set for all the marbles. The first time that had occurred since 1999 when Andre Agassi defeated Todd Martin.

“Well, if I lose the fourth set tiebreak I lose the match. I did unbelievable points. I was focused every time trying to think on the point, and that’s it,” noted del Potro after finishing with one more winner (57-56) and two fewer errors (60-62) in a closely fought final that saw him hold an eight point edge in total points (180-172).

Who had more left? Surprisingly, it was the youngster who played a superior set breaking Federer in the second game with another forehand pass pumping his fists.

Federer tried to comeback but a determined Del Potro fought off break chances to jump out to a 3-0 lead. One of the reasons he prevailed was how tough he was at crucial moments saving 17 of 22 break points while converting five of 15.

Not a whole a lot. I just thought he was more consistent throughout. You know, I mean, he played pretty much the same,” said Federer on the difference.

A weary Federer misfired from the baseline committing 15 of 62 unforced errors in a set similar to the one he played against Nadal at the beginning of the year in Australia. Meanwhile, a confident Del Potro continued to apply pressure dictating points with his huge groundstrokes. Somehow, he was deadly accurate only giving away four points by comparison.

When he easily held for 5-2, the crowd sensed what was about to happen. A changing of the guard was taking place. For five years, Federer had owned the place never even needing a final set to defeat five different players off an impressive list that included Lleyton Hewitt (2004-straights, 2 bagels), Andre Agassi (2005-4 sets), Andy Roddick (2006-4 sets), Djokovic (2007-straights) and Andy Murray (2008-straights). Before tonight, he’d dropped just two sets during that incredible run.

“Maybe I look back and have some regrets about it,” said Federer who kept it in proper perspective realizing how special it’s been. “But, you know, you can’t have them all and can’t always play your best.”

Of course, the great champ didn’t go down without a fight saving two championship points in the eighth game. But his 11th double prevented him from holding to at least force Del Potro to serve for it. Following an errant Federer forehand, Del Potro went for the kill ripping a deep forehand which even one of the greatest defenders couldn’t keep in sending a backhand prayer long to finally hand the championship over.

A stunned Del Potro dropped to the ground on his back in disbelief. He’d just done something no one else had beating both Nadal and Federer to win his first ever career slam.

“Well, when I lay down to the floor, many things come to my mind. First my family and my friends and everything. I don’t know how I can explain, because it’s my dream. My dream done. It’s over. I will go home with a trophy, and it’s my best sensation ever in my life,” a thrilled Del Potro stated.

“Yeah, I mean, this one I think is easy to get over just because I’ve had the most amazing summer,” Federer added after seeing his 40-match Open win streak halted.

“I tried everything, you know. Didn’t work. I missed chances. He played well and in the end it was a tough fifth set. It’s acceptable. But life goes on. No problem.”

For Del Potro who turns 21 September 23, this was the icing on the cake. Well, cheesecake since that’s what he hinted he’d have later in eight days.

“Yeah, of course. Beat Roger for first time here in my favorite Grand Slam, and two sets to one down, everything, I think it’s the best final ever in my life, of course.”

What could be better than to rule New York? He’s on top of the world.