Monday, January 23, 2017

8 women, 8 stories

There are eight women left in the Australian Open draw, and they represent a variety of interesting--and in some cases--inspiring, stories.

Serena Williams is there, competing to win her 23rd major. Williams got quite a fight from Barbora Strycova in the round of 16, but emerged the winner in straight sets. A six-time champion in Melbourne, the world number 2 will once again be the world number 1 if she wins the event. Just about everything in Serena's career is inspiring, and at 35 years old, her very realistic quest for number 23 is history-making in itself.

And then there's Venus, aged 36, who was more or less written off a few years ago because of the struggles she had to endure because of her illness (and its continual misdiagnosis, even though her symptoms were obvious). Now that she has a stable health management system, it certainly can't be easy to compete at the top  level, but here she is, in the quarterfinals. The last time she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open was in 2010, and she was defeated in that round by Li Na.

Perhaps the most inspiring story is that of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who described herself yesterday as a "tough little cookie, and very, very stubborn." Indeed. Lucic-Baroni, who is 34, was considered a tennis prodigy in the late 90s. At the age of 15, she (and Martina Hingis) won the Australian Open women's doubles championship. Two years later, Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals in singles at Wimbledon.

It looked as though nothing could stop the young Croatian star, but sadly, she was the victim of long-term abuse from her father, which caught up with her. She left the tour, but returned in 2007, and has played the role of giant-killer ever since. Now, 18 years after her Wimbledon run, she's in another major quarterfinal, and it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't be heartened by this turn of events.

The rest of the stories aren't as dramatic, but they have merit. Take, for example, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the next-gen Russian hope who just never quite met what many considered her great potential. Pavlyuchenkova, a world number 1 junior player, has had issues with fitness and consistency, and just, well, the Russian thing. But when she's good, she's very, very good, with superb court anticipation. And here she is, into the quarterfinals.

Karolna Pliskova went from scoring a disappointing finish in major after major until last year, when she reached the final of the U.S. Open. The Czech Fed Cup beast is now arguably the hottest player on the tour, and so far, she hasn't let anything stop her in Melbourne--not even being down 2-5 in the third set to Jelena Ostapenko. And it just might be that third round-of-16 set that gives Pliskova the super-confidence she needs to become an even bigger story.

Garbine Muguruza's Melbourne story is one that's buried on page nine, so to speak. The French Open champion has moved quietly and very efficiently through the draw and has barely been noticed by commentators and fans. Yes, Muguruza can be brilliant, and then suddenly, she can just "mugu around" and drop out of competition. So far, though, she's given us no reason to believe she isn't in Melbourne to win, and she also has the advantage of knowing what it feels like to be in a really big final and walk away with the trophy.

CoCo Vandeweghe's story is one I didn't think I'd be able to tell. The hard-hitting, big-serving U.S. player has had issues with fitness and issues with consistency and self-management. She would look as though she were getting it all together, but then self-destruct yet again. But lately, Vandeweghe has done a much better job of taking control of matches. It probably hasn't hurt that she's been hanging out on the doubles court with Martina Hingis.

Finally, Jo Konta's "meteoric rise" has been much discussed this past week. Observers are shaking their heads at the Brit's sudden ascent into the top 10, but really, if you were paying attention, you weren't shocked by Konta's rise up the rankings. It seemed practically inevitable. The British star has a big, effective serve and the attitude of a winner. She has superb court-management and self-management skills. What's not to like?

The quarterfinal include three players from the USA, two unseeded players and three players who hold at least one major championship title.

Soon, there will be only four stories. Here is the quarterfinal draw:

CoCo Vandewege vs. Garbine Muguruza (7)
Venus Williams (13) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (24)
Karolina Pliskova (5) vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Johanna Konta (9) vs. Serena Williams (2)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Defending champion Kerber has tough task ahead of her in Melbourne

World number 1 Angelique Kerber, winner of the 2016 Australian Open, will have her work cut out for her at this year's event. In the first round, she meets Lesia Tsurenko, a good but inconsistent player who may try to take advantage of an apparent recent Kerber slump-funk (I had to make up a word). Let's assume, however, that Kerber deals with Tsurenko (who is recovering from a viral illness). She has a potential round of 16 clash with Daria Kasatkina, who will most definitely go after the German.

But--assuming Kerber pulls herself together--I like the world number 1's chances against the talented young Russian. Draw "wisdom" dictates that Kerber would face off against Garbine Muguruza in the quarterfinals. And since Muguruza has begun her season with a fresh attitude, that quarterfinal is indeed likely to take place. And--should it occur--it has the potential to be very, very good. Muguruza is 4-3 against Kerber career-wise, but they have split their hard court meetings at two apiece.

Also lurking in that first quarter are Genie Bouchard and the unpredictable CoCo Vandeweghe. If Bouchard beats Kasatkina in the third round, then it would be she who would face Kerber in the round of 16.

Simona Halep anchors the next quarter. For the Romanian, the Australian Open is not the "Happy Slam"--she has a tendency to make a very quick exit in Melbourne. She starts with Shelby Rogers, and that could be (but probably won't be) an easy Halep win. All sorts of danger lurks in Halep's quarter, which contains the likes of Monica Puig, Kiki Bertens, Venus Williams, Elina Svitolina, Anastasia "You Never Know" Pavlyuchenkova, Katerina Siniakova, and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

If it comes down to Halep and Svitolina in the quarterfinals, that would prove to be a mighty test for the world number 4, but given her history, she may have already left Melbourne by then.

The third quarter features Karolina Pliskova, arguably the hottest player on the tour right now, and a favorite to win the Australian Open. The top anchor of this quarter, however, is Agnieszka Radwanska, who, as they say "owns" Pliskova. She does. In seven matches, the long, tall Czech has yet to win a set because she has not figured out the puzzle that is Radwanska. When Pliskova said her New Year's resolution was to "bend my knees more," she may have been anticipating yet another matchup with The Ninja.

There are dangers to get past in this quarter, though, before anyone reaches the business end of the tournament. Players who can deliver said danger are Daria Gavrilova, Kiki Mladenovic, Timea Bacsinszky, and Alize Cornet. Radwanska plays her first round against Tsvetana Pironkova, whose mysterious power in majors has waned somewhat, but who knows what the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery has in store? A few more potentially dangerous players in Radwanska's quarter are Monica Niculescu, Yulia Putintseva, Ana Konjuh, Camila Giorgi, Elena Vesnina, and Heather Watson.

A first round to watch is probably an unfortunate one for qualifier Anna Blinkova. The young Russian, playing in her first major, will go against Niculescu, and she probably isn't prepared for what she's going to get.

The last quarter's top player is world number 2 Serena Williams, who has won the event six times. This is one tasty quarter, which includes 2014 runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, Ekaterina Makarova, Caroline Wozniacki, Johanna Konta, Lucie Safarova, and Belinda Bencic. And if that isn't edgy enough, that quarter also features Barbora Strycova, Caroline Garcia and Timea Babos, troublemakers all. You could have a thrilling tournament with just this quarter.

Williams' first match will be played against Belinda Bencic, which is certainly not a prospect that pleases either of them. Both players have had a lot of injury issues in the past several months, but Williams, of course, has been known to win major events while injured, so she perhaps has an edge in the health department. If Bencic is healthy (and she appears to be), she'll do her best to flummox Williams; she's done it before. I think, though, that the real danger resides on the rackets of Cibulkova and Konta. Also, look for Strycova to shake things up in this quarter.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My hot 10 for 2017

original photo by Daniel Ward
Tennis season predictions, even the vague kind (which is the only kind I ever attempt) are always tricky, but for 2017, they appear especially so. Change is in the air, only it isn't always obvious change. There are a number of players with the potential to perform quite well in this new season, and I've selected ten who I believe have an edge. But before I list them, here are some "very warm" candidates who didn't make my cut, but who could also easily do great things in 2017. In no particular order:

Madison Keys
Why, you may ask, is she not in the top ten? And all I can tell you is that it's just my instinct. Keys is loaded with potential, but between her injuries and what appears to be lulls in playing momentum, she hasn't met it. She could meet it at any time, but to me, she just isn't "warm enough" at this time.

Caroline Wozniacki
I had no idea that the Dane would wind up on this list, but her performances at the end of the 2016 season placed her back in contention as a top player. Will she continue this streak? Who knows?

Kiki Mladenovic
Mladenovic has a lot going for her. She has a wicked serve, a love of big stages, a strategic mindset, and a nice variety of shots. But that serve can go off. And the Frenchwoman can also falter mentally. Her great successes in doubles, and in Fed Cup, have given her confidence, I think. I always feel that Mladenovic is "on the edge" in singles, and 2017 could see her step over it.

Daria Gavrilova
Gavrilova has a lot of strengths and a lot of skills. She appears to put her whole heart into playing, and she has worked hard. She appears to be fearless, which could serve her well in the future.

Daria Kasatkina
It has to happen some time. Look for the Russian to get noticed even more in the coming year.

Kiki Bertens
She finally got her big clay breakthrough in 2016. Will this Fed Cup beast do even better in 2017--and maybe not just on clay? Bertens "should" have made the breakthrough sooner. She has a big game and a steady attitude. Wait and see.

Caroline Garcia
Garcia has gotten in trouble in the past because of mental wavering. If all of her Fed Cup success has steadied her, she might surprise us in the new season.

Aan Konjuh
Something big may not happen for a while, but you never know.

Genie Bouchard
Right now, Bouchard is probably the least predictable player on the tour. I like her chances.

Belinda Bencic
She has almost everything going for her, but the young Swiss star is already so hampered by injury that she can't keep any momentum going. If she solves the health problem, she'll make her second breakout.

And now--again, in no particular order--my "hot 10" for 2017, based on their records, their progress, and my instinct (note: Vika Azarenka and Petra Kvitova would have been on this list, but circumstances, of course, intervened):

Angelique Kerber
The world number 1 had an amazing 2016 season, winning two majors and an Olympic silver medal, and rising to the top of the rankings. Kerber now displays the walk, talk and demeanor of a champion. It isn't easy being a champion, and yes, she's going to feel the pressure, but I like the way she has handled herself,  and I expect very good results from her in 2017.

Serena Williams
Serena seems to always "come back" when she has never really gone away. The "half full" description of her 2016 singles year is that she played in three major finals, while the "half empty" one is that she lost two of them, lost her number 1 ranking, and failed to win a medal at the Olympics. Logic dictates that Williams will be on a natural decline from this point on, given her age and her history of extreme physical and mental effort. But this is Serena we're talking about, so even a natural decline could contain very big things.

Simona Halep
I just don't feel that Halep has peaked. I hope I'm right, too. The Romanian star sometimes seems to make things more difficult for herself with her perfectionist mindset and her tendency to be overly philosophical (well, is that ever a nod to idol Justine Henin). I remember when Marion Bartoli had the good sense to bring Amelie Mauresmo along as her coach at the 2013 Wimbledon event, and every time Bartoli began ruminating, Mauresmo would make her dance. I think maybe somebody needs to get Simona to bust a move. At any rate, I believe she's going to have a good 2017 season.

Karolina Pliskova
Well, if anyone is on fire, it's Pliskova. She won Cincinnati, then she went to New York and obliterated her dismal record at majors (she'd never gotten past a third round) by reaching the final. And she did it all with her characteristic, long, tall, too-cool approach. The big-serving Czech, also a Fed Cup star, has nowhere to go but up, and I see her making a steady and delightful trip up the tennis elevator next year.

Dominika Cibulkova
I believe in Cibulkova, and I wasn't surprised that she pulled off of the Combeback of the Year in 2016, after undergoing surgery for her achilles. At the end of the season, after reaching the Wuhan final and winning Linz, Cibulkova sneaked into the WTA Finals and took home the trophy. Gone are the days of the chronic hip injury. A healthy Cibulkova is dangerous, and I like her chances in 2017.

Maria Sharapova
She won't be back until mid-season, but when she returns, look for her to shake things up. Will she be wildly successful? Probably not. But she'll make a statement, and--based on her history--she'll be more than ready.

Johanna Konta
Konta, in my view, has "it." We cannot ever define exactly what "it" is, but we know it when we see it. Currently number 10 in the world, the Brit appears ready to take on anybody, and I think 2017 will be her best season ever.

Aga Radwanska
The Ninja is permanently hot. It's just how she rolls. She may falter and she may slump, but she always pulls herself back together and does something spectacular. And she's always the Ninja. And until the day she puts her racket down, she'll be the greatest shot-maker in WTA history. (And I still give her a shot at winning Wimbledon.)

Garbine Muguruza
Muguruza brilliantly won the 2016 French Open and then faded away, relatively speaking. Who can figure out the mystery that is Muguruza? It doesn't matter, because I believe Muguruza will figure it out. Why do I believe this? Instinct again. She is a real talent, and she knows she is, and my gut feeling is that in 2017, she will get serious. (I could be wrong--I've also said this about Petra Kvitova, who has yet to get it together in a way that matches her extreme talent.)

Elina Svitolina
As someone who has had an eye on the expertly-moving Ukrainian player for some time, the 2016 season was gratifying for me. Many had written her off, but Svitolina sneaked up on the tour, quite obviously aided by Justine Henin. Among her 2016 feats was to upset Serena Williams in the third round of the Olympic Games. She was also a semifinalist in a number of big events.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Tennis Carol

Virginia was retired. There was no doubt whatever about that. Margaret and Virginia were partners long ago. They’d won the Australian, the French, and the U.S. Open—twice. Virginia had a very good serve, was a clever player, and had helped stock Margaret’s trophy case.

But that was another time, a time when the tennis season seemed to revolve around Margaret. Things had changed a lot since then. First there was Billie Jean and her gang and all their feminist nonsense. Then the lesbians started announcing themselves and getting interviews. Worst of all, it became so much easier to win majors—not like in Margaret’s day. In her day, there were heavy wooden rackets, no medical time-outs, and you were lucky if you could find some water during the changeovers.

Margaret rarely saw Virginia, but she heard her on the air, making all kinds of snide remarks about the game and its players, even Andy Murray.

Now the new season was about to begin, and Margaret dreaded it. She rarely left her house except to walk to the church, where the congregation counted on her to keep them informed about all the latest attempts to give—what do they call them now?—LGBT citizens legal rights.

Though she dreaded it, Margaret had to go run some errands. Once on the street, she was assailed by reminders that the season was upon them. Maria Sharapova and Monica Puig walked by arm in arm, eating candy from a small cellophane bag. Maria smiled at Margaret and offered her some gummy lips. “Bah! Humbug!” Margaret muttered, and kept walking, as she contemplated what on Earth Sharapova had to be happy about.

She turned a corner and saw a group of women gathered at an outdoor cafe. They were telling stories and laughing until they cried. It was a chilly day, but the women didn’t seem to mind. Gathered at the table were Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep, and—with a huge slice of cheesecake on her plate—Aga Radwanska. They looked up when they saw her pass, but continued to laugh.

“They’re probably laughing at me,” Margaret thought. As if she cared. She was eager to get away from all of this tennis season hoopla, but it was hard to avoid. She saw Venus and Serena, practicing on a court in the park. “Why,” wondered Margaret, “are those two still playing? They’re old and they’re rich. It makes no sense.”

She was so lost in thought that, a moment later, she almost collided with a strange figure, dressed head to toe in designer red and very high heels. Her hair was covered with glitter. She leapt and twirled, seemingly oblivious to everyone and everything else around her.

“What is that odd creature?” Margaret asked out loud. She jumped when a voice behind her said, “Don’t you know? That’s the Light—and the Joy!” Margaret turned around and saw Li Na, who grinned at her, then disappeared into the crowd.

“Bah! Humbug!” Margaret muttered to herself.

She had almost reached her house, when suddenly, someone tapped her on the back. She turned around and took in a shocking sight: A woman—a tennis player—covered in tattoos and wearing a leopard-pattern kit and black knee-high socks, smiled at her. How, thought Margaret, could this kind of getup ever be permitted on a tennis court? What had happened to her sport?

The woman spoke with authority. “Happy tennis season! Some of us are blessed, but some of us need help.”

“What do you mean?” Margaret asked, in spite of herself.

“Well, Simona and Petra could use some confidence, Petra and Lucie have health issues, Alize needs more consistency, the poor French Fed Cup team has lost Captain Mauresmo, Maria has had to endure the whims of WADA and the ITF, Sara and Andrea are sliding down the rankings. Oh, and poor Schmiedy is about to be declared an unnatural disaster.”

“Why should I care about any of them?” Margaret said sharply, then walked off.

“Wait!” the tattooed figure called to her. “If you don’t care about any of them, what about Little Genie?



You know—Little Genie. She was going to be the biggest star on the tour, but terrible things happened to her, and now her career is in grave danger.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was 2014, and Scary Petra destroyed Little Genie in the Wimbledon final, right after the press built her up as the sure champion. Scary Petra showed no mercy, and Little Genie hasn’t been the same since.”

“She’ll get over it. Or not.” Margaret had heard enough of this.

“But that’s not all! Little Genie sustained some injuries, but then she started playing better. But one night, at the U.S. Open, those who were supposed to protect Little Genie left her open to harm. She slipped and hit her head and wound up with a concussion. And a lawsuit. And the USTA acts likes it’s all Little Genie’s fault! Hasn’t she suffered enough?”

“Leave me alone!” Margaret yelled, and trudged home.

That night, while she was sipping her tea, Margaret heard the sound of chains rattling. She looked up and saw Virginia.

“How did you get in?”

“That isn’t for you to know,” Virginia said. “I’m here, Margaret, to tell you that you will be visited by many images, some much scarier than I could ever be as a cynical commentator. You will not like much of what you see and hear.”

Before Margaret could answer, there was again the rattling of chains, only much louder. Standing before her, suddenly, was a player whose face was swollen and covered with gashes.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Liezel. Maybe you don’t recognize me. My opponents always hit me in the face, and now I walk the Earth talking about how glorious U.S. citizenship is, and reminding people that I became a success even though I came from a third world country!”

The pathetic figure moved on, but right behind her was the scariest apparition of the three. Rattling a large number of chains, this wild-eyed figure shook her finger at Margaret and said to her: “Life is beautiful. Wait—life sucks. Whatever. It’s going to be a happy season, though, because we’re going to make American great again and kick some serious immigrant and liberal ass! Rejoice! Maybe there’ll be a war! Why are people so mean to me? Haters, begone!”

Jennifer, thankfully, disappeared into the mist.

Exhausted, Margaret went to sleep. But she had slept only a few hours when she was awakened by a presence. She sat up in bed and saw before her yet another apparition. But this one had no chains. She was chic and elegant, and had an air of mischief about her. She looked as though every muscle in her body was poised to move at any time. Dressed in Wimbledon white from her wrap headband to her skirt and stockings, the figure stood with a soft glow about her.

“Hello, Margaret,” she said quietly. “I am the Spirit of Tennis Past, come to visit you as we embark on a new season.”

Margaret finally cracked. She began to tremble, and the figure in white winked at her, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a flask, which she offered to Margaret.

“It will calm you down,” she said quietly.

“Nonsense. I don’t need calming down, and I certainly don’t want anything to do with whiskey.”

“I always found it very helpful,” the spirit said, then took a swig before putting the flask back in her pocket.

“What do you want with me?” Margaret asked, as she continued to tremble.

“I’m here to show you what it was like long ago, way, way before the Open Era.”

The spirit gestured, and Margaret felt compelled to follow her. She found herself in a field where women were wearing long skirts and hitting tennis balls.

“How could they play, dressed like that?”

“It wasn’t easy,” the spirit laughed. “That’s why I wore a shorter skirt and a sleeveless top. You may recall, I created a scandal.”

“But you had to be comfortable to play.”

“Of course. My point is, if we don’t change things, if we keep doing things the way women are ‘expected’ to do them, we can’t be successful.

“I was a celebrity, too, you know.”

“We did fine in my day without any of that,” Margaret muttered.

“Ah, but did you have as much fun?” the spirit laughed. My spirit lives on, in Amelie’s grace, in Alize’s leaping, in Kiki’s style. I wonder, Margaret, if you spirit will live on.”

And with that, the Spirit of Tennis Past took an elegant leap and was gone.

Margaret slept fitfully that night.

The next night, exhausted, she went to bed early. But again, she hadn’t been asleep long when she was awakened by another presence, this one even more intense than the first. She looked up and was stunned to see an angel standing at the foot of her bed. Margaret knew all about angels from her extensive reading of the Bible, and she sometimes mentioned them in her sermons, but she had never seen one before!

“Please tell me who you are and why you are here,” she begged the angel.

The angel gave her a crooked smile. “I am the Spirit of Tennis Present,” she said. "I train hard. I practice for hours. I look to consultants for help. People said I was limited because all I had was my brilliant defensive game, so I changed my ways. I have a transition game that would make your head spin, Margaret, and I can hit angles you could only dream about. I went from being the player no one knew about to number 1 in the world.”

“That’s impressive,” Margaret said quietly, “but what does any of it have to do with me?”

“You think we have it easy, and I’m here to tell you we don’t. Sure, we have lighter rackets and all kinds of trainers and doctors and time-outs. But we have grueling standards and non-stop travel. You, of all players, should understand—you were the first to put in time at the gym.”

“I was,” Margaret agreed, “though the credit always goes to Navratilova.”

The angel gave her that crooked smile again. “You were a great athlete, Margaret, and you worked hard and won an amazing number of titles. Now, come with me. We’re going to watch some tennis!”

Margaret didn’t dare say no to an angel, so she followed the spirit to a huge stadium, where several matches were taking place.

She had to smile when she saw Simona Halep’s speed and her ability to out-think her opponents, even the very tall ones. “Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na!” the crowd roared, and Margaret, in spite of herself, was briefly caught up in the Romanian enthusiasm.

A young blonde woman, clutching some stuffed creatures, walked by, smiled, and whispered in Margaret’s ear: “Tennis gods bless us, every one!”

“Who was that?” she asked her guide.

“Oh, that’s Little Genie,” the angel said. This sent a shiver up Margaret’s spine.

But there was more to see. Serena was serving aces with such ease, Margaret had to marvel at her. She saw Dominika Cibulkova hit the ball so hard, it startled her. Then she watched the Russians and the French playing doubles and she was very impressed. And over on a clay court, a somewhat sullen Spanish woman was putting on a show that would have impressed even Chris Evert.

“This is quite a spectacle,” Margaret remarked to the angel, and then felt foolish because surely, it must have looked as though she were talking to herself.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” the Spirit of Tennis Present replied. She then pointed to a court where a player was walking on her hands across the court, then twirling around and hitting winning volleys over her shoulder.

“You’re playing a trick on me,” Margaret said angrily.

The angel laughed. “No, that’s The Ninja. She’s powered by cheesecake.” Sure enough, it was that woman Margaret had seen at the cafe a few days ago.

“I hope you enjoyed the show, Margaret. I have to leave now—the new season begins very soon.”

And just like that, the angel was gone, and Margaret was back in her bed at home. She tried to sleep, but she was haunted by images of these players who performed with such power and finesse. She was very confused, and very tired.

Hoping that the recent madness was over, Margaret went to bed early again the next night. She was so exhausted that she fell asleep right away, but during the night, she was awakened by an intruder. This one looked different from the others. She was long and tall, her face without expression. There were tattoos on her arm. “What is it?” thought Margaret, “with the tattoos? We would never have allowed it in my day.”

Wearily, she asked; “So who are you?”

The figure, dressed in a simple tennis kit, spoke more quickly than the others: “I am the Spirit of Tennis Future. Come with me now.”

Margaret knew better than to resist someone that tall, so she did as she was told. But she didn’t recognize the place where the spirit took her. It was filled with pictures—most of them of the spirit herself—and there were messages written all over the wall.

“Where are we?”

“We’re on my Facebook page. See, there’s a picture of my sister.”

“There are two of you?”

“Here I am in a fashion shoot.”

“What does that have to do with tennis?”

“We do everything, Margaret. We’re athletes first, but we like fashion, we like travel, and we stay in touch with our fans all over the world."

“What do you want with me?”

The Spirit’s expression didn’t change: “I want you to like me on Facebook.”

“May I please go home now?”

And before the Spirit could answer, Margaret was back in her bed, thankful that the whole ordeal was over.

Except it wasn’t. The next night, Margaret awoke in terror as she heard the unmistakable sound of a horse galloping through her house. Her breathing became shallow as the horse—a most beautiful chestnut and white creature—arrived at the foot of her bed, whinnying and stomping. Sitting on top of the creature was a grinning woman, dressed in a tasteful riding habit.

“Please don’t hurt me!” Margaret screamed.

“Don’t worry, Margaret. I am your final visitor. I am Martina, Spirit of Tennis Past, Present and Future. And I have something for you to see.”

“Whatever you say,” was all Margaret could say in the face of this all-encompassing spirit.

“See these children?” the spirit asked, and before them appeared two pitiful, disabled, dirty, and starving children.

“This is terrible,” Margaret said, “and she began to cry.

“You have to look,” the spirit said sternly. I will tell you who they are: They are Sexism and Corporate Mindset, and they have already destroyed part of our beloved tennis. You ask Billie Jean—she knows. She always knew. If you care at all, Margaret, you will support all these talented and intelligent women who are Tennis Present and Tennis Future. They work as hard as you did, and they deserve a better world.

“Goodbye Margaret.” She grinned once more. “Have a happy 2017 season!” And then she and her horse galloped out of Margaret’s life.

The next day, a sleep-deprived Margaret looked at the calendar and realized the new season was just a day away. She felt somehow different, lighter, and she decided to go out for a while and get some fresh air. She passed a tennis court, and recognized Simona, Aga, Bethanie, and Domi. They waved at her and smiled, then Simona handed her a racket.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Margaret said. But the players began to shout “Margaret! Margaret!" and she joined in the game.

After a while, she told them, “I’m way too rusty for this,” but thank you so much.” They waved goodbye to her, and she realized how much fun she had had with them.

She walked a short way and saw a tall, attractive woman dancing in the street and making everyone around her laugh. Someone yelled “Petko!” and embraced the dancer, and Margaret turned to face the Light and the Joy—and she was struck by it.

She remembered something Virginia had once said: “I don’t make friends with the girls I’m playing against. It would be too painful to beat them.” What nonsense, thought Margaret, as she turned a corner and found herself face to face with Serena Williams.

“Happy season to you Margaret,” Serena greeted her. “Women still struggle to gain recognition as athletes, and I’m here to help them. Are you with me?”

“I am!” Margaret shouted, though she was surprised to hear herself say this. Serena high-fived her and moved on.

Margaret then came upon a huge park, filled with tennis players of all ages. Chris and Martina were there, as were Steffi and Monica. Marion Bartoli was selling art and jewelry from a kiosk, and several players gathered around Daniela Hantuchova, who was playing the piano for them. Flavia, Francesca, Sara, and Roberta were drinking wine and eating pasta. Amelie Mauresmo and Caroline Garcia were jumping up and down and yelling.

Sam Stosur saw her and waved. Two players called The Dashas posed for funny photographs. She saw Justine Henin and her protege, Elina, having a quiet chat. Everywhere around her were talented, athletic, interesting women who were ready for the new season.

Margaret felt something brush against her shoulder. She looked back and saw the world's number 1 player, who turned and gave Margaret the briefest look, and, Margaret thought, a slightly crooked smile.

As Margaret was pondering all of the startling events of the past week, she felt excited about the new season, and she, too, smiled. When she came out of her reverie, she saw Little Genie coming toward her, hand in hand with Scary Petra, who—off the court—was, after all, probably the least scary player on the tour. Little Genie looked happy and healthy, and as she passed Margaret, she said loudly: “Tennis gods bless us, every one!”

(original photo by Daniel Ward)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

2016--complicated and thrilling

Photo by Daniel Ward

Every year is complicated when it comes to summarizing the WTA, but this year sometimes seemed beyond complicated. And it's always difficult for me to narrow the season down to a top 10, but it seemed even harder this year.

I'll begin with some of the more unpleasant aspects. In February, Salah Tahlek, the director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, was angry because some top WTA players withdrew from the event, and who could blame him? But Tahlek had more on his mind that just the unfortunate withdrawals and his perceived lack of player commitment. Calling men's tennis "the real tennis," Tahlek went on to say that "Men's tennis has always been better than women's tennis."

The WTA immediately called out the sexist belief behind that statement. Just kidding! Of course they didn't.

Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore didn't fare as well as Tahlek. Moore said, "In my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky." Moore then suggested that WTA professionals "get down on their knees" and thank the elite ATP players.

So many people were outraged by Moore's disgusting comments, he wound up resigning. And I doubt seriously, if he has a next life, that Moore will be fortunate enough to return as a professional tennis player.

On to a better subject--Zhang Shuai. Zhang almost made my top 10 list, so amazing and heartwarming was her story. Upon entering the season, the Chinese player had made 14 attempts to win a main draw match at a major, and had failed 14 times. She was so discouraged that she thought about retiring from pro tennis before the season even began. But then she gave it one more try, at the Australian Open, and her career changed dramatically.

Zhang won her three qualifying matches, then stunned the tennis world by upsetting world number 2 Simona Halep in straight sets in the first round. She followed that with defeats of Alize Cornet, Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys. Keys was injured, but that doesn't ensure an upset. Zhang lost to Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals, but what a run it was! Zhang went on to have a very good season--her best ever, in fact. She began the year ranked number 133 in the world, and ended it ranked number 23.

Also impressive was Shelby Rogers' French Open run. The North Carolina native had what might be called the draw from hell, but that didn't stop her from reaching the quarterfinals. In the first round, she beat Karolina Pliskova, then went on to knock out Elena Vesnina, Petra Kvitova and Irina Camelia Begu. Rogers even handed two bagels to Kvitova (with a 6-7 tiebreak in the middle). She was finally stopped by eventual champion Garbine Muguruza.

Speaking of Vesnina, she returned from a long injury and rehab break and showed very impressive form. She was the runner-up in Charleston (for the second time), and made it all the way to the semifinals at Wimbledon, where she defeated the likes of Andrea Petkovic, doubles partner Ekaterina Makarova and Dominika Cibulkova. Vesnina was also defeated by the eventual champion; in this case, it was Serena Williams. This was quite a comeback, and of course, Vesnina's doubles record was superb. More about that later.

In 2016, the Family Circle Cup became the Volvo Car Open, and along with the name and sponsor change came some significant innovations. An extra Jumbotron was added to the Billie Jean King Court in the stadium, and emcees and player interviews were added to the Althea Gibson Club Court. Most interesting, however, was the addition that let fans view courts all over the complex--including practice courts--from their mobile devices.

Not so innovative were some ideas that WTA CEO Steve Simon shared with the world. Simon suggested the possibility of changing the singles format to emulate the doubles format--no-ad scoring and a deciding tiebreak set instead of a third set. Using this format, in my opinion, has pretty much destroyed the professional doubles game, but at least there was a (sort of) reasonable explanation for the change: get more players to participate in doubles (whether that worked, I'm not sure).  But Simon's reason for suggesting we destroy singles, also? People have short attention spans. Fortunately, reaction to this idea has been overwhelmingly negative.

In 2016, Johanna Konta and Elina Svitlina both showed why they are rising stars. Konta is now number 10 in the world, and Svitolina (obviously helped by getting some coaching from Justine Henin) is now number 14 in the world.

Victoria Azarenka was the spring star when she won the Sunshine Double. But--as is so often the case with Azarenka--there was a plot twist. This time, it was the announcement of her pregnancy. Azarenka says she doesn't know exactly when she'll return to the tour.

Then there was Kiki Bertens, who drove her Fed Cup brilliance (The Netherlands upset Russia this year) all the way to the French Open semifinals.

There were some notable comebacks (one of which I'll get to later). Vesnina I've already mentioned, but there was also Caroline Wozniacki, who--seemingly out of nowhere--reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open, which got her back into the top 30. The Dane ended the season ranked number 19 in the world.

Both Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova continued to confuse us. Halep had to deal with an achilles injury, and also suffered with a nose problem, for which she was supposed to have surgery, but didn't. She won Madrid, Bucharest and Montreal, which means she had a successful season, but she didn't make it past the quarterfinals of any of the majors. Halep is currently ranked number number 4 in the world.

Then there was Petra. The Barking Czech was all over the place in 2016. She ended her partnership with long-time coach David Kotyza, and--though she tried out a couple of coaches--has yet to settle on anyone new. Kvitova's clay season was unremarkable, and her grass season was a low mark. But things started looking up for her when she won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games.

She won her 18th career title in Wuhan, where she put on a stunning display of tennis. That display included a 3-hour-and-19 minute defeat of world number 1 Angelique Kerber, as well as wins over Konta, Halep and Dominika Cibulkova. Kvitova failed to qualify for the WTA Finals, but did qualify, of course, for the WTA Elite Trophy competition, which she won. Kvitova ended her season ranked number 11 in the world. The Petra we saw in Wuhan is the one whom we like to refer to as the "real" Petra, but the real Petra's appearances have been few and far between for a while.

Another major newsmaker was Serena Williams, though the news she generated wasn't what she and her fans were going for. Williams lost both the Australian Open and French Open finals, and was taken out of the Olympic round of 16 by Svitolina. She and Venus failed to win a medal in women's doubles, as they went out in the first round to Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic. Serena did win her seventh Wimbledon title, but she had to drop out of the WTA Finals because of a lingering shoulder injury. The biggest news was that--after 186 weeks (tied with Steffi Graf's record)--Williams lost her number 1 ranking.

Williams is now 35 years old and ranked number 2 in the world. She has had multiple injuries her entire career, but, as one gets older, the rehab takes longer and there is more vulnerability. The question now is: Has Serena Williams begun an organic move down the rankings, or does she have yet another surprise for us?

Williams is the definition of the term "elite athlete," displaying the highest levels of tennis acumen, athletic ability, strategic thinking, and mental strength. Stay tuned....

Every season, of course, there is this:

And then there's my favorite moment of 2016:

And now, my top 10 occurrences of 2016, in ascending order:

10. Twice the thrills: Doubles competition was fierce this year. Lucie Safarova, returning from a tough recovery from a bacterial infection and consequent reactive arthritis, teamed up again with partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and they went right back to their winnings ways, grabbing the U.S. Open title. Serena and Venus Williams won the Wimbledon title, and Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza won the Australian Open. For the first time in ages, a French team--Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic--won the French Open.

And now, here's the promised addition to the Vesnina segment: Vesnina and Bruno Soares won the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open, starting the Russian's comeback year in high style. And she and partner Ekaterina Makarova won the gold medal in doubles at the Olympic Games and also the WTA Finals championship. It should also be noted that in winning the French Open mixed doubles title (with Leander Paes), Hingis accomplished a Career Slam in mixed doubles.

9. Catching big fishes: During the Cincinnati tournament, Karolina Pliskova talked with the press about one of her favorite off-court activities--fishing. But, she said, she "just fishes in the Czech" and therefore doesn't catch any "big fishes." A few days after that press conference, she caught a very big fish--she won the event, beating Angelique Kerber in the final and thereby preventing the German from reaching the number 1 ranking. Pliskova would go on to reach the final of the U.S. Open, and this time, Kerber got the better of her.

Fans have been waiting for Pliskova to make a big breakthrough at a major, but she took her time about it. Now, though, it seems just about inevitable that the tall, cool-headed Czech will see a lot of week 2 action at majors.

8. Since u been gone: Last year, no one was hotter than Santina, and now, Santina is no more. Just like that, after winning five tournaments in 2016 (including the Australian Open), Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza called an end to their partnership. Last year, they won nine tournaments, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the WTA Finals. It looked as though no one could stop them, but things started to fall apart and they called it quits.

Mirza, however, chose a new partner whom anyone would be happy to have by her side--the irrepressible Barbora Strycova. They won Cincinnati and Tokyo, and Mirza played with Monica Niculescu in New Haven and won that, too. The upshot of all this is that Mirza remains the number 1 doubles player in the world, a position she first acquired while playing with Hingis.

7. Comeback Domi-nation: Dominika Cibulkova was named the WTA's Comeback Player of the Year for 2016, and oh, did she stage a comeback. After missing much of the 2015 season because of an achilles injury and subsequent surgery, Cibulkova came back strong. She reached the final in Acapulco, won the Katowice Open, won Eastbourne, then reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals. At Wimbledon, she also played one of the best--if not the best--matches of the year, when she defeated Radwanska in a three-hour, very high quality thriller. She then reached the final in Wuhan, and won in Linz. Those achievements would have been enough to make her the Comeback Player of the Year (perhaps competing with Vesnina), But Cibulkova was saving the best for the very end.

For the first time in her career, Cibulkova qualified for the WTA Finals, getting the last qualifying slot. She lost twice in round robin play, but--just like Agnieszka Radwanska the year before--she nevertheless managed to reach the semifinals, and then to win the whole thing. It was remarkable that this would happen two years in a row, but that takes nothing away from Cibulkova's tough mindset. She defeated world number 1 Angelique Kerber in the final. Cibulkova is now number 5 in the world.

6. Pojd!: They did it again. The Czech Fed Cup team won the title for the third time in a row, and for the fifth time in the last six years. It wasn't easy. Captain Mauresmo had her French team ready, and the event got off to a roaring start when Karolina Pliskova and Kiki Mladenovic went at it for three hours and 48 minutes. Mladenovic lost that one, but Caroline Garcia won both of her rubbers, and the final ended up going into a fifth rubber with two very sharp doubles teams competing. Pliskova and Barbora Strycova were just too good, even for the Frenchies, and the Czech team--led to victory by Strycova, who won her singles and doubles rubber on day 2--lifted another trophy.

The French team has been so good all year, one couldn't help but wonder if 2017 will be the year they win the whole thing. However, their first-rate captain, Amelie Mauresmo, just resigned because she is pregnant. Whoever steps in will have to be very special in order to measure up to Mauresmo's combination of tactical cleverness and emotional inspiration.

5. The grass is greener on Serena's side: Serena Williams won her 7th Wimbledon title and her 22nd title overall this year, defeating Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final. She and her sister, Venus, also won the doubles title. Williams dropped just one set the entire tournament.

4. Major feat of clay: The WTA has many mysteries, and one of them is Garbine Muguruza. Content to just "Mugu around" for much of the season, the Spaniard--who likes the big stage--was very focused in Paris. Having beaten Serena Williams in the second round in 2014, and having reached the Wimbledon final in 2015 (losing to Serena), Muguruza did what many have expected her to do--win a major. She defeated Williams in the final, hitting a memorable match point lob that sailed over Williams' head and landed right on the line.

3. Upsetting the gold standard: For the past couple of seasons, Monica Puig has shown the world just how much talent she has. And while we all enjoyed watching Puig make her way on the tour, I doubt if any of us understood exactly what that would mean in 2016. Seemingly out of nowhere, the fiery player from Puerto Rico shocked the world by winning Olympic gold in singles. The unseeded Puig went on a tear in Rio, defeating--among others--Garbine Mugaruza and Petra Kvitova. In the final, she faced off against Angelique Kerber, and defeated her 6-4, 4-6, 6-1.

There was more to come. The National Olympic Committees recently named Puig Best Female Athlete at the Olympic Games.

2. Pot-kettle/tempest-teapot: Everyone who reads this blog and follows me on Twitter knows where I have stood--and continue to stand--on the matter of Maria Sharapova's ban. Yes, some type of consequence was in order for the Russian, but hardly a two-year suspension, and I remain deeply skeptical of the context of the whole affair. Dozens of Eastern European athletes, mostly Russian, just happen to get banned shortly before the Olympics for using a substance I'm still not convinced is performance-enhancing (in the "doping" sense). Then there was an "oops" moment, and they were un-banned. Except for one. Because there had to be one, and that one turned out to be Maria.

Then there was the utter silence of the sports (and other) media when WADA head Craig Reedie said: "For me, the only satisfactory element in Madame Sharapova’s case was that in one year she can earn more money than the whole of WADA’s budget put together." In a sane world, those remarks would have merited some investigation, given the mass "forgiveness" of other athletes who used Meldonium. Finally, both WADA and the ITF have questionable histories and aren't known for exercising good or fair judgment.

Sharapova's ban was cut to 15 months by the Court for Arbitration of Sport, and she'll be back next spring.

1. Touched by an Angelique: Last year, I wrote about the thoughtful, steady rise of Angelique Kerber as a top player. The left-handed German, known for her stunning defensive play, knew she had to become threatening in other ways in order to reach elite status, and so she took on the task of enlarging her already very good game. All that work paid off this season, which she began by winning the Australian Open, defeating Serena Williams in the final.

Kerber would go on to defend her title in Stuttgart, and to reach the final of Wimbledon, where she was defeated by Williams. The German won a silver medal at the Olympics, then rounded out her year by winning the U.S. Open. She also finished the season as the number 1 player in the world.

Kerber's year was so big, her disappointments were also noteworthy. Losing the Wimbledon final was a big disappointment, of course, and--on two other occasions--as I wrote on Twitter--she was overcome by feisty. Both Puig and Cibulkova are relentless competitors who--in both the Olympic and Singapore finals--threw everything they had at Kerber and defended so well against her, they prevailed. And this must have made their victories all the sweeter.

Angelique Kerber, a superb athlete known for moving her opponents all over the court, is also a stunning shotmaker. The longer her career goes, the more enjoyable she is to watch. 2016 belonged to her, and she wore it well.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hat trick!

For the third year in a row, and for the fifth in six years, the Czech Republic has won Fed Cup. And what a final it was. You knew it was going to be epic when the first rubber lasted three hours and 48 minutes and included the longest set ever played in Fed Cup history. Karolina Pliskova defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-4, 3-6, 16-14 in what was a very high quality thriller.

Adding to the drama (always drama in Fed Cup), Mladenovic cramped badly in the final set, and saved a couple of match points to get to 9-all, even though she had use of only one leg. It ended a bit less dramatically, when the Frenchwoman was broken at love in the final game.

Not to worry--Caroline Garcia was up next, and she took care of Petra Kvitova, 7-6, 6-3, putting the former Fed Cup star into the zero column yet again. To make things worse, Kvitova had to withdraw from day 2 because of a stress fracture in her right foot.

Garcia, however, came back on day 2 and beat Pliskova, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in what was pretty much a clinic in how beat the tall Czech. This was the Garcia we first noticed a few years ago. She makes an appearance sometimes, but not often enough. Her serve has improved a lot, and her aggression is notable. She just won the Fed Cup Heart Award, and nobody could argue with that. Her performance in this final was outstanding.

With France leading 2-1, Barbora Strycova faced off against Alize Cornet. Cornet should be a great Fed Cup player; she's very talented, likes to pull upsets, and she loves the big stage--and she entered with a dominating record (5-1) against Garcia.  But the one stage she can't handle is the Fed Cup stage. Today, she handled herself better, but it wasn't enough to push back the aggressive and explosive phenomenon that is Strycova. She beat Cornet 6-2, 7-6,  and tied the two countries at 2-all.

It seemed fitting that this amazing final would have to go to a fifth rubber. And you really couldn't have asked for more than a huge doubles match played between Pliskova/Strycova and Garcia/Mladenovic. Playing in France with most of the crowd behind them, the French Open champions had a very good chance to win. But Pliskova and Strycova were just too good. Their 7-5, 7-5 victory sealed the 2016 championship for their country.

If the first half of the final was all about Garcia (with much credit to Mladenovic for her beautiful performance, even while cramping), the second was all about Strycova. Many words--"feisty," "firecracker," "emotional"--have been used to describe Strycova, but none of them is sufficient. Barbora Strycova is a complex combination of no nonsense and high drama. She entertains us with her facial expressions, her fist-pumping (right at Pliskova after Pliskova hit a winner) and her sometimes officious behavior. But that's just the wrapping. Inside is a mature player who has been through a lot, who is more talented now than she was five years ago, and who understands what it takes to win.

A shout-out has to go to France's captain, Amelie Mauresmo, who has had many jobs--including tournament director and coach--but none seems to suit her as well as being Fed Cup captain. Her keen decision-making and her ability to motivate players got France to the final, and almost to the championship. During the final, the camera was frequently on her, as she did everything from massaging Mladenovic's leg to practically breathing fire into Garcia.

2017 will be interesting.

Many fans have requested that the Fed Cup final be changed so that the doubles rubber is the third one, as it is in Davis Cup play. I originally agreed with this idea, but now I'm not so sure. I kind of like having the doubles be the deciding rubber, if needed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Cheers for the red, white and blue--and I don't mean the USA

I mean Strasbourg, where the Fed Cup World Group final will be played this weekend between France and defending champion Czech Republic. Why France chose an indoor hard court for this contest is a mystery, as it plays right to the strengths of Petra Kvitova. Captain Amelie Mauresmo is no fool, however, so one assumes there was a good reason.

The French team is a strong one, with both Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic always on call to do double duty, if needed. Alize Cornet should be part of the team's strength, but she has a history of poor Fed Cup performance. That's odd, too, because Fed Cup brings out the kind of big-crowd, spirited competition upon which Cornet generally thrives.

Joining Garcia, Mladenovic and Cornet on the team will be Pauline Parmentier. Garcia and Mladenovic, the 2016 French Open champions, recently won the WTA's Doubles Team of the Year award.

World number 6 Karolina Pliskova and world number 11 Petra Kvitova lead the Czech team, and are joined by Barbora Strycova and Lucie Hradecka. Pliskova has carried the team this year, with a lot of help from Strycova. And while Kvitova's recent Fed Cup exploits have been nothing like her former ones, the final is very likely to feature Scary Petra, fresh from a win in Zuhai, and apparently feeling pretty good about her game.

Do the French have a chance? Yes, but only if Kvitova has a collapse. And even then, Kvitova would have to lose both of her singles rubbers. Of course, Pliskova could lose a singles rubber. She's 1-1 against the tricky (and sometimes very good-serving) Mladenovic, and 1-1 against Garcia (one of those losses was on clay). Should the final somehow wind up in a doubles decider, it would be a thrilling one, pitting Garcia and Mladenovic against Pliskova and Strycova, most likely.

The Czech Republic won Fed Cup in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015.