Monday, December 29, 2014

But I thought you meant tennis

Sometimes, when they learn the truth about me, non-fans want to talk with me about pro tennis. This is often a problem for me, however, because many of them mean U.S. Tennis, and men's tennis. Bring up a sport--tennis, basketball, golf--and people assume you are talking about the men's game, which, of course, is considered the real game. After all, sports are "for men" and everyone knows it.

I recently had someone ask me, "What's wrong with American (I don't like that term either, but that's another discussion) tennis?" My answer was: "What don't you like about number 1 in the world?" He stared at me with a blank expression on his face. "Serena," I said, and he gave me an "oh, you know what I mean--real tennis" look. "Did you mean men's tennis?" I asked.

Television broadcasters perpetuate the sexism by referring to the men's games as tennis, basketball, golf, etc. and then saying women's golf, women's basketball, etc. This doesn't always happen with tennis, I've noticed, which means that on some unconscious cultural level, female athletes get a bit of respect when they play with rackets.

I can't speak for anywhere but my own region, but it seems like a lot of people around here know who Federer and Nadal are, but I can't find anyone who knows who Djokovic is. Go figure. Many know who Sharapova is, but they have never heard of Kvitova, Radwanska or Azarenka. People are accustomed to following team sports in which all of the players are from the same country--this country. Golf opens the field a bit, but nothing opens it quite like tennis.

I'll close this with something that is quite good: When I hear people talk about the Williams sisters, it is generally with a lot of admiration. When I introduce them to facts they didn't know, such as Venus's illness and Serena's life-threatening post-accident condition, they are amazed by the Williams sisters' resilience and strength of character.

Quote of the day

"I'm excited to see if the emerging stars--Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza--continue to improve and win majors, or if Petra Kvitova finally decides she's never going to lose again and beats everyone."

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Hopman Cup begins in a week

Hopman Cup play begins on Sunday, January 4, and--barring the (always possible) withdrawal of more players--here's what the teams will look like:

Group A

Canada--Eugenie Bouchard/Vasek Pospisil
Czech Republic--Lucie Safarova/Adam Pavlasek
Italy--Flavia Pennetta/Fabio Fognini
USA--Serena Williams/John Isner

Group B

Australia--Casey Dellacqua/Nick Kyrgios
France--Alize Cornet/Benoit Paire
Great Britain--Heather Watson/Andy Murray
Poland--Agnieszka Radwanska/Jerzy Janowicz

Pavlasek is the replacement for Radek Stepanek (yes, one is tempted to say something, but I'm refraining), Isner is the replacement for Jack Sock, and Paire is the replacement for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The French team of Cornet and Tsonga won last year's Hopman Cup.

The event will be played in the Perth Arena, on an indoor Plexicushion court. Action will begin with competition between Canada and the Czech Republic.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Christmas Song, WTA version

Photo by Daniel Ward

 Bloggers roasting you from east to west
Jack Sock nipping at your toes
Songs of gloom being sung by the press
And fans fed up with certain pros

Everybody knows a trophy and some prize cash
 Would help to make next season bright
Tennis fans with their hopes all but dashed
 Will find it hard to cheer tonight

They know that Genie's on her way
With lots of confidence and willingness to play
 And then Simona is standing by
To demonstrate how her ranking got so high

So I'm offering this simple phrase
Don't wait until you're thirty-two
Try to get into a final some day
Sloane, I'm talking to you

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some thoughts on nicknames

I've been thinking lately about how quick we are to give professional athletes nicknames, though we rarely give nicknames to other celebrities. Oh, there's Madge (thanks, Brits!) and Mimi and J-Lo (a name Lopez dislikes), but those celebrities are of the larger-than-life variety, and are therefore the exceptions. But with athletes, we're quick to provide funny and/or affectionate names.

Some WTA nicknames--A-Rad, AnaIvo, JJ--seem inevitable because they are shortened forms of the players' names. Many of us referred to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez as simply MJMS. Svetlana Kuznetsova is still sometimes caused Kuzy, though she has repeatedly asked people to stop calling her that (her friend Martina Navritalova appears to have missed all of those memos). Some call Francesca Schiavone Francie, some call her Schia. And some nicknames, of course, are simply names players grew up with, like Masha and Kiki. Then there's Li Na, whose countrywomen and -men have long called her Big Sister Na.

Probably the most famous WTA nicknames are the ones invented by Bud Collins, and Collins' masterpiece is Fraulein Forehand, his name for Steffi Graf. Other famous Collins creations include Rosebud (Rosie Casals) Chris America (Chris Evert), The Barcelona Bumblebee (Arantxa Sanchez Vicario), and The Siberian Siren (Maria Sharapova).

Collins calls Caroline Wozniacki The Golden Retriever, but she has more often been called The Great Dane. And though Wozniacki is usually called Sunshine, it's interesting to note that she has several nicknames, and two of them involve canine species.

There have been many other nicknames for WTA players. Amanda Coetzer was known as The Little Assassin, Chris Evert was called The Ice Maiden, Rennae Stubbs was always Stubbsy, and Martina Hingis remains The Swiss Miss. On this blog, Dinara Safina was usually referred to as Thrill Ride.

Todd Spiker is so good at creating nicknames that he has nicknamed national groups of players as well as individual players. The Bannerettes represent the USA, the Hordettes are the Russians, the Swarmettes are Romanian, and the Pastries, of course, are French.

Spiker's name for Justine Henin was La Petit Taureau, while her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, was known as Belgian Barbie (there's a context to that). Who can forget Punch Drunk/Punch Sober (Elena Dementieva) and La Trufflette (Marion Bartoli)? And then there's my personal favorite, Queen Chaos (yes, gentle reader, that would be JJ).

Sabine Lisicki is often called Boom Boom, a nod to both her big serve and the big serve of her countryman, Boris Becker. Andrea Petkovic is known as either Petko or Petkorazzi, her self-created alter ego. In 2013, Leif Shiras referred to Simona Halep as Halepeno, but the name doesn't seem to have stuck. I, for one, would like to hear Shiras and his colleagues make another run at that.

And speaking of commentators, perhaps no one is worse at creating WTA (and ATP) nicknames than Brad Gilbert, whose WTA "masterpiece" was Wicker Chair (Yanina Wickmayer).

I think we give players nicknames as a way of establishing a kind of fan intimacy. We love tennis not only for the game but also for the varied personalities that make up the tour. They give us theatre, and we give them pet names.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

2015 may defy prediction

If 2014 was the year of the unexpected, then 2015 is--at least for now--a year in which we aren't really sure what to expect. The times occasionally appear to be changing, and then--just like that--it feels as though the beloved veterans run the show. Who will rise in the coming season, who will struggle, and who will inevitably fade, albeit with an unchanged fighting spirit?

All eyes are always on world number 1 Serena Williams, whose performance tends to defy prediction--of any kind. Williams is 33 years old in biological years, but in tennis years, she's practically ageless. We've seen her play (and win) while she was all bandaged up from head to toe, and that was several years ago! Williams appears to be less injury-prone these days, she's very fit, and--given her historical ebb-and-flow pattern, it wouldn't be surprising to see her come on strongly in the new season. I like her chance to add at least one major singles trophy.

Maria Sharapova's tennis career has been interesting, and sometimes puzzling. Winning the French Open for a second time--and doing so in such a high-quality final--gave Sharapova a boost she probably really needed. But there are still things she needs to do--get her erratic serve under control, and beat Serena Williams. The reality, however, is that it's nothing short of a miracle that the Russian survived all her shoulder issues and is the number 2 player in the world. I, for one, believe in Maria and am looking forward to her 2015 performance.

If Williams and Sharapova are unpredictable, then Petra Kvitova is a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces fly around and then re-arrange themselves in ways that sometimes make no sense. A huge talent and an established champion, the Czech star could do so much more. There's the issue of her asthma and the related issue of her tendency to develop respiratory infections. And then there's just that meltdown habit that may or not be related to her physical health at any given moment.

Kvitova had a strong season, especially in the second half. She not only won Wimbledon again, but she played one of the most dramatic Fed Cup matches in recent history and clinched her country's repeat as Fed Cup champions. Her Wimbledon win alone was masterful enough to be one of the year's top stories. Will 2015 be the year that Petra plays like--well, Petra--from beginning to end? If she does, she'll strike considerable fear in all kinds of opponents.

The player to keep watching (and who wouldn't want to?) is Simona Halep, who, in 2013, gracefully announced her arrival in the elite group of WTA players. At last. She had a good 2014, reaching the final of the French Open, among other accomplishments. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing holding Halep back is her tendency to get injured. Her feet and her back are the most vulnerable. She does have confidence issues now and again, but with her much improved serve and her solid two-season record, the Romanian star is looking at a very bright future--if she can stay healthy.

One of my wishes for Halep would be for her to retain the services of Alex Stober, but Kvitova has already hired him, and that, too, is a very good thing.

That brings me to Genie Bouchard. She stunned the tennis world last year with a dramatic breakthrough that took her to the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, and the Wimbledon final. The rest of her season didn't go too well because of injuries, and she was just injured again recently.

There's a kind of edge to Bouchard which appears to work well for her during the heat of competition, but which might also have a shadow side. Bouchard has created a "me against them all" persona for herself (which I thought about when I saw so many players weeping as they said emotional goodbyes to Li Na), but it feels a bit forced. Shes having to deal with massive amounts of media and fan attention, and she had to endure being blown to the other side of London by Kvitova in the Wimbledon final. She has also parted ways with her coach. There's a lot going on there.

Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki re-invented themselves in 2014, so it will be especially interesting to see what they do in 2015. Wozniacki is the steadier of the two, by history, yet it's Ivanovic who has already won a major.

Ekaterina Makarova likes the big stage, and with her 2014 U.S. Open semifinal appearance, she made me think that with a bit more confidence (maybe with help from a psychological expert?), she could rock the entire tennis world.

Victoria Azarenka's 2014 pretty much didn't count. The two-time Australian Open champion could win a third Melbourne title, finally win a U.S. Open title, or find a variety of ways to get sick and injured and lag behind. The fragility of Azarenka is in constant conflict with her talent and fighting spirit.

I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Lucie Safarova (who has also re-invented herself), the under-appreciated Angelique Kerber and her countrywoman, Andrea Petkovic. Alize Cornet, too. (Li Na may be gone, but JJ, Alize and Petko are available, and that's a lot of entertainment.)

Will Aga Radwanska pull herself back together? I hope so. And I think she will.

The youth attack is on. Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova are all looking good. Muguruza is looking especially good, and there's a kind of calm, comfortable aura around the Spaniard that I think will serve her well in 2015 and beyond.

Both Camila Giorgi and Caroline Garcia have lots of potential, but also a lot of nerves to tame. Kristina Mladenovic is the tour's wild card in singles right now--anything could happen. As for doubles, I see her continuing to take home trophies. She and Timea Babos are a fairly consistent team now; I also liked the team of Mladenovic and Lucie Safarova. Of course, we may see another round of "Mladenovic and Anybody," which tends to be a winning combination.

Will we be saying goodbye to any Italians next year? Flavia Pennetta is 32 years old. She's also number 12 in the world and won Indian Wells this year, so maybe we'll have the great pleasure of keeping her around a while. Francesca Schiavone is 34 and could very well end her pro career soon.

As for the other Italian stars--Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci should remain a force in doubles.

Monday, November 17, 2014

2014--year of the unexpected

In some great ways, and in some not so good ways, expectations were often not met in the 2014 season. The player expected to have a superior season had (her version of) a mediocre season right to the last quarter. A beloved player we hoped to see at least one more year was forced to leave the tour because of chronic injury, and two players who had faded from the spotlight decided it was time to get back in it and shine.

Players surprised us throughout the year. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova suddenly started playing her best tennis ever and reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Her former doubles partner, the talented Iveta Melzer, retired from the sport. Victoria Azarenka remained in the shadows because of her health, Laura Robson couldn't play because of ongoing injury issues, and Ashleigh Barty mysteriously left the tour "indefinitely."

There was more. Caroline Wozniacki ran the New York City Marathon in an outstanding time of three hours, 26 minutes and 33 seconds. Former world number 1 Amelie Mauresmo became the second woman (Nicolay Davydenko's wife, Irina, coached him for a brief period while he was still in the top 10) to coach a top ATP player. Andy Murray's hiring of Mauresmo set off the expected explosion of sexism, misogyny and gay-hating, but Amelie and Andy just went about their business.

Making a major comeback was Andrea Petkovic, who finally recovered from multiple injuries and changed her playing style in order to protect herself from further injury. Petko won Charleston, Bad Gastein and the Tournament of Champions, and worked her way all the way up to a number 13 ranking. Also, seemingly out of the blue, Mijana Lucic-Baroni reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, upsetting 2nd seed Simona Halep on her way there. This was Lucic-Baroni's best showing at a major since 1999, when she reached the Wimbledon semifinals.

Vicky Duval was successfully treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Melanie Oudin experienced an unfortunate day in the gym and had to have heart surgery, which was followed by eye surgery.

Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai surprised us by announcing they were ending their partnership. Peng made it to the U.S. Open semifinals, but had to retire because of a scary episode of severe cramping, followed by an equally scary attempt to remain on the court.

The WTA's Pocket Rocket, Dominika Cibulkova, made it to final of the Australian Open. Sania Mirza and her Forehand of Fire, along with Cara Black, won the WTA Finals, and Mirza won her third mixed doubles title. Venus Williams won in Dubai and is currently number 18 in the world.

There were a couple of victories--both surprises--that really stood out this year. Flavia Pennetta won Indian Wells, beating Sam Stosur, Dominika Cibulkova and Li Na along the way. The 32-year-old Fighting Italian, enjoying one of the greatest moments of her career, showed us yet again that the veterans are in charge.

And then there was the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery. In a remarkable run, Tsvetana Pironkova finally won a WTA tournament, and she did it in high style. Pironkova won Sydney as a qualifier, playing eight matches in eight days, and defeating three top 10 players--Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber.

Two former number 1 players, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic, came back blazing this year, determined to show that they are still part of the important mix. Wozniacki won a title and Ivanovic won four titles. Wozniacki also reached the final of the U.S. Open.

Ekaterina Makarova had a great year, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open and winning the event in doubles with partner Elena Vesnina. Alize Cornet gave us some (as expected) entertaining tennis, and wound up at number 19 in the world. And the talented Carla Suarez Navarro, after many attempts, won her first WTA title. Angelique Kerber, though she had a somewhat disappointing year, provided us with major thrills when she defeated Maria Sharapova in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

Four young players came out blazing, too. Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Karolina Pliskova, and Elina Svitolina established themselves as the young players to keep an on next year. Muguruza (who also won a title as a qualifier--just a week after Pironkova did it) is already in the top 20.

Aleksandra Krunic, whom many of us have admired in Fed Cup play, put on an unforgettable show as a qualifier at this year's U.S. Open. She upset Petra Kvitova and took Victoria Azarenka to the edge in the round of 16.

Not all of the goings-on took place on court:

World number 2 Maria Sharapova added gummy Porsches to her Sugarpova candy line, and put her name on Avon's new fragrance, Luck.

Eugenie Bouchard showed up dressed in a kimono for a press conference.

The ubiquitous Marion Bartoli, the retired 2013 Wimbledon champion, created a line of jewelry, and a line of shoes and shoe accessories, raised money for charities, played in several exhibition matches, sang La Marseillaise at an All England Club dinner, played World Team Tennis, did tennis broadcasting in both French and English, and won the first-ever WTA Finals legends event.

Here are my personal top 10 2014 occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Army of me: Genie Bouchard--at least for the first half of the season--made an impression on the tour not soon to be forgotten. The Canadian star, with her singing, stuffed animal-tossing Genie Army, made headlines when she reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open and the final of Wimbledon. She was, in fact, the first Canadian woman to ever reach the semifinals of two majors. Bouchard also won the Nurnberg tournament and was a finalist in both Wuhan and Osaka.

Wimbledon was Bouchard's undoing, however, as she was run over by Petra Kvitova in under an hour. The Canadian star's season wasn't the same after that, as she dealt with injury and what appeared to be some degree of fatigue. The media attention alone couldn't have been that easy for her to handle; the woman nicknamed "Princess" was treated like one 24-7 by the star-making systems of the world. Certainly, all eyes will be on the world number 7 as the 2015 season opens, and Bouchard gets a chance to show just how good she really is.

9. Romanian royalty: If Genie Bouchard is a warrior princess, then Simona Halep is a clever queen, mostly keeping her own counsel and winning people over with a nuanced combination of confidence and humility. After having a huge 2013 season, in which she won six titles, it was almost inevitable that the Romanian star would experience some type of letdown in 2014. Looking back at the season, it seems possible that, if Halep had stayed healthy, there might not have been any letdown at all. But she suffered chronic injuries to her feet and back, and how she handles those injuries will most likely determine her fate in the future.

Her season was hardly a washout. Halep won Doha and Bucharest, and she made it the final of the French Open, in which she took Maria Sharapova to three thrilling sets. Halep's confidence deflated, however, when she played Serena Williams in the Singapore final. Now number 3 in the world (she was number 2 earlier in the season), Halep has established herself as the elite player some of us have always expected her to become. Her 2015 should be great--if she can stay healthy.

8. Czech Republic of Champions: Some players totally thrive during Fed Cup competition. Two of those players are Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, and since both of them play for the Czech Republic, their nation was able to grab a third Fed Cup title in just four years. The Czech Republic beat Spain, then defending champion Italy, and--in the final--Germany. Kvitova won the first and third rubbers and Safarova won the second. The third rubber, in which Kvitova played Angelique Kerber, was a three-hour thriller which gave Kvitova won of her finest winning moments.

7. We're not going anywhere: For a while, it looked as though Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci might lose their hold on the number 1 ranking. The Italian pair got off to a roaring start this season, however, by winning the Australian Open. They were the runners-up at the French Open, and then they won Wimbledon, giving them a Career Slam, something accomplished by only four other teams in the Open Era. Errani and Vinci also won Stuttgart, Madrid and Montreal, retained their number 1 ranking and were named Doubles Team of the Year.

6. I love Paris in the springtime: Maria Sharapova, the 2012 French Open champion, did it again in 2014. Sharapova had to get past 2010 finalist Sam Stosur, clay upstart Garbine Muguruza and the dangerous Genie Bouchard, to get to the final. And then came her greatest test--a fight for the title against Simona Halep, who threw everything she had--which is a lot--at Sharapova in what was one of the best matches of the year. Sharapova, who is now the world number 2, defeated Halep 6-4, 6-7, 6-4.

5. And this was a "bad" year: World number 1 Serena Williams was going after her 18th singles major this year, and for most of the season, things just didn't click for her. She lost to Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open round of 16, and as defending champion at the French Open, she was taken out by Garbine Muguruza in the second round. At Wimbledon, Williams was defeated in the third round by Alize Cornet. That left the U.S. Open, and--in true Serena fashion--the top seed came though for the title, defeating close friend Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Williams would go on to win the WTA Finals in Singapore and to be named Player of the Year.

4. One bagel, with everything: Some people called it the greatest set of tennis ever played by a woman. To be accurate, the entire Australian Open quarterfinal that Agnieszka Radwanska played against Victoria Azarenka was a dazzling display of tennis by the Polish star. The third set, however, was beyond dazzling, as Radwanska got into a zone not of this world, topping even herself in terms of artistry, speed, creativity, and athleticism.

I checked my post that followed the match, and in it, I said "I caught myself gasping and exclaiming throughout the final set." That about says it all. Radwanska defeated Azarenka 6-1, 5-7, 6-0. Sadly, she had next to nothing left in her semifinal round, in which she was easily defeated by Dominika Cibulkova.

3. Third time's the charm: She finally did it. Li Na won the Australian Open. She couldn't hold her nerve against Kim Clijsters in 2011, and in 2013, she couldn't stay upright on the court against Victoria Azarenka. These were tough losses because Li played so well in both finals. This year, though, she said that her "special" preparation was "not falling down," and she was able to control her anxiety on the court. Li defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6, 6-0 and collected her second major trophy. Her acceptance speech, which became an instant hit, began with a thank you to her agent for making her rich, and only got better from there.

2. Pojd!: When Petra Kvitova is switched on, she becomes like a force of nature and cannot be stopped. The 2011 Wimbledon champion got switched on again at the All England Club this year, hitting 207 winners (15 fewer than she hit in 2011) and getting a boost along the way by having to fight off an impressively in-form Venus Williams in the third round. She faced off with Eugenie Bouchard in the final, and by this time, the tennis press had its collective head stuck so far up Montreal, an easy win was predicted for the Canadian star.

Maybe Kvitova heard she was supposed to lose to an upstart. Maybe she ate just the right number of pineapples. Maybe she just felt it. The fact remains: From the moment Petra stepped onto Centre Court to play in the final, she was explosively efficient. It wasn't that Bouchard played badly--she didn't. Bouchard was just never really allowed to enter the match, so aggressive and in control was Kvitova. The Barking Czech defeated her opponent 6-3, 6-0 in under an hour, and that was that.

Some called it the most masterful performance in the history of Wimbledon finals. Quite a statement, considering that--just 24 hours earlier--they had predicted Kvitova's defeat.

1. Fly away home: Petra Kvitova had three wonderful tennis moments this year. Two I have already covered. The third was the speech she gave on behalf of the tour's players at the retirement ceremony of Li Na. It was practically a given that Kvitova, Li's very close friend, would be selected to give the speech at a ceremony that was given a touch of the Beijing Olmypics treatment in terms of visuals. It ended with a weeping Li making a walk around the stadium as "We love you, Li Na!" was shouted in several languages. She deserved no less.

"The bird that sticks out," known in her country as Big Sister Na, is an iconic figure. Part star athlete, part role model for courage, part standup comic--Li is respected worldwide not only for what her presence has done for Asian tennis and for the WTA, but also for her refusal to accept any terms that are are unjust or unreasonable. Often treated harshly by the news media in her country, Li nevertheless persevered in seeking for herself--and ultimately, for many others--a life in sports that she could embrace with integrity and self-respect.

After enduring years of knee pain and weakness, Li had to call it quits. Her retirement from the sport is a loss to tennis, a loss to the tour and a loss to fans worldwide. The winner of the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, Li Na was so much more than even her impressive titles. Kvitova, at the end of her speech, said it best: "Thank you for being our opponent. Thank you for being our inspiration. Thank you for being our friend."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Czech Republic wins third Fed Cup title in four years

No team has ever lost the first two rubbers of a Fed Cup final and come back to win the title. That was the job facing Germany today in Prague, and Angelique Kerber gave her all, but in the end, a tired, hurting Petra Kvitova found a way to defeat Kerber 7-6, 4-6, 6-4.
"It's for your country," said Kvitova after the match, "but always when you are not feeling great and you don't have enough energy, you always find something and I'm not sure where I found it. I am just glad that I found it."

The three-hour match was a course in "Kvitology," so to speak. The Czech star relentlessly bombarded the court with an equal number of winners and unforced errors--dozens of them. Kerber led 5-2 in the first set, but Kvitova brought the set to a tiebreak. The German went down 0-3 in the second set, but then quickly won a succession of games. She was also down 1-4 in the third, but then made that set as competitive as the other two had been.

It was a match full of twists and turns, and most of them appeared to be related to the very high stress of the occasion. Kvitova was playing for the championship; Kerber was playing to keep Germany in the contest. Both players are known for being somewhat mercurial. Kvitova, however, has become the Flavia Penneetta of the Czech team; actually, Lucie Safarova has become the other Flavia Pennetta--these two bring their very best effort to Fed Cup competition.

Later in the day, the dead doubles rubber was played, and the German team won it in straight sets.

The Czech Republic won Fed Cup in 2011 and 2012; Italy won in 2013.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Petko wins Tournament of Champions, Woz speeds through NYC

Andrea Petkovic won her third title of 2014 today--the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria. Petkovic defeated Flavia Pennetta 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, as the Italian faded in the final set from what appeared to be fatigue. Petkovic, whose season has turned into a successful comeback journey, is now number 14 in the world, and Pennetta (who knows more about "comeback" than anyone) is number 13.

Meanwhile, Magda Linette won the 125K Series tournament in Ningbo. Linette defeated Wang Qiang 3-6 7-5, 6-1 in the final. Top seeds Arina Rodionova and Olga Savchuk won the doubles title.

All eyes were on the New York City Marathon, however, as world number 8 Caroline Wozniacki ran the race in a very impressive 3:26:33. When she reached the finish line, her friend Serena Williams was there to put the medal on her. Wozniacki had never run a course longer than 13 miles, and she spent her weekend going to a Halloween party and attending a Rangers game.

That doesn't sound like the expected before-race training, perhaps, but the thing to remember about Wozniacki is that she has almost super-human endurance. She has said before that she can stay on the court "for hours"--she never seems to tire.

Both Petkovic and Wozniacki have had very good seasons, rebounding from misfortune and returning to excellent form.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some thoughts about Singapore

The WTA Finals are over, and was that ever an interesting event. Consider some of the things that happened:

Both Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic played superb tennis, which kind of "sealed" their comeback status in 2014.

Simona Halep allowed Serena Williams to win only two games in one of their matches, and also delivered a rare bagel to the world number 1.

Halep then pretty much fell apart during the final. I don't mean to take anything away from Serena--she was wonderful--but Halep did go to pieces in the second set. Tired, maybe? She didn't go to pieces in the French Open final, so one has to wonder.

Petra Kvitova, playing on what should have been her "dream" court (though it turned out not to be a typical indoor court at all) went 1-2.

Before leaving, though, Kvitova beat Maria Sharapova for the first time since 2011.

Genie Bouchard had a total wipe-out, losing all three of her round robin matches.

The world number 1 team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci once again failed to win the title. They had to retire in the quarterfinals because of Errani's rib injury.

So Serena topped off her "bad year" with her third WTA Finals (formerly the WTA Championships) victory in as many years. This so-called bad year also included winning six other titles, one of which was the U.S. Open and one of which was Miami. And did I mention that the 33-year-old Williams ends the year, once again, as number 1 in the world.

Most puzzling to me in this event were Halep's performance in the final, and Kvitova's failure to win more than one match. Unlike some fans, I enjoy the round robin format, partly because of its ridiculous unpredictability. Also, it's a change in the usual routine, which is nice.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

White Group dissolves as Serena and Simona are last two standing in Singapore

Serena Williams had to put up a very Serenaesque fight to hold off Caroline Wozniacki in today's Singapore semifinal, but she did it, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6. In the other semifinal, Simona Halep made rather routine work of Agnieszka Radwanska, beating her 6-2, 6-2 in and hour and seven minutes.

That leaves Williams with her nemesis of the tournament: Her only loss in Singapore was to Halep, and it was a nasty one. Halep defeated Williams 6-0, 6-2 in the opening round of Red Group play (don't let that WTA website front page graphic fool you).

In the meantime, Williams has secured the year-end number 1 ranking. She's the two-time defending champion at the WTA Finals, and if there's anyone on this Earth she wants to put away, it's Halep.

The defending doubles champions, Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai, have also reached the finals in Singapore. Hsieh and Peng beat Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova 6-1, 6-4. Their opponents will be Cara Black and her partner, the Forehand of Fire, Sania Mirza. Black and Mirza saved three match points in their semifinal match against Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik. They won 4-6, 7-5, 11-9!

Odd though it may seem, this is Mirza's first trip to the last round of the Finals (I liked "WTA Championships" a lot better).

Oh, and of course, when the tournament is over, Hsieh and Peng will no longer be a team.
The WTA Finals: How can you not like anything this strange? I actually do like the unpredictability and seeming randomness of the round robin event.

Also this week, Mickey Lawler was named president of the WTA, and the organization announced a new campaign, "Power to Inspire." This is about as awkward a phrase as I can think of--it is difficult to say out loud (a fact which should have eliminated it as a possibility), and I'm wondering if it came from the same people who brought us the dreadful WTA-in-an-egg logo.

Finally, two players and one team who didn't make it to the finals deserve a mention. Both Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki made good on their comeback ways in Singapore. These two are definitely in the 2015 mix and are to be commended for the way they have reconstructed their careers. Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova, who upset Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in Singapore, have become a strong team, and definitely one we should keep an eye on next year.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

WTA Finals to begin tomorrow in Singapore

You can look at the excitement gathering around the commencement of the WTA Finals as a sort of Sex and the City romp:

 Or you can look at it as this:

Perhaps it's both.

The Red Group consists of Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, and Ana Ivanovic.Williams has a 49-4 head-to-head record against the rest of the group. She is, in fact, the only member of her group to have a winning record against other members of the group. She is also the two-time defending champion.

The White Group consists of Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Caroline Wozniacki. Radwanska has a history of poor showings at the Finals, though she made it to the semifinals in 2012. Kvitova has a chance, in Istanbul, to turn around her post-2011 losing record against Maria Sharapova. That dynamic is probably the most interesting one to occur in the White Group. Matches will be played on an indoor hard court, one of Kvitova's two favorite surfaces.

The Rising Stars invitational final will be held October 21. The finalist are Monica Puig and Zheng Saisai.

The official website of the WTA Finals comes close to completely ignoring doubles. There's a video announcing that Anastasia Rodionova and Alla Kudryavtseva made it to the final eight, and other than that, it's as though doubles doesn't even exist in Singapore.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

WTA to launch Tournament of Losers

The WTA announced today that, in the near future, the first annual Tournament of Losers will be added to the tour's calendar. The event, which the WTA's chairwoman, Stacy Allaster, says will be held "somewhere in China," will feature players who make it to finals of tournaments but do not win them. There will be eight spots to fill in the round-robin tournament.

"We are excited about this innovation," Allaster said in making the announcement. "As the world leader in women's sports, the WTA wants to make certain that our most promising losers are given an opportunity to show their talents on an international stage."

"Of course," she added, "someone will win the tournament, but the runner-up will get an automatic wild card entry into the next year's Tournament of Losers."

Allaster said that a Tournament of Losers is needed because "fans want it."

The WTA has a colorful history of losers who went on to have interesting careers. "There is no greater inspiration," Allaster said, "than Francesca Schiavone, who lost nine finals before finally winning one, and she went on to win the French Open!" She added that the runner-up in that event was Samantha Stosur, who lost five finals before finally winning a tournament. Stosur, however--while she has six titles, including one at the U.S. Open--has lost an additional nine finals since winning her first one.

Wild cards will be awarded in the event that fewer than eight players without titles lose finals. Title-less players who lose multiple semifinals will be considered, as well as players who--despite having titles--continue to lose finals. According to Allaster, the wild card selection will also allow for the inclusion of a "Sloane Stephens-type situation."

As an added attraction, fans will vote for their choices to compete in an invitational tournament of Rising Headcases, to be held during the Tournament of Losers. Four young players who tend to go to pieces when they play big matches will be selected by tennis fans all over the world.

Riske tells Bencic "not quite yet"

Alison Riske
In an odd twist on the "veterans are taking over the tour" theme, 24-year-old Alison Riske won her first WTA title today, and in doing so, denied a first title to 17-year-old Belinda Bencic, one of the brightest of the tour's rising stars. Riske won the inaugural edition of the Tianjing Open, defeating Bencic 6-3, 6-4 in the final.

The doubles title was taken by Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova, who defeated Sorana Cirstea and Andreja Klepac 6-7, 6-2, 10-8. Kudryavtseva and Rodionova got not only a trophy, but also the last availble spot in the WTA Finals draw.

In Linz, the intriguing match-up of Camila Giorgi and Karolina Pliskova ended with a third WTA title for Pliskova, who beat Giorgi 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, saving a match point along the way. Raluca Olaru and Anna Tatishvili won the doubles title, defeating Annika Beck and Caroline Garcia 6-2, 6-1.

Finally, in Osaka, top seed Sam Stosur came through again. She defeated Zarina Diyas 7-6, 6-3. This is Stosur's third Osaka title.

In doubles, Shuko Aoyama and Renata Voracova won the title by defeating Lara Arruabarrena and Tatjana Maria 6-1, 6-2.

Qualifying is in progress in both Moscow and Luxembourg.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Who is next?

If you had to answer the question, "Who will be the next player to win her first major?" you'd probably say Genie Bouchard--and you would likely be correct in your prediction. In 2014, Bouchard pulled herself away from any perceived pack of peers, reaching the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, and the final of Wimbledon. She also won her first WTA title, in Nurnberg, and reached the final in Wuhan.

Bouchard injured her knee at the French Open and has continued to have some problems with it. Her last quarter has not been as stellar as the rest of her year, but she has a chance--at the WTA Finals--to make a strong comeback. The sports marketing machine has already anointed Bouchard, which undoubtedly makes her progress more complicated.

However, a strong argument can also be made for Simona Halep, who is a threat on all surfaces, and who played an outstanding final against Maria Sharapova at this year's French Open. Halep, however, has to find a way to end her chronic injury problem so that her momentum will not be constantly interrupted.

So here are two questions:

Genie Bouchard (photo by Daniel Ward)
1. If Bouchard does become the next woman to claim a major title, which title will it be? (Logic dictates that the French Open would be the most likely event for Halep to win, though arguments against that theory are welcome.)

2. Could another player beat the Canadian or the Romanian to the trophy? Who? "Sentimental" favorites like Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Sara Errani cannot be ruled out. And then there's that group of young players of whom the standouts at this time are Belinda Bencic, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova. A year ago, Sloane Stephens was on the list, and it's possible that she could put herself back on it.

Who else could surprise us and lift a big trophy in the near future?

Sharapova wins China Open and becomes number 2 in the world

Maria Sharapova continued her winning ways against Petra Kvitova in the Beijing final today, defeating the Wuhan champion 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in the final. Whoever won the final was locked in to advance to the world number 2 ranking, so that goes to Sharapova. Andrea Hlavackova and Peng Shuai won the doubles title, defeating Cara Black and Sania Mirza 6-4, 6-4.

The Beijing title is Sharapova's fourth of the year, and her 33rd in all. This is her first-ever title in China.

Winners of the "big three" Asian swing tournaments were Sharapova, Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic (Tokyo).

The eight players headed for Singapore and the WTA Finals are:
Serena Williams
Maria Sharapova
Simona Halep
Petra Kvitova
Genie Bouchard
Aga Radwanska
Caroline Wozniacki
Ana Ivanovic

Qualified for Singapore:

Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci
Hsieh Su-Wei/Peng Shuai
Ekaterina Makarova/Elena Vesnina
Cara Black/Sania Mirza
Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears
Kveta Peschke/Katarina Srebotnik

The final spot will be filled by one of these teams:
Muguruza/Suarez Navarro

Last year's winners were Serena Williams and the team of Hsieh Su-Wei an Peng Shuai.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Kvitova wins Wuhan, qualifies for Singapore

Li Na couldn't be on the court to win the Wuhan Open, but she must have been pretty pleased that her friend, Petra Kvitova, could get the job done. Kvitova defeated Genie Bouchard 6-3, 6-4. Kvitova had to serve for the match twice, after Bouchard won a tense game when the Czech star served at 6-3, 5-3. In winning the brand new Wuhan title, Kvitova also became the fourth player to qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore.

Speaking of Li, Kvitova said: "... I know everybody wished to have Li Na here standing with us, but we will remember her with this trophy. I'm just glad she's happy now; I hope she's going to be happy for the rest of her life."

Also winning a title in Wuhan were Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta. They defeated Cara Black and Caroline Garcia 6-4, 5-7, 12-10 in the doubles final. They have reached two finals before (Eastbourne and the U.S. Open(, but this was the first time that Hingis and Pennetta have won a title as a team.

In Beijing: Kirsten Flipkens, Bojana Jovanovski and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are already out in the opening round.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Asian swing already filled with drama

The Asian swing of the WTA tour has begun, and who knew that this post-U.S. Open period was going to be so filled with big news? The biggest news, of course, is the retirement of Li Na, which came right as the tournament in her home city, Wuhan, made its debut.

When something like the retirement of Li Na occurs, it's easy to forget that anything else is going on. I certainly haven't thought about much else, tennis-wise. But there is more news:

Victoria Azarenka withdrew from Wuhan and announced that her season is over. Azarenka missed much of this season because of foot and knee injuries, and says that she has been pushing herself too hard and needs to make a full recovery.

Karolina Pliskova broke her 2014 finals curse. Pliskova lost three finals this year, but this weekend, she defeated Varvara Lepchenko to win the Korea Open in Seoul. And for Lepchenko--it was her first WTA final.

Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki--two women who are pursuing serious comebacks--were the last two players standing in Tokyo. Ivanovic won the title.

Monica Niculescu won the Guangzhou title.

Victoria Duval announced that she is now cancer-free.

Ashleigh Barty announced that she is leaving the tour indefinitely, and did not give a reason for her action.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The bird that sticks out has flown: Li Na retires from tennis

The Chinese proverb is a warning to all about the consequences of not conforming: The bird that sticks out always gets shot. "Be the bird that sticks out," Li Na countered, and she was--and is--the bird that sticks out, spreads its wings and soars above the dreary expectations and phony restrictions below her. In a world--and not just a sports world--where there are so few role models for girls, Li--throughout her career--has demonstrated courage and authenticity, and has done so with charm, candor and a deliciously mischievous wit.

Li announced her retirement from professional tennis today, citing recurring problems with both knees. The 32-year-old's announcement was not a surprise, but the reality of her retirement affects tennis fans all over the world, and especially in Asia. Largely because of Li, Asian tennis is now a major factor in the women's tour.

The WTA icon's career spanned 15 years, and was frequently punctuated by huge highs and devastating lows. As a little girl, she played badminton, and when it was suggested she use her backhand skills in tennis instead, her family and community didn't know what tennis was. She did make the change, though, and became involved with the Chinese national tennis team. In 2002, she left the team to work on a degree in journalism. At the time, some reports stated that she left because the national tennis team would not let her choose her own coach; others stated that her departure was due to the strictness of the coaching system.

Li returned in 2004, and in 2006, she married Jiang Shan, who was her coach for much of her career. Two years later, Li left the national team for good and she also parted ways with the state-operated sports system in her country. This was a major step, in that it meant that she could choose her own coaches and trainers and would also be responsible for her own expenses. It also meant that 8% of her winnings would go to the state, as opposed to 65%.

Plagued by injury throughout her career, Li suffered from problems with her knees, her back, her rib, and her ankle. All athletes get injured. but Li went through a period in which she could not sustain any momentum because of injuries. To make matters worse, the Chinese star became known for choking away big matches, and for sometimes not even seeming to be fully present during big matches.

Late in her career, Li would hire Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, and he went about not only improving Li's fitness and her game, but doing what he could to counter her self-defeating beliefs. According to Rodriguez--and Li has affirmed this opinion in several interviews--Li had trouble believing in herself because, in her formative tennis years, she had been given only criticism, and no praise or encouragement.

But even with all the problems Li faced, she used her abundant talent, personal strength, and incomparable personality to emerge as an international symbol of all that is good about sport. She won two majors, the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open (while saving a match point in the third round). She was the Australian Open runner-up twice, in 2011 and 2013. Li won nine singles titles and two doubles titles, she was a member of the Chinese Fed Cup team for many years, and she was a member of the Chinese Olympic Team in 2000, 2008 and 2012. Li's highest singles ranking was number 2 in the world.

Statistics, however, just don't provide an accurate picture of Li Na, and what her career has meant to women's tennis, and to Chinese tennis, in particular. She really did "open the door" for Chinese players to emerge as significant members of the tour, in both singles and doubles. Li Na was the first Chinese player to win a WTA title, the first Chinese player to reach the top 10 and the first Asian player to win a major. Twice, she has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Known by her countrywomen and -men as Big Sister Na, Li has also been called The Great Wall of China by opponents who could not penetrate her defensive strategies. Her precision-point and powerful backhand can easily be viewed as a standard for the women's game.

I remember a time when Li had not yet mastered the English language, and her press conferences were unintentionally funny because she answered every question "yes" or "no." Later, when she became fluent in English, her on-court interviews and press conferences featured either blunt, often brutal self-criticism, or hilarity of the sort that left me wiping tears from my face, I had laughed so hard and for so long. (Li and Jelena Jankovic used to be doubles partners, and one can only imagine what those conversations were like.)

"Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing," Li wrote in her book, Li Na: My Life. I have thought about that belief a lot, about what it has probably meant to Li and her career, and even about what it has meant to my own life. There is something so fully human and open about Li that fans all over the world were drawn to her; she freely talked about the types of struggles that all of us face in one way or another.

Jiang Shan, Li's husband, and the subject of many of her jokes, became a personality in his own right during the course of Li's career. Li ultimately decided that it was better for their marriage for him to be her hitting partner and not her coach, and she kept up a string of anecdotes that included everything from his annoying snoring to his fear of her well-known credit card shopping rampages.

With all her joking, Li also made it clear that Jiang's support made it possible for her to go through everything she had to go through in order to succeed on the tour. When she won the Australian Open, she thanked him for being such a nice guy. "Fix the drink, fix the rackets...." And, she added--as only Li could--"also, you are so lucky--find me."

It's almost impossible to pick one's favorite Li Na moment. Her acceptance speech at the Australian Open trophy ceremony is considered a comedy classic, but there are other memorable quotes:

"People in China say 'If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate your children, also send them to New York.'"

On what motivates her: "Prize money."

The first of her Australian Open thank-you mentions: "Max, agent, make me rich. Thanks a lot."

"I know when so many people ask where I'm from, I say Wuhan. They say small town. Not so many people. Just like 10 million."

When asked by Rennae Stubbs if she would name her rackets if she won in Melbourne: "I have eight rackets. If you want, I call them Li Na One, Li Na Two...until Li Na Eight."

No review of Li Na's career would be complete without a mention of the bizarre final she played against Victoria Azarenka at the 2013 Australian Open. In the second set, Li rolled her ankle, and though she had it taped, it would affect her for the rest of the match. But that wasn't all--in the third set, she fell down and cracked her head. And while the occasion itself was far from humorous, Li made it hilarious when she cracked up during the brief neuro exam upon being asked to follow the physio's finger and to answer questions about her orientation. At the 2014 tournament, when asked to comment on her preparation, she quickly replied, "Special. Not falling down."

Nike, one of Li's longtime sponsors, has already announced it's Be the Bird That Sticks Out campaign to honor the retiring Chinese star. This is a fitting tribute to the woman who wore a shirt bearing the Chinese characters for "My heart has no limits" at her post-Australian Open press conference this year. It won't be easy for fans to say goodbye to one of the most beloved champions the WTA has ever produced.

I leave with you with one final piece of Li Na wisdom (video no longer available for embedding).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Respect your elders

What began as a trend on the WTA tour is now a theme: The "veterans" are still around and they're kicking your ass. And in the recent case of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Venus Williams, they're kicking each other's asses. Lucic-Baroni is the latest of the "whatever happened to?" players who has played her way into the spotlight, starting with her U.S. Open run to the round of 16.

The 32-year-old Lucic-Baroni won the Australian Open title with Martina Hingis in 1998, when she was just 15 years old. The year before, the Croatian player had won the first WTA tournament she had ever entered, the Croatian Bol Ladies Open. Lucic-Baroni defended that title the following year.

In 1999, Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. And then, she just faded away. Not that she lost interest or became physically hindered: Lucic-Baroni was dealing with a history of child abuse, financial problems, and all the terrible things that accompany those issues.

In 2007, Lucic-Baroni returned to the tour, and in 2012, she made it to the third round of Wimbledon, upsetting 2013 champion Marion Bartoli along the way.

At this year's U.S. Open, Lucic-Baroni began by beating formidable new Spanish star Garbine Muguruza. But that was just the warm-up. The Croatian player went on to upset 2nd seed Simona Halep in the third roundm byt she then lost a three-set match against Sara Errani in the round of 16.

It was a very emotional run for Lucic-Baroni, since it was the best showing she'd had at a major since her 1999 Wimbledon run. But who among us thought that she'd follow her Flushing Meadows moment up with her first singles title in 16 years? I didn't. But that's just what she did. Lucic-Baroni defeated top seed Venus Williams in the final in Quebec City. In doing so, the Croatian player set a new record--formerly held by Kimiko Date-Krumm--for the longest time gap between singles titles.

Williams is 34, Lucic-Baroni is 33. (Serena Williams, who won the U.S. Open, is also 33.) Venus Williams recently remarked, when asked about her age, "According to Kimiko, I have another decade." True. Date-Krumm, who retired from an excellent career somewhat early and then returned to the tour to do some impressive showing off, is 43. "Some of the players," she said last year, "their mothers are older than me."

29-year-old Jelena Jankovic's career has been revived, to some extent; last year, she returned to the top 10. This year, she made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open and the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. 32-year-old Flavia Pennetta reached the semifinals of the 2013 U.S. Open and the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open, as well as the quarterfinals of the 2014 U.S. Open. 29-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova--unpredictable at any age--reached the quarterfinals of this year's French Open (she's a former champion).

Doubles is another matter. The great Martina Hingis recently came within a hair of winning the U.S. Open doubles title (with Pennetta).

Older is not necessarily "better," but older is definitely to be feared. It's no longer a surprise when an older player--especially one who has already had a great career--breaks through for a second time. Sam Stosur is 30; Li Na is 32. They could retire from the sport soon, or they could both win more majors.

Given my personal history as a late bloomer in many categories, I am enthralled with the new culture of age on the WTA tour.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lucic-Baroni wins everything in Quebec City

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who had an emotional showing at the U.S. Open, beat top seed VenusWilliams 6-4, 6-3 today in Quebec City to win the title. This is Lucic-Baroni's first title in 16 years. She and partner Lucie Hradecka also won the doubles title. In the final, they defeated Hradecka's former partner, Andrea Hlavackova, and Julia Goerges.

In Hong Kong, top seed Sabine Lisicki won the title when she defeated 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova 7-5, 6-3. However, Karolina and her sister, Kristyna, won the doubles title.

And in Tashkent, Karin Knapp won her first WTA singles title. Knapp defeated top seed Bojana Jovanovski 6-2, 7-6. Aleksandra Krunic and Katerina Siniakova won the doubles title.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My U.S. Open top 10

New York Public Library Lion
Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 U.S. Open occurrences:

10. Are we in Melbourne?: It doesn't generally happen at the U.S. Open, but the heat rule had to be applied on several occasions, making play difficult for everyone, and causing semifinalist Peng Shuai to endure what appeared to be a pretty scary heat illness incident.

9. Swiss Miss just misses: Martina Hingis, who--with Jana Novotna--won the U.S. Open doubles title 16 years ago, came very close to winning it again. She and Flavia Pennetta made it all the way to the final, in which they were defeated by the 4th seeds. In the course of their run, Hingis and Pennetta took out seeds number 5 and 3.

8. Mission accomplished: In winning the U.S. Open, wheelchair doubles team Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley won the Grand Slam. In addition, Kamiji won the U.S. Open singles title (and also the 2014 French Open).

7. Giving youth a bad name: Just when you think it's safe to head back to the court, there's Kimiko Date-Krumm, ready to give you a lesson. Younger players haven't broken through in a really big way for a while because they keep getting tripped up by their elders. And then there's the comeback Japanese star, who--with partner Barbora Zahlavova Strycova--made it to the U.S. Open semfinals in doubles. The took out the Chan sisters and they upset 2nd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. Date-Krumm will be 44 in three weeks.

6. Just add Sania and stir: Sania Mirza and her Forehand of Fire teamed with Bruno Soares and won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title. This is Mirza's third major mixed doubles title. She no longer plays singles because of the damage done to her wrist by that incredible forehand, but she has continued to excel in doubles.

5. What did I do to upset you?: Down they went, one seed after another. Only three of the top eight seeds played in the round of 16, and only one (Serena Williams) was left to play in the quarterfinals. 2nd seed Simona Halep was taken down in the third round by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 3rd seed Petra Kvitova lost to Aleksandra Krunic in the third round, and 4th seed Aga Radwanska went out in the second round, a victim of Peng Shuai.

4. The best show in New York: That would be Aleksandra Krunic, a player whom ESPN commentators had never heard of, which means they don't watch Fed Cup matches (kind of interesting, since the USA's Fed Cup captain is also a major commentator, but what do I know?): Krunic's Fed Cup doubles exploits with Jelena Jankovic, who she acknowledges is a mentor, have taken Serbia dramatically into victory.

In Flushing Meadows, the rather slight young Serbian player put on a big show of athleticism, speed, serving, returning, court poise, and even a little Radwanskan trickery. It was an absolute joy to watch her, and she was just as notable in her interviews as she was on the court. Krunic came close to taking out Victoria Azarenka, in what was a memorable match, but Azarenka's toughness and experience ended the Serb's run. Nevertheless, Krunic--at least for me--was a major highlight of the 2014 U.S. Open.

3. Awesome times two: They both met unfortunate fates in their semifinal matches, but Ekaterina Makarova and Peng Shuai had great runs at the Open. Makarova, always a danger at a major, broke through to the semifinals for the first time, taking out both Genie Bouchard and Victoria Azarenka in the process. Peng put on a service clinic, going 40 games without dropping serve. She showed the exit to Aga Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, Lucie Safarova, and Belinda Bencic. Against Caroline Wozniacki, she had some unexpected drama when heat illness overcame her and she staggered off the court and on again in a hopeless attempt to keep competing.

2. New dominance--same country: Who says the Russians are finished? Not only did Makarova make it to the semifinals in singles, she and partner Elena Vesnina won the doubles championship. It was a dramatic match, and the Russian pair dropped the opening set to Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta, the unseeded veterans who fought their way through a tough draw. Makarova and Vesnina have now won two majors together.

1. Hear. Her. Roar.: Nike just about always does well by Serena Williams, but this time, the effect was especially appropriate. Williams was dressed in an oh-so-Serena leopard print, and she took to giving the crowd a little cat roar after her match victories. Katy Perry's "Roar" became the top seed's U.S. Open theme song, and Williams had plenty roar about. She didn't have any particular problems with her draw, and in both the semifinals and the final, she easily dispatched the estimable Ekaterina Makarova and the "new and (quite) improved" Caroline Wozniacki--both in straight sets.

This was Williams' sixth U.S. Open championship; she won her first one in 1999. She has now won 18 singles majors. Unable to get past the round of 16 in Melbourne, Paris and London, the champion really did save the best for last, proving--yet again--that you can never, ever count out Serena Williams.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

U.S. Open--what they said

You're an inspiration to me on and off the court.
Caroline Wozniacki, to Serena

I train really hard and I never want to stop. Then sometimes I ask Patrick, Is this normal? He says, No, it's not normal. Because I didn't think so. Tell me I'm not crazy. He's like, You are.
Serena Williams

How will you celebrate tonight? 
I don't know yet. I haven't thought of it yet, but I think we will go to the Fifth Avenue. Maybe go shopping.
Marie Bouzkova

You know, today I went out there and I was a little nervous. I had a game plan in mind, but it was kind of difficult at the start. I tried to push her back, but that really didn't work for me.
Caroline Wozniacki

I put a lot of pressure on myself. I don't have to put pressure on myself, because like I said, I don't have to win another title. I always have my little 18 bracelet now. I'm good to go.
Serena Williams be the first ever to win US Open juniors, it's amazing feeling, you know. No one ever in history won that. Yeah, it's great.
Marie Bouzkova

You're an unbelievable friend and you definitely owe drinks later.
Caroline Wozniacki, to Serena

Serena Williams wins U.S. Open in style

Something about Serena Williams' leopard print Nike dress said "I'm not messing around here" from the onset of this year's U.S. Open. There was just a feeling in the air (and--from my standpoint--way too much Katy Perry in the air). Williams hadn't gotten past the round of 16 in the three other majors held this year and it was hard to imagine her doing her version of "crashing out" in the last one.

And as great as Williams was in today's final--and she was great--the real story, I think, is a sad one, and one that commentators are stepping around. But I won't step around it: What the hell happened to Caroline Wozniacki? The genuinely "new and improved" Dane--the one who took Maria Sharapova out of the tournament--must have been locked in a closet somewhere while a doppelganger of "the old Caroline" (and a poor version of the old Caroline, at that) took to the court to contest the final.

Ekaterina Makarova should have done much better against Serena in the semifinals, but the Russian is known for her match-to-match inconsistency. But Wozniacki? She's consistent if nothing else. Down a set, she waited until the latter part of the second set to finally hit a non-ace winner. It was the only one she would hit in the entire match (plus three aces). Hello! You have added so much to your game and you are playing Serena Williams. In a major final. What's wrong with this picture?

As for Williams, she hit 29 winners and had first and second serve win percentages of 77 and 52, while her opponent's percentages were 56 and 38.

Williams defeated Wozniacki 6-3, 6-3 (Wozniacki did play a lot better in the second set), and won her 18th singles major. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who each won 18 singles majors, presented her with a gold bracelet. I thought that was lovely, though I thoroughly disapprove of the comparisons commentators and writers do regarding the number of majors players have won. It means nothing. In the Navratilova/Evert era, players weren't even counting the number of majors they won. They frequently skipped the Australian Open because it was held during the Christmas holidays. Evert skipped three French Opens (yes, French Opens) because she was playing World Team Tennis. Same on the men's side: The legendary Rod Laver wasn't allowed to play a number of majors because the Open era had not been established.

There were other winners today. Maria Bouzkova won the junior girls' championship when she defeated 9th seed Anhelina Kalinina 6-4, 7-5 in the final. Bouzkova is the first Czech girl to win the championship.

Top seed Yui Kamiji won the women's wheelchair singles title, defeating 2nd seed Aniek Van Koot 6-3, 6-3. Yesterday, Kamiji and partner Jordanne Whiley won the doubles Grand Slam. Kamiji also won the French Open.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Makarova and Vesnina win U.S. Open

Ekaterina Makarova made it to the semifinals in both singles and doubles at this year's U.S. Open, and though Serena Williams stopped her run in singles, the Russian--with partner Elena Vesnina--did make it to the final in doubles. Four players who know their way around a doubles court--Makarova, Vesnina, Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta--vied for the title today. Makarova and Vesnina became the first Russian team to win the U.S. Open when they defeated their opponents 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.

This is the second major win for Makarova and Vesnina. They were the French Open champions in 2013.

Ipek Soylu and Jil Belen Teichmann won the junior doubles title. The 6th seeds defeated Vera Lapko and Tereza Mihailkova 5-7, 6-2, 10-7. Also winning a doubles title were top women's wheelchair seeds Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley, who defeated 2nd seeds Jiske Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. This means that Kamiji and Whiley have won the Grand Slam (and shame on the U.S. Open for calling it the "Calendar Grand Slam"--it's the only Grand Slam).

Top seed Jamie Loeb won the inaugural Women's Collegiate Invitational, and Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna won the Women's Champions Doubles.

U.S. Open--what they said

Well, excuse me, Flavia Pennetta.
Rennae Stubbs, after Pennetta nails 2-0 lead

I'm not sure what the benefit of the double grunt is.
Rennae Stubbs, referring to Vesnina

I think it was a great final, very entertaining, lots of nerves.
Elena Vesnina

Friends don't let friends beat them in the final

Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki are close friends. Tomorrow, they will face off against each other for the 2014 U.S. Open singles title, and each of them has a compelling backstory.

Williams, of course, is looking for her 18th major title. Most observers thought she would have already grabbed it by now, but until she arrived in New York, Williams was unable to get past the round of 16 in a major this year. She was taken out of the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon by Ana Ivanovic, Garbine Muguruza and Alize Cornet, respectively. But at the U.S. Open, she has looked more like the Serena Williams who is destined to be the last woman standing.

Williams has won the title five times, starting in 1999. Wozniacki, on the other hand, has never won it, though she was a finalist in 2009, when she lost to Kim Clijsters. A fast-moving athlete with impressive endurance, Wozniacki used her crack defensive game to take her all the way to the number 1 ranking several years ago. Her critics continually pointed out her lack of aggression as her only real weakness. Coaches came and went, sometimes quickly, and Wozniacki always returned to her father Victor (formerly known as Piotr) as her coach.

Eventually, the Dane slipped down in the rankings, and faced with a new appreciation of aggression on the tour, found it harder to win matches than it had been before. She also experienced a very public, flashy romantic relationship, and then a very public breakup. She found solace in spending time with her friend, Serena. And then, from the many and varied elements of her history emerged a new tennis player--a fast, enduring, defensively gifted player who hits winners and takes charge of rallies.

It is this newer version of Wozniacki who will compete against Williams for the title on Sunday. Here are their paths to the final:

Serena Williams

round 1--Taylor Townsend
round 2--Vania King
round 3--Varvara Lepchenko
round of 16--Kaia Kanepi
quarterfinals--Flavia Pennetta (11)
semifinas--Ekaterina Makarova (17)

Caroline Wozniacki

round 1--Magdalena Rybarikova
round 2--Aliaksandra Sasnovich
round 3--Andrea Petkovic (18)
round of 16--Maria Sharapova (5)
quarterfinals--Sara Errani (13)
semifinals--Peng Shuai

Friday, September 5, 2014

Williams and Wozniacki to play in U.S. Open final

It took her five years, but Caroline Wozniacki is back in the U.S. Open singles final--just as fit, just as fast, but with a bigger game. Wozniacki won her semifinal today when Peng Shuai had to retire with heat illness. It wasn't a pretty sight, what happened to Peng, and it put a terrible end to what had been a marvelous run for the Chinese player.

Peng's problems began when she served for the first set and was broken. The set went to a tiebreak, which Wozniacki won handily. Down a break at 2-4 in the second set, Peng began to visibly suffer with cramping. She was later diagnosed with heat illness--I'm going to skip the controversy that ensued because I just don't feel like dealing with it--and, despite trying to stay in the match, she had to retire at 6-7, 3-4. Peng has had problems with the heat before. Some players, no matter what they do, are very sensitive to heat and humidity.

I hope that, at some point, viewers will remember that the first set was very close up until the tiebreak.

The second semifinal wasn't any more satisfying in terms of exciting tennis. Serena Williams pretty much ran over a sluggish, error-prone Ekaterina Makarova (ah, yes--that Makarova), though the Russian did "wake up" toward the end. But it was too late. Williams won 6-1, 6-3, and advanced to her fourth U.S. Open final in a row.

Top seed Yui Kamiji and 2nd seed Aniek Van Koot advanced to the final in women's wheelchair singles, defeating Jiske Griffoen and Marjolein Buis, respectively. 3rd seed Iryna Shymanovich and 4th seed Tornado Alicia Black were both upset in the junior quarterfinals.

U.S. Open--what they said

What did Serena say to you at the net? I thought she mentioned the doubles match; is that right?
Yeah, she--I don't know how to say in English, like good luck me in doubles.
Ekaterina Makarova

At this point in your career are you still working on your game, or has it now moved off to being consistent?
No, absolutely still working on it. I think in life you should work on yourself until the day you die. I think why not apply the same thing to your tennis game? Yeah, I'm still working on it.
Serena Williams

Could you guys tell me how long you have been a team and how you originally became a team?
Bruno Soares: We have been playing for two weeks. No, I tried to play with Sania for a long time.
Sania Mirza: What a lie.
Bruno Soares: She finally gave me a chance to play. I mean, my results before wasn't good enough, so after a couple of weeks she accept my offer. I'm just joking. She had another partner, and after Wimbledon she messaged and another conversation started.

...I was pretty ready for it. I felt good. I felt physically good, you know. Technically the ball was sitting good on the racquet.
Ekaterina Makarova

If I can play Venus, I can play anybody.
Serena Williams

I believe the best in people. I believe if you need a bathroom break you go to the bathroom. If you need treatment, you get treatment. I don't think any rules should be changed.
Caroline Wozniacki

Bruno Soares: I guess now Sania, she will accept my offer to play Australia.
Sania Mirza: We have to win. My standards are very high.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Makarova into U.S. Open doubles final--Hingis, too

Ekaterina Makarova is hard to miss at the U.S. Open, no matter how low a profile she tries to maintain. Already into the semifinals in singles; today, the Russian and her partner and countrywoman, Elena Vesnina, advanced to the final in doubles. Makarova and Elena Vesnina, seeded 4th defeated Kimiko Date-Krumm and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 7-5, 6-3.

In the other doubles semifinal, Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta defeated 3rd seeds Cara Black and Sania Mirza 6-2, 6-4. Hingis, with partner Jana Novotna, won the U.S. Open doubles championship in 1998. That year, Hingis won the doubles Grand Slam.

The first singles semifinal tomorrow will be contested by Peng Shuai and Caroline Wozniacki. That match will be followed by the semifinal featuring top seed and two-time defending champion Serena Williams and Makarova. Williams is seeking her 18th major; none of the other players has ever won a major. Wozniacki was a finalist in the 2009 U.S. Open.

U.S. Open--what they said

...I only won one title here in doubles. That was a while back in '98. I made some good matches, like some great memories, but it's been a while. So it's like I really cherish this moment because I have had some great matches, but also in doubles I didn't feel like I had too many opportunities. I lost to players that actually I beat in this tournament now again, like whether it was Peschke, you know. So it felt like really far away. Also in the beginning of this tournament I think we had a really tough draw. So I think we really deserved our spot. I think this tournament it all came together for me. I played a lot better than in the previous tournaments. With Flavia I feel really comfortable being out there. I think that's the key to success.
Martina Hingis
We like to play together, and always we have a different--in the important moments or when we are down, we always come out with some different things. We have always the energy to come back.
Flavia Pennetta

You were flying everywhere, catching everything. It was almost a ballet. 
It's like you want to keep that momentum. It's scary, because we already play like amazing first set. Like the first games was everything was like perfect, right? She hit, I'd go short cross-court volleys. Everything. Yeah, so you just want to keep going and keep the momentum.
Martina Hingis

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Makarova and Williams advance to U.S. Open semifinals

The word from Vika Azarenka's staff is that she had some bad sushi, was sick, and couldn't practice yesterday. She seemed especially out of sorts (though sometimes that distinction is hard to make with Azarenka because what looks "out of sorts" can actually be a good thing) today in her quarterfinal against Ekaterina Makarova. Makarova, on the other hand, was about as "in sorts" as you can get. She has yet to drop a set, and has reached the semifinals in both singles and doubles. She defeated Azarenka 6-4, 6-2.

Azarenka's food poisoning episode, unfortunately, falls right into a pattern of unfortunate hindrances she has experienced over the years. It used to be just constant injury of the thigh and that sort of thing, but then it became falling down from heat illness or food poisoning (depending on which story everyone read on a given day--I still think it was mainly food poisoning, though heat illness became the runaway gossip), falling down with a concussion because of a pre-match accident, withdrawing because of a toxic pedicure (the people who made fun of this probably should experience a pedicure infection, just to increase their personal growth), and I can't even remember what else.

Azarenka, even in her best times, is an accident waiting to happen. And just when you think those "oh, no--not again" days are over, you learn that they're not. Hers is a strange track, and while it has put her on a stretcher and taken her out of big tournaments, it has also awarded her two Australian Open titles, two U.S. Open finals and the number 1 ranking. Vika remains cool, no matter how many times she falls down flat or eats bad food. She isn't going away. Out most of the year because of injury, she was able to make it to the quarterfinals of this tournament, which is quite an accomplishment.

But today's star was Makarova, a low-key, very pleasant Russian player with a big lefty serve and an affinity for great big tournaments. When she's playing well, Makarova is hard to beat. She told ESPN today that in other majors, she was so happy to reach the quarterfinals, she wound up being content with a quarterfinal run. But this time, she explained, she knew she wouldn't be content with that--she wanted more, and she believed she could get it.

Her opponent in the semifinals will be Serena Williams, the top seed, who defeated Flavia Pennetta 6-3, 6-2 tonight. She had to come back from a 0-3 deficit in the first set, but after she did, it wasn't very difficult for her to win. Makarova beat Williams in the 2012 Australian Open round of 16.

Meanwhile, 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm and her partner, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, advanced to the semifinals in doubles by defeating 8th seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Zheng Jie 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. This is the first time that either Date-Krumm or Zahlavova Strycova has reached a major doubles semifinal. The pair will play Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in the next round. That's right: When you say "semifinals," you're saying "Makarova."

The mixed doubles final is set. Top seeds Sania Mirza and Bruno Soares will compete against Abigail Spears and Santiago Gonazlez.

U.S. Open--what they said

...I was so calm and just did what I needed to do.
Ekaterina Makarova

Having been a part of the last two finals, how disappointing is it not to be back there again? Very disappointing. How many times--like how do you feel? How do you think somebody will answer a question like that? Of course it is disappointing....
Victoria Azarenka

Will you watch the match tonight between Pennetta and Serena?
Yes, of course, why not?
Ekaterina Makarova

She would give you the shots you didn't want to hit, only you didn't know that you didn't want to hit them--she knew.
Martina Navratilova, referring to Billie Jean King

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Peng and Wozniacki smack down opponents in U.S. Open quarterfinals

She's been broken only three times in the tournament and she has yet to drop a set. Peng Shuai--who had already beaten Zheng Jie, 4th seed Agnieszka Radwanska, 28th seed Roberta Vinci, and 14th seed Lucie Safarova--knocked off teen sensation Belinda Bencic today in straight sets in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Peng never really gave Bencic a chance to establish any kind of rhythm. She hit 24 winners, while making only seven unforced errors. Her 6-2, 6-1 victory books her a slot in the semifinals.

Peng's opponent will be Caroline Wozniacki, who played in pretty serious wind against Sara Errani in the night match. And if Peng's win over Bencic was brutally efficient, Wozniacki's win over the Italian was a beat-down. Handling the wind expertly, the Dane defeated the Italian 6-0, 6-1. It was an impressive performance, especially at the net, and make no mistake: Woz is back--and smacking 26 winners.

In doubles, the unseeded team of Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta upset 5th seeds Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, and 3rd seeds Cara Black and Sania Mirza defeated Zarina Diyas and Xu Yi-Fan when Diyas and Xu retired early in the second set because Diyas was injured.

4th seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina defeated Venus and Serena Williams 7-6, 6-4. The match had an odd ending, with Serena Williams double-faulting twice in a row at 30-all. (Right before the double double-fault, ESPN commentator Pam Shriver remarked that this was exactly when the team needed the best server in women's tennis to be doing the serving. The commentator curse is a powerful one indeed.)

U.S. Open--what they said

I tell myself, "Never, ever, ever give up."
Peng Shuai

How much of today was about she played so well and how much was the new experience of being in a Grand Slam quarterfinals?
Yeah, I think it's both. I mean, I wasn't nervous or something going to the court. It was just the little things that didn't work out for me. I had the small outs; I make some unforced errors and stuff. She also didn't let me to come into the game again. So it's both.
Belinda Bencic 

When was the lowest moment for you when you thought that you might actually stop playing?
One time was my 12 years old and then one time is in the 2006. Yeah. These two times actually is kind of like I almost stop played. Because my 12 years almost was doesn't have that much choice, because the doctor was telling me maybe I have to stop it. But is really lucky, you know, like I can come back and play. And 2006 was also big another challenger, and then finally I maked it.
Peng Shuai
What do you think next year will bring?
Oh, I have no idea. I don't know what next week will bring.
Belinda Bencic

You said many times that you actually enjoyed being in Li Na's shadow. That the attention was on Li Na and you enjoyed that. 
I never said that.
Peng Shuai 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Put on your red dress baby

...'cause we're going out tonight
Put on your red dress baby 'cause we're going out tonight
Well now wear some boxing gloves in case some fool might start a fight

Aleksandra Krunic, known on WTA Backspin as the Serbian Good Luck Charm because of her stunning Fed Cup doubles performances, put on her red dress tonight and somehow managed not to get punch-drunk, though it was her seventh consecutive match at the U.S. Open. Her opponent, Victoria Azarenka, did look punch-drunk, but it is now programmed into the 16th seed's brain to fight, and when it seems that everyone and everything is against her--to fight harder.

Azarenka defeated Krunic 4-6 6-4, 6-4 in a two-hour and 19-minute thriller that literally had me on the edge of my seat much of the time. If you look at the stats for this match, you can't even begin to get an idea of what the match was really like; it just doesn't translate.

Krunic had to go through qualifying, and during her first week in Flushing Meadows, she managed to knock off both 27th seed Madison Keys and 3rd seed Petra Kvitova. Krunic is a small woman by professional tennis standards: She stands only 5 feet and four inches tall. She isn't bulky or stocky. What she is is incredibly fast, and she can hit the ball way harder than one might expect. She also has a great deal of composure, and a great deal of fight in her.

Azarenka, a two-time finalist at the Open, was out for much of the year with an injury, yet she has been showing flashes of her old self since she arrived in New York. She needed that self--and then some--to ward off the assaults she had to undergo from Krunic. In the end, experience, as it so often does, determined who won the match. Krunic would go off a bit and then use the pressure to play herself back into a winning (or at least neutral) position, but--and here I'm dragging out a well-worn phrase--she really needed to win it in straight sets. Toward the end, the young Serbian player lost her mental edge, and Azarenka imposed herself successfully.

No matter what happens from here on out, Krunic has secured a spot in my U.S. Open top 10. Her performance at this event was stunning, and her combination of athleticism (really, she looks "French" to me, moving like Lenglen, Mauresmo and Cornet), creative shot-making and composure is scary. And did I say she hits the ball really hard? (Krunic cites Jelena Jankovic as her mentor, and it would have been a good idea, several times tonight, if she had used the signature Jankovic backhand down the line to finish points. Maybe next time.)

As for Vika Azarenka--she made a "great escape" tonight, and that can be a very good thing for a top player at a big event. She faces Ekaterina Makarova in the quarterfinals, and--if Makarova stays "on"--Azarenka will have that big, tricky lefty serve to solve.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Serena Williams (1) vs. Flavia Pennetta (11)
Victoria Azarenka (16) vs. Ekaterina Makarova (17)
Belinda Bencic vs. Peng Shuai
Caroline Wozniacki (10) vs. Sara Errani (13)