Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017--the year of "Who would have thought...?"



I’m sure that there’s been another year when almost everything on the WTA tour got turned on its head, but I can’t recall when it was. This past year, however, will be a hard one to forget, as every imaginable “order of things” was overturned, with other surprises popping up all over the place. But it wasn’t about chaos—well, most of the time, it wasn’t. Rather, it was about turns of events that frustrated us, puzzled us, surprised us, delighted us, and sometimes made our heads spin.

Let’s start with the number 1 ranking. Angie Kerber did start with it, but her 2017 turned out to be as dismal as her 2016 was glorious. In 2016, the German star won two majors, reached the final of a third major, and won a silver medal at the Olympics. In 2017, she not only won no majors—she won no titles. And in two majors (one in which she was the defending champion), she went out in the first round. Kerber ends the season as number 21 in the world, which is the biggest drop in ranking for a number 1 player in the history of the rankings.

Karolina Pliskova was number 1 for a while, but lost the ranking to Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza, who won Wimbledon this year, felt more like a “real” number 1, but that didn’t last, either, because along came Simona Halep, who grabbed the end-of-year high ranking.

But what about Serena Williams? Well, she did what she has done from time to time throughout her career—she dropped out for a while. Her reason this time was a very nice one, too—she had a baby.

With Serena out for three-quarters of the season, a lot of titles were up for grabs. And like some kind of cellular phenomenon, who should step into the spotlight but Venus Williams? Venus was in two major finals, though she won neither of them. Nevertheless, her return to this level of professional tennis was one of the standout happenings of the season.

2017 marked a big change in how—or if—we watch tennis. It brought us two significant returns to the tour, two new major champions, and the end (at least for now) of a Fed Cup dynasty.

Here are my top 10 happenings of 2017 (and a bonus), in ascending order:

10. I waited months for this?: A year ago, the WTA announced that it was about to launch a wonderful, all-inclusive streaming platform that would be the best thing since Tatiana Golovin’s red drawers. In two weeks, we would learn more. Only we didn’t. Weeks went by, and we still heard nothing. Finally, CEO Steve Simon told us it was coming soon—be patient, it will be worth the wait. Only it didn’t come soon. It didn’t arrive until more than half of the season was over.

In the meantime, people were told to watch beIN Sports (the WTA had severed its contract with the first-rate Tennis TV, and Tennis Channel and ESPN retained few women’s events). For some of us, getting beIN Sports was next to impossible (if I had pages and pages, I would write about my own crazy-making beIN experience and how much money it cost me to get nothing). But even those who had beIN in their television packages made the unpleasant discovery that beIN didn’t care at all about showing women’s tennis, which was frequently preempted or cut off by football.

Finally, WTA TV arrived. Now, one would think, after all that time, it would have arrived in really good shape. But no. WTA TV arrived without an app. More important, it arrived with no platform for viewing it on a television screen via Apple TV, Roku, etc. It arrived as a really great, cutting-edge streaming platform—for 1997.

9. Kathy + CoCo = a great big trophy:
Kathy Rinaldi, working in her first year as USA Fed Cup captain, went all out: Her team won the 2017 championship! After former Captain Mary Joe Fernandez struggled for years to make relevant player selections, Rinaldi stepped in and made it look easy, a la Amelie Mauresmo. The USA got some help from defending champion Czech Republic, but Fed Cup competition is always difficult, no matter who plays. Take, for example, Team Belarus—minus Vika Azareanka—forcing the USA into a fifth rubber in the final.

For her part, CoCo Vandeweghe not only won all of her matches in the final—a rare feat—she is also the only player in Fed Cup history to go 8-0 for the entire season.

8. Saving the awesome for last:
Who would have thought that both Caroline Garcia and Julia Goerges would charge into the very end of the season and do amazing things? But pro tennis is like that: just when you think nothing much is going to happen, something huge happens right in front of you. Of course, it wasn’t as if the Frenchwoman and the German hadn’t given us some hints. They had both performed solidly all year. Goerges, in fact, had reached three finals. The problem was that she hadn’t won any of them.

But then, in October, Goerges won the Kremlin Cup, giving her her first victory in six years. In the meantime, Garcia did something extraordinary: She won Beijing and Wuhan back to back. She even went to the WTA Finals, and made it all the way to the semifinal round. The German with the lethal forehand, for her part, won the WTA Elite Trophy in Zuhai, defeating CoCo Vandeweghe in the final. 2017 was Goerges’ best year ever, and she ended it ranked number 14 in the world.

But that wasn’t all. Caroline Wozniacki, who had a great season and is back in the top 5, went to Singapore and won the WTA Finals.

Three to watch in 2018.

7. What a way to go!: Near the end of the season, Martina Hingis, for the third time in her career, retired from professional tennis. There is every reason to believe that this is also the last time. Hingis left as the number 1-ranked doubles player in the world, just as she was twenty years ago. She and her partner, Chan Jung-Jan, who, in October joined Hingis as co-number 1, were expected to win the WTA Finals, but were knocked out in the semifinals.

Hingis and Chan, who became a team in February, won nine titles, including the U.S. Open, and they were named Doubles Team of the Year. Hingis’s career is one of the most outstanding careers in WTA history.

6. It takes both feet and a lot of heart: Sloane Stephens began 2017 as number 957 in the world. That’s because she’d been rehabbing for eleven months from foot surgery. Stephens returned to the tour in July, and by the time the U.S. Open rolled around, she had bumped her ranking up to 87, and was looking really good. She looked so good, in fact, that she established herself as a threat at the event, taking out a number of very talented players with very different game styles. She defeated countrywoman Madison Keys in the final, and suddenly—having schlepped around for months in a cast—she was the U.S. Open champion.

5. Prenatal exercise is important: Serena Williams was pregnant in January of 2017, but before dropping out of the tour for a while, she stopped by Melbourne and won the Australian Open. Because she’s Serena Williams. The former world number 1, who was married in New Orleans a week ago, will be back in 2018.

4. It’s called Unstoppable for a reason:
Maria Sharapova, who was away from the tour for over a year because of a drug ban (or, as some of us contend, a cruel and out-of-control circus of prejudice and inconsistency), returned to the tour in April as a wild card in Stuttgart. Unfortunately, despite training intensely during her absence, she was physically vulnerable, and spent much of her return in an injured state. Nevertheless, she was back, and playing quite well--in some cases, better than she has played in a while. Assuming she gets past the injuries, she could add quite a note of interest to competition in 2018.

3. The Elegant Assassin mows the lawns: It was going to happen sooner or later, and Mugu chose “sooner.” Garbine Muguruza won the French Open in 2016 by defeating Serena Williams, and was stopped at the Wimbledon final that year by Serena Williams. In 2017, Serena wasn’t around, but Venus certainly was, and it was the older Williams—a five-time Wimbledon champion—who faced off against the Spaniard in the final. Muguruza defeated Williams 7-5, 6-0, and in doing so, became the first woman to defeat both Venus and Serena in major finals.

2. Who needs a seed when you have rhythm?: No one saw it coming, but when it came, it was a force of nature. Alona Ostapenko, the rubber-bodied, ballroom-dancing, perpetually mugging hitting machine from Latvia, had herself a high old time in Paris in the spring. Unseeded, and without one tournament win in her career, Ostapenko slam-banged her way through the field at Roland Garros, hit 299 winners, and won the French Open.
Photo by Daniel Ward


Ostapenko was fearless, and when she made an error, she made one of her expressive (read: hilarious) faces, shrugged it off, and kept going. Even during the latter stages of the tournament, when other relatively inexperienced players would have caved, Ostapenko remained fearless. And even against clear favorite and former finalist Simona Halep in the final, the Latvian just kept "dancing." Her game is raw; when it becomes more consistent and nuanced (and I assume it will), she might become truly frightening. A testament to her fearlessness—not to mention her all-surface acumen—is that she made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon a few weeks later.

Of course, it isn’t unusual for a young and gifted player to become less dangerous as others figure out her game and the pressure mounts. I suspect, though, that the Latvian (whose image now graces a postage stamp) may be immune to that sort of thing: Planet Ostapenko occupies its own place in the universe.

1. The Rock returns: In December of 2016, the unspeakable occurred. Petra Kvitova was viciously attacked by a knife-wielding criminal in a home invasion. The good news was that Kvitova fought off her attacker, whose intention was to slit her throat. The bad news was that she used her dominant hand to do it, and  wound up with multiple sliced tendons, ligaments and nerves. Every finger of her “money” hand was severely damaged, and it was unknown whether she would be able to play tennis again.

Kvitova underwent extensive surgery, and was told that it would be about three months before she could start rehab, and at least six months before she could play again. But five months after she had her surgery, the Barking Czech stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier, to the joy of the French crowd, her peers, and tennis fans all over the world. She even won her opening match, though she did not have full feeling in her left hand. In June, she did the seemingly impossible—she won Birmingham, still without full feeling in her hand. “I was still thinking it was not really normal what happened," the Czech star said in a WTA interview. “I couldn’t still believe it.”

I submitted a nomination essay for Kvitova for the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. Here is an excerpt:

I have thought a lot about what it must have felt like: knowing you could have died, knowing that your career hand has been sliced to the bone, knowing that you may never again stand on one side of a net screaming “Pojd!” and rendering other talented players helpless.

But Petra knew more than that: She knew that she had the strength—both within herself, and through the power of the spirit of those who admire and respect her—to transcend a truly horrific experience. That she did it so quickly makes the story even more glorious.

Yes, 2017 was an amazingly unpredictable year for the WTA, and many stunning things occurred. But none was as profound as the sight of Petra Kvitova holding a tennis racket and playing her beloved game.

And now for the bonus (what we call “lagniappe” in Louisiana)—They blinded me with science:


Sunday, November 12, 2017

On a cool fall evening in Minsk, hot CoCo hits the spot




Today, CoCo Vandeweghe pulled off the rare Fed Cup hat trick: She walked away from the 2017 Fed Cup final with three wins--two in singles and one in doubles. Vandeweghe is a natural Fed Cup team leader. During the 2017 season, she went 5-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles. Today, she led Team USA to its first Fed Cup championship in 17 years.

In a year when the unexpected became the expected--over and over--it's not really that much of a surprise that rookie Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi, Vandeweghe and the entire USA team won it all. They had some help--defending champions and overwhelming Fed Cup giants Czech Republic showed up in the semifinals with neither its A or "other A" teams, making it much easier for the USA to advance to the final.

The USA has now won Fed Cup 18 times. The team did it today without Serena Williams, Venus Wiliams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, or Madison Keys. They did it without U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens winning a rubber. Vandeweghe and Shelby Rogers (who played in the deciding doubles rubber) took the team over the final hurdle.

But the USA story wasn't the only unlikely one. Also playing in the final was Belarus, a team that had never before reached a Fed Cup final, and a team which was missing its only star, Victoria Azarenka. It was hard to imagine Belarus getting to the final, especially since, in the semifinals, they had to play Switzerland. The Swiss team included its star, Timea Bacsinszky, and also recent Fed Cup wonder, Victorija Golubic. But Team Belarus got past the Swiss in five rubbers.

This weekend, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Aryna Sabalenka played their hearts out (Sasnovich, as a matter of fact, won a Fed Cup Heart Award for her exploits in the semifinals). Vandeweghe beat both of them, but each of them beat Stephens. The doubles rubber seemed a given, since Sabalenka, in particular, has limited doubles experience (and it showed), but it was actually more competitive than one would have thought. The second set was about as thrilling as a set could be, and the USA won it in a tiebreak, though Belarus held multiple set points.

The USA's opening 2018 tie will be against Netherlands, and if they win it, they will face either France or Belgium.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The lesson of Martina Hingis

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
I began following the WTA when I was a very young woman, and after many years—having lived through Chris and Martina, and Steffi and Monica, I felt burned out. I left the WTA behind, but I was lured back by Martina Hingis. Who was this other Martina that I heard about all the time? I had to find out.

It turned out that she was exactly what I wanted to see—a prodigy who could read the court like a complex story, and who relied on her way-beyond-her-years instincts. “Plays like Hingis” is now part of the tennis vernacular, and it refers to those players who see the tennis court as a kind of board game and can provide ongoing strategy to advance their games. Anna Chakvetadze was such a player, as is Dasha Kasatkina.

The young Hingis, however, had her problems. Her emotional maturity wasn’t as advanced as her tennis maturity, she had chronic foot issues (which she said were caused by her shoes), and then she had the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena, and several who followed them, used power to get around Hingis’s cleverness, thus rendering her less effective. I would rather watch a Martina Hingis (or a Patty Schnyder or a Simona Halep) over a power player any day, but tennis equipment changed, as did tennis culture.

Having undergone two foot surgeries, Hingis retired from pro tennis in 2003, at the age of 22. It was a surprising turn of events, despite what we knew about her struggles. But two years later, she made a crack at returning. It didn’t go well, so she confirmed her retirement. But then, in 2006, she made a very dramatic return by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australain Open, an event she had won three times. She also won her first-ever major mixed doubles title in Melbourne.

Hingis did so well in her comeback that she qualified for the WTA Finals. In 2007, Hingis again reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and for the second year in a row, she was eliminated by Kim Clijsters. Later that year, she would have to deal with injuries again, but she would also have to deal with something much worse: A cocaine metabolite had been discovered in a drug test she had taken that summer. The amount of metabolyte was so small, Hingis insisted that contamination was the cause.

The ITF responded by giving the Swiss star a two-year suspension (the “Katy Perry defense” was unknown at the time). Hingis responded by retiring from the sport. It was a sad, nasty occurrence, but one couldn’t blame her for just saying to hell with the whole thing.

Hingis returned to exhibition play and to World Team Tennis in 2010, and in 2013, she returned to the WTA tour as a doubles-only player, and she also did a bit of coaching. her third career has been a resounding success. She is currently ranked number 1 in the world in doubles, just as she was 20 years ago. And in closing that circle, this week, the great Martina Hingis retired from professional tennis. Again. And, we can assume, for the final time.

In her very lengthy career, Martina Hingis won five singles majors, and was seven times a runnerup. She won 13 doubles majors and was a runnerup on three occasions. Hingis also won seven majors in mixed doubles. She won 43 singles titles in her career, and has won 64 doubles titles; however, by the end of the week, that number is likely to jump to 65, as she and partner Chan Yung-Jan are very likely to win the WTA Finals in Singapore. The Swiss master reached the number 1 ranking in both singles and doubles, and she has won so many awards and broken so many records, I don't have the space to list them.

The 37-year-old Hingis, who is also an accomplished horsewoman, says that she knows she will continue to be involved in tennis. I wouldn't be surprised if she returned to coaching.

Many of us watched Martina Hingis grow up, and some of what we saw wasn't pretty. But she persevered--through emotional immaturity, to serious injuries, to a major change in the game that threatened to leave her behind, to a highly questionable drug ban, to the rigors of making two comebacks. She persevered. She accepted what she could do well and what she could no longer do quite as well as she once had. And though I don't usually use this metaphor, in Hingis's case, it's appropriate to say that she kept getting back on the horse.

Quick and clever on and off the court, Martina Hingis never really gave up--she just took breaks. Whether she was a teen phenom, a Spice Girl, a comeback wonder, or an enduring legend enjoying a late career zenith, she adjusted to the times, and believed in her talent. There is much to learn from Hingis's unusual career arc, and for that, we can be grateful. But we can be even more grateful that for two decades, we watched the Swiss Miss light up the tour with the brilliance of her tennis.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Never mind the stats--it's the WTA Finals!



Some fans are looking at the red and white groups in Singapore and seeing the White Group as "loaded" since it is made up of Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Venus Williams, and Alona Ostapenko. They have a point. Among them, the group members have won ten majors, and three of them have held the number 1 spot.

Meanwhile, the Red Group features Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki, and Caroline Garcia. Halep is the current world number 1, and Wozniacki is a former number 1. None of them has won a major, though there are four runner-up spots represented in the group (two each for Halep and Wozniacki).

So yes, "on paper," the White Group appears dominant. But this is the WTA Finals, and odd things happen. Two years ago, a very odd thing happened: A player who had won only one of her three round robin matches got to the final and won it. That was Aga Radwanska. We didn't think we'd see something like that again, but we did--the very next year. In 2016, Dominika Cibulkova went 1-2 in round robin play, reached the final, and won the whole thing.

I like to look at the WTA Finals as a blank slate, regardless of the draw. The one factor that I do think is relevant is fatigue. It's the end of the season, and players are tired and vulnerable to injury. Who knew we wouldn't see Jo Konta in Singapore? And who thought we would see Caroline Garcia? The former is dealing with a foot injury, the latter went crazy on everyone and won Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. This kind of twist is part of what makes the WTA so endlessly fascinating.


The matches will be played on indoor carpet, so all concerns about the elements have been removed. However, unlike most indoor carpet courts, this one has been deemed by the players to be especially slow.

Who has the pressure? Well, they all do, in one form or another, but--as usual--Halep may have the most. The new world number 1 could make a grand exit from the 2017 season if she wins in Singapore. Last year, she went 1-3 in round robin play. Halep, Pliskova and Muguruza, by the way, are the only repeats from 2016. And Ostapenko, Svitolina and Garcia are all making their WTA Finals debuts.

White Group lopsided record: Pliskova leads Muguruza 6-2
Red Group lopsided record: Svitolina leads Wozniacki 3-0

Friday, October 13, 2017

Battle of the Sexes--a bad idea, but an entertaining film

It took a while for Battle of the Sexes to reach my community, so I only just saw it. I wasn't really sure I wanted to see it, since I was very turned off by the event when it occurred. The film brought back all of my distaste for the event, too, though it has quite a bit of entertainment value.

Not long ago, John McEnroe offended anyone with a brain by suggesting that Serena Williams would be ranked in the 700s on the ATP tour. Not too many years ago, Tim Henman wandered among ATP players, asking what the top women's rankings would be in the ATP, and every single player he approached took the bait. Because ATP players are no different from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world believes that stronger and faster (i.e., male) are "superior," therefore, men are the "real" athletes.

Comparing women's tennis with men's tennis is ridiculous, but any time women come into their own in sport or any other enterprise, there is a rush to "prove" that they are "inferior" to men. When Billie Jean King and her cohorts first demanded to be paid as real professionals, they were met with hostility by the ATP. In the film, Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman, tells them that if they start their own tour, they will be tossed out of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA). That is an accurate retelling of history; the women who founded the WTA risked everything.

Kramer persists as the enemy throughout the film, but the reality was that most the ATP players were disgusted by the idea that female players thought they should be paid as real athletes. One of their leaders, in fact, was Arthur Ashe, though historians have conveniently omitted this aspect of Ashe's activism from his biography.

When the Battle of the Sexes took place in 1973, I was dismayed. Part of my disapproval was that the event promoted the idea that men's and women's tennis are comparable. But that wasn't the only thing that bothered me. There was also the fact that bigotry toward women was considered "funny." Bobby Riggs, though he almost certainly didn't believe that women were really inferior, was willing to do anything--even exploit the nation's "ha-ha--those crazy women's libbers" attitude toward bigotry--to make money.

In Battle of the Sexes, I'm A Male Chauvinist is seen on signs and on t-shirts worn by some of the men. Try to imagine those same men wearing shirts that said I Am A Racist or I Hate Gays. They may well have hated non-whites and gays, but they were forbidden by the constraints of the society to say so in public. The really horrible part of this phenomenon is that nothing has changed: Bigotry against women is still something people make jokes about, including within the world of professional tennis.

The strength of Battle of the Sexes is its casting. The wonderful Emma Stone gives a thoughtful performance as King, capturing both the great champion's insecurities and her cheekiness. Steve Carrel is perfect as the one-of-a-kind Riggs, a gifted, retired athlete who turned hustler to support his gambling habit. When the actual battle finally occurs, toward the end of the film, the tennis match is quite exciting, and turns Battle of the Sexes into a high quality sports film.

Alan Cumming is a believable Ted Tinling, though the film omits Tinling's obsession with dressing Rosie Casals. A more serious omission is the role that Larry King, Billie Jean's husband, played in the founding of the WTA. The forgotten feminist, King is again forgotten in Battle of the Sexes, in which Austin Stowell portrays him as the supportive and ultimately betrayed husband, but he was much more. He was upset by the unfair way in which women were treated, and he introduced his wife to feminism and encouraged her to believe that she could do anything she aspired to do. Larry King was an integral part of the founding of the WTA.

Sarah Silverman is quite entertaining as Gladys Heldman, the woman who collected $1 from each of the Original 9 in order to found the WTA. And one of my favorite little touches in the film was the casting of Elisabeth Shue--an avid tennis player and fan--as Priscilla Riggs, Bobby Riggs' wife.

I was especially taken with Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser with whom King became romantically involved. Riseborough plays Barnett as a manipulative seducer masquerading as an admiring free spirit, which made nice foreshadowing for what eventually occurred: In 1981, Barnett filed a palimony suit against King, resulting in King's losing millions of dollars in endorsements.

Tennis fans will undoubtedly appreciate Jessica McNamee's portrayal of Margaret Court as smug and judgmental. And while the screenplay implies that King accepted Riggs' offer to play the Battle of the Sexes because Court had lost a less-publicized match to him and because he offered a $100,000 purse, King once said that what really made her feel compelled to accept the offer was the fact that Court had curtsied to Riggs when he presented her with a bouquet before their match. The curtsy is shown in the film, but is never mentioned.

My hope is that when people see Battle of the Sexes, they leave, not angry over the way women were treated in the 70s, but furious over the fact that things haven't really changed that much. And I hope that those who view the film develop an understanding for just how brave Billie Jean King and the Original 9 were.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Caroline Garcia and the flight from Wuhan to Beijing



When we first saw Caroline Garcia six years ago, we sat up and took notice as she led Maria Sharapova 6-3, 4-1 at the French Open. Garcia, who was playing as a wild card, was experiencing her first main draws on the tour. She lost that match, but she was quite impressive. So many times, though, we see young qualifiers and wild cards who stun us with what they can do, then fade into the top 100, or find a good home in the top 50.

Garcia appeared to be going in one of those directions, and her main problem, as far as I could tell, was the one that plagues most young players who have trouble reaching their potential--she lacked belief and confidence. The Frenchwoman, like others before her, was so anxious about playing before her home crowd that she asked not to be put on a show court at the French Open.

Then some things happened that changed the course of Garcia's career. One of those things was her wildly successful pairing with Kiki Mladenovic in doubles. They won four titles, including the French Open, and they were the runners-up four times, including at the U.S. Open. Garcia ended the doubles relationship this year because she wanted to focus on her singles career. Unfortunately, that decision triggered the ire of the extremely touchy Mladenovic, who proceeded to trash Garcia publicly.

Winning a major in doubles put Garcia into the elite winners’ circle, and getting a taste of that must have agreed with her.

Along those same lines, the Frenchwoman emerged as a major force in Fed Cup, both with Mladenovic, and as a singles competitor. I’ve written before that it seemed to me that former Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo practically breathed fire into Garcia during Fed Cup ties, turning her young charge into a warrior. One could do much worse than having Mauresmo directing your fate: At the 2013 Wimbledon event, she pulled out some tricks to get Marion Bartoli to calm down; in Fed Cup play, she knew what to do to get Garcia pumped up.

And then there was the back injury. Garcia had to miss part of the 2017 clay court season because of this injury (prompting more phony outrage from Mladenovic). She had a tough rehab, and later said that going through that made her more determined than ever to take her game to a higher level.

Since returning, the Frenchwoman has reached at least the quarterfinals in all but two of the events she has entered. A week ago, she won Wuhan, a Premier 5 event. Along the way, the unseeded Frenchwoman, ranked number 20 in the world, knocked out former world number 1 Angie Kerber, Dominika Cibulkova, and Ekaterina Makarova. Garcia defeated an on-fire Ash Barty in the final.

That was quite an accomplishment, but Garcia wasn’t quite finished. She went straight to Beijing, a Premier Mandatory event, and today, she won that, too. This time, Garcia knocked out the formidable Alize Cornet, 3rd seed Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, and—in the final—2nd seed Simona Halep. Halep, in fact, had just become number 1 in the world, so Garcia has that to add to her resume.

Garcia is the first player to win Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. In a season in which we have seen Alona Ostapenko amaze us, Garbine Muguruza mightily impress us, Svitolina get closer and closer to something big, and both Halep and Kvitova return to form, here comes Caroline Garcia in a late-flight perfect landing, right into the top 10. The Flying Frenchwoman, whose post-match celebrations are charming in their animated originality, is really taking off.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Watch your language! How commentators demean tennis

A couple of years ago, an article about the French Open carried this headline: The Top Five Players Who Stepped Up to the Plate at Roland Garros, But Struck Out. The use of a baseball metaphor to talk about just about anything is ridiculously common in the United States. Football metaphors are also very common, and other sports metaphors are also frequently used.

I dislike the idea of constantly using sports metaphors to describe everything from political processes to the weather. Such overuse mirrors an obsessive preoccupation with sports, a misconception that the entire population can relate to sports, and an obvious lack of language skills.

But what I especially dislike is the use of sports metaphors to describe tennis. I have two main objections. First, it’s very poor metaphor construction, though what can you expect form a culture that likes to say “you’re comparing apples with oranges”? Comparing apples with (remember, we compare “with,” not “to”) oranges is really lazy metaphor construction, since they’re both edible fruits, and even approximately the same size.

I’m reminded of the hilarious book Titters, which contains the fake endorsement: Makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte! Only that, of course, was an example of making fun of stupid metaphors.

My other objection is more important: Constantly using other sports to describe tennis turns tennis into the stepchild that tennis fans know so well. If you watch a match on television, you’ll hear “near the finish line” (running), “off the tee” (golf), “counter-puncher” (boxing), “swing and a miss” (baseball), “and de-fense” (football, where it exists, unfortunately, because of cheering considerations). If you’re watching the ATP, you’ll hear commentators begin sentences with “If he were a batter” or “If he were a boxer”

If you tune into a football, basketball or baseball game, you’re not going to hear commentators use metaphors involving volleying, serving, slicing, or playing a love game. No one will say “Game, set match.”

Language reflects culture, but it also directs it. Just as commentators calling female players “women” and not “girls” will eventually get people to actually see them as women, leaving other sports out of tennis language will direct people to see tennis as a “legitimate” athletic entity, and not the stepchild of sports.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Kimiko Date leaves professional tennis, and leaves an indelible mark on the sport



Kimiko Date retired from professional tennis for the second time today. A former top 10 player with a great deal of guile and athleticism, Date retired the first time in 1995, not long after gaining the top 4 position. She said that all the traveling had just become too much for her, and she wanted to be in one place and have a new life.

She got one, too. Date married (she has since divorced), and her husband--having never seen her play tennis--encouraged her to return to the tour. She started playing in Asian ITF events in 2003 and won all of them. That was enough to convince her to stick around. In her second career, Date made a new name for herself by becoming the second oldest woman in tour history to win a title (Seoul, 2009), and the oldest player to beat a top 10 opponent. The latter feat she executed twice: She beat both Dinara Safina and Sam Stosur in 2010.

A natural left-hander who played right-handed, Date entered the top 50 in her second career, making it as high as number 46 in the world. In 2004, she ran the London Marathon.

During the first half of her career, the Japanese star reached three major semifinals. In the second half of her career, she played quite well, and served as an inspiration to many people, including me. Her many injuries finally caught up with her, though. At the beginning of this season, she had a knee cartilage transplant, and has not been able to move adequately since.

Date won a total of eight WTA titles, including the prestigious Pan Pacific event in Tokyo (1995). She decided to retire in Tokyo, at the Japan Women's Open. She was defeated by Aleks Krunic today in the first round, and that marked the end of her career. A few years ago, Date observed that some of the players on the tour had mothers younger than she. Now, at age 46, she can look back on what has to be one of the most fascinating careers in sports. She was a joy to watch and will be missed by many.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

My U.S. Open top 10



Here are my top 10 U.S. Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. I see you waving from up there!: While we were watching the action at the U.S. Open, something else happened--Garbine Muguruza became the world's number 1 player, succeeding Karolina Pliskova. Pliskova, last year's U.S. Open runner-up, went out in the quarterfinals, leading to an opening of that number 1 slot. There were several women with the potential to become number 1, but once the numbers were crunched, it turned out to be the two-time major champion from Spain who got the job, and it does "feel right" to have her there.

9. Saving the drama for the last act: So much attention has been lavished on the final four women all being USA players, it's easy to forget what happened in junior competition. Both finalists, CoCo Gauff and Amanda Anisimova, are also from the United States. Anisimova won the title in a match in which she cruised until it came time to close--it took her twelve match points to do it.

8. And Sveta wasn't even there: Shelby Rogers and Dasha Gavrilova played the longest women's match in the history of the U.S. Open. The second round match went on for three hours and 33 minutes (ten minutes longer than the one played by Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza in 2015), and the victory went to Rogers--7-6, 4-6, 7-6. Rogers is no stranger to big stage upsets, so the outcome wasn't really a surprise

7. A winning combination: Top seeds Martina Hingis and Jamie Murray won their second mixed doubles major title together; they also won Wimbledon this year. Hingis holds a total of seven mixed doubles titles.

6. Now that's more like it: Five-time major champion Maria Sharapova, who has had a terrible time with injuries since her return from a 15-month suspension, finally looked like herself at the U.S. Open, and it was a relief to see that. In one of those strange twists brought about the draw, the 2006 U.S. Open champion and 2nd seed Simona Halep met in the first round. Sharapova won the beautifully played match in three sets. She would go on to lose to the clever and on-fire Anastaija Sevastova in the round of 16, but with some more match play, who knows what the Russian star can do?

5. Many shelves required: Martina Hingis won her 24th and 25th major titles at this U.S. Open. She won the mixed doubles title with Jamie Murray, and the women's doubles title with Chan Yung-Jan. Counting her one Hopman Cup title, Hingis now has 119 professional tennis trophies, which is an amazing feat. It is especially amazing when we consider that it was hardly a smooth path she had to take to reach this level of achievement.

4. The miracle that keeps on giving: Petra is back. Not only is she back, Scary Petra played in Flushing Meadows, and she was a sight to behold. (And, given the cooler and drier conditions at this year's U.S. Open--her asthma didn't get triggered.) If we hadn't known better, we'd have thought we were watching Wimbledon. Having expertly knocked off Jelena Jankovic, Alize Cornet, Caroline Garcia, and world number 1 Muguruza, the Barking Czech's run ended when she was defeated in the quarterfinals by Venus Williams. It was a great match, and Kvitova had a great run. I wish it had gone on longer, but given the circumstances, it was amazing that it happened at all. And let's not forget that Kvitova still doesn't have all the feeling back in her left hand. Just imagine, when she does.

3. The natural order of things: Martina Hingis and Chan Yung-Jan had won six titles this year before they entered the doubles competition in Flushing Meadows as the second seeds. They have now won their first major together, and they made it look so easy. Top seeds Ekaterina Makarova were upset in the third round, which was a surprise, and which made it that much easier for Hingis and Chan to advance to the final and win the tournament.

2. Red, white and blue all over: It's been 36 years since the finalists in both women's singles and junior singles were all from the United States, but this year, that phenomenon was repeated. There were also five U.S. women in the round of 16, and four in the semifinals. And all this occurred even in the absence of Serena Williams. Fed Cup should be interesting in 2018.

1. Flashing that trophy smile: Sloane Stephens began the year ranked number 957 in the world. She'd been out for eleven months, rehabbing from foot surgery, doing commentary for Tennis Channel, collecting shoes for those in need, and conducting a personal restaurant tour of the country. When she returned to the tour, she didn't waste too much time. Stephens made it to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati. She entered the U.S. Open ranked number 83 in the world; that alone was quite an accomplishment.

Despite her considerable talent, Stephens, in her earlier days on the tour, developed a reputation as somewhat of a slacker. But little by little, she grew into that talent, winning the Washington tournament in 2015, and then, in 2016, elevating her status by winning Charleston (she also won Auckland and Acapulco that year). For those who are historically inclined, that should have been a clue, since Charleston has always tended to be a star-maker tournament.

Now, Stephens is the holder of one of the four most beloved trophies in the sport. Like Garbine Muguruza, the 24-year-old Floridian possesses a fluidity that can make winning look easier than it is. In the final, she defeated close friend Madison Keys, whose formidable forehand got her to the last round, and will undoubtedly take her to more very big stages. It will be interesting to see how the unguarded--and sometimes goofy--Stephens takes to celebrity; she may be too unaffected to let it bother her. One can hope.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sloane throws a party in the USA

So I toss the ball up
They're playin' my song, the butterflies fly away
I'm hittin' my serve like "yeah"
I'm crushin' returns like "yeah"
I got my score up, they're playin' my song
I know I'm gonna be okay
Yeah-eh-eh-eh-eh
 It's a party in the USA!
Today's final began with all the promise that was heralded when the draw came down to two rising stars from the United States--Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. Both players made it to the final after undergoing serious injury rehab. Stephens was out for almost a year following foot surgery, and Keys had to have two wrist surgeries (and then injured her shoulder). 

Both players held easily to start the match, but Stephens grabbed the first break to go up 4-2. From the start, it was clear that Stephens understood that it wasn't wise to try to outhit Keys, but that she could flummox her by changing the ball pace and direction. She also did it without making any unforced errors. At 3-5, Stephens held a set point, but was unable to convert it. On her second set point on Keys' serve, Stephens was victorious when Keys hit a return long.

Stephens held for the first game of the second set, then broke Keys with a passing forehand. An immediate break from the player who won the first set is a psychological weapon of considerable power, and Stephens' aim was true as she held for 3-0, then broke again when Keys double-faulted in the next game. Stephens remained fluid and graceful, as though she played in these kinds of matches every day, when--in fact--it was her first major final appearance.

Stephens then went down 0-40 (the first break points she had provided Keys) on her next serve, but skillfully got herself out of trouble. Within moments, it was 5-0 and Stephens had a championship point. She wasn't able to convert it, and she also wasn't able to convert the next one, which Keys saved in the only dramatic rally of the match, up to that point.

Keys held a break point, but couldn't convert that. The two went after each other with some extremely wide angles, and Stephens wound up with a third championship point. This time, she was the recipient of a Keys ball that went into the net, and it was over, 6-3, 6-0. Then, after what may have been the longest hug in the history of net hugs, Stephens broke into a tearful grin and greeted an admiring crowd. 



Stephens began the year ranked barely in the top thousand, and she was ranked number 83 when she entered the U.S. Open. Keys was somewhat of a favorite to win, but in this match, she never really found an opportunity to display her admirable skills. Maybe her leg bothered her, maybe the occasion got to her, maybe she was just flat. Stephens easy accuracy and strategic acumen definitely bothered Keys. Stephens hit ten winners and made only six unforced errors.

It was a very emotional ceremony, party because the two women are such close friends; Stepehens even said that she wished it could have been a draw. It's probably just a matter of time, though, before Keys catches up with her friend.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Madison and Sloane--together again as you always wanted to see them



Madison and Sloane. It sounds very New Yorkish--like the name of an advertising agency. And really, what better advertising for U.S. tennis than the upcoming final between two young players who are not only coming into their own, but are doing so after sustaining serious injuries?

Madison Keys, having been put through the wringer of multiple late-night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium, was nevertheless able to find her mojo--in a big way--in the semifinals. Keys' destruction of CoCo Vandeweghe was stunning, and I certainly didn't expect it. I thought she would probably win, but not with a 6-1, 6-2 scoreline. Vandeweghe, clearly devastated by the loss, and the nature of the loss, said afterwards that  "I didn't really have much to do with anything out there." That was quite a shock to the usually dominating Vandeweghe.

The other semifinal was just odd, but in a different way. Every once in a while, we get a truly strange scoreline, and Sloane Stephens left her semifinal against Venus Williams with one of those: 6-1, 0-6. 7-5. Stephens, who has looked great ever since she returned to the tour after a long injury layoff, has suddenly burst out of whatever restriction had held her in before, has looked her potential in the eye, and has walked right into it.

Keys had to deal with two wrist surgeries and a shoulder injury; Stephens was out for a year with foot surgery and rehab. More and more, we see that extended breaks benefit players for both physical and psychological reasons. Their bodies get some needed rest, they get to relax and do things they like to do, and they realize how much they want to play tennis.

All four semifinalists were from the United States. Now the U.S. is guaranteed a U.S. Open singles champion, and the "will they ever?" questions have already floated into the clouds over Arthur Ashe Stadium. They have.

Here are the competitors' paths to the final:

MADISON KEYS (15)
round 1--def. Elise Mertens
round 2--def. Tatjana Maria
round 3--def. Elena Vesnina (17)
round of 16--def. Elina Svitolina (4)
quarterfinals--def. Kaia Kanepi (Q)
semifinals--def. CoCo Vandeweghe (20)

SLOANE STEPHENS
round 1--def. Roberta Vinci
round 2--def. Dominika Cibulkova (11)
round 3--def. Ashleigh Barty
round of 16--def. Julia Goerges (30)
quarterfinals--def. Anastasija Sevastova (16)
semifinals--def. Venus Williams (9)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Who is "that Yankee Doodle girl"?


  
Yankee Doodle came to Flushing
Just to win the trophy
I am that Yankee Doodle girl

What an extraordinary U.S. Open this is. First, I'll point out that five of the eight quarterfinalists are engaged in rather amazing comebacks:

Madison Keys was out for the first part of the season because of a wrist injury which required two surgical procedures. Upon her return in the spring, she injured her shoulder. It's taken her a while to return to form, but her marathon late-night matches in New York have revealed to is what a tough customer she has become.

Kaia Kanepi was out for two years with various injuries, including problems with both of her feet. During that period, she decided it was better for her to just stay off of the tour, but she changed her mind when she realized she really missed tennis. A return to a major quarterfinal is a remarkable achievement for the Estonian.

Sloane Stephens was out for about a year because of a foot injury. She returned this summer and reached the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati.

Anastasija Sevastova came back from retirement in 2015, but I'm going to sneak her into the "comeback" category  because she had to start her career all over again from the bottom and work her way up. The extremely talented Latvian spent most of her "first" career unnoticed, partly because she experienced so much injury and illness that it was hard for her to gain much momentum.

Sevastova retired from the tour in 2013, having suffered enough. But a good long rest was just the recuperation she needed. Last year, she reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and she repeated that feat again this year, taking out Maria Sharapova in the round of 16.

As impressive as these comebacks are, however, it would be hard to top Petra Kvitova, whose left hand (that hand) was  severely sliced in multiple places when she was attacked during a house invasion in December of 2016. No one was certain that the Barking Czech would be able to play again, but she wound up returning to the tour more than a month earlier than her doctors had predicted. She also won the title in Birmingham.

Kvitova, who has played breathtaking tennis in New York, lost her U.S. Open quarterfinal in an outstanding match against Venus Williams. And while she didn't make it to the semifinals, the Czech star looked more like herself than she has in a long time. And she still doesn't have all the feeling back in her left hand.

The other three quarterfinalists, of course, were world number 1 (for a few more days) and 2016 runner-up Karolina Pliskova, steadily rising star CoCo Vandeweghe and Venus Williams, who--in her "second career"--is an athletic wonder.

Half the quarterfinal draw was composed of women from the USA, and now, in a stunning plot twist, all four semifinalists are from the USA. So much for U.S. tennis being dead. However, it's worth noting that it's been 32 years since all four semifinalists in a major were from the USA; in 1985, all four Wimbledon semifinalists were from the U.S.

Venus Williams, who has won the U.S. Open twice (2000 and 2001) will play against Sloane Stephens, who defeated Sevastova in the quarterfinals. CoCo Vandeweghe, who took out Pliskova in the quarterfinals, will play Keys, who defeated Kanepi.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

USA dominates U.S. Open quarterfinals



Of the eight women left in the U.S. Open singles draw, for are from the United States. Venus Williams, still riding her wave of success after playing in the Wimbledon final, is there, as are CoCo Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, the comeback wonder.

I didn't expect Keys to make it to the quarterfinals, partly because of the grueling night schedule she's been forced to keep in Flushing Meadows, but also because I expected Elina Svitolina to get the best of her. But Keys--playing in yet another night match and down a break in the third set of her round of 16 match, overcame the Ukrainian star 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. Keys and her mighty forehand are due some rest!

CoCo Vandeweghe has never before gotten past the second round in New York, so this is a big occasion for her. As for Stephens, I have to keep reminding myself that she was out for about a year with an injury. She returned to the tour in such a seamless fashion, it's easy to forget she was ever away. Her comeback performance has been superb, and now here she is in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

But there are other stories. Anastasija Sevastova, who retired from tennis because of chronic injuries, then came back like a whirlwind and made it to the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year, is right back there this year. Sevastova, whose game, in my opinion, is one of the most pleasurable to watch on the entire tour, took out Maria Sharapova in the round of 16. The match went to three sets, which was pretty much the end of the line for the not yet match-toughened Sharapova. Sevastova (who is sort of a Radwanska without the mirrors) put on a magnificent show for the crowd.

Then there's Kaia Kanepi, who used to lurk around majors and upset big players, while reaching major quarterfinals. Unfortunately, she also suffered with shakiness in the consistency department. Kanepi, once ranked as high as 15 in the world, was off of the tour for a couple of years because of injury and illness issues. She's currently ranked number 418, and her quarterfinal appearance is probably something no one saw coming.

 

However, as far as surprises go, you really can't beat this one: Petra Kvitova has reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. She's done it before, yes. But she generally struggles in New York because the humid atmosphere triggers her asthma. Oh, and her left hand was almost destroyed when she was attacked last December.

The Barking Czech didn't know if she'd ever play again, yet she wound up returning to the tour a couple of months before anyone expected her to. That in itself was amazing, but then she went one better and won Birmingham. And now she's in the final eight in Flushing Meadows. To get there, she defeated Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, the main favorite to win the U.S. Open.

Oh, and did I mention that Kvitova still doesn't have all the feeling back in her left hand?

So far, Kvitova has shown us Scary Petra in every round. If the weather stays cool next week, she could get even scarier. Fingers crossed.

And speaking of Czechs, the last of the eight is world number 1 Karolina Pliskova, who has looked uncomfortable since the tournament began--until today, that is. Today, she put Jennifer Brady out of her misery in just 46 minutes. The Long Tall Cool One is back.

Thee was a big upset today in doubles. Top seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina were defeated 6-4, 6-4 by 14th seeds Andrja Klepac and veteran trickster Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th seeds are still in the draw, as the 5th, 7th and 9th seeds, and one unseeded team.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Karolina Pliskova (1) vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (20)
Madison Keys (15) vs. Kaia Kanepi (Q)
Venus Williams (9) vs. Petra Kvitova (13)
Sloane Stephens vs. Anastasija Sevastova (16)

Williams is the only remaining player who has won the U.S. Open. She won it in 2000 and 2001. Pliskova was the runner-up in 2016.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

All about the handshake

Reach out and touch a hand
Make a friend if you can
from Touch a Hand, Make a Friend
Hampton, Banks & Jackson


Not long ago, I had a brief professional encounter with a woman I'd never before met. When it was over, I put my hand out to shake hers, and there was just the slightest blip of hesitation before contact was made. I think that's because women are not acculturated to shake hands. After all, we've been omitted from most of the deal-making that shapes the world; our job is to hug and make others feel good, not to seal an agreement.

Maybe that's one of the reasons that the handshake is such an odd, unreliable gesture on the WTA tour. Of course, some of the post-match handshaking reflects "real life": There are people (these are men, in my experience) who grip your hand too tightly, and people whose handshakes are so limp, you don't know why you even made the effort.

Hand-shaking also involves looking the other person in the eye, and this is a difficult task for some people, if they are self-conscious or lack social skills. 

The whole handshake controversy was put into the atmosphere again today when Alona Ostapenko barely looked at opponent Dasha Kasatkina and barely touched her hand after their match. 

Also tonight, CoCo Vandeweghe left her opponent, Aga Radwanska, standing at the net while she celebrated her win, then she returned to the net and shook Radwanska's hand. 

Through the years, there have been players who refused to shake the umpire's hand, and players who refused to shake, or barely shook, their opponents' hands. The most famous of these incidents, I suppose, took place several years ago in Charleston, when Patty Schnyder refused to shake Conchita Martinez's hand. But there was more to it than that. Schnyder walked up to the net as if she were going to shake hands, but instead, said something to Martinez. And, to be fair, Martinez's behavior during the match was maddening; Schnyder was furious with her.

Radwanska herself was criticized when she lost her 2013 Wimbledon semifinal (she had reached the final the year before) and barely shook her opponent's hand. It seemed obvious to me that the stoic Polish star didn't want to burst into tears in public and was in a big hurry to get off the court while holding in her emotions. 

Marion Bartoli refused to shake Virginie Razzano's hand in Eastbourne in 2009 when Razzano accused her of gameswomanship. And speaking of Frenchwomen, Alize Cornet got much more than the silent treatment from Tatjana Maria after their 2016 French Open match. Maria walked over to Cornet, shook her finger at her, and proceeded to lecture her, also about gameswomanship. She later threatened legal action against tournament officials, though nothing ever came of that.

The strangest case in the WTA handshake collection didn't even occur on a tennis court. In 2015, when Canada drew Slovakia in a Fed Cup tie, Genie Bouchard refused to shake Kristina Kucova's hand at the draw ceremony. The Canadian called the tradition "lame," then went on, the next year, to refuse to shake Aleksandra Dulgheru's hand when Canada drew Romania in a Fed Cup tie.

What wasn't lame was how Dulgheru responded. She defeated Bouchard 6-4, 6-4 on the first day of the tie, then celebrated with her team by "refusing" to shake hands with them in a routine they had rehearsed.

I've attended matches at which the handshake felt to me like an insult to reality. And I recall a final in Charleston when I wouldn't have really blamed the loser for barely shaking the hand of either her opponent or the umpire, though she shook both hands heartily.

Yes, opponents should shake hands; it's a proper gesture. But so much attention has been paid to the non-handshakes in women's tennis (and some in men's tennis) that what is often totally ignored is the behavior, in some cases, that drove the player to not want to shake hands. When an opponent's or umpire's behavior creates that much disturbance, it isn't fair to focus only on the social breach of the non-handshaker.

The no smile/no eye contact handshake is actually fairly common on the WTA tour. It may seem more obvious when Ostapenko does it because Ostapenko is a piece of living theatre, with facial expressions, gestures and body language that are hard to ignore. Fortunately, Ostapenko Theatre is usually very good-humored.

And, should the occasion call for it, Professor Strycova is always available to provide instruction. Just ask Elina Svitolina.

Isn't she back in....Denmark?


This week, I was gratified and thrilled to see Maria Sharapova back on her game. Well, games--both of them--her tennis game and her geography game. The perennially dissatisfied Caroline Wozniacki, unhappy with losing her second round U.S. Open match, took a swipe at Sharapova on her way out, and it was all worth it for this:


Sharapova's remarks are, of course, reminiscent of a similar press moment that she had regarding Aga Radwanska at the 2012 Australian Open. When told that the Polish star--who had just lost her quarterfinal match to Victoria Azarenka--described the Russian's on-court vocalizations as "pretty annoying and just too loud," Sharapova immediately responded "Isn't she back in Poland already?"

Welcome back, Pova.

Sharapova, whose return to the tour has been riddled with injuries, is wearing an arm sleeve on her right arm to keep it warm, and there's a bandage on her left arm. It appears, however, that she is in no pain, which is a wonderful thing. The 2006 champion is into the round of 16, having defeated 2nd seed Simona Halep (in an outstanding match), Timea Babos and Sofia Kenin. Next, she will face Anastaija Sevastova, whose return to the tour has been dramatically successful, but relatively ignored by the media.

Ekaterina Makarova, who has had a great summer, couldn't survive Carla Suarez-Navarro, and the formidable Aleks Krunic fell to the even more (lately) formidable Julia Goerges. Aga Radwanska, of all people, took CoCo Vandeweghe to the edge in three very well-played sets, but the 20th seed prevailed. And top seed Karolina Pliskova had to fight off a very in-form Zhang Shuai, who held a match point against the Long Tall One. Pliskova is looking rather "Czech" at this point, and seems quite vulnerable.

Daria Kasatkina reached her first major round of 16 with a win over French Open champion Alona Ostapenko, who has been dealing with an illness which began as a sore throat several days ago. Kasatkina also beat Ostapenko in this year's Charleston final. The Russian's next challenge comes in the form of a blast from the past, Kaia Kanepi, who defeated rising star Naomi Osaka in the third round.

On the other hand, Petra Kvitova looks like she's at Wimbledon. But Scary Petra, as much as she has suddenly adapted to Flushing Meadows, next faces an immense threat in the form of Garbine Muguruza. If Kvitova continues to play at the level she's shown in the first week, this could be one hell of a match. But if her level drops, she could get swept off the court by the force that is Mugu.

Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Halep (even though she's out of the tournament) are still in the running for the world number 1 ranking. Pliskova's next opponent is the USA's Jennifer Brady, who appears to have a fondness for big stage tennis. Next up for Svitolina is the winner of tonight's very late match to be played between Elena Vesnina and Madison Keys. If Keys wins, there will be five players from the USA in the round of 16, for she will join Jennifer Brady, CoCo Vandeweghe, Venus Williams, and Sloane Stephens.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Same as it ever was



Letting the days go by (same as it ever was)
Letting the days go by (same as it ever was)
Once in a lifetime
Letting the days go by
Letting the days go by
From Once in a Lifetime
Byrne, Eno, Frantz, Harrison, & Weymouth

It's been seventeen months since Maria Sharapova announced that ITF had given her a two-year ban. It's been at least eighteen months since the ITF tried to give her a four-year ban. It's been seventeen months since WADA president Craig Reedie made extremely prejudicial remarks about the Sharapova case--remarks that were never investigated. It's been at least eighteen months since all other athletes who took Meldonium were let off the hook. And it's been ten months since the Court for Arbitration of Sport reduced Sharapova's suspension, citing "no significant fault or negligence."

And, to this day, no legitimate scientific evidence has surfaced to prove that Meldonium is a performance-enhancing drug. 

In most of the free world (the U.S. is questionable, for sure), evidence is required to convict someone of a crime. But in the tennis world, hatred of a person one has never met seems to be sufficient. The attributes that have been projected onto Sharapova would make a giant movie screen explode. 

But, to borrow from Adrienne Rich, we now have "the thing itself and not the myth," and the thing itself is alive and well, thank you very much. Just ask 2nd seed Simona Halep, who lost to Sharapova for the seventh time last night on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open. It was a great match, very well played by both competitors. It could have been a final. Halep has nothing to be ashamed of, though it has to hurt to leave Flushing Meadows so soon. I called Sharapova the wild card from hell, and last night, she was just that. 

Dressed in crystals and lace (love the crystals, hate the lace), the five-time major champion and holder of a Career Slam appeared to have overcome her forearm disability. She looked, in fact, like the 2006 Sharapova who won the event. Next for Sharapova is Timea Babos, who isn't usually an easy opponent. It will be interesting to see how far the Russian star goes during her stay in Flushing Meadows. But regardless--she's back.

The other big news regarding the draw is that defending champion Angie Kerber is also out in the first round, the victim of big-hitting Naomi Osaka. It wasn't a surprise. Kerber hasn't been herself in ages (except for that extraordinary match against Ekaterina Makarova in Cincinnati, which the German lost). 

And though not quite as big, there was also bad news yesterday for 7th seed Jo Konta, a contender for the title, who was shown a first round exit by Aleksandra Krunic, the relentless Serb who knocked Alona Ostapenko out of Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago.

The U.S. Open takes place during hurricane season, so there's frequently an issue of rain, and the second day was almost completely rained out. Top seed Karolina Pliskova made it to the second round, as did French Open champion Ostapenko, and Madison Keys.

Now it's all about catch-up because of the rain. Yet to play their first round matches are Aga Radwanska, CoCo Vandeweghe, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elina Svitolina, and Dasha Gavrilova.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The pattern continues, and I like it



We're approaching the last major of the season, and--once again--it's hard to predict who will win it. I like this mystery scenario. For one thing, I can relax--my top two favorite players, Petra Kvitova and Aga Radwanska, aren't going to win the U.S. Open. And as much as I'd love for Maria Sharapova to win it, that's not likely to happen, either.

I am anxious about a couple of my other top favorites, though. Neither Angie Kerber nor Simona Halep looks like a clear pick to win. Kerber, though she's playing better (her Cincinnati match against Ekaterina Makarova featured stunning tennis from the German star, even though she lost), still isn't in champion mode. And Halep, who has been playing quite well, had a meltdown in the Cincinnati final. Kerber is, of course, the defending champion, which probably doesn't help her.

But consider who could win.

Yes, Halep--if she arrives in the right state of mind remains in it for two weeks. But did the Cincinnati loss to Garbine Muguruza do too much damage? Of course, the Romanian's first task will be to the shake off Wild Card from Hell Sharapova, who has a 6-0 record against her.

Obstacles also await in the form of Jo Konta (if she can get past pesky Serb Aleks Krunic, in the first round), suddenly on-fire Julia Goerges, comeback wonder Sloane Stephens, and ever-dangerous Dominika Cibulkova, who just barely missed winning New Haven. There are some potentially difficult tasks ahead for the tense Romanian, who is seeded number 2 in the draw. Also, Konta is a contender in her own right.



And speaking of Muguruza--she now has a chance to add a third major to her short (but I expect to get longer) list of huge victories. The Cincinnati champion, seeded 3rd, has an interesting draw in that her quarter is filled with players who don't win majors, but who delight in preventing others from winning them. Ekaterina Makarova (who probably could win one if she really put her mind to it), Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Alize Cornet, Caroline Garcia, and the hard-hitting Camila Giorgi are all there, waiting to make Mugu's life miserable.

And then there are the more serious contenders in the Spaniard's quarter: Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams. Muguruza can overcome all of them, provided she stays in her recent mode.

World number 1 and top seed Karolina Pliskova, 2016's runner-up, is definitely a contender, though some of her 2016 shine has faded. But the Tall Cool One may like it like that. She has a pretty good draw, but it isn't without its dangers.

One of those dangers is 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who--on a given day--can still beat anybody, and there have been more "given days" lately. Kiki Mladenovic is in Pliskova's quarter, and--a few months ago--I would have cried "Danger!" but the Frenchwoman has been in a decline lately ("Instant karma's gonna get you..."). Also dwelling in the Czech's quarter is CoCo Vandeweghe, who has the ability to win the U.S. Open--or go out in the first round. And finally, I never underestimate Lucie Safarova.

Another strong contender is 4th seed Elina Svitolina. The Ukrainian star has risen steadily, and she recently won the Rogers Cup. Svitolina now sports a fine serve to go with that wicked movement, and could very well win her first major in Flushing Meadows. But who might be in her way? That would be New Haven champion Daria Gavrilova, Madison Keys, Alona Ostapenko (yes, she's come down from her Parisian cloud, but she could strike again at any moment), and former world number 1 Kerber. I should also add Shelby Rogers, who has a real flare for bringing down the mighty in majors.

An argument can be made that Keys will come out of that quarter and not Svitolina, and it's a valid argument. Not quite as strong an argument can be made for Kerber, but it, too, is valid. One never knows.

Friday, August 25, 2017

She's playing whom?!

The 2017 U.S. Open first round draw is maybe the most jaw-dropping major first round I've ever seen. There are so many upset possibilities, and--conversely--so many ways that truly good players will be forced to leave the tournament.

Here's a look at the first round matches that have my attention:

Monica Niculescu vs. Kiki Mladenovic
Earlier in the season, I would have called this "interesting," but would have considered a win for Mladenovic. But the Frenchwoman has been so off lately that an opening round against trickster Niculescu could mean big trouble for her.

Aga Radwanska vs. Petra Martic
Normally, I would overlook this one, but after Martic's Wimbledon quarterfinal run, I'd say that anything is possible, especially when we consider Radwanska's shaky season.

Alison Riske vs. CoCo Vandeweghe
On paper, this belongs to Vandeweghe, and Vandeweghe should go pretty far in the draw, but--she can be off, a first round is nerve-wracking for any player, and Riske tends to like these big events.

Elina Svitolina vs. Katerina Siniakova
Svitolina is another player who should go far--very far--in the U.S. Open, but she could wish for an easier first round.

Naomi Osaka vs. Angelique Kerber
I like the defending champion for this, but again--she could wish for something a big easier for an opening round.

Monica Puig vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
This has the possibility of lasting a long time. It also has the possibility of being over fast. I'm going to go with the first possibility, though. Both players like to fight, and it could be very competitive.

Heather Watson vs. Alize Cornet
One never knows which Heather is going to show up. If it's the "I almost knocked Serena out of the U.S. Open" version, this could be good, given that the Frenchwoman will fight to the end.

Jo Konta vs. Aleksandra Krunic
If Krunic plays in Flushing Meadows the way she played in Cincinnati, Konta will have her hands full. At the Western & Southern Open, the big-hitting Serb knocked out two French Open champions in a row, and engaged in a real knockdown dragout against Alona Ostapenko.

Ana Konjuh vs. Ash Barty
This could also be a close match.

Sloane Stephens vs. Roberta Vinci
Again, on paper, this is a Stephens win. But Vinci is tricky, and she has some very fine U.S. Open memories. Depending on the feel of the court, Stephens' state of mind, and who knows what else--the Italian might be troublesome.

Maria Sharapova vs. Simona Halep
The tennis gods are having some fun here, for sure. This is not so much a "popcorn match" as it is a "pour me a double" match. Wild card Sharapova is rusty and has been riddled with injury for some time. A week ago, I would have sent her out, maybe even in straight sets. But after Halep's huge collapse in the Cincinnati final, there's no knowing whether her head (I'm not worried about the rest of her) can withstand a first-round encounter with the likes of Maria. I'm just hoping the match is played when I can watch it (I have bad luck with this sort of thing). Or maybe I should hope it's played when I can't watch it, since I hate the thought of either of them losing).  

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Notes on Muguology

Muguruza was always going to happen.

The foot injury slowed down the Spaniard's path to stardom, and she did herself no favors with her tendency to become very negative and then "go off" in the middle of matches.




Photo by Leslie Billman
But even with all the muguing around on court, there was still the talent, and the poise, and that easy-to-watch fluidity that comes along once in a great while. When she won the French Open, it was hardly a surprise.

Nor was it a surprise that the obviously emotional Spaniard retreated somewhat after winning a major. We saw this reaction after Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon the first time. Once you win a major, you're a celebrity and once you're a celebrity, your life changes, and adjustments must be made. This is especially true in an age when communication is widespread and rapid, and marketing is everything.

When Muguruza won Wimbledon, she created a startling WTA statistic: 50% of her titles were majors. And of the other 50%--two tournaments--only one was a premier event. She had become the ultimate "big stage" player. Would this odd pattern continue? The answer appears to be "no." Since winning in London, the Spanish star has looked more consistent and relaxed, and she has learned to embrace her stardom with a bit more ease. Also, she just won another tournament--a big one.

Muguruza is an unusual combination of poise and emotional fragility. Right now, the balance is tipped way over to the poise side, but it would be unrealistic to believe that it won't sometimes tip over to the other side. This is also perfectly fine. Muguruza made it clear this week that she's glad to own all of her emotions, and that doing so feels like the natural thing to do. It is, of course, and it was gratifying to hear her say this.

This week marked a turning point for Muguruza: She won her first tournament in the USA. Always before, she said, she entered the U.S. hard court season ready to play, but things just didn't go well for her. Now, she's the Cincinnati champion. Asked how long it took her to become comfortable during today's final, she immediately replied, "from the first moment." Muguruza had already saved three match points in two consecutive matches--perhaps the hard part was over for her.

A little over a year ago, I said that the Age of Mugu wasn't quite upon us (obviously, I thought--even then--that there would be such an era). But it appears to have arrived. This doesn't mean that she'll dominate--there are too many other really good players waiting for their moment, with Karolina Pliskova first in line. And one, Alona Ostapenko, has already sneaked in. But the Spaniard has already won two majors on two very different surfaces, and she possesses that je ne sais quoi that makes me look forward to what I think will be a notable career.

The Elegant Assassin leaves her mark on Simona Halep--and Cincinnati

Photo by Leslie Billman
The first set of the Western & Southern Open championship match seemed to last about as long as the opening ceremony, which featured the performing of three national anthems. Simona Halep failed to win on any of her five second serves, and she won with 58% of her first serves. In contrast, Garbine Muguruza served up a storm and broke Halep twice. The Romanian had no break opportunities.

Photo by Leslie Billman
   
I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking that the second set might represent a "clean slate" for Halep, but Muguruza remained steady and let Halep implode. In just under an hour, 4th seed Muguruza defeated 2nd seed Halep 6-1, 6-0. The Wimbledon champion hit five winners and made three unforced errors.

Photo by Leslie Billman

I expected Muguruza to win this tournament, but I didn't expect this final. As I wrote yesterday, it may be better for Halep not to enter the U.S. Open as the world number 1, but, regardless, this has to be a terrible loss for her.

After the final, Halep said that she didn't do what her coach told her to do--that she just wasn't confident enough to execute his suggested plan. She was filled with praise for Muguruza's performance, but said that she felt shame over the scoreline, even though she knows that these kinds of losses are part of the game.

"I don’t want to go down too much and I don’t want to analyze too much," Halep said. "Maybe I feel the pressure and don’t realize it, maybe i just played bad."

Asked whether she thought she could develop any kind of control over whether she has confidence in a given match, the Romanian star smiled and said "I am like this in real life--up and down, every day."

The world number 2 said she feels no physical fatigue, but she needs some mental rest. "I leave with positives," she said.

Had Halep won, she would have taken over the number 1 ranking.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tomorrow's Cincinnati final: featuring Halep, Muguruza and Pressure

"Pressure is a pain," Garbine Muguruza said when asked to talk about how she's handling it these days. She went on to say that it's also a good thing because it involves hope. Both finalists at the 2017 Western & Southern Open know something about both hope and pressure, and both factors will play a role in tomorrow's final.

After she won the French Open last year, Muguruza obviously had to struggle with the pressure of having won a major, and she's been quite open about it. But after this year's Wimbledon win, the poised Spaniard settled into her celebrity, and made a commitment not to be a victim of it. This week in Cincinnati, Muguruza's comfort level has been obvious. She's been confident and fluid, and her star power has been evident at all times.

Halep, on the other hand--despite what she might say--rarely appears to be comfortable on a consistent basis. A perfectionist who is hard on herself and always striving to meet the expectations of her native Romania, the world number 2 is known to stray far too close to the Cliffs of Simona, as The Backspinner would say. She made a brief venture there yesterday, in her quarterfinal match against Jo Konta, but pulled herself back before something really perilous occurred.

Now that Karolina Pliskova is out of the tournament, Halep can succeed her as number 1 in the world--if she wins the final tomrrow. Pressure? Halep wants the ranking, we know that. I have to wonder, though: Would it be easier for her to enter the U.S. Open without being nunber 1 in the world?

None of us knows the internal pressure felt by Muguruza, but there are a couple of external factors (other than the obvious one of wanting to win the tournament) that come to mind: As the new Wimbledon champion and the holder of two major titles, Muguruza is "expected" to win. Also, she has never won a tournament in the U.S.; indeed, this is the first time she has reached a final in this country.

Both Muguruza and Halep had byes in the first round. To get to the final, 4th seed Muguruza defeated Beatriz Haddad Maia, 16th seed Madison Keys, 8th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova (in one of the best match of the tournament), and top seed Pliskova. 2nd seed Halep defeated Taylor Townsend, 15th seed Anastasija Sevastova, 7th seed Jo Konta, and wild card Sloane Stephens.

No matter who wins tomorrow's match, both women are clear contenders to take the U.S. Open title, as is Karolina Pliskova. And the fans in Cincinnati can expect a high quality final.