Monday, March 20, 2017

Iko, Iko--Elena, Queen of the Desert, redeems Super Sunday

I have always wanted to attend Super Sunday, the alternative St. Joseph's Day celebration in which the Mardi Gras Indians return to the streets of New Orleans to parade after Mardi Gras. There are a couple of smaller parades, but the main one takes place in central city. I brought this idea up--back when I thought the Indian Wells final was on Saturday--to a couple of my friends, and we decided to go.

When I learned that the final was on Sunday, St. Joseph's Day, I decided that--following the festival and the parade--I would "tune in" on my phone and catch what I could of the match. Little did I know, at the time, that the final would be a three-hour thriller contested between two players I like a great deal.

And little did I know what a disorganized mess the main Super Sunday "event" would be. We arrived at 11:00 so that we could enjoy the pre-parade festival. Only the "festival" consisted of nothing more than blocks of trucks selling food that I cannot (and do not want to) eat. That was it. No art, no music, no nothing--but lots of heart attack food and plenty of alcohol. It was hot, and there were a lot of people there. I don't do well in crowds, but I was willing to do almost anything to see the Indians.

Finally, there was some entertainment--a hip hop singer took the stage. But no Indians. I sat on the basketball bleachers of the public park/playground, with my earphones in and my phone set to the WatchESPN app. I got pretty involved in the first set, and when it was over, I was sweating, but there were still no Indians.

portion of Mardi Gras Indian mural in central city
At 3:00, there were no Indians. I was eating my phone data because the only available WiFi wasn't strong enough to handle video. I didn't care--I was totally wrapped up in watching Elena Vesnina come roaring back after being down a set and a break. It was a great match, which I should have been watching on a big screen in the comfort of my living room, but there I was, either on the ground or in the bleachers, sweating and uncomfortable (and hungry), trying to figure out when my phone battery was going to die.

A very good band appeared on the small stage, but there was no parade. At the beginning of the third set, I turned my phone off. I figured it was better to miss the first half of the final set than to miss the second half. In the meantime, there were still no Mardi Gras Indians. At 3-2, I couldn't stand it any longer--I turned my phone back on. I saw Kuznetsova go up a break yet again, and I saw Vesnina come back again. I was in significant physical discomfort, but I had Sveta and Elena and a pitiful bit of battery left.

At 4:00, there were no Indians. The crowd was huge, and just moving a few feet was difficult. It was a collection of all of my least favorite things--the sun, a big crowd and the sickening smell of food I can't stand. And then--to top off the entire cavalcade of errors--at match point, my video failed.

At 5:00, there were no Mardi Gras Indians. We drove back across the lake. I knew that Elena had won, and--despite everything--I was so thrilled for her. I would have been happy either way, but seeing Elena win a huge title made me especially happy.

The Mardi Gras Indians are known for being late, but yesterday, they gave "late" a whole new meaning. I suspect that had we gone to one of the smaller gatherings, we would have seen Indians. But we didn't. I'm sure there were tourists in attendance who were beyond unhappy that there was no real festival, and that the 1:00 start time was beyond a joke. For all I know, the Mardi Gras Indians never showed up, though I did spot one or two of them on the street as we were leaving.

I was so exhausted when I got home (did I mention that I'd hardly slept the night before?), but I relaxed, had some dinner, and watched a replay of the second and third sets. This time, I got to see Elena win.

I've seen a lot of very thrilling WTA matches over the years, but I've never seen one before under such ridiculous circumstances. Thank goodness for mobile devices. Elena and Sveta saved my afternoon. Unlike the Mardi Gras Indians, they showed up on time and put on a magnificent show.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

It's only a mirage

When I was a child, a popular pop culture image was the thin, parched, near-dead man crawling across the desert, desperately hoping to reach what he believes to be a pool of water--only to learn that it is a mirage. This desert image is, in fact, what is known as an "inferior" mirage because the mirage (blue water) appears under the actual entity (blue sky), due to the bending of light rays.

Nadine Gordimer once said "A desert is a place without expectation," but she probably had never attended the BNP Paribas Open. For there was plenty of expectation--and hope in the desert this year. World number 1 Serena Williams withdrew from the event, 2016's Sunshine Double defending champion, Victoria Azarenka, is not on the tour right now, and Maria Sharapova is still out. The path in the sand looked steadier for world number 2 Angelique Kerber, rising star Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, and former champion Caroline Wozniacki.

It may look like refreshing blue water, but it's really the blue in the Russian flag, and the blue blood of tour veterans. On Sunday, 30-year-old Russian Elena Vesnina will contest for the title against 31-year-old Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. Pour some vodka and party like it's 2004!

This is Vesnina's first premier mandatory final. The ESPN commentators made a big deal about Vesnina's changes in fortune between last year's tournament (she lost in the first round of qualifying) and this year's, yet never bothered to mention that Vesnina was off of the tour for a long time because of injury. Her comeback moment occurred in Charleston last year, when she reached the final for the second time in her career. She then went on to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon.

In Indian Well, Vesnina--one of those players with a great serve who can't always find it (though she found it in the desert)--had to go through an especially difficult draw. She defeated Shelby Rogers, Timea Babos, Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams, and Kiki Mladenovic. Quite a feat.

Kuznetsova, who is a two-time major champion (U.S. Open and French Open) is one of the great talents on the tour, but her athleticism and stunning shot variety have often exceeded her ability to remain mentally steady. In Indian Wells, she has looked wonderful, taking out Johanna Larsson, Roberta Vinci, Caroline Garcia, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Karolina Pliskova. Also quite impressive.

So here we are again, back to the 30-and-over group, and Russians at that. I like it.

There are other players worth mentioning. Kiki Mladenovic, though she appeared mentally tired in the semifinals (until the last part, when she really woke up) is getting closer and closer to stepping into the wide potential we've seen for so long. Wild card Kayla Day made it to the third round, and took out the formidable Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on the way. Kristyna Pliskova's 2nd round dismantling of Daria Kasatkina is worth noting, as is Caroline Garcia's third round upset of Johanna Konta.

In doubles, the third round featured the tennis artist formerly known as Santina battling against itself, with the Hingis half emerging victorious. In that match, Martina Hingis Chan Yung-Jan defeated Sania Mirza and Barbora Strycova. Chan and Hingis also knocked off the top seeds, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, and are in the final. Their opponents will be Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova, who defeated the 2nd seeds, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

It really IS a process

I'm a psychotherapist who goes out of my way to keep from saying "It's a process" to my clients. Because who wants to hear that? But really, it is. It's a process in tennis, too, which fans sometimes forget. But these past two weeks, we've seen two revelations of that truth.

There was never much doubt about Karolina Pliskova's innate talent. Tall, with a deadly serve and a calm demeanor, Pliskova appeared destined, from the start, to make a name for herself on the WTA tour. But at just the moments when the most was expected of her--during the majors--the Czech player disappointed. Getting no farther than the third round in any major while simultaneously winning some tournaments and performing consistently on the tour put Pliskova in an awkward position.

She just wasn't ready. Then, last year in Cincinnati, something clicked. Pliskova beat world number 2 Angie Kerber in the final, earning her first premier title, and also denying Kerber the number 1 ranking. Kerber corrected that slip by defeating Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. But, even with this loss, the Czech had finally "arrived." To reach the final, Pliskova defeated both Williams sisters, which put quite a flourish on her run.

Pliskova opened her 2017 season with a big message by winning the Brisbane title. She lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (a victim of the on-fire Mirjana Lucic-Baroni), in which many observes had her listed as the favorite. Pliskova put on another splendid Fed Cup show, then went on to win Doha, in which she defeated Dominika Cibulkova for the first time in her career. Currently ranked number 3 in the world, the long, tall Czech (whose only New Year's resolution was to "bend my knees more") is headed toward greater stardom. It just took her a while.

Meanwhile, Elina Svitolina, whom many (and I have never been among them) refused to think of as a potential WTA star, has skillfully worked her way to a number 10 ranking. Svitolina, who is now on a 12-match win streak, won the Dubai event this weekend, beating Angie Kerber (for the third time), then defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final. The Ukrainian player also won the Taipei Open earlier this year.

The Dubai match point was memorable:

Svitolina, who can be considered a defensive player, has always shown some expert court movement and anticipation, but in the past year, she has sharpened her groundstrokes. Perhaps most important, she has changed something in her head, and that change has to be related to the period she spent with Justine Henin, who joined her team for a while as a coaching consultant. When this consultation was first announced, I remember thinking "clever move, Elina." Because who knows more about how to win than Henin, who spent the early part of her career choking away matches, and then spent the rest of her career delivering misery to her opponents.

Henin understood that power could be flummoxed by movement and stroke precision (Simona Halep understands this, too, but appears to lack belief in herself). All one has to do is observe Svitolina's body language to understand that some psychological switch has been turned on. The Ukrainian star is also a good doubles player (her ad hoc winning run with Daria Gavrilova was hilarious), and that never hurts.

Both Svitolina and Pliskova will be fun to watch this season, and we can look to both of them to improve their games. It's a process.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Anything can happen in Fed Cup

Just ask team Germany.

One doesn't expect a sporting weekend on the island of Maui--land of waterfalls and bamboo forests-- to turn into a windy, rainy, physically and emotionally precarious curse for a visiting European country. But it did.

Things got off to a dreadful start in the World Group USA vs. Germany tie when a singer rendered the now-banned version of the German national anthem--the one that was popular in the 30s. The USTA profusely apologized for the error, but both Captain Barbara Rittner and Andrea Petkovic let their anger be known, in no uncertain terms. Rittner said, "This  is a real scandal and is inexcusable," while Petkovic called it "the epitome of ignorance." German Fed Cup team member Julia Goerges said she cried from anger while the song was being sung.

It's next to impossible for reasonable people to understand how something like this could ever have occurred, but there was actually a worse tennis situation involving Germany in 2005. The official program of the German Open, which used to be a premier event played in Berlin, contained an entire page of nostalgia for the country's "Golden Age," when Jews were run out of Germany. Tournament officials said they had no idea how the page got into the program.

Notable has been the (public--she is reported to have apologized to Rittner) silence and absence of USTA chairwoman (yes, USTA--she's a woman) and president Katrina Adams, who generally inserts herself into every photo, interview and trophy presentation known to pro tennis humanity.

Then there was a lot of rain and rain delay and a lot of fierce wind, making it difficult for the players to get any momentum going. Alison Riske defeated Petkovic in the opening rubber, which was followed by a match featuring CoCo Vandeweghe and Goerges. Goerges took a nasty spill, which resulted in a knee sprain. The match had to be stopped because of rain, but the German player was unable to continue today.

With the USA up 2-0, Vandeweghe took to the court again to play Petkovic. Andrea Petkovic has had plenty of ups and downs in her career, but Fed Cup has always been her saving grace. No matter what else has been going on during a given season, Petko has performed brilliantly in Fed Cup ties. But put her on Maui with some really bad weather and a hit tune from back in the day in Germany, and things may not go so well.

She did win the first set, and one had to wonder whether she was so fueled by anger that she would finish Vandeweghe off in straight sets. In the second set, Petkovic was five points from victory, when Vandeweghe took a medical timeout for heat illness. After being packed in ice and rubbed with ice, the Australian Open semifinalist returned to the court and won ten straight games. And that was that for Germany.

There was an attempt to play a dead doubles rubber, but the German team retired during the first set.

Defending champion Czech Republic also advanced, and will play the USA in the semifinals. Garbine Muguruza of Spain defeated Barbora Strycova with the odd scoreline of 6-0, 3-6, 6-1, then Karolina Pliskova beat both Lara Arruabarrena and Muguruza in straight sets, and Strycova beat Arruabarrena. Spain won the dead doubles rubber. The Czech team received a "good luck" message from Petra Kvitova via a video shown on the stadium's Jumbotron.

Playing without Vika Azarenka, Belarus defeated Netherland (because anything can happen in Fed Cup). Fed Cup beast Kiki Bertens, who almost doesn't know how to lose, won her first rubber, but then lost to Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who had already beaten Michaella Krajicek. Aryna Sabakenka also beat Krajicek, and Belarus advanced to the semifinals. (Belarus also won the dead doubles rubber.)

Finally, Switzerland advanced with a 4-1 score (counting the dead doubles rubber) over France, last year's runner-up. Missing both Captain Amelie Mauresmo and Caroline Garcia, the French team had a lot of work to do in order to stay in the competition. Alize Cornet was there, and though Fed Cup should be a magnificent activity for someone with as much talent and fighting spirit as Cornet, it's anything but. She lost to Timea Bacsinszky in the opening rubber, and that was the last we saw of her.

Kiki Mladenovic defeated Belinda Bencic, but lost to Bacsinszky. Bencic then defeated Pauline Parmentier. Once again, there was a dead doubles rubber, which Switzerland won.

Here are the World Group II scores:

Russia def. Chinese Taipei 4-1
Belgium def. Romania 3-1
Ukraine def. Australia 3-1
Slovakia def. Italy 3-2

Romania didn't have Simona Halep, but it had some very good players--Monica Niculescu, Sorana Cirstea and Irina-Camelia Begu. But they couldn't get past Kirsten Flipkens, Yanina Wickmayer and Elise Mertens.

Ellina Svitolina and Lesia Tsurenko brought the win home for Ukraine.

The Slovakia-Italy tie was a bit of an oddity. The Italian team included two veterans, Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani, part of the Fed Cup "Fighting Four, but neither of them won a rubber.

World number 119 Rebecca Sramkova beat both of them. And in a sentimental turn, Daniela Hantuchova played on the team and defeated Errani 6-2, 6-0. Missing from the Slovakian team was world number 5 Dominika Cibulkova. Present was Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, but Schiavone made quick work of her. Oh, Schmiedy.

The World Group semifinals will take place in April. The USA, under its new captain, Kathy Rinaldi, will play defending champion Czech Republic, and Belarus will play Switzerland. It's easy to imagine a Czech Republic-Switzerland final, but this is Fed Cup. Anything can happen.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Early World Group Fed Cup ties could be close

Fed Competition begins this weekend, and of the three World Group contests, only one looks like a "lock" for one of the opponents. However, this is Fed Cup, and it's never a good idea to assume anything. But, beginning with the one that does look predictable:

Czech Republic vs. Spain
The defending champions, who don't care if they're home or away, or whether they have their "A" team or their "B" team (this is because the entire squad is an "A" team), will take their first step in defending their title this weekend on an indoor hard court in Ostrava. Obviously, this court is a piece of heaven for Petra Kvitova, but Petra won't be there.

No worries. Karolina Pliskova, Barbora Strycova, Katerina Siniakova, and Lucie Safarova will be there. Pliskova, Strycova and Safarova are Fed Cup veterans who have aptly handled some very big matches at very intense moments. And Siniakova has shown herself to be a talent who is likely to fit in well with the mighty Czech Republic team.

Spain has Garbine Muguruza, Lara Arruabarrena, Sara Sorribes Tormo, and veteran Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. Arruabarrena can be dangerous on a clay court, but perhaps not so much on the faster indoor court. Martinez Sanchez, in her day, was a force in both singles and doubles, and in Fed Cup, anything can happen. However--again--MJMS was usually able to shine on a clay court. Muguruza is good on any court, but we're never sure which Garbine is going to show up. Spain could give the Czechs a real fight, but the defending champions should be able to get through to the semifinals.

USA vs. Germany
The USA has a strong team under the leadership of new Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi. CoCo Vandeweghe, Alison Riske, Shelby Rogers, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands will represent their country in Maui, where play will take place on an outdoor hard court. Vandeweghe's Australian Open run puts her into the position of leading her team, and we can expect strong, aggressive play from her.

Germany is represented by an equally strong team: Laura Siegemund, Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges, and Carina Witthoeft. The slower the court, the better for Siegemund, Petko and Goerges. Siegemund has been in a relative slump, and Fed Cup may offer her the opportunity to climb out of it. Petkovic is a proven Fed Cup threat, and the anticipated contest between her and Vandeweghe has the potential to be very tasty.

Belarus vs. Netherlands
The first two words that come to mind are "Kiki Bertens." The Dutchwoman is an authentic Fed Cup beast, and even though the rubbers will be played on an indoor hard court in Minsk, there's still every reason to believe that Bertens will dominate.

Belarus will be represented by Aliakandra Sasnovich, Aryna Sabalenka, Olga Govortsova, and Vera Lapko. Sasnovich, at number 128, is the highest ranked singles player. Joining Bertens will be Cindy Burger, Arantxa Rus and Michaella Krajicek.

Switzerland vs. France
This is the most interesting of the four World Group ties because of the major changes that have been made in the French team. Captain Amelie Mauresmo, who has brilliantly managed her charges for the last few years--taking them to the final in 2016--has resigned because she is pregnant with her second child. Also gone is Mauresmo's obvious protege, Caroline Garcia. Garcia has decided to skip Fed Cup this year in order to focus on her singles career.

I wrote last year that Mauresmo was practically breathing fire into Garcia at Fed Cup ties, so intense was her support and encouragement of the sometimes-fragile world number 25. It worked. Garcia's tennis persona has been finely drawn and amplified by Mauresmo's Fed Cup influence.

And then there's the matter of Mladenovic and Garcia, the world's second-ranked doubles team, and French Open champions. The bad news is that Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia could be counted on to win almost every Fed Cup doubles match they played (ask Pliskova and Strycova about he "almost" part). The good news is that Mladenovic and Anybody is probably still a very reliable team.

Alize Cornet, a talented and highly competitive player, should be a great asset for France, but the reality is that her Fed Cup record (3-13) is terrible. Cornet just cannot handle the pressure of the Fed Cup atmosphere. But maybe this time, she'll transcend the pattern. There are only three players listed for the French team--Mladenovic, Cornet and Pauline Parmentier. They will be coached by a former French Open champion (and also a good friend of Amelie Mauresmo), Yannick Noah.

In World Group II news--Ms. Halep if you're Nasty:

Ilie Nastasi, of all people, will coach the Romanian team in its challenge against Belgium. Nastasi has been publicly critical of Simona Halep for what he perceives as her lack of loyalty to Romania (hilarious if you follow the world number 4's ongoing obsession with pleasing her countrypeople). But--fortunately for both of them--the again-injured Halep won't be part of the team this weekend.

Romania vs. Belgium
Irina-Camelia Begu will lead the team on an indoor hard court in Bucharest, and she'll be joined by Monica Niculescu, Sorana Cirstea, and Patricia Maria Tig. That's a good team! But Belgium has a really good team, too: Yanina Wickmayer, Kirsten Flipkens, Elise Mertens, and Maryna Zanevska. This should be a really good tie.

Russia vs. Chinese Taipei
Knocked out of the World Group by Kiki Bertens and her sneaky band of Dutchwomen, Russia now has to fight its way back through the Chinese Taipei team. Ekaterina Makarova, Natalia Vikhlyantseva, Anna Blinkova, and Anna Kalinskaya will play for Russia. Look for Blinkova to attempt a Fed Cup breakthrough.

Playing for Chinese Taipei will be Chang Kai-Chen, Lee Ya-Hsuan, Hsu Ching-Wen, and Chan Chin-Wei.

Ukraine vs. Australia
This is an interesting tie. Ukraine will be led by Elina Svitolina, who will be joined by Lesia Tsurenko, Olga Savchuk, and Nadiia Kichenok.  Svitolina is the star, of course, but Tsurenko can rise to an occasion from time to time. The Ukrainian team will play in their own country on an indoor hard court.

Playing for Australia are Daria Gavrilova, Ash Barty, Arina Rodionova, and Casey Dellacqua--strength in both singles and doubles.

Italy vs. Slovakia
Two of the "big four" will play for Italy--Sara Errani and Francesca Schiavone. They will be joined by Jasmine Paolini and Martina Trevisan. And while both Errani and Schiavone have great Fed Cup records, Team Italy just isn't what it once was, and Errani and Schiavone--Fighting Italians if ever there were any--aren't what they once were.

On the other hand, the Slovakian team is just one big wild card. It's led by the talented but unfortunate Jana Cepelova, whose many injuries have stalled her career in a serious way. Also on the team is the once-great Daniela Hantuchova, who is now on the edge of the final part of her career. They are joined by Rebecca Sramkova, and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

If Cepelova is unlucky, then Schmiedlova is absolutely snake-bitten. After winning two titles in 2015 (and beating Italians in both finals; one of those Italians was Errani), Schmiedy dropped off the face of the tennis Earth in 2016. She is slowly, steadily improving her results, and one has to wonder whether the sight of those Italians might be just what she needs to have a breakthrough in Fed Cup play this weekend.

The tie will be played on a clay court in Italy.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

My Australian Open top 10

Here are my top 10 Australian Open events, in ascending order:

10. Never too late: The unseeded team of Abigail Spears and Juan Sebastian Cabal won the Australian Open mixed doubles title, and did it by beating the 2nd seeds. More impressive, they did it by beating a team of which Sania Mirza was a member. Spears and Cabal defeated Mirza and Ivan Dodig 6-2, 6-4. The 35-year-old Spears had been two two other major mixed doubles finals (both at the U.S. Open), but this is her first major mixed doubles title.

9. Never too soon: The talented Yui Kamiji won her third wheelchair singles major, knocking off top seed Jiske Griffioen 6-7, 6-3, 6-3. However, Kamiji and her partner, Diede De Groot, lost the doubles final to Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot. This is Kamiji's fourth major singles title; she holds eight major doubles titles. Griffioen also has four major singles titles (and 14 major doubles titles). With the extremely dominant Esther Vergeer out of the picture, women's wheelchair tennis has turned into a highly competitive event. It was very competitive before, of course, in terms of quality--but Vergeer was winning all the titles.

8. Si-Mohhh-Naaa!: After losing in the first round last year, 4th seed Simona Halep lost in the first round again. The Romanian apparently strayed too close to what The Backspinner aptly refers to as "The Cliffs Of Simona," and tumbled right over into the void. I expect her to do much better in Paris, but meanwhile, having the first major of the season as your nemesis is not a pleasant experience.

7. Conspicuous by their absence: Yes, it was a great Australian Open, but it was notable for those who did not attend. Two-time champion Vika Azarenka, former champion Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, and Madison Keys--all elite players--could not be there. One especially wonders what the combination of cooler temperatures and faster courts might have meant for Kvitova.

6. Age before everything: The four semifinalists had a combined age of 130, with CoCo Vandeweghe being the "baby," at age 25. Youth is most definitely not being served. A 35-year-old won the tournament (ATP, also), and a 36-year-old was the runner-up.

5. All CoCo, no puff: CoCo Vandeweghe did some very heavy lifting in this tournament, taking out the tricky former U.S. Open runner-up Roberta Vinci, former Wimbledon runner-up Genie Bouchard, defending champion (and U.S. Open champion) and world number 1 Angie Kerber, and French Open champion Garbine Muguruza. She fell to Venus Williams in the semifinal, but not without a fight. The occasion appeared to get to Vandeweghe at that point, but if she can overcome that sort of (expected) lapse, she has nowhere to go but up. The 25-year-old Californian has refined both her game and her athleticism a great deal, and her Australian Open performance was, for the most part, very impressive.

4. Venus still rising: We've focused so much on the "never count Serena out" storyline, but we also need to devote some attention to the "never count Venus out" part of the plot. In a surprising/not-surprising run, the older (by a year) Williams sister made it all the way to the final, her first (in the majors) in eight years. She lost to her sister in straight sets, but those sets included some vintage Venus play. And her joyful spirit dominated the event--a happy and grateful Venus is something I wish we could bottle and give to the world.

3. Just dance: Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won the doubles title, defeating Andrea Hlavackova and Peng Shuai in the final. And with all the inspirational/feel good stories floating about in Melbourne, this one somehow got left out. Between Safarova's steady recovery following a serious illness and subsequent reactive arthritis and Mattek-Sands' transcendence of an entire career's worth of setbacks, this was a victory worth dancing over.

2. A story for the ages: It wasn't a new story--we saw Jelena Dokic, whose career was severely inhibited by the abuse she suffered from her father, make a memorable and emotional comeback at the 2009 Australian Open. This time, it was Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who also suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her father, and who lost a major portion of her career. When the Croatian player returned in 2007, it was to function as a giant-killer. But at this year's Australian Open, she was something else--a giant.

Lucic-Baroni extended her run all the way to the semifinals, where she fell to eventual champion Serena Williams. However, her quarterfinal defeat of 5th seed Karolina Pliskova, whom many had picked to win the whole thing, was arguably the story of the tournament, on the women's side. Lucic-Baroni's last appearance in a major semifinal had occurred 18 years earlier at Wimbledon, when she was labeled a prodigy, having already won (with Martina Hingis) the Australian Open doubles title in 1998, at the age of 15.

But beating Pliskova wasn't Lucic-Baroni's only dramatic feat. In the second round, she took out 3rd seed Aga Radwanska in straight sets. Those who saw Lucic-Baroni's performance at this Australian Open will never forget it. As the Croation star herself said: "I can't believe this, this is crazy."

1. You can't "come back" when you never go away: Serena Williams lost the 2016 Australian Open final and the 2016 French Open final. A correction had to be made, and she made it emphatically in Melbourne. The "new" world number 1 took the title without dropping a set (though she had some game competition from Barbora Strycova in the round of 16), then defeated her sister in the final to win her sixth Australian Open title. Williams now has a total of 23 major singles titles, and one wold be well advised to not put the calculator away any time soon.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Serena beats Venus to win her 23rd major singles title

She's a rocker, she takes after me
And she's a roller, runs in the family
She's a rock and roll baby, a real gone twister
But...Don't you mess around with my little sister
Michelle Shocked

One of the best sports stories of recent times was told yesterday in Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, when Venus and Serena Williams, ages 36 and 35 respectively, faced off in the Australian Open final. It was the first time since 2009 that the pair had met in a major final, and it's doubtful that very many fans and tennis observers anticipated that they would ever meet this way again.

It had already been a dramatic two weeks, what with Venus's return to the "last women standing" part of a big-stage draw, the giant-killing accomplishments of unseeded CoCo Vandeweghe, and the heart-wrenching semi-final run of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. One could easily become exhausted without even lifting a racket--and for those of us who live in  my part of the world, exhaustion from lack of sleep is a given, anyway, during the season's first major.

The story was almost perfect, it's only flaw being that it was too short. Serena got off to a shaky start. She was obviously on edge, and sometimes--when she's on edge like that--she doesn't fully recover. Other times, she snaps herself back into place and does what Serena does. This was one of those "other times." 

The first set was close, with the opponents breaking each other five times. Serena won that set 6-4, and her record in major finals came to mind, as it always does: If she wins the first set, she winds up with the trophy. This match confirmed that remarkable statistic. Despite Venus significantly improving her first serve and even cutting down on errors in the second set--making it look, for a while, like the match would go the distance--she was unable to break Serena. At 3-all, Serena converted a third break point, and it turned out that that was all she needed to do. That set, also, went to Serena, 6-4. 

The match lasted an hour and 21 minutes, and featured some delicious rallies from two of the tour's greatest hitters. These two love to pull each other side to side, and force each other to come up with almost-impossible to execute shots. That happened several times during the match, as the two veterans put on the same show of athleticism and guile that they have for many, many years.

It was understandably hard to cheer for (or against) either of them. Had Venus won, she would have earned her eighth major title in a career that was rudely interrupted for a long time by the arrival of Sjogren's syndrome, which a bevy of doctors were too ignorant to diagnose (her symptoms were textbook), and then by Venus's learning appropriate management of the disease and playing her way back into the elite section of the tour. Venus won her last major title in 2008, when she picked up her fifth Venus Rosewater dish at Wimbldon.

For Serena, the win brings her major singles total to 23, which is one beyond the Open Era record set by Steffi Graf, and one behind the mixed era record set by Margaret Court. This is what fans, the media and the players focus on, but I mention it only in passing. Counting majors is really not relevant because so much has changed since professional tennis began, and since the Open Era began. 

Players often skipped the Australian Open because it was held during the holidays. Chris Evert, who pretty much owned the French Open, skipped it three times to play World Team Tennis. (And consider Rod Laver, who wasn't allowed to play in tournaments he likely would have won.) Also, counting major titles wasn't a "thing" until fairly recently. So, in a nod to the much missed Petra Kvitova, I'll say that "going by the numbers" is like comparing tennis balls with asparagus.

Having said that, I'll add that winning 23 majors--regardless of any other considerations--is indeed a a stunning reflection of how dominant Serena Williams has been for a very long time. When we consider that she and Venus first played each other at the Australian Open 19 years ago, we are able to glimpse the broad landscape of the effect that both sisters have had on the sport of tennis, and on sport in general.

It would have been quite enough for Serena and Venus to be the amazing and long-lasting force in tennis that they are. But they are so much more. They are, individually and together, a testament to belief, endurance and--perhaps most of all--survival. And to top it off, they are both entertaining, endearing and committed to causes that are more important than tennis.

"Your win has always been my win," Venus said to her sister in her beautiful runner-up acceptance. speech. And that's the way it will always be (and vice versa). 

With this victory, Serena has taken back her number 1 ranking, and woe to anyone who suggests that her time of greatness is over. She. Is. Serena. Williams. And Venus, another great champion, can certainly confirm for the rest of the tour: "Don't you mess around with my little sister."