Monday, April 17, 2017

No wild card, nessun problema!

2010 French Open champion and all-around tennis legend Francesca Schiavone, playing her last year of professional tennis (we think), asked for a wild card into the main draw of the Italian Open. Sounds reasonable, given all that she has done for Italian tennis, but her request was denied. So she took one into the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota, and proceeded to win the event.



Just another "Schia moment" in the 36-year-old Italian's remarkable, if circuitous, career. Going into the Bogota event, Schiavone was ranked number 168 in the world. She's now number 104, which means she has a chance to qualify for the main draw at Roland Garros. If she can raise her ranking, it will help. But even if it stays where it is, or drops a bit, she still has a chance.

Schiavone's win in Columbia wasn't an easy one. She had to knock out three seeds, including top seed Kiki Bertens. The Italian star did have some luck in the final when her opponent Laura Arruabarrena, injured her leg during the second set. Schiavone's run in Bogota gave her her eighth WTA singles title and her 600th career match victory.

It took Schiavone a while to crack the code; she was the runner-up in eight events before she figured out how to go home with the big trophy. Her 2010 French Open victory was one of my very favorite big wins in my decades-long history of watching women's tennis, and her performance in that final was exquisite. She would also make a run to the 2011 French Open final, but would be stopped by Li Na, who claimed her first major on a surface no one could have predicted.

(The Italian Open, by the way, gave wild cards to Maria Sharapova and Sara Errani, and I have no problem at all with those choices. It's just unfortunate that Schiavone got left out.)



The tennis gods were very active over the weekend. Not only did Schiavone win Bogota, but 17-year-old qualifier Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic won the inaugural even in Biel, and her run was quite impressive. Vondrousova (who spent much of last year injured), took out the likes of Annika Beck, top seed Barbora Strycova, Kristyna Pliskova, and--in the final--Anett Kontaviet. Since she had to go through qualifying, Vondrousova played a total of eight matches in order to get her trophy.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Some final thoughts on Charleston

It was a long, tense week, filled with weather, excitement and great tennis; some things stand out for me and linger in my mind:

  • The disappointment of having JJ and Petko withdraw from doubles. For some of us, JJ and Petko playing doubles is enough reason to attend a tournament

Shelby Rogers (photo by Daniel Ward)
  • Watching Shelby Rogers shine at her hometown event



  • Struggling to open a giant plastic bag and wear it as protection as we were evacuated from the media tent during a thunderstorm/hail storm


  • The multiple thrills provided by Laura Siegemund, with her clever, physical, exciting, all-court game (her press conferences aren't too shabby, either)

Laura Siegemund (photo by Daniel Ward)
  • (As always) The wonderful media tent volunteers, who anticipate our every need

  • Socks! They're not just for Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Laura Siegemund and Anastasia Rodionova wore them, also

  • Fans yelling "Come on Daria!" when Daria Kasatkina played Daria Gavrilova
  • Listening to Elena Vesnina talk about the gift of having experience on the tour
  • The endearing grace of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (photo by Daniel Ward)

  • The marvelously expressive and hilarious faces of Jelena Ostapenko and Daria Kasatkina, which turned out to be "the faces" of the tournament

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)

Jelena Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The best of Kasatkina--speaking as a champion

photo by Daniel Ward
Daria Kasatkina's post-championship match press conference fulfilled all of the expectations that her championship performance filled. Here are some highlights:

...it was your first final. You said yesterday you had no idea what it was going to be like, what it was going to feel like. So what did it feel like?
It was terrible....

Two wins over Kerber, now this. Do you feel like you're getting into a groove right now?
I know. Yeah, I beat Kerber twice, but it doesn't give me nothing, actually. 

It was quite comfortable for me today. I was playing just with my feelings. I go back, spin the ball, running, everything, and thank God she was missing.




What will you do tonight to celebrate?
I don't know. I need to pick up my bags. I'm leaving tomorrow, early morning. So yeah, I am coming home tomorrow, so I need to pick up my bags, pack my bags. And not so much celebration. But no, no, I will celebrate, for sure. What are you talking about?! Pack the bags. Come on, Daria. 

Were you like that when you were younger?
Because I didn't have so much power, I was running, trying to spin the ball, move the opponent, and that's it.  I didn't have so good fitness. So yeah, I was trying to beat the opponents only with the brain work.

The absolute highlight of the press conference occurred when Kasatkina was asked whether she realized that, next year, her face will be on a banner outside the stadium. It was quite obvious that she didn't realize it, and the look on her face was priceless.We should enjoy this press conference because there are going to be many others, and Kasatkina will quickly learn to manage them like a champion. There's nothing wrong with that, but--for now--I like seeing and hearing her manage them like a dazed teenager.

"Playing with the brain"--Kasatkina wins Volvo Car Open

photo by Daniel Ward
World number 42 Daria Kasatkina won her first WTA title today, and it was a big one. The 19-year-old unseeded Russian won the Volvo Car Open, the premier tournament played on green clay in Charleston. Kasatkina defeated another unseeded player, Jelena Ostapenko, 6-3, 6-1 in the final. Both players were major junior champions in 2014: Kasatkina
won the junior French Open title and Ostapenko won the junior Wimbledon title.

photo by Daniel Ward

All-teenage finals are rare these days, so both players made breakthroughs, of sorts, just by being the last two standing. Kasatkina entered the final with a couple of advantages: She has more of a clay court game than Ostapenko, and she has struggled a bit less than her opponent with nerves this past week.

Both players had to do some serious work to get to the final. Kasatkina took out Monica Puig, good friend Daria Gavrilova, clay court talent Irina-Camelia Begu, and the dangerous Laura Siegemund. Ostapenko, for her part, eliminated 2011 champion Caroline Wozniacki and the formidable
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.








Ostapenko got off to a very good start with the big-hitting, line-painting game that had done so much damage to Wozniacki. But Kasatkina, whose bag of tricks is large and varied, had already made a decision not to engage in a hitting contest against the Latvian player. Instead, she changed the pace of the ball, most notably using slice, to throw Ostapenko off of her rhythm. Throughout the tournament, Kasatkina had used the drop shot to great advantage; today, her drop shots were poorly executed, but she hit so few of them, she wound up not paying a big price.

After she won the first set, Kasatkina was able to take advantage of an opponent who became drastically error-prone and unable to keep the ball in the court. The second set went by quickly.

The new champion got a trophy and a check, of course, but she also got a Volvo to drive for a year, and was permitted to choose her vehicle among three that were driven onto the court.

photo by Daniel Ward
Later, chatting with the press, the new champion talked about her junior days:

"...I had to really think on my own, and I was just playing with the brain. Because I didn't have so much power, I was running, trying to spin the ball, move the opponent, and that's it. I didn't have so good fitness. So yeah, I was trying to beat the opponents only with the brain work."



Today, Kasatkina is fit, but she's still "playing with the brain," formulating strategy against her opponents and doing her best to flummox them with her varied repertoire of shots. The Russian's dramatic rise through the rankings thrust her onto a path that was surely going to lead to a tour title, and it's only fitting that that title should come to her in Charleston, where big careers have been launched for decades.
photo by Daniel Ward

Mattek-Sands and Safarova win doubles title in Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward
Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won the doubles title at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston today, defeating Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova 6-1, 4-6, 10-7. Things became a bit tense toward the end when the pair failed to serve out the match at 9-7 in the super-tiebreak. However, they then won the tenth point on their opponents' serve.

The is Mattek-Sands' second time to win the title in Charleston. For Safarova, it's the third time to lift the trophy. The Czech star also won in 2012 (with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova) and in 2013 (with Kiki Mladenovic).

Mattek-Sands is ranked number 1 in the world in doubles; Safarova is ranked number 4. They now have ten titles as a team. These include the 2017 Australian Open, the 2016 Australian Open and the 2016 U.S. Open.
Katerina Siniakova (l) and Lucie Hradecka (photo by Daniel Ward)
The champions (photo by Daniel Ward)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Here we are now, entertain us!

Jelena Ostapenko (l) and Daria Kasatkina (photos by Daniel Ward)
There was plenty of teen spirit at the Volvo Car Open today. Two teens, Daria Kasatkina and Jelena Ostapenko, pushed the veterans aside--something that's been very hard to do lately--and will contest for the title tomorrow.

The last time two teenagers played for the title was 2009, when 19-year-old Sabine Lisicki defeated 18-year-old Caroline Wozniacki in the final.

At the top of today's schedule was a stylistic contest between 19-year-old Kasatkina and Laura Siegemund. Siegemund took the first set, but an increasingly aggressive and fluid Kasatkina took over after that. Siegemund's ability to choose the right shot at any giving time, generally a big strength for her, went away in the third set. She said, after the match, that she was simply very tired and could no longer move. "You know what, it's frustrating if you know what you want to do and you know you need six shots for it and you only have energy for four."

Siegemund took a medical timeout at 0-4 down in the third set, right when Kasatkina was about to serve, a move which surprised her opponent, whose comment was "Usually it shouldn't happen." Following Siegemund's MTO, Kasatkina went down 0-40, but she recovered and went on to win the match, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.

In the second semifinal, 19-year-old Jelena Ostapenko took on the veteran of veterans, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Ostapenko's performance against 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki on Thursday night was near-perfect, and there was little chance she was going to replicate it, especially against the hard-hitting Lucic-Baroni. And yet, during the first set, the spirited young Latvian was able to overcome her opponent 6-3, with one extra break of serve.

It was no surprise that Lucic-Baroni came back strong in the second set, which was very competitive, and which the Croation star won after breaking Ostapenko when she served for the match. Ostapenko broke right away in the final set, and was soon up 3-0. But again, Lucic-Baroni came back. Yet despite her best attempt, it was Ostapenko who emerged the winner, at 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.

This match, like the one before it, met my expectations, in terms of quality. The two semifinal matches were a dramatic contrast in styles. Kasatkina and Siegemund utilized every clay court trick in the book, slowly constructing points, and using equal forward and lateral movement. Ostapenko and Lucic-Baroni, as expected, were engaged in more of a hitting contest.

Ostapenko is a very hard ball-striker who can play aggressively. Kasatkina is savvy and fluid, but also aggressive. Both women have good serves, though good serves have been known to disappear in finals, especially among less experienced players.

Not only are both finalists teenagers; they are both unseeded. The last time that two unseeded players contested for the title was 2002, when Iva Majoli defeated Patty Schnyder in the final. Schnyder had done a lot of very heavy lifting in that draw, taking out 6th seed Amelie Mauresmo, Mary Pierce, 3rd seed Serena Williams, and top seed and defending champion Jennifer Capriati. But Majoli got the best of her, 7-6, 6-4.

It should be noted that Jelena Ostapenko had the potential to sweep the 2017 titles, but that potential disappeared this evening when she and Raquel Atawo lost their semifinal against 4th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova. Hradecka and Siniakova will face top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova in the final. Mattek-Sands and Safarova defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke in the semifinals. If the top seeds win tomorrow, it will be the third Charleston doubles title for Safarova.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Doubles semifinals set for Saturday in Charleston



Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, the Volvo Car Open 2016 runners-up, will compete on Saturday for another chance at winning the title. The two friends also had to play each other in the second round of singles (Safarova won). Today, they defeated Jennifer Brady and Alison Riske. Safarova has won the doubles title twice with other partners. In 2012, she won it with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and in 2013, she won it with Kiki Mladenovic.

That second win was unexpected. The pair signed up to compete at the last minute, and they had never so much as had a practice hit together. I asked Safarova what she thought her chances were, and she just rolled her eyes. The joke was on her. She and Mladenovic (half of the winning pair I like to call "Mladenovic and Anybody") stormed through the draw, and then defeated top seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Liezel Huber to win the title.

On Saturday, Mattek-Sands and Safarova will compete against Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke, who defeated Abigail Spears and Katarina Srebotnik in the quarterfinals.

In the other semifinal, 4th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova will play against Raquel Atawo and Jelena Ostapenko. In the quarterfinals, Hradecka and Siniakova defeated Darija Jurak and Anastasia Rodionova. Atawo and Ostapenko upset 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Sania Mirza.

Four women standing on the green clay of Charleston

clockwise, from left: Laura Siegemund, Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
(all photos by Daniel Ward)

Quarterfinals are tense affairs, regardless of the circumstances, but when the wind is stopping, starting and swirling, they can be very tense, and especially for players who hit the ball with little or no spin. All eight of today's competitors reported that the conditions were especially tough. Nevertheless, three of the four winners came through in straight sets, and they were undoubtedly relieved to do so.

The first winner of the day was Russia's Daria Kasatkina, who upset 10th seed Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4, 6-1. The first set was quite competitive, then Begu faded away. Kasatkina, when she talked with the press, said that she had made a decision to become more aggressive in her play in order to progress on the tour. 

Her upcoming opponent, Laura Siegemund, has noticed. The German player had this to say about Kasatkina:

She's very solid. You know, it's dangerous if people are very solid and very aggressive at the same time, like they're aggressive but they don't miss. So that's a bad combination. For her it's a good combination. For the opponent it's tough. You know, you sometimes have these very aggressive players that also make a lot of errors, and then you have these solid players that don't hurt too much, but they just don't miss. She's kind of a little bit of both. She can step it up any time and that makes her really dangerous. 

In her quarterfinal, Siegemund took the first set off of 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova 6-2, but Sevastova began the second set in a dominating fashion, handling the wind well, and going up 3-0. Siegemund edged up to 2-4, then won four straight games to win the match. Both today and yesterday, the German player had relatively short matches ("Surprise!" she said, when this was pointed out today in her press conference), which she needed after the marathons she had against both Lesia Tsurenko and Venus Williams.

Later in the day, the crowd was thrilled when their hometown player, Shelby Rogers, took the first set off of 11th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in a tense tiebreak set. Lucic-Baroni hits the ball really flat, which is a real obstacle in the wind. But she turned the match around and won it 6-7, 6-1, 6-1. The Croation star, who made a dramatic run to the 2016 Australian Open semifinals, said that because she hits the ball so flat, she had exceptional trouble with the wind. Lucic-Baroni also said that she "never was on the ball and was hitting the ball clean." 

But with all the difficulty Lucic-Baroni experienced, she was able to win nine straight games and totally dominate Rogers in the last two sets.

The night match featured 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki (the 2011 Charleston champion) and Jelena Ostapenko. But from start to finish, it was really the Ostapenko Show. The 19-year-old from Latvia hit 40 winners and made 26 unforced errors, which is a beautiful statistic. She beat Wozniacki 6-2, 6-4, and while it took her several deuces and a few match points to reach her goal, she was solid throughout the match. 

So dominant was Ostapenko that her opponent commented, after the match: "Everything was going in. She was hitting the lines. Everything that could go her way today was going her way." From Ostapenko: "...I just tried and I think it was not bad."

Ostapenko, who has never played in Charleston before, is a busy woman: She is also still part of the doubles draw.

Here is the semifinal draw:

Laura Siegemund vs. Daria Kasatkina
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (11) vs. Jelena Ostapenko

The Volvo Car Open will have a first-time champion on Sunday, and it's anyone's guess as to who that champion will be. Each woman has played aggressively and has made her mark on the tournament, and each is playing extremely well. I'm expecting two high-quality semifinals on Saturday--perhaps even more exciting than we've seen in a while at this event. I can't stress enough how very competitive these four players have been.

"It's kind of a micro life out there"


We like watching tennis because it's exciting and entertaining, but--as I've written before--we also become emotionally involved in the fate of the players because they are, to some extent, presenting little dramas about our own lives. Professional sports competitions, in general, allow us to project our own fears, insecurities, hopes, and triumphs onto the players.

This subject of "sports as micro" was presented today, in a different context, by Laura Siegemund, during a Volvo Car Open press conference, after Siegemund won her quarterfinal match against Anastasija Sevastova.

Siegemund, like so many players on the tour, has been through hard times, including having to take an extended forced break because of torn ligaments. At the press conference, she was asked: "At what point did you kind of learn how to win again?" Her reply got my attention:

"It's not that easy, yeah. People like to always draw like black and white lines. It's not like that at all.  It's a process you're going through, and you get certain opportunities, I would say, throughout a career as well as throughout a match.  It's kind of a micro life out there sometimes, these matches. So you keep getting opportunities, and then you either take them or you don't.

"Different reasons why you don't take them sometimes. Maybe it's lack of courage. Maybe it's too much courage, you know. You can want something too much. That's also what happens to a lot of people, what happened to me."

Well, there you are. Laura Siegemund explains attachment anxiety, just like that. And a tennis match, whether you're playing it or watching it, truly is a kind of micro life. You have a chance to be in charge, and you can take it--and maybe crash, or you can hang around and hope your opponent makes an error all on her own.

Too much fear freezes you; too much confidence causes you to take foolish chances. Excessive attachment to outcome will get you in trouble, one way or the other, which is why we always hear professional players say "I just play it point by point." They are, to return to the Buddhist metaphor--attending to the present. The previous point is a thing of the past, and who knows what's to come in the next point (or game, or set)?

And what does this have to do with the rest of us? Everything. We get opportunities, and we don't take them, but then we get new opportunities. We dwell on the lost opportunities, or we don't. We act with courage and let go of the outcome, or we cling to the outcome and lose the moment.

Deuce.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Latvia in the spotlight as Volvo Car Open singles quarterfinals are set




Jelena Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)
There are only eight players remaining in the singles draw in Charleston, and two of them represent Latvia, a country that has not, historically, been dominant in professional tennis.

One of those players is Jelena Ostapenko, who turned pro five years ago, and who is ranked number 66 in the world. Ostapenko reached the Doha final last year, taking out Svetlana Kuznetsova and Petra Kvitova along the way.

Also representing Latvia in Charleston is Anastaija Sevastova, who is enjoying a very good second tennis career. Sevastova retired from the sport in 2013 because she had to deal with so many injuries. In 2015, she returned, and proceeded to play her best tennis. She is currently ranked number 26 in the world, and reached her highest ranking (23) last month.

Here in the quarterfinal draw:

Anastasija Sevastova (photo by Daniel Ward)
Irina-Camelia Begu (10) vs. Daria Kasatkina
Anastasija Sevastova (8) vs. Laura Siegemund
Shelby Rogers vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (11)
Jelena Ostapenko vs. Caroline Wozniacki (5)

Wozniacki is the only former champion (2011) left in the draw. Other former champions who competed this year were Venus Williams (2004), Jelena Jankovic (2007), Sam Stosur (2010), and Andrea Petkovic (2014).

Wozniacki advances twice in Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward
5th seed Caroline Wozniacki, whose Wednesday night match was washed out by a rain and hail storm, had to play twice today at the Volvo Car Open, and she won both her second and third round matches in straight sets. The postponed match, against Annika Beck, ended with a 7-5, 6-1 victory for the Dane, and this evening, she defeated Anastasia Rodionova 6-3, 6-3. Wozniacki won the tournament in 2011, and was the runner-up in 2009.

The major player today, however, was the wind.  The flags in the stadium were fluttering and flapping, debris fell onto the court, we felt some shaking in the media tent, and during a morning match, one of these signs was pushed forward by the wind onto the court, stopping play.


2010 champion Sam Stosur, seeded 6th, was upset in a battle of the forehand against the backhand. The backhand belonged to Irina-Camelia Begu, who used it to expertly handle the wind and defeat Stosur in straight sets. This is the third year in a row that the Romanian has reached the quarterfinals. In both 2015 and 2016, she lost in the quarterfinals to Angelique Kerber (who went on to become the champion in 2015).

Irina-Camelia Begu (photo by Daniel Ward)
Hometown fan favorite Shelby Rogers faced off against Naomi Osaka in the night match, and advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 6-2 victory. Rogers, who was once a ballgirl in Charleston, will play Lucic-Baroni in the quarterfinals.

Close friends Daria Kasatkina and Daria Gavrilova (The Dashas) faced each other today in the 3rd round, with Kasatkina emerging the winner, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0. 

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Laura Siegemund, who upset Venus Williams yesterday, upset 15th seed Lucie Safarova today in straight sets. 7th seed Kiki Bertens went out to Mijana Lucic-Baroni, and 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova quietly advanced with a win over lucky loser Ons Jabeur. Also advancing was Jelena Ostapenko, who opponent, qualifier Fanny Stollar, had to retire due to injury.

In doubles, top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova advanced to the third round, but 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Sania Mirza were upset by Raquel Otawo and Jelena Ostapenko.

I AM KASATKINA

all photos by Daniel Ward

What they said at the Volvo Car Open

"This shirt is from my good friend, Ms. Bethanie Mattek-Sands: 'hashtag Ms. Rogers' Neighborhood.' I thought it was appropriate to wear today."
Shelby Rogers

"You can always come back on clay." 
Laura Siegemund

"...there were some errors I made in the beginning, but when push came to shove, I feel like I did the right things, but somehow inexplicably came up empty."
Venus Williams

Daria Gavrilova (photo by Daniel Ward)
"It's a bit difficult to recover, but you know how to work with this." 
Elena Vesnina, on being a 30-something player

"I think I played a lot smarter in the first set. I think I was hitting a lot heavier. I think I was getting her back and off the court, and I think I kept her off the offense a lot better."
Madison Keys

"When she won Wimbledon, it was very big in Russia [pause] Not really in Russia--nothing's big in Russia."
Daria Gavrilova, speaking of Sharapova 

"I basically won the match but still lost."
Venus Williams

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Shelby Rogers keeps up the good work--takes top seed out of tournament

photo by Daniel Ward
Hometown favorite Shelby Rogers upset top seed Madison Keys today at the Volvo Car Open. Rogers defeated Keys 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 to advance to the third round. Her victory occurred not too long after the tournament's 3rd seed, Venus Williams, was upset by Laura Siegemund.

The featured night match was supposed to have been played between Caroline Wozniacki and Annika Beck, but it had to be canceled because of a familiar Charleston-in-April occurrence:


There was a bad thunderstorm and hail, and this, even after Jelena Jankovic was out of the tournament!

2016 runner-up and 4th seed Elena Vesnina also departed today, upset by qualifier Fanny Stollar in two tiebreak sets. Stollar, incidentally, hit thirteen aces.

Kasatkina & Puig (photo by Daniel Ward)
Close friends and very successful doubles partners Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands had to play each other day. Safarova won in straight sets, and will next face Laura Siegemund. Two other very good friends--the Dashas--Daria Gavrilova and Daria Kasatkina, must play each other tomorrow. This morning, Kasatkina defeated Monica Puig 6-0, 6-7, 6-2.

Gavrilova and Kasatkina played their first round of doubles today, too, and lost to 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Sania Mirza.

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward

How to Siegemund: Part 2

photo by Daniel Ward
Last year in Charleston, I wrote about How to Siegemund. Now, that guide gets an update. Laura Siegemund, who reached the Volvo Car Open quarterfinals in 2016, played for over three hours today, saw a match point come and go at the end of the second set, but stuck with her clever and relentless game. The German player eventually upset 3rd seed Venus Williams 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 in the Volvo Car Open second round, and the entertainment value of the match cannot be overstated.

The backstory is pretty good, too. On Monday, Siegemund played a three-hour and 19-minute match against Lesia Tsurenko on the Althea Gibson Club Court, and that, too, was very tense and entertaining.

Backing the story up a year: On the third day of the Volvo Car Open main draw in 2016, Siegemund had already spent nine hours on the court (singles and doubles). This is a player who used to worry about getting tired, but that concern was definitely put to rest.

The longer backstory is even better: In 2012, Siegemund had to leave the tour because of torn ligaments. She used her time off to get a degree in psychology and also to get her trainer's certificate. At that time, she didn't anticipate returning to full-time athlete status. But, of course, she was able to do so, and she does her best work on clay courts.

On Monday, I said that if the Siegemend vs. Tsurenko match were made into a movie, we might give it the working title of "Drop Shot Me to Hell." Today's match would be a sequel, perhaps, "Drop Shot Me to Hell: Feel the Burn." Williams, unlike the ailing Tsurenko, didn't try to beat Siegemund at her own game, though--being Venus Williams--she got to many of the German's drop shots, only to see them fly past her after she dropped them back over the net.

photo by Daniel Ward
Williams took a 4-2 lead in the opening set, but Siegemund then won four games in a row to take that set 6-4. The German held a match point at 5-3, but Williams would have none of it, and the set went to a tiebreak, which Williams won convincingly.

By the time they had finished the first two sets, the opponents had already lived through eleven breaks of serve, but there were more to come in a crowd-thrilling, momentum-swinging final set that--at times--had the crowd mesmerized. At 3-all, the tension was palpable, and Siegemund was on a roll with a series of drop shots (her signature, obviously) that--while not always successful--were successful most of the time. (I couldn't help, at this point, but think of Charleston rock star Patty Schnyder, who used to thrill spectators with her spinning drop shots, lengthy slides and expert lobs.)

On several occasions, Siegemund was forced to use the backhand slice, and every time this happened, she was able to flummox Williams; however, I don't recall seeing her use the backhand slice intentionally. Williams made Siegemund work harder and harder, the longer the match went on, and finally, the 3rd seed served for the whole thing, at 5-4. The end appeared near--well, maybe not, because at times, it seemed that there would be no end. Sure enough, Williams was broken, after holding two match points.

So many breaks had been traded at this point, it was reasonable to expect another tiebreak when Siegemund held at 6-5. But then the German player held again, and the long drama was finally over, with Siegemund victorious at 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. Between them, the players hit 97 winners and made 80 unforced errors, each ending with a positive differential.

Later, in the press room, Williams described Siegemund's performance as what "could be the best match she'll ever play in her life."

photo by Daniel Ward
Siegemund, however, was more measured in her assessment: "I know, in my aggressive game, I can do better than this. But I did a really good job today in defending, and I was covering the court really well. And I got a lot of sneaky points where she thought she had won the point already, and I got it back. But other things were solid, and some things I feel like, okay, I need to get this fixed to keep being in the competition...."



The many faces of Kasatkina

all photos by Daniel Ward

In the battle of the former champions, Stosur prevails

Sam Stosur (photo by Daniel Ward)
 There was a time when Jelena Jankovic's rubber body and her ability to appear to be everywhere on the court at the same time created major problems for Sam Stosur. But times have changed. While Jankovic is still a fine defensive player, she just isn't as quick as she was back then, and her signature backhand down the line is now an occasional tactic, rather than a constant threat.

Jelena Jankovic (photo by Daniel Ward)
In last night's feature Volvo Car Open match, Stosur brought the serve for which she is known, and easily grabbed the first set 6-1 from Jankovic. The Serbian star rallied in the second set, going up a break right away, and even keeping the lead for a while. But the errors came back, and Stosur remained steady, eventually winning the set 6-3.

The tournament's first major upset occurred last night, too, as the 3rd-seeded Chan sisters were defeated in the first round of doubles by Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke. The veteran team won the match 1-6, 7-6, 10-6.

And yesterday featured another long, tense contest--this time, between 2011 runner-up Lucie Safarova and Varvara Lepchenko. Safarova defeated Lepchenko 7-5, 6-7, 6-3.

For Jankovic's many fans, there's good news: She and partner Andrea Petkovic will play doubles together today against the Czech team of Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova. This alone is worth the price of admission to the grounds.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Shelby Rogers thrills the home crowd

photo by Daniel Ward
Shelby Rogers, who used to be a ballgirl for the Family Circle Cup (now the Volvo Car Open) won her opening round in Charleston today on Billie Jean King Court in the tournament's stadium. Rogers defeated qualifer Veronica Cepede Royg 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 in a match that lasted over two hour and 42 minutes. Rogers' next opponent will be Naomi Osaka, who also had to endure a three-setter in her victory over Johanna Larsson.

Maria Sakkari (photo by Daniel Ward)



14th Lauren Davis didn't fare as well as Rogers. Davis fell, 7-5, 6-4, to Maria Sakkari, whose second serve gave her a distinct advantage; Davis's second serve, on the other hand, was part of her downfall.

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Also among today's winners was Daria Kasatkina, who reached the quarterfinals last year before losing to eventual champion Sloane Stephens. Today, Kasatkina (who is unseeded this year), defeated Danka Kovinic 6-1, 6-2.


Spectators at the Althea Gibson Club Court had a treat today when 11th seed
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (photo by Daniel Ward)
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni faced off against Aleksandra Krunic. Lucic-Baroni, who has a Kuznetsova-like tendency to wind up in long, grinding matches, defeated her friend Krunic 6-1, 4-6, 6-3. It was a well-played match by both women. Now, Lucic-Baroni--whose run to the Australian Open semifinals was the most dramatic story on the women's side--will face Mona Barthel, who knows her way around a clay court.

Monday, April 3, 2017

JJ steps onto the court, tornado warnings follow

photo by Daniel Ward
Those of us who have gone to the Charleston tournament for many years know that tornadoes and media tent-rattling storms are always possible. I've been through several of them. Our theory is that Jelena Jankovic, by her very presence, sets them off. That theory was confirmed in 2015 and 2016 when JJ had to withdraw at the beginning of the tournament, and all we had were calm, sunny days.

The Serb played her first round match today, and--like clockwork--a tornado warning appeared on our phones and computers. While JJ was in the stadium hitting and sliding, the rest of us were trying to figure out a safe exit strategy.

There was a lot of rain, but it didn't last a long time. However, as long as Queen Chaos (Todd Spiker's perfect nickname for Jankovic) is in the draw, I'm not letting my guard down.

2007 champion Jankovic won her match, as did 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic. And the tornado warning, as tense as it was, wasn't the most exciting thing that happened today: That would be the three-hour and 19-minute battle fought between Lesia Tsurenko and 2016 quarterfinalist Laura Siegemund on the Althea Gibson Club Court.

Laura Siegemund (photo by Daniel Ward)
I anticipated that this would be a very good match, and it was. If it were made into a movie, it might be given the working title, "Drop Shot Me to Hell." There was a lot of drama, too, and the spectators were exhausted from watching. Tsurenko won an 87-minute first set in a tiebreak, then sustained a thigh injury that put her in obvious pain. Siegemund won the second set 6-2.

The third set was about as tense as they come. Tsurenko was grimacing in pain, sometimes stopping to bend and stretch her thigh. Her opponent's drop shots were often lethal, but Tsurenko returned the favor on several occasions, giving the German a bitter dose of her own medicine. Siegemund served for the match twice, and both times, she got tight and double-faulted her chances away.

In the meantime, Tsurenko, sensing her chances, loosened up; she was obviously now running on adrenalin and able to ignore the pain. But in the third set tiebreak, the Ukrainian player still came up short, and a very animated Siegemund was able to hit an emphatic match point and advance to the second round.

This match reminded me of a match played last year, also on Althea Gibson, between Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Kiki Mladenovic. The atmosphere was similar, and it appeared that neither player could grab a victory until finally, Lucic-Baroni sealed it in a 15-13 third set tiebreak.

Monday in Charleston: top seeds meet the press

Madison Keys (photo by Daniel Ward)
All Access Hour happened today in Charleston, and it was comprised of an exceptional set of interviews. Caroline Wozniacki wasn't able to make it (she's doing hers separately), and, unfortunately,  I didn't get to speak with Johanna Konta. Konta, though she has withdrawn from the event, was there for the media. Last year's champion, Sloane Stephens, was there, too, walking around with an unusual leg brace. Stephens is collecting shoes for Soles4Souls.

Top seed Madison Keys started things off with a firm declaration that she's not comfortable on clay, but she's working on getting more comfortable. Something clicked for her last year, she said, and I realized that "...you can't hit a winner from ten feet behind the baseline on this surface; I just got a lot better at building points and not panicking if the point isn't over in three balls."

She said that recently, she had an opportunity, for the first time, to spend over a month just working on fitness, and that her fitness level has increased. (As a committed sled pusher/puller, I talked with her about the recent addition to her regimen of sled exercises; she doesn't seem to like the activity as much as I do--yet; it's a love-hate thing, and it takes time.)

Venus Williams (photo by Daniel Ward)


2004 champion Venus Williams talked about how much she loves Charleston. When asked what keeps her going, she said, without hesitation, "I love winning titles." She said she has no regrets, that she's lived exactly how she has wanted to live.

Asked about Serena's Snapchat habit of asking Venus why she isn't wearing any pants: "I don't like pants--what can I say?"


Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
Kiki Bertens talked about how wonderful it is for her to be back on a clay court. The Dutch star said that her success at last year's French Open (and the entire clay court season) gave her a lot of confidence, but she explained that her run in Paris is also part of a double-edge sword because "you also have some expectations now, and also the other people have some expectations, and that makes it a little bit tough."

Bertens credited a heavy forehand with bringing her clay court success. She said her overwhelming success in Fed Cup play comes from loving team sports. Years ago, she had to choose between playing tennis and playing on a handball team.

2010 champion Sam Stosur, who has become a Charleston dining specialist, entertained us with a list of all of her restaurant reservations. Stosur spends her birthday here, and is a devoted participant in the tournament. We all reminisced about her stunning performance (and Vera Zvonareva's incredible racket breaking) in the 2010 final. The Australian star said she thought it was the best match she had ever played, and no one was going to argue with that.

Daria Gavrilova said that she practiced on some green clay courts in Key Biscayne before she left Miami. She said she's been working hard and feels very motivated, and she described herself as a positive person. Gavrilova, who is Russian by birth, talked about how she was influrnced by Maria Sharapova. "When she won Wimbledon, it was very big in Russia [pause] Not really in Russia--nothing's big in Russia."

Elena Vesnina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Indian Wells champion Elena Vesnina described the high she's been on since winning that even. She said that so many players were congratulating her--they were even stopping her to congratulate her when she was on her way to play a match in Miami.

Vesnina said that studying sports psychology (she has a degree in the subject) has helped her a lot in terms of setting goals and managing a long-term sports career. "It's the same thing in the life," she added.

The Russian star talked about the fact that tennis provides more opportunities than other sports to "start over" and make up for losses. But, she added, the constant travel and changes in climate are especially difficult for the professional tennis player. She said that some players eat, sleep and breathe tennis, but that she cannot be that way, and that she needs to have emotional connections with other players.

Vesnina said it has helped her to observe how other veteran players take care of themselves. "It's a bit difficult to recover, but you know how to work with this." She said it was important to "listen to your body."

I asked her if--at any time during the Indian Wells final--she was aware that she was a participant in a major thriller, and she said "no, not at all." The first thing that came to her mind after match point, she said, was "it's over."

"I was down the whole match....At one point, I felt like 'everything is against me in this final.'" But she kept fighting, and she said that when she served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, she felt totally confident.

Konta shines brightly, but will miss the green clay




Who has a (sometimes) very good serve, an awkward service motion, a wicked return game, and a  sassy inside-the-baseline return stance?

That would be Marion Bartoli, who is now designing jewelry and shoes and enjoying all the time she has to paint landscapes. But take out the parenthetical "sometimes" in the above question, and you have: Jo Konta!

And while I may be the only one comparing Konta with the former Wimbledon champion, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Sure, Bartoli swung her racket with both hands and was also, by my own assessment, incomparable. Still, the depth of the British star's aggression, paired with that robotic (Bartoli sometimes looked like a French windmill) service motion makes me think of Marion.

In my estimation, Konta was a "happy accident" waiting to happen. She's just too focused on winning points to not do well, and her serve has turned into quite the "weapon," as the commentators like to say. This combination of aggression and big serve can be lethal. And the British star, who announced she really did mean business early in the season, just won the Miami Open, her first premier mandatory title. Now she's in Charleston to compete on a surface that probably isn't as comfortable for her as the hard courts in Miami were.

Konta, unfortunately, had to withdraw from the Volvo Car Open because of a right shoulder injury. It will be interesting to see how she adapts to clay courts as the season goes on. In the meantime, her Miami victory has propelled her to a ranking of number 7 in the world.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Looking ahead to Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward
The Volvo Car Open is not only a premier event, but it also marks the beginning of the transition from hard court to clay. The tournament used to be considered truly "transitional" because the green clay of Charleston played a bit faster than the red clay of Europe, but now, some of the red clay courts play rather fast (for clay), so the adjustment depends more on the player.

Last year's champion, Sloane Stephens, will be in Charleston, but not on the courts. The foot injury-recovering Stephens will be at the Tennis Channel desk, and will also be collecting shoes for Soles4Souls. Last year's runner-up, however will be competing. Elena Vesnina, who recently won the BNP Paribas Open (her biggest career title) was also the runner-up in 2012, and she's in a position to make another big run in Charleston.

Other former champions competing in Charleston are Venus Williams (2004), Jelena Jankovic (2007), Sam Stosur (2010), Caroline Wozniacki (2011), and Andrea Petkovic (2014). Wozniacki, it should be noted, was also the runner-up in 2009, and Jankovic was the runner-up in 2012. Both Williams and Wozniacki are having very good seasons, and both can also be viewed as contenders for the 2017 title.

Two of the hottest players at the 2016 event, Laura Siegemund and Daria Kasatkina, have been in relative slumps lately, but stepping onto a clay court could be exactly what each of them needs to get a 2017 boost in points. Last year, they both added a lot of excitement to the event.

World number 11 Johanna Konta will be in Charleston, but stepping onto a clay court may not be such a great thing for her. On the other hand, world number 9 Madison Keys, the 2015 runner-up, could work up some serious mojo again at the Volvo Car Open.

Some very good clay players will be on hand next week--Laura Arruabarrena, Kiki Bertens (perhaps poised for a serious run), Irina-Camelia Begu (she gave Kerber a very tough time in 2015), and 2014 runner-up Lucie Safarova, who is also a contender for the title. One of last year's stand-outs, Yulia Putintseva, will compete, as will Jelena Ostapenko (one just can't mention one without mentioning the other, it seems). And Peng Shuai, who is shining brightly in comeback mode, has a very good history in Charleston.

Also, while clay is not her favored surface, I should add that Mirjana Lucic-Baroni will be back in Charleston this year.

Of course, there will also be some good qualifiers and a few wild cards (this latter category has the potential to be quite interesting). And I'll have some things to say about doubles at a later date.

The draw takes place April 1, the day qualifying begins.

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.