Sunday, May 20, 2018

A prediction: Someone will win the French Open

carousel in Montmartre

We are now a few days away from my favorite major, and I'm as confused as ever. Last year, the title of my French Open preview post was Who will win the French Open? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps this year's should have been Who will win the French Open? Your guess still means as little as mine does.

Yes, it's always up in the air, last year it was really up in the air, and this year it's floated off into space. As little as two weeks ago, someone asked me which players I thought stood the best chance of winning in Paris, and yesterday--while having this same discussion--I realized that my picks had changed. And they may change again before the week is over.

For one thing, I didn't see this Sharapova coming. Pova's time in Rome has blown the life back into her and we're seeing the fierce fighter of long ago. And then there's Kvitova. I know it's a "fool me once" thing to have a lot of hope for Petra in Paris, but she really is on fire in this clay court season. I cannot count her out.

Also, who knew that Karolina Pliskova was going to take such a liking to clay? I didn't. The first major for the Czech has to come some time, and it's not unreasonable to think it could come at Roland Garros.

I also like Kiki Bertens' chances. Bertens can beat anyone on clay, and her confidence has obviously risen to an all-time high, with her win in Charleston and her runner-up status in Madrid. 

Garbine Muguruza is in a class of her own. The 2015 champion could win it again; she tends to show up at majors as the very best version of herself. I should add, however, that she could also go out in the first or second round. That's our Mugu.

Two players I think will make deep runs but aren't likely to win are defending champion Alona Ostapenko and Serena Williams. Ostapenko still isn't consistent enough, and Williams is really just coming back.

And now I come to the subject of world number 1 Simona Halep, and what a complicated subject that always is. Twice a French Open runner-up, Halep has more to prove than anyone else in the field. On paper, this should be Halep's championship. But this is tennis, and even more significant--this is the French Open.

And of course, this is Simona Halep. Her loss to Elina Svitolina in Rome today wouldn't be such a terrible thing (Svitolina kills in finals) if it weren't for the way she lost. It all happened so fast, and these 0-6, 1-6 sets have become rather common.

Halep is the anti-Ostapenko. Whereas the Latvian player is in the moment--without any regard to what may have just happened--Halep sometimes seems to carry the weight of the entire stadium on her shoulders. Tremendously gifted, the Romanian star can sometimes get in her own way and step out of the flow, allowing an opponent to take over the momentum of the match. Nevetheless, she's a contender to win the 2018 title.

There are several other dangerous players who could, at the least, upset contenders, and who could also wind up at the extreme business end of the tournament. These include Julia Goerges, Daria Kasatkina, Naomi Osaka, Anastasija Sevastova, Elina Svitolina, Angie Kerber, and the two Frenchwomen--Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic.

Goerges and Svitolina, in particular, are to be feared. Goerges is playing the best tennis of her career, and is in highly competitive mode. Svitolina appears to be allergic to majors, but--the tide has to turn some time, and the time may be just a few weeks from now. Her performance in Rome was smooth and confident, and she just doesn't go "off the road," as many other top players are prone to do.

Some of the shine has come off of Kasatkina as of late, and--as for the Frenchies--neither is at her best right now, but Mladenovic uses the crowd the way she uses her racket, and she's a potential threat at any time.

We're very likely to get another first-time French Open champion, and--for that matter--first-time major winner. I love the French Open, no matter what, but it's even more exciting when we have no idea who's going to win it.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Arrivederci, Roberta

Knowing that a player is about to retire doesn’t make it any easier for us to say goodbye. Such is the case with Roberta Vinci, the second of the Four Fighting Italians to leave the tour. Vinci’s farewell took place in Rome today, when she was defeated in the first round by Alex Krunic. But she had been warning us about it for some time.

A spirited purveyor of stylish (my favorite kind) tennis, and a stand-out in both singles and doubles, Vinci knew how to turn her racket into a magic wand. At the very least, she was always entertaining, and at her best—especially in doubles competition—she was lethal.

Vinci’s WTA record is impressive. She won 10 singles titles and 25 doubles titles, five of which were majors, and all of which she won with Sara Errani. Vinci also holds a career Grand Slam in doubles. Her highest singles ranking was number 7 in the world, and she held the number 1 spot in doubles for  a total of 110 weeks.

Vinci also holds the distinction of being the oldest woman on the tour to make her debut in the top 10. The tour’s trend toward success among veterans was reflected nicely by the Italian when she won her biggest singles trophy at the premier tournament in St. Petersburg in 2016.

The five-foot, four-inch Italian made world headlines in 2015 when she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, ending Williams’ quest for the Grand Slam. Vinci was the oldest player to ever reach a major semifinal (and final). She lost the title to fellow Fighting Italian Flavia Pennetta, and ended the year ranked number 15 in the world.

As impressive as all of these achievements are, however, Vinci’s greatest contribution to tennis (in this writer’s opinion) was her absolutely sterling performance in Fed Cup competition. Vinci, Errani, Pennetta, and Francesca Schiavone took Italy to the Fed Cup title in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2013.

For a very long time, Vinci held an astounding record: She won all 18 of her Fed Cup doubles rubbers (playing with nine different partners). She almost retired with a perfect record, too, but in 2015, Errani and Vinci were defeated by Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in the 2015 Fed Cup opening tie. It was a sad moment, but Vinci nevertheless leaves with the longest undefeated streak in the history of Fed Cup.

The Italian's old-school "slice and dice" tennis put the hurt on a lot of players. It was always a joy to watch her play, and especially on a clay court. In every tournament she played, Vinci embodied the "Fighting Italian" spirit.

"I'm really proud of my tennis, myself and my career," Vinci said as she departed the tour. As well she should be. She will be missed.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Helpful advice, or just another version of "Smile!"?

Sometimes, during an ATP match, a commentator will occasionally say something like "He needs to get himself more pumped up." However, during WTA matches, commentators are known to often launch into lengthy monologues about the players' affects. Just recently, in one match, I heard (not all exact quotes) "She needs to show us something," "She never smiles," "She needs to have some expression on her face."

Really? While we do know, from neurological research, that smiling improves one's mood, commentators never suggest that male players do it. Also, during the tense framework of a tennis match, a player may have other needs that have a higher priority than mood improvement. And then there's the subject of individual differences. Some competitors do better if they show some anger and get it out, but some are better off if they simply calm themselves.

Of course, when female players do show emotion, they can easily become targets because they show too much emotion, or because they show the wrong emotion. ATP players can get away with almost any amount of whining and disgruntlement, but WTA players are held to ridiculous "feminine" standards that, of course, reflect the standards of the culture at large.

It's understandable that players who get very down on themselves during a match are going to create talk about their being too negative because they're showing us that they lack belief. That's one thing. But suggesting that a player isn't showing us enough emotion (or showing us "bad" emotion) is presuming that the observer knows what's going on inside a player's mind, or--worse--has some decidedly sexist views.

Many commentators are former players, and may be projecting their own expressive styles onto the players.

Professional tennis is composed of many different types of personalities and emotional styles, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

Aside from their observations of self-punishing behvaviors (and even some of those appear to be less than harmful), those who insist on knowing how players should express themselves on court may have a point. After all, imagine what a fabulous career Chris Evert could have had if only she'd shown some emotion.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Czech Republic and USA reach Fed Cup final

Germany's Julia Goerges found her serve again today, and when Goerges finds her serve, it's generally bad news for whoever is on the other side of the net, even a big server like Karolina Pliskova. In today's opening World Group Fed Cup semifinal rubber between Germany and the Czech Republic, Goerges maintained a remarkable 92/75 first and second serve win percentage, and defeated Pliskova 6-4, 6-2.

That gave Germany hope, but it wasn't enough. In the next rubber, Petra Kvitova defeated Angie Kerber 6-2, 6-2, putting her country back into the Fed Cup final yet again.

The Czech team's opponents in that final will be defending champions USA. Entering the second day of semifinal competition with a 1-1 score against France, team USA won both of today's rubbers. Sloane Stephens handily defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-2, 6-0 in under an hour.

In the second rubber, team captain Kathy Rinaldi substituted Madison Keys for CoCo Vandeweghe. Keys faced off against Pauline Parmentier, who--on the first day of competition--gave Stephens all kinds of trouble, despite losing to her. Parmentier got off to a quick lead against Keys, but Keys caught up and brought the first set to a tiebreak, which she won. The second set was just as tight as the first, but Keys prevailed in that one, too--6-4.

The final will be held in Prague. The Czech Republic has won the Fed Cup champion five times in the past seven years.

Here are the results of World Group Play-offs:

Belarus def. Slovakia, 3-2
Romania def. Switzerland, 3-1
Australia def. Netherlands, 4-1
Belgium def. Italy, 4-0

Note that former Fed Cup giant Italy could not get back into the World Group. Sara Errani remains as the only member of the Fed Cup stalwarts, and she lost both of her singles rubbers.

Here are the World Group II results:

Latvia def. Russia, 3-2
Canada def. Ukraine, 3-2
Spain def. Paraguay, 3-1
Japan def. Great Britain, 3-2

Latvia is, of course, another former Fed Cup giant. Unlike Italy, however, the Russian team included two rather competitive players, Ekaterina Makarova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But that wasn't enough for Latvian team members Alona Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova (though Sevastova did lose to Pavlyuchenkova in three sets).

The Canada--Ukraine competition went on for hours today. Starting the day at 1-1, Canada went to 2-1 when Genie Bouchard won her rubber (she also won her Saturday rubber). In the fourth rubber, Gabriela Dabrowski took the first set, but Kateryna Bondarenko came back to take the final two, forcing a deciding doubles rubber. That also went to three sets, with Canada winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

Japan's victory over Great Britain was brought about by, of course, Naomi Osaka, though the young Japanese star lost in straight sets to Jo Konta.

I watched this semifinal like I watched the first tie, on ITF TV via Apple TV, and it was a technical disaster. For about one set, everything would be okay, and then the picture would pixilate like crazy, there would be constant popping noises, and--in one case--the sound lagged quite far behind the picture. ITF TV is now forcing us to buy a pass for both WTA and ATP (like Tennis TV did after the first season). I have no need to watch Davis Cup on ITF TV, but I had to pay for it. To add insult to injury, I couldn't even watch what I did pay to see.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Kiki CoCo Provence

It's always exciting when two Fed Cup big shots oppose each other in Fed Cup competition. Today, it was France's Kiki Mladenovic and the USA's CoCo Vandeweghe, both Fed Cup queens in their own right. In the second rubber of the day, played on red clay in Aix-en-Provence, Vandeweghe--took the first set 6-1. Mladenovic didn't make many errors, but Vandeweghe was able to break her three times.

Not surprisingly, Mladenovic came out in holy terror form in the second set, won it, then continued the momentum through the third, taking away a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory in the World Group semifinal rubber. The Frenchwoman's combination of creativity and athleticism is always stunning, and it was on full display today.

Mladenovic's countrywoman, Pauline Parmentier, did her best to take advantage of a sluggish (how often do we use that adjective in front of her name?) Sloane Stephens, and she almost got away with it. But Stephens had a "wake up" moment and prevailed, 7-6, 7-5, as Parmentier saw set point after set point disappear.

In Charleston, Petra Kvitova made a point of telling us how she isn't that good on clay. Reminded that she won Madrid, she countered with the (legitimate) high altitude/faster surface argument. Then, reminded that she had reached the semifinals of the French Open, she just smiled. Today, on red clay in Stuttgart, she handled Charleston finalist Julia Goerges in straight sets.

In the other rubber played between the Czech Republic and Germany, Karolina Pliskova defeated (former Stuttgart champion) Angie Kerber 7-5, 6-3. Plisko hit 15 aces.

Here are the results of the first day of the World Group Play-offs:

Belarus vs. Slovakia: 1-1
Australia vs. Netherlands: 1-1
Romania vs. Switzerland: 2-0
Belgium vs. Italy: 2-0

And in World Group II Play-offs, there was this:

The Russia vs. Latvia tie is a tasty one. Today, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeated Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, and Alona Ostapenko defeated Ekaterina Makarova 7-5, 6-4.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Schmiedlova plays winning tennis and teaches a worthwhile lesson


She of the beautiful backhand and the slumping career gave us a big exhale Sunday when she won the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota. But the final, in which Anna Karolina Schmiedlova played against 2012 champion and 5th seed Laura Arruabarrena, also featured some of the Schmiedlova roller coaster play we've seen all too much of in the last few years.

Leading 6-2, 5-2, Schmiedlova served for the match and was broken. Arruabarrena then held serve for the first time in the match. The Slovak served for the match again, and was broken again. However, she was then able to break Arruabarena to win the match 6-2, 6-4.

At the trophy ceremony, speaking of her coach, Schmiedy said: "He was with me in the bad times, now he's with me in the better times." Obviously, it was a very emotional moment for both of them.

In 2015, Schmiedlova played in three finals--all against Italians--and won two of them. She lost to Sara Errani in Rio de janeiro, and defeated Errani in the Bucharest final. She also won in Katowice, defeating Camila Giorgi in the final. Schmiedlova entered the top 30 that year, becoming number 26 in the world. Her competency on clay, as well as her amazing backhand, looked like a combination that could take her far.

But when the slump came, it was a huge one. In 2016, she lost 16 consecutive WTA matches, and her ranking dropped to 227. The next year, it rose to 133. That was a big improvement, but it wasn't a ranking that reflected Schmiedlova's talent.

But she kept at it, looking better--sometimes only a little bit better--each month, grinding her way through challengers and winning them, and this past week, she proved that--on some level--she never lost belief in herself. Tennis is a very mental affair (as are all sports, but tennis is an especially cerebral--and isolating--game), and belief has to exist. Sometimes--as in all of life--someone else has to hold the belief for us for a while, but eventually, we have to hold it ourselves, or everything falls apart.

It didn't all fall apart for Schmiedy. None of us can know what she went through, but it had to have been very difficult to go from being one of the most promising players on the tour to not being able to win a match. But this weekend, in Bogota, she found her way again. That's something that can inspire us all.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Some final thoughts on Charleston

2018 champion Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
When I arrived at the Volvo Car Open on Daniel Island on Monday, April 2, I picked Julia Goerges to win the tournament. I predicted she would defeat Naomi Osaka in straight sets, which she did. I predicted that she would defeat defending champion Daria Kasatkina; she did. I also predicted that Kiki Bertens would defeat Madison Keys; that happened, too. And I predicted that Anastasija Sevastova would be in the final four; she was.

I was on a real roll--until the final. It wasn't shocking that Bertens won, though I thought she would be the runner-up, but there were some factors that were truly surprising: Bertens prevailed, despite carrying a hip injury, and despite having played, on the same day, a tense and grueling three-set semifinal. And most surprising of all--Goerges, who had been brilliant most of the week, came out flat for the final and was never able to do much of anything.

Julia Goerges (photo by Daniel Ward)

So for me, the results were quite predictable--until they weren't. And that's one of the reasons we watch tennis--anything can happen.

Bertens' win in Charleston created a genuine feel-good moment. This is the biggest victory of her career, and she achieved it under very difficult circumstances. She indicated, after the final, that once she got through her difficult semifinal, she used her desire to win to give her the energy she needed to go on. That match point she saved against Keys probably also gave her some energy.

Goerges, for her part, handled her loss with wisdom and perspective. She was mentally drained after her semifinal, and just couldn't do what she intended to do. In her press conference, she was able to place her runner-up status within the context of her recent success, rather than seeing it as a failure.

Much has been made of Naomi Osaka's tears, and her comments about waking up feeling depressed the day before her loss to Goerges. But this turn of events really isn't an unexpected thing. Osaka is not only young, but also sometimes seems even a bit younger than she actually is. Suddenly, she's famous in the tennis world, and she doesn't yet have the skills to deal with all the changes that take place when that happens. I assume there will be people who can help Osaka manage this change in her career.

Two players made their post-injury returns to the tour at the Volvo Car Open. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, beloved in Charleston, went out in the first round in singles and made it to the second round in doubles. Her fans were very happy to see her.

Also returning to the tour after almost a year off was Laura Siegemund (who would have been my choice to win the tournament under different circumstances). The German--the most entertaining clay court player around--made it to the second round, but lost to Naomi Osaka. Last year, Siegemund made it to the semifinals and lost to eventual champion Daria Kasatkina. She then went to Stuttgart and won the championship.

A day didn't go by when one of us didn't mournfully say "I miss JJ." Jelena Jankovic, Charleston's post-Patty Schnyder era rock star, was conspicuous by her absence. Her comedy partner, the also-very popular Andrea Petkovic, arrived as a wild card, but went out in the first round. Jankovic won the tournament in 2007, and Petkovic won it in 2014.

Also absent was 2017 runner-up Alona Ostapenko, who I hope will return soon.

Of course, I didn't get to see all of the matches--no one can do that. But of the ones I saw, there were some I especially enjoyed:

2nd round--Julia Goerges def. Kristie Ahn: Ahn took Goerges to the edge in this match, dragging her to three tough sets (2-6, 6-4, 7-6) and giving the 5th seed quite a scare.

3rd round--Alize Cornet def. Caroline Garcia: Cornet is a very gifted player who is as inconsistent as they come. But when she's switched on, she's a joy to watch. She used both guile and stunning athleticism to take out the top seed in straight sets; Garcia didn't have a chance.

Alize Cornet (photo by Daniel Ward)
quarterfinals--Madison Keys def. Bernarda Pera: Pera made a splash at the Australian Open when she upset Johanna Konta, and she made another splash last week when she made it to the third round, when she took out 2014 finalist Jana Cepelova and Sara Errani, then took Madison Keys through three tough sets. Pera's serve gave her a lot of trouble; had it been in better shape, the match (6-2, 6-7, 7-5) might have ended differently.

semifinals--Kiki Bertens def. Madison keys: This was a total thriller, with no one having any idea who would win until the last moment. Bertens held two match points in the second set; Keys held one in the third set, and then Bertens won the match 6-4, 6-7, 7-6.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Kiki Bertens plays five sets in one day and wins Volvo Car Open

photo by Leslie Billman
It was a crazy tennis day on Daniel Island. Yesterday's rain-out caused both doubles semifinals to be played today, all of one singles semifinal, and most of another one.

The first singles semifinal played today featured 12th seed Kiki Bertens and Madison Keys, and it was a wild ride indeed. Bertens won the first set, then held two match points in the second. On her second match point, she had what appeared to be an easy passing shot to take the title, but she didn't pass, and Keys was able to win the point easily. Keys went on to win that set.

To add to the drama, Bertens' hip--which she injured on Thursday--was bothering her throughout the  match. And the match went on and on--for over two hours and and forty-two mintues. In the third set, Keys held a match point. Bertens saved it, and went on to win a tiebreak, putting her into the final.

Meanwhile, the match between Julia Goerges and Anastasija Sevastova was stopped at 4-all in the first set on Friday. They resumed play late this afternoon, and Goerges won the match in straight sets.

Goerges had a wobble in her second round match against Kristie Ahn, but after that, she pretty much cruised through the draw, using her killer serve and her estimable forehand. So this evening, she had to play someone who had labored under duress for close to three hours today, and who was carrying an injury. It didn't take a lot of imagination to believe that the German would most likely hold the trophy.

But that's not what happened. Goerges came out flat, and was unable to find her game at all. Bertens, on the other hand, appeared as fresh as can be, and made quick work of her opponent, defeating her 6-2, 6-1 in under an hour. Bertens is a very fine clay court player, but this was nevertheless a stunning turn of events.

Later, in a press conference, Goerges said that her semifinal had drained her of mental energy, and that her performance "obviously wasn't the way I was planning to play and the way it should have been happening." She also said that Bertens made few mistakes and made her work for every point. "...she's a hell of a player, and for me it's great--if I have to lose to someone, I want to lose to her today."

Bertens said that the day of rest helped her hip, but then it was tight when she woke up this morning. But, she said, the more she played, the warmer her hip became, and she was able to cope.

During the trophy ceremony, three Volvos were driven onto the court. The winner of the Volvo Car Open gets a Volvo to drive for two years. While Bertens was still holding her trophy, she was invited to use the Volvo app to design her car, which she did.

Bertens is the first player from Netherlands to win in Charleston.

Meanwhile, Alla Kudryavtseva and Katarina Srebotnik won the doubles title, defeating Andreja Klepac and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez 6-3, 6-3 in the final. Srebotnik last won the doubles championship in Charleston ten years ago, when she and Ai Sugiyama defeated Edina Gallovits-Hall and Olga Govortsova.

Kiki or Julia? Volvo Car Open final is coming up

A bit later today, 12th seed Kiki Bertens of Netherlands will compete against 5th seed Julia Goerges of Germany for the singles championship of the 2018 Volvo Car Open.

It's a tough day for both competitors. Bertens' hip locked on her during her match on Thursday. Fortunately, a good pull from the trainer put her back on the court in pretty good shape. Yesterday, she and Goerges were at 4-all in the first set of their semifinal when the bad weather came; eventually, all play was canceled for the day. This may have worked in Bertens' favor because it gave her another day to work on injury recovery.

The Dutchwoman was on the schedule first today, and she defeated 7th seed Madison Keys in a real seesaw match in which Bertens held two match points in the second set. But she was unable to convert them. Keys held two match points in the third set, but also failed to convert them. The two-hour and 42-minute match was a toss-up right until the last moment, when Bertens won the third set tiebreak. Her 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 victory put her into the biggest final of her career.

It should be noted, however, that the 12th seed was somewhat bothered by her hip during this match.

Goerges, for her part, defeated 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova 7-6, 6-3 in today's delayed semifinal. Aside from struggling in her second round match against Kristie Ahn, the German has been spot-on throughout her campaign in Charleston. Goerges is attempting to become the fifth German to win the tournament; past winners were Steffi Graf, Sabine Lisicki, Andrea Petkovic, and Angie Kerber. 

This is the first time since Lisicki's victory in 2009 that two western Europeans have vied for the championship.

Rained out at 4-all, Goerges and Sevastova resume semifinal play today

It isn't easy, for players or spectators, to have a match stop two-thirds into the first set, but it does happen, and it happened today in Charleston when the rain came during the Volvo Car Open's first singles semifinal match.

Julia Goerges and Anastasija Sevastova were locked at 4-all after Goerges caught up from a slow start to the match. All play for the day was eventually suspended, so the match will resume this afternoon.

This is the first time that either player has reached the semifinals of the event.

The other semifinal, which will be played this morning, features Madison Keys and Kiki Bertens. Bertens sustained a hip injury in her Friday night quarterfinal, so the delay in play could be helpful to her. Keys was a finalist in 2015, when Angie Kerber won the tournament.

Madison Keys (original photo by Daniel Ward)
Kiki Bertens (original photo by Daniel Ward)

Friday, April 6, 2018

Volvo Car Open quarterfinal gallery

Clockwise, from top left: Daria Kasatkina, Julia Georges, Madison Keys, Kristyna Pliskova, Anastasija Sevastova, Kiki Bertens, Bernarda Pera, Alize Cornet (all photos by Daniel Ward)

Julia Goerges defeats defending champion in Volvo Car Open quarterfinals

Julia Goerges (photo by Daniel Ward)
A somewhat flat and off-beat Daria Kasatkina showed up for the first quarterfinal of the day at the Volvo Car Open, only to face an in-form and aggressive Julia Goerges. Kasatkina, seeded 3rd at the tournament, was the defending champion. Goerges, the 5th seed, used her excellent serve and her forehand, especially her forehand passing shot, to get by Kasatkina, 6-4, 6-3. The two women are very good friends. Kasatkina also lost to Goerges in the final of last year's Kremlin Cup.

In tomorrow's semifinals, Goerges will face off against 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova, who defeated Kristyna Pliskova, 6-4, 6-0.

The other semifinal will feature 12th seed Kiki Bertens and 7th seed Madison Keys. Bertens defeated 14th seed Alize Cornet 6-2, 7-5 in the night match. In last night's feature match, Cornet upset top seed Caroline Garcia. Bertens sustained a hip injury during tonight's match. Her hip got locked, she said, but it was obviously much improved after a trainer gave her leg a good pull.

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)

Keys had to do some work in her quarterfinal against Bernarda Pera, but defeated her 6-2, 6-7, 7-5.

Mihaela Buzarnescu and Heather Watson defeated Raquel Atawo and Anna-Lena Groenefeld in the daytime doubles quarterfinal. In the night session, Kateryna Bondarenko and Alex Krunic defeated Nadia Kichenok and Anastasia Rodionova 6-3, 6-3.

Madison Keys (photo by Daniel Ward)   

Anastasija Sevastova (photo by Daniel Ward)

What they said this week at the Volvo Car Open

“I hate losing. That’s why I don’t play board games.”

Alex Krunic

“…I was joking, like, 'hey, want to be my coach?' And she was like, 'yeah, sure!' And I was 'really, really?' Like, that’s actually how it went.”
Kristie Ahn, on how Shenay Perry came to be her coach

“It’s tough training for two weeks, playing a match, playing and training for two weeks, playing a match, losing, and it’s a tough cycle to be in because you feel more nervous and extra pressure for that match, especially you’re on center court and it’s a big tournament, or maybe you get a wild card.”
Genie Bouchard

“There are many things that you can do in your life. So you start to think about that, and sometimes it’s worse to think abou that. But it’s coming. So you have to be ready to combine, and even when you will stop, what you will do. So the day comes."
Sara Errani, on looking ahead

So can you just talk through that second set, how you were able to stay composed and what do you think the secret was to getting it done it straight sets.
“I feel like you’re making fun of me.”
Naomi Osaka

“And she’s a lefty and I am lefty. I play always bad against lefties. The serve is different, and I’m not used to it.”
Kristyna Pliskova

“…I mean, when you’re ranked 900, it’s not their pride of like, ‘yes my daughter is playing professional tennis, but she’s ranked 900.”
Kristie Ahn

“I love downtown, those little restaurants, those are really cute. It’s more European, I feel like.”
Fanny Stollar

“And it’s not a goal to like everyone, but I think it’s nice if you can deal with everyone.”
Julia Goerges

“It was already 10 p.m., so I just went home. Yeah, I had dinner and I went to sleep. That’s it. I was not able to go to the nightclub and celebrate my win.”
Daria Kasatkina

“The first set, the court seemed so small because, I mean, I’ve never played on a stadium this big.”
Bernarda Pera

On your Instagram account, I saw you were hitting the soccer ball around. Is that in your future, a soccer career for you?

“Did you watch the video?”

Madison Keys

“But the match starts with yourself, and that’s what I can control.”

Julia Goerges

“It’s very nice, but at the same time, it’s, yeah, put a little bit of pressure on you because everybody is asking you if I saw this big picture on the stadium. Like, I think everybody saw it in the city.”
Daria Kasatkina

“Every week we’re on the clay is a week we’re closer to grass.”
Ash Barty

“So it’s not easy, but I think it’s just sport and it’s just coach, so he can do whatever he wants. And he gets better offer, then he can go. It’s like, not marriage.”
Kristyna Pliskova

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Top seed Caroline Garcia upset by Alize Cornet at Volvo Car Open

photo by Daniel Ward
Top seed Caroline Garcia was taken out of the Volvo Car Open in the third round tonight in Charleston when an inspired Alize Cornet used all of the guile, athleticism and fight that she possesses, but that we don't always get to see, given her challenges in the mental toughness department. When Cornet does get into that zone, she becomes a one-woman tennis extravaganza, and she was in full flight tonight against her friend and countrywoman.

Midway through the first set, Cornet took control, and it appeared she was headed toward taking it, but Garcia grabbed control back and won the set 7-5. I'm sure many fans thought that the top seed would then wrap things up, but Cornet (whom a colleague referred to as "a human headache") was just getting started. When she got to 5-0 in the second set, it was clear that her momentum was still with her.

She won that set 6-1, then broke Garcia to begin the third set. 
Garcia broke back, and--the way this script usually goes is that "things get put right." Cornet would have none of it, and broke Garcia right back. Finally, she wore the top seed down, and even though Garcia managed to hold at 3-5, Cornet didn't waver in winning the set 6-4 and advancing to the quarterfinals.

Cornet's forehand was on fire tonight, and for a good part of the match, Garcia couldn't seem to stay away from it. Garcia also did herself no favors by making repeated errors throughout the match.

Caroline Garcia (photo by Daniel Ward)

Ten years ago, when Cornet was only 18, she came to Charleston to what was then the Family Circle Cup, and impressed fans with her athleticism and fighting spirit. She leapt and finessed her way to the semifinals, in which she lost a very respectable match to eventual champion Serena Williams.

7th seed Madison Keys also advanced to the quarterfinals of the Volvo Car Open today when she defeated Camila Giorgi 6-4, 6-3 this afternoon. Keys was a finalist at the event in 2015.

Also winning this afternoon was 12th seed Kiki Bertens, who defeated an injured Fanny Stollar in straight sets. And Kristyna Pliskova, who upset 2nd seed Petra Kvitova yesterday, defeated two-time finalist Elena Vesnina 6-3, 1-6, 6-2.

l. to r.: Kristyna Pliskova, Madison Keys, Kiki Bertens--all photos by Daniel Ward

The first match tomorrow will feature close friends Julia Goerges, seeded 5th, and defending champion and 3rd seed Daria Kasatkina. In her press conference today, Goerges described the young Russian as one of her best friends on the tour. Goerges defeated Kasatkina last year in the Kremlin Cup final.

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Alize Cornet (14) vs. Kiki Bertens (12)
Bernarda Pera vs. Madison Keys (7)
Julia Goerges (5) vs. Daria Kasatkina (3)
Anastaija Sevastova (8) vs. Kristyna Pliskova

The frustrated faces of Charleston

all photos by Daniel Ward

clockwise from top left: Anastasija Sevastova, Julia Goerges, Daria Kasatkina, Julia Goerges, Sara Errani, Ash Barty, Alize Cornet (center)

Goerges knocks out Osaka and advances to Charleston quarterfinals

Julia Goerges (photo by Daniel Ward)
Volvo Car Open 5th seed Julia Goerges of Germany strengthened her Charleston campaign this morning with a straight set win over 10th seed Naomi Osaka. The first set was hard-fought by both opponents, and Goerges finished it with a 7-4 tiebreak. Goerges, one of the best servers on the tour, hit eight aces, and finished with first- and second serve win percentages of 71 and 58, respectively. Georges, who used both her serve and her game's signature variety to out
Naomi Osaka (photo by Daniel Ward)
wit Osaka, hit 27 winners and made 20 unforced errors.

After the match, Osaka revealed that yesterday morning, she woke up feeling "very depressed, but I don't know why." Osaka said "it comes in waves." One can assume that the stress of having won Indian Wells and achieving tennis stardom may have the young Japanese player somewhat overwhelmed, and also, that she may be quite mentally tired.

Meanwhile, 8th seed Anastaija Sevastova made a second consecutive quarterfinal run by defeating 9th seed Ash Barty 6-3, 6-4, and defending champion and 3rd seed Daria Kasatkina defeated 13th seed Irina-Camelia Begu 6-2, 6-1.

Speaking with the press after her match, Kasatkina--who had a difficult time in her opening match--talked about her mixed feelings regarding being the defending champion. "Nobody told me it's so difficult to come and defend a title," she said. Asked what it feels like to look at the stadium and see her face on it, she replied: "It's awkward....It's very nice, but at the same time, it's, yeah, put a little bit of pressure on you because everybody is asking you if I saw this big picture on the stadium. Like I think everybody saw it in the city...."

7th seed Madison Keys, who was the runner-up in 2015, defeated Camila Giorgi in straight sets, and Bernarda Pera defeated wild card Sara Errani 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. The left-handed, Croatian-born Pera, who plays for the USA, is ranked number 101 in the world. Pera was a lucky loser at the 2018 Australian Open, where she upset 9th-seeded Johanna Konta in the second round.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

16 women left in Charleston

qualifier Fanny Stollar (photo by Daniel Ward)
Of the sixteen remaining singles players in Charleston, eleven are seeded. There are also three unseeded players, one wild card, and one qualifier in the mix.

There are two players from the USA, two from France, and two from Russia.

There is only one former champion (Daria Kasatkina, 2017) left, and there's also a two-time runner-up (Elena Vesnina, 2011 and 2016).

wild card Sara Errani (photo by Daniel Ward)
Here is the third round draw:

Caroline Garcia (1) vs. Alize Cornet (14)
Kiki Bertens (12) vs. Fanny Stollar (Q)
Bernarda Pera vs. Sara Errani (WC)
Camila Giorgi vs. Madison Keys (7)
Julia Goerges (5) vs. Naomi Osaka (10)
Irina-Camelia Begu (13) vs. Daria Kasatkina (3)
Anastasija Sevastova (8) vs. Ashleigh Barty (9)
Elena Vesnina (16) vs. Kristyna Pliskova

Upsets abound on the third day of the Volvo Car Open

clockwise: Julia Goerges, Camila Giorgi, Kristyna Pkiskova, Kiki Bertens
(all photos by Daniel Ward)

Today, in Charleston, in 2nd round play, 2nd seed Petra Kvitova--making her first appearance at the Volvo Car Open--was defeated 1-6, 6-1, 6-3 by countrywoman Kristyna Pliskova, and 6th seed Johanna Konta was upset in straight sets by qualifier Fanny Stollar. Also going out was 11th seed Daria Gavrilova, who was sent home by always-dangerous Camila Giorgi.

A few seeded players had to fight hard for their victories. Kristie Ahn took 5th seed Julia Goerges to three sets, and Goerges won the match in a third set tiebreak (7-1). 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova also had to go to three sets, but defeated Caroline Dolehide 7-5, 6-7, 6-1. And Tatjana Maria took 9th seed Ash Barty to three sets.

Laura Siegemund, whose performances at the Volvo Car Open have been nothing short of stunning the past two years, chose Charleston to make her return to the tour after having to take almost a year off following a serious knee injury. Siegemund won her first round, but lost her second round to Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka. Osaka defeated Siegemund 6-3, 7-6, and the second set tiebreak (10-8) was a thrilling one.

12th seed Kiki Bertens defeated an injured Alex Krunic in straight sets, and two-time finalist Elena Vesnina, who is seeded 16th, defeated Taylor Townsend 6-4, 6-1.

Of interest tomorrow: Two Frenchwomen--top seed Caroline Garcia and 14th seed Alize Cornet--compete against one another in the featured night match. And first on the Volvo Car Stadium's Billie Jean King Court is a match I'm expecting to be exceptional: 5th seed Julia Goerges vs. 10th seed Naomi Osaka. Also, defending champion and 3rd seed Daria Kasatkina will face 13th seed Irina-Caelia Begu.

Pliskova ends Kvitova's Czech streak

photo by Daniel Ward
Kristyna Pliskova did something today that no Czech woman has done since 2012--she defeated Petra Kvitova and broke Kvitova's 24-match win streak against her countrywomen. Playing in the late afternoon in the second round of the Volvo Car Open, the big-serving Czech and the two-time Wimbledon champion engaged in a topsy-turvy contest in which Kvitova took the first set 6-1, and Pliskova took the second set 6-1.

Pliskova, like some other big servers on the tour, sometimes can't get into a service groove, and that's exactly what happened to her in the first set. But she corrected that problem in the second set, then proceeded to go up 5-1 in the third. Kvitova, who was sweating heavily throughout the match (in relatively cool conditions), and who looked kind of tired, got some kind of second wind, and suddenly, it was 5-3. And while she had chances to make it 5-4, Pliskova prevailed, knocking the 2nd seed out of the tournament.

Later, talking with the press, Pliskova, who is left-handed, said that it's very difficult for her to play left-handers, but once she found her serve, she felt more confident. Next for Pliskova is two-time runner-up Elena Vesnina.

photos by Daniel Ward

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Defending champion Kasatkina does it the hard way in Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward

It was the first night match of the 2018 Volvo Car Open, and defending champion Daria Kasatkina had to try out her clay court legs for the first time this season on the event's main court (specifically, the Billie Jean King court), with the crowd cheering enthusiastically for her opponent. That opponent, USA player Christina McHale, came close to sending Kasatkina home.

The Russian's game is generally one of craft and strategy, and includes her signature drop shot. But not tonight. Almost until the end, the opponents stayed on the baseline and traded groundstrokes--sometimes a lot of groundstrokes--and Kasatkina's errors made her increasingly vulnerable as the two hour and sixteen-minute match wore on. Kasatkina also had problems with her second serve, and--quite obviously to anyone who paid attention to her body language--her mentality.

Kasatkina won the first set 6-3, though she had trailed during much of it. She had little momentum going into the second, which McHale took 6-3.  Finally, though, she took control of a match that had often been dictated by her opponent. The change in Kasatkina's attitude and confidence was as dramatic in its rehabilitation as it had been in its collapse. She won the final set 6-2, breaking McHale at love in the last game.

photos by Daniel Ward

It was, at times, painful to watch the Russian star as she wilted, then became angry with herself. But in the end, she did what the truly superior players do: She found a way to win.

Next for Kasatkina will be qualifier Claire Liu.

Also today, 2010 champion Sam Stosur was defeated by Kristie Ahn in straight sets, and top seed Caroline Garcia defeated Varvara Lepchenko in straight sets. Garcia will face either Polona Hercog or Alize Cornet in the second round.

Alex Krunic: slight of build, fleet of foot, and born to compete

photos by Daniel Ward
Aleksandra Krunic is into the second round of the Volvo Car Open. The 25-year-old Moscow-born Serbian player defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-2, 6-2 yesterday, and will face 12th seed Kiki Bertens in the second round. The hard-hitting, fast-moving Krunic has drawn the attention of fans in the last few years, partly because of her Fed Cup exploits. On more than one occasion, she was called in to play clutch doubles in final rubbers, and she played a major role in gaining victories for her country.

Now, fans are noticing Krunic on WTA courts. Last year, she won a thrilling match against Alona Ostapenko in Cincinnati, and there’s already a little buzz about her in Charleston. Krunic is quite small for a contemporary tennis player; she’s five feet, four inches tall and of slight build, but she competes quite well because of her speed, her hard hitting, and her very fierce competitive spirit.

I spent a little time with her today because I wanted to learn more about her and about her tennis.

The young Serbian began her tennis career when she was around three years old and her father gave her a racket with a sponge ball. Apparently, it was love at first sight. Krunic told me that it was hard to find a place to learn tennis in Moscow, but she was lucky—there was an older man giving tennis lessons at a court next door her house. At age four, she picked up a real racket and hasn’t put it down since.

“I played everything when I was a kid,” Krunic said. “I was an outdoor kid. I think I was the last generation of outdoor kids.”

Krunic was especially fond of soccer when she was a child. At age seven, she entered the Spartak Tennis Club. She also likes playing basketball, and her fitness coach is an ex-basketball pro.

Asked about her notable competitiveness, Krunic chalked it up to being Serbian. “I was always competing in everything. I think it’s more of my genes. I hate losing—that’s why I don’t play board games.”

The player who most influenced Krunic was former Australian- and French Open champion Mary Pierce, whom Krunic describes as “always a lady on court—but she was a hard hitter.”

Krunic describes herself as “fast but not strong.” She’s currently working more on balance. “I’ve worked on it a few weeks now, and I think it’s already better….Sometimes I get to the ball and I get satisfied that I’m just on the ball, and I forget that I can do much more with it.”

The Serbian has also added Sarah Stone to her team. Stone has effected some changes, and now, Krunic says, “I’m practicing more, but I’m a player who doesn’t practice much. I like to be intense, to keep my intensity. I prefer to be intense for one, one and a half hours, then spend three hours on the court.”

Aside from twisting her ankles a few times (‘because of the way I move”), Krunic has sustained no injuries in her professional career. She likes to slide on grass, so she tapes her ankles during grass court season.

I asked Krunic to talk about the obviously emotional moment when she defeated Kimiko Date in the Japanese star’s last-ever tennis match. Krunic defeated Date 6-0, 6-0 in the first round in Tokyo last year. She said she received some negative comments from non-athletes who were upset that she didn’t “give” Date a game. “I think the biggest respect I could show was just to be at my top,” Krunic explained. She talked with Date about this, and—not surprisingly—Date was in total agreement with her.

Talking about Kimiko Date prompted Krunic to discuss her feelings about what might happen after she retires from professional tennis. “This is all we know, pretty much. I’m trying to be very open, and I do my things on court, I leave, and I read an learn. But this tennis bubble is all we ever knew. You never get this adrenaline feeling ever the same….All of a sudden, you’re in the normal world, you have a lot of time to think….you know what the feeling was and you can’t get it back.”

When Krunic isn’t on the court or in the gym, she likes to drive her car, spend time with her godsons, and read about psychology: “I like to find things out about myself.”

I think that fans will be glad to find things out about her, too, as they keep an eye on her already-interesting career.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Madison Keys and FearlesslyGIRL

photo by Daniel Ward
Madison Keys, a FearlesslyGIRL ambassador, talked about the organization and her own experience with online bullies at today's All Access Hour in Charleston. Keys said that she had become more assertive in addressing online attacks made against her.

What she has learned, she said, is that “…if you retweet it, a lot more people report them.” Also, she said, “It’s amazing how you retweet ‘em and their tweets disappear.”

"It’s really helped me to kind of find my own voice," Keys reported. "…and it’s been amazing to see how doing that has really helped, just my entire life, feeling more centered and balanced.”

FearlesslyGIRL is dedicated to inspiring girls to be kinder to themselves and each other. The organization recently reached over 7,000 in 77 schools in 22 states and provinces

Top seeds have lots to say at Volvo Car Open All Access Hour

Top seed Caroline Garcia (photo by Daniel Ward)
It was a chatty group who showed up today at the Daniel Island Club to meet with members of the tennis media. We learned a lot: Madison Keys knows how to handle online trolls, Julia Goerges enjoys doing her own taxes, Petra Kvitova is already a Charleston food afficianado, and defending champion Dasha Kasatkina does a scary good imitation of "California talk" (this, from hanging out with the WTA's Courtney Nguyen).
2nd seed Petra Kvitova (photo by Daniel Ward)

The players were in high spirits. Kvitova flashed her skills with a soccer ball, and Sevastova was her usual droll self. Top seed Caroline Garcia told us how nice it feels for her to change from hard court to clay. She also talked about how all players--ATP and WTA--need to respect each other. Garcia, through attending matches and being active on social media, has forged some good relationships with French football (soccer) players.

Jo Konta discussed her mindfulness practice, which is integrated into her day-to-day life. Konta is also a yoga practitioner.

Kvitova was transparent about her awkwardness on clay courts--though we did remind her that she won Madrid. Of course, because of the altitude, the Madrid court plays faster than other red clay courts. But then, we also reminded her that she has reached the semifinals at the French Open! The 2nd seed also talked about the upcoming Fed Cup tie in Germany; Germans playing on a clay court at home (Stuttgart) gives them the advantage, she said, but the Czech team will do its best.

Anastasija Sevastova (photo by Daniel Ward)
Goerges explained to us that she is very organized in every aspect of her life, and that she likes to take as much responsibility for her life as possible, which includes doing her own taxes. Also, it turns out, she really likes numbers.

The German, like the other top seeds, said that playing on green clay is an excellent transition from hard court to red clay. "It's like a hard court with a little clay on it," she said. It's been about five years since Goerges has competed in Charleston, and she said she was very glad to return.

Goerges also talked about the difference between European and U.S. crowds. "I think, in general, they (U.S. fans) are much more into it." "Here, they are more open...they just sit there having a good time, and I like it."

Julia Goerges (photo by Daniel Ward)
The ever-thoughtful German also expressed her disappointment over the way that mobile phones have caused people to stop personally communicating with each other. We could easily have spent an entire afternoon just listening to Goerges deconstruct contemporary culture, but we all had to return to the tennis center.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Looking ahead to the French Open

The French Open, as my Twitter followers and readers of this blog know, is my favorite major, so I'm always looking ahead to it. And as of right now, there are a number of women who--on paper--could win it, meaning--they have the skills to win it. They are, in no particular order:

Serena Williams--a ruler of all surfaces, Williams has been the least successful on clay, but bear in mind that her version of "least successful" is having won the French Open "only" three times. Under normal circumstances, I'd put Williams on the realistic "potential champion" list, but these are not normal circumstances. The great champion is just coming back after not only giving birth, but also having undergone another very serious medical crisis.

Maria Sharapova--She's won it twice, but Sharapova just isn't herself. She's currently dealing with a wrist injury, and even though (I hope) it may heal soon, she doesn't have any momemtum.

Angie Kerber--The German, like Williams, is adept on all surfaces. She's won both Charleston and Stuttgart, and appeared to be in line as a potential French Open champion until she had her massive 2017 slump. But she's back now, and I give her a better chance than most to reign on the clay of Roland Garros.

Simona Halep--Twice a French Open finalist, Halep seems built to prevail in Paris. Is 2018 her year? It should be, but the sensitive Romanian appears to have already lost some of her 2018 resolve to stay calm and cool in the midst of stressful circumstances. I still think her chances are very good, however, but she needs to check her tendencies to--as The Backspinner would say--fall off the Cliffs of Simona.

Alona Ostapenko--She's the defending champion, but she isn't having much success in the consistency department. Her 2017 Wimbledon run was quite impressive, considering how many new champions bomb out in the next major. But since then, Ostapenko has been quite streaky; right now, it's hard to imagine her defending her title.

Laura Siegemund--This may strike some as an odd choice, but Siegemund can beat anyone on clay, and is possibly the most exciting-to-watch clay competitor on the tour. She definintely has the skills to win a very big clay title. However, there are two obstacles. One is that she's just returning from a major injury layoff. The other is that the German player is such an extreme grinder, one wonders if she could ever survive seven straight matches without wilting from exhaustion.

Garbine Muguruza--She's won it before, and she can win it again. Muguruza is as mercurial as they come, but when she's on a big stage, she lights up. I like her chances to win a second French Open.

Caroline Garcia--She has the skills, and has banished her fear-of-France demons. Who knows?

Kiki Mladenovic--She has the skills, but consistency tends to elude the emotionally busy Frenchwoman.

Svetlana Kuznetsova--The 2009 champion still has all the great clay moves, but her glory days appear to be over. Wouldn't it be nice, though? (Dream final: Kuznetsova vs. Siegemund--bathroom breaks for everyone.)

Elina Svitolina--The very successful title winner hasn't performed to her potential at the  majors, but if she decides to do so, the French Open would be a good testing ground.

Daria Kasatkina--It may not happen this year, but Kasatkina has everything it takes to win at Roland Garros. The young Russian stylist can only get better, and her recent obvious increase in confidence bodes well for her to do something really big.

Right now, I think that Muguruza and Halep show the most potential to win the 2018 French Open, with Kerber as another possible serious choice. We'll learn more as the clay season starts, but--as Ostapenko's victory proves--we should never think we know very much.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Naomi Osaka announces herself in the desert

A desert is a place without expectation.
Nadine Gordimer

Today, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka not only won the BNP Paribas Open; she also became the event's second consecutive unexpected champion. But the circumstances were oh, so different. Last year, champion Elena Vesnina and Svetlana Kuznetsova put on a knock-down drag-out spectacle that went on for three hours. Today, a spot-on in-form Osaka took out a clearly flat and under-performing Daria Kasatkina in just and hour and ten minutes.


So many times, in finals, we see this pattern: One player just isn't herself, and the other plays out of her mind. Naturally, one feeds on and expands the other. This "should" have been a three-set match, but instead, it fell into this too-familiar pattern.

Osaka is also following in the footsteps of her peers, Garbine Muguruza and Alona Ostapenko, in that her first WTA win is a really big one. Of course, hers wasn't quite as big as theirs, but it was big enough to turn her into an instant star. It wasn't that long ago that Osaka (like early Kvitova) was just swinging at everything and hitting it as hard as she could. Those days are over; the young Japanese player has improved her fitness and added some tactics to her game, which is now truly formidable.

This was a significant BNP Paribas Open not only because two 20-year-olds were in the final, but also because of what each of them had to do to get there. Osaka took out five-time major champion Maria Sharapova, Aga Radwanska, an in-form Maria Sakkari, and Karolina Pliskova. Kasatkina had an even tougher route: She defeated 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stevens, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, two-time major champion Angelique Kerber, and five-time major champion Venus Williams.

While their games are quite different, both players are extremely talented, and my gut feeling is that neither of them is going to fold from the pressure of either ranking or public recognition. And speaking of rankings, tomorrow, Osaka will be number 22 in the world, and Kasatkina will be number 11.

The times are changing--that's for sure.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A case for non-domination

Maria Sharapova is back. Vika Azarenka is back. Most significant of all is that Serena Williams is back. Sharapova is having a hard time getting into her groove, though there have been moments of promise, and anyway, she hasn't been dominant for a while. Azarenka is rusty, yes, but that is most likely not her biggest problem. The talented Belarusian has a history of illness and injury that is almost freakish in its manifestation, and there is no reason to think that her snakebittten days are over.

As for Serena, I expect great things from her, yes, but I don't expect tour domination. As super-human as she seems, she is--in the end--human. For a tennis player, she's old, and she just missed 14 months of play.

One could rationally expect Garbine Muguruza to step in as the next dominant player--and this could still happen-- but, for now, the Spaniard has shown us many moments of startling star power, but also many moments of failing to "be there" when it mattered. And while I think that Muguruza, a champion on both clay and grass--is still the most likely player to go on a serious roll, it isn't happening right now.

And if it never happens? I say "so what?" The tour is, in my opinion, quite interesting right now. Will Muguruza win another major this year? What about the force of nature (The Backspinner aptly calls her Latvian Thunder) known as Alona Ostapenko? When will Madison Keys take the next step? Can Venus Williams have another year like 2017? And, of course, is this going to be the year that Simona Halep holds something besides a major runner-up trophy?

And there are so many more questions! Will Petra Kvitova use her new-found strength to return to the very elite portion of the tour? When will Svitolina figure out the majors? Was the Australian Open title a one-off for Caroline Wozniacki? What will Jo Konta and Caroline Garcia show us this year? And then there's this question: What can we expect from Angie Kerber, who has revived her career in 2018?

I have my favorites just like everyone else, and I'd be very happy if they won everything. But that isn't going to happen, so I may as well sit back and enjoy the next breakthrough from one of the tour's young talents, or--maybe even more fun--relish the complete giddiness of The Ostapenko Effect.

Fans also tend to like big rivalries, and no one was more into Chris and Martina than I was, but when there isn't a big rivalry, I don't miss one. If it happens, it happens. There is so much talent on the tour, that--for me--whatever manifests is good enough.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Five things we can learn from Petra Kvitova

1. So much of life is out of our control.
Developing healthy habits, making sensible plans, and developing a fine balance between wise caution and wise risk are strategies that go a long way in allowing us to prevent a lot of trouble in our lives. But even the healthiest and wisest among us are powerless to stop some illnesses and injuries, acts of nature, and random acts of violence and cruelty. When we least expect it, a crazy person can enter our private space and try to slit our throats.

2. You have to try.
Your left hand is how you make your living (and find your joy), and it's been damaged almost to the point of no return. You're fortunate, though--a highly skilled doctor has repaired it. But you can't feel your fingers the way you used to, and it may be quite a while before you can. You can't even make a fist. But you show up several weeks before the doctors predicted you would, and you win a match in a very big event. Then, still with limited feel and strength, you win a tournament. Just like that.

3. Don't look back.
It would be so easy (especially if you already have a tendency to be inconsistent) to come down off the Birmingham cloud and fall into complacency. After all, you've undergone a life-changing trauma. And you already had significant problems with illness, even before the tragedy occurred. Or maybe you could just keep going forward and see what happens. And then--look at you--you win two tournaments (including a premier 5) in a row and return to Fed Cup glory.

4. Let it out.
Cry. Bark "pojd!" louder than you ever did, in that way that only you possess. Tingle with gratitude. Smile. Make everyone laugh, just as you always did. Be okay with the fact that, for a while, in Doha, you were "crazy a little bit in my mind."

5. Treat others with kindness and respect--you have no idea how much it will come back to you.
When you are respected and beloved (just like your dear friend, Li Na), all kinds of people--players, media, umpires, fans--feel your pain and send wholehearted hopes and prayers your way. And you need that in order to heal, both physically and emotionally. What you have given suddenly comes back to you, and you find the extra strength you need to go on, and to come back stronger than ever.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Defending champion Team USA advances to Fed Cup semifinals

The USA, Fed Cup defending champion, advanced to the World Group semifinals today with a 3-0 victory over Netherlands. Venus Williams won two singles rubbers and CoCo Vandewegh won the other. Of note was the fight that Richel Hogenkamp put up against the defending champions. Hogenkamp has done this sort of thing in Fed Cup before, so it wasn't a surprise. She dragged Vandeweghe to three sets, and played a very tight first set against Williams.

It could get a bit more difficult for team USA in the semifinals, when they will go to France to play Team France, or--judging by today--to play Kiki Mladenovic. Just in case there was any doubt that Mladenovic is out of her slump (and there shouldn't be), the Frenchwoman made it very clear this weekend. In fact, in the on-court interview after France clinched the win, Mladenovic was asked if she was "back," and her reply was: "Do I have to say it?"

Pauline Parmentier lost both of her singles rubbers, so Mladenovic had to carry most of the load for Team France. She defeated both Kirsten Flipkens and the dangerous Elise Mertens (in straight sets, which surprised me). In the deciding doubles rubber, Amandine Hesse became the second part of the almost unbeatable team of Mladenovic and Anybody. But Hesse wasn't just "anybody." She performed very well in the doubles rubber, and her poise on the court belied how stressed out she was: this was her very first Fed Cup match, and the fate of her country's team was half on her shoulders.

No problem. Mladenovic and Hesse defeated Belgium in three sets. Afterwards, Hesse and Mladenovic revealed that it wasn't their first time to play together--the won the under-14 European Championships a long time ago.

A deciding doubles rubber was also needed by Germany. Antonia Lottner, ranked number 153 in the world, rose to the occasion by defeating both Belarusian Fed Cup notable Alaiksandra Sasnovich.  A very close doubles match ensued, with Germany's Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Tatjana Maria emerging the victors--6-7, 7-5, 6-4. Sabalenka, unfortunately, was on the losing side of that contest, also.

Germany's semifinal opponent will be former (and, I believe, future) Fed Cup giant Czech Republic. A team bliss was the story, as Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova showed up to get the Czech team back where it belongs, and Switzerland was the victim. Kvitova beat both Victorja Golubic (in three sets--Golubic lights up during Fed Cup play) and Belinda Bencic, then Strycova defeated Bencic, and that was that.

There were a few players missing who--if they show up for the semifinals--could make things even more exciting. Neither Angie Kerber nor Julia Goerges played for Germany this weekend. And--while there's no sign that she intends to return to the French team (and who can blame her?)--Caroline Garcia's presence at the semifinals could make the event electrifying.

Here is how World Group II play went:
Slovakia def. Russia, 4-1
Australia def. Ukraine, 3-2
Romania def. Canada, 3-1
Spain def. Italy, 3-2

Sara Errani, a member of Four Fighting Italians who were Fed Cup legends, won both of her singles rubbers, one of them against Spain's formidable Carla Suarez Navarro. That wasn't the only problem Suarez Navarro had: she also lost to world number 179 Deborah Chiesa in Chiesa's second-ever Fed Cup match (her first, she lost in Saturday's opening rubber). It was Chiesa's 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7) victory over Lara Arruabarrena that clinched the tie for Italy.

I didn't get to see it, but Slovakia's doubles team was the hard-luck pairing of Jana Cepelova and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who won in straight sets. Cepelova has been hampered by various injuries for a long time, and Schmiedlova is just coming out (I think) of a major slump.

Daria Gavrilova of Australia lost both of her singles rubbers, which had to be a big disappointment for all involved, but especially Gavrilova.