Sunday, April 24, 2016

How to Siegemund--a brief guide for dealing with life's more difficult stuff

original photo by Daniel Ward

1. Work hard and stay at it, no matter how slowly things are moving

2. When faced with a significant obstacle that forces you to stop, find something else to do that holds your interest, then

3. Work hard

4. Enjoy what you're doing and get the most out of it

5. Let go of all expectation and realize that whatever happens, you're going to be fine

6. Let the answers come to you instead of grasping for them

7. Should you return to your first pursuit, enjoy it without fear

8. Work hard

9. Don't buy into any nonsense about your age, your absence or any other belief that others project onto you

10. Love every minute of it!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Czech Republic and France to play Fed Cup final in November

It will be all red, white and blue in November when France meets defending champion Czech Republic to determine who will be the 2016 Fed Cup champion. And if this weekend's semifinals are any indication, both teams had better bring the very best they have to France.

Playing without Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, the Czech team pulled off the win against Switzerland (playing without Belinda Bencic), but needed five rubbers to do it. Going in 1-1 today, the Czech team got some relief when Karolina Pliskova handily defeated Timea Bacsinszky in straight sets. But then Victorija Golubic, now the official Swiss Slayer, took out Barbora Strycova. Golubic lost the first set, but won the second in a tiebreak, and then had a fairly easy time of it against a frustrated Strycova.

Then it was time for doubles, and this time, Pliskova's partner was former French Open champion Lucie Hradecka. They faced Golubic (again!) and Martina Hingis, and beat them 6-2, 6-2--just like that.

The woman we will remember from this semifinal weekend is Golubic, who appeared to come out of nowhere, knock out Czech team leader Pliskova and Strycova, then suddenly find herself paired with Hingis in a final rubber. So great was Golubic's performance this weekend, it seemed almost "right" that Switzerland should go to the final, but the Czechs were just too strong in doubles. One can't help but wonder how much it affects the outcome to have Hingis sitting on the bench for two days and then suddenly having to go in and "save" the team.

The other semifinal also went to five rubbers. Tied at 1-1 today, France and The Netherlands played reverse singles rubbers today, and once again--surprise!--Kiki Bertens won hers. Bertens, who is now 15-1 in Fed Cup singles matches, defeated the other Kiki (Mladenovic) 7-5, 6-4. When Caroline Garcia was victorious in her must-win match against Arantxa Rus, a doubles rubber ensued. And what a match it was.

Charleston champions Garcia and Mladenovic faced Bertens and Richel Hogenkamp. The Dutch team fought its way to a first set victory, the French won the second set, and then the real drama began. In the fourth game of the final set, Mladenovic faced six break points on her serve. The French team saved them all, and went on to win that set 6-3. By the middle of the third set, the French crowd was going simply mad, urged on by a highly animated Mladenovic, who squeezed every drop of crowd support that was available.

Of interest--Kiki vs. Kiki: 1-1

Of course, other matches were being played, too. Belarus moved into the World Group for the first time in Fed Cup history by defeating Russia. Yes, Russia, the one-time Fed Cup giant that has left the World Group, at least for now. Also leaving the World Group was one-time Fed Cup giant Italy, whose team didn't really have a chance against the Spaniards, especially with Sara Errani having to withdraw because of a knee injury.

Any time Andrea Petkovic plays in Fed Cup competition, there's drama, and this weekend was no exception. Petko played for two hours and 49 minutes against Simona Halep, who defeated her. She was back out there today, this time competing against the always-maddening Monica Niculescu, who did little for the German's spirit by taking the first set 6-0. Both women served well, and Niculescu ended the two-hour, 37-minute match with a much better winner-unforced error ratio than Petko. But Petko won, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3, putting Germany into the World Group. Petkovic was able to seal the win after Angelique Kerber knocked Halep out in straight sets.

The USA, of course, went back to the World Group with its stunning defeat of Australia. Sam Stosur lost both of her singles rubbers, thus eliminating any speculation that she has become "more comfortable" competing on home soil.

In World Group II playoffs:
Belgium def. Serbia
Slovakia def. Canada
Chinese Taipei def. Poland
Ukraine def. Argentina

In the Belgium vs. Serbia tie, Aleks Krunic beat Kirsten Flipkens, and then lost to Yanina Wickmayer, who won the final set 8-6. Krunic led 6-1, 3-0, then served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, but Wickmayer's comeback was just too strong, and she wore Krunic down.

I love Fed Cup. I like the team competition, the excitement, and the inevitable rise of a player who is not only not a WTA star, but who may be relatively obscure in the tennis world. Several years ago, I watched a Fed Cup tie and was mesmerized by a young player who I thought might some day be Somebody. Her name was Petra Kvitova, and--while she has yet to become the Somebody I was expecting her to be--she is nevertheless quite an elite player on the tour.

Whether it's a Kvitova who goes on to become a tennis great, or a Kiki Bertens who goes on to be a Fed Cup great--or a Krunic or Golubic who is suddenly indespensable, the evolution is always thrilling.

One hopes that a healthy Petra, a healthy Lucie (Safarova) and a healthy Karo all show up in France for the final. But even if they don't all make an appearance, the Czech Republic has demonstrated that--like the Russian team when it was at its peak--it has enough depth to have an A team and a B team. And the B team, as we saw in February and this weekend, isn't too shabby.

Coach Amelie Mauresmo has Garcia and Mladenovic, who have become really good at pulling double duty in Fed Cup ties. The irony is that the French fighter, Alize Cornet, just can't seem to translate that fight--and her considerable skills--to a Fed Cup rubber. Maybe some day. In the meantime, I'm reminded of the time that Mauresmo, when she was still playing in Fed Cup and was asked about the closeness of the French team, responded that they were very close, like the Russian team, and that, like the Russians, they would all go out to eat together at a restaurant. "But," she deadpanned, "it's a smaller restaurant."

Maybe not so much now. Czech Republic, watch your back: French Flair may be coming to get you.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Czech Republic and Switzerland tied at 1-1 in Fed Cup semifinal play

It didn't surprise me that Barbora Strycova won her initial Fed Cup rubber today against Timea Bacsinszky. Strycova hadn't dropped a set against Bacsinszky the other three times they played each other. And she didn't drop a set today, beating the Swiss team's leader 6-0, 6-2. It was Karolina Pliskova, however, who stumbled, and was defeated in three sets by Victorija Golubic, who is ranked number 129 in the world. That's how Fed Cup works--players we hear little of during the rest of the season suddenly rise to the occasion in team play and pull huge upsets. Here is the shot of the day, which gave Golubic the second set:

In the other semifinal, Fed Cup boss Kiki Bertens beat Caroline Garcia in straight sets, but Kiki Mladenovic evened the score for France when she defeated Richel Hogenkamp, also in straight sets. Poor Hogenkamp. A few words from Joan Jett will have to suffice:

Assuming the rosters don't change, Bacsinszky will get a shot at Pliskova tomorrow, which could get interesting, given both of their poor showings on day 1. Strycova will play Golubic, who will be hard pressed to repeat her success, but hey--this is Fed Cup! In the other pairing, Hogenkamp will get a crack at Garcia, and then this:

In the World Group playoffs, the USA dominated Australia in the opening rubbers, with Madison Keys easily defeating Dasha Gavrilova, and Christina McHale taking advantage of a (sadly typical) breakdown by Sam Stosur following the opening set. Stosur did rally in the third set, but by that time, McHale had a lot of confidence, and took the set 7-5. The Tennis Channel commentary by Lindsay Davenport was hilarious, only not in a good way. In the first set, she was practically a cheerleader for Stosur, and in the second and third, she was trash-talking her.

The Spanish team ran over the Italian team, and it will be interesting to see what happens when the reverse rubbers are played tomorrow. Both Errani (or whoever--perhaps Schiavone again) and Vinci have to win their singles matches; it doesn't look good for Italy. There's no putting in the capable (if shaky) Camila Giorgi--she refuses to compete in Fed Cup.

Angellique Kerber repeated her Charleston success over Irina-Camelia Begu, a player who has sometimes given the Australian Open champion trouble. That put Germany up 1-0 over Romania, but the main course was yet to come. Andrea Petkovic, who fights brutally in Fed Cup matches, brought that fight against Simona Halep for two hours and 49 minutes. It was a match worth watching, and Halep won it 6-4, 6-7, 6-4. This was always going to be a thrilling match-up, and now it's even more so.

In other (big) Fed Cup news--Schmiedy won a match! Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, whose promising career has taken a very deep dive this season, defeated Canada's Aleks Wozniak in the second rubber played between Slovakia and Canada in the World Group II playoffs. In the opening rubber, Dominika Cibulkova defeated Francoise Abanda, so Slovakia is up 2-0.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Czech Republic, minus Kvitova and Safarova, to play Switzerland in Fed Cup semifinals

Czech Fed Cup team leaders Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova won't be appearing on the indoor hard court in Lucerne tomorrow as the Czech Republic takes the next step toward defending their Fed Cup championship. Safarova is still in recovery mode from her two serious illnesses, and Kvitova--who didn't win any rubbers in the first tie of the season--has opted to focus on her clay season preparation.

Both players have performed extremely well in Fed Cup competition in the past. However, in the last two competitions--one, the 2015 final--it was Karolina Pliskova who took the lead, and saved the day, along with her trusty doubles partner, Barbora Strycova. And to make matters even less threatening for the Czech team, Switzerland's team just lost Belinda Bencic because of injury.

That means that Timea Bacsinszky has to do the heavy lifting for Switzerland and get wins against both Pliskova and Strycova in her singles rubbers. Victorija Golubic will also compete for the Swiss team, and--while anything can happen in Fed Cup play--beating the Czech players will be an uphill battle for her.

Bacsinszky and Martina Hingis are scheduled to play doubles against Denisa Allertova and Lucie Hradecka. Should it come down to fifth and deciding rubber, however, the Czech roster is likely to change, and Pliskova and Strycova could once again pull double duty. A doubles match between Pliskova and Strycova and Bacsinszky and Hingis would probably be a very exciting occasion.

Should anything unexpected happen, the Czech Republic could do worse than have Allertova step in to play singles. Ranked 61 in the world, Allertova has shown some recent promise.

In the other semifinal, France will compete against The Netherlands on indoor red clay. Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic are now Fed Cup-tested, and they have generally performed well for Coach Amelie Mauresmo. However, both players have noted weaknesses. Garcia can go away mentally, and Mladenovic's big serve can betray her because--as good as it is--she has trouble controlling it.

Alize Cornet (notoriously poor in Fed Cup singles play) is scheduled to play with Pauline Parmentier in doubles, but again--if the doubles rubber is the deciding contest, we can expect replacements. Garcia and Mladenovic just won the Charleston title, so that one is a no-brainer. The French team also famously defeated Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci in very exciting Fed Cup play last year.

Kiki Bertens is a Fed Cup beast. with a singles record of 13-1, and an overall Fed Cup record of 19-2. The Russian team apparently hadn't been playing attention to this fact when they played The Netherlands in the February tie, and Bertens beat both Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Richel Hogenkamp, who also defeated Kuznetsova, is once again on the team. Unless the Dutch players get stage fright, they are to be considered a real threat to the French team.

In the World Group playoffs, Russia's young star, Daria Kasatkina, will play a Belarusian team led by Vika Azarenka. Margarita Gasparyan, who isn't too shabby herself, will also play singles for Russia, and Elena Vesnina is on hand to play doubles. Of course, if a substitution has to be made in singles, Charleston runner-up Vesnina is an excellent choice. This play-off will take place on a red clay court, which gives Kasatkina a bit of an edge, and which takes some of the edge off of Azarenka's formidable game.

The Spain vs. Italy playoff also takes place on red clay (in Spain), and who doesn't want to see Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro go at it against Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci?!

Simona Halep and Irina-Camelia Begu, both excellent clay court players, will perform on an indoor clay court against Germany's Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic. Petkovic, despite her ups and downs on the tour, brings her best tennis to Fed Cup. Also on hand for Romania will be Alex Dulgheru and Monica Niculescu, and for Germany--Annika Beck and Julia Goerges. This is an interesting tie that could become long and drawn out. Also, Kerber just had to retire from the Charleston semifinals because of a viral illness, so that could be a factor.

Finally, the USA plays Australia in Brisbane. Madison Keys and Christina McHale are scheduled to play singles, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe are on the USA roster for doubles. Sam Stosur and new Aussie Daria Gavrilova will play singles for Australia and Casey Dellacqua and Stosur are scheduled to play doubles. The rubbers will be played on an outdoor clay court, which isn't at all unfriendly toward Stosur. Should it all come down to a deciding doubles rubber, it could go either way--these are both very strong teams. But it's hard to imagine that it will come to that unless Stosur goes into one of her "Oh no--I'm in Australia!" slumps.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Some final thoughts on Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward
If you want to see crowds of people who love women's tennis, all you have to do is go to Charleston in April. People all over the city are talking about it, and those who attend the matches tend to be pretty sophisticated in their understanding of the game. Charleston crowds also love to watch doubles, and they are quick to spot and support a lesser-known player.

Photo by Daniel Ward
The Charleston crowd also has a much-appreciated sense of humor. In 2010, when Vera Zvonareva performed the greatest racket break of all time, her actions were applauded and cheered by onlookers, some of whom then began to mimic the "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" cheer (Zvonareva was getting destroyed by Sam Stosur) on behalf of Vera. This year, when Yulia Putintseva took a little break to do some yelling (as she is prone to do), the crowd yelled along with her, then gave her some applause. I can't imagine these things happening anywhere but Charleston.

Every tournament has its ups and downs. This year, Jelena Jankovic, who is beloved by Charleston fans, had to withdraw before the tournament began, though she stayed on site for a few days to appear with her mother at a luncheon. Last year's champion, Angelique Kerber, had to retire during her semifinal because of illness, and the 2014 champion, Andrea Petkovic, went out in the second round.

Photo by Daniel Ward
But there were also plenty of "ups." Fans got an up-close chance to see exciting young stars like Daria Kasatkina, Monica Puig, Kiki Mladenovic, Caroline Garcia, and Daria Gavrilova. They witnessed a dramatic tour comeback from 2011 runner-up Elena Vesnina, and an enjoyable segment in the rise of Laura Siegemund, whose matches were all quite exciting to watch.

Volvo's first year as the title sponsor brought several new features to the event. The addition of music, on-court announcing and post-match interviews on Althea Gibson Club Court was a very nice touch, as was the additional jumbotron on Billie Jean King Stadium Court. But the biggest innovation was full-court streaming that allowed fans to simply scan their mobile devices with a code and stream action on courts all around the grounds, including practice courts.

Photo by Daniel Ward
The Volvo Car Open (formerly Family Circle Cup) is of great historic interest in the world of women's tennis, and it tends to be a star-launching event. Last year, for example, Angelique Kerber ended a slump by winning in Charleston, then going on to win three more tournaments--and then starting 2016 by winning her first major. Sloane Stephens just won her biggest title to date in Charleston, and is gaining the momentum that has eluded her for the last few years.

Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic, a "pre-Olympics" French team, reached two other finals this year, but their first win together was at the Volvo Car Open. And though she was stopped by Stephens in the semifinals, 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina continued her recent success, this time showing off her considerable skills on clay courts.

Venus Williams was back in Charleston this year, and that's always a special event. Even Martha Stewart was there, and spent some time in the ESPN booth.

Photo by Daniel Ward
There were some great matches. My favorite was the semifinal played between Elena Vesnina and Sara Errani; it was all beautiful tennis from start to finish. Another stand-out was the 28-point third-set tiebreak match contested by Kiki Mladenovic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Kasatkina held a match point against Stephens in their exciting quarterfinal, and of course, there was the final, which featured a thrilling first set. Elena Vesnina, by the way, is the first qualifier ever to reach the final in Charleston.

WTA players are especially fond of the Charleston event, too. They get to eat at wonderful restaurants, they attend a very popular players' party, they receive daily gifts, and they enjoy the relaxed familiarity of an event some of them have competed in for years. This year, the top eight seeds drove Volvos around town. Laura Siegemund, who struggled to find the right word to describe the players' experience at the Volvo Car Open--she didn't know if her knowledge of English was good enough--finally came up with "spice"--that something extra that other tournaments don't have. I think she got it just right.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sloane Stephens' persistence pays off in Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward
Sloane Stephens had played five times at the Volvo Car Open (formerly, the Family Circle Cup) and had won only one match. After she won the whole thing today, she told members of the press that she had told a friend in Charleston to come to the tournament to see her as early as possible, since she had a tendency to not stay very long.

Photo by Daniel Ward
On a chilly, windy afternoon, Stephens--seeded 7th--defeated qualifier Elena Vesnina 7-6, 6-2. The first set was a thrilling affair, with both women trading huge groundstrokes, and both firing on-the-line winners, most notably
from the forehand side. Vesnina, who came back from being down 2-5, held a set point when she served at 6-5, but she was broken, and would go on to lose the tiebreak.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Every final has a backstory, and the Russian's part of the backstory is that she had already played seven matches (plus one doubles match, with Daria Kasatkkina) because she had to go through qualifying to get into the main draw. Throughout the opening set, she did not look like a player experiencing her eighth match. Still, one had the feeling that the tiebreak was a must-win deal for Vesnina--that the fatigue, mental if not physical--would have to set in.

It did. Midway through the second set, Vesnina hit the first of two poorly executed drop shots. The Russian player is capable of hitting outstanding drop shots, but the two she hit in this set were easy pickings, especially for someone as fast as Stephens.

Stephens went up 5-1 in almost no time, and while Vesnina fought back, she was no longer in a position to make the kind of comeback she had made in the first set. "At one point, I was thinking, 'she's everywhere,'" Vesnina said later of her opponent.

Vesnina spent almost twelve hours on the court, and became the first qualifier to reach the tournament final in the long history of the event. A shoulder injury took the Russian off of the tour for a long time, and her run to the Charleston final as a qualifier will be very helpful to her cause, in terms of ranking points.

Vesnina was also the runner-up in 2011, when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. That year, however, she and Sania Mirza won the doubles title.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Stephens has now won four WTA singles titles. Three of them, she won this year. The Charleston victory included a special surprise: Volvo, the tournament's new title sponsor, gave the champion a new limited-edition Volvo. It turned out to be the same one that Stephens--as one of the top seeds--had been loaned for use during the tournament. "I just won a car!" the stunned champion shouted to the crowd. When she thanked all of the sponsors, Stephens added, "And especially Volvo--they just gave me a car."

Garcia and Mladenovic win Volvo Car Open

Kiki Mladenovic (left) and Caroline Garcia (photo by Daniel Ward)

Photo by Daniel Ward
Photo by Daniel Ward
Earlier today, 3rd seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic won the doubles title in Charleston, defeating top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova 6-2, 7-5. The French team had lost two finals this year (Sydney and Dubai), so it was a relief for them to get this win. After the match, Garcia told the media that she was especially grateful to the Charleston crowd because they came out so faithfully for doubles matches, even the late ones held at night.

Today's title is the first for Garcia and Mladenovic as a team. Mladenovic has a total of thirteen doubles titles; Garcia has a total of three. Mladenovic won the Charleston doubles championship in 2013 with Lucie Safarova, who was her opponent today.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Vesnina wins seven matches, and now goes for the title

Elena Vesnina (photo by Daniel Ward)

The wind swirled, flags fluttered, dust rose, the players yelled--sometimes very loudly--and the crowd went wild. The Elena and Sara Show was the highlight of today's action at the Volvo Car Open, and as far as I'm concerned, it would probably have been the highlight even if Angelique Kerber hadn't retired in the first semifinal.

Sara Errani (photo by Daniel Ward)
Qualifier Elena Vesnina and 5th seed Sara Errani presented a clay court tennis clinic in their three-set, two-hour, twenty-minute match. The slid, they lobbed, they changed pace, they dropped. Oh, did they drop. It was as much a mind game as it was a physical battle between two very fit athletes, and the only glitch in the entire operation was that one of them had to lose. That turned out to be Errani, as Vesnina became the first qualifier in the history of the tournament to reach the final.

The resurgent Russian's 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory books her a spot on the other side of the net from 7th seed Sloane Stephens, who won the semifinal played earlier in the day. In contrast to Vesnina, who has played seven matches, Stephens (who received a bye in the first round) has played three+ matches.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Vesnina was the runner-up in 2011; she lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. However, she and Sania Mirza won the doubles title that year.

There will also be a doubles final played tomorrow. Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova will play 3rd seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic.

Sloane Stephens advances to Charleston final

Photo by Daniel Ward
Sloane Stephens, seeded 7th at the Volvo Cup Open, advanced to the final today when her semifinal opponent, defending champion Angelique Kerber, retired with a viral illness when the score reached 6-1, 3-0. Kerber, who had her left thigh taped in Miami, took the tape off when she arrived on Daniel Island, and said that it felt good. However, Kerber was unable to push off or even bend during the first set of her match against Stephens. She also appeared quite sluggish. A viral illness, of course, would weaken any already-vulnerable part of her body, which is apparently what happened.

It didn't help Kerber's cause that Stephens performed beautifully, handling the wind with skill and not allowing her opponent's condition to disrupt her rhythm. This is Stephens' sixth trip to Charleston, where, previously, she had won only one match. She will play either 5th seed Sara Errani or qualifier 
(and 2011 runner-up) Elena Vesnina in the final tomorrow.

Photo by Daniel Ward

Prior to the singles match, the first doubles semifinal was played on Billie Jean King Stadium Court, and was won by 3rd seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic. The French pair defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Laura Siegemund 6-4, 6-3. In the final, Garcia and Mladenovic will play either top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova or Vania King and Alla Kudryavtseva.