Sunday, September 13, 2020

My U.S. Open top 10

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

10. Piling insult onto injury: A lot of people were upset by Kiki Mladenovic's complaints of being a "prisoner" in her hotel room because of the "bubble within the bubble" rules imposed on those who had contact with a player who tested positive for Covid-19. Of course, it's nothing new for the French player to open her mouth when a bit of thinking would have resulted in her wisely keeping it shut. But then Mladenovic's situation did become a wretched one when the county ordered her and her partner, Timea Babos, to withdraw from the event. 

Babos and Mladenovic were the top seeds, which made the withdrawal even worse. Of course, an argument can be made that (a masked) Mladenovic should never have been participating in a card game during a pandemic. But all the same, changing the rules (an ATP player who was at the same card game was allowed to play the day before) suddenly--even if by government decree--was most unfortunate, and not a good look.

9. All about my mother: Remember that time when Roger Federer was introduced as "Rose and Charlene and Lenny and Leo's dad"? Of course you don't.

8.  Revenge is a dish that is best served into the deuce court: On Saturday, world number 1 Diede De Groot won her third consecutive U.S. Open women's wheelchair singles title by defeating world number 2 Yui Kamiji. On Sunday, Kamiji and her partner, Jordanne Whiley, the 2nd seeds, defeated De Groot and Majolein Buis to claim the championship. Kamiji and Whiley also won the Australian Open, defeating De Groot and Aniek Van Koot. 

De Groot, who is only 23 years old, has now won eight major singles titles and eight major doubles titles, which is why we call her Diede De Great.

7. Comebacks galore!: Vika Azarenka, Vera Zvonareva, Tsvetana Pironkova--three veteran players who endured both hardships and major life changes all soared to glory at this year's U.S. Open. I can't recall anything like that ever happening before.

6. Once a champion, always a champion: Look who won the women's doubles title! A member of the original Russian Squad--which included the likes of Myskina, Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Petrova, and Dementieva--Vera Zvonareva was an accomplished singles and doubles player for many years, but left the tour because of injury. She also impressively continued her education, got married and had a baby. After two years, she returned, won a couple of doubles titles, and now, she and Laura Siegemund have won the 2020 U.S. Open.

5. Breakout star of the year: Jennifer Brady began the year in fine form, making it to the quarterfinals in Brisbane and the semifinals in Dubai, and taking out some big names on the way. She was hands-down the MVP in the Charleston exhibition event, and then she won Lexington. At the U.S. Open, she took out Anna Blinkova, CiCi Bellis, Caroline Garcia, 2016 champion Angie Kerber, and Yulia Putintseva. Brady was finally stopped, in the semifinals, by eventual champion Naomi Osaka, but Osaka needed three sets to get the job done. It was a hell of a run.

4. Doing it with mirrors: Tsvetana Pironkova, the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, has always occupied a peculiar niche on the tour. A very talented player (great serve, wicked forehand slice) has--for some reason--won only one title. But her presence at grass and hard court major events can be formidable (as Venus Williams knows only too well). Pironkova left the tour because of injuries, and she also had a baby, and--after three years--it looked like we might not ever get to see her again. But then, suddenly, she popped up in Flushing Meadows and made it all the way to the quarterfinals

Of course, this was a totally Pironkova kind of move, like "I'm rested, guess I'll go to New York and check things out." Her game was better, too--the serve, signature forehand slice, and lob were all there, but there was also an increase in steadiness, which resulted in much more consistency in her groundstrokes. 

Pironkova began by defeating Liudmila Samsonova, then took proceded to take out two-time major champion and 10th seed Garbine Muguruza, 18th seed Donna Vekic, and an on-fire Alize Cornet. It was amazing display of tennis, but there was a down side: Pironkova's thigh was wrapped, and as the tournament wore on, it became harder for her to serve, and she was sometimes limping. Had she not been hurt, who knows?--she may have had a better shot against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. As it was, she took Williams to three sets, but she wasn't able to prevail. All the same, it was a head-spinning piece of Pironkova magic. 

3. Perseverance (see Azarenka): Victoria Azarenka is probably the most snake-bitten top player in the history of the tour. So many different things have derailed her, and the last thing--a nasty, extended custody battle which kept her away from tennis for an extended period--would likely have destroyed the motivation of a lot of strong individuals. Azarenka, once she had her legal issues settled, came back, but she was so discouraged that, in January, she considered retiring. 

Fortunately, the Belarusian star had a change of heart. At the 2020 U.S. Open, she performed like the Vika of years ago, swatting away opponents in grand style. Her victims included 5th seed Aryna Sabalenka, up-and-coming player Iga Swiatek, an in-form Karolina Muchova, 16th seed Elise Mertens, and 3rd seed and six-time champion Serena Williams. She was stopped in the three-set final by Naomi Osaka, but her performance throughout the tournament left no doubt that Azarenka is back at the top.

2. Spontaneity--a winning strategy: Laura Sigemund and Vera Zvonareva had never played doubles together, but, at the last minute, they found each other and signed up to play in the U.S. Open. It turned out to be a magic combination, as the pair took out 2nd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in the quarterfinals, then--in the final--they defeated 3rd seeds Nicole Melichar and Xu Yifan. This is Siegemund's first women's doubles major championship, and  Zvonareva's third.

1. A champion for the times: Winning the 2020 U.S. Open wasn't a walk in Central Park for Naomi Osaka. She had to play three sets against Misaki Doi, Marta Kostyuk, Jennifer Brady, and Vika Azarenka. She also had to endure stupid and offensive comments from members of the media (not that that's anything new). But the now three-time major champion has learned a lot about how to navigate the choppy waters of media spectacles and cultural expectations, and she handled everything that came at her with aplomb.

Osaka also found a way to let her Covid-19 protection speak for her. She entered every match wearing a mask that bore the name of a black U.S. citizen killed by the police. She packed seven masks, and got to wear every one of them. The sight of Osaka entering the stadium in her black masks will be, for me and for many, an enduring image. I expect that the champion will provide us with more enduring images in the future, as she continues to draw attention both as a superb sportswoman and a representative for those whose voices are either lost or unheard.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Naomi Osaka wins her second U.S. Open title

When Naomi Osaka lost the first set of her U.S. Open final against Victoria Azarenka, the televison and the Internet lit up with the fact that no woman had come back to win the title after losing the first set since 1994. What didn't light up the television and the Internet is the fact that that is a really sad statistic. 

Apparently, Osaka thought it was sad, too, because--after dropping that first set 1-6 to an almost perfect Azarenka, the world number 4 went about the task of putting her game back together--the way real champions do. She won the second set 6-3, and then the match became really interesting.

Osaka's precision became more deadly, and Azarenka's waned, as more and more errors crept in. Down 1-4, 15-40, the two-time Australian Open champion and two-time U.S. Open finalist was hanging on by a thread. But she worked her way out of that hole in dramatic fashion, saving three break points. At 2-4, Azarenka again looked competitive. When she broke Osaka to go up 3-4, it appeared that the plot was taking a strong twist.

But that was as far as it went for Azarenka. Osaka broke back, then served successfully for the match, which she claimed, at 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Naomi Osaka is the first player since Jennifer Capriati to win the first three major finals she contested. She talks a lot about her attitude.In fact, she credited her second set comeback with having adjusted her attitude.

The quality of this final was a wonderful continuation of the quality we saw in both of the semifinals. All four players gave everything they had--Osaka and Azarenka did it twice. The only thing that brought the occasion down was the quality of the commentating, which--though it's hard to believe--was even worse than the usual ESPN commentating. I don't care for most of the commentary on either ESPN or Tennis Channel (there are notable exceptions), but today felt like a new low. 

Osaka is now a three-time major champion, and two of those championships--both at the U.S. Open--were won under unusual conditions. None of that seems to especially affect her; in the long run, it could fortify her ability to focus on the task at hand. 

And while playing expert tennis was the task at hand during the last two weeks, the champion also used her persona to keep in front of the public the names of black U.S. citizens killed by the police. For every one of her matches, she wore a mask with the name of a victim. Osaka packed seven masks and was able to wear every one of them. The image of her entering the court wearing a black mask with a victim's name printed on it will endure as an expression of a champion bringing her very best, not only to the court, but to the fragile, broken cultural landscape in which we are all currently forced to live.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Siegemund and Zvonareva win U.S. Open women's doubles title

Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva had never played doubles together before. They got together at the last minute and signed up to play, and today, they won the U.S. Open. 

Both women have been through a lot. Siegemund has had multiple injuries, some of them serious, that kept her off of the tour for a long time. Her last injury was sustained in 2017, when she hurt her knee and was out for eleven months. For her part, Zvonareva--who has also sustained some significant injuries-- took two years off in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, she announced her marriage, and later that year, she gave birth to a daughter. 

Today, Siegemund and Zvonareva defeated 3rd seeds Nicole Melichar and Xu Yifan in a very entertaining final. It was hard to believe that the pair had never played together before, so finely tuned was their rhythm

Here is an interesting fact about the new champions: They both took advantage of their tour layoffs by pursuing their education. In 2012, when Siegemund was out with a torn ligament, she earned a degree in psychology, and she also earned a trainer's certificate. At the time, she didn't anticipate being able to return to the tour full-time. Zvonareva has a degree in physical education, and she studied for a second degree in international economic relations at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, the oldest diplomatic academy in the world.

This is Siegemund's first major women's doubles championship. She and Mate Pavic won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title in 2016. Today's victory marks Zvonareva's third major women's doubles championship. She won the U.S. Open, with Nathalie Dechy in 2006, and the Australian Open--in 2012--with Svetlana Kuznetsova. Zvonareva also holds two major mixed doubles titles.

In other big news today, defending champion and top seed Diede De Groot advanced to the women's wheelchair singles final with a three-set win over Marjolein Buis. Her opponent in the final will a familiar face--last year's runner-up, 2nd seed Yui Kamigi. Kamigi defeated Angelica Bernal in the semifinals.

In women's wheelchair doubles, De Groot and Kamiji will see each other again in the final. De Groot is the defending champion in this event, also, though this year, her partner is Buis (she won last year with Aniek Van Koot). De Groot and Buis, the top seeds, will face the second seeds, Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

The old guard meets the new on Saturday

This is what it means ❤️@vika7 collects an 11th consecutive win after upending Serena Williams in the #USOpen semifinals --> https://t.co/hyIH7rRBbp pic.twitter.com/79vuY3fEpT

It's been seven years since Vika Azarenka was in a major final. During that time, she was put through a wringer of life change and legal problems, the latter of which undoubtedly traumatized her. Her return to the tour brought her so much frustration that in January, she considered retiring. But the two-time Australian Open champion and two-time U.S. Open finalist decided to give it one more try. And from the moment she set foot on the grounds in Flushing Meadows, she looked like the Azarenka we remembered from years ago.

Azarenka allowed the considerably talented Elise Mertens one game in their quarterfinal match, and then all eyes were on her semifinal, in which she faced Serena Williams, who defeated her in the finals in 2012 (when Azarenka held a match point) and 2013. The atmosphere was electric, not just because of the historic meeting between the two women, but also because we had just witnessed a remarkable match between two players of another generation.

Williams' 6-1 first set scoreline made it look ominous for Azarenka, but in the second and third sets, she turned on the magic switch and won both of them 6-3. The quality of the match was very high, the rallies were thrilling, and the intensity of the opponents was almost off the charts. They really do bring out the best in each other.

Azarenka will play 2018 champion Naomi Osaka in the final. Osaka defeated Jennifer Brady, who--for a while--looked as though she working from the Sofia Kenin playbook. Brady hadn't dropped a set throughout the tournament, and she was making it all look pretty easy. But some time in the third set, it appeared that the heaviness of the occasion caught up to Brady--she lost her edge, and she began to make more errors. Osaka was happy to take advantage, and she skillfully honed in on all the shots she needed to make to get to the final, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3.

It was a thrilling, well-played match. Brady, who--for a while this summer--couldn't stop winning, finally saw her streak come to an end, but the 25-year-old Florida resident has a whole lot of which to be proud.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

NAOMI OSAKA
round 1--def. Misaki Doi
round 2--def. Camila Giorgi
round 3--def. Marta Kostyuk
round of 16--def. Anett Kontaveit (14)
quarterfinals--def. Shelby Rogers
semifinals--def. Jennifer Brady (28)

VICTORIA AZARENKA
round 1--def. Barbara Haas
round 2--def Aryna Sabalenka (5)
round 3--def. Iga Swiatek
round of 16--def. Karolina Muchova (20)
quarterfinals--def. Elise Mertens (16)
semifinals--def. Serena Williams (3)

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Literally on her last leg, Pironkova gives Williams an exciting challenge

Her thigh, which had been wrapped for days, was still troubling her. She was exhausted. It wasn't a good day for Tsvetana Pironkova to play anyone, much less Serena Williams.When I saw the Bulgarian player too hampered to hit her impressive serve in the round of 16, and then limp to the net for the "handshake," I thought it might be over for her, barring a physio miracle. I was right.

In the first set of her quarterfinal match against Williams, Pironkova was still fresh enough to bring her signature trouble to her opponent--slicing the forehand, changing pace, and garnering some amazing service stats. She won that set, but two things happened in the second set--Pironkova started to show all the wear and tear her body (especially her thigh) had accumulated through the tournament, and Williams rose--big time--to the occasion.

Serena Williams won the match, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. She hit 20 aces. She's now into the semifinals, in which she will face off against a familiar opponent, Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Elise Mertens 6-1, 6-, in the second quarterfinal of the day. Mertens failed to hold serve even once. For Azaarenka, who has been through so much in the last few years--and who has always been strangely snake-bitten--this tournament has been a revelation. The Vika of years ago has emerged, and she is as dangerous as ever. She also has a better serve.

The other semifinal will feature Jennifer Brady and Naomi Osaka, and there aren't enough gourmet additives in existence to toss into that popcorn. Brady has yet to drop a set (and hasn't dropped that many games), and Osaka has looked like the problem-solver supreme. 

Wheelchair tennis singles play begans tomorrow, and top seed Diede De Groot, who has sustained a slump (for her) of late, will begin her U.S. Open campaign against Jordanne Whiley. 

3rd seeds Nicole Melichar and Xu Yifan advanced to the doubles final today when they defeated Asia Muhammed and Taylor Townsend 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7). Their opponents will be Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Down to eight--and one of them is Pironkova

Yesterday at the U.S. Open, we saw Shelby Rogers win a three-set-thriller against 6th seed Petra Kvitova, Jen Brady make fast work of 2016 champion Angie Kerber, and Naomi Osaka defeat Anett Kontaveit in straight sets. We also saw Yulia Putintseva, in all her animated glory, win a tough, three-set match against 8th seed Petra Martic.

Shelby Rogers has always been a big-stage player (as was Martic, until recently, when she became more consistent). Also, though it pains me to say it, it's no secret that pushing Kvitova to three sets is a good strategy, especially in a place like New York, where the humidity doesn't agree with her. Kvitova hit 58 winners and wound up winning twelve more points than Rogers, but Rogers held fast in a tense, third-set tiebreak and walked away, after two hours and forty minutes, having saved three match points, with a 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 victory. She will next face 4th seed and 2018 champion Osaka.

Kerber was looking under-the-radar sharp until she had to deal with Brady. Brady has yet to drop a set, and she has lost nineteen games in eight sets. The 25-year-old began the year in a strong position, and picked right up where she left off when she was the MVP at the Charleston exhibition event. She has looked very strong ever since.

Today, six-time champion Serena Williams (who has now won 100 matches on Arthur Ashe) played a red-hot Maria Sakkari, who defeated Williams at the Western & Southenrn Open. Today, Williams prevailed, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 in a two-and-a-half hour match. Sakkari's serve was really on today, but some of her shot selections were questionable.

Also today, Elise Mertens handily defeated Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who was all over the place, obviously unsettled and out of sorts. And Vika Azarenka defeated Karolina Muchova in a highly entertaining match that, unfortunately, included a medical timeout for the Czech player. They went three   sets, there was some great shot-making, and an obviously confident Azarenka emerged the winner, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4. The two-time Australian Open champion had a lot of good things to say about her opponent.   

Finally, Tsvetana Pironkova did it yet again. In a match that I found highly entertaining, the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery defeated Alize Cornet 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. Pironkova held a match point in the second set. In the past, she would likely have faded after that, but she came back strong in the third set. I'm especially fond of watching both of these players, and I have always enjoyed their personalities. It was tough to see one of them lose.

In doubles, the unseeded team of Asia Muhammed and Taylor Townsend advanced to the semifinals, as did 3rd seeds Nichol Melichar and Xu Yifan,

As always, commentating for this major has been a mixed bag. Commentators continue to mispronounce players' names, and ESPN continues to interview celebrities while there's action taking place on the court. The biggest disappointment for me (so far) is Alexandra Stevenson's response to Novak Djokovic's work toward forming a new player association (or, as some commentator said today, a "new tour"). Stevenson was filled with praise for Djokovic because "he's decided to add women!" She then gushed over how great he was because of that. And at that point, I switched channels.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Jennifer Brady (28) vs. Yulia Putintseva (23)
Naomi Osaka (4) vs. Shelby Rogers
Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Serena Williams (3)
Victoria Azarenka vs. Elise Mertens (16)

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery strikes again

She did it again. Tsvetana Pironkova, returning to the tour after a three-year absence, took care of 18th seed Donna Vekic today, defeating the talented Croatian player in a little over an hour. Pironkova's 6-4, 6-1 victory moves her to the U.S. Open round of 16, in which she'll face off against Alize Cornet.

The bad news is that Pironkova's thigh, which is wrapped, is now obviously hindering her. Her tricky serve, which was splendid in the second round, was considerably off in today's match, and she limped around the court during changeovers and at the conclusion of the match. Here's hoping that some massage and some physio magic will have her in top form again by Monday. 

In other Saturday news, Maria Sakkari all but blew away Amanda Anisimova, 6-3, 6-1, in just under an hour. Six-time champion Serena Williams needed three sets, but she defeated countrywoman and 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, and Elise Mertens defeated Caty McNally in straight sets. And Muchova and Karolina Muchova and Sorana Cirstea took it all the way to a third set tiebreak, in which Muchova saved three set points and emerged the winner, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7).

Vika Azarenka continued her excellent form with a straight-set victory over Iga Swiatek, and 2017 runner-up Madison Keys was forced to retired against Alize Cornet. Keys struggled with a neck/shoulder issue throughout the first set and for half of the second set, when she had to stop playing. Cornet, for her part, had 71/54 first and second serve win percentages.

Finally, in singles competition, 2nd seed Sofia Kenin defeated Ons Jabeur 7-6, 6-3 in a tough competition that was especially tight in the first set. The Australian Open champion was dealing with cramps during the match, she said afterwards in an interview. (Her father/coach appeared to be suffering with a near-nervous collapse.)

In doubles, 2nd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka won their match, as did 4th seeds Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs. (Mertens and Schuurs ended their partnership so that Mertens could concentrate on singles, but Mertens apparently had a change of heart about doubles competition.)

Top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic were disqualified from competition because of Mladenovic's "bubble within the bubble" confinement (brought about by her contact with Benoit Paire, who tested positive for Covid-19).  Mladenovic hasn't exactly made new fans by her reference to herself as a virtual prisoner in her hotel, but--since bubble-within-the-bubble player Adrian Mannarino was allowed to compete yesterday--the Frenchwoman's plight has advanced to another level. Nassau County officials made the call, and it has to be a really bitter pill for both Babos and Mladenovic to swallow. As of this writing, it's still unknown how long Mladenovic will have to remain in her hotel room.

Perhaps there's a moral to this story, like "Don't play cards with Benoit Paire." But I suspect it's more like "Don't hold a major tournament during a pandemic."

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Jennifer Brady (28) vs. Angie Kerber (17)
Yulia Putintseva (23( vs. Petra Martic (8)
Naomi Osaka (4) vs. Anett Kontaveit (14)
Shelby Rogers vs. Petra Kvitova (6)
Alize Cornet vs Tsvetana Pironkova
Maria Sakkari (15) vs. Serena Williams (3)
Vika Azarenka vs. Karolina Muchova (20)
Elise Mertens (16) vs. Sofia Kenin (2)

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Pironkova travels to New York, and--surprise!--does what she does best


This morning, I had a dental appointment and had to miss several matches I wanted to see, including the one featuring 10th seed Garbine Muguruza and Tsvetana Pironkova. (I like to see any match featuring either Muguruza or Pironkova). The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery hasn't been on the tour for three years-she sustained a serious injury and had to take time off, then she had a baby and took a lot of time off, and--let's face it--she wasn't always around that much before she took the long break.

As I left my house, I was thinking, "wouldn't it be just like Pironkova to upset Mugu?"--and, of course, that's exactly what she did. Both players pack unpredictability in their tennis bags, though the Spaniard's is more deadly, given that she's an elite player. It didn't help that Muguruza was also just coming off an injury break.

Pironkova has some specialities--a very tricky serve, generous use of the forehand slice, and an appetite for taking out highly-ranked players. I always like watching her walk around the court, with her loose gait and her pensive expression. This morning, she had first and second serve win percentages of 93 and 58, and that says it all. Pironkova and Muguruza each hit only five winners, and they made only three unforced errors between them. I wish I could have seen the match.

Of course, Muguruza isn't alone. Yesterday, top seed Karolina (or, according to the commentator, "Katarina") Pliskova was upset in straight sets by Caroline Garcia, whose slump has been such that she isn't even seeded. Also out are:

Aryna Sabalenka (5)
Johanna Konta (9)
Elena Rybakina (11)
Marketa Vondrousova (12)
Alison Riske (13)
Dayana Yastremska (19)
Zhang Shuai (25)
Veronika Kudermetova (29)
Kiki Mladenovic (30)
Rebecca Peterson (32)
Anastaija Sevastova (31)

The one that surprised me the most was Rybakina, who was upset by Shelby Rogers. (That part isn't surprising; Rogers is somewhat of a "big stage" player.) Next for Rogers is countrywoman Madison Brengle (who has already given us an excellent off-court Suzanne Lenglen move at this tournament).

Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters, two- and three-time U.S. Open champions, respectively, are also out of the tournament, defeated in the first round. 

 Most of this evening's matches were rained out, so they will be played or completed tomorrow. 

Six-time champion Serena Williams won her match on Arthur Ashe Stadium tonight, and 2017 champion Sloane Stephens also won today. They will meet in the third round, which should generate a good deal of excitement. 

Also still in contention is 2020 Australian Open (remember the Australian Open?) champion Sofia Kenin, who will next face the tricky and inventive Ons Jabeur. I'm especially looking forward to that match. 

The match I'm most looking forward to tomorrow will be contested by Caroline Garcia and 28th seed Jennifer Brady.