Tuesday, November 26, 2019

2019: The upstarts take the stage




There was a lot going on this season. The coaching carousel spun faster than ever, the Fed Cup format was changed (we’ll experience that in 2020), and two revered veterans—Lucie Safarova and Dominika Cibulkova—retired from professional tennis.

Simona Halep held her own, and Serena Williams was again a force on the tour, reaching two major finals, but the year belonged to the up-and-coming stars of the WTA. 2019 will most likely be remembered for being the year when the rising generation made its stand.

Here are my top ten 2019 occurrences and phenomena, in ascending order:

10. Here they come!: The veterans do leave, but fresh faces appear, and in 2019, they appeared with force. In addition to Bianca Andreescu, there was Amanda Anisimova, Marie Bouzkova, Dayana Yastremska, Marketa Vondrousova (who reached the final of the French Open and then disappeared because of injury), and, of course, Coco Gauff.

9. Just how great is Diede de Great?: As it turns out—really great. The Dutch wheelchair champion just missed winning a double grand slam (there’s always next season, and don’t be surprised if she pulls it off ) when she lost the Wimbledon singles final, but she received quite a consolation prize.: This season, De Groot became the first wheelchair player in history to achieve the double career slam.

8. No dominance, but plenty of thrills: This season, several doubles teams rose to the top. Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai won the Australian Open, finally lifing Stosur’s Australia curse. Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the French Open, and that victory sent Mladenovic to the number 1 spot in the rankings. She would lose that ranking later, but she wouldn’t lose her shine: She and Babos won the WTA Finals, then she went crazy on Australia and was the dominant factor in France’s Fed Cup championship victory.

Then Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova won Wimbledon. This was Stryova’s first major doubles title, and she also reached the semifinals in singles. The Czech star would end the year with the number 1 ranking, a beautiful and fitting designation for a beloved player who plans to retire soon.

Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka won the Sunshine Double, then—to emphasize just how good they are on hard courts—they won the U.S. Open.

7. So much for “letdown”: Often, when a young player wins a major, she then has to face being an international celebrity as well as being one of the “hunted” on the tour, and it takes time to make adjustments to these intense changes. Not Naomi Osaka. Yes, she has struggled with the transition, but that didn’t stop the 2018 U.S. Open champion from winning the 2019 Australian Open. That’s impressive.

6. Allez, baby!: They did it! Team France, led by a near-perfect Kiki Mladenovic, who pulled off a hat trick of wins for her country, secured its first Fed Cup championship since 2003. And they did it as the “away” team, defeating host Australia 3-2 in a very exciting weekend of play.

5. Wait—that was clay?: Anyone who watches women’s tennis knew that Ash Barty was very likely on her way to winning a major in singles, but probably no one—including Barty—would have picked the French Open as the site of her debut victory. But win it she did, defeating five USA players along the way (I mention that because it’s a rather unusual occurrence that anyone, much less the eventual champion, would defeat five players from the same country).

4. As if we needed more proof
:. After she won Indian Wells, Bianca Andreescu’s fortunes went down because of injury, and she had to take several months off. No big deal—she returned and immediately won the Rogers Cup. Then, just to put an exclamation point on the whole phenomenom, she won the U.S. Open, and she did it by defeating Serena Williams in the final. Andreescu is the first Canadian to win a major.

3. Triumph of the heart: Simona Halep doesn’t exactly make it look easy. The talented Romanian can be her own worst enemy, and she has to exert a great deal of physical energy in many matches. But Simona is nevertheless her own version of tough. It took her three tries to win the French Open, but she did it. Last year, she almost won the Australian Open. This year, Halep brought her never-say-die brand of geometric tennis to London, and won Wimbledon. Along the way, she knocked out the likes of teen phenom Coco Gauff, Elina Svitolina and—in the final—Serena Williams.





2. Behold the North Star: Bianca Andreescu appears to be a force of nature. She’s quick, she’s clever, she specializes in getting herself out of tricky situations (which she often creates), she’s highly entertaining, and—much of the time—she makes it all look pretty easy. The young Canadian star’s rise has been, without exaggeration, meteoric. For much of 2018, when she made her tour debut, Andreescu wasn’t even in the top 200; at the beginning of the 2019 season, she was ranked number 153 in the world. And then she ripped through the tour with such force that she rose to the rank of number 4 in the world (she is currently ranked number 5). She also won eight matches against top 10 players. And, I should add, she’s only 19 years old.

In September, I wrote of Andreescu: “…she is so many things--a good server, hard-hitting, dramatic, inventive, instinctive, and mentally tough (while not always seeming to be so).”

She’s also very injury-prone. After winning Indian Wells, she sustained an injury and was out for several months (this wasn’t the first time her brief career had been derailed by injury). But then she returned to the tour and promptly won the Rogers Cup. Andreescu topped her year off by winning the U.S. Open, but—once again—injury took her out of the WTA Finals.

I’m going to go with the belief that Andreescu and her team will figure out her injury issues. If that happens, it will be quite interesting to see what she does. In addition to having a number of athletic skills and tennis skills in particular, the Canadian star also has what so many talented players don’t have—confidence. I think this is going to be quite a ride.

1. The party never ends: When Ash Barty first came on the tour, I was struck by her amazing doubles skills. Then she went away to play cricket, and when she came back, she was invested in both doubles and singles. Now she is number 1 in the world. Barty has outstanding skills that she can employ from just about any position on the court, and she goes about her business in a calm, straightforward way, reserving her energy for hitting the ball and moving around the court.

Whereas Andreescu’s rise has been head-spinningly quick, Barty’s has been the product of a trek on a very winding road. From young doubles star to professional cricket player to notable singles player to number 1 in the world, the Australian has done it all her way. In addition to winning the French Open and ending the year as number 1, Barty also won the WTA Finals. In addition, she won Miami and Birmingham, the Rome doubles title (with Vika Azarenka), and was the major factor in Australia’s journey to the Fed Cup final. What a year!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

With a superb career behind her, Dominika Cibulkova retires from professional tennis


 

I remember the first time I saw Dominika Cibulkova. It was early in her career, and she was playing in Charleston. Short in stature, Cibulkova nevertheless hit the ball very hard, and I found myself compelled to watch her as much as I could.

"Cibulova is small" was an often-repeated commentator's description of the Slovak player. But Cibulkova is not small--she's short, but with a muscular build, and exceptionally strong legs. She told me once that, early on, she knew that she would make it as a pro only if she concentrated on her core, and that's where her power came from.

Unfortunately, for a long time, Cibulkova experienced chronic fragility in her lower back and upper thigh, but eventually, she solved that problem.

Cibulkova won eight singles titles, including Eastbourne, Stanford and Moscow. She was a thirteen-time runner-up, and her finalist appearances included New Haven, Wuhan and Sydney. Most notable of her runner-up performances was the 2014 Australian Open, in which she lost to Li Na in the final. On her way to that final, Cibulkova defeated the likes of Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Aga Radwanska.

The Slovak star was a semifinalist at the French Open in 2009, and she was a three-time quarterfinalist at Wimbledon.

Perhaps Cibulkova's most memorable victory came in 2016, when she won the WTA Finals, defeating Angie Kerber in the final.

Cibulkova, who concentrated on singles play, won only one doubles title, and was twice a finalist. She was on the Slovak Fed Cup team for a total of eleven years, and ten of those were consecutive appearances. She was also on the Slovak Olympic team in 2008 and 2012.

Cibulkova reached a career-high ranking of number 4 in the world in 2017. She could be relentless with her hard-hitting baseline game, and she often appeared indefatigable as she forced her opponents to keep hitting one more ball until, finally, the error came. She had a keen focus on the court, and knew how to put maximum pressure on her opponents, and she was an exceptional retriever of the ball.

For the last several years, Cibulkova has been hampered by a recurring Achilles injury, so it was hardly a surprise that the 30-year Slovak decided to end her career. In announcing her retirement, Cibulkova also announced the publication of her memoir, Tennis Is My Life.

Cibulkova's fiery court presence, her confidence and her easy engagement with fans will be missed. From her gritty determination to her signature "Pome!," she added excitement to every match she played.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mladenovic leads France to 2019 Fed Cup victory



Kiki Mladenovic has a beautiful game. She has a tricky and effective serve, expert volleying skills (she is, after all, an elite doubles player), and a variety of shots that can do a lot of damage to almost any opponent. That's the up side. The down side is the Frenchwoman's well-known inconsistency, which appears to be brought on by nerves. Without a partner by her side, Mladenovic can sometimes crumble.

In this weekend's Fed Cup final, in which Team France played Team Australia, Mladenovic did crumble for a while, and it almost cost her the match. But she pulled herself together and won a tense, highly entertaining contest against world number 1 Ash Barty.

On day 1, France got off to a positive start when Mladenovic defeated Ajla Tomljanovic 6-1, 6-1 in the opening rubber. Not to be outdone, Ash Barty rolled over Caroline Garcia 6-0, 6-0 in the second rubber.

Day 2 was a different story. The third rubber was the aforementioned match that featured Mladenovic and Barty, and it was as thrilling a match as one could hope for. Both players served well, and--here is a rather unusual occurrence--both players displayed exceptionally good second serves. Barty won the first set 6-2, but Mladenovic became very focused in the second set; at the same time, Barty made a lot of unforced errors. 

The tension in the crowd (there was a very big--and loud--French contingent) was palpable during the final set, and the players lived up to the implications of that atmosphere. Mladenovic took an early lead but was broken. The opponents broke each twice during the set, providing constant momentum changes. About two-thirds of the way through, Mladenovic had her meltdown, and it looked like Australia was about to take a 2-1 lead. But the mercurial Frenchwoman gathered herself, took advantage of Barty's unforced error production, and the set wound up exactly where it belonged--in a tiebreak.

This time, Mladenovic did not crumble. Rather, she ran away, 7-1, with the tiebreak, and put France ahead 2-1.

 

Australia evened the score when Tomljanovic defeated Pauline Parmentier 6-4, 7-5 (I wish Cornet had played that rubber).

The fifth rubber featured something we don't get to see that often in Fed Cup play: All four competitors were elite doubles players. Playing for Australia were former world number 1 and three-time major champion Sam Stosur, and former U.S. Open champion Ash Barty. France was represented by former French Open champion Caroline Garcia and three-time major champion Kiki Mladenovic, Garcia and Mladenovic have frequently played as partners, and won the French Open in 2016.

The French team won the first set 6-4, then went up 2-0 in the second, having won four games in a row. The third game was a close one, but the French team broke and went up 3-0. The Australian team closed the break gap at 2-4. At 2-5, the Australians were almost broken, but they saved two match points. Mladenovic then served for the final, double-faulted on the second point, but--once again--composed herself and successfully served for the championship on France's third match point.

This is the third time that France has won the Fed Cup championship. They defeated The Netherlands in 1997, and the USA in 2003. Captain Amelie Mauresmo brought the team very close in 2016, but France lost that final to the Czech Republic. Now it is new Captain Julien Benneteau who has coached the French team to Fed Cup glory once again. However, it is Kiki Mladenovic's coup du chapeau that will be remembered as the mighty force that brought the Fed Cup trophy back to France.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Ash Barty gives a world number 1 performance in Shenzhen

 

We see it so many times--a big server (or, in this case, someone who has recently become a much bigger server) serves her way to a final and then can't find her serve. It happened again today at the WTA Finals when defending champion Elina Svitolina (who served a total of 27 aces in her previous two matches) suddenly lost her ability to serve her way out of trouble. Trouble, in this case, was world number 1 Ash Barty, who repeatedly flummoxed Svitolina with slices, volleys--and her own very good serve.

This was the first time, in six tries, that Barty has beaten Svitolina.

Barty, who ends the season as world number 1, was the top seed in Shenzhen, and--with her 6-4, 6-3 victory over Svitolina today--she is now the champion of the 2019 WTA Finals. Barty's season included the championships in Miami and Birmingham, and--of course--the French Open championship. Barty is an all-round athlete--she's fit, she's fast, she's steady, and she's clever. And, though we haven't been focused on it lately, she's also an outstanding doubles competitor.

 

The trophy ceremony gave us some special moments. We learned that chair umpire Mariana Alves has retired, and will now work as a supervisor for the WTA, which is a good thing because she will continue to be part of the world of women's professional tennis. The announcement nevertheless made me a bit sad.

The other special moment was the appearance of WTA Finals ambassador Aga Radwanska, who looked stunning, and who presented the runner-up bouquet to Svitolina.

 

While Svitolina was unable to defend her title, Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic did defend theirs, with a 6-1, 6-3 win over Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova. Babos and Mladenovic are the first team since Black and Huber in 2007-2008 to defend the title.

For Babos, it was a hat trick: She won the 2017 WTA Finals with Andrea Hlavackova-Sestini. The last player to do that was Lindsay Davenport, who pulled it off in 1996-1998, with three different partners.


There is also some sweet consolation for Strycova, who ends the season as the number 1 doubles player in the world.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Top seed to face 8th seed in Shenzhen final

 

Poetically speaking, what better outcome could we have from this topsy-turvy WTA Finals event than to have the last two players standing be the highest-ranked and the lowest-ranked seeds? 8th seed and defending champion Elina Svitolina defeated 7th seed Belinda Bencic in the semifinals today when Bencic retired, because of a leg injury, in the third set.

There were eight players and two alternates. Three players--Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Belinda Bencic--went out with injuries, and one alternate--Kiki Bertens--retired in her second match because of illness.

In today's second semifinal, top seed Ash Barty defeated 2nd seed Karolina Pliskova 4-2, 6-2, 6-3.

In doubles, 3rd seeds and defending champions Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic defeated 7th seeds Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai 1-6, 6-4, 10-8. In the second match, 2nd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Demi Schuurs 6-1, 6-2.

There is a possibility that all of last year's champions will be this year's champions, adding yet another odd twist to this event.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Four still standing


 

When we talk about "still standing" at the WTA finals, it isn't entirely a metaphor. First Naomi Osaka withdrew because of a shoulder injury, then Bianca Andreescu--who appeared to have a back injury--retired because of a knee injury. Alternate Kiki Bertens took excellent advantage of her status by defeating top seed Ash Barty, but then had to retire in her next match because of illness (which brings back very sad memories of the French Open).

Second alternate Sofia Kenin played today, and what a match it was. She and defending champion Elina Svitolina went at each other in a way that was captivating to watch. The second set tiebreak was a show in itself, with Kenin (who held a set point) saving five match points. But Svitolina was successful on the sixth, and defeated Kenin 7-5, 7-6. Despite losing, Kenin showed yet again why she has rapidly risen up the rankings ladder: She's a good hitter with a variety of shots from which to choose, and she just doesn't give up.

In today's second match, Karolina Pliskova defeated an out-of-sorts Simona Halep in three sets. The Romanian was bageled in the first set, but bolstered by a no-nonsense talk from coach Darren Cahill, she grabbed the second set. Pliskova, however, was just too good in the end.

And speaking of the end--Halep dashed (as only Halep can) to pick up a ball Pliskova had hit into the far ad corner, and she was able to get it over the net, setting up a smash for her opponent. But that smash went awry and hit the top of the net--and then dropped over, giving the Tall Cool One the victory, 6-0, 2-6, 6-4.

In a rather odd (when are the WTA Finals not odd?) semifinal outcome, seeds 7 and 8 will compete in one match, and seeds 1 and 2 will compete in the other:

Belinda Bencic (7) vs. Elina Svitolina (8)
Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Karolina Pliskova (2)

In doubles,  Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic defeated top seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka, and Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Demi Schuurs defeated Chan Hao-Ching and Latisha Chan. Here is the doubles semifinal draw:

Babos/Mladenovic (3) vs. Stosur/Zhang (7)
Hsieh/Strycova (2) vs. Groenefeld/Schuurs (8)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

WTA Finals getting more interesting



I doubt if anyone was surprised when 4th seed Bianca Andreescu retired today after the first set in her WTA Finals round robin match against Karolina Pliskova. The U.S. Open champion has a back injury that was evident when she lost to Simona Halep a few days ago; today, though, she had top stop playing because of a knee injury. But Andreescu isn't alone; yesterday, 3rd seed Naomi Osaka withdrew from the event and was replaced by first alternate Kiki Bertens. Bertens wasted no time, and knocked out top seed Ash Barty in straight sets.

Today, 8the seed and defending champion Elina Svitolina, playing in the purple group, defeated Simona Halep in straight sets, and became the first of the eight competitors to reach the semifinals.

Here is the current state of both the singles and doubles draws:

SINGLES

Red Group

Ashleigh Barty (1): 1-1
Naomi Osaka (3): 1-0, withdrawn from tournament
Belinda Bencic (7): 1-1
Petra Kvitova (6): 0-2
Kiki Bertens (1st alternate): 1-0

Purple Group

Elina Svitolina* (8): 2-0
Simona Halep (5): 1-1
Karolina Pliskova (2): 1-1
Bianca Andreescu (4): 0-2, withdrawn from tournament

DOUBLES

Red Group

Groenefeld/Schuurs (8): 1-1
Mertens/Sabalenka (1): 1-1
Babos/Mladenovic** (3): 2-0
Chan/Chan (5): 0-2

Purple Group

Hsieh/Strycova (2): 2-0
Stosur/Zhang (7): 2-0
Krejcikova/Siniakova (6): 1-1
Dabrowski/Xu (4): 0-2

*defending champion
**defending champions