Monday, January 7, 2019

Who will win the Australian Open? Some have a better chance than others (I think)

The first major of the year may be the hardest for which we can attempt to predict a champion. There are all those holdover injuries and slumps, but also all of those holdover good feelings and gains in confidence. The WTA tour is nothing if not unpredictable, though, and she who was slumping could end up doing well, while she who was winning may be struck with the fear of both expectation and success.

There are, of course, a few women who "should" win the Autralian Open, but who are probably more contenders on paper rather than in reality. That list includes (sadly) Petra Kvitova and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.

Some might put 2018 runner-up Simona Halep on the list, but I think of her more as a real contender. Despite having no coach, Halep has her game plus some new confidence that she'll bring to the season's first major. The world number 1 has reportedly recovered from a back injury that took her out of the 2018 WTA Finals. Assuming that recovery is authentic, I like the Romanian's chances to make a deep run.

I also like Karolina Pliskova's chances. The Brisbane champion, coached by Aussie Rennae Stubbs (who will radiate all kinds of Aussie good vibes for the Long Tall One), didn't come through with the big title that many thought she would grab last season, but there's every reason to believe that she's close to doing just that.

It goes without saying that one should never, ever count out Serena Williams, and--considering that she's still a woman on a mission--there's every reason to believe that Williams can lift her eighth (!) Australian Open trophy.

I'm also looking at 2016 champion Angie Kerber, who did some very fancy playing at this year's Hopman Cup. It's going to be very hard to beat Kerber in Melbourne, and her draw interests me possibly more than anyone's.

Elina Svitolina is also poised to do something big. Yes, she (as top seed and defending champion) went out in the second round in Brisbane, but it wasn't exactly a routine loss; her opponent came at her gangbusters style. Svitlolina, in her careful, plodding way, may get to just semis at majors this year, but she could also win one, and why not the Australian Open?

And finally, as irrational as it may sound, I toss in the name Garbine Muguruza. We all know that the mercurial Spaniard could go out in he first round. She could also win the whole thing--such is the "success range" of the tour's official Mystery Woman. Muguruza sometimes has a hard time "feeling it," but when she does feel it, she plays some of the most beautifully fluid tennis you'll see anywhere, any time. Like Petra Kvitova, the world number 18 (!) has everything it takes to win everything there is, but she often just isn't up to the task.

Expect multiple upsets. That's because the tour is now brimming over with young players (and a few suddenly-dangerous veterans) who can make life miserable for higher-ranked, and even elite, players. I won't name them--the list is too long--but they will shape the draw in Melbourne, and heads will roll.

Players who could make a deep run include Auckland champion Julia Goerges, Arnya Sabalenka, Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, maybe Kiki Bertens, and a few of those red-hot younger players and veterans who may be able to pull multiple upsets. (Sabalenka is one of those younger players, but I put her in a more "certain" category because of her court mentality.)

The doubles draw should be equally unpredictable, as new teams emerge as elite, and as team members are shuffled around.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

2918--just another head-spinning WTA season

It was quite a year for the WTA. Serena Williams returned, there was a Serena Williams controversy, a top player finally reached one of her long-held and elusive goals, and we lost two of the greats. It was an excellent year for veterans, but a new star was born, also. Our world number 1 provided the consistency we've come to expect from her, along with a nice bonus. And  the Czechs, as always, put everyone in her place.

Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 occurrences of the year:

10.: You won’t like me when I’m angry
: Li Na once said, “Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing.” Sometimes anger is fuel. It certainly was for Elina Svitolina. One of the most successful players on the tour, the Ukrainian star picks up titles—and even defends them—but tends to fold in majors. At the start of every major, fans and members of the media tend to say, “Okay, this is the time when she’ll do it.” But then, it doesn’t happen.

This year, Svitolina lost a lost of weight in order to have a different frame, and there was a lot of buzz about that. Clearly annoyed, Svitolina arrived at the WTA Finals ready to rumble. She went undefeated in round robin play, then won the whole thing. I think there’s a good chance that she may “pull a Mauresmo” and take home a very big trophy in 2019.

9. Resiliance defined: Serena Williams sometimes goes away for a while, and sometimes for very serious reasons. But she always comes back. This time, she went away for a joyful reason: she gave birth to her daughter. Williams began her maternity leave in April of 2017, after having won the Australian Open while she was two months pregnant. She returned to the tour in the spring of 2018, and made it to the fourth round of the French Open, but then had to withdraw because of an injury. Her emphatic “I’m back!” statement came at Wimbledon, when she made it to the final, as she so often does. In this case, she lost the title to Angelique Kerber.

Williams also made a run to the final at the U.S. Open, where she lost the title to Naomi Osaka in a match that was fraught with tension and whose drama wound up overshadowing Osaka’s victory. 2018 was not an especially easy year for the former world number 1, yet she managed to play in two major finals. Resiliant indeed.

8. Pojd!: They did it again! The Czech Republic won Fed Cup for the sixth time in eight years, defeating defending champion Team USA. And they did it without Petra Kvitova, without Karolina Pliskova, and without Lucie Safarova. Because that’s the kind of team they have. Barbora Strycova, a veteran of Fed Cup battles, made a big contribution, but it was Katerina Siniakova who won both her singles rubbers and brought the team over the line.

7. Patience is a virtue: No one has more stamina than Caroline Wozniacki. She has enormous physical stamina, but she also has enormous mental stamina. She has been number 1 in the world, and she reached the final at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2014. A threat in almost every tournament, Wozniacki just wasn’t able to grab one of those really huge prizes. But she began 2018 in the best way possible: Wozniacki won the Australian Open. The 28-year-old marathon-running Dane could have a very nice 2019.

6. Czechs go with everything: In 2013, after they won the junior U.S. Open doubles title, Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova entertained the crowd with a spirited, wonderful dance. Now, five years later, they have a lot to dance about—they are the number 1 doubles team in the world. The Czech duo won both the French Open and Wimbledon. The only problem is that—with all the reasons they have to celebrate, they haven’t danced again! Come on, ladies—entertain us!

5. Grazie—for so much
: Francesca Schiavone—one of the four legendary Fighting Italians who once dominated Fed Cup, and who constantly did amazing things on the tour—retired this year. Schiavone, who won the French Open in 2010 and was the runner-up in 2011, was a master stylist, especially on a clay court (though she could hold her own on every surface). The essence of what we call “heart” in sports, the Italian star put everything she had into every shot she made. Her positive attitude and fighting spirit were infectious,

4. The kids are still alright—and they’re coming to get you: In 2017, it was Alona Ostapenko who broke through in a big way and surprised many by winning the French Open. This year, it was Naomi Osaka. The young Japanese star has shown a lot of promise for the past couple of years, and—while she struggled to handle the sudden fame of winning Indian Wells—Osaka showed the world that she could handle just about everything by the time she got to Flushing Meadows.

At the U.S. Open, Osaka had to get past such formidable opponents as Arnya Sabalenka and 2017 finalist Madison Keys before she could face the player who is generally considered the ultimate test—six-time champion Serena Williams. Osaka beat Williams, her idol, in straight sets. With two big wins in 2018, there’s every reason to believe that Naomi Osaka is a force with which the tour will have to reckon.

3. Slump? What slump?: Angie Kerber had a dream 2016, winning the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, getting to the final at Wimbledon, and bringing home a silver medal from the Olympic Games. 2017, however, was mostly a year of trouble for the German player. But 2018 saw her come back strong, and in the summer, she won Wimbledon, defeating Serena Williams in the final. Kerber is now one French Open shy of achieving a Career Slam.

2. The magic is gone: Some call her The Ninja. Some call her The Magician. Some just call her Aga. Agnieszka Radwanska, the greatest shot-maker I’ve ever seen, retired from professional tennis at the end of this season. Unable to get past a long-term injury, the Polish wonder, at age 29, has left the tour, but the mark she made is unforgettable. Highlight reels come and go, but what Radwanska was able to do on a tennis court will entertain and produce awe for as long as tennis is a reality. Consistent winner of both the Shot of the Year designation and the Fan Favorite award, Radwanska was in a class of her own, as an athlete and a stylist.

1. Romanian rhapsody: World number 1 Simona Halep began her year in a big way—by reaching the final of the Australian Open. That didn’t turn out how she wanted it to—she lost to Caroline Wozniacki. But it was the farthest she had ever gone in the Australian Open draw, and a nice preamble to what was next: Halep (finally) won the French Open, defeating Sloane Stephens in the final. Halep lost the Roland Garros final in 2012 to Maria Sharapova, and she lost it again in 2017 to the force of nature known as Alona Ostapenko.

But this time, she did it. This was Halep’s first major victory, and she ended the year as the world number 1 for the second  year in a row; the Romanian’s indefatigible resolve paid off for her. Her coach, Darren Cahill, is taking a year off in 2019, and Halep is also dealing with a back injury (she had to withdraw from the WTA Finals) so her progress may slow down for a while, but her resolve won’t.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Aga Radwanska retires, and tennis will never be the same

I began watching women’s professional tennis when I was a very young woman, and—except for taking some occasional breaks from viewing—I’ve followed women’s tennis my entire life. I’ve seen some splendid shot-makers, too, but none with as much style, variety, cleverness, and jaw-dropping athletic trickery as the great Agnieszka Radwanska.

I would rather watch Radwanska than any other player, past or present. It is therefore with a distinct sadness that I acknowledge that The Ninja, as she was so aptly nicknamed by the WTA’s Courtney Nguyen, has retired from professional tennis.

There will never, ever be another Ninja. Radwanska’s remarkable ability to not only run down balls that other players would not be able to reach, was only part of her genius. Once she got to those balls—despite often being in an awkward position on the court—she could then hit shots that left fans gasping and opponents either applauding or standing with stunned looks on their faces. And she frequently found angles and hit drop shots that drove her opponents crazy.

Fans and commentators often called Radwanska The Magician, and the name was well deserved. Following are some prime examples of how Aga did what she did.

2015 Singapore hot shots:

The Ninja flummoxes Kirsten Flipkens in Miami:

She does this to Dominika Cibulkova:

She plays Barbora Strycova and gazes into a spooky mirror:

And then there was the 2014 Australian Open, in which Radwanska defeated two-time champion Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 5-7, 6-0. Someone, I forget who, called the final set "the best set of tennis ever played by a woman," and it may well have been just that. In the third set of their quarterfinal match, the Polish star tossed every trick she knew--and some new ones--at Azarenka. I recall gasping with wonder throughout the set:

Of course, no collection of Radwanska videos would be complete without this:

Aga Radwanska was an intelligent, very funny, and highly creative member of the WTA Tour. For five years straight, she was the Fan Favorite of the Year--no surprise, for she was consistently entertaining and athletically stunning. Not surprisingly, she also won every WTA Shot of the Year award.

In 2012, I was in Charleston, at Family Circle Cup qualifying. I went to the bar to watch the Miami final on television; Radwanska was playing Maria Sharapova. Radwanska, doing all the things she does best, beat Sharapova 7-5, 6-4.

It was really something. Later, I went back to my hotel room to blog and relax, looked at one of my very favorite sites, WTA Backspin, and discovered that Todd Spiker (The Backspinner) had already written about the match. His post remains the most hilarious piece of tennis writing I've ever seen.

For some of us, Radwanska's name took on yet another meaning. The Radwanska became the official evil entity whose presence wreaked havoc on both tours. There was even a Radwanskian Threat Level Chart that helped us negotiate the scarier parts of majors, and--of course--there was the Radwanskian Massacre that occurred at Wimbledon in 2013. Sometimes, when there's chaos in my own life, I look over my shoulder and wonder if I'll see The Rad, as we came to call "it."

Agnieszka Radwanska won 20 WTA singles titles, including the 2015 WTA Finals. She also won two doubles titles. Radwanska's highest singles ranking was number 2 in the world, which she achieved in 2009. Twice, she reached the Australian Open semifinals, and in 2012, she was the Wimbledon runner-up (defeated in the final by Sharapova). Though she had periods when her first serve was quite reliable, her second serve remained a weakness throughout her career, and undoubtedly cost her some success.

But Radwanska's success cannot be measured solely by her tennis resume, though that is quite impressive. What made her stand out was her athleticism, her creativity (the "Radwanska squat shot" is now part of the tennis repertoire for those who dare to use it), and her ability to think (and run) fast on any court. For those of us who prefer to focus on the art of tennis rather than some of the other factors, Aga was--on her own--a reason to watch the sport. But she was also a reason to watch for those who cared about watching someone stretch the boundaries of athleticism.

When the body and the brain come together in perfect symmetry, the result is a thing of wonder. On a tennis court, for thirteen years, that thing of wonder was called Aga Radwanska.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

They're....back! Czech Republic wins 2018 Fed Cup championship

What do you do when you have no Petra Kvitova? No Lucie Safarova? No Karolina Pliskova? If you're Captain Petr Pala, you realize how lucky you are to still have Barbora Stycova, then you realize that you have the world's number 1 doubles team, and then you just let the Czech nature take its course. For the Czech nature (different from, but related to, the nature of the Fighting Italian) is such that whoever makes up the team can usually find a way to win.

And while this particular Fed Cup final will likely be remembered for Katerina Siniakova's having discovered a leadership role, credit must also be given to Strycova, who had to fight hard against the USA's Sonya Kenin in the opening rubber. That rubber, which took over two and a half hours to play, marked the first time that Strycova had ever come back from a first set loss to win a singles rubber in Fed Cup competition. It was also Strycova's last Fed Cup, so she went out--as she does everything--in style.

Kenin, playing for defending champion Team USA, was making her Fed Cup debut, and though she lost both of her rubbers, she performed as well as I expected her to, which was quite well. Kenin was there to win, and once she'd finished giving Strycova headaches, she moved on to Siniakova. The opening rubber (and, as it turned out, the only rubber) on Sunday lasted three hours and 44 minutes, the longest match of 2018. (We could say that they were playing on Schiavone-Kuznetsova time.) During that match, Kenin had to deal with a hamstring injury. Having lost the first set and down 4-5 in the second, the 19-year-old found a way to drag the rubber to a third set.

In the third set, which featured more treatment for Kenin's leg, Siniakova took control and went up 4-1. But Kenin, who just refused to give up, took advantage of her opponent's nerves, turned on the aggression, and won five games in a row. At 5-4, 30-0, she was two points from winning the rubber. She double-faulted, then went up 40-15. But Siniakova, who--just a few moments before, looked as though she were mentally exhausted--saved both match points. Something clicked for the Czech player (maybe something about being a Czech player?), and she suddenly polished her strategy, while her opponent, obviously hurting, began to fade away.

Siniakova broke, then went down 0-40--and somehow held for 6-5. That game, in fact, was a microcosm of "Siniakova plays Fed Cup." She just kept going to pieces, then pulling herself back together. Kenin, meanwhile, had a game point to force a tiebreak, but that went away when she slammed a backhand into the net. Then she hit one long, and it was match point for the Czech Republic. Siniakova wasn't able to convert that one, but she did convert on her second one, defeating Kenin 7-5, 5-7, 7-5.

Kenin's service stats were significantly better than Siniakova's, as was her net play. Had she not been injured, there might have been a fourth rubber. As it was, playing that long with an injury only served to intensify what was going on between Kenin and her Czech opponent. In the winners-unforced errors (and bless Fed Cup for being the only venue that provides a tally of forced errors) ratio for the match, Siniakova went 24/43, and Kenin had 42/76. Throughout the weekend, Kenin spent 6 hours and 27 minutes playing two rubbers, which could be a Fed Cup record.

Siniakova is already number 1 in the world in doubles. She's also a respectable 31 in the world in singles, and what she did this weekend could very well give her the kind of confidence boost that could make her ranking number rise in 2019. Fed Cup success isn't always the boost a player needs on the tour, but often, it's just that (see Kiki Bertens).

This is the Czech Republic's sixth Fed Cup championship in eight years. Also, Czechoslovakia won Fed Cup five times.

Sitting in the stands throughout the final were Petra Kvitova, who was too ill to play, and Lucie Safarova, who has just announced that she will retire in January. Both of them had much to do do with the many championships won by their country (as did the absent, and injured, Karolina Pliskova). And let's not forget Captain Pala, a champion among coaches, who has been there for all of the Czech Republic's victories.

Prior to Sunday's play, the Fed Cup Commitment Award was presented to both Safarova and Helena Sukova. Between them, they played in 75 Fed Cup ties, and won seven titles. Sukova, who was recently (and finally) inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, holds the record for most Fed Cup wins by a Czech player--57.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

No Petra, no Karo, no problem

Petra Kvitova is ill, Karolina Pliskova is injured, and Lucie Safarova--once a stalwart of the Czech Republic's Fed Cup team--is soon retiring from the sport. But, as I wrote on Wednesday, the Czech team has so much depth, it doesn't usually matter if their top players are not on the court.

Today, the defending champions of Team USA learned that the hard way. In a well-played and dramatic (as only Fed Cup matches can be) match played between the USA's Sonya Kenin and the Czech Republic's Barbora Strycova, Strycova prevailed, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4. It was Kenin's Fed Cup debut, and Strycova's final Fed Cup competition. To add to the drama, this was the first time that Strycova had ever come from a set down to win a Fed Cup singles rubber. It took her two hours and 43 minutes.

That's a lot of drama!

It's sad to realize that this is Strycova's last Fed Cup event, not only because she has been such a star for the team (especially in doubles), but because she's one of the most enjoyable players to watch on the entire tour. (And of course, there's the whole matter of her glorious persona.) It's good news, however, that Kenin has entered the Fed Cup world, a place where--in my opinion--she belongs. The 19-year-old has a game that combines both grinding and aggression, and it's hard to imagine her career going any way but up.

In today's second rubber, a member of the world number 1 doubles team showed her skills in singles. Katerina Siniakova defeated the USA's Alison Riske 6-3, 7-6, to put the Czech team up 2-0. Riske played a cleaner game than Siniakova, but the Czech played the big points when she needed to, and she rolled over her opponent in the tiebreak.

If Kvitova is feeling better, she'll play in one of tomorrow's singles rubbers. The Czech Republic is now one rubber away from winning its sixth Fed Cup championship (eleventh, if we count the wins of Czechoslovakia).

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Defending champion USA takes on Czech Republic in Fed Cup final

Many of us have noted, over the past several years, that the Czech Republic has so many great Fed Cup players, it doesn't really have an "A" and a "B" team. It's more like an "A+" team and maybe an "A" team and then a "B+" team. That theory will be put to the test this weekend when the Czech team takes on defending champion USA on an indoor hard court in Prague.

The five-time champions (actually, ten-time--the team also won as Czechoslovakia) will be missing two of its top players--Lucie Safarova and Karolina Pliskova. The good news is that Petra Kvitova will lead the team, but--the Barking Czech has been off her game lately, and there's a question as to whether she can bring Scary Petra to Prague. On the other hand, Kvitova won all four of her Fed Cup rubbers this year, and dropped only one set, so there's that.

But that doesn't mean that the Czech Republic will show up with a weak team--the Czech Republic doesn't have a weak team. Joining Kvitova will be Barbora Strycova, Katerina Sinaiakova and Barbora Krejcikova.

That's a pretty impressive group. Kvitova, of course, can be lethal, and an indoor court is perfect for her. Strycova has put in some outstanding Fed Cup performances in the last couple of years, and Siniakova and Krejikova make up the number 1 ranked doubles team in the world. (And just in case something should go wrong in that department, Strycova is outstanding in doubles play.)

The USA's team consists of Danielle Collins, Sonya Kenin, Alison Riske, and Nicole Melichar.

Melichar, who is making her Fed Cup debut, was born in the Czech Republic. She is a quickly rising star in doubles, having won the 2018 Wimbledon mixed doubles (with Alexander Peya) title, and emerged (with Kveta Peschke) as the 2018 Wimbledon runner-up. Melichar is currently ranked number 15 in the world in doubles.

Kenin entered the top 100 this year, and has already knocked off a couple of elite players (Daria Kasatkina and Caroline Garcia). The aggressive Moscow native is a lot of fun to watch, and it will interesting to watch her in her Fed Cup debut.

To get to the final, the Czech Republic defeated both Switzerland and Germany. Team USA defeated Netherlands and France.

The Czech team is coached by Petr Pala, and Team USA is coached by Kathy Rinaldi-Stunkel.

In other Fed Cup news, Petra Kvitova just won the latest Fed Cup Heart Award.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Elina Svitolina finishes her Singapore tear appropriately--with a trophy


It was the "perfect" final: Both players had gone undefeated in round robin play in their respective groups--Sloane Stephens in the red group, and Elina Svitolina in the white group. This is a rare scenario for the WTA Finals. Stephens had defeated top seed Angie Kerber, Naomi Osaka and Kiki Bertens, while Svitolina had wins over defending champion Carolina Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova.

In the semifinals, Stephens staged a stunning come-from-behind (she lost the first set 0-6) victory over Pliskova, and Svitolina (who also needed three sets) defeated Bertens.

It was only fitting that the final went three sets. Stephens, with her consistent spin and sometimes-lethal forehand, dominated the first set, winning it 6-3. But a determined Svitolina took charge in the second set, taking more risks, and earning a 6-2 victory.

The third set was a continuation of Svitolina's momentum. She went up 3-0, but then Stephens held at love, announcing another potential comeback. That announcement got louder when Stephens turned right around and broke Svitolina at 15. But the momentum swung again, as the Ukrainian moved to 5-2, then broke Stephens to win the WTA Finals.

Elina Svitolina has a deadly record in finals, having now won 13 out of 15. She has, however, underperformed repeatedly at majors, creating one of the more unusual player scenarios in recent history. But today's victory made me think of Amelie Mauresmo's 2005 title run at the WTA Finals. The following year, the talented but "not quite there" Frenchwoman won two majors.

Svitolina's amazing speed and shot-making got her into the top 10. This week, we saw the champion bring something new--an excellent serve. With those three factors--and the grit we often see from her--the Ukrainian star has nowhere to go but up.

2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the doubles title, defeating top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova 6-4, 7-5. Babos was the defending champion; she and Andrea Sestini Hlavackova won the title in 2017. Krejcikova and Siniakova, who won both the French Open and Wimbledon this year, had played Babos and Mladenovic only once before, and lost that match, also.

Babos and Mladenovic, who won three titles (including Singapore) this year, bring an unusual strength to their team--both members have very good serves (on a good day, they have outstanding serves).

Krejcikova and Siniakoa finish 2018 as the top-ranked doubles team in the world.