Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Semifinals set in Australian Open singles play

Top seed Ash Barty, who has been broken only once and has yet to drop a set, easily advanced to the semifinals on day 9 of the Australian Open when she defeated Jessica Pegula 6-2, 6-0. Also that day, Madison Keys defeated Barbora Krejcikova 6-3, 6-2 in a match that I expected to go three sets. It didn't, presumably because Krejcikova (like others before her) became ill from the intense heat and had trouble doing just about everything.

A commentator made the point that the Czech star, instead of doing some advance training in a very hot climate, chose to remain in the Czech Republic to be with her family and friends, and she paid for it when she was overcome by the heat. I think that this is probably true--but only to a certain extent. There are some human bodies (I know--I have one of them and I live in an intensely hot summer climate) that just can't handle that kind of heat.

This isn't to take anything away from Keys, who has been on fire since she set foot in Melbourne. But it would have been nice to have seen both players in top form.

Yesterday, Danielle Collins advances to the semifinals (for the second time) when she defeated Alize Cornet in straight sets. Cornet made the first set quite competitive, but the second set was all Collins. Cornet, who had made it to the quarterfinals for the first time in 63 tries, said after the match:

"I have eternal respect for the Grand Slam winner because it's such a long way. My God, I have the feeling I'm playing this tournament for a year. I'm so exhausted mentally, physically. When you go all the way and win these freaking seven matches, it's just huge."

And then there was Iga Swiatek, who had to deal with famed giant-killer Kaia Kanepi, who has put on quite a show in Melbourne. Kanepi took the first set 6-4, and Swiatek had to use every trick she had to squeak out a victory in a second set tiebreak. The 2020 French Open champion settled down a bit after that, and committed only two double faults, giving her a total of twelve for the match. The Polish star won the third set 6-3 and advanced to the semifinals, but it took her three hours to do it. And her match point was one of the best I've seen in a while.

Kanepi received huge applause when she left the court. It was deserved. the Estonian player, who is 36 years old, is the only player in history to reach the quarterfinals of every major while being unseeded. Even the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery has yet to achieve that distinction, though--when she returned to the tour in 2020 after a lengthy injury (and then pregnancy) leave--she reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. That gives her three major quarterfinals as an unseeded player, so stay tuned.

Here is the semifinal draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Madison Keys
Danielle Collins (27) vs. Iga Swiatek (7)

De Groot and Van Koot win Australian Open wheelchair doubles title

Diede de Groot (aka Diede the Great) and Aniek Van Koot won their seventh major title as a team yesterday when they defeated Kgothatso Montjane and Lucy Shuker in the wheelchair doubles final at the Australian Open. The teams were seeded 1 and 2, respectively. This is the second Australian Open title for De Groot and Van Koot, who hold the Grand Slam (2019).

The singles title will be determined today when De Groot and Van Koot, the top seeds, compete. 

The women's doubles semifinal draw features all three top seeds and one unseeded team. Number 1 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova will play 3rd seeds Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens, and 2nd seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara will compete against Anna Danilina and Beatriz Haddad Maia.

In mixed doubles, the title will feature Australian wild cards Jaimee Fourlis and Jason Kubler, who will compete against 5th seeds Kiki Mladenovic and Ivan Dodig. Mladenovic won the Australian title in 2014 with Daniel Nestor (and Mladenovic and Anybody remains a formidable team).

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The return of a champion

Though most eyes are on the singles draw, there's a lot more going on at the Australian Open--doubles, mixed doubles, juniors, wheelchair tennis, and legends. And one of the bigger stories, in my opinion, involves the quiet return of a retired player, Jiske Griffioen.

Former wheelchair number 1 singles player Griffioen retired in 2017, stating that she just wasn't up to competing anymore and wanted to transition to having a role in sports media. However, the Dutch star returned to competition last year. In Melbourne, Grififoen lost her quarterfinal match to Kgothatso Montjane, and she and partner Zhu ZhenZhen lost their semifinal match to the 2nd seeds. But it's nice to see her competing again. We've seen several former singles champions return, so this isn't a complete surprise.

Griffoen held the number 1 singles spot for 106 weeks. She is a two-time gold medal winner in the Paralympic Games, and a seven-time Masters doubles champion, and she won the Masters singles championship in 2012. Griffioen has won four majors (including two Australian Open titles) in singles, and fourteen (including five Australian Open titles) in doubles.

Meanwhile, top seed Diede De Groot will compete against 2nd seed Aniek Van Koot for the singles championship. De Groot and Van Koot, who are the top seeds in doubles, will play the doubles final against 2nd seeds Yui Kamiji and Lucy Shuker. Kamiji, who was seeded second in singles, was upset by Van Koot in the quarterfinals.

Monday, January 24, 2022

"SHE IS ALREADY GOD"

Last night, at the end of the second set of the match contested by Simona Halep and Alize Cornet, I was so tired and sleepy that I decided, sadly, that I had to turn off the TV and go to bed. But once I was in bed, I realized that I couldn't miss the third set, so I pulled up the ESPN app on my iPad and tuned in to the match. When I began watching, both players were resting and icing down during a changeover, and the commentator was saying something about one of the players (I think it was Halep). "...that she's already got it," the commentator said.

Closed captioning is the default selection on the ESPN app, and there--in big white letters--right over Cornet's body, was "THAT SHE IS ALREADY GOD." A moment later, "SHE IS ALREADY GOD" appeared over the veteran Frenchwoman as she drank water and applied ice to her neck. 

This was the greatest reward for staying awake that I could have asked for. 

The tennis was pretty good, too! That last set was as tense as one would expect it to be. Both players had suffered from the heat throughout, though it was Halep who frequently appeared to be on the edge of falling down. But they carried on, and the excitement mounted as Halep saved two match points. It looked as though the two-time major champion was about to turn things around, but that wasn't to be; Cornet won on her third match point, achieving a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory.

What happened after that was the stuff of video heaven. Cornet, who--in 63 tries--had never before reached the quarterfinal of a major, was overcome with emotion (not unusual for her, I know). She spoke with great admiration of her opponent, a former world number 1. And then she did the on-court interview with Jelena Dokic, and both interviewer and interviewee were in tears. 

Dokic reminded Cornet of that time, in 2009, when Cornet held a match point against Dinara Safina in the Australian Open round of 16. Had the Frenchwoman won, she would have played Dokic in the quarterfinals, but Safina saved that match point and went on to defeat Cornet. 

"Oh my god, yeah," Cornet said. "I wanted to play against you so bad. I was so disappointed. I loved your game and I was so excited about playing a quarterfinal against you and I couldn’t, and it was really painful. Now thirteen years later, you’re here, I’m still here, on the court.” Cornet went on to comment on Dokic's career transition: "I want to tell you something. How you moved on in your life, I think we can all congratulate you. You were an amazing player and now you’re an amazing commentator.”

This brought former world number 3 Dokic to tears, and the two women embraced. This scene would have been touching under any circumstance, but it was especially so in light of the fact that Dokic has undergone numerous challenges for years, including recently. The Australian great has long been a voice for all (and especially women) who have been abused and have undergone emotional turmoil. I only hope she knows how admired and respected she is by so many of us.

A couple of days ago, I wrote that I consider Cornet to be the greatest underachiever on the tour (and maybe ever). The first time I saw her play, she was doing that Suzanne Lenglen leap, and I was enthralled. I admire her lovely game, and wish that she could have had the competitive consistency she needed to go with it. But, as Cornet herself said to Dokic: "It's never too late to try again."

Everyone's favorite dramatic Frenchwoman will play Danielle Collins--who isn't exactly shy when it comes to drama--in the quarterfinals. And even if Cornet loses, she has achieved a remarkable career milestone.  

And--she is already God.

Meanwhile, two veteran giant-killers had an opportunity to reach the quarterfinals, and one of them lived to kill again. Sorana Cirstea became the first player to take a set off of Iga Swiatek, but Swiatek prevailed in three sets. And then there was Kaia Kanepi, and if she seems like she's been around forever--well, she kind of has. The 36-year-old Estonian with the cannonball groundstrokes outlasted 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka in a tense three-setter in which Sabalenka saved four match points.

The third set went to a tiebreak, and both players seemed a bit confused by the rules--at the Australian Open, a tiebreak goes to ten points instead of the usual seven. When Kanepi reached 9-7, she thought she had won the match, but she had to switch gears and win more more point.

Danielle Collins outlasted Elise Mertens in three sets which took almost three hours to play. And, in play from the day before, Madison Keys rather easily (this was the biggest surprise of the tournament for me) defeated Paula Badosa, 6-3, 6-1. Badosa was clearly exhausted by the time she reached the round of 16, and the fact that Keys has clearly been on a mission since she arrived in Melbourne didn't help.  

Also, in the first batch of round of 16 matches, Barbora Krejcikova defeated a somewhat lackluster Vika Azarenka in straight sets, and top seed Ash Barty claimed a straight-set victory over Amanda Anisimova. And then there was Jessica Pegula, who took out 5th seed Maria Sakkari, also in straight sets.

There are three U.S.A. players in the quarterfinals, yet the quarterfinal draw has a distinct French flavor. Three of the competitors--Barty, Krejcikova and Swiatek--are former French Open champions, and Cornet, of course, is French. Here is the draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Jessica Pegula (21)
Barbora Krejcikova (4) vs. Madison Keys
Danielle Collins (27) vs. Alize Cornet
Iga Swiatek (7) vs. Kaia Kanepi

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Australian Open third round hints at thrills to come

Sometimes, in a major, really good early rounds somehow give way to less than exciting semifinals and finals. One hopes that this phenomenon is coincidental and not somehow causal, because--if the latter is the case--we're in for some really dull final matches.

There were some real thrillers played in the first week, as well as some major upsets. Gone are:

3rd seed Garbine Muguruza (2nd round)
6th seed Anett Kontaveit (2nd round)
defending champion Naomi Osaka (3rd round)
2020 champion Sofia Kenin (1st round)
2016 champion Angie Kerber (1st round)
Coco Gauff (1st round)
2019 runner-up Petra Kvitova (1st round)
2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu (2nd round)
Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic (2nd round)
Elina Svitolina (3rd round)
Clara Tauson (3rd round)

The third round was the thrill round, with several matches (unfortunately, often shown at the same time) showcasing great skill and athleticism from both opponents. Danielle Collins was down a set and a break against Clara Tauson, but fought her way to a three-set victory in a tense and exciting match. Barbora Krejcikova came back from a set down against an in-form (at least, for a set and a half) Alona Ostapenko to claim a hard-won victory.

Tamnara Zidansek had to battle both an injury and an opponent in the third set of her match against Alize Cornet. Cornet prevailed, but if the injury hadn't occurred, this match would have been even more exciting. Then there was Amanda Anisimova, who is definitely back on the upswing, and her victory over defending champion Osaka. Anisimova did it in the riskiest, most tension-filled way possible--in a third set tiebreak. 

But perhaps none was as thrilling as the the match played between two close friends--Marta Kostyuk and Paula Badosa, who are also two of the most talented young players on the tour today. Watching them, I couldn't help but think that some day--maybe sooner than we think--we'll see these two in a big final. Their athleticism alone is stunning, and they both have polished skills, good movement, and they can read the court well. Badosa prevailed, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4.

Of all the upsets, the one that surprised me the most was Kontaveit's, though losing to the up-and-coming, progressively dangerous Clara Tauson is nothing shameful at all.

One of the key stories so far is the resurgence of two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, who has reached the round of 16. I was disappointed, however, to hear Azarenka apologize for her former "bad attitude." It was that bad(ass) attitude that helped make her the champion that she is, and it also helped to promote the oh-so-shocking idea that women can be competitive and aggressive. But then, isn't it just like a woman to apologize for being herself?

Another good story belongs to Alize Cornet, who had not reached the round of 16 in Melbourne since 2009, and then--as she did this year--she achieved the milestone on her birthday. Cornet upset Muguruza in the second round, and--in an act which probably surprised even her biggest fans--she backed that up with her defeat of Zidansek. I consider the very talented Frenchwoman to be the biggest underachiever on the tour, and--sadly--one of the biggest pro tennis underachievers ever.

What's next? Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Amanda Anisimova
Jessica Pegula (21) vs. Maria Sakkari (5)
Barbora Krejcikova (4) vs. Victoria Azarenka (24)
Madison Keys vs. Paula Badosa (8)
Danielle Collins (27) vs. Elise Mertens (19)
Simona Halep (4) vs. Alize Cornet
Iga Swiatek (7) vs. Sorana Cirstea
Kaia Kanepi vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The holiday sing-along returns!

Photo by Daniel Ward


 Memos come, are you masking?
Are you vaxxed? they’ll be asking
A pitiful sight
No card games tonight
Living in a Covid wonderland

Gone away are the side trips
Here to stay are the swab tips
Aryna’s not sure
The science is pure
Stumbling through a Covid wonderland

In the hotel, we will build a prison
And pretend that it’s a luxury suite
Paula’s pounding balls
With great precision
While rodents make a run at Yulia’s feet

Later on, we’ll be testing
You can hear the protesting
The virus waylaid
The plans that were made
Living in a Covid wonderland

 

        ENJOY PREVIOUS HOLIDAY SING-ALONGS:

Saturday, December 4, 2021

My 2021 top ten

In a way, 2021 was even stranger than 2020. More tournaments were played, but with a limited number of fans, and often with very limited (or no) media. In fact, so much happened this year that I found it unusually hard to formulate a top ten. There were the Olympics, and the return of the Billie Jean King Cup--or rather, a ridiculous, crippled version of it, and the International Hall of Fame induction (finally) of the Original Nine. The media went all-out fabricating and promoting a non-story, and--this came so close to making the top ten--Camila Georgi won a premier event.

It's also worth noting that 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek was the only player to reach the second week of all four majors, a quiet accomplishment that causes me to believe that her future remains very bright. And let's not forget Garbine Muguruza's topping off her comeback by winning the WTA Finals (also a top ten contender).

There was also the forced disappearance of Peng Shuai, which became an international story, and--while it's the tennis story of the year--it deserves its own place in the world of tennis events, and is therefore not on this list of happenings, which focuses on accomplishments.

Here, in ascending order, are my top ten 2021 happenings:

10. Mixing metals is so on trend: Ask Belinda Bencic--she won a gold medal for Switzerland in women's singles, and a silver medal in women's doubles (with Viktorija Golubic). And Brazil surprised a lot of people by earning a medal. Here is the complete list of medal winners:

Women's Singles
gold--Belinda Bencic (Switzerland)
silver--Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic)
bronze--Elina Svitolina (Ukraine)

Women's Doubles
gold--Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (Czech Republic)
silver--Belinda Bencic/Viktorija Golubic (Switzerland)
bronze--Laura Pigossi/Luisa Stefani (Brazil)

Mixed Doubles
gold--Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, with Audrey Rublev (Russia)
silver--Elena Vesnina, with Aslan Karatsev (Russia)
gold--Ash Barty, with John Peers (Australia)

9. The Russians are here!: The Russians didn't just dominate mixed doubles at the Olympics. For the first time since 2008, they won the Billie Jean King Cup, defeating Switzerland in the final. The standout player was Ludmilla Samsonova, who was sent in as a substitute when Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was unable to play. Samsonova and her big serve went at it for two and a half hours against Belinda Bencic, and emerged the victor, and the hero of the Russian Tennis Federation's winning team.

8. They will all be missed: Sadly, it was a big year for retirements. Kiki Bertens, Carla Suarez Navarro and Barbora Strycova--all long-time treasures of the WTA--announced their retirement earlier this year. And just days ago, Johanna Konta announced that she, too, is retiring from professional tennis. Konta brought a lot of tennis pride back to the UK, reaching as high as number 4 in the world in singles. Her most memorable win was in Miami in 2017. (She also modeled for the WTA how to handle offensive members of the media.)

7. She does it with mirrors: Watching Naomi Osaka win a major is always a little like viewing a magic show. Her fluidity, her serve, and her strategic command of the court sometimes make it appear that she she's winning matches effortlessly. This year, she won the Australian Open by running through an especially difficult draw. In order to get to get the trophy, she had to beat the likes of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ons Jabeur, Garbine Muguruza, Serena Williams, and Jennifer Brady. This was Osaka's second Australian Open championship; she also won the event in 2019.

6. R-e-s-p-e-c-t/find out what it means to her: Desirae Krawczyk is not a WTA household word, but it certainly should be. This year, the USA doubles specialist came out one major shy of winning the Grand Slam in mixed doubles. She won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open--with three different partners (a new take on "Mladenovic and Anybody"). This was a huge accomplishment (though undoubtedly somewhat disappointing for her), but the sports media, including the tennis media, seems to not even know that she exists.

5. They're all coming for you!: The upstarts took over in 2021. Ons Jabeur, Anett Kontaveit and Paula Badosa all went on a tear, and close behind them were Leylah Fernandez, Katerina Siniakova, Clara Tauson, and Viktorija Golubic, all making their marks (Fernandez's mark was huge). Jabeur has steadily improved, in both skill and confidence, over the last few seasons, and is now the highest ranked Arab player of all time. Jabeur is also the first Arab woman to reach the WTA top 10 (no. 10). Kontaveit, from whom some of us have long expected great things, gave a dramatic master class on how to close a season, winning four titles, and practically willing herself into the WTA Finals. As for Paula Badosa, she won Indian Wells. Watch out.

4. She's number 1!: Ash Barty hasn't been on the scene too much because of Covid restrictions. But she did two very big things this season, in spite of that. She retained her number 1 ranking, and she won Wimbledon. Barty knocked out two big Czechs--Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova, as well as an on-fire Angie Kerber (who I thought was going to win her second Wimbledon championship), and Karolina Pliskova. 

3. The Golden Slam--so 1988: It's really, really hard to win the Golden Slam. A player has to win all four majors and an Olympic gold medal--next to impossible. But let's say that a player does that, but then--just to put the icing on the cake--also goes on to win both the singles and doubles championships at the prestigious end-of-year Masters event, and also leads her team to World Team Cup victory. How is that even possible? As Diede De Groot. She won all four wheelchair singles majors, both gold medals at the 2021 Paralympics, and the both the singles and doubles championships at the Masters.

But wait--she almost won the Grand Slam in doubles, too. She and partner Aniek Van Koot, the defending champions, lost in the semifinals at Wimbledon. 

It's hard to imagine that anyone could repeat this feat, but if anyone could, well--it would be De Groot. Diede the Great absolutely rules (and for this reason, she is also 2021's Ms. Backspin). 

2. Ranking really doesn't matter: Emma Raducanu was ranked number 150 in the world when she entered the qualifying rounds to compete at Wimbledon. Earlier in the year, she had received a wild card into Nottingham, but had lost in the first round. But then we saw the young Brit come out of nowhere to make it to the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and she might have gone even farther if she hadn't had to retire. 

Raducanu, not surprisingly, won all three of her qualifying rounds, and she did it without dropping a set. That was when we should have taken note, but how were we to know what was about to occur? She would go on to win every match she played (and she played a total of ten) without dropping a set. Raducanu beame the only qualifier in history to reach the final of a major. She won that, too, defeating a brilliant Leylah Fernandez, who had taken out such formidable opponents as 3rd seed and former champion Naomi Osaka, former champion Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elena Svitolina and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka. 

Raducanu's draw wasn't as tough as Fernandez's, but it was no walk in the park, either. She had to beat Sara Sorribes Tormo (whom, to my shock, she blew off the court), Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic, and a very in-form Maria Sakkari. It was astounding enough that the two teens made it to the final (though we already knew about Fernandez's talent), but then Raducanu won that in straight sets, too. 

Raducanu's victory was so historic in nature that we'll be talking about it for years.

1. All that glitters is Czech: 2021 was the year that Barbora Krejcikova glided onto the big stage, knocked down the sets, dismissed the other actors, and took enough bows to make even a dancing Czech dizzy. The Czech doubles star entered the French Open singles draw as an unseeded player, and left with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. In achieving this unexpected accomplishment, Krejcikova took out, among others, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, former finalist Sloane Stephens, young star Coco Gauff, and Maria Sakkari. She then defeated a resurgent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final. To add to the drama, the Czech champion also became the third woman in the Open Era to win the French Open after saving a match point (agains Sakkari).

But why stop there? Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, also won the French Open doubles championship (the first Roland Garros sweep in 21 years), then went on to win an Olympic gold medal. But why stop there? The Czech star qualified for the WTA finals in both singles and doubles, and she and Siniakova won the doubles trophy. Krejcikova also entered the top 10 in singles, rising as high as number 3 in the world (she is currently number 5).

The French Open champion also won Strasbourg and Prague; prior to 2021, she had never won a singles title. She was a very busy woman this year: She won the Australian Open mixed doubles title (with Rajeev Ram), and she and Siniakova were the runners-up for the women's doubles title. Also, she and Siniakova won titles in Gippsland and Madrid. Krejcikova is currently ranked number 2 in the world in doubles, but has been ranked as high as number 1. 

The Czech star was the protege of the late Jana Novotna, and remains inspired by her.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Muguruza completes her comeback in high style in Guadalajara

2021 was the year that Garbine Muguruza really started looking like Garbine Muguruza again. She didn't win anything big, but with each tournament, she looked more and more like the woman who--a few years before--won both the French Open and Wimbledon. And now, at the end of the season, she has won something big--the 2021 WTA Finals.

There were no finals played last year because of Covid, and this year, the host city, Shenzhen, was unable to accommodate the event. Given just eight weeks of preparation, Guadalarjara stepped in as host, and we were all the better for it. From the mariachi bands greeting players as they arrived at the airport to the beautiful dancers to the extraordinary crowds, the city proved to be a perfect (other than the altitude) spot to hold the tournament. 

And the crowd especially embraced Spain's competitors, Muguruza and Paula Badosa (who received the full mariachi birthday treatment while she was there). Muguruza and Badosa embraced them right back, and when Muguruza won the event, she looked as excited as I've ever seen her.

The 2021 Finals were a bit unusual, with world number 1 Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep opting not to compete. But their absence didn't make the event any less competitive or any less exciting. 

Muguruza lost her first match to Karolina Pliskova in round robin play, but won her other two matches, defeating Barbora Krejcikova and an on-fire Anett Kontaveit. In the semifinals, she defeated Badosa, and in the final, she prevailed 6-3, 7-5 over Kontaveit. This was, incidentally, the first time in the history of the WTA Finals, that the champion defeated the same player twice. It was also the first time that a Spanish player won the event.

And while Muguruza was the big story in singles, there were other great stories. Kontaveit, the last player to qualify, willed herself into the slot through some amazing end-of-season play, and Badosa was close behind her. And some of the most exciting tennis we saw in Guadalajara came from the racket of Maria Sakkari.

Barbora Krejcikova was the only player to go 0-3 in this year's round robin play, but she made up for this deficit in doubles (she was the only player competing in both singles and doubles), winning the WTA Finals with her partner, Katerina Siniakova. This final prize moves Krejcikova's season from outstanding to whatever is beyond outstanding. The Czech team, seeded first, defeated Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-4 in the final. As a bonus, Siniakova has secured the year-end world number 1 ranking in doubles.