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:




Aga plays Barbora Strycova at the French Open  in and and sees herself in 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.

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 Radwanskan Threat Level Chart that helped us negotiate the scarier parts of majors, and--of course--there was the Radwanskan 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.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A funny thing happened on the way to this post

Photo by Daniel Ward
Last year, I showed a friend the now-famous New Haven "astronomy" video done by Petra Kvitova, Kiki Mladenovic, Aga Radwanska, and Domi Cibulkova, and he howled with laughter. This year, I texted him the New Haven serve clock video, and the next time I saw him, he told me, "Those women are funny! I mean, they're genuinely funny--they could do a comedy act!"

And I told him, yes--this is one of the many reasons I love the WTA--there is so much personality on the tour, and so much silliness.

The Backspinner calls it "the most interesting tour in the world," and it is (though props to the LPGA, which is pretty interesting, too). And one of the many things that makes it interesting is the vast store of humor that resides within it. From the sometimes-caustic and always clever wit of Maria Sharapova to the unfiltered hilarity of Jelena Jankovic to the self-deprecating, yet intelligent, humor of Andrea Petkovic--any WTA event is a funny venue.

Yes, we watch primarily for the beautiful tennis and the competitive excitement. But we also watch--not just the matches, but the press conferences and the videos--because members of the tour are entertaining in every way. I think back at all the players who have made me laugh--Kvitova, Radwanska, Jankovic, Sharapova, Serena Williams, Petko, Sveta Kuznetsova, Julia Goerges, the Dashas, Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Laura Robson, Martina Hingis, the eternally droll Dinara Safina, and the master herself, Li Na--and I realize just how much I have laughed.

It's important to laugh. I can't think of a more empty state than having no sense of humor. Research shows us that laughter reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. It can also get us through hard times. And--considering how some sports fans take things (unfortunately, even some of the humor) so seriously--the comedy tour that is the WTA provides a lot of relief.

The aforementioned Safina, one of the tour's great philosophers (along with Kuznetsova, Jankovic, Petkovic and Francesca Schiavone), once said, "There are some moments when you want to break all the racquets and send everything to hell." That's true, at least metaphorically, for all of us. Thank goodness we have the comedy act of the WTA Tour to give us some relief.

The new Singapore sling


Of all the famous cocktails, perhaps none has been tampered with more than the Singapore sling. The original recipe was complicated enough, but bartenders have changed it numerous times, making it even more complicated. Originally considered a "woman's" drink, the Singapore sling is therefore pink. Here is the Women Who Serve version:

1 1/2 oz. potent Petra
1/2 oz. Sloane syrup
1/2 oz. Osaka fan club soda
4 oz. rapidly stirred Svitolina
dash of Wozniacki bitters
shake with icy Kerber resolve
garnish with deadly slice of Kiki

Serve in a long, tall, frosted Pliskova glass.

Drink more than one at your own risk!



The WTA Finals begin Monday. Kiki Bertens was added after top seed, world number 1, and winner of the Porsche Race to Singapore Simona Halep withdrew because of injury. Caroline Wozniacki is the defending champion. Here are the two round robin groups:

RED GROUP
Angie Kerber (1)
Naomi Osaka (3)
Sloane Stephens (5)
Kiki Bertens (8)

WHITE GROUP

Caroline Wozniacki (2)
Petra Kvitova (4)
Elina Svitolina (6)
Karolina Pliskova (7)

Stephens and Kvitova have winning records over the players in their respective groups. Theoretically, this should give them an advantage--and it does--but the WTA Finals can be unpredictable. I should add, however, that since the courts are playing fast, Kvitova's White Group advantage is somewhat augmented.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

What is it about the Asian swing?




Perhaps some players are exhausted and others are ready for a new start. That's one theory. At any rate, the Asian swing tends to bring about--if not surprises--at least, new takes on the state of the tour in a given season. Take 2011, when Aga Radwanska won both Tokyo and Beijing (there was no Wuhan tournament then). Or last year, when Caroline Garcia won both Wuhan and Beijing and launched herself into the WTA Finals.

This year, Karolina Pliskova suddenly re-emerged as a major force and won Tokyo, a premier event. Any victory is impressive, but this one may have been especially sweet because the Long Tall One defeated U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka in the final. Pliskova, in 2016, was considered the Next Big Thing. She reached the final of the U.S. Open. But her results after that were mixed. The 2018 Asian Swing, however, has put her back into the spotlight.

Wuhan, a premier 5 event, was just as interesting. And before I get to Aryna Sabalenka's victory, I want to highlight Anett Kontaveit's run to the final. Kontaveit has risen steadily, and so quietly, she has gone almost unnoticed. In Wuhan, the Estonian player defeated Sloane Stephens, Donna Vekic (another player who is finally reaching her potential), Zhang Shuai, Katerina Siniakova, and Wang Qiang. That's quite a run.

Sabalenka's Wuhan victory came as no surprise to me. The Belarusian has a complete game, and--just as important--a calm confidence. An opponent really does have to beat Sabalenka; she won't give anything away. Her 2019 season should be worth watching.

Finally (of the big ones), there was the China Open, won by Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, who won in Beijing without dropping a set. The victory was her 30th title. Wozniacki and Naomi Osaka are the only two players to win both a major and a premier mandatory in the 2018 season.




The China Open was interesting for another reason: Wang Qiang gave us another outstanding performance, going all the way to the semifinals. In Wuhan, the Chinese player defeated the often-formidable Maria Sakkari, 8th seed and Tokyo champion Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova, and Monica Puig, before she retired against Anett Kontaveit.

In Beijing--playing as a wild card-Wang defeated 12th seed Alona Ostapenko and then she defeated Karolina Pliskova (this time the 7th seed) again. She followed that with a 7-5, 7-5 defeat of Wuhan champion Aryna Sabalenka, and then was stopped by Wozniacki.

The doubles results have also been notable. The Japanese team of Miyu Kato and Makoto Ninomiya won the Tokyo doubles title, defeating top seeds Andrea Sestini Hlavackova and Barbora Strycova in the final. Demi Schuurs and Elise Mertens won the Wuhan title, and Sestini Hlavackova and Strycova made to the Beijing final, too, and this time--they won.

Of course, there's more to the Asian swing than the premier events. The swing began in Guangzhou, and who won that? Altogether now: Wang Qiang! The Asian swing has put a well-deserved spotlight on Wang Qiang, and she's now one of the players I'm most interested in watching in 2019. Wang has a compelling court presence, a good all-around game and a very good serve.

Back to the other Asian swing events: Charleston and Cincinnati champion Kiki Bertens won the Korea Open, and Margarita Gasparyan won in Tashkent. Gasparyan's victory was one of the sweetest of the 2018 season; the Russian player was out for a long time after enduring three knee surgeries and considering retirement from the tour. She is currently ranked number 138 in the world.

The last two Asian swing tournaments, Hong Kong and Tianjin, will be played this week. The top seeds are Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova (also a wild card). Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from Hong Kong because of a back injury. Also withdrawing were Ekaterina Makarova and Lesia Tsurenko.