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.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Russia wins Billie Jean King Cup for the fifth time

Every Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup) produces a few stand-out players. With all of the rubbers being played together in a round robin format (more on that later), it was hard to keep up. But one name that will certainly linger is Liudmilla Samsonova, the young Russian who had the heavy task of going in as a substitute in the final when countrywoman Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had to withdraw because of an injury.

Russia's opponent in the final was Switzerland, led by Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic. Bencic took the first set, and Samsonova--who displayed the grit of Flavia Pennetta and the game face of Elena Vesnina--practically willed herself through the second set with a victory. Samsonova's serve was very much her friend today, but it's good to have more than one friend, and her other close ally was her raw determination.

The final four teams were Russia, Switzerland, Australia and the USA. Russia (with help from Samsonova, who defeated Sloane Stephens, and--with a red hot Veronika Kudermetova--defeated the USA doubles team) knocked out the USA, and Switzerland eliminated the Australian team. In the first rubber of the final, Dasha Kasatkina defeated Jill Teichmann in straight sets, then Samsonova and Bencic went at each other for almost two and a half hours.

The last time Russia won the Cup was in 2008. They did play in the 2015 final, but were defeated by eleven-time champions Czech Republic. 

The competition's format was changed because it was difficult for many players to commit to playing three times a year, in a quarterfinal, semifinal and final tie. Of course, Fed Cup was much more complicated than that, what with the different groups providing opportunities for countries to get into the elite World Group. 

Changing the format to a one-week round robin event did indeed streamline it, but it has made it much harder for fans to participate. With everyone playing pretty much at the same time, there are fewer opportunities than ever to watch the matches. And seeking information about anything is even harder than it used to be. The Fed Cup app was always pretty bad; the Billie Jean King Cup app is useless. And, whereas the Fed Cup website was excellent, the Billie Jean King Cup website is one of the least user-friendly websites I've ever seen. I gave up.

The only good thing is that Tennis Channel Plus (kind of) picked up the event, meaning that we didn't have to rely on Fed Cup TV. I never cared for Fed Cup TV because of the technical issues. But last year, there were other issues. All of the ties were blocked in the U.S., except for USA team ties, which I didn't need Fed Cup TV to watch. I asked for my subscription fee back, and each body I asked said "Oh, we don't do that--you have to talk to these people." This went on and on for months.

I recently decided to pick up where I left off, and--once again--I got "Oh, we can't do that--someone else has to help you," but I was having none of it. I'm finally getting my refund, but this was some of the worst "customer service" I've ever received (like, a 9 on the Sony scale).

Saturday, October 23, 2021

With apologies to Johnny Otis--Camila and the Hand Shove


Camila and the Hand Shove

I know a chick named Way-Out Camila
She’s a lotta things, but not vanilla
She can walk and stroll like Genie do
And do that crazy hand shove too

Papa told Camila, “you’ll ruin my show
You and that hand shove have got to go”
Camila said “Papa, don’t be a pain
Been doin’ that hand shove all over Spain”

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Mama, mama, look at our Cami
She’s doin’ that hand shove with Sakkari
Some people said she crossed a line
But she’ll do that hand shove one more time

Well a trainer and a coach and a referee
They all dig that crazy beat
Way-Out Camila gave them all a treat
When she did the hand shove with her feet

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Well, Camila played another Maria this fall
It was two sets done but that ain’t all
You know Camila lost again and it’s plain to see
Doin’ that hand shove on TV

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Paula Badosa rules in the desert

She had a shoulder injury.

She double-faulted eleven times.

She hit four fewer winners and eight more unforced errors than her opponent.

And she won Indian Wells, in a three-hour thriller that stands out as a highlight of the 2021 season.

Paula Badosa of Spain also had the draw from hell. In order to get to the final, she had to beat Dayana Yastremska, Coco Gauff, French Open champion and 3rd seed Barbora Krecjikova, the always formidable Angie Kerber, and Ons Jabeur. Her opponent in that final was two-time BNP Paribas Open champion Vika Azarenka, which would be enough to put fear into even the most seasoned competitor.

Badosa's backstory is dramatic in itself. The first player to test positive for the Covid-19 virus at the Australian Open, she was placed in an extended quarantine. During that time, she said, she wasn't given the training equipment that she had requested, so she resorted to using water bottles as weights and doing sit-ups in her 50-square foot room. Badosa said that she felt abandoned by tournament organizers.

Then there was the French Open, where the Spanish player emerged as a threat after having just won her first title in Belgrade. And she did make it all the way to the quarterfinals, but lost to Tamara Zidansek in a tight and thrilling 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 contest.

Badosa, seeded 21st, was a very worthy opponent for 27th seed Azarenka. They engaged in lengthy baseline rallies featuring some stinging shots. Badosa looked kind of tired in the third set, or perhaps her shoulder was bothering her more than usual. She had taken out four top-20 players en route to the final, but had dropped only one set (to Yastremska). Nevertheless, her fighting spirit was, well--Azarenka-like. 

And when it mattered, it was Badosa who made the high-risk shots count at the right times. In the final tiebreak, she was nothing short of brilliant, and defeated Azarenka 7-6, 2-6, 7-6. "I wouldn't be here without you," she told the Belarusian veteran when she accepted the trophy.

Playing in the longest final of the season, Badosa is the first Spanish woman to win Indian Wells, a prestigious 1000 event. As of tomorrow, she will be number 11 in the world, and she's definitely on a path to the WTA Finals.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

My U.S. Open Top 10

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

10. Always striving to be worse: I’m no fan of Tennis Channel—not by a long shot—but ESPN is something else again. This time, we were treated to commentators shaming Emma Raducanu because of the incident at Wimbledon. One (I forget who) said that she “admitted” to it, and Chris Fowler said that she “owned up” to it. This is also ironic in light of the supposed “mental health” meme that’s being circulated. Then there was Cliff Drysdale, who talked about the current players from--wait for it-- Czechoslovakia. But none could top Kat Adams, who explained to us that when Iga Swiatek won the French Open, “people didn’t even know how to pronounce her name.” She said this as she was calling her “ShwEYEtek.”

9. It’s not just nature that abhors a vaccum: Serena and Venus weren’t there. Sofia Kenin wasn’t there. Jen Brady had to withdraw. No worries—it was still the most exciting U.S. Open that anyone could have imagined, what with the teens, and some big-time thrillers that were played throughout the event.

8. “__________” is in the eye of the beholder: The aftermath of the match featuring French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova and former U.S. Open champion Garbine Muguruza had a kind of Rashomon quality to it, in that the people who saw it came away with such significantly different accounts of what happened. This isn’t unusual, of course, but the disparity seemed more pronounced to me this time.

One camp insisted that Krejcikova faked the MTO and therefore Muguruza was angry. Another camp said, no, the MTO was legitimate, but Krejcikova created long delays (getting towels) before Muguruza’s serves, and that made Muguruza angry. A third group claimed that it was both a fake MTO and the towel delays that upset the Spaniard. And yet another group claimed that Muguruza played badly and needed to blame someone other than herself.

Well, Muguruza did play poorly—until she didn’t. And adrenaline is a powerful painkiller; it seemed plausible to me that Krejcikova knew that she had to get the job done in straight sets or retire, so she went for it. As for the towel delay issue—it was made worse by the fact that ballkids cannot fetch towels for players during the pandemic. Was it legitimately annoying? I say yes. But none of us will ever know exactly what either player was feeling. All in all, it was an unfortunate affair.

7. And this was just the second round
: When 4th seed Karolina Pliskova played Amanda Anisimova, it looked like a final. The quality of play was so high from both of them, and it was nice to see Anisimova back in form. Pliskova—who hit 24 aces—prevailed, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6.

6. The match that had everything: 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu and Maria Sakkari put on a show of Schiavone-Kuznetsova proportions in the round of 16. Sakkari’s serving was spectacular, and Andreescu was right back to making shots that appeared impossible to make, but that she can somehow summon from her vast repertoire of impossible shots. They were at each other for three and a half hours. Andreescu fell several times, and the last fall—in the third set—produced an injury. But of course—this is Bianca Andreescu we’re talking about. The Canadian star could still hit some wicked shots after that, but she could no longer push off to serve, and fell to Sakkari, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3.

5. Better with a friend
: The team of Coco Gauff and Caty McNally, seeded 11th, created a stir when they knocked out the top seeds, Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens, in the quarterfinals. "McCoco" made it all the way to the final (with a little help when their Canadian opponents had to retire in the semifinals), but they couldn't get past good pals and 14th seeds Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai. The pair also won the Australian Open in 2019. This is Stosur’s second U.S. Open doubles title—she and Lisa Raymond won the championship in 2005.

4. One shy of a Grand Slam: U.S. commentators love to talk about U.S. players, yet they forget that accomplished doubles specialists Desirae Krawczyk and Nicole Melichar exist. It’s definitely time to remember Krawczyk: She just won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title (with partner Joe Salisbury), after also winning the French Open and Wimbledon titles. If someone comes that close to achieving the Grand Slam, it’s time to say her name.

3. Pure gold: She did it! Diede De Groot, known by fans as Diede the Great, has achieved the Golden Slam, winning all four majors and a Paralympic gold medal. And in addition to winning the wheelchair singles title, De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, also won the doubles title. This is De Groot’s fourth U.S. Open singes title, and her fourth U.S. Open doubles title. She is the first wheelchair player to win the Golden Slam. De Groot was discovered and mentored by the great Esther Vergeer, who, today, must be very proud.

2. The force that is Leylah: Some of us have been watching Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez for a while, and expecting great things from her. She didn’t disappoint us during this U.S. Open. In fact, her performances were sometimes jaw-dropping in their scope. Fernandez, who turned 19 during the tournament, was unseeded, yet she upset 3rd seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka, former champion (and extremely in-form) Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka.

How did she do it? Fernandez moved extremely well, showed excellent court judgment, and hit her shots with stunning precision. She also kept her cool throughout each match, trusting her sharp problem-solving brain to help her figure out her opponents. She didn’t wind up with the trophy, but this is one case of a runner-up deserving every word of praise that can be thrust upon her.

1. No teen angst here!: Emma Raducanu had her tour debut just recently, in Nottingham, where she was given a wild card, but failed to get past the first round. She got our attention soon after, though, at Wimbledon, where she reached the round of 16. Unfortunately, she had to retire because of what appeared to be a panic attack. But the 18-year-old Brit swatted that issue away, just like she swatted away her opponents in Flushing Meadows.

Raducanu had to go through qualifying, so she played three more matches than her opponent in the final, Leylah Fernandez. In an odd twist, though, Fernandez wound up spending more time on court because so many of her matches went to three sets. Not Raducanu---she didn’t drop a set the entire tournament. The first qualifier to win a major, Raducanu was ranked number 150 in the world when she entered the qualifying tournament.

The young Brit got my attention when she allowed Sara Sorribes Tormo one game in their third round match. It was hard for me to imagine anyone having that much dominance over the intrepid Spaniard, but Raducanu did. In fact, she easily dominated every opponent she played, though—before reaching the quarterfinals, in which she played 11th seed Belinda Bencic—Raducanu had never played a top 40 player.

The new champion didn’t have as tough a draw as Fernandez had, to be sure (with the exception of Sorribes Tormo, who—though not an elite player—can be a nightmare to play), but at the business end of the  tournament, she did have to face the likes of Olympic gold medal winner Bencic and an on-fire Maria Sakkari. She beat them 6-3, 6-4 and 6-1, 6-4, respectively.

Raducanu was the first qualifier to reach the final in the Open Era. In that final, she faced the toughest opponent she could have faced—the unseeded teenager, Fernandez (this was the first major final to feature two unseeded players). Though it was against all odds that it could happen, it nevertheless—in another way—felt like it was meant to be.

Was Fernandez a bit tired after her three-set ordeals? Probably. But she played extremely well. But Raducanu, who is as quick on the court as Fernandez, just continued to play her aggressive game, serving well, taking second serves from inside the baseline, and hitting laser-like forehands and backhands down the line. It was a champion’s display of tennis, and Emma Raducanu is a champion who made history over and over at the 2021 U.S. Open.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

If she can make it there, she'll make it anywhere: Emma Raducanu is the 2021 U.S. Open champion!

She's 18 years old.

She made her tour debut this year, when she was given a wild card into Nottingham, where she lost in the first round.

Hardly anyone had heard of her until she reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, then had to retire because of breathing difficulties. 

She had never won a tour-level tournament.

She was ranked number 150 in the world. 

She had to play three qualifying rounds to get into the U.S. Open main draw.

She didn't drop a set throughout the tournament.

She was the first person to ever reach a major final as a qualifier.

And today, the unseeded Emma Raducano of Great Britain became the 2021 U.S. Open champion. 

As if that weren't all amazing enough, there's the equally amazing fact that her opponent was also unseeded. Having two unseeded players in a major final is a first in professional tennis.

Leylah Fernandez of Canada, who turned 19 a few days ago, did a lot of heavy lifting at this year's event, taking out 3rd seed and defending  champion Naomi Osaka, former champion (and very much in form) Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka. Several of her matches went to three sets, and she wound up spending more time on court than Raducanu, despite Raducanu's having played three extra matches.

Fernandez may have been a little tired. She was out-served by Raducanu in the final, plus she had to deal with an opponent who takes the ball more rapidly than most.

The first couple of games were long and complicated, leaving us with the impression that the match could drag out for a long time. Fernandez was broken on Raducanu's seventh break point, putting Raducanu up 2-0. After the first few games, the players eased into a rhythm, and--after being broken--Fernandez, serving to stay in the set--saved three break points before falling 4-6 to her opponent.

Raducanu began the second set by serving an ace. Fernandez broke for 2-1, but was broken right back, and then Raducanu brought the set to 5-2. Fernandez, who had fought like mad throughout the tournament, again produced her best fight-back tennis, saving two championship points and breaking Raducanu. Fernandez then held, and had a break point on Raducanu's serve when Raducanu slid across the court and scraped her knee. Her leg was bleeding, so there was a mandatory medical timeout.

Raducanu returned to the court and saved the break point, and then she saved another one. On her third championship point, Raducanu hit an ace out wide to win the title, 6-4, 6-3. Afterwards, she told ESPN that she'd been trying to hit that particular ace throughout the match and had failed to do so, then thought, "If ever there’s a time to make it, this is the one."

The match may not have gone to three sets, but the quality was very high. Both players were, hands down, the two most impressive players at this year's U.S. Open
: Leylah's fighting spirit and problem-solving skills were nothing short of amazing, and Emma's anticipation and ability to read the court and make fast adjustments were sometimes mind-boggling. Both move very well and are good shot-makers.

I often say that I hate it for either player to lose, and this time, I think I had a lot of company. Both Emma and Leylah (whom serious fans have been keeping an eye on for a while) gave us the greatest show we could have asked for, and that show went on for two weeks. The circumstances surrounding this final may never appear again; two teenage girls made tennis history today, and their contribution to the sport was stunning.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Leylah the Giant-Killer vs. No-Nonsense Emma in the Battle of the Teenage Upstarts

One Day Only!

Young Blood Will Be (Metaphorically) Spilled!

Not For the Weak of Heart!

(smelling salts available, bring your own fan)

So it began with a wry smile and a shrug (or an eye roll) and "Watch it be the two teens!" which turned into "Hey, you know, it could be the two teens." That turned into "I think it might be the two teens." And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have--the two teens. 

Their backstories are different, but equally appealing. Leylah Fernandez took out two former U.S. Open champions (Osaka and Kerber), and three of the top five seeds (Osaka, Sabalenka, Svitolina), on her way to the final. Emma Raducanu played nine matches--she had to go through qualifying--to get to the final, and she has yet to drop a set. And though one would think that the young Brit (she's eighteen, and Fernandez just turned nineteen four days ago) would have spent much more time on court than her Canadian opponent, there wasn't much difference because Fernandez had to play several three-set matches.

There's an argument to be made that Fernandez, because she had a more difficult draw, is more match-tough than Raducanu--she had to handle the likes of Naomi Osaka, Angie Kerber,  Elina Svitolina, and Aryna Sabalenka. If you turn that idea on its head, there's the argument that Fernandez could suffer both mental and physical fatigue because of her difficult draw.

There's also the fact that--while she certainly didn't have to get past the queue of tough customers that her opponent had to handle--Raducanu's draw wasn't a walk in the park. Though several days have past, I still can't get over the fact the Raducanu allowed Sara Sorribes Tormo one game in their match. The Spaniard isn't an elite player, but she's one of the toughest players on the tour, and she'll happily drag you to three grueling sets, many of which she wins--yet the British upstart made very short work of her. 

Raducanu also had to face 2021 Olympic gold medal winner and 11th seed Belinda Bencic, whom some had talked about as a possible winner of this year's Open. And then, in the semifinals, she had to face off against Maria Sakkari. No problem.

One thing in particular, however, is missing from Raducanu's draw: She didn't have to play against one left-hander, but she will have to do so in the final. One assumes that, as I write this, she's hitting with at least one left-handed person.

Raducanu is the only qualifier, man or woman, to ever reach the final of a major. She has smiled through the routine swatting away of all of her opponents, including the formidable Sakkari, whose newly improved (and deadly) serve failed her when she needed it most. 

For her part, Fernandez was given a series of problems, all of which she solved. The toughest of those problems, in my opinion, was fellow lefty Angie Kerber, whom I (though I may have stood alone) thought had a good shot at winning the tournament. By the time Fernandez got to Sabalenka--even though she had to play three sets--her court life became a bit easier as she got into the 2nd seed's head and watched her slowly implode. 

It's highly doubtful that the young Canadian star will be permitted to get anywhere near Raducanu's head, and it's equally doubtful that Raducanu will be able to swat Fernandez away. What we have is the perfect combination of two brilliant young players who now have to deal with each other. Will one of them be frozen by the occasion? Don't count on it. These are tough young women who have undoubtedly learned a lot about themselves in the past few weeks, and I suspect that they liked what they learned. 

And as if this match weren't historic enough, it's also the first time that two unseeded women have competed in a major final.

This is the final of the year--brace yourselves.

Paths to the final:

round 1–def. Stefanie Voegle
round 2–def. Zhang  Shuai
round 3–def. Sara Sorribes Tormo
round of 16–def. Shelby Rogers
quarterfinals—def. Belinda Bencic (11)
semifinals—def. Maria Sakkari (17)


round 1–def. Ana Konjuh
round 2–def. Kaia Kanepi
round 3–def. Naomi Osaka (3)
round of 16–def. Angie Kerber (16)
quarterfinals—def. Elina Svitolina (5)
semifinals—def. Aryna Sabalenka (2)