Sunday, June 28, 2020

Peace overcomes Kindness

No, it isn't the title of an article in a trendy Internet health journal--it's the result of the Credit One Bank Invitational, played this week in Charleston at the Volvo Car Open site on Daniel Island. Team Peace, under the leadership of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, was the first to reach 25 points, defeating Team Kindness, whose captain was Madison Keys.

The largest tennis event organized since professional play was halted, the Credit One Bank Invitational also served as a fundraiser for the Medical University of South Carolina frontline workers.

There is no MVP award, but if there were, it would surely go to Jennifer Brady, who--playing for Team Peace--went 4-0, defeating Vika Azarenka and Sloane Stephens, and winning both of her doubles matches.

There was a lot of rain, and during one really intense storm, the court was flooded with purple light, "Purple Rain" was blasted out of the sound system, and the players sang the song. And until Moran confiscated it, Mattek-Sands possessed a pillow with tournament director Bob Moran's likeness on it. The players made public their current playlists, and the entire event had that good-hearted Charleston feel to it. All the matches were shown on Tennis Channel, and the commentators were obviously happy to be able to call a tennis event.

It was so eerie, looking at the empty stands in the Volvo Car Stadium, a venue I equate with crowd humor and enthusiasm. It's also a venue that represents comfort and support for the players, so it was a really good place to hold a team competition. And it was a model for how to hold a tournament during a pandemic--individual "pods" for the players, a no-touch process for ballkids, no handshakes, no hand-slaps.

(I do wonder, though, about the inevitable physical proximity that doubles partners have to have with one another, regardless of precautions.)

I was sorry that Bianca Andreescu withdrew, but her withdrawal didn't take away from the success of the event. It was a pleasure to see such spirited action on the green clay.

The final score:
Team Peace---26
Team Kindness--22

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Keys and Mattek-Sands shine at Credit One Bank Invitaational press conference

Today, Steve Weissman of Tennis Channel  moderated a press conference featuring a few of the principals of the upcoming Credit One Bank Invitational, which will be held at the Volvo Car Open site on Daniel Island in Charleston, June 23-28. Weissman was joined by Charleston Tennis LLC president Bob Moran and tournament team captains Madison Keys and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Moran explained the health measures that will be taken. About a hundred people will be on site—the players, their guests, the event staff, and the Tennis Channel broadcast staff (Weissman, Lindsay Davenport and Chanda Rubin). The Medical University of South Carolina’s back-to-work team has served in an advisory capacity for the tournament. Everyone who enters will be tested for the virus, there will be strict distancing, no handshakes or high fives, and tennis balls will be numbered.

Moran also announced that each player will have her own pod, with a couch, a lounge, and a workout area. He added: “You know, I’ve got to check on these two captains and make sure they’re not going out everywhere in Charleston every night.”

That was just a taste of the humor that wound through much of the press conference. Keys and Mattek-Sands reminisced about the one time they played doubles together, in Rome. They lost, but, Keys said, “The whole time, you would have thought that we were absolutely steamrolling it, and was 6-2, 4-0."

“I’m a little worried about doubles,” Keys added: “I might have to like go watch some of Bethanie’s matches.”

The captains talked about the special emotion that comes with playing tennis as a member of a team. “We’re used to going on stadium courts,” Mattek-Sands said. “We’re used to being set points down and coming back. We’re used to being up and having our opponents come back. But then, when you’re playing for someone else or you’re watching someone else and wanting her to win—it’s like a whole new set of nerves, but I think it’s great.”

The tournament format will include two sets and a third set tiebreak of ten points in both singles and doubles. The matches played on Tuesday and Wednesday are worth one point, the matches played on Thursday and Friday are worth two points, and the matches played on Saturday and Sunday are worth three points. Sunday’s lineup will feature all sixteen players competing in doubles.

Keys said that “…from the day that Bob told me that I was…in charge of creating a team, I’ve been thinking about it and stressing about it and trying—like, I've got pretty much every scenario that you could have.”  The draft will be held Monday, and will be shown on Tennis Channel at 8 p.m. EST. Mattek-Sands won the coin toss which occurred at the end of the press conference, and will get first pick.

In addition to awarding prize money to players, the event will serve as a fundraiser for the Medical University of South Carolna’s frontline workers. Credit One Bank is a NASCAR sponsor, but this will be the company’s first participation in professional tennis.

Besides Keys (who is the defending Volvo Car Open champion) and Mattek-Sands, the Credit One Bank Invitational participants are:

2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu
2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin
2016 Volvo Car Open champion Sloane Stephens
2012 and 2013 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka
2016 Olympic gold medal winner Monica Puig
Amanda Anisimova
Jennifer Brady
Ajla Tomljanovic
Danielle Collins
Alison Riske
Shelby Rogers
Genie Bouchard
Leylah Fernandez
Emma Navarro

Monday, June 15, 2020

Jennifer Brady finds new motivation in preparing for Charleston event

photo courtesy of WTA
A fascinating field of sixteen—including 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu and 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin—will participate later this month in the Credit One Bank Invitational, a team competition that will be held at the Volvo Car Open site on Daniel Island in Charleston June 23-28.

One of the event’s participants is world number 48 Jennifer Brady, the 25-year-old who— earlier this year—logged victories over Maria Sharapova, world number 1 Ash Barty, Elina Svitolina, and former world number 1 Garbine Muguruza.

Brady spoke with me last week from Orlando, Florida, where she lives. Like everyone else, she has had to make life adjustments because of the COVID-19 partial shutdown of the country, and the pause placed on professional sports.

She may be a bit luckier than some other players, though, because, she said, several other WTA tour members lives very close to her home, and others live only about ten minutes away. Also, a new tennis academy has opened in Orlando, so the group has a place to hit and practice. Brady described her recent training period as “sort of” normal.

Before everything came to a halt, Jenn Brady had been playing a lot of tennis. Then, when Indian Wells was canceled, she said that she lost a bit of motivation.

“I didn’t know when the next tournament was going to be. That was pretty hard, so then I took a little bit of time off from my tennis. And then Eleanor [Adams] reached out about the Charleston event, and then I was super-excited about that, and happy that they decided to do something, so then I got the motivation back and was able to come back and train and have something to play for.”

Brady’s down time was put to good use, however. “I did a lot of cleaning and organizing my home. I finally unpacked all of my suitcases and sorted through some old clothes, and stuff like that.” Brady describes herself as not much of a TV watcher, so—unlike many of us—her binge-watching, she said, has been limited to one show, Madame Secretary.

So many people have re-considered their priorities during the lockdown, and Brady is no exception:

“I think, you know, to appreciate the job that I have…,” she explained, “that privilege that we’re able to travel and see so many different countries and cultures and being able to compete every week and have a new opportunity every week, regardless of what the result is….I think that sometimes we take for granted being able to see so much.”

She was philosophical about the loss of tour momentum, and when I asked her if she has any specific goals for 2021, her reply was: “No, not exactly—just to kind of see where it takes me,” a decision prompted by a desire not to put too much pressure on herself.

Brady played in Charleston in 2018, and said that she’s looking forward to returning, even though there will be no fans. She also said that she, like so many other WTA players, has very positive feelings about the Volvo Car Open and those who make it possible.

The green clay suits Brady's game, which she employs most comfortably on hard courts. In 2017, Brady reached the round of 16 in singles at both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, and she reached the semifinals in doubles (with Alison Riske) at the 2019 Australian Open.

The Credit One Bank Invitational will consist of sixteen singles matches and eight doubles matches, and will receive forty hours of coverage on Tennis Channel. 2019 Volvo Car Open champion Madison Keys and Bethanie Mattek-Sands will serve as team captains. The largest tennis event confirmed since professional tennis came to a halt, the tournament will also serve as a fund-raiser for Medical University of South Carolina’s frontline healthcare workers.

“Ever since the unfortunate cancellation of this year’s Volvo Car Open due to the Coronavirus, we have been working tirelessly to figure out how and when to appropriately bring a world class event back to Charleston as quickly and safely as possible,” said Bob Moran, President of Charleston Tennis LLC, in announcing the event. “This tournament will have two equal beneficiaries—traditional prize money for the athletes, and a large fundraising structure to support frontline healthcare workers at MUSC.”

The following players will be joining Brady, Keys, Mattek-Sands, Andreescu, and Kenin: 2016 Volvo Car Open champion Sloane Stephens, Victoria Azarenka, Amanda Anisimova, Monica Puig, Ajla Tomljanovic, Danielle Collins, Alison Riske, Shelby Rogers, Eugenie Bouchard, Leylah Fernandez, and Emma Navarro.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Un moment triste

Centre Georges Pompidou (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
The French Open is my favorite major. I've never attended it, and when I was in Paris, I didn't even go to the Roland Garros site (I'm not sure why), though I did attend the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters event. But I love watching it.

Part of the reason that I love watching the French Open is that I simply enjoy watching clay court tennis. Also, I was a huge fan of Chris Evert's, and so watching the French Open was always very exciting for me. In 1985, when Evert made her Roland Garros "comeback" against Martina Navratilova (I was a fan of Navratilova's, too), I was in Chicago with a friend, and we were staying at the home of a very rigid, unpleasant person. (This was via one of those organizations in which people swap dwellings for visits--we had already vacated the first one, it was so terrible. I should add that I had nothing to do with this.)

It was our last day in Chicago, and our host insisted we go to a local festival. I announced that I was staying in the apartment, which didn't go over well with her at all, and probably didn't go over well with my friend, either. But I wanted to see the French Open final. I was so glad I stayed! It was an electrifying match (I have it on DVD), and it gave Evert a renewed clay court star status.

Evert won the French Open seven times, and would have undoubtedly won it a few more times had she not been playing World Team Tennis, whose matches occurred simultaneously with the French Open for a while (reason number 100-something why we cannot compare eras).

Suzanne Lenglen won the French Open four times when it was a French-only event, but only twice after it became an international event, i.e., a major. Steffi Graf won it six times. Justine Henin won it four times, as did Helen Wills Moody.

French women who won the French Open when it ceased to be a French-only event:
Suzanne Lenglen (2)
Simonne Mathieu (2)
Nelly Adamson Landry (1)
Francoise Durr (1)
Mary Pierce (1)

Perhaps the most dramatic French Open victory of recent times belongs to retired Italian player Francesca Schiavone. In 2009, Schiavone was defeated in the first round by Australian Sam Stosur. In 2010, the two met in the final, with Stosur generally favored to win (but not by this writer). The Australian had done a lot of heavy lifting throughout the tournament, defeating Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic (and--as a historical footnote--qualifier Simona Halep, in the first round). Never had Stosur looked so strong.

But Schiavone, who had brought her Fed Cup coach along to guide her, appeared as though her entire professional life had been merely a preparation for this moment. Using her signature slice, and some expert volleying and a lot of spin, the Italian player won in straight sets, ending the match with a dramatic tiebreak, in which she put on a virtual clay court clinic.

Schiavone's kissing the clay turned into an iconic photograph, and it was a pleasure to share her joy over the victory. She would reach the final again in 2011, too, but would be defeated by Li Na.

I feel compelled to mention Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won the French Open only once (2009), but who, arguably, should have won it a few times. Kuznetsova was in one other Roland Garros final--2006, and she lost that to Jusine Henin. She also reached the semifinals in 2008, but lost to countrywoman Dinara Safina. The Russian's clay game is excellent, but she was able to hold the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen only once.

It is a reasonable expectation that recent champions Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep will win the event a second time (and it would be splendid to see them together in a final); I would like to see Alona Ostapenko win it again.

In "normal" times, the French Open would begin this weekend. As it is, we must be content with watching classic matches and reminiscing about our favorite champions. It's a sad time.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

On not watching tennis

This isn't my first time to not watch tennis. There was a period, after the Graf-Seles era, when I grew tired of watching and moved on to other things. Gradually, I was lured back in by Martina Hingis, and--also gradually--my fixation with women's tennis became stronger than it had been before.

Several years ago, I decided to severely limit my ATP viewing because I refuse to watch players who consider me inferior because of my gender. This eliminates my watching some of the top (and sadly, most popular) players in the world, as well as many others. (The all-around bigots--the ones who are racist and anti-LGBTQ--repel a lot of viewers, but the sexist ones always get a pass--but not from me. So no Rafa, no Novak, etc.)

I also can't get too interested in Tennis Channel's summaries of recent years and recent tournaments; I'm happier when I don't listen to most of that group. And there are few matches that I want to re-watch, at least, in total; I'm just not a re-watch kind of person, though--once in a while--I'll take a look.

It's sad, though, to have no live WTA matches to watch, and to have no majors to which I can look forward. I don't care for Wimbledon, but I'm sorry, for the players' sake, that it was canceled. I'm sad if any major is canceled. I know that the French Open--my favorite of the four majors--is scheduled, but I'll believe it when I see it.

It's good that lower-ranked players are going to get some financial relief. It isn't easy, being a journeywoman. There is relatively little compensation for all the hard work, and there are so many expenses. This long haitus could break some players' careers if no relief is provided.

I sometimes marvel at the stamina of the tennis journeywoman: She has to travel all over the world, just like the higher-ranked players. Sometimes, she can stay in the homes of fans, but she can't count on that. She has to eat well and do her best to stay healthy; no physio staff travels with her. She has to have a coach. If she's lucky, a competent family member is available It can be a tough life.

For many years, professional tennis players have had to deal with viruses that run rampant through certain tournaments, or with food poisoning. One of my hopes is that the current health crisis will create a climate in which the players' physical health can be better protected in the future. I think especially of players whose health is already somewhat compromised and hope that things can change.

I'm using what used to be my tennis-viewing time to do other things--write more poetry and do more yoga. Tennis viewing gets in the way of my starting some new activities I think I might like, but when the tour resumes play, my best guess is that I'll get hooked all over again.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Charleston on my mind

The Great Lawn (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
There are people who cannot imagine a year without Christmas, and people who cannot imagine a year without Mardi Gras. And then there are those of us who cannot imagine a year without Charleston, but in 2020, we have one. The tournament, celebrating its 20th anniversary of being held on Daniel Island (it was previously
held on Hilton Head Island), would have begun today. Instead, it is yet another victim of COVID-19.
View from Althea Gibson Club Court (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

The decision to cancel the tournament was a necessary one, and—while no cancellation comes at a “good” time—it is especially unfortunate that this one came during a major year of commemoration. Entered to compete were the likes of world number 1 Ash Barty, Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep (her first time to enter), defending champion Madison Keys, 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, Garbine  Muguruza, Kiki Bertens, and many more stars.and many other WTA stars and rising stars.

The tournament had also introduced a new website, a new mobile app, a new sustainability initiative, and electronic line calling.

I’ve attended the Charleston tournament—formerly the Family Circle Cup; now the Volvo Car Open—for fifteen years, and I sometimes still struggle to explain to people what makes it so wonderful. Yes, the grounds are beautiful, with the pond and the palmetto trees and the iconic Althea Gibson Club Court. And yes, the event is run with great care and precision, thanks to Tournament Director Bob Moran and Tournament Manager Eleanor Adams and a great staff. Also, the weather is generally just right for tennis and tennis viewing.
Althea Gibson Club Court (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
But there are intangibles and almost-intangibles that make the tournament special even beyond its physical beauty and its expert organization and execution. For those of us who comprise the tennis media, there are the incredible volunteers who magically meet our needs before we even express them. One of those is Lynn, famous for her “She-e-e’s he-e-re!” announcement right before a player departs the cart and enters the Media Center for a press conference. Some of us count on hearing that call to action for an entire week in April.

And there are the fans, who—unlike fans in most venues—find the humor in everything, including things that trigger boos from “normal” fan crowds. Charleston is the proud location of what is surely the greatest WTA racket break of all time, performed—of course—by Vera Zvonareva. It was 2010, and Zvonareva contested the final against Sam Stosur, who trounced her, 6-0, in the opening set, then went up 3-0 in the second set. The Russian player then destroyed her racket with great style, both smashing it and throwing it, and once it was done for, kicking it while the crowd cheered.

A few years ago, Yulia Putinseva began yelling in the middle of her match on Billie Jean King Court. What did the fans do? They enthusiastically yelled along with her, in a kind of wild woman call-and-response. Because that’s how Charleston fans are. And they love doubles; there is usually standing room only at the doubles courts.

Patty Schnyder (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
Charleston is also the city that made Patty Schnyder a tennis rock star. The Swiss player—who made it to the final twice but, sadly, never won the title—was simply beloved by the Charleston crowd, who always cheered loudly for her no matter whom she played. One of my fondest memories of Patty in Charleston was having her yell at me repeatedly during a match because her coach was nowhere to be found and she had to yell at someone. I was happy to oblige.

Also burned in my mind was watching Schnyder dismantle Aga Radwanska on green clay. It was a tricky, masterful performance (against a trickster in her own right), in which the Swiss star slid from the baseline to the net, in an “only Patty” twist on clay court sliding.

And then there was Jankovic. JJ was always at her best in Charleston (she won the tournament in 2007), whether she was doing hilarious joint interviews and stunts with her pal Andrea Petkovic, playing some hilarious doubles with Petko as her partner, or giving press conferences that had me in tears, I laughed so hard.
Andrea Petkovic & Jelena Jankovic (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

It was in Charleston that Jankovic announced, without emotion, that “My hair is like concrete.” and it was in Charleston that she draped a large towel around her shoulders, entered the press conference area, and declared herself a superhero.

The players always look forward to playing at the Volvo Car Open because they are treated like the special people that they are, and they also get to explore the city’s outstanding restaurants.

Normally, on this day, I'd be frantically checking off my list of things I have to do before I leave for Charleston on Sunday. Today, though, I'm checking off my list of chores that will keep me busy while I'm trapped in my house during the national health crisis. The weather is beautiful, which helps. And this, too, shall pass--but, for me, it just isn't April without Charleston.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Coping without tennis

In 2005, we (I was married at the time) had to evacuate our home because of Katrina. It was difficult to find a place that would accept us with our pets, but we found one in central Louisiana. I was blogging for Mother Jones at the time, so I had an ongoing project that kept me occupied. I was also writing parodies (a long-time interest of mine), so that, too, kept me occupied.

Cooped up in an old, once-grand hotel in a small room with two cats would have been difficult enough on its own, but of course, we were watching the news and seeing and hearing horrific things that I will never be able to erase from my mind. We also didn't know if we would have a house to which we could return (our house was safe from water, but not from wind).

Our hotel room had a poor excuse for a television, but at least we had a television. And we had the U.S. Open. Never had I been so happy to watch the U.S. Open (this would happen all over again several years later when we had to evacuate to Birmingham because of Hurricane Isaac). My writing kept me busy, yes, but I was writing about exceedingly unpleasant things. Tennis--not for the first time in my life--saved me from further despair.

The Bailey Hotel (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

People who do not follow any sports have no idea about the emotional outlet that is provided by watching and following professional and collegiate sports. Right now, sitting in my house, about 40 miles from New Orleans, I'm having a lot of Katrina-like feelings. And while it's a lot more comfortable here than it was in that hotel in Bunkie (where we were treated with great kindness), I have no live tennis to watch. I'm not much of a classic tennis viewer, though I tune in from time to time, so that is a limited outlet for me.

There is also an irony. I frequently think (sometimes with guilt) about ways that I could use my time if I weren't watching so much tennis. Now I have that time, but I can't leave the house except to walk and go to the grocery store. There is no Charleston (more on that in another post), and there is no French Open, and those are my two favorite tournaments.

Not being able to watch tennis is, of course, a petty complaint within the context of a national crisis, especially this crisis, which is made worse every day by a complete lack of leadership. But during times of crisis, all forms of entertainment become very important, as do all forms of art. We do what we can to promote our emotional health and to escape from our fears.

I miss the WTA. In the meantime, I'm finally watching Gilmore Girls (why did it take me 20 years?!), which is making me laugh every day, and helping to keep me sane. Tennis will return, and when it does, we will all have a fresh appreciation of the tour, it's amazing depth, and it's collection of wonderful characters.