Thursday, October 22, 2020

Julia Goerges, tennis's own wonder of German engineering, retires from the sport

Photo by Daniel Ward
Julia Goerges retired from professional tennis yesterday, after spending fifteen years on the tour. Goerges--though an accomplished player by any standard--will be most remembered for her sportswomanlike approach to every aspect of the game, an inspiring reconstruction of her career, and an unforgettable forehand.

The German star came on the scene in 2005, and during the course of her career, won seven singles titles-- including the 2017 WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai, plus back-to-back titles in Auckland--and five doubles titles. She made 48 consecutive runs in majors, which included seven second-week performances.

In 2018, Goerges reached the Wimbledon semifinals, after knocking out Barbora Strycova, Donna Vekic and Kiki Bertens (in a match between close friends). Goerges and Nenad Zemojic were the runners-up in mixed doubles at the 2014 French Open, and Goerges reached three major semifinals--the 2015 Australian Open (with Anna-Lena Groenefeld), the 2016 Australian Open (with Karolina Pliskova) and the 2016 Wimbledon tournament (with Pliskova). 

Goerges was a regular member the German Fed Cup (now the Billie Jean King Cup) team for years. In 2017, she won the Fed Cup Heart Award.

Photos by Daniel Ward
In 2018, the German star replaced her doubles partner, Karolina Pliskova, as the WTA Ace Queen, hitting a stunning 492 aces. During that season, she also led the tour in both first serve points won ((73.8%) and break points saved (63.5%). (In the era of match stats (since 2008), Goerges holds the number 3 ranking in hitting aces--2,931).

Photo by Daniel Ward

Pretty impressive. But it wasn't a lucky streak. By 2014, Goerges' game had suffered so much that she fell out of the top 100. She decided she had to change everything, so she hired a new coach and a new physio, and she even moved to a different part of Germany. The German player is very organized in every aspect of her life, and says that she likes to take as much responsibility for her life as possible (which includes doing her own taxes--she also really likes numbers).

I remember, a couple of years ago in Charleston, Goerges said: “...the match starts with yourself, and that’s what I can control.” 

After Goerges did her famous "restart" of her game, she rose to prominence. One thing she didn't have to restart was her heavy-spinning forehand, which has been her shot of choice throughout her career. In 2018, Goerges reached a career-high singles ranking of number 9 in the world. 

In announcing her retirement, the 31-year-old Georges wrote: 

"When I started playing tennis at the age of five, I would never have thought that we would go such a long way together.

"You have given me so many different types of emotions throughout our journey and I am very thankful for everything you have shown and taught me. I learnt how to deal with the toughest losses but also enjoy the most amazing wins of my career, to fight back many times when I was struggling with you and through it all we never lost sight of our dreams.

"I always knew how I would feel when it is time to say goodbye to you, and that moment has arrived. I am ready to close the tennis chapter of my life and open a new one, which I am really excited about.

"Thank you for everything you have given me. You will stay forever in my heart."

Saying goodbye to beloved players is something that all tennis fans have a lot of experience doing, but it never gets easier. It is especially difficult to say goodbye to someone who brought us so many thrills, gave us such elegant performances, showed us how to start over, and set such a notable example of how to relate to others.

(And finally...."Nein!")

Sunday, October 11, 2020

My French Open top 10

Here are my top 10 French Open happenings, in ascending order:

10. How quickly a bubble bursts: Though a good example was set in New York, players in Paris complained that the so-called bubble really wasn’t a bubble at all. The player hotel housekeeping staff was described as cleaning players’ rooms while not wearing masks, and there were reports that people who had nothing to do with the tournament were allowed to enter the building. Then there was the ATP player who failed to tell the tournament that he was very ill, and played his match, anyway. Clearly, those in charge failed to take their responsibilities seriously.

9. Look who’s back!: Anna Karolina Schmiedlova has had a hard time catching a break, but—back from having knee surgery and playing with a protected ranking—she made herself known again in Paris. Schmiedlova began her campaign by defeating Venus Williams (for the third consecutive time), and then she upset U.S. Open finalist Vika Azarenka in the next round. She lost in the third round when she came up against Nadia Podoroska, but it was a very good—though sadly, too brief—run.

8. Numéro Quatre!: There were a couple of big stories in wheelchair singles competition. The biggest one belongs to 2nd seed Yui Kamiji, who won her fourth French Open title when she defeated Momoto Ohtani 6-2, 6-1 in the final. But Ohtani had a story too: Playing in only her second major, she reached the final by upsetting top seed and defending champion Diede De Groot.

7. Carrying the flag: There were undoubtedly high French hopes for Kiki Mladenovic (who would go on to make her country very proud), Alize Cornet and Caroline Garcia. Cornet went out in the second round, Mladenovic in the first. Caroline Garcia, whose fortunes have gone up and down in recent years, was unseeded. She did well, making it to the round of 16, in which she lost to 3rd seed Elina Svitolina. Prior to that, she had a couple of excellent wins, beating Anett Kontaveit in the first round, and coming back from a 1-6 first set to defeat Elise Mertens.

In the meantime, world number 49 Fiona Ferro beat young sensation Elena Rybakina, and then—in the round of 16—took 4th seed and eventual finalist Sofia Kenin to three sets before falling to her. Another bonus: 17-year-old Elsa Jacquemot of France, seeded 3rd, won the junior singles championship. (And wild card Clara Burel made it to the third round.)

6. She loves Paris in the fall: No true tennis fan will ever forget Petra Kvitova’s triumphant (and earlier than expected) return to the tour in 2017, after having had her racket hand brutally slashed in a home invasion. Her first match was the opening round of the French Open, which she won, despite having limited sensation in her hand. The crowd went crazy.

Roland Garros has never been the Czech star’s idea of fun, but this year, she showed up with more variety in her game, and—for a while—even looked like a contender. She beat talented newcomer Leylah Fernandez, and then she beat clay specialist Laura Siegemund. Kvitova made it all the way to the semifinals, and then—apparently nervous—she rushed her shots, made several unforced errors, and lost to Sofia Kenin. It was a match that 2020 French Open Kvitova should have won. At any rate, it was a stellar run, and one hopes that it will give her confidence.

5. French toast: Top seed Simona Halep was the heavy favorite to win the tournament. She allowed Amanda Anisimova, who upset Halep at the 2019 French Open, only one game. She looked, for all the world, like she was soon going to hold another Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Then, in the round of 16, the 2018 champion ran into Iga Swiatek, and she might as well have run into a buzz saw. It was one of those matches that—even while you were watching it—you weren’t quite sure you were really seeing what you were seeing.

Last year, in the same round, Halep had obliterated Swiatek, 6-1, 6-0. The young Polish player obviously made a note of that, and she returned the favor by upsetting Halep 6-1, 6-2 in just over an hour. The top seed did not play badly at all—she was simply outclassed by a big-serving, ball-spinning, winner-smacking teen phenom.

4. Please refrain from using the “f” word: There are certain words that fans use that I don’t like. One of them is “over-achiever.” Another is “fluke.” Winning seven matches in a row on a huge stage—even if a player does it only once—is a huge achievement. Sofia Kenin did it this year in Australia. And while she’s had some stumbles since then, she made it all the way to the final in Paris. Like so many others, she lost to Swiatek, but clearly, she’s someone who should be taken quite seriously.

3. You know their names now: The names Martina Trevisan and Nadia Podoroska were not very well known before the French Open began. Trevisan got everyone’s attention in the second round, however, when she defeated Coco Gauff. The Italian then proceeded to take out 20th seed Maria Sakkari, and—in the round of 16—she upset 5th seed, and clay court star, Kiki Bertens. In the quarterfinals, Trevisan lost in straight sets to—all together now: Iga Swiatek.

Podoroska, the 131st-ranked player from Argentina, was a qualifier, which means that she won three matches before the main draw even began. It’s unusual for qualifiers to get very far in a major draw—not only because they are often outplayed, but also because they are exhausted. Not so Podoroska, who took out the likes of 23rd seed Yulia Putintseva, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, and—in the quarterfinals—3rd seed Elina Svitolina. Her glorious run ended in the semifinals when she lost in straight sets to you-know-who.

2. Better together: Kiki Mladenovic has a lovely, but maddeningly inconsistent, singles game. One hopes that, some day, she will meet her considerable potential. In the meantime, she continues to shine in doubles, as does her partner, Timea Babos. The French Open defending champions did it again this year. Babos and Mladenovic defeated 14h seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk 6-4, 7-5 in the final. Guarachi and Krawczyk had upset top seeds Hsieh Su Wei and Barbora Strycova. This is the Frenchwoman’s third Roland Garros doubles title—she and Caroline Garcia won the title in 2016.


1. I came in like a wrecking ball
: We all knew that Iga Swiatek was talented and that she had a lot of potential. What we didn’t know was that all that potential would explode during a two-week siege in Paris, where the Polish teen would lose only 28 games and not drop a set. (Though I consider them both to be wildly talented—in one interesting way, Swiatek is the anti-Andreescu. The Canadian star thrives on using her creativity to solve problems, whereas Swiatek appears to thrive on preventing problems from occurring. It’s great fun to watch both styles of approaching the game, and I can’t wait to see them compete against each other.)

Swiatek’s demolition of Simona Halep stunned tennis fans around the world, but the first hint of what was to come occurred in the opening round when she defeated last year’s finalist, Marketa Vondrousova. Swiatek never looked nervous, never looked tight, never looked like anything less than a star athlete with a firm grasp of what she needed to do tactically. Her on-court poise was notable as she swatted away one opponent after the other, and left two of the top five seeds with no answers. 

Iga has arrived--and what a debut it was.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

No seed? No problem: Iga Swiatek blows the competition away in Paris

Today, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek made tennis history by becoming the first Polish person to win a major. That alone would have been enough, but she did it without dropping a set, and she gave up only 28 games on her way to holding the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Swiatek's dramatic French Open run also occurred in cold, damp conditions--the sort that send many big-name players to the exit gates. 

Like her very talented peer, Bianca Andreescu, Swiatek entered the tournament filled with carefully developed confidence, and that confidence didn't melt away as the potential for a very big ending closed in. One of the reasons it didn't melt away was that the new champion travels with Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist.

"She just made me smarter," Swiatek says of Abramowicz. "I know more about sports and I know more about psychology and I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud." The Polish teenager has always worked with a sports psychologist, but settled with Abramowicz two years ago. And, unlike other sports psychologists, Abramowicz incorporates psychotherapy into her work with athletes (As a former mental health professional, I applaud this tactic with enthusiasm.)

Again, not unlike Andreescu (who was playing in her very first U.S. Open when she won it), Swiatek was playing in only her second Roland Garros main draw. And like Alona Ostapenko in 2017, she did it without being seeded, and without ever having won a tour tournament.

Having buzzed through the competition with apparent--and utterly stunning--ease, she had to face Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the final. Kenin's greatest strength may be her mental toughness; she has an uncanny ability to forget bad points and letdowns, and just go right on to the next point or shot.

It should have been a tense, probably three-set match. The first set was competitive, with Swiatek taking a quick 3-0 lead, and then seeing it wiped out by Kenin. However, Swiatek was able to grab a late break and finish the set 6-4. In the second set, Kenin's movement wasn't the same as it had been, and--deep into the set--she took a medical timeout for her leg. She won only one game in that set, as the relentless young Polish star--after an hour and 24 minutes--put an end to Kenin's run. 

Swiatek did everything better than her opponent. Her serving, her net play, and her ability to convert break opportunities were superior, and her athleticism was on grand display as she slid expertly across the clay to reach balls.

Swiatek hit 25 winners and made 17 unforced errors in the final. Her consistency throughout seven matches, her brutal upset of top seed Simona Halep, and the efficiency of her monster forehand sent a scary message to the entire field. 

Tennis world--meet Iga. (Consider yourselves warned.)

In wheelchair tennis news, newcomer Momoko Ohtani's run was stopped by 2nd seed Yui Kamiji, who defeated Ohtani 6-2, 6-1 in the final. Kamiji and her partner, Jordanne Whiley (seeded 2nd) were defeated in a doubles final thriller by top seeds and defending champions Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot (7-6, 3-6, 10-8). 

17-year-old Elsa Jacquemot of France, seeded 3rd, won the junior singles championship by defeating Alina Charaeva of Russia 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. The Italian team of Eleonora Alvisi and Lisa Pigato won the junior doubles title when they defeated the Russian team of Maria Bondarenko and Diana Shnaider 7-6, 6-4 in the final.

Tomorrow, 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic will compete for the championship against 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk. Babos and Mladenovic are the defending champions.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

No one saw it coming....

....But maybe someone should have. Sofia Kenin hasn't exactly had a promising post-shutdown experience, but--not unlike Bianca Andreescu--she thrives on solving problems, and she brought that under-rated skill to the clay courts in Paris. As for Iga Swiatek--we've all been watching her for a while, so why not now? (Ask Alona Ostapenko!) 

The Polish teen, who--today--make quick work of impressive qualifier Nadia Podoroska, Swiatek has yet to drop a set, and she's dropped only 23 games on her way to the French Open final. Will the occasion finally get to her on Saturday, when she plays Kenin in the final? It might. Or she could just Ostapenko her way through.

As for Kenin, she theoretically had her hands full with an on-fire Petra Kvitova, but Kvitova's nerves got the best of her, she rushed way too many shots, and made too many errors. In contrast, the Australian Open champion took advantage of four out of five break opportunities, saved ten out of twelve break points against her, brushed off her own errors, and emerged the victor, 6-4, 7-5, marking her first defeat of Kvitova.

This should be an exceptional final. Swiatek has never won a tournament, and--though the tennis world has been aware of her talent for some time--she has never before put on a performance like she has put on in Paris (few have). The 19-year-old has a complete game, plus power, precision, and--so far--confidence to spare. On Saturday, she will face a tactician and problem-solver supreme. 

Kenin and Swiatek played each other at the 2016 French Open as juniors; Swiatek won that match, 6-4, 7-5. “I was not as comfortable on clay as I am now, as I started to feel last year,” Kenin said. “Of course, we’re both different players now.”

Here are the players' paths to the final:

IGA SWIATEK
round 1--def. Marketa Vondrousa (2019 finalist)
round 2--def. Hsieh Su-Wei
round 3--def. Genie Bouchard
round of 16--def. Simona Halep (1)
quarterfinals--def. Martina Trevisan
semifinals--def. Nadia Podoroska (Q)

SOFIA KENIN (4)
round 1--def. Liudmila Samsonova
round 2--def. Ana Bogdan
round 3--def. Irina Bara
round of 16--Fiona Ferro
quarterfinals--def. Danielle Collins
semifinals--def. Petra Kvitova (7)

There was another big upset today in Paris. Top seed and defending wheelchair champion Diede De Groot was defeated in the semifinals by Monoko Ohtani of Japan. Playing in just her second major, Ohtani defeated De Groot 7-5, 6-4. The top seed's serve has been considerably off lately, and that was a major factor in her loss. 

Ohtani's oopponent in the final will be countrywoman and 2nd seed Yui Kamiji, who has won the French Open three times (and three times in doubles). In the semifinals, Kamiji defeated Aniek Van Koot, who has been struggling with an injury which she described as "a kind of carpal tunnel syndrome combined with a tendon sheath inflammation in my left wrist."

NOTE: Content on this blog from here on out is likely to be delayed because Hurricane Delta is coming my way and I expect to lose power. If I'm lucky, the cellular towers will withstand the storm and I'll be able to watch the final on my phone. If I'm really lucky,  power will be restored quickly--a possibility since I'm on the same grid as the local hospital.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Maybe not the semifinals we were expecting, but they're the semifinals we want!

Today, Australian Open champion and 4th seed Sofia Kenin defeated countrywoman Danielle Collins 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 to book a spot in the French Open semifinals, a situation many would not have predicted for her. The red clay, complete with rather harsh conditions, can bring a lot of good players down to earth. But Kenin is a problem-solver; problem-solving, is, in fact, a "weapon" for her (though the tennis world would never call it such). She just figures things out.

But will she figure out Petra Kvitova? The beloved Czech star defeated clay specialist Laura Siegemund today and now awaits Kenin in the semifinals. This "I like red clay!" Petra has been slicing, happily moving forward to the net, and even executing serve-and-volley since she has been in Paris. Kvitova, in short, looks fierce, and has yet to drop a set. (This morning, a commentator said that Kvitova's success here could get people to think about her as someone other than a grass specialist. Hello! She was the 2019 runner-up at the Australian Open, and has won several premier hard court events, but how quickly commentators forget.)

Yesterday, qualifier Nadia Podoroska defeated 3rd seed Elina Svitolina in straight sets, putting Svitolina's performance in majors under a rather huge lens. The Ukrainian star wins other tournaments with ease, and has an impressive record in finals, but when she gets to the majors, she turns into a different player--one who loses when she "should" win. Of course, the more something like this happens, the harder it is for Svitolina to change the course of her performance in majors. Something needs to change.

Podoroska, incidentally, is the first qualifier ever to advance to the semifinals of Roland Garros.

Finally, Iga Swiatek just keeps on rolling. Yesterday, she defeated qualifier Martina Trevisan 6-3, 6-1. She's also still a major factor in the doubles draw: She and partner Nicole Melichar (the USA's most ignored tennis star) have advanced to the semifinals. 

Melichar and Swiatek, who are unseeded, will face 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Disirae Krawczyk. In the other semifinal, 4th seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katarina Siniakova will compete against 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic. Babos and Mladenovic are the defending champions.

In the meantime, wheelchair competition has begun. Top seed and defending champion Diede De Groot won her quarterfinal against Jordanne Whiley, with the unusual score of 6-3, 0-6, 6-1. 2nd seed Yui Kamiji (last year's runner-up) defeated Marjolein Buis, and Aniek Van Koot defeated French wild card Charkotte Famin. In the remaining quarterfinal, Kgothatso Montjane defeated Momoko Ohtani. 

The French Open website could certainly do better by wheelchair players in terms of publishing the draws.

Women's singles semifinals will be played tomorrow, and here is the draw:

Iga Swiatek vs. Nadia Podoroska (Q)
Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Petra Kvitova (7)

It will be the first meeting between Swiatek and Podoroska. Kenin and Kvitova have played each other twice (once on clay), and Kvitova won both of those matches.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Another big upset--this one overlooked

With all the surprises going on in the singles draw, I suppose it makes an unfortunate kind of sense that a huge third round upset in doubles has been all but ignored. Yesterday, top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova were defeated in straight sets (6-4, 7-5) by 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk. 

2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic not only won their third round match--as of today, they have advanced to the semifinals with a victory over Marta Kostyuk and Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Babos and Mladenovic are the defending champions.


#petrainparis!

What a pleasure it is to use that hashtag again, and to have it infused with so much meaning. Yesterday, Petra Kvivova reached the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time since 2012. And when she won her match against Zhang Shuai, there on Court Philippe Chatrier--where she made her triumphant (and earlier than expected) return in 2017--she was clearly overcome with emotion. 

After that return (in which she won her opening round match), I nominated Kvitova for the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. She didn't win, which disappointed me (though the winners, I should add, were quite worthy, in my opinion), but she was recognized by her peers, and by the tennis world, for her courage.

Also advancing to the quarterfinals today was Laura Siegemund, whose career has been riddled with serious injury. The German is an outstanding clay competitor, and it's nice to see her finally reach the quarterfinals. She defeated Paula Badosa 7-5, 6-2.

Sofia Kenin stuck to her own playbook in her round of 16 match against France's Fiona Ferro (what a great name!). Ferro easily won the first set, 6-2, and the crowd--of course--was ecstatic. But in true Kenin form, the Australian Open champion approached the second set as if nothing amiss had occurred, and won it 6-2. Totally in control, she then won the third set 6-1. 

The unfortunate occurrence was that Kenin's coach (who is her father) was constantly gesturing and speaking in Russian, and the chair umpire gave Kenin several warnings about illegal coaching. This is not the first time that Kenin's father has inappropriately interfered with his daughter's performance, and it needs to stop; Kenin needs to put a stop to it. Possessed of a steely nature and an enviable ability to forget the last point, the U.S. star doesn't need this kind of distraction, and it reflects poorly on her.

Ons Jabeur and Danielle Collins tried to play their match, but rain interfered, so they played it today. Collins dominated for a set and a half, going up 6-4, 3-0, but Jabeur staged a comeback and won the second set. The third set was tense, and Jabeur--serving at 4-5, committed her first double fault at 30-all. Collins took advantage, broke her, and emerged the winner, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. There was probably little expectation for the U.S. player to do this well on clay; perhaps her brand new coaching partnership with Nico Almagro is already paying off.

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Iga Swiatek vs. Martina Trevisan
Elina Svitolina (3) vs. def. Nadia Podoroska
Danielle Collins vs. Sofia Kenin (4)
Petra Kvitova (7) vs. Laura Siegemund

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Revenge is a dish that is best served at 81/69 in just over an hour

Last year at the French Open, 2018 champion Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek met in the round of 16. Halep, who was seeded third, defeated the young Polish player 6-1, 6-0. Today, they met again at the French Open, again in the round of 16, and the results were similar--but with a huge twist. Swiatek--in a stunning display of Andresscu-style show-offy tennis--upset top seed Halep 6-1, 6-2 in just over an hour.

This wasn't about Halep; she played well. Swiatek was simply on a mission, hitting 30 winners (with 20 unforced errors) and delivering impressive 81/69 first and second serve winning percentages. Swiatek looked completely in control throughout the match. She aimed at her targets with maximum spin on the ball, used the lob/drop shot combination, and generally flummoxed her clever, athletic opponent--which isn't that easy to do.

In 2017, Halep lost the final to the upstart of upstarts--Alona Ostapenko, who had celebrated her 20th birthday two days earlier. Last year, she lost in the quarterfinals to 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova. Today, it was an 18-year-old rising star who is currently ranked number 54 in the world. Clearly, the kids are alright--and they like to beat up on Halep.

It was odd to watch this dramatic match and not hear "Si-mo-na!" chanted from the stands. Anyone who has been paying attention would have known that Swiatek wasn't going to go away quickly this time, but I doubt if anyone was expecting the blow-out that was this match.

Meanwhile, 5th seed Kiki Bertens--who has seen plenty of drama during this tournament--also met an unfortunate fate in the form of Italian upstart (and world number 159) Martina Trevisan, who upset her 6-4, 6-4. 

3rd seed Elina Svitolina defeated Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia 6-1, 6-3, and Nadia Podoroska defeated Barbora Krejcikova 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.

There was another big upset today: In doubles, 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Disirae Crawczyk defeated top seeds defeated top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova 6-4, 7-5 in the third round. Meanwhile, 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic advanced to the quarterfinals when they defeated Andreea Mitu and Patricia Maria Tig.