Wednesday, October 12, 2016

It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that (Asian) swing

Tennis players have different "wake-up calls." For some, it's the beginning of the clay season, when they can play the slow game they enjoy, carefully constructing points and employing a lot of spin. For others, it's the grass season, when they can be very aggressive. For Aga Radwanska, the grass certainly calls loudly, but it's the Asian swing that really gets her going.

It was no surprise that Radwanska won last week's premier tournament in Beijing. Earlier in the season, she won the International event in Shenzhen. Last year, she won Tokyo and also the international event in Tianjin. In 2011, The Ninja won the Tokyo-Beijing premier double.

During this year's Asian swing (so far), Radwanska reached the semifinals at the premier Tokyo tournament, and the quarterfinals at the premier tournament in Wuhan. She is currently the defending champion and top seed in Tianjin. The 2nd seed, by the way, is Svetlana Kuznetsova, who defeated Radwanska in the quarterfinals in Wuhan.

Nine of the world number 3's career titles have been won in Asia. Her Asian groove is so solid, it has an almost tennis-mystical quality to it. Is it these particular hard courts? The light? The weather? The crowds? Of course, part of Radwanska's success, at this point, is due to her former success. Playing in Asia now brings an automatic boost of confidence to the world number 3. It's nice to see her continue her Asian swing tradition because it puts her in a good ranking place at the end of the season, and it also prepares her for the WTA Finals.

Radwanska is, in fact, the defending champion in Singapore.

The "big three" tournaments of the Asian swing, the premier events, were won this year by Radwanska, Wozniacki (Tokyo) and Kvitova (Wuhan). Wozniacki has inserted herself back into the top level conversation, if only for a while. Kvitova has only added to our confusion; just when we think she's out--she's in. And just when we think she's in again--she's out. This was Kvitova's second time to win in Wuhan; she also won the debut event in 2014. Her close friendship with Li Na appeared then--and now--to be part of her motivation to bring Scary Petra to the court.

In the meantime, the new pairing of Sania Mirza and Barbora Strycova was successful in Tokyo, and the now red-hot team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won both Wuhan and the China Open.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Eerie silence still follows Craig Reedie's outrageous statement

Everyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on the Sharapova ban issue: I have yet to see meaningful evidence for meldonium to be a banned substance, and I find it beyond suspicious that a multitude of athletes took it, but in the end, Sharapova was the lone villain. But considering her role in the whole nasty affair, I thought a six-month ban would have been appropriate.

But WADA gave Sharapova two years, which brought up bad memories of Martina Hingis (who received a two-year ban for allegedly ingesting a non-performance-enhancing substance). When all of the evidence (and lack of evidence) are looked at together, two years seems very harsh.

What I'm about to say isn't about how guilty or not guilty Sharapova was. It's about the culture of envy, contempt and group-think that permitted the president of WADA, Craig Reedie, to publicly express a sentiment that was, at the very least, shockingly tasteless. At worst, it added more than a tinge of suspicion to the decision to give Sharapova such a lengthy ban.

In case you've forgotten (or you missed it, since the media couldn't make it go away fast enough), Reedie's post-decision comment was: "For me the only satisfactory element in Madame Sharapova's case was that in one year she can earn more money than the whole of Wada's budget put together."

Sharapova's attorney called the statement "unprofessional" (you think?) and asked for an apology. It would have been absolutely appropriate for her attorney to call for more than an apology, i.e., an investigation, but that would have wound up hurting his client, so it was out of the question. In a reasonably sane world, this is when the media would have stepped in and suggested the possibility of a link between Reedie's obvious contempt for Sharapova and the fact that WADA gave her an especially harsh penalty.

But the sports (and general news, for that matter) media--which is generally prone to blathering on even if there's nothing relevant or intelligent to be said--was so silent, you could have conducted a church ritual. Why?

I can only speculate, of course, but "fear of WADA" comes to mind as one reason. WADA has made several questionable (and erroneous) decisions over the years, and the press has remained silent or relatively silent about all of them. It isn't hard to infer that the one institution that is supposed to be able to take on anyone is afraid to challenge WADA.

Another reason--a worse one--is that through its silence, the media was in (at least unconscious) agreement that Sharapova's wealth makes her an easy hate target. Social media was strangely silent about the matter, too.

And there's always the possibility--unfortunately, a strong one--that our culture of ignoring injustice if we dislike the victim may have been at play. If you "hate" Sharapova (and I seriously doubt you know her, much less have even met her), or if you are outraged by how she handled the meldonium situation--that has nothing to do with the fact that Reedie's statement was very inappropriate, and quite possibly a clue that WADA did not act impartially.

The fact that Reedie knew he could safely make the statement in public, sadly, says everything (unless he is very stupid, which I doubt). And I can't help but wonder whether he would have made the same contemptuous statement had the subject been Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Maybe, but my gut says no.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Scary Petra rampages through Wuhan

Today, Petra Kvitova won her second Wuhan title, giving her 18 titles for her career. The Barking Czech hadn't won a title in over a year, and her return to her dear friend Li Na's home city inspired her in such a way that an observer was reminded of Kvitova's 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon campaigns. This was Scary Petra, who doesn't let an opponent--even an elite opponent--into the match, so overpowering is her dominance.

The physically fragile Kvitova complained of being tired, and after her epic 3rd round match with world number 1 Angelique Kerber, it seemed a given that the Czech star wasn't going to get through the quarterfinals. Holding three match points at the end of the match, Kvitova started cramping, and that  leg cramp meant that she could not convert. Yet somehow, on her seventh match point, Kvitova prevailed in this three-hour and 20-minute beauty of a match.

Having already beaten nemesis upstart Jelena Ostapenko, Elina Svitolina and Johanna Konta, Kvitova was already showing great strength by the time she got to Kerber. And then, despite her fatigue, she showed up at her semifinal match and thumped Simona Halep, of all people, 6-1, 6-2. Nothing to it. Scary Petra.

In the final, Kvitova made short work of beating Dominika Cibulkova (6-1, 6-1), and Cibulkova wasn't exactly playing poorly.

Where did this Kvitova come from, and why do we see her so rarely? The Barking Czech had some very candid things to say after the tournament:

These remarks didn't go over well with some fans, who considered them to reflect a defeatist, even apathetic, attitude. I heard them as Petra's characteristic unguarded honesty. And I also thought they had a tinge of sadness. I've said for some time that Kvitova's physical issues--chronic infections and asthma--could probably be addressed in a more successful way than they are currently being addressed. I could be wrong about this, but my instinct feels just right.

Also, whatever psychological assistance (if any) the Czech star is getting is obviously not the kind she needs. Kvitova worked for eight years with David Kotyza, who obviously coached her to greatness. But it's doubtful that she could have shown much vulnerability to a man who publicly stated that he could coach her "because she isn't like a girl." It was quite telling that in her trophy acceptance speech, Kvitova apologized for WTA players being women and "difficult." Until female players feel comfortable with being women and hire only personnel who respect them as women, a lot of problems aren't going to get solved.

Kvitova will now move to a ranking of number 11 in the world. She is 18-4 since her bronze medal run in Rio.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won the doubles title, defeating Sania Mirza and Barbora Strycova in the final. In doing so, they qualified for the WTA Finals in Singapore.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Ain't no Sunshine when she's gone

Photo by Daniel Ward
This weekend, Caroline Wozniacki won the Pan Pacific Open. There was a time when that wouldn't have been considered news--she's won it before--but in 2016, it's a flashy headline. Wozniacki, who entered the U.S. Open as number 74 in the world, and now she's close to getting back into the top 20. Seemingly out of nowhere, the former world number 1 known as Sunshine (and some affectionate canine names--The Great Dane and The Golden Retriever) won her 24th WTA title when, only recently, it appeared her career was sliding into nowhere.

Not that we didn't have a hint that this was coming. Wozniacki came back to life at the U.S. Open, where she made it to the semifinals, losing to eventual champion Angelique Kerber. During her run in Flushing Meadows, Wozniacki upset both 9th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and 8th seed Madison Keys.

The Tokyo draw was a tough one. Wozniacki had to beat Belinda Bencic, 4th seed Carla Suarez Navarro and 2nd seed and defending champion Aga Radwanska. Her opponent in the final was a surprise. 18-year-old Naomi Osaka had to remove the likes of Misaki Doi, 6th seed Dominika Cibulkova and an on-fire Elina Svitolina just to make it to the last round. Wozniacki defeated Osaka 7-5, 6-3 to win the title.

But what does this mean, insofar as the big picture is concerned? So many times, Wozniacki has come back from a seeming slip into the lower rankings, yet has always managed to find a way back to the top or near-top. She has managed to win at least one title for the past nine years. This time, her comeback was dramatic, which could be a big motivator for her--or not.

Wozniacki has always been hard to read as an athlete. A very physically strong player with amazing on-court endurance, the Dane has long been considered one of the greatest defensive players in the game. She has demonstrated her grit on the court on many occasions. We also saw her demonstrate it off the court when her response to the break-up of her primary relationship was to run the New York Marathon--in an unbelievably fast time.

Wozniacki's critics have emphasized two themes throughout her career--her hesitancy to add (or sometimes, to retain) aggression in her game style, and her reliance on her father as her coach. Others have tried to coach Wozniacki, but in the end (which is generally much sooner than later) they were all sent packing in favor of Piotr Wozniacki. Wozniacki becomes suddenly aggressive and wins matches she might have lost before--and then she drops the aggression.

It's hard not to compare the Danish star with Angelique Kerber. They are both very strong of leg and have mighty endurance. They are both known for their sterling defensive play. Both of their serves range from good enough to excellent, depending on the match. But Kerber, rather than wavering on the aggression she added to her game, has made a commitment to integrating it. She has also won two majors.

This latest dramatic comeback from Wozniacki adds quite a bit of intrigue to the 2016 season. Is the Dane about to put it all together and win that elusive major in 2017? In the past, it's been hard for her fans to bet on that prospect. But in professional tennis, players can rise and fall at the most unexpected times (consider Kerber, and--sadly, Petra Kvitova). Wozniacki now represents a major question mark as we move toward the end of the season.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

My U.S. Open top 10

John Lennon plaque in garden of Cathedral of St. John the Divine

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

10. Shorts!

9. You here again?: Who knew that Caroline Wozniacki would be one of the stars of the second week of the U.S. Open? Wozniacki entered the tournament ranked number 74 in the world, quite a comedown for someone who had twice been a finalist. Had she gone out in the first round, it wouldn't have been a surprise. But she made it all the way to the semifinals, and her road was a rough one. The Dane had to take out 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, the tricky Monica Niculescu and 8th seed Madison Keys. She lost to Angie Kerber, but what a run it was.

8. Surprise!: Some thought it was surprising that 2015 runner-up Roberta Vinci made it to the quarterfinals, but not I; Vinci is a Fighting Italian. But there were a couple of surprises. One was 18-year-old Ana Konjuh, who has shown a lot of talent throughout her brief career, but who had not yet made the kind of breakthrough she did in Flushing Meadows. Konjuh began by upsetting 20th seed Kiki Bertens, then beat Karumi Nara, and followed that with a win over Varvara Lepchenko. Her biggest feat, however, occurred during the round of 16, when she upset 4th seed Aga Radwanska in a brilliant performance. But then the nerves hit, and she was very easy pickings for Karolilna Pliskova in the quarterfinals.

And even bigger surprise was the quarterfinal run of Anastasija Sevastova. The Latvian player retired from pro tennis in 2013 because she was so tired of dealing with injuries. In 2015, she came back, and at the U.S. Open, she came to life in a way that thrilled spectators. Sevastova began her campaign by defeating Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (I know, who hasn't done that lately?), then went on to beat Kateryna Bondarenko, and then--Johanna Konta. I expected Konta to reach the semifinals, so once again: What do I know? Who knows? Sevastova herself might have reached the semis, but in the first point of the second game of her quarterfinal against Wozniacki, she injured her ankle, and that was pretty much it for her, though she completed the match. Again, it was quite a run, though it ended sadly.

7. Get well soon!: Laura Siegemund was ill during the first week of the U.S. Open, but feeling optimistic about her recovery, she went in search of a partner for the mixed doubles competition. She didn't have much luck, though, because, she said, "No one would play with me because I looked so unhealthy." Fortunately, Mate Pavid decided to take a chance on Siegemund's health. They had never before played together, but it all worked out: They won the U.S. Open, defeating 7th seeds CoCo Vandeweghe and Rajeev Ram in the final.

6. The original basket of deplorables: If you live in the USA, you're stuck with ESPN for your U.S. Open coverage. This, it turns out, is actually worse than being stuck with the other channel (but at least ESPN doesn't have the gall to call itself "The Tennis Channel")--at least that channel has Martina Navratilova to neutralize some of the madness.

But I digress. ESPN spent weeks bragging about how it was going to show us oh, so many matches, all the time. However, for an entire week, the only way to access these matches was via the WatchESPN App or its Internet counterpart, ESPN3. All well and good if you're in front of a computer and/or if your ISP has a contract with ESPN. And you have decent streaming. No matter--it was still a bait and switch routine.

And then there was the usual inane commentary, filled with inaccuracies, mind-reading and just plain stupidity. At one point--when the commentators finally noticed that Karolina Pliskova was even playing (she was performing brilliantly at the business end of the tournament), there was suddenly a discussion of all the "big new talent." It went on for some time, but without any mention of Garbine Muguruza, who won the French Open just a few months ago.

They also made a point of disparaging Caroline Garcia's season, which was her best ever. And they damned Pliskova with such faint praise, it was embarrassing. And there was the usual  patronizing of female players, which reached its peak when Chris Evert referred to 36-year-old elite athlete and social/cultural leader Venus Williams as a "young lady."

A group of people spinning a wheel for random answers could have done better. Maybe that's the way to go in the future.

5.  Welcome back!: We knew she was "back," but Simona Halep (wearing wonderful Addidas shorts--see no. 10) boldly underlined the fact when she took Serena Williams to three exciting sets in the quarterfinals. This may have been Halep's "greatest" loss. The Romanian star had a tougher draw than most. To get to the quarterfinals, she had to beat Kirsten Flipkens, Lucie Safarova, Timea Babos, and Carla Suarez Navarro. That's quite a group. She played extremely well against Williams, despite losing, and just looks like herself again.

4. "She comes from Czech Republic, she's long and she's tall": Every year, we say, "Why can't Karolina Pliskova get past the third round of a major?" No more. A few weeks ago, Pliskova won her first big title, defeating Angie Kerber in the final to win the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Having skipped Rio, she arrived in New York fresh and confident, and was she ever a force with which to be reckoned. Among her victims were Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, teen sensation Ana Konjuh and both Williams sisters. Only three other women have beaten both Venus and Serena at a major.

Contrary to the expectation of some, Pliskova didn't seriously blink in the final--until the end. She did have some trouble getting herself going in the first set, but she overcame that problem gracefully. At the end, though, having watched Angie Kerber hold at love, Pliskova saw herself broken at love. My prediction is that something like that will never happen again. The tall, fast-talking Fed Cup beast had her initiation, and next time, she won't fold. She may not win, but she won't fold. Tennis world, meet Plishy. You're going to see a lot of her.

3. How about a big silver cup to go with that gold and bronze bling? Top seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic won the first set (6-2) of the women's doubles final, though Garcia's serve was shaky. The French pair, strengthened by some brilliant net play from Mladenovic, went up a break in the second set and served for the championship. If Mladenovic had been serving, this story might have had a different outcome, but it was Garcia, and she was broken at love. 12th seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova went on to win that set in a tiebreak.

By this time, Garcia had straightened herself out, but her partner was showing signs of mental collapse. Indeed, Mladenovic uncharacteristically (in doubles) turned into a complete mess, making outrageous errors and opening the door wider and wider for Mattek-Sands and Safarova to overcome the French team. Mattek-Sands and Safarova are a great team and very might have won, no matter what. But there's no doubt that Mladenovic's meltdown made it easier for Mattek-Sands and Safarova to end the match with a 2-6, 7-6, 6-4 victory.

The pair won the Australian Open and the French Open in 2015, but then Safarova became seriously ill with a bacterial infection, and that led to reactive arthritis. Their season, as a team, was over. They got back together this year, and won Miami. At the Olympics, Mattek-Sands and her partner, Jack Sock, won the gold medal in mixed doubles, and Safarova and Barbora Strycova won the bronze medal in women's doubles.

2. Driving the Cloudmobile to the very top: Had Angie Kerber won the Cincinnati tournament, she would have become number 1 in the world. Karolina Pliskova kept that from happening, but then the Czech star "made it happen" at the U.S. Open when she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals. So going into the U.S. Open final, our KareBear was already number 1. Kerber, 28, is the oldest player to ever debut at the number 1 spot. Her season has included defending her Stuttgart title, reaching the final at Wimbledon, winning an Olympic silver medal, and....

1. I'll have another, thank you: Angelique Kerber didn't just win the Australian Open; she beat world number 1 Serena Williams in the final. Kerber and Williams went at it again at Wimbledon, but this time, Kerber would hold the runner-up plate. No worries. The hard-working German star with the strong legs and the stunning transition game won her second major yesterday in Flushing Meadows. Defeating Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in a very high quality, extremely entertaining, final, Kerber became the first woman since Martina Hingis (in 1997) to win both hard court majors in the same year. She's also the first German player to win the U.S. Open since Steffi Graf did it (for the fifth time) in 1996.

Even the television commentators have to take Kerber seriously now that she's won two majors and a silver medal. 2016 is the Year of Angie.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Kerber's racket does the talking: "I'm number 1!"

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the dramatic evolution of Angelique Kerber's career. It didn't really surprise me when, five months later, she won the Australian Open. Her runner-up result at Wimbledon this year only emphasized how confidently the German star had settled herself into the tiny spot of turf that only champions can occupy. Then came the silver medal at the Olympic Games.

Then came today. Playing in a breathtaking U.S. Open final and down a break in the third set against breakout star Karolina Pliskova, Kerber remembered who she was. She steadied herself as only champions can do, and finished the match with a very dramatic flourish--holding at love, then breaking at love. It doesn't get any more "I'm in charge here!" than that.

It didn't occur to me that this match would be anything but high quality, though I did expect some jangling nerves from Pliskova, who only recently left her rut behind and greeted her immense potential with a confident smile. Nerves there were, but not for too long. The big-serving Czech had some problems finding her way around the opening set, in which she made errors she wouldn't normally make. This is to be expected when a player finds herself in a major final for the first time in her career.

After losing that first set 3-6, Pliskova became both more accurate and more creative. Moving better than her reputation has allowed, the Cincinnati champion relaxed and began the task of throwing Kerber out of her rhythm. Both women can hit electrifying groundstrokes, and--while those shots are part of Pliskova's bread and butter game--the Czech player showed some finesse at the net, and was especially impressive when she broke Kerber with a sweet lob she lifted from the ground. Pliskova took the second set 6-4.

The third set had everything but a tiebreak, and I'm a little surprised it didn't have that. Pliskova, by now a portrait of momentum, broke Kerber in the third game. Kerber broke her back. Serving at 4-all, the Australian Open champion held at love. I still didn't look like it was over to me, but then Kerber broke Pliskova at love, and it was over, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.

Pliskova was better at the net in this match, and Kerber had a better second serve. Pliskova hit 40 winners, but made 47 unforced errors, while Kerber hit 21 winners but made only 17 unforced errors.

The path to Kerber's victory was unusual. When Pliskova upset Serena Williams in the semifinals, Kerber became number 1 in the world, and entered the final as the new ranking-topper, so today's win was a large exclamation point to go with that number. The German star is the first woman in 19 years to win both hard court majors in the same year; Martina Hingis did it in 1997.

What a year it has been for Angelique Kerber. She defended her title in Stuttgart, was the runner-up at Wimbledon (losing to Williams), won a silver medal in Rio, won the U.S. Open, and became number 1 in the world. Not bad for someone commentators and sportswriters used to dismiss as a journeywoman.

The other part of this exciting story has to do with Karolina Pliskova. Prior to this year, the very talented Czech--who has recently taken over Petra Kvitova's role as the Czech Republic's very kick-ass Fed Cup leader--couldn't get past the third round of a major. She had some titles, but they weren't big ones. Then, just a few weeks ago, she won Cincinnati (beating Kerber in the final), then came to Flushing Meadows and defeated both Williams sisters; only three other women have ever done that at a major tournament.

This isn't the last final in which we'll see Pliskova; she has finally broken through to a new place on the tour. Her performance today was outstanding.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Pliskova Effect

A lot of us were joking on Twitter about the sudden "power" of Karolina Pliskova to make or break a ranking. In Cincinnati, the Czech star prevented Angie Kerber from overtaking the world number 1 spot when she beat her in the final. At the time, a dry-humored Pliskova told Kerber, "I think you deserve to be number 1, but maybe next time." Then, at the U.S. Open, Pliskova upset Serena Williams in the semifinals, which did make Kerber number 1 in the world.

That's all kind of funny and interesting, but what effects might Pliskova's breakthrough (finally) have on a couple of other players?

Her sister, Kristyna, who has an ever crazier-big serve than Karolina, is currently competing in the Dalian Women's Tennis Open, a WTA 125K series event. Kristyna has made it to the semifinals and might, in fact, be inspired by her twin's performance in Cincinnati and Flushing Meadows.

And then there's Petra Kvitova, who is now out-ranked by Pliskova. Not only that, but--for now--Pliskova has taken over as leader of the Czech Republic's killer Fed Cup team. Could the unintended competition from Pliskova be a fire that lights Kvitova's flame once again? Or could it have the opposite effect? Or perhaps it doesn't matter at all, especially considering the likes of the good-natured, all-for-one/one-for-all human puzzle that is Petra.

It may take a while before we know if there really is such a thing as a Pliskova Effect. 

Angie, Karolina and that uninvited guest, Pressure

Billie Jean King is famous for saying "Pressure is a privilege," a remark I've never truly understood. I think pressure is a pain in the ass. At this point  Angie Kerber may be inclined to agree with me. Which is worse: having to beat Serena Williams in a final in order to become number 1 in the world, or becoming number 1 and then having to win the U.S. Open in order to "validate" your ranking?

I like to think that Kerber doesn't care, but she might. Standing in the new world number 1's way is Karolina Pliskova, who--during the last few weeks--has finally made good on the massive potential she's displayed for a long time.

Pliskova has the serve, Kerber has the speed and movement. Both have tremendous return games. The final is almost guaranteed to be good. Kerber has the advantage of having been there before; she won the Australian Open and was the runner-up at Wimbledon. Pliskova has the advantage of not being judged regarding her "worthiness."

Paths to the final:

round 1--def. Sofia Kenin (wc)
round 2--def. Montserrat Gonzalez (q)
round 3--def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (17)
round of 16--def. Venus Williams (6)
quarterfinals--def. Ana Konjuh
semifinals--def. Serena Williams (1)

round 1--def. Polona Hercog
round 2--def. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
round 3--def. CiCi Bellis (q)
round of 16--def. Petra Kvitova (14)
quarterfinals--def. Roberta Vinci (7)
semifinals--def. Caroline Wozniacki