Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some final thoughts on Cincinnati

Photo by Frank Oplanic
First, it was about time Karolina Pliskova won a big title. The rangy Czech has the talent, but so far, her victories have all been at less prestigious events than the one in Cincinnati. I can't help but wonder whether this victory will help her get past her "never beyond the third round of a major" obstacle when she competes at the U.S. Open.

Though Angelique Kerber was somewhat favored to win the tournament, so was Simona Halep. And both played really well--until they didn't. In their defense, they (and Aga Radwanska) went from Rio to Cincinnati, and it wasn't an easy journey. (For Radwanska, it was a bit of hell on Earth). Pliskova, on the other hand, didn't attend the Olympic Games and wasn't suffering from the physical and mental fatigue that the other three were.

But there was more to it than that. Pliskova played better and better in each round at the Western & Southern Open. By the time she reached the final, she was in high gear. (And just for the record--the champion hit 47 aces while she was in Cincinnati.) Anyone who was watching would have noticed that the Czech player was on her way to a possible breakthrough. Pliskova, by the way, is the first Czech player to win the Cincinnati title.

Much has been made of Kerber's lost chance to take over the number 1 ranking. As I wrote earlier, exhaustion appeared to play a more important role in the world number 2's loss than any pressure that she may have felt. Karolina Pliskova played an important role, too.

With both number 1 rankings on the line, it seemed only fitting that the two faces of Santina would survive until the final day of play. With their new partners, Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis faced each other in a match that contained much more drama than the singles final. Mirza, the first Indian woman to ever become world number 1 in doubles, has now returned to that spot. She and Barbora Strycova, playing together for the first time, are to be commended. And then there was this, from their press conference:

Strycova: "I think we have similar personality traits. She's calmer on the court.." 

Mirza: "That's not tough to do."

It rained every day of play in Cincinnati, and parking lots became lakes of mud that sucked cars down, making it necessary for tow trucks to pull out a number of vehicles. Mulch was added to the parking lots daily. Matches were postponed, and also constantly interrupted, sometimes more than once. Somehow, everyone got caught up, though some players had to play two matches in one day. Between the Olympics and the rain, this year's Cincinnati tournament was a special
challenge for many players.

Pliskova, Mirza and Strycova win in Cincinnati

.@KaPliskova captures @CincyTennis title!

From the Olympics to Cincinnati, Czech players have dominated WTA competition for the last few weeks. Today, world number 17 Karolina Pliskova won her biggest title to date when she upset world number 2 Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-1 in just over an hour at the Western & Southern Open. And while much has been made of the pressure that Kerber must have felt over playing for the world number 1 ranking, the reality is that the German star was more likely just exhausted. Also, Pliskova played a superb and fluid match against her.

'I just tried everything today," Kerber said in her post-match press conference. "I had great three weeks, with a lot of emotion." Kerber won the silver medal at the Olympic Games in Rio.

Pliskova had a lot of praise for Kerber's stamina, remarking that her opponent had played all the way to the final in Rio, then all the way to the final in Cincinnati, which was a testament to her fitness and endurance.

The tall Czech player took charge of the match immediately, getting to 4-0 before Kerber (or anyone) even had a chance to settle in. "I was still expecting during the match some complication as always it is in tennis...," the champion said later. She didn't get that complication, though. Pliskova hit seven aces and wound up with a first serve win percentage of 86. She also had an impressive winner-to-unforced error ratio of 24/16.

To get the trophy, Pliskova had to beat a two-time major champion (Svetlana Kuznetsova), the current French Open champion (Garbine Muguruza) and the current Australian Open champion (Kerber). She also beat Jelena Ostapenko and Misaki Doi.

Had Kerber won in Cincinnati, she would have taken over the world number 1 spot from Serena Williams.

Prior to the Kerber-Pliskova match, there was more Czech action on the doubles court. Santina, broken in half, nevertheless made an appearance, as Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza became opponents in the Cincinnati final. Hingis and her partner, CoCo Vandeweghe, had played just one match prior to the final: They had a bye in the first round, then were the recipients of two successive walkovers.

Mirza's teammate was Barbora Strycova, the Czech player who--with Lucie Safarova--won the bronze medal for doubles in Rio. Strycova, in fact, had played very well against Kerber during the third round of singles competition.

The pair fell behind quickly as Hingis and Vandeweghe rushed to a 5-1 lead in the first set. But Mirza Strycova and the Forehand of Fire got themselves back into the set and wound up winning it 7-5. They went up a break in the second set, but were broken when they served for the championship at 5-3. Their opponents then held, and a momentum change looked quite possible, but Strycova served it out for a 7-5, 6-4 victory.

In what may be a unique situation, the number 1 spot in doubles was also up for grabs, and Mirza has now claimed it; she and Hingis held it in tandem before. In another odd twist, the pair had to meet as opponents right after they split as a team. "It was going to happen eventually," Mirza said. "We had to play against each other at some point. I think it's better that it happened earlier, as soon as we came out, because next time it's obviously less difficult to play."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Kerber and Pliskova advance to Cincinnati final

Photo by Frank Oplanic
World number 2 Angelique Kerber, playing in yet another rain-delayed match at the Western & Southern Open, prevailed in straight sets this afternoon over Simona Halep, breaking Halep's 13-match win streak. The Rogers Cup champion, playing to shouts of "Si-mo-na!" from her very enthusiastic fans, played an error-strewn match that included eight breaks of serve, as the two line-loving players went at each other from the baseline.

Halep said afterwards that she just wasn't feeling the ball, and even in her practice session, she felt a need to change rackets on three different occasions. It "wasn't my day," the Romanian star said, and added, "I'm not going to make it a drama, this match...." Halep said she plans to get some sleep between now and traveling to New York for the U.S. Open.

Kerber, who defeated Halep 6-3, 6-4, said that she has tried to relax as much as possible this week, eating out in good restaurants, paying attention to hydration and "trying to make everything easy and not too complicated."

If the German star wins the final tomorrow against Karolina Pliskova, she will be number 1 in the world. She has, of course, been asked about this all week, and has repeatedly said that she has put herself under no particular pressure regarding this possibility.

Kerber talked about the significant improvement in her game over the past couple of seasons. She described three areas in which she has made strides: an increased level of physical fitness, learning to focus on every point, and being more relaxed on the court.

Kerber also had praise for Halep. "...she's never giving up any ball. Doesn't matter what's the score. It it's 3-0 or 4-0 or she's up and down, she's going for it." Halep defeated Kerber in Montreal recently on her way to the title.

About her next opponent, 17th seed Karolina Pliskova, Kerber said, "I played a lot against her and it was always close and tough battles. For me, there are no favorites. It's fifty-fifty always when you go out there."

In an highly unusual scenario, the number 1 doubles ranking is also on the line. The two components of the recently split Santina--Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis--will play against each other in the Cincinnati final. Mirza, playing with Barbora Strycova (who gave Kerber a very tough match during the singles competition) will face off against her former partner and CoCo Vandeweghe. Hingis and Vandeweghe have played only one match in Cincinnati: They had a bye in the first round, and received walkovers in the second round and the quarterfinals.

They did it with mirrors!

From the time I arrived at the Western & Southern Open on Monday, it has rained and rained. Two or three games played under cloudy--or even sunny--skies would suddenly have to be stopped because more rain fell. It's been the rainiest tournament I've ever heard of, yet all matches were played in a relatively timely manner. Sure, there have been a lot of delayed matches, and some players have had to play twice in one day, but it still seems like quite an accomplishment that the event stayed "on schedule."

A lot has been said about the great job the crew has been doing with the squeegees, and about how hard the ballkids have worked with the towels. But not mentioned are the many "sweepers" who are constantly clearing the puddles so that fans can walk around the grounds with minimal splashing. That has certainly helped me, since I appear to have a skill for stepping outside of the media building about 30 seconds before it starts raining.

I'm glad I didn't rent a car, since the storms have wreaked havoc on the parking lots. That problem, too, has been aggressively addressed each day, but there's only so much that can be done to hold back the forces of nature.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Muguruza and Pliskova advance in Cincinnati

.@KaPliskova is first through to @CincyTennis Semifinals!

Today, in the Cincinnati quarterfinals, 4th seed Garbine Muguruza defeated qualifier Timea Babos in straight sets. Later, talking with the press, Muguruza described her playing style: "I'm kind of a mix between the Spanish style and the east Euro girl style." Muguruza, when asked about her French Open win, said that she was highly motivated in the Roland Garros final by the way it felt to be a runner-up at Wimbledon in 2015.

She also spoke humorously and wisely about the times that she has appeared disgruntled on court, proclaiming that "everyone" (fans and media) like to use those occasions "to make noise." She also made it clear that the "noise" doesn't bother her.

Karolina Pliskova, who defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, talked about her formidable serve. "I can serve big in the important moments," she said, but added that she needs to improve her serve percentage in Cincinnati. Plikova acknowledged that she doesn't serve as fast as the other tall players, but added that "I can place the serve anywhere I want." The Czech star said that she concentrates on her offensive game because "I can't run fifty times from the baseline."

Asked about whether she can transfer her intimidating "Fed Cup zone" into competing at other events, Pliskova said that she wishes it were possible. "I can come close," she said, but explained that there was really nothing like having the Fed Cup crowd cheer for her.

The 15th seed also talked a little about her interest in fishing, but said that she catching big ones wasn't a goal: "I'm just fishing around the Czech, so there are not big fishes."

Sluggish Kerber finds a way to win

Photo by Leslie Billman/Tennisclix
Angelique Kerber, looking tired and a step behind throughout her first quarterfinal set in Cincinnati, nevertheless found a way to advance to the semifinals over Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard took the first set 6-4 after out-serving and out-hitting Kerber in rallies that mostly lacked Kerber's lethal low, cross-court blows. The German picked up her level in the second set, however--though it took her a few games to do it. The third was all about Kerber, who won the match 4-6, 6-3, 6-0. 

Afterwards, Kerber acknowledged being tired, and said that the days were kind of running together for her and she sometimes isn't even sure what day it is. But, she said, staying in the moment helped her to prevail against Suarez-Navarro. She talked about her serve being inconsistent--she hit three aces but double-faulted 10 times. And she emphasized again that she was putting herself under no pressure at all regarding her potential number 1 ranking.

The German star said she handled the time between the first and second sets by staying positive, and telling herself "to go for it when I get the chance," and to refrain from trying to do too much.

Immediately following the match, Suarez Navarro withdrew from doubles competition, citing an injured left thigh. Meanwhile, Martina Hingis and CoCo Vandeweghe have reached the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open without playing a match. Nice work if you can get it! They had a bye in the first round, and in the second round, they received a walkover from Kiki Bertens and Johanna Larsson. Now, they get a walkover from Sara Errani and Suarez Navarro.

In the semifinals, the well-rested Hingis and Vandeweghe will play either King/Niculescu or Georges/Pliskova. If I were those four players, I'd be doing anything I could think of to guard against what seems to be an unpleasant trend among the opponents of the 4th seeds.

This morning, 15th seed Karolina Pliskova defeated 7th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Pliskova will play the winner of the match now being played by Garbine Muguruza and Timea Babos.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Cibulkova's Cincinnati curse continues

Qualifier Babos ousts world No.11 Cibulkova 4-6 6-3 6-1 to claim her spot in the QFs. #CincyTennis

Prior to this season, Dominika Cibulkova--a player known for her hard court success--had entered the Western & Southern Open six times, and five of those times, had she failed to get past the first round. The exception was 2012, when she defeated her first round opponent but had to retire during the second round.

Upon arriving here earlier in the week, the Slovakian star said she felt rested and was ready to put her poor Cincinnati history behind her. But that was not to be; tonight, Cibulkova lost a rain-interrupted match to the increasingly dangerous Timea Babos. Babos defeated Cibulkova 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.

Cibulkova had taken a week off in order to rest after sustaining a heel injury. She said that we didn't feel psychologically affected by her poor record in Cincinnati; rather she has problems at the Western & Southern Open because of the tournament's use of Penn balls. She always has to change her racket tension when she's in Cincinnati, she added. It probably didn't help her case that the courts were completely soaked after the second set, and that heavy conditions set in.

Sometimes, you know that a match is going to be superior in quality, and that was the case today when Angelique Kerber played Barbora Strycova. The match was everything I thought it would be, and was a lot of fun to watch. Strycova had to play a lot of catch-up, and the two women broke each other seven times in the course of the two-set match. Strycova's service level dropped a bit from her previous Cincinnati matches, but it was still respectable.

It took Kerber two hours to create a 7-6, 6-4 victory over a very tricky opponent. The German's signature passing shots were put into good use at the end of each set, while Strycova showed off some superb serve-and-volley technique. It was quite a workout for the 2nd seed, who will next face off against Carla Suarez Navarro, who, along with Babos, is into the quarterfinals in both singles and doubles. The Spaniard beat 6th seed Roberta Vinci today.

3rd seed Simona Halep had an easy time of it today, as her opponent, Daria Gavrilova, had all kinds of trouble serving, and could hardly keep the ball in the court. Gavrilova won only three games.

Karolina Pliskova defeted Misaki Doi, and Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Timea Bacsinszky. As I write this, Garbine Muguruza is a game away (5-0 in the second) from defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Of note in doubles competition: Top seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic were upset today in the second round of play by Vania King and Monica Niculescu. The French pair had a bye in the first round. Their fortunes have gone down considerably since they made their red-hot clay season run.

Kerber and Radwanska face tough conditions and opponents in Cincy round of 16

Always a warm handshake @ARadwanska & @andreapetkovic #CincyTennis (mrenzaero, flickr)
The humidity in Cincinnati is at 81% as Misaki Doi and Karolina Pliskova play their match on The Grandstand at the Western & Southern Open. With the extreme precipitation and high humidity that have prevailed in Mason this week, players who can handle heavy tennis balls will have an edge over those who cannot.

The first WTA match on Center Court will be played between Daria Gavrilova and 3rd seed Simona Halep. Gavrilova has already taken out Caroline Garcia and 18th seed Elina Svitolina, both in straight sets. Halep leads Gavrilova 2-1 in matches played, with the Australian's only victory coming on a clay court. The most recent of these matches took place at this year's Rogers Cup, and Halep won 6-2, 6-3.

Both Angelique Kerber and Aga Radwanska, who are understandably tired from their Rio adventure (the travel aspect alone would have done in almost anyone) both played opponents last night who had to be pretty tired themselves. They delivered bagel sets to Kiki Mladenovic and Andrea Petkovic, respectively. Both Mladenovic and Petkovic had already played their delayed first round matches earlier in the day.

Today's opponents will be more rested. 5th seed Radwanska gets 10th seed Johanna Konta. And this brings me back to the first paragraph: Radwanska is a player who can struggle with the conditions present in Cincinnati right now, so this match could be far from routine for her. Kerber, for her part, will play against a very in-form Barbora Strycova, who hasn't dropped a set in her defeats of qualifier Genie Bouchard and 14th seed Sam Stosur.

Strycova had first serve win percentages of 75 and 72 in her first- and second-round matches, and second serve win percentages of 63 and 55. If the Olympic bronze medal winner (in doubles) continues to serve at this level--given her variety in other areas--she can give Kerber some trouble.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Players forced by Cincinnati weather to double up on Wednesday


Today was all about catch-up at the Western & Southern Open. There was rain this morning, but this time, when the sky cleared, it stayed that way. Some players who played today will have to play tonight also because of all of the matches that were held over from yesterday.

Kristina Mladenovic, Andrea Petkovic, Johanna Larsson, and Kurumi Nara will make repeat appearances later, provided the dry (I use the term loosely--the humidity is brutal) weather holds up. Mladenovic, who defeated qualifier Kateryna Bondarenko earlier today, will play on center court against Olympic silver medal winner Angelique Kerber. The two have met only once before, on a hard court in Brisbane in 2014, and Kerber won that match in straight sets.

Petkovic was victorious in three sets over Lucie Safarova today, and tonight, she'll face off against Aga Radwanska. Both Kerber and Radwanska are tired from their ordeals regarding Rio, so that seems to add up to four weary players. Should be interesting.

Qualifier Alize Cornet retired in her match against Carla Suarez Navarro, qualifier Timea Babos upset 13th seed Belinda Bencic, and qualifier Daria Gavrilova upset 17th seed Elina Svitolina. Other second round winners today were Simona Halep, Misaki Doi, Johanna Konta, Roberta Vinci.

Of interest (it goes without saying) is Barbora Strycova, who has now defeated both Genie Bouchard and 14th seed Sam Stosur in straight sets. Strycova is serving quite well. In the next round, she'll get either 2nd (and top) seed Angie Kerber or Kiki Mladenovic, who are about to begin play on Center Court.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A lot of rain, and some tennis, in Cincinnati

When I left a flooding Louisiana, I knew I was going to see more rain, but maybe not this much. I've never seen so much court squeegee action before. Play has started and stopped so many times in Cincinnati, but--even with the delays--matches have been completed. Today, Alize Cornet defeated Kiki Bertens 7-6, 6-3, and Kristina Pliskova defeated Jelena Ostapenko 6-4, 6-1. Also winning were Timea Babos (def. Louisia Chirico), Annika Beck (def. Julia Putintseva) and Alison Riske (def. Varvara Flink).

And on Court 10, away from the conversation, lucky loser Tsvetana Pironkova quietly defeated Daria Kasatkina 6-1, 6-1 in just over an hour. The Russian won only 42% of points on her first serve (and 50% on her second serve). The Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery will next face 6th seed Roberta Vinci. The Italian leads 3-1 in their head-to-head.

Angelique Kerber will begin her Cincinnati campaign against either Kateryna Bondarenko or Kiki Mladenovic. Kerber met with the press this afternoon, and talked at length about her Rio experiences, citing "my fight" as the biggest challenge she faced. Now Cincinnati's top seed, the German star will become number 1 in the world if she wins this event.

Right now, we're waiting for (among other things) the first round contest between Barbora Strycova and Eugenie Bouchard, which sounds appealing. Also scheduled for later this evening--sometime comedy act/doubles team members Elina Svitolina and Daria Gavrilova are scheduled to play one another. But right now, it's all about towels and squeegees.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Kuznetsova talks chemistry, Radwanska relives Rio travel nightmare

Svetlana Kuznetsova spent some time with the media today in Cincinnati, and talked about what she has learned, over her long career, about building a player support team. She said that for the first six months of this season, she had no fitness coach, "so I did it myself, and I did it differently." The Russian star said that it's quite difficult to find a coach and a fitness coach with whom a player has just the right chemistry.

In the past, she noted, she has announced additions to her team, and then regretted that she hadn't held off on making the announcements. She went on to day that, at her age, there wasn't a lot she was going to change, even if a coach or a fitness coach asked her to, and she emphasized that these team relationships have to be collaborative in order to work.

The two-time major winner talked about her childhood as the daughter of two professional athletes. She trained in a facility that she described as being "like an army." Despite being very young, she trained twice a day just because she saw everyone else doing it.

Also chatting with the media was Aga Radwanska, who was able to look at her trip from hell to Rio with some humor. Radwanska had to go from Montreal to New York, from one New York airport to another, to Portugal, and then to Rio. This circuitous route also included multiple delays. She was unable to say how many miles she had traveled, but she did say that "They should give me gold status for every airline."

And as if that weren't enough, the Polish star just happened to board the bus that had its windows shattered by some sort of attack that was never fully explained. Radwanska said that when she arrived, no one could tell her how to get to her practice court, and that the food she was given left a good deal to be desired. And after all that, she went out in the first round of play. She added that she had no rest between her drawn-out journey and the commencement of play, and hasn't really had any rest since.

Halep talks about Puig, Romania and her gym routine

3rd seed Simona Halep, in Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open, talked in some depth today about the pressures she has felt as an elite player, and about her health and fitness.

Halep said that her stomach is still troubling her, and that she's also dealing with an occasional headache. The Romanian star said that eating different foods in all the various countries to which she travels is problematic for her.

Halep also said that she is much more motivated to practice on the court than she is to go to the gym, but that she has motivated herself, and now goes to the gym every day.

She also talked about the expectations of fans and media in her home country. "Every time, I play for Romania," she said, but that she can't play in every event, and people in Romania expect her not only to play at all times, but to win at all times. "No one can win every match," Halep said. She added that she had taken some of the pressure off of herself. She has said this before, however, and sometimes it's hard to know how much of the burden has really been removed from her shoulders.

She said she does not regret missing the Olympics, though she feels disappointed that she could not be there. But, she emphasized, she was quite comfortable with her decision to stay away from Rio. Halep had high praise for gold medal winner Monica Puig, remarking that Puig's level was high in every round. "She was there to win."

Ostapenko prevails in roller coaster match against Schmiedlova


Anna Karolina Schmiedlova got off to a roaring start today, taking the first set 6-1 against Jelena Ostapenko in less than 20 minutes in the opening round of the Western & Southern Open. Schmiedlova then went up two breaks in the second set, and appeared to be on the way to achieving a short, efficient victory.

But you know how tennis is. And lately, you know how Schmiedy is. Ostapenko saved two match points at 4-5 in the second set, and went on to win that set 7-6. But after falling behind 0-2, 0-40, Schmiedlova raced ahead to 5-2 in the third, and again--the match looked like it was about to end. But Schmiedova's level crashed when she served for the match, and she never saw another match point. Ostapenko broke her and went on to break her again. There was another tiebreak, which Ostapenko won with relative ease, though--for a short time--it looked like Schmiedlova was going to catch up and possibly prevail.

The momentum shifts in this match were extreme, and--given that Ostapenko's second round opponent is Karolina Pliskova--there could be another see-saw contest in the Latvian player's near future.

Also in round 1, qualifier Daria Gavrilova defeated Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-3. She'll play 17th seed Elina Svitolina next.