Sunday, July 14, 2019

My Wimbledon top 10

Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 Wimbledon happenings:

10. Ukraine rising: For only the second time, a Ukrainian girl won the junior singles championship (Kateryna Bondarenko won it in 2004). Unseeded Daria Snigur, playing in her last junior match, defeated 10th seed Alexa Noel 6-4, 6-4. The 17-year-old is coached by Larisa Savchenko, who reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1994.

9. Dutch treat: Aniek Van Koot, unseeded, pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament, defeating doubles partner, defending champion and top seed Diede De Groot in the women's wheelchair singles final. It took her almost two hours, but Van Koot beat her countrywoman 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, earning her first Wimbledon singles title. She and De Groot also won the doubles title. De Groot was the defending champion; she won the title last year with Yui Kamiji.

8. Didn't you win this once?: Defending champion Angie Kerber was upset in the second round by unseeded Lauren Davis, a player who sometimes tends to do well on the big stage. 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza was upset in straight sets in the first round by qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia. 

7. Cracking heads and taking names: Though she lost the magic when the final rolled around, Alona Ostapenko--the real Alona Ostapenko--made an appearance at this event in mixed doubles. Ostapenko lost in the first round in both singles and doubles, but with partner Robert Lindstedt, she lit up the court, showing all the brilliance she displayed in her 2017 French Open run. The biggest shock? Her serve was on fire! There was, of course, plenty of drama; on two occasions, the Latvian star's fiery serves hit Lindstedt in the head. It was a groin injury that did him in, however. Hampered in the semifinals, his condition became worse in the final. As for Ostapenko, in the final, she went right back to serving double faults and sticking volleys into the net. But for a while, we got to see the Ostapenko who dazzles. (Please come back soon.)

6. Don't look now, but there's a Czech behind you: Isn't there always? Unseeded Karolina Muchova took out the likes of Alex Krunic, 20th seed Anett Kontaviet and 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova and reached the quarterfinals. Her run was ended by Elina Svitolina, but she played some of the most inspired tennis I saw during the event. And this came on the heels of countrywoman Marketa Vondrousova's brilliant run to the French Open final. The depth of Czech tennis just continues to impress.

5. Mixed double: Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig won the French Open mixed doubles title, so why not win Wimbledon, too? The pair skillfully ran through the field in London, defeating Alona Ostapenko and Robert Lindstedt in the final.

4. There's a reason they're called "legends": This isn't the shot of the tournament--there are too many amazing shots here to single just one out.

3. Forget the Pimm's--we want Coco: There was plenty of buzz about Coco Gauff before the tournament, but during the first week of Wimbledon, people got to see what that buzz was about. 15-year-old Gauff began her campaign by knocking out the top qualifying seed--the talented Aliona Bolsova. Gauff won her next two qualifying matches, and then began her main draw campaign by beating her idol, Venus Williams, in straight sets. She then beat Magda Rybarikova and a very tough Polona Hercog. Gauff, not surprisingly, lost in straight sets to Simona Halep in the round of 16, but she left London with plenty of which to be proud.

2. Better together: First, see number 6. The inimitable Barbora Strycova reached the semifinals in singles, a first for the Czech veteran, by taking out--among others---Lesia Tsurenko, 4th seed Kiki Bertens, Elise Mertens, and Jo Konta. She was stopped by Serena Williams, but it was an amazing run, surpassed only by her run to the doubles final.

Strycova and Hsieh Su-Wei--two of the WTA's most beloved cult figures--are even better as a team. In the semifinals, the 3rd seeds beat the top-seeded team of Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, then went on to beat 4th seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Xu Yifan (the team that took out defending champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova) in the final. Strycova and Hsieh did not drop a single set throughout the tournament. Strycova is now ranked number 1 in the world in doubles.

This is Strycova's first major doubles title. Hsieh won Wimbledon, with Peng Shuai, in 2013. She and Peng also hold a French Open title.

1. My brilliant career: Simona Halep likes to play on clay. She has time to set up her points, and she can slide with the best of them. Too smart to take on the complications of learning to be a grass court player, Halep--instead--made a decision to improve her serve, and to use her considerable talents to her advantage on grass. It was a good decision. During her stay in London, she took out the likes of Vika Azarenka, teen sensation Coco Gauff and 8th seed Elina Svitolina.

But the real test came in the final, when Halep faced seven-time champion Serena Williams, who held a 10-1 record against the Romanian star. This was Halep's fifth major final; of the previous four, she had won only one--the 2018 French Open. To say there was pressure is to understate the importance of the occasion. But if ever anyone were up to the pressure, that person would be Simona Halep. The picture of controlled aggression, Halep used her mighty legs to pull Williams back and forth across the court like in those long rallies that the Romanian loves.

Both her forehand and her backhand were on fire, and Halep's serve was the best it has ever been. The only unforced errors she made occurred in the first set, and there were only three of them. It was a clean, inspired, utterly dominant performance, and it was all over in under an hour. Halep, much like the defense-loving Angie Kerber before her, saw what needed fixing and set about fixing it.

As for Serena, she hasn't won a major since she took home the trophy in Australia in 2017, but she's been to three major finals since then, despite having to deal with injury. There's every reason to believe she'll continue to be in a position to attain what, so far, has been an elusive 24th major singles title. Her next opportunity, of course, will be in Flushing Meadows, where she hasn't won the title since 2014.  

In the meantime, Simona Halep--who has now triumphed on both clay and grass, and whose hard court skills are well known--takes home more than a replica of the Venus Rosewater dish. She also leaves with a confidence that is probably not like any she has ever had before.   

Saturday, July 13, 2019

London calling: Si-mo-na!

photo by Diane Elayne Dees

Speed has never been accepted as a "legitimate" tennis "weapon," but perhaps, after today, there will be some re-thinking on that subject. World number 7 Simona Halep, throughout her Wimbledon final today, looked like the subject of one of those multiple-exposure photos we so enjoy seeing. Wherever she needed to be, she was there. And she was there with some absolutely wicked cross-court shots and passing shots.

Her opponent, seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, was undoubtedly prepared for Halep's speed and her outstanding defensive skills. After all, she had played the Romanian star many times--and beaten her in all but one of their ten matches.

What she may not have been prepared for was Halep's laser-like accuracy. Finding lines and angles like a Geometry Superhero (or Petra Kvitova when she won her Wimbledon championships), Halep simultaneously put on a show of athleticism and a clinic of baseline tennis. She allowed her opponent only one break opportunity, and Williams failed to break her.

After she won the first set 6-2, commentator John McEnroe remarked, "You can't keep this up, sorry." But Simona could keep it up. And she did. In fact, in the second set (in which she made no unforced errors), she looked positively dangerous at every move. Halep won that set 6-2, also.

Halep finished the 56-minute match with a first serve win percentage of 83 and a total of three unforced errors, the lowest number of unforced errors ever made by a woman in a singles final. She broke Williams four times (out of five opportunities), and hit only thirteen winners, but they were beauties, both forehand and backhand.

“I’m very sure it was the best match of my life.”

There are, to this day, no grass courts in Romania, where Halep still trains. The Romanian grew up playing on clay courts; she likes to take her time and she likes to slide. But she was determined to learn--not how to play "grass court tennis"--but rather, how to interpret her game on the grass, and she accomplished that goal. She made Serena repeatedly run side to side, forcing her into the kind of longer rallies that are Halep's bread and butter.

When Simona Halep walked out to the balcony of the All England Club and held up the Venus Rosewater dish, she was greeted by cheers of "Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na!' as Romanians (and, I bet, some others) chanted the words that have distinguished Halep as a rare female athlete with a rock star presence in her native land. Halep is the first Romanian to win Wimbledon.

Whether you are a tennis player, a musician, a poet, or anyone creating anything, there is indeed a "zone" available to you, and when you're in it, time stops, and you are one with the beloved activity. Simona Halep, on one of the most important days of her tennis career, found the zone, and the zone embraced her.

Friday, July 12, 2019

She's (drumroll, please) back!

It was the forehands. The backhands. The volleys. And--wait for it--the serves. Alona Ostapenko, who has shone throughout her mixed doubles competition at Wimbledon, reached 2017 French Open levels today, playing brilliantly with partner Robert Lindstedt to defeat Yang Zhaoxuan and Matwe Middlekoop to advance to the mixed doubles final.

Where has this Alona been? Ostapenko has been quite open about her struggle to find "2017 Alona" again, and who knew that she was hanging out with Robert Lindstedt, ready to receive her wayward half and kick some ass in mixed doubles.

Maybe it was the security of having a partner. Maybe it was the charm of the venue where Ostapenko reached the semifinals in singles right after she won the French Open. Maybe it was sight of the green lawns. Or maybe it was just time.

The consistently double-faulting singles player known as Alona Ostapenko changed her persona into a big-serving threat for the mixed doubles competition. Today, she served for both sets and ended both sets by hitting an ace (and serving out the final game at love). She was on fire with both her forehand and backhand, and excellent at the net.

Twice during mixed doubles competition, Ostapenko has hit her fiery serves right into the head of her partner, yet it is Ostapenko herself who appears to have had her brain scrambled--in the very best way.

Lindstedt sustained a groin injury during today's match, so here's hoping that a day of rest will take care of that.

Also advancing to the mixed doubles final were 8th seeds Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig. They defeated 5th seeds Kveta Peschke and Wesley Koolhof.

There were two big upsets in women's doubles today. Top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic went out in straight sets to 3rd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova, and defending champions and 2nd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova lost to 4th seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Xu Yifan.

Of the four finalists, only Hsieh has won a major.

In wheelchair singles, top seed and defending champion Diede De Groot advanced to the final with a straight set win over Kgothatso Montjane. And Aniek Van Koot upset 2nd seed Yui Kamiji in straight sets. De Groot and Van Koot, the top seeds, also advanced to the doubles final, in which they will play 2nd seeds Marjolein Buis and Giulia Capocci.

In juniors, top seed Emma Navarro of the USA was upset in the quarterfinals by 6th seed Natsumi Kawaguchi.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Down to two: It's the seven-time champion against Si-mo-na!

A not-so-casual observer probably expected today's first Wimbledon semifinal to go three sets, or least last a fairly long time. But Simona Halep, like a certain New England Senator, had a plan for that.

Halep, not surprisingly, had been doing some thinking (she's known for that), and she figured out that--with her strong legs, "I can open the court....The court works for me if I play the right tactic." And play it she did, over and over. She sliced and she dropped, going for classic grass court strategies. She also served very well, and with 26 winners and only 15 unforced errors, she defeated Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-3 in just 72 minutes.

Today's match marked the first time that Svitolina had ever reached a major semifinal, so she does have some progress to enjoy. But Halep was at her best, and the talented Ukrainian just couldn't make any headway against her.

The second semifinal went more as one might have predicted. Barbora Strycova, for all her cleverness and agility, couldn't compete against a very in-form Serena Williams. Williams won with 89% of her first serves, and she won 81% of her net approaches. She also hit 28 winners and made only ten unforced errors.

On Saturday, Williams will play her eleventh Wimbledon singles final. So far, she has lost only three, to Maria Sharapova (2004), to Venus Williams (2008) and to Angie Kerber (2018). It will be Halep's first Wimbledon final.

Paths to the final:


round 1--def.  Giulia Gotto-Monticone (Q)
round 2--def. Kaja Juvan
round 3--def. Julia Goerges (18)
round of 16--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (30)
quarterfinals--def. Alison Riske
semifinals--def. Barbora Strycova


round 1--def. Aliaksandra Sasnovich
round 2--def. Mihaela Buzarnescu
round 3--def. Victoria Azarenka
round of 16--def. Coco Gauff (Q)
quarterfinals--def. Zhang Shuai
semifinals--def. Elina Svitolina (8)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Melichar continues her Wimbledon streak

Mixed doubles defending champion Nicole Melichar, a very good doubles player from the USA who gets zero media attention, advanced--with partner Bruno Soares--to the third round of mixed doubles at Wimbledon today. She and Soares did it by defeating Serena Williams and Andy Murray 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Melichar was outstanding today in her third round match; she and Soares, the top seeds, will play Yang Zhaoxuan and Matwe Middlekoop in the quarterfinals.

Last year, Melichar won the championship with Alexander Peya.

Meanwhile, the unseeded team of Alona Ostapenko and Robert Lindstedt upset 4th seeds Zhang Shuai and John Peers to advance to the quarterfinals. And for the second time, Ostapenko hit Lindstedt in the head with one of her serves. Someone in the stands probably needs to hold up a sign that says DUCK!, or Lindstedt needs to switch to a more protective piece of headgear.

Also today, Barbora Strycova became the only player to remain in two draws, as she and Hsieh Su-Wei defeated Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets to advance to the semifinals. 2nd seeds and defending champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova also advanced to the semifinals

And then there was this:

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

It's just not tennis without Czechs

Great Britain's hope, Jo Konta, looked for all the world like she was on a solid path to the Wimbledon semifinals, and maybe the final, but then--in today's quarterfinals--she crossed paths with the esteemed professor of all things tennis, from volleying to net etiquette: Barbora Strycova.

The first set was tight, with Strycova winning in a tiebreak. The second set, however, could just as well have been called The Barbora Strycova Tennis Clinic and Variety Show. The Czech veteran appeared to be all over the court at any given time--scooping, volleying, hitting overheads, falling down, getting up, and generally being a full-on nuisance.

The show took its toll on Konta, who won only one game in the set. The only seeded (19) player to be tossed out of the quarterfinals, Konta just simply couldn't deal with Strycova's clean (just nine unforced errors), highly strategic game.

Meanwhile, another very fine grass court player, Alison Riske, was savvy enough to drag seven-time champion Serena Williams to three sets, but ultimately, she couldn't overtake Williams, who hit 19 aces, including an ace at match point ("You know how I like to do it"). It was a fine performance by both players.

Simona Halep had to seriously battle Zhang Shuai in their first set. The Romanian star won that set in a tiebreak, and then overcame her opponent 6-1 in the second set.

Finally, Elina Svitolina defeated a somewhat hampered (with a heavily wrapped thigh, after her three-hour and 17-minute quarterfinal) Karolina Muchova. Had she not been tired and injured, would Muchova have advanced to the semifinals? It's hard to know. Svitolina has been playing extremely well in London. And now, finally, she has reached a major semifinal. It's been a long time coming.

The very talented Muchova has been a breath of fresh air at Wimbledon, and some of us can't wait to see her play again.

In doubles, top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic advanced to the semifinals with a victory over 7th seeds Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke. 6th seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka advanced to the quarterfinals with a win over the Chan sisters, and 3rds seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbara Strycova (there she is again!) also advanced to the quarterfinals.

And in mixed doubles, Serena Williams and Andy Murray advanced to the third round, in which they will face off against top seeds Bruno Soares and Nicole Melichar. Melichar is also the defending champion.

Strycova is not the only Czech player left in the draw. Defending doubles champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are still alive in the doubles draw.

Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Serena Williams (11) vs. Barbara Strycova
Elina Svitolina (8) vs. Simona Halep (7)

With apologies to the Bee Gees--some Czechs are Stayin' Alive!

Well, you can tell by the way I shake your hand
I’m the boss out here, do you understand?
Lob you now, drop you then
Cut you off when you come in

And now it’s alright, it’s okay
Petra will be back to play
Lucie’s gone, Plisko’s out
But Muchova has made us proud

Whether you’re a Barbora or a Katerina
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Konta's not breakin' and everybody's shakin'
We’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

Well now, I get low and I hit high
Can't return my volleys, though you try
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes
I’m a flyin’ Czech and I’ll make you lose

And now it’s alright, it’s okay
Petra will be back to play
Lucie’s gone, Plisko’s out
But Muchova has made us proud

Whether you’re a Barbora or a Katerina
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Konta's not breakin' and everybody's shakin'
We’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin alive

Ain’t goin’ nowhere, Su-Wei please help me
Su-Wei please help me, yeah
Ain't goin' nowhere, Su-Wei please help me, yeah
I'm stayin' alive!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Riske and Muchova pull major upsets at Wimbledon

Unseeded Alison Riske upset world number 1 Ash Barty today at Wimbledon in the round of 16. Riske's tidy, efficient grass court game, executed with poise, was good enough to overcome Barty and to send Riske into the quarterfinals. Riske's 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory included 30 winners and only 15 unforced errors. It shouldn't have come as a complete surprise to anyone: Riske had already taken out 22nd seed Donna Vekic and 13th seed Belinda Bencic.

Riske's run gets really interesting tomorrow when she faces off against seven-time champion Serena Williams. Williams defeated Carla Suarez Navarro today and is going after a 24th major singles title.

Not surprisingly, Simona Halep put a straight-set end to Coco Gauff's dream run. The 7th seed's court geometry skills were too much for the 15-year-old, who was not able to use her serve against Halep the way she did against her other opponents. Gauff also hit twice as many unforced errors as winners.

8th seed Elina Svitloina reached the quarterfinals for the first time. Last year, she went out to Tatjana Maria in the first round. In 2017, she was defeated in the round of 16 by Alona Ostapenko, and in 2016, Svitolina lost to Yaroslava Shvedova in the second round.

Today, the Ukrainian star overcame 24th seed Petra Martic in straight sets.

Also having a great run is Barbora Strycova, who upset 21st seed Elise Mertens today. And having a really good run is Zhang Shuai, who beat talented teenager Dayana Yastremska.

Two-time champion Petra Kvitova hasn't looked as though her injured forearm has been troubling her, but something (besides her opponent) was troubling her today, as she sweat profusely (and didn't wear her headband!) and just kind of went away after her first set against Jo Konta. Down 1-5 in the third set, the Czech star made a comeback, creating some tension, but it wasn't quite enough for her to stop the inevitable. Konta's 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory reflects her re-make of her game, and especially her serve.

And then there were the Karolinas.

I don't know whether we'll see such a show again for the remainder of the week. 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova played unseeded countrywoman Karolina Muchova, and the entire three-hour and 17-minute affair was a combination tennis clinic and high quality piece of entertainment. And even though there was a whole lot going on on other courts, I found it hard to take my eyes off of this match.

Between them, they hit 105 winners, and they both wound up with positive winner-to-unforced error ratios. There just wasn't much between them, and it was only at the last minute that we knew who would advance to the quarterfinals. The match was thrilling and very well-played, and Muchova showed nerves of steel.

In doubles, defending chamnpions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova advanced to the quarterfinals. Last year's runners-up, Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke, also advanced.

Here is the singles draw for the quarterfinals, which includes four unseeded players:

Alison Riske vs. Serena Williams (11)
Barbora Strycova vs. Jo Konta (19)
Elina Svitolina (8) vs. Karolina Muchova
Simona Halep (7) vs. Zhang Shuai