Monday, January 27, 2020

Down to eight in Melbourne

The round of 16 is my favorite round of any major. There are plenty of matches to watch, and all of the players are interesting to watch. The 2020 Australian Open round of 16 is now over, an--though I didn't get to see every match--I saw most of them, and I enjoyed them.

Of all the fourth round matches I saw, the one I found the most riveting was the contest between Anett Kontaveit and Iga Swiatek. Also, this did not surprise me; both are great movers and can deliver laser-like groundstrokes.

Unfortunately, Swiatek sustained a leg injury and her movement became hampered. Like all leg- and thigh-injured players, she tried to compensate by keeping the points short. This tactic can work if you're Serena Williams or Petra Kvitova (on a good day), but, in the end, it failed the young Polish player.

I say "in the end" because Kontaveit, up 5-1 in the third said, served twice for the match and was broken both times. Swiatek was the perfect embodiment of the legendary "dangerous injured player," and just wouldn't give up. In the end, Kontaveit (who has had her own physical problems) prevailed, 6-7, 7-5, 7-5. It was a thrilling match, and both women performed beautifully. It may have been my favorite of all the Melbourne matches I've seen.

There are four players remaining who have won majors: Ash Barty (French Open), Petra Kvitova (Wimbledon), Simona Halep (French Open, Wimbledon), and Garbine Muguruza (French Open, Wimbledon). The last former Australian Open champion standing was 2016 winner Angie Kerber, and she was eliminated in the round of 16 by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

There are two unseeded players in the quarterfinals--Muguruza (I know--that sounds crazy, but such are the twists and turns of Muguology) and Ons Jabeur, who is the first Arab woman to reach a major quarterfinal. Jabeur is a joy to watch, with her superb shot-making skills. She defeated Wang Qiang, another player who is fun to watch, in the fourth round.

Here is the singles quarterfinals draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Petra Kvitova (7)* 

Sofia Kenin (14) vs. Ons Jabeur
Anett Kontaveit (28) vs. Simona Halep (4)
Garbine Muguruza vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (30)

*In 2019, eventual runner-up Kvitova defeated Barty in straight sets in the quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, in doubles, there has been quite a bit of consistency. The first, second, third, and fourth seeds are still around and will compete in the quarterfinals.

Here is the doubles quarterfinal draw:

Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova (1) vs. Jennifer Brady/Caroline Dolehide

Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (4) vs. Gabriela Dabrowski/Alona Ostapenko (6)

Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan (7) vs. Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka (3)

Coco Gauff/Caty McNally vs. Timea Babos/Kiki Mladenovic (2) 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Australian Open round of 16 has intrigue and potential excitement


Defending champion (and 3rd seed) Naomi Osaka is out. 2nd seed Karolina Pliskova is out. 5th seed Elina Svitolina is out. 6th seed Belinda Bencic is out. Seven-time champion (and 6th seed) Serena Williams is out. 10th seed Madison Keys is out. 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka is out.

This is how it goes in majors, yet each time seeds are knocked out in the early rounds, fans and media seem oh, so surprised. So let's get past that and look at a few of the players who are still in:

World number 1 Ash Barty: When Barty's on, she makes it look so easy. Being human, she isn't always on (at least, in full flare), but she is a lot of the time, this is her home major, and--unlike some other players--she doesn't seem to be bothered by that fact.

Defending finalist Petra Kvitova: Those of us who are Kvitova-watchers always knew that she could win the Australian Open, and last year's final was a heart-breaker for Petra fans--and for Petra. On top of that, a smoke-filled Melbourne sounded like the key to a quick exit for the respiratory system-challenged Kvitova, but--so far--she's okay. The atmosphere has cleared some; also, the Czech star's asthma is under better control than it used to be.

Coco Gauff: Sometimes the hype is actually deserved. The teenager from the USA just keeps showing up on big stages. And on her next big stage, she'll face...

Sofia Kenin: Kenin's rise (she's the 14th seed) has been relatively quiet and workwoman-like. One day she was someone we noticed a bit; the next, she was going deep into big tournaments.

Simona Halep: The 2018 finalist's presence in the second week of majors is so expected, sometimes we just take it for granted. Halep, the 4th seed, is as likely as anyone--and more likely than most--to emerge the champion.

Angie Kerber: The 2016 champion has good (as in, really good) years and bad years. For me, Angie is a constant reminder of everyone's struggles, including my own. Things can go really well, and they can also fall apart. And when we use the KareBear model, we just. keep. going. Never count her out.

Garbine Muguruza: Hello! Look who's here, in the round of 16. The two-time major champion and Mystery Woman of Spain just made dramatically short work of 5th seed Elina Svitolina, and could just as easily win the Australian Open as she could go out in the next round. (But if she's back--really back--watch out.)

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Alison Riske (22)--Suddenly, Ali Riske is a thing--and that is, by the way, a good thing! Known for some time for her skills on grass courts, the former USA journeywoman is now in a whole different tour stratosphere. She'll have her work cut out for her with the world number 1, and this could be an entertaining match.

Maria Sakkari  (22) vs. Petra Kvitova (7)--The Greek star upset 10th seed Madison Keys in the third round, and should give Kvitova a lively match.

Coco Gauff vs. Sofia Kenin (14)--The hot new star faces off against her countrywoman, the understated new star.

Ons Jabeur vs. Wang Qiang (27)--In Shenzhen, Wang defeated Jabeur 6-0, 6-3, but that doesn't necessarily predict anything. Both are playing really clever tennis, and this has the makings of a very entertaining conest. Also, both players come into the round of 16 with huge third round victories: Jabeur ended 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki's career, and Wang beat Serena Williams. Maybe some gourmet popcorn for this one?

Anett Kontaveit (28) vs. Iga Swiatek--Keep some of that popcorn because this could also be really good. Kontaveit obliterated 6th seed Belinda Bencic in the third round, serving brilliantly in the first set and "nerving" brilliantly int the second. I've waited a while to see this kind of match from Kontaveit, who has had her share of struggles on the tour. For her part, Swiatek, who upset Donna Vekic in the third round, is definitely one to watch this year.

Elise Mertens (16) vs. Simona Halep (4)--Look for angles and elegance.

Garbine Muguruza vs. Kiki Bertens (9)--Two all-surface players will have a go at each other. Each of them is subject to going "off," so it may be a question of which one stays "on." Or it may be a tightly contested match.

Angie Kerber (17) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (30)--It seems as though the Russian has been around forever. A former junior number 1 and junior Australian Open champion (2006), Pavlyuchenkova was expected to be the "next big Russian," but it didn't pan out. She has nevertheless enjoyed a good career, and her skills are exceptional. Kerber, who went from journeywoman to major star when no one was looking, has long been the real thing in a tennis world where the term "work ethic" is bandied around to the point of nausea. This is a rather unpredictable contest.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone--Wozniacki retires from professional tennis

She’s often called the Great Dane, and she has occasionally been called the Golden Retriever. But for the most part, Caroline Wozniacki is known in the tennis world as “Sunshine.” The Danish star, a former world number 1, had previously announced that the 2020 Australian Open would be her final tournament, and on Friday (Australian time), her exit—facilitated by Ons Jabeur in the third round—marked the end of a colorful, excellent career.

Wozniacki will be remembered for many things, but perhaps more than anything else, she will be remembered as one of the best defensive players to ever grace the WTA. The Dane once remarked that she was willing and able to remain on the court for hours, and she wasn’t exaggerating. She frequently wore opponents down with her indefatigable running and fetching, and there appeared to be no limitation to her endurance. Her backhand, which she often hit on the run, was a mighty weapon.

Wozniacki was at her best on hard courts. She reached the final of the U.S. Open in both 2009 and 2014, but lost both finals to Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, respectively. In 2018, when some observers thought that Wozniacki’s major victory potential window had closed, she won the Australian Open, defeating top seed Simona Halep in the final.

The Australian victory was somewhat of a vindication for the Dane, who had come under criticism for holding the world number 1 ranking without having won a major. This is not an unusual phenomenon, giving the way the rankings system works, but it nevertheless causes discomfort among some tennis fans and members of the tennis media. Wozniacki held the number 1 spot for a total of 71 weeks, starting in 2010.

The Dane was also often criticized for relying too much on her defensive skills, and—later in her career—she would remedy this problem by becoming more aggressive. Several years ago (before she finally won a major), I wrote some blank verse about her, which was published in a literary sports journal called The Barnstormer. It ceased publishing a few years ago and did not leave any archives on the Internet, so I can’t link to it (it was accompanied by a nice black and white illustration), but here is the poem:

The Lesson of Caroline
By Diane Elayne Dees

Up and down and side to side she sprints
without fatigue. The match can last for hours;
the Dane will scarcely shine a bead of sweat
or fail to stretch and meet the ball right on
the sweet spot. With those metronomic swings,
Wozniacki can wear down the stalwart grinders,
the spinners, steely veterans, braided upstarts.
But Wozniacki needs to take it from you.
She takes it, but she doesn't dish it out.
To run the risk, to grab control, feels wrong
somehow--no Sunshine in that raw aggression.
So Wozniacki never wins the big ones;
she doesn't get to lift the silver plate
or see her smile reflected in a statue.
To guard and to defend is something learned;
it propels you to the line, but never over.
Watching Wozniacki's hesitation,
I confront the Caroline who lives in me.

No discussion of Caroline Wozniacki is complete without a mention of her father, Piotr Wozniacki, who was her coach throughout most of her career. Their on-court coaching sit-downs were often dramatic, with Piotr gesturing frantically and talking loudly to his daughter. And no matter how many other big names were brought on to either coach or consult—they were all eventually sent packing. For Wozniacki, there was simply no coach like her father.

Wozniacki reached 55 singles finals and won 30 of them. One of those titles was the 2017 WTA Finals, and six of them were Premier Mandatory and Premiere 5 events. She won the New Haven tournament four times, leading fans and tennis media to refer to it as the “Wozniacki Open.”

Though she was known as “Sunshine,” the Danish star had a bit of an edge about her, often going out of her way to call attention to herself, and engaging—throughout her career—in highly theatrical putdowns of chair umpires. For the most part, she got a pass for these behaviors.

In 2014, after having undergone a painful personal loss, Wozniacki ran the New York Marathon with a very impressive finish time of three hours and 26 mintues. The moment she crossed the finish line, met by her close friend Serena Williams, was filled with emotion and inspiration.

In 2017, Wozniacki married former NBA star David Lee. Toward the end of 2018, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It seemed logical that the 29-year-old WTA stalwart might retire soon, yet now that it has actually happened, it feels a bit unreal.

The Australian Open draw had Wozniacki and her friend Serena Williams on a track to meet one another in the round of 16. That would have been a dramatic affair, but it wasn’t meant to be. Not only did Wozniacki lose, but Williams also went out in the third round—to Wang Qiang.

After her loss to Jabeur in Melbourne, Wozniacki, in fine form, remarked that "I think it was only fitting that my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder, and that I would finish my career with a forehand error." And as she did her walk around Melbourne Arena, the crowd sang her signature song, “Sweet Caroline.”  It was a fitting send-off for a WTA icon.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Defending runner-up Kvitova may have extra challenge in Melbourne


Petra Kvitova begins her 2020 Australian Open campaign against countrywoman Katerina Siniakova, and--if she wins that--she will face either Paula Badosa or qualifier Johanna Larsson. The Kvitova quarter features such potentially dangerous opponents as Madison Keys, Julia Goerges, Petra Martic, Maria Sakkari, and--most notable--world number 1 Ash Barty.

There is plenty of work to be done for the 7th seed. But beyond the challenge of knocking out really good opponents, Kvitova--who has asthma and who, in the past, was vulnerable to getting respiratory infections--will also have to deal with a Melbourne whose air quality has recently been rated as "hazardous" because of the Australian bush fires. This is, of course, a potential danger for all players, but especially for those, like Kvitova, who are already vulnerable.

The Czech star said a couple of years ago that her asthma is now under much better management, a fact which appears obvious to observers. But the air in Melbourne could still be a special danger for her. Kvitova has also been bothered by a sore arm for several months, but that issue appeared to have been resolved when she played in Brisbane.

Meanwhile, there are some very interesting first rounds coming up:

Naomi Osaka (1) vs. Marie Bouzkova

Venus Williams vs. Coco Gauff

Donna Vekic (19) vs. Maria Sharapova (WC)

Alize Cornet vs. Monica Niculescu (Q)

Yulia Putintseva vs. Hsieh Su-wei

Garbine Muguruza vs. Shelby Rogers (Q)

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Karolina Pliskova (2)

Friday, January 3, 2020

The 20s won't all be about youth

If 2019 is any indication--and surely it is--the new decade will firmly plant the new WTA generation as the leaders of the tour. Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu are in line to be the super-stars, and following them (as of now) are Amanda Anisimova, Elena Rybakina, Marie Bouzkova, Karolina Muchova, Dayana Yastremska, Marketa Vondrousova (who has been off of the tour for a while), Sofia Kenin, and Coco Gauff.

But what about the old and "not quite as old" guard? Who are the stars from this past decade who will continue to claim some form of dominance in the next decade?

My vote for the most likely of those players to step deftly into a new decade is Simona Halep. Sometimes it feels as though Halep is just getting warmed up, so I expect her to fight her way to more big titles.

I also still have hope that Elina Svitolina will do something really big. Svitolina is not unlike Halep in that her path is slow and (for the most part) steady. Ukrainian is certainly a star of the tour, but not yet the bright star we associate with winning a major. 2020 is likely to be the year she does that.

And then there's Petra Kvitova. Her ascendance to the 2019 Australian Open final (I'm still upset that she lost the final) was quite a breakthrough, considering everything that she has been through. Kvitova's health is always a significant factor, so if she can stay relatively free from illness and her arm is fully healed, she can have a new "breakthrough" season.

Karolina Pliskova has yet to win a major, but is almost always on the cusp of winning one. I believe that she will, sooner than later. Madison Keys has also fallen short, though her 2019 victories in Charleston and Cincinnati may be hopeful signposts.

Finally, there is--drumroll!........Serena Williams. Williams is still quite good at reaching big finals, but she hasn't won one for a while. There is every reason to believe that she will make another big surge in 2020, with her best shot--in my opinion--being the acquisition of another Wimbledon title. But this is Serena Williams, and she could conceivably wind up with any title. But there is also the possibility that the undisputed queen of women's tennis will have another "almost" year like 2019. Players are not afraid of Williams the way they used to be, and the fear factor in tennis is a significant one.

2020 has a kind of "anything goes" feeling for me. In addition to the solid stars and up-and-coming stars already mentioned, there are other players who could make major strides. Those would include Aryna Sabalenka, Anett Kontveit, the somewhat unpredictable Kiki Bertens, the very unpredictable Kiki Mladenovic, Donna Vekic, the mercurial Daria Kasatkina, and EliseMertens.

 But as unpredictable as some of the above-mentioned players are, they are joined by stars of much greater stature. Sloane Stephens runs hot and cold, and there's no reason to believe that that pattern will change. Alona Ostapenko, as of the latter half of 2019, appeared to be getting her mojo back, and if she does, she could make the tour very interesting.

And then, of course, there's the ultimate mystery character in that trio--Garbine Muguruza. On paper, the Spaniard should be winning just about everything, but it hasn't worked out that way. However, having released herself from what seemed to be a less-than-effective (a nod to understatement) coaching situation, Muguruza could be back on track. When she won the French Open and Wimbledon, the victories appeared almost effortless, so fluid is the Spanish star's game; that makes her slump all the more shocking.

So my second pick among "younger veterans" to glide nicely into the new season is Muguruza. Maybe. She's just too hard to predict.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

2019: The upstarts take the stage

There was a lot going on this season. The coaching carousel spun faster than ever, the Fed Cup format was changed (we’ll experience that in 2020), and two revered veterans—Lucie Safarova and Dominika Cibulkova—retired from professional tennis.

Simona Halep held her own, and Serena Williams was again a force on the tour, reaching two major finals, but the year belonged to the up-and-coming stars of the WTA. 2019 will most likely be remembered for being the year when the rising generation made its stand.

Here are my top ten 2019 occurrences and phenomena, in ascending order:

10. Here they come!: The veterans do leave, but fresh faces appear, and in 2019, they appeared with force. In addition to Bianca Andreescu, there was Amanda Anisimova, Marie Bouzkova, Dayana Yastremska, Marketa Vondrousova (who reached the final of the French Open and then disappeared because of injury), and, of course, Coco Gauff.

9. Just how great is Diede de Great?: As it turns out—really great. The Dutch wheelchair champion just missed winning a double grand slam (there’s always next season, and don’t be surprised if she pulls it off ) when she lost the Wimbledon singles final, but she received quite a consolation prize.: This season, De Groot became the first wheelchair player in history to achieve the double career slam.

8. No dominance, but plenty of thrills: This season, several doubles teams rose to the top. Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai won the Australian Open, finally lifing Stosur’s Australia curse. Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the French Open, and that victory sent Mladenovic to the number 1 spot in the rankings. She would lose that ranking later, but she wouldn’t lose her shine: She and Babos won the WTA Finals, then she went crazy on Australia and was the dominant factor in France’s Fed Cup championship victory.

Then Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova won Wimbledon. This was Stryova’s first major doubles title, and she also reached the semifinals in singles. The Czech star would end the year with the number 1 ranking, a beautiful and fitting designation for a beloved player who plans to retire soon.

Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka won the Sunshine Double, then—to emphasize just how good they are on hard courts—they won the U.S. Open.

7. So much for “letdown”: Often, when a young player wins a major, she then has to face being an international celebrity as well as being one of the “hunted” on the tour, and it takes time to make adjustments to these intense changes. Not Naomi Osaka. Yes, she has struggled with the transition, but that didn’t stop the 2018 U.S. Open champion from winning the 2019 Australian Open. That’s impressive.

6. Allez, baby!: They did it! Team France, led by a near-perfect Kiki Mladenovic, who pulled off a hat trick of wins for her country, secured its first Fed Cup championship since 2003. And they did it as the “away” team, defeating host Australia 3-2 in a very exciting weekend of play.

5. Wait—that was clay?: Anyone who watches women’s tennis knew that Ash Barty was very likely on her way to winning a major in singles, but probably no one—including Barty—would have picked the French Open as the site of her debut victory. But win it she did, defeating five USA players along the way (I mention that because it’s a rather unusual occurrence that anyone, much less the eventual champion, would defeat five players from the same country).

4. As if we needed more proof
:. After she won Indian Wells, Bianca Andreescu’s fortunes went down because of injury, and she had to take several months off. No big deal—she returned and immediately won the Rogers Cup. Then, just to put an exclamation point on the whole phenomenom, she won the U.S. Open, and she did it by defeating Serena Williams in the final. Andreescu is the first Canadian to win a major.

3. Triumph of the heart: Simona Halep doesn’t exactly make it look easy. The talented Romanian can be her own worst enemy, and she has to exert a great deal of physical energy in many matches. But Simona is nevertheless her own version of tough. It took her three tries to win the French Open, but she did it. Last year, she almost won the Australian Open. This year, Halep brought her never-say-die brand of geometric tennis to London, and won Wimbledon. Along the way, she knocked out the likes of teen phenom Coco Gauff, Elina Svitolina and—in the final—Serena Williams.

2. Behold the North Star: Bianca Andreescu appears to be a force of nature. She’s quick, she’s clever, she specializes in getting herself out of tricky situations (which she often creates), she’s highly entertaining, and—much of the time—she makes it all look pretty easy. The young Canadian star’s rise has been, without exaggeration, meteoric. For much of 2018, when she made her tour debut, Andreescu wasn’t even in the top 200; at the beginning of the 2019 season, she was ranked number 153 in the world. And then she ripped through the tour with such force that she rose to the rank of number 4 in the world (she is currently ranked number 5). She also won eight matches against top 10 players. And, I should add, she’s only 19 years old.

In September, I wrote of Andreescu: “…she is so many things--a good server, hard-hitting, dramatic, inventive, instinctive, and mentally tough (while not always seeming to be so).”

She’s also very injury-prone. After winning Indian Wells, she sustained an injury and was out for several months (this wasn’t the first time her brief career had been derailed by injury). But then she returned to the tour and promptly won the Rogers Cup. Andreescu topped her year off by winning the U.S. Open, but—once again—injury took her out of the WTA Finals.

I’m going to go with the belief that Andreescu and her team will figure out her injury issues. If that happens, it will be quite interesting to see what she does. In addition to having a number of athletic skills and tennis skills in particular, the Canadian star also has what so many talented players don’t have—confidence. I think this is going to be quite a ride.

1. The party never ends: When Ash Barty first came on the tour, I was struck by her amazing doubles skills. Then she went away to play cricket, and when she came back, she was invested in both doubles and singles. Now she is number 1 in the world. Barty has outstanding skills that she can employ from just about any position on the court, and she goes about her business in a calm, straightforward way, reserving her energy for hitting the ball and moving around the court.

Whereas Andreescu’s rise has been head-spinningly quick, Barty’s has been the product of a trek on a very winding road. From young doubles star to professional cricket player to notable singles player to number 1 in the world, the Australian has done it all her way. In addition to winning the French Open and ending the year as number 1, Barty also won the WTA Finals. In addition, she won Miami and Birmingham, the Rome doubles title (with Vika Azarenka), and was the major factor in Australia’s journey to the Fed Cup final. What a year!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

With a superb career behind her, Dominika Cibulkova retires from professional tennis


I remember the first time I saw Dominika Cibulkova. It was early in her career, and she was playing in Charleston. Short in stature, Cibulkova nevertheless hit the ball very hard, and I found myself compelled to watch her as much as I could.

"Cibulova is small" was an often-repeated commentator's description of the Slovak player. But Cibulkova is not small--she's short, but with a muscular build, and exceptionally strong legs. She told me once that, early on, she knew that she would make it as a pro only if she concentrated on her core, and that's where her power came from.

Unfortunately, for a long time, Cibulkova experienced chronic fragility in her lower back and upper thigh, but eventually, she solved that problem.

Cibulkova won eight singles titles, including Eastbourne, Stanford and Moscow. She was a thirteen-time runner-up, and her finalist appearances included New Haven, Wuhan and Sydney. Most notable of her runner-up performances was the 2014 Australian Open, in which she lost to Li Na in the final. On her way to that final, Cibulkova defeated the likes of Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Aga Radwanska.

The Slovak star was a semifinalist at the French Open in 2009, and she was a three-time quarterfinalist at Wimbledon.

Perhaps Cibulkova's most memorable victory came in 2016, when she won the WTA Finals, defeating Angie Kerber in the final.

Cibulkova, who concentrated on singles play, won only one doubles title, and was twice a finalist. She was on the Slovak Fed Cup team for a total of eleven years, and ten of those were consecutive appearances. She was also on the Slovak Olympic team in 2008 and 2012.

Cibulkova reached a career-high ranking of number 4 in the world in 2017. She could be relentless with her hard-hitting baseline game, and she often appeared indefatigable as she forced her opponents to keep hitting one more ball until, finally, the error came. She had a keen focus on the court, and knew how to put maximum pressure on her opponents, and she was an exceptional retriever of the ball.

For the last several years, Cibulkova has been hampered by a recurring Achilles injury, so it was hardly a surprise that the 30-year Slovak decided to end her career. In announcing her retirement, Cibulkova also announced the publication of her memoir, Tennis Is My Life.

Cibulkova's fiery court presence, her confidence and her easy engagement with fans will be missed. From her gritty determination to her signature "Pome!," she added excitement to every match she played.