Sunday, November 22, 2015

2015--all drama, right to the end

Every year is dramatic in the world of professional sports, and especially in the WTA, but this past season just seemed to be built around drama. Now that it's over, we're left with some familiar questions, but also with some new ones.

Some of the struggles were, unfortunately, ones we've seen before. Petra Kvitova was so exhausted in the early spring that she withdrew from both Indian Wells and Miami. Late in the summer, she would finally get a diagnosis--mononucleosis. But this illness is only the latest in a series; Kvitova, who suffers with asthma and has had repeated respiratory infections, is physically fragile. Nevertheless, she won three titles in 2015, made it to the final in Singapore, and ends the year ranked number 6 in the world.

Vika Azarenka, who is also physically fragile--but in a different way--once again had to deal with the foot injury that kept her off the tour for five months in 2014. The highlight of her season, one could argue, was her third round match against Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open. This was a grueling contest, won by the former world number 1, in which Azarenka got to display her very best tennis.

Caroline Wozniacki, another former world number 1, took a step forward and a step back in 2015, showing us some aggressive play and then kind of fading away. Venus Williams, however, won three titles and put herself back into the top 10, proving--yet again--that you can never, ever count out a Williams sister.

Timea Bacsinszky and Caroline Garcia played in two finals in two weeks in Mexico. Bacsinszky own them both, and earned herself an additional title, the Queen of Mexico. The Swiss star, who also reached the semifinals of the French Open, ends the season ranked number 12 in the world.

The double Mexican final was unusual, but perhaps even odder was Anna Karolina Schmiedlova's personal battle against Italy. The Slovak with the killer backhand was in three finals this season, all against Italians. She lost the first one to Sara Errani, but won the next two, against Camila Giorgi and Errani, respectively.

Also this year, Teliana Periera made history by becoming the first Brazilian woman to win a tour title in over a quarter of a century. Periera won Bogota and then backed it up with a victory in her native country when she also won the event in Florianopolis.

Genie Bouchard, attempting to recover from a world-class slump, had some of the worst luck on the tour this year. She slipped on a wet floor in the locker room at the U.S. Open and sustained a concussion, which took her out of the tournament and ended her season because of recurring dizziness. The floor of the physio room had been mopped and was still wet and slippery when Bouchard entered the room. She has filed a negligence suit against the USTA.

Belinda Bencic and Karolina Pliskova continued to impress, though Pliskova continued to disappoint in the majors. She has yet to get beyond the third round of any major; however, her amazing Fed Cup performance at the end of the season may very well have set the tone for a whole new phase of the young Czech's career. She ends the season as number 11 in the world.

Bencic won both Eastbourne and the Rogers Cup. With the Toronto victory, she propelled herself out of the "rising star" category and into the category of "serious competitor" when she mowed down a field that included Genie Bouchard, Ana Ivanovic and Serena Williams. The spontaneous Swiss, who is only 18, reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and appears to have nowhere to go but up.

As for the rising stars--they were busy in 2015. Elina Svitolina, Daria Gavrilova, Lesia Tsurenko, Johanna Konta, Kiki Mladenovic (already a doubles star), Danka Kovinic, Madison Keys, and Daria Kasatkina provided us plenty of thrills all year long. In Istanbul, Svitolina and Gavrilova created a last-minute doubles team that entertained as much with humor and antics as it did with tennis. The pair, who had never before played together and came in as alternates, knocked out the top seeds and then won the tournament. One can only hope that these two will play more doubles together. Svitolina ended the season in the top 20 in singles.

It wasn't all about rising stars, though. Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who dazzled the tennis world in 2009 with their brilliant four-hour, 44-minute Australian Open round of 16 match, did it again. The two clay court veterans met in the second round of the French Open and played for three hours and 49 minutes. Once again, Schiavone won (6-7 [13-11], 7-5, 10-8), and once again, the level of play from both women was stunning.

Maria Sharapova started her year by winning Brisbane and then reaching the final of the Australian Open, but she was defeated--yet again--by Serena Williams. Sharapova won Rome, then injured her leg in the spring, became ill, and didn't play much after Wimbledon. However, she won both of her rubbers in her first-ever Fed Cup final. Maria Sharapova is a warrior, wounded or otherwise, and has a good year even when she has misfortune. The Russian star ends 2015 as number 4 in the world.

Lucie--meet Potential. For those of us who have waited so long to see Lucie Safarova rise to her considerable potential, 2015 was as good a year as we thought it would be. Top on her list of accomplishments was getting to the final of the French Open, and beating defending champion Maria Sharapova on the way.

Perhaps the most surprising news of the year was that Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci ended their doubles relationship. The world's top-ranked team had won five majors and had attained a Career Slam. They were best friends. No one saw it coming.

And then there is the puzzle that is Simona Halep. Halep got her early season off to a roar by winning two premier titles--Dubai and Indian Wells--back to back. She tried for a third, but was knocked out of the semifinals in Miami. It looked for all the world like the Halepeno heat was turned on big-time for 2015--and who can argue with a finish of number 2 in the world?

The problem is that Halep's ranking looks a little better on paper than it does in "real (tennis) life" because she had letdowns in really, really big matches. It's nothing to be ashamed of to lose to Ekaterina Makarova in a major, but the Russian's 6-4, 6-0 defeat of Halep in the Australian Open quarterfinals was an example of Halep's just "not being present" during the competition. The Romanian later said that she was done in by stress.

Halep's brilliant performance in the 2014 French Open final gave hope that she would redeem herself in Paris, but instead, she was knocked out by the ever-dangerous Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the second round. At Wimbledon, Jana Cepelova beat Halep in the first round. The Romanian did much better at the U.S. Open, taking out Vika Azarenka in the quarterfinals, but then losing to eventual champion Flavia Pennetta in the semifinals.

Despite what she often says about not feeling pressure, it's obvious that Halep feels a lot of pressure during her biggest matches. Halep recently announced that Darren Cahill will be her coach next season, and that's a plus because she had previously stated she would not work with anyone who was not Romanian. Losing that kind of rigidity is always a step in the right direction, regardless of whether the Cahill relationship works out.

Here are my personal top 10 2015 occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Talk about "Just Do It": Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova had never played doubles together, but at the last minute, they entered the Australian Open as a team. Unseeded, Mattek-Sands and Safarova won the tournament, and then turned right around and won the French Open, too (Mattek-Sands also won the mixed doubles title, with Mike Bryan). The pair also won Stuttgart and Toronto, and were on their way to perhaps even greater accomplishments, but Mattek-Sands sustained an injury that forced the team to retire from the WTA Finals round robin.

9. Excusez-moi!: France played Fed Cup giant Italy in the opening round of 2015 Fed Cup competition. Not only is Italy a threatening team within Fed Cup circles--they led 2-0 at the end of the first day of play. France had never come back from a 0-2 deficit in the history of Fed Cup, but Captain Amelie Mauresmo didn't let that fact trouble her. On the second day of play, she substituted Kiki Mladenovic for Alize Cornet, and Mladenovic defeated Sara Errani, after which Caroline Garcia defeated Camila Giorgi. That left doubles, and Mladenovic (of that winning team, "Mladenovic and Anybody") and Garcia took out--of all people--Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, and took them out in straight sets, producing Vinci's first-ever Fed Cup doubles loss. It was one of the most thrilling Fed Cup ties of recent times.

And guess who Italy has drawn in the opening round of next year's Fed Cup?

8. How do you like me now?: Angelique Kerber gave no warning that she was about to go on a major tear in 2015. But, after under-performing in a number of tournaments, the German won Charleston in style, having to fight off numerous opponents who were determined to upset her. She also had two injuries, but instead of taking a rest, she went straight to Stuttgart and won that, too. And in doing so, she issued defending champion Maria Sharapova her first-ever Stuttgart defeat. Kerber was just getting started. She won Birmingham, and then she won Stanford. Winning four premier titles on three different surfaces makes for an excellent season.

7. Lady of Spain: At the end of last season, some of us were wondering when Garbine Muguruza was going to settle down. I guess she showed us: The Spaniard has ended her year with a ranking of number 3 in the world. Muguruza, who reached the final at Wimbledon, also won Beijing. Muguruza reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. And while she has won only two WTA singles titles, there's just something about Mugurza that says "inevitable." She had to take almost a year off because of injury, and she can still be inconsistent, but the 22-year-old has a kind of on- and off-court poise that just makes you feel confident about her. Playing doubles with Carla Suarez-Navarro has also been very good for Muguruza.

6. You should endorse these Czechs: They did it again. Those Fed Cup-loving Czechs won the big trophy yet again, and they did it by beating Russia in the final. Lucie Safarova wasn't available to play, and Russia brought along Maria Sharapova as their special weapon. No matter. With help from Petra Kvitova and an on-fire Barbora Strycova, Karolina Pliskova unexpectedly led the charge. The final went to a fifth rubber, and Pliskova and Strycova (in a brilliant performance both at the net and on the baseline)--after dropping the first set--went on to clinch the deal for their country.

5. Addio!: Flavia Pennetta, whom Women Who Serve acknowledges as the original Fighting Italian, retired from professional tennis in 2015. Pennetta's career spanned 15 years, during which she won 11 singles titles (including Indian Wells and the U.S. Open), 17 doubles titles (including the Australian Open), and the hearts of countless fans. I long ago named her the Queen of Fed Cup. A fierce Fed Cup competitor who was part of the "big four" who brought Italy so much glory, Pennetta retired with a 21-4 Fed Cup singles  record, and an overall record of 25-5.

4. Revenge of the Ninja: It wasn't that good a year for Aga Radwanska (aka The Ninja, aka Disco Ball)--that is, until the fourth quarter, when the tour's greatest shot-maker turned it all around. Radwanska, who likes the Asian swing a lot, won Tokyo, then won the international tournament in Tianjin--her first two titles of 2015. The biggest was yet to come. Radwanska didn't think she was going to qualify for the WTA Finals, but these late-season victories got her into the top 8. However, once in Singapore, she went down 1-2 in round robin play.

Nevertheless, given the odd circumstances of an already sometimes puzzling event, the world number 5 made it to the final, in which she beat Petra Kvitova. No one saw it coming, including Radwanska, whose jaw-dropping trick shots and "how did she do that?" shots were on display constantly throughout the week in Singapore. What a treat to see that kind of talent rewarded with such a big title.

3. Perfezioni!: You are about to retire from a sport you love and to which you have given so much for so long. Your record of accomplishments is a thing of beauty, and you are beloved by fans and peers. What more could you ask for? Well, if you're Flavia Pennetta, on your way out, you could drop by Flushing Meadows and win the U.S. Open. Pennetta became the first Italian woman to win the Open, and the player who performed in the most majors (49) before finally winning one. She had to beat friend and countrywoman Roberta Vinci in the final, which only added to the drama. Prior to that match, Pennetta took out both Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep. What a way to leave the tour!

2. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: World number 1 Serena Williams won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. She needed one more win, the U.S. Open, to achieve the Grand Slam, one of the few accomplishments missing from her career. It wasn't the smoothest path for Williams, but she made it to the semifinals, defeating sister Venus in the process. And then--with just two matches to go--the much-anticipated historical occasion became something quite different than what people were expecting.

Williams lost to Roberta Vinci, who was unseeded for the first time since 2010. Fans were stunned, the press was stunned. Suddenly, there was history alright, but it was about having two Italians in the final, and not about a Grand Slam. The upset was huge, and Williams ended her season shortly thereafter.

1. Show me how you Santina!: With the demise of Errani and Vinci as the dominating doubles team, in stepped Martina Hingis and her latest partner, Sania Mirza. The very idea of Hingis playing with the Forehand of Fire was kind of exciting (the Hingis-Pennetta pair-up was a very good one, but apparently, it wasn't quite was Hingis was looking for). The competition was keen. Both the new and very successful pairing of Bethanie Mattek-Sands with Lucie Safarova and the established Russian team of Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova were on the rise.

Hingis and Mirza entered Indian Wells just a couple of weeks after they began practicing together. They won the title, then went to Miami and won that, too. But winning two premier titles back to back wasn't enough for them. They went straight from Miami to Charleston and won that title, too. At that point, Mirza became the first Indian woman to hold the rank of world number 1 in doubles. Mirza's singles career was ended by multiple wrist injuries and surgeries, but fortunately, that amazing, wristy forehand is still on display, and it's as deadly as ever.

Santina would go on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, then three titles in the Asian swing, and also the WTA Finals. In the meantime, Hingis and Leander Paes won the mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It's not a stretch to believe that a Career Slam is in the making.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Champions again! Czech Republic wins 2015 Fed Cup

We knew we were going to get a very competitive final this weekend when Fed Cup giants Russia and the Czech Republic contested for the 2015 trophy. One of the reasons I like Fed Cup so much is that anything can happen--and it usually does. This weekend was no exception.

The Czechs, defending champions, went into the final with both a big advantage and a big disadvantage. The advantage was that their leader, Petra Kvitova, excels on indoor courts, and in Fed Cup play, in general. The disadvantage was that their other major Fed Cup force, Lucie Safarova, had to sit out play because of a wrist injury.

On the Russian side, Maria Sharapova was on hand to help boost Russian to its fifth title. On the down side for Russia, Svetland Kuznetsova wasn't part of the on-court team, and Ekaterina Makarova wasn't recovered enough from her injury to participate as a player.

So both countries went into this weekend's final with teams that were not exactly constructed the way they had wished, but these kinds of disappointments are part and parcel of Fed Cup competition.

In the opening rubber, Kvitova's nerves got the best of her in her first set against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but the Barking Czech recovered and took that opening rubber for her team, 2-6, 6-1, 6-1. Newcomer Karolina Pliskova then lost 3-6, 4-6 to Sharapova, so the first day ended with a 1-1 score.

Kvitova played masterfully against Sharapova in the opening set of the third rubber, but then, as Sharapova's game vastly improved, Kvitova became an error machine. The Russians took that rubber 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, following Sharapova's very fine performance.

It was then up to Pliskova to keep the Czech Republic in the competition. She had never before been in that position--or even one similar--but the big-serving world number 11 rose to the occasion with very big serves (79 and 89 first and second serve percentages) and a lot of poise. She defeated Pavlyuchenkova 6-3, 6-4.

It should be noted that Pliskova was running on fumes throughout the entire event. She had an extremely busy schedule in 2015 and had declared herself exhausted. But she was nevertheless able to prevent a 3-1 Russian victory, and she did so under extreme pressure.

But there was more! Pliskova had to substitute for Safarova in the deciding doubles rubber. The Czech Republic has some outstanding doubles players--Safarova, Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka, Barbora Strycova--but only Strycova was on the nominated team. A substitute had to be made on the Russian team, too. The very formidable top 10 team of Makarova and Elena Vesnina had to withdraw from the WTA Finals in Singapore and--because of Makarova's injury--could not compete in Prague, so Vesnina played with Pavlyuchenkova, who is also a fine doubles competitor.

In the first set, Vesnina was on fire, both serving and at the net, and the Russians won it, 6-4. Now the pressure was palpable for the Czechs, and in the second set, Strycova went all out with an attacking game which raised her team's level. The Czech Republic took that set 6-3. By the third set, Strycova and Pliskova had established a rhythm. Vesnina, by this time, had gone into her unfortunately famous slump mode and was missing everything she'd been getting easily in the first half of the match. This was a shame because her performance had been--and still was, at times--very impressive.

As for Strycova, she was everywhere--at the net, on the baseline, and frequently down on the court, dodging flying balls, falling, tumbling, and seemingly doing her best imitation of Jelena Jankovic, minus the prolonged seat-on-the-surface time-outs. This was Strycova at her very best, and before you could say "Maria Sharapova looks really fed up in the stands," Strycova was serving for the championship. Which seemed entirely appropriate. And the Czechs took that last set 6-2, giving them their fourth title in the past five years.

To get to the final, the Czech Republic defeated Canada 4-0, and France 3-1. The Czechs (including the period when the country was part of Czechoslovakia) have won nine Fed Cup titles.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Russia vs. Czech Republic: Would you want it any other way?

Two of this era's three Fed Cup giants, Russia and the Czech Republic, will meet this weekend on an indoor court in Prague to determine who wins the 2015 Fed Cup championship. The Czechs, who are the defending champions, have won 14 consecutive rubbers and five straight ties. Their leader, Petra Kvitova, who tends to dominate any indoor court contest in which she competes, will be accompanied by leader number 2 Lucie Safarova, as well as Karolina Pliskova and Barbora Strycova. All four are strong singles players, and Safarova and Strycova are especially talented doubles players.

The Russian team will be led by Maria Sharapova, whose team includes Ekaterina Makarova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Vesnina. The latter three are doubles stand-outs, and on a good day, Makarova is a dangerous singles player.

The Czech team leads Russia 3-2; three of the ties were actually played by Czechoslovakia and the USSR.

The Czech Republic has the home team advantage, as well as the aforementioned Petra-friendly indoor court.

There are other factors to be considered. Kvitova's health has been fragile this season--in fact, it's fragile every season, but the world number 6 generally motivates herself to be deadly in Fed Cup competition, no matter what. She wasn't feeling well in last year's final and said she didn't have much energy, yet--to seal the victory--she defeated Angelique Kerber in a dramatic three-hour rubber. Safarova has also had serious health issues, but appears to have fully recovered.

On the Russian side, Makarova's health status caused her and partner Vesnina to withdraw from the WTA finals. Makarova hasn't had much match play lately; on the other hand, she's probably pretty well rested, considering it's the end of the season.

Unless something goes awry, both Kvitova and Safarova will have to face Sharapova. Head-to-head records mean less at Fed Cup venues than anywhere else, so it doesn't do that much good to analyze them. The Czech Republic won Fed Cup in 2011, 2012 and 2014; four-time champion Russia last won it in 2009. Sharapova is making one of her rare Fed Cup appearances (and the first in a final), which will add considerably to her team's strength. On the minus side for Russia, however, is the absence of fierce Fed Cup competitor Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Both teams have very good captains. Anastasia Myskina does the job for Russia, and Petr Pala is the Czech Republic's team captain. For those who like Fed Cup as much as I do, this weekend should be a real treat with lots of excitement and maybe some twists and turns.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The original Fighting Italian leaves the battlefield

Flavia Pennetta, the woman who put the fight in "Fighting Italian," has reached the end of her professional tennis career. Pennetta made the very public announcement of her retirement during the U.S. Open trophy ceremony, right after she won the biggest prize of her long and very impressive career. At age 33, she ends that 15-year career on a very high note.

Pennetta will be remembered for many things--her consistently tough singles play, her championship doubles performances, her gritty and painful career comebacks, and--perhaps most of all--her domination of Fed Cup. She was one of a group of four I have long called Fighting Italians, a group which included Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci (and later, Camila Giorgi, who--while she lacks some other qualities--has a high volume of the Italian fight in her blood). These were the women who led Italy to four Fed Cup victories.

Long known on this blog as the Queen of Fed Cup (Petra Kvitova later became the co-queen), Pennetta approached the competition with warrior-like intensity. When things got shaky, the team could count on Pennetta to go in, win a rubber, and get things back on an even keel. Her facial expressions alone had to put fear into whoever was on the other side of the net (in fact, the Pennetta Snarl merits somewhere around an 8.5 on the Bartoli Death Glare Scale).

The Queen of Fed Cup went 6-0 in 2010, when Italy won its third championship. Her Fed Cup record for both singles and doubles is 25-5, and that includes 21-4 in singles.

Though the Fighting Italian's career was sometimes taken down by injury, it was unwise to count her out, because she always came back stronger. She advanced to the top 30 in 2005 and stayed there in 2006, but lost half of that season because of a left wrist injury. When Pennetta returned the next season, she came close to falling out of the top 100, but--Fighting Italian that she is--she wound up in the top 40.

The next two years were stand-outs for the Pennetta, who entered the top 20, and, in 2009, became the first Italian woman in history to enter the top 10.

2012 was a difficult year for Pennetta. A back injury kept her out for a while at the beginning of the season, and then she injured her right wrist and had to have surgery, which kept her off of the tour for six months. Pennetta considered retiring from the sport, but changed her mind, and that has to be one of the most fortuitous mind-changes in tennis history. In 2014, she won the singles title in Indian Wells, defeating 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens and top seed Li Na. Pennetta was seeded 20th in the tournament, which is one of the most prestigious events on the tour's calendar.

Pennetta's 2015 season didn't go that well--until it was time to play in the U.S. Open. The Fighting Italian had made up her mind that this would be her last season, and--in what I now think of as typical Pennetta fashion--she made one more comeback, and this one was epic. Seeded 26th, Pennetta took out Stosur again, then defeated both 5th seed Petra Kvitova and 2nd seed Simona Halep. Her last task was to beat countrywoman and friend Roberta Vinci, and she did just that, making her the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open. She also became the oldest woman to win a first major, and the player who performed in the most majors (49) before winning one.

Pennetta's doubles career was also a great one. The Italian star won titles with several players, but is probably best known for her pairing with the hard-hitting Gisela Dulko. Dulko and Pennetta seemed like they were born to play doubles together, and were a lot of fun to watch. I once had the pleasure of watching them play an exhibition match, and while I generally cannot abide watching exhibition matches, the Argentine and the Italian were so hilarious that even I was won over. Dulko and Pennetta won the Australian Open in 2011, and Pennetta came close to winning the U.S. Open (with Martina Hingis) in 2014.

Flavia Pennetta finishes her career in possession of 11 singles titles and 17 doubles titles. She was part of the Italian Fed Cup team for a total of 11 years, and she was a member of the Italian Olympic team in both 2008 and 2012. Pennetta was awarded the title of Knight of Order of Merit of the Republic by her country. This is the highest order that can be bestowed on an Italian citizen.

Pennetta's record is very impressive, but it doesn't really reflect what made her so popular with both fans and peers (who expressed extreme affection for her when she won the U.S. Open and announced her retirement). Her fierce backhand, potent forehand and excellent net skills tell part of the story, but the other, more elusive part has to do with carisma, and with strength of heart. Flavia never gave up, never minced words, never wasted her energy on insignificant drama, and never let anything interfere with her sense of humor. Her natural intelligence shown through every match she played and every interview she gave.

“I'm really proud to be strong all the time," Pennetta said today after her loss to Maria Sharapova at the WTA Finals in Singapore ended her career. "I had so many injuries, so many stops in my career. I had to start a few times from nothing." After the match, Pennetta just walked off of the court as she has so many times for 15 years. "I don't like drama, and I don't like to cry," she explained in a press conference. She did leave room, however, for the possibility of getting a formal sendoff in Rome.

When she announced her retirement, Pennetta said "I don't know what I like to do, so I have to discover." It will be interesting to see what the Fighting Italian's future holds. In the meantime, she will remain a role model for players--and the rest of us--who seek to be strong in every way, both for self and for the team.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Red, white and--who?

Friday's WTA Finals singles draw resulted in these two round robin groups:

Simona Halep
Maria Sharapova
Agnieszka Radwanska
Flavia Pennetta

Garbine Muguruza
Petra Kvitova
Angelique Kerber
Lucie Safarova

Here is the doubles draw:

Martina Hingis/Sania Mirza
Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic
Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears
Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Hradecka

Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova
Chan Hao-Ching/Chan Jung-Jan
Caroline Garcia/Katerina Srebotnik
Garbine Muguruza/Carla Suarez Navarro

Safarova and Muguruza  are doing double duty at the event, playing in both competitions.

Round robin singles play begins in Singapore on Sunday, when Halep and Pennetta hit the first white group balls. The Red Group is interesting in that Radwanska and Pennetta come in with some momentum. Radwanska's season was sub-par until she hit the Asian swing and won Tokoyo. Pennetta won the U.S. Open, is retiring from tennis at the end of the season, and--while I don't like the expression--"nothing to lose" kind of suits her.

Halep and Sharapova, on the other hand, have both been dealing with injury issues; also, Halep has had some problems closing big matches.

Somehow, right-hander Muguruza slipped into the White Group, which is filled with left-handed troublemakers. Kvitova, who has won the event before, will get an automatic boost by playing on an indoor court. Her countrywoman, Safarova, has been recovering from serious illness and expectations regarding her performance are lower than they would have been earlier in the season.

Kerber is always unprdictable, but has had such a good season that she shouldn't be counted out. Muguruza has everyone's attention; the fact that she's in the final eight says it all.

The WTA Finals can never be predicted, however. We're always surprised that "(fill in the blank) lost all 3 of her round rubber matches." Players are tired, players are dealing with a season's worth of injury and rehab, and--to make the question mark bigger this year--world number 1 Serena Williams won't be there.

Of note:

Pennetta has winning records over both Halep and Sharapova.

Kvitova and Muguruza have never before played one another.

In seven tries, Safarova has never beaten Kvitova.

Radwanska and Sharapova have played each other 12 times, and Radwanska has won only two of those matches.

Three of the players--Pennetta, Muguruza and Safarova--are making their WTA Finals debuts.

The Red Group has already distinguished itself: All the players wore black for the draw ceremony, except for Sharapova and Pennetta, who wore black-white combo dresses. A sign of things to come?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Limping toward Singapore

Sometimes I wonder why we have the WTA Finals at all. By this time, players are exhausted and injured, yet they must trudge on to the last big event of the year. Maybe I'm just too influenced by the moment, but 2015 seems worse than usual to me.

Four players have qualified in singles: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova, and Garbina Muguruza. Now subtract Williams because she has withdrawn from the event and ended her season.

Halep will be the top seed in Singapore; however, she's dealing with a foot injury and it's not certain that she'll be able to compete. And even if she's healthy, there's some doubt as to her ability to win the event. The Romanian star apparently didn't get the memo about pressure being a privilege, and she tends to perform stunningly well until she gets to the final segment of a big tournament. On the other hand, Singapore could serve as a turnaround for Halep's career. (I know--she's number 2 in the world! But her career still needs a turnaround--she's that good).

Sharapova has just returned to the court to practice after taking a few months off because of injuries; it's also fair to say that she won't be at her best in Singapore.

Muguruza, who has been out-shone by fellow star-in-the-making Belinda Bencic for much of this season, has suddenly gotten out of her slump--undoubtedly with the help of Sam Sumyk--and is about to play in her second final of the last two weeks. She lost the Wuhan final to Venus Williams, and will face Timea Bacsinszky (also in the middle of a mini-comeback) in the Beijing final.

The Spaniard, who has just entered the top 5, is kind of the wild card of wild cards, everywhere she goes. She could win Beijing, she could win the WTA Finals, she could not win either of them. My instinct, however, is that the round-robin format will agree with Muguruza. And with the two top seeds returning from injury recovery (if they are there at all), Mugurza is in a position to do extremely well.

As of now, the remaining players in the top 8 on the Road To Singapore are Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, and U.S. Open champion Flavia Pennetta. Kvitova won the event in 2011, when it was played in Istanbul. The Barking Czech lost only two sets in that tournament, and beat Victoria Azarenka in the final. Having won a big event in the past is always an advantage, but who knows which Petra will show up, and for how long?

Kvitova's friend and countrywoman, Safarova, was recently hospitalized for a bacterial infection. Assuming she has fully recovered and gets some practice in, Safarova could be threat in Singapore. But an infection that's serious enough to put someone in the hospital can be debilitating.

Kerber is having the season of her career, and though she sometimes loses when we think she "should" win, she's shown that she can collect trophies on all surfaces. Pliskova was in four big finals this year and lost all of them. Playing in Singapore, in a round robin format, might help her with confidence issues. As for Pennetta--assuming she even plays in the WTA Finals if she qualifies--she's the ultimate "nothing to lose" competitor. The Italian star is retiring at the end of the season, which could make her not as focused as needed in Singapore, or deadly. She'll be on a hard court, her favorite.

Next in line right now are Carla Suarez Navarro, Venus Williams and Aga Radwanska. Any of them could make it to Singapore, and of course, there are always alternates.

In the doubles race, six teams have qualified so far. The team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova (those two are ranked number 2 and 3 in the world) has not competed lately because of Safarova's illness. A face-off between them and the team of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza would be tasty, but that may not happen.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The return of The Ninja, and other tales of the WTA

She's back. After slumping (or at least, her version of it) for most of the season, Aga Radwanska is now in possession of a second beautiful Tokyo trophy. The new title is Radwanska's first of 2015, and she won it by defeating CoCo Vandeweghe, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, and Belinda Bencic--an impressive run by any standard. The Polish star's defeat of Bencic in the final was especially impressive. Bencic was red-hot at this event, and while the 6-2, 6-2 scoreline doesn't begin to do justice to the young Swiss star's performance in the final, it does tell the story of The Ninja At Her Best.

Radwanska, whose skills and artistry practically defy description, is capable of being more aggressive than she sometimes is. But for the Tokyo final, she brought out the full package, and there was little Bencic could do to stop her.

Radwanska likes this Asian swing. In 2011, she won Tokyo and Beijing back to back.

World number 1 Serena Williams turned 34 yesterday. And today marks the 24th birthday of world number 2 Simona Halep.

The Road To Singapore is paved with uncertainty. Only three players--Williams, Halep and Maria Sharapova--have qualified for the WTA Finals. Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Flavia Pennetta, Angelique Kerber, and Carla Suarez Navarro are currently in the top 8 of the race, followed by Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Radwanska, and Bencic.

Earlier in the season, it looked as though Muguruza were "it"--the young player who was most likely to make a giant move soon. Now, most observers would probably pick Bencic. Anything could still happen, and "anything" could also be Karolina Pliskova--or Sloane Stephens, or Genie Bouchard, for that matter.

Meanwhile, Halep has played her way to the number 2 spot in the world, but has yet to win a major. Both Halep and Radwanska play beautifully artistic and athletic tennis, and neither--in my opinion--has met her full potential.

Sharapova, who has been out with a leg injury, returns this week as an entrant in Wuhan. The defending champion is Petra Kvitova, who won the event last year just as her dear friend Li Na was retiring. To astute observers, in fact, it appeared that Kvitova won Wuhan "for" Li, who did not enter the tournament. The Czech star received the trophy after she defeated Genie Bouchard in straight sets in the final. This occurred, of course, a couple of months after Bouchard lost to Kvitova in the Wimbledon final.

Bouchard, by the way, is scheduled to play Bencic later today in the Wuhan first round. Never a dull moment.