Wednesday, December 3, 2014

2015 may defy prediction

If 2014 was the year of the unexpected, then 2015 is--at least for now--a year in which we aren't really sure what to expect. The times occasionally appear to be changing, and then--just like that--it feels as though the beloved veterans run the show. Who will rise in the coming season, who will struggle, and who will inevitably fade, albeit with an unchanged fighting spirit?

All eyes are always on world number 1 Serena Williams, whose performance tends to defy prediction--of any kind. Williams is 33 years old in biological years, but in tennis years, she's practically ageless. We've seen her play (and win) while she was all bandaged up from head to toe, and that was several years ago! Williams appears to be less injury-prone these days, she's very fit, and--given her historical ebb-and-flow pattern, it wouldn't be surprising to see her come on strongly in the new season. I like her chance to add at least one major singles trophy.

Maria Sharapova's tennis career has been interesting, and sometimes puzzling. Winning the French Open for a second time--and doing so in such a high-quality final--gave Sharapova a boost she probably really needed. But there are still things she needs to do--get her erratic serve under control, and beat Serena Williams. The reality, however, is that it's nothing short of a miracle that the Russian survived all her shoulder issues and is the number 2 player in the world. I, for one, believe in Maria and am looking forward to her 2015 performance.

If Williams and Sharapova are unpredictable, then Petra Kvitova is a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces fly around and then re-arrange themselves in ways that sometimes make no sense. A huge talent and an established champion, the Czech star could do so much more. There's the issue of her asthma and the related issue of her tendency to develop respiratory infections. And then there's just that meltdown habit that may or not be related to her physical health at any given moment.

Kvitova had a strong season, especially in the second half. She not only won Wimbledon again, but she played one of the most dramatic Fed Cup matches in recent history and clinched her country's repeat as Fed Cup champions. Her Wimbledon win alone was masterful enough to be one of the year's top stories. Will 2015 be the year that Petra plays like--well, Petra--from beginning to end? If she does, she'll strike considerable fear in all kinds of opponents.

The player to keep watching (and who wouldn't want to?) is Simona Halep, who, in 2013, gracefully announced her arrival in the elite group of WTA players. At last. She had a good 2014, reaching the final of the French Open, among other accomplishments. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing holding Halep back is her tendency to get injured. Her feet and her back are the most vulnerable. She does have confidence issues now and again, but with her much improved serve and her solid two-season record, the Romanian star is looking at a very bright future--if she can stay healthy.

One of my wishes for Halep would be for her to retain the services of Alex Stober, but Kvitova has already hired him, and that, too, is a very good thing.

That brings me to Genie Bouchard. She stunned the tennis world last year with a dramatic breakthrough that took her to the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, and the Wimbledon final. The rest of her season didn't go too well because of injuries, and she was just injured again recently.

There's a kind of edge to Bouchard which appears to work well for her during the heat of competition, but which might also have a shadow side. Bouchard has created a "me against them all" persona for herself (which I thought about when I saw so many players weeping as they said emotional goodbyes to Li Na), but it feels a bit forced. Shes having to deal with massive amounts of media and fan attention, and she had to endure being blown to the other side of London by Kvitova in the Wimbledon final. She has also parted ways with her coach. There's a lot going on there.

Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki re-invented themselves in 2014, so it will be especially interesting to see what they do in 2015. Wozniacki is the steadier of the two, by history, yet it's Ivanovic who has already won a major.

Ekaterina Makarova likes the big stage, and with her 2014 U.S. Open semifinal appearance, she made me think that with a bit more confidence (maybe with help from a psychological expert?), she could rock the entire tennis world.

Victoria Azarenka's 2014 pretty much didn't count. The two-time Australian Open champion could win a third Melbourne title, finally win a U.S. Open title, or find a variety of ways to get sick and injured and lag behind. The fragility of Azarenka is in constant conflict with her talent and fighting spirit.

I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Lucie Safarova (who has also re-invented herself), the under-appreciated Angelique Kerber and her countrywoman, Andrea Petkovic. Alize Cornet, too. (Li Na may be gone, but JJ, Alize and Petko are available, and that's a lot of entertainment.)

Will Aga Radwanska pull herself back together? I hope so. And I think she will.

The youth attack is on. Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova are all looking good. Muguruza is looking especially good, and there's a kind of calm, comfortable aura around the Spaniard that I think will serve her well in 2015 and beyond.

Both Camila Giorgi and Caroline Garcia have lots of potential, but also a lot of nerves to tame. Kristina Mladenovic is the tour's wild card in singles right now--anything could happen. As for doubles, I see her continuing to take home trophies. She and Timea Babos are a fairly consistent team now; I also liked the team of Mladenovic and Lucie Safarova. Of course, we may see another round of "Mladenovic and Anybody," which tends to be a winning combination.

Will we be saying goodbye to any Italians next year? Flavia Pennetta is 32 years old. She's also number 12 in the world and won Indian Wells this year, so maybe we'll have the great pleasure of keeping her around a while. Francesca Schiavone is 34 and could very well end her pro career soon.

As for the other Italian stars--Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci should remain a force in doubles.

Monday, November 17, 2014

2014--year of the unexpected




In some great ways, and in some not so good ways, expectations were often not met in the 2014 season. The player expected to have a superior season had (her version of) a mediocre season right to the last quarter. A beloved player we hoped to see at least one more year was forced to leave the tour because of chronic injury, and two players who had faded from the spotlight decided it was time to get back in it and shine.

Players surprised us throughout the year. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova suddenly started playing her best tennis ever and reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Her former doubles partner, the talented Iveta Melzer, retired from the sport. Victoria Azarenka remained in the shadows because of her health, Laura Robson couldn't play because of ongoing injury issues, and Ashleigh Barty mysteriously left the tour "indefinitely."

There was more. Caroline Wozniacki ran the New York City Marathon in an outstanding time of three hours, 26 minutes and 33 seconds. Former world number 1 Amelie Mauresmo became the second woman (Nicolay Davydenko's wife, Irina, coached him for a brief period while he was still in the top 10) to coach a top ATP player. Andy Murray's hiring of Mauresmo set off the expected explosion of sexism, misogyny and gay-hating, but Amelie and Andy just went about their business.

Making a major comeback was Andrea Petkovic, who finally recovered from multiple injuries and changed her playing style in order to protect herself from further injury. Petko won Charleston, Bad Gastein and the Tournament of Champions, and worked her way all the way up to a number 13 ranking. Also, seemingly out of the blue, Mijana Lucic-Baroni reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, upsetting 2nd seed Simona Halep on her way there. This was Lucic-Baroni's best showing at a major since 1999, when she reached the Wimbledon semifinals.

Vicky Duval was successfully treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Melanie Oudin experienced an unfortunate day in the gym and had to have heart surgery, which was followed by eye surgery.

Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai surprised us by announcing they were ending their partnership. Peng made it to the U.S. Open semifinals, but had to retire because of a scary episode of severe cramping, followed by an equally scary attempt to remain on the court.

The WTA's Pocket Rocket, Dominika Cibulkova, made it to final of the Australian Open. Sania Mirza and her Forehand of Fire, along with Cara Black, won the WTA Finals, and Mirza won her third mixed doubles title. Venus Williams won in Dubai and is currently number 18 in the world.

There were a couple of victories--both surprises--that really stood out this year. Flavia Pennetta won Indian Wells, beating Sam Stosur, Dominika Cibulkova and Li Na along the way. The 32-year-old Fighting Italian, enjoying one of the greatest moments of her career, showed us yet again that the veterans are in charge.

And then there was the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery. In a remarkable run, Tsvetana Pironkova finally won a WTA tournament, and she did it in high style. Pironkova won Sydney as a qualifier, playing eight matches in eight days, and defeating three top 10 players--Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber.

Two former number 1 players, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic, came back blazing this year, determined to show that they are still part of the important mix. Wozniacki won a title and Ivanovic won four titles. Wozniacki also reached the final of the U.S. Open.

Ekaterina Makarova had a great year, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open and winning the event in doubles with partner Elena Vesnina. Alize Cornet gave us some (as expected) entertaining tennis, and wound up at number 19 in the world. And the talented Carla Suarez Navarro, after many attempts, won her first WTA title. Angelique Kerber, though she had a somewhat disappointing year, provided us with major thrills when she defeated Maria Sharapova in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

Four young players came out blazing, too. Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Karolina Pliskova, and Elina Svitolina established themselves as the young players to keep an on next year. Muguruza (who also won a title as a qualifier--just a week after Pironkova did it) is already in the top 20.

Aleksandra Krunic, whom many of us have admired in Fed Cup play, put on an unforgettable show as a qualifier at this year's U.S. Open. She upset Petra Kvitova and took Victoria Azarenka to the edge in the round of 16.

Not all of the goings-on took place on court:

World number 2 Maria Sharapova added gummy Porsches to her Sugarpova candy line, and put her name on Avon's new fragrance, Luck.

Eugenie Bouchard showed up dressed in a kimono for a press conference.

The ubiquitous Marion Bartoli, the retired 2013 Wimbledon champion, created a line of jewelry, and a line of shoes and shoe accessories, raised money for charities, played in several exhibition matches, sang La Marseillaise at an All England Club dinner, played World Team Tennis, did tennis broadcasting in both French and English, and won the first-ever WTA Finals legends event.

Here are my personal top 10 2014 occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Army of me: Genie Bouchard--at least for the first half of the season--made an impression on the tour not soon to be forgotten. The Canadian star, with her singing, stuffed animal-tossing Genie Army, made headlines when she reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open and the final of Wimbledon. She was, in fact, the first Canadian woman to ever reach the semifinals of two majors. Bouchard also won the Nurnberg tournament and was a finalist in both Wuhan and Osaka.

Wimbledon was Bouchard's undoing, however, as she was run over by Petra Kvitova in under an hour. The Canadian star's season wasn't the same after that, as she dealt with injury and what appeared to be some degree of fatigue. The media attention alone couldn't have been that easy for her to handle; the woman nicknamed "Princess" was treated like one 24-7 by the star-making systems of the world. Certainly, all eyes will be on the world number 7 as the 2015 season opens, and Bouchard gets a chance to show just how good she really is.

9. Romanian royalty: If Genie Bouchard is a warrior princess, then Simona Halep is a clever queen, mostly keeping her own counsel and winning people over with a nuanced combination of confidence and humility. After having a huge 2013 season, in which she won six titles, it was almost inevitable that the Romanian star would experience some type of letdown in 2014. Looking back at the season, it seems possible that, if Halep had stayed healthy, there might not have been any letdown at all. But she suffered chronic injuries to her feet and back, and how she handles those injuries will most likely determine her fate in the future.

Her season was hardly a washout. Halep won Doha and Bucharest, and she made it the final of the French Open, in which she took Maria Sharapova to three thrilling sets. Halep's confidence deflated, however, when she played Serena Williams in the Singapore final. Now number 3 in the world (she was number 2 earlier in the season), Halep has established herself as the elite player some of us have always expected her to become. Her 2015 should be great--if she can stay healthy.

8. Czech Republic of Champions: Some players totally thrive during Fed Cup competition. Two of those players are Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, and since both of them play for the Czech Republic, their nation was able to grab a third Fed Cup title in just four years. The Czech Republic beat Spain, then defending champion Italy, and--in the final--Germany. Kvitova won the first and third rubbers and Safarova won the second. The third rubber, in which Kvitova played Angelique Kerber, was a three-hour thriller which gave Kvitova won of her finest winning moments.




7. We're not going anywhere: For a while, it looked as though Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci might lose their hold on the number 1 ranking. The Italian pair got off to a roaring start this season, however, by winning the Australian Open. They were the runners-up at the French Open, and then they won Wimbledon, giving them a Career Slam, something accomplished by only four other teams in the Open Era. Errani and Vinci also won Stuttgart, Madrid and Montreal, retained their number 1 ranking and were named Doubles Team of the Year.





6. I love Paris in the springtime: Maria Sharapova, the 2012 French Open champion, did it again in 2014. Sharapova had to get past 2010 finalist Sam Stosur, clay upstart Garbine Muguruza and the dangerous Genie Bouchard, to get to the final. And then came her greatest test--a fight for the title against Simona Halep, who threw everything she had--which is a lot--at Sharapova in what was one of the best matches of the year. Sharapova, who is now the world number 2, defeated Halep 6-4, 6-7, 6-4.

5. And this was a "bad" year: World number 1 Serena Williams was going after her 18th singles major this year, and for most of the season, things just didn't click for her. She lost to Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open round of 16, and as defending champion at the French Open, she was taken out by Garbine Muguruza in the second round. At Wimbledon, Williams was defeated in the third round by Alize Cornet. That left the U.S. Open, and--in true Serena fashion--the top seed came though for the title, defeating close friend Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Williams would go on to win the WTA Finals in Singapore and to be named Player of the Year.

4. One bagel, with everything: Some people called it the greatest set of tennis ever played by a woman. To be accurate, the entire Australian Open quarterfinal that Agnieszka Radwanska played against Victoria Azarenka was a dazzling display of tennis by the Polish star. The third set, however, was beyond dazzling, as Radwanska got into a zone not of this world, topping even herself in terms of artistry, speed, creativity, and athleticism.

I checked my post that followed the match, and in it, I said "I caught myself gasping and exclaiming throughout the final set." That about says it all. Radwanska defeated Azarenka 6-1, 5-7, 6-0. Sadly, she had next to nothing left in her semifinal round, in which she was easily defeated by Dominika Cibulkova.




3. Third time's the charm: She finally did it. Li Na won the Australian Open. She couldn't hold her nerve against Kim Clijsters in 2011, and in 2013, she couldn't stay upright on the court against Victoria Azarenka. These were tough losses because Li played so well in both finals. This year, though, she said that her "special" preparation was "not falling down," and she was able to control her anxiety on the court. Li defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6, 6-0 and collected her second major trophy. Her acceptance speech, which became an instant hit, began with a thank you to her agent for making her rich, and only got better from there.

2. Pojd!: When Petra Kvitova is switched on, she becomes like a force of nature and cannot be stopped. The 2011 Wimbledon champion got switched on again at the All England Club this year, hitting 207 winners (15 fewer than she hit in 2011) and getting a boost along the way by having to fight off an impressively in-form Venus Williams in the third round. She faced off with Eugenie Bouchard in the final, and by this time, the tennis press had its collective head stuck so far up Montreal, an easy win was predicted for the Canadian star.

Maybe Kvitova heard she was supposed to lose to an upstart. Maybe she ate just the right number of pineapples. Maybe she just felt it. The fact remains: From the moment Petra stepped onto Centre Court to play in the final, she was explosively efficient. It wasn't that Bouchard played badly--she didn't. Bouchard was just never really allowed to enter the match, so aggressive and in control was Kvitova. The Barking Czech defeated her opponent 6-3, 6-0 in under an hour, and that was that.

Some called it the most masterful performance in the history of Wimbledon finals. Quite a statement, considering that--just 24 hours earlier--they had predicted Kvitova's defeat.

1. Fly away home: Petra Kvitova had three wonderful tennis moments this year. Two I have already covered. The third was the speech she gave on behalf of the tour's players at the retirement ceremony of Li Na. It was practically a given that Kvitova, Li's very close friend, would be selected to give the speech at a ceremony that was given a touch of the Beijing Olmypics treatment in terms of visuals. It ended with a weeping Li making a walk around the stadium as "We love you, Li Na!" was shouted in several languages. She deserved no less.



"The bird that sticks out," known in her country as Big Sister Na, is an iconic figure. Part star athlete, part role model for courage, part standup comic--Li is respected worldwide not only for what her presence has done for Asian tennis and for the WTA, but also for her refusal to accept any terms that are are unjust or unreasonable. Often treated harshly by the news media in her country, Li nevertheless persevered in seeking for herself--and ultimately, for many others--a life in sports that she could embrace with integrity and self-respect.

After enduring years of knee pain and weakness, Li had to call it quits. Her retirement from the sport is a loss to tennis, a loss to the tour and a loss to fans worldwide. The winner of the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, Li Na was so much more than even her impressive titles. Kvitova, at the end of her speech, said it best: "Thank you for being our opponent. Thank you for being our inspiration. Thank you for being our friend."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Czech Republic wins third Fed Cup title in four years



No team has ever lost the first two rubbers of a Fed Cup final and come back to win the title. That was the job facing Germany today in Prague, and Angelique Kerber gave her all, but in the end, a tired, hurting Petra Kvitova found a way to defeat Kerber 7-6, 4-6, 6-4.
 
"It's for your country," said Kvitova after the match, "but always when you are not feeling great and you don't have enough energy, you always find something and I'm not sure where I found it. I am just glad that I found it."

The three-hour match was a course in "Kvitology," so to speak. The Czech star relentlessly bombarded the court with an equal number of winners and unforced errors--dozens of them. Kerber led 5-2 in the first set, but Kvitova brought the set to a tiebreak. The German went down 0-3 in the second set, but then quickly won a succession of games. She was also down 1-4 in the third, but then made that set as competitive as the other two had been.

It was a match full of twists and turns, and most of them appeared to be related to the very high stress of the occasion. Kvitova was playing for the championship; Kerber was playing to keep Germany in the contest. Both players are known for being somewhat mercurial. Kvitova, however, has become the Flavia Penneetta of the Czech team; actually, Lucie Safarova has become the other Flavia Pennetta--these two bring their very best effort to Fed Cup competition.

Later in the day, the dead doubles rubber was played, and the German team won it in straight sets.

The Czech Republic won Fed Cup in 2011 and 2012; Italy won in 2013.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Petko wins Tournament of Champions, Woz speeds through NYC



Andrea Petkovic won her third title of 2014 today--the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria. Petkovic defeated Flavia Pennetta 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, as the Italian faded in the final set from what appeared to be fatigue. Petkovic, whose season has turned into a successful comeback journey, is now number 14 in the world, and Pennetta (who knows more about "comeback" than anyone) is number 13.

Meanwhile, Magda Linette won the 125K Series tournament in Ningbo. Linette defeated Wang Qiang 3-6 7-5, 6-1 in the final. Top seeds Arina Rodionova and Olga Savchuk won the doubles title.




All eyes were on the New York City Marathon, however, as world number 8 Caroline Wozniacki ran the race in a very impressive 3:26:33. When she reached the finish line, her friend Serena Williams was there to put the medal on her. Wozniacki had never run a course longer than 13 miles, and she spent her weekend going to a Halloween party and attending a Rangers game.

That doesn't sound like the expected before-race training, perhaps, but the thing to remember about Wozniacki is that she has almost super-human endurance. She has said before that she can stay on the court "for hours"--she never seems to tire.

Both Petkovic and Wozniacki have had very good seasons, rebounding from misfortune and returning to excellent form.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some thoughts about Singapore



The WTA Finals are over, and was that ever an interesting event. Consider some of the things that happened:

Both Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic played superb tennis, which kind of "sealed" their comeback status in 2014.

Simona Halep allowed Serena Williams to win only two games in one of their matches, and also delivered a rare bagel to the world number 1.

Halep then pretty much fell apart during the final. I don't mean to take anything away from Serena--she was wonderful--but Halep did go to pieces in the second set. Tired, maybe? She didn't go to pieces in the French Open final, so one has to wonder.

Petra Kvitova, playing on what should have been her "dream" court (though it turned out not to be a typical indoor court at all) went 1-2.

Before leaving, though, Kvitova beat Maria Sharapova for the first time since 2011.

Genie Bouchard had a total wipe-out, losing all three of her round robin matches.

The world number 1 team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci once again failed to win the title. They had to retire in the quarterfinals because of Errani's rib injury.

So Serena topped off her "bad year" with her third WTA Finals (formerly the WTA Championships) victory in as many years. This so-called bad year also included winning six other titles, one of which was the U.S. Open and one of which was Miami. And did I mention that the 33-year-old Williams ends the year, once again, as number 1 in the world.

Most puzzling to me in this event were Halep's performance in the final, and Kvitova's failure to win more than one match. Unlike some fans, I enjoy the round robin format, partly because of its ridiculous unpredictability. Also, it's a change in the usual routine, which is nice.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

White Group dissolves as Serena and Simona are last two standing in Singapore






Serena Williams had to put up a very Serenaesque fight to hold off Caroline Wozniacki in today's Singapore semifinal, but she did it, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6. In the other semifinal, Simona Halep made rather routine work of Agnieszka Radwanska, beating her 6-2, 6-2 in and hour and seven minutes.

That leaves Williams with her nemesis of the tournament: Her only loss in Singapore was to Halep, and it was a nasty one. Halep defeated Williams 6-0, 6-2 in the opening round of Red Group play (don't let that WTA website front page graphic fool you).

In the meantime, Williams has secured the year-end number 1 ranking. She's the two-time defending champion at the WTA Finals, and if there's anyone on this Earth she wants to put away, it's Halep.

The defending doubles champions, Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai, have also reached the finals in Singapore. Hsieh and Peng beat Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova 6-1, 6-4. Their opponents will be Cara Black and her partner, the Forehand of Fire, Sania Mirza. Black and Mirza saved three match points in their semifinal match against Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik. They won 4-6, 7-5, 11-9!

Odd though it may seem, this is Mirza's first trip to the last round of the Finals (I liked "WTA Championships" a lot better).

Oh, and of course, when the tournament is over, Hsieh and Peng will no longer be a team.
 
The WTA Finals: How can you not like anything this strange? I actually do like the unpredictability and seeming randomness of the round robin event.

Also this week, Mickey Lawler was named president of the WTA, and the organization announced a new campaign, "Power to Inspire." This is about as awkward a phrase as I can think of--it is difficult to say out loud (a fact which should have eliminated it as a possibility), and I'm wondering if it came from the same people who brought us the dreadful WTA-in-an-egg logo.

Finally, two players and one team who didn't make it to the finals deserve a mention. Both Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki made good on their comeback ways in Singapore. These two are definitely in the 2015 mix and are to be commended for the way they have reconstructed their careers. Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova, who upset Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in Singapore, have become a strong team, and definitely one we should keep an eye on next year.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

WTA Finals to begin tomorrow in Singapore

You can look at the excitement gathering around the commencement of the WTA Finals as a sort of Sex and the City romp:


 Or you can look at it as this:



Perhaps it's both.

The Red Group consists of Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, and Ana Ivanovic.Williams has a 49-4 head-to-head record against the rest of the group. She is, in fact, the only member of her group to have a winning record against other members of the group. She is also the two-time defending champion.

The White Group consists of Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Caroline Wozniacki. Radwanska has a history of poor showings at the Finals, though she made it to the semifinals in 2012. Kvitova has a chance, in Istanbul, to turn around her post-2011 losing record against Maria Sharapova. That dynamic is probably the most interesting one to occur in the White Group. Matches will be played on an indoor hard court, one of Kvitova's two favorite surfaces.

The Rising Stars invitational final will be held October 21. The finalist are Monica Puig and Zheng Saisai.

The official website of the WTA Finals comes close to completely ignoring doubles. There's a video announcing that Anastasia Rodionova and Alla Kudryavtseva made it to the final eight, and other than that, it's as though doubles doesn't even exist in Singapore.