Friday, May 24, 2019

French Open first round has my attention

A first glance at the French Open draw got my attention; a lot could happen in that opening round. Here are some of the more interesting matches:

Naomi Osaka (1) vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova--Poor Schmiedy, she just can't catch a break. Just over a year ago, Schmiedlova redeemed her flagging career by winning Bogota, but since then, she's gone back into slump mode, which surprises me. Clay is her best surface, so she'll need to bring the very best version of that lovely backhand.

Alona Ostapenko vs. Vika Azarenka: The 2017 champion hasn't exactly faded away, but she isn't playing anywhere near her considerable potential. Azarenka, on the other hand, is looking very good.

Caroline Garcia (24) vs. Mona Barthel: This can't be whom Garcia wants to see on the other side of the net in the first round. The Frenchwoman has picked her game up recently, and she has the potential to go deep at this event. But Barthel, when she's on, can be a real problem on a clay court.

Simona Halep (3) vs. Ajla Tomljanovic: The defending champion could also have drawn an easier opponent than Tomljanovic. The good news is that she may get just the workout she needs to put her on the right path.

Aryna Sabalenka (11) vs. Dominika Cibulkova: Cibulkova isn't the threat that she used to be, but these days, Sabalenka isn't the threat she's purported to be. This will be a hard-hitting, possibly interesting, match.

Polona Hercog vs. Aliaksandra Sasnovich: This is practically guaranteed to be a match worth watching. Hercog is back on track, and Sasnovich is a player to watch.

Venus Williams vs. Elina Svitolina (9): Clay has never been Williams' best surface. Svitolina is the one with the pressure, though (I assume): She has yet to get past the quarterfinals at a major. I still think that the breakthrough is coming; however, given Svitolina's recent knee injury, the chances aren't that good that it will occur in Paris.

Kaia Kanepi vs. Julia Goerges (18): The German star's fortunes have suffered lately because of a wrist injury. She's vulnerable (otherwise, I would expect her to go rather deep into the tournament). If her wrist is working, she should be okay. If not, giant-killer Kanepi is always happy to make some seed's life miserable.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Lightning in a bottle is still lightning

Some fans like to say that a particular upset or a particular victory is a "fluke," but to call an achievement a fluke is to make something negative of it, and--unless cheating is involved--a victory isn't a negative thing. By the same token, so many commentators, fans and even players say of a player: "She deserved to win." Who, I ask--unless there is cheating involved--doesn't "deserve" to win? But the implication is clear: If one deserves to win at a given time, then sometimes one does not. That is simply incorrect.

Sometimes a player has an especially good season, and then the next season comes around, and she's in a slump. Fans and the tennis media tend to focus on the slump, and not the achievements. Given the human brain's anthropological need to focus on negative factors, there is little doubt that the player, also, focuses on the slump. And to some degree, this is necessary, if she is to overcome it. But it can also prevent the very outcome the player seeks.

This is a tricky balancing act for all of us--working to overcome our deficiencies while not becoming so focused on them that they dictate our future. For a professional athlete, learning to work that balance is crucial. If it doesn't come natural to a player to do that (or if she doesn't have the kind of epiphany that Kiki Bertens did), a coach can help. And if a coach cannot help, then a sports psychologist or other mental health clinician can.

Sometimes, however, try as she might, a player cannot get back the magic, or she gets it back, then loses it again. This is when belief and positive memory can make a difference.

Regardless, a player's accomplishments--whether transient or consistent--are still accomplishments, and should be celebrated. Kiki Bertens overcame some major demons by realizing that she didn't enjoy her victories--she saw them as merely finished products that paved the way to the next hard grind. This realization caused her to start relishing her accomplishments, which led to increased enjoyment, which led to--well, we all know where it led.

"But she never won a major" is a phrase we sometimes hear. And that is indeed disappointing to fans and, undoubtedly, to the player, but it does not invalidate her career. And that brings to mind a phrase I especially dislike: "one-slam wonder." (First of all, I dislike it because a major is not a "slam" or a "grand slam"--it's a major.) Calling someone a one-major wonder immediately invalidates both the player and her amazing accomplishment.

Gabriela Sabatini, Iva Majoli, Conchita Martinez, Ana Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone, Marion Bartoli, and Flavia Pennetta each did something that very few athletes will ever do: They reached a pinnacle of achievement in their sport. To not give them full credit for their victories because they reached this pinnacle only once is both inaccurate and mean-spirited.

Professional tennis is a brutal career, filled with grueling court and gym training, successive injuries, jet lag, separation from the home environment, psychological stress, long hours, and chronic--sometimes obscene--attacks from so-called fans. One player's personal best will never be another player's.

And that brings me to another phrase I don't like--"over-achieve." To say that a player over-achieves is to automatically place a limit on her potential. One day she might be a reliable German journeywoman, and the next day, she might become Angie Kerber. But even if she doesn't become a major champion (and very, very few players will), every match and every tournament she wins is a thing to be celebrated, not a thing to be minimized, dismissed, or compared with the achievements of another player.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Fighting Italian, a hard-hitting Frenchwoman, and--in Rome--a very clever Spaniard

The 2010 clay season will always be remembered (as well it should be) for the emergence of Francesca Schiavone as the French Open champion, but--so dramatic was that emergence--it may be easy to forget some of the other drama that occurred.

Aravane Rezai surprised the tennis world by winning Madrid. The very hard-hitting Frenchwoman, known for her metallic-colored dresses, began delivering her surprises in the very first round. The unseeded Rezai upset five-time French Open champion Justine Henin, and that defeat included a 6-0 third set.

A Tennis Channel commentator remarked that Rezai "cruised through the rest of the tournament," but he was obviously watching a different event. Rezai had to fight hard to get to the final. She beat Klara Zakapalova in the second round, but had to play the thriller of the tournament (and probably one of the best matches of the season) in the next round against a very in-form Andrea Petkovic. Petkovic, though she saved six match points, was finally overcome by the Frenchwoman, who defeated her 6-4, 7-6 (8).

Next came Jelena Jankovic, and Rezai had to fight like mad to win that one, too especially in the first set (do you think that, at Tennis Channel, they don't even watch the matches?). She got a break in the semifinals, when Lucie Safarova had to retire after the first set. Then, in the final, Rezai faced Venus Williams. The unseeded Frenchwoman began the match by holding a first serve win percentage of 100; needless to say, she won that set.

Rezai then went down 2-5 in the second set, but she rallied, saved six set points, and suddenly, held three match points. She won the championship on her first one, defeating Williams 6-2, 7-5, and becoming the second unseeded player to win a premier WTA event.

That was a lot of drama, but there was also quite a bit of drama in Rome that year when another unseeded player, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, took that title. Her draw was impressive. After beating Alla Kudryavtseva in the opening round, she then defeated soon-to-be French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, Caroline Wozniacki, Lucie Safarova, and 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic.

Martinez Sanchez's opponent in the final was two-time (2007, 2008) Rome champion Jelena Jankovic, who had knocked out Serena Williams in the semifinals. Jankovic was highly favored to win her third Italian Open title, but the tricky Spaniard with the tricky serve had other ideas.

Making Jankovic run generally doesn't have the effect of making some other players run. The Serbian star, in her day, loved to run. But this was the final, both players had to be a bit tired, and Martinez Sanchez made sure that Jankovic ran plenty--both vertically and horizontally. With her sharp lefty serve and her slices, spins and volleys, the Spaniard had a lot to throw at Jankovic. She also had a cunning drop shot, which--in the end--worked for her even when Jankovic got to it, because going for it only increased the Serbian player's fatigue.

But Martinez Sanchez wasn't just hitting a lot of drop shots--she was using the drop shot as a return of serve. This very clever strategy enraged some fans, who said the Spaniard wasn't playing "real" tennis. Really? I thought the object was to win the match.

It was quite a spectacle, what with Jankovic running all over the court and falling down multiple times until her lime kit was caked in red clay. Toward the end of the second set, the pair engaged in rapid-fire volleying right at the net, which thrilled spectators.

Martinez Sanchez, who hit 44 winners, defeated Jankovic 7-6, 7-5, in a truly stunning championship match. "You were killing me with those drop shots," Jankovic said to her at the trophy ceremony.

What made Martinez Sanchez's victory even more dramatic was that she was known as a talented player whose nerves tended to betray her when she faced top players. But for some reason, that year in Rome, the Spaniard kept her nerves intact and completed what was possibly the most entertaining run of the season.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The French Open--always a beautiful mystery

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
The French Open, my favorite major, will begin soon, and--as always--it's a bit of a mystery as to who will win it. That makes the already-thrilling event even more interesting!

Who can win the French Open?

Defending champion Simona Halep: There is no doubt (at least in my mind) that if anyone can defend a French Open title, it's the Romanian star. Halep is looking better than ever, and her confidence--sometimes a wavering factor--appears stable. But there are others who could take the title away from her, and key among them is Dutch star......

Kiki Bertens: Madrid champion Bertens is being widely touted as a potential 2019 French Open champion. I join those who think that her chances are very good, but then, I said several years ago that I thought Bertens (this was before she became a "thing") could win at Roland Garros. Is this her year? I would pick her over anyone in the field, including Halep. Her confidence is high, and she has richly enhanced her game, especially her serve. Always excellent on clay, Bertens is now truly dangerous.

Caroline Garcia: The Frenchwoman used to hate playing on any center court, and especially in Paris, but she has matured a lot, her clay game is solid, and she will have the crowd solidly behind her whenever she's on the court. She's definitely a contender.

Garbine Muguruza: Yes, I know that Muguruza's game is kind of a mess, and that she is one of the most (if not the most) inconsistent champions ever, but there's a switch in the Spaniard that sometimes gets turned on at majors. When that switch is turned on, Muguruza becomes the most fluid ball-striker to be found anywhere. She has won the French Open already, which is always an advantage.

Elina Svitolina: Yes, I also know that waiting for Svitolina to win a major is like waiting for Tennis Channel commentators to pronounce players' names correctly. But I still believe that it's going to happen, and who konws? Unfortunately, she's been struggling with a knee injury, but if she recovers in time for Paris, she's on the list (albeit at the very edge).

Petra Kvitova: I heard a commentator say yesterday that Kvitova now has belief in her clay court skills, and I don't know where she got that information, because--no matter how many clay court tournaments she wins--the Barking Czech has always had trouble believing in her clay court skills. Also, the clay titles that she has won have involved faster-playing courts than those used at the French Open. But I'm still naming her a contender because she is playing quite well and it doesn't seem right to omit her from the list.

Angelique Kerber: Yes, she's currently dealing with an ankle injury, and she recently had to deal with a viral illness. Yes, she has always shied away from stating a belief that she could win at Roland Garros. But Kerber, like Muguruza, can pop up and win anything at the least expected time. (I put her on the list with the caveat that she fully recovers from the ankle injury.)

Then there are the players who perhaps should be on a contender list, but they are not:

Alona Ostapenko: The 2017 French Open champion has not made the changes to her game that are needed for her to be an elite player. If anyone on the tour needs a coach who is able to force those changes, it's Ostapenko, and I hope she finds one because she is too talented (and far too entertaining) to slip down the rankings they way she has.

Julia Goerges: As recently as a year ago, I considered Goerges a dark horse to win the title, but she has been dealing with a neck injury and has a way to go before she can get back to her previous level.

Sloane Stephens: The 2018 runner-up could surprise me, but I just can't go with her because of her inconsistency. I know that Muguruza is inconsistent, too, but for me, the Spaniard is in a different--albeit strange--category.

Daria Kasatkina: This should be the year that Kasatkina makes the contender list, but the Russian player is somewhat of a mess right now. I hope that she (and her beautiful game) can make the contender list next year.

Obviously, I have omitted Naomi Osaka from the contender list. Others, I'm sure, will disagree. But I just don't see Osaka winning in Paris this year.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

That was just the SEMIFINALS?!

I can't imagine how the players feel because I am exhausted from watching this weekend's Fed Cup World Group semifinals, not to mention all the other Fed Cup matches I watched. There were many exciting moments. Some, I'm sure, occurred during the Australia vs. Belarus tie, but because of the time difference, I wasn't able to watch any of that. However, the France-Romania tie had enough drama to wear me out.

Today reminded me, once again, of why I love Fed Cup. Fed Cup is filled with drama, almost every moment. Players we don't get to see much on the tour suddenly become their nation's most valued players. Major champions are upset by players ranked far below them. The crowds go wild. What's not to love?

Romania has seemed poised to reach the Fed Cup final for a while. With Simona Halep as the leader and the stunningly inventive Monica Niculescu around as the creative force, just add a touch of Begu and a visit from Dr. Buz, and the potential is high. Earlier this year, Romania and defending champion Czech Republic went to a fifth rubber, and Romania's task was to take out the world number 1 doubles team, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu did just that, in three tough sets.

This weekend, Halep defeated both (together again!) Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia. I sometimes think that the word "epic" is overused in describing tennis matches, but if anyone wants to call the Garcia-Halep match epic, I'm all in. It was three hours of of absolutely grueling clay court tennis, featuring the highest quality imaginable from both players. We'll still be talking about it at the end of the season.

The match had some unusual features. Both players won an amazing number of points off of their second serves. Neither did well at the net. It was a baseline slug-out that featured repeated gasp-worthy shots. It was an event. But, sadly, someone had to lose, and it was Garcia who blinked when she double-faulted twice at 4-all in the third.

Halep's defeat of Garcia put the teams at 2-1, but then Pauline Parmentier was put in to play Begu in the fourth rubber, and she evened the score at 2-all. It took a doubles rubber to determine who would reach the Fed Cup final. And it was only fitting that that rubber went three sets. Former French Open champions Garcia and Mladenovic, who had a falling out and haven't played together in a long time, were supposed to have faced off against Begu and Niculescu. However, Begu injured her ankle in the third rubber, so Halep was sent in as her replacement. And, while Niculescu was clearly the star (as she in any doubles match she plays), Halep was pretty impressive on the doubles court.

Garcia and Mladenovic were rusty, and it didn't take much for the Romanians to get an edge over them and take the first set. In fact, Romania looked rather good in the second set, too, and then--suddenly--some switch was pulled on the French side. The symbiotic muscle memory returned, and the French team started to look like themselves again. They won that set, and they won the third set, whose turning point occurred toward the end when an obviously fatigued Halep double-faulted.

France was in the Fed Cup final in 2016, under the able and creative leadership of Captain Amelie Mauresmo, but they lost to the Czech Republic in another five-rubber event. Now they're back in the final, this time under the leadership of Julien Benneteau, who appears to have that Mauresmo spirit. Their opponent will be team Australia, who will host the event.

Looking ahead to the final--and assuming that no one important is sick or injured (and no one insults anyone), I can't help but imagine yet another fifth rubber, in which the current Australian Open champions play the former French Open champions. A match featuring Ash Barty and Sam Stosur opposing Garcia and Mladenovic sounds pretty exciting.


Barty, of course, has come into her own, and is one of the most exciting players on the tour. In Australia's tie against Belarus, Barty defeated both Vika Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka. Both members of team Belarus defeated Stosur, so tie also went to a deciding fifth rubber, which Barty and Stosur won.


There were a lot of other things going on. Katie Boulter was a stand-out this weekend as she played two great rubbers against team Kazakhstan. She lost the first one--a three-set thriller--to Yulia Putintseva, then she defeated Zarina Diyas to take Great Britain over the line, after her teammate, Johanna Konta, defeated Putintseva. Great Britain is now into World Group II for the first time.

Not surprisingly, the Czech Republic won its World Group Play-Offs tie against Canada, and Lucie Safarova, playing in her final Fed Cup event, was given a worthy send-off. Also in the World Group Play-Offs, Alona Ostapenko lost both of her singles rubbers (to Julia Goerges and Mona Barthel). Anastasija Sevastova wasn't there to assist, and Germany defeated Latvia.

Sevastova wasn't the only top player missing this weekend. Angie Kerber, Belinda Bencic, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Elise Mertens, Dasha Kasatkina and Fed Cup Beast Kiki Bertens were all absent.

Garbine Muguruza was there, but that didn't help Spain in its tie against Belgium. The former French Open and Wimbledon champion lost both of her singles rubbers, to Kirsten Flipkens and Ysaline Bonaventure. Spain won, anyway, with the help of Carla Suarez Navarro (and Muguruza, in the doubles rubber).

Finally, also in the World Group Play-Offs, the USA played Switzerland. Viktorija Golubic, known for her Fed Cup antics, took out a listless Madison Keys in straight sets. The mercurial Sloane Stephens won both of her singles rubbers, beating both Golubic and Timea Bacsinszky, and Sonya Kenin, substituting for Keys, defeated Bacsinszky, thereby taking the USA over the line.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Groenefeld and Rosolska win Charleston doubles title

Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Alicja Rosolska, seeded fourth at the Volvo Car Open, won the doubles title today when they defeated the unseeded team of Irina Khromacheva and Veronika Kudermatova 7-6, 6-2 in a match that had to be postponed because of rain.

Groenefeld and Rosolska, tour veterans, were playing together for the first time, and they did not drop a set throughout the tournament. Though this is obviously their first title together (and what a way to start a partnership!), they now have a combined total of 30 titles--21 for Groenefeld and 9 for Rosolska.

Khromacheva and Kudermatova were also playing together for the first time, and--in the course of the tournament--they took out both the 2nd and 3rd seeds. The Russian team held a set point in their first set against Groenefeld and Rosolska.

Madison Keys--your new Charleston champion!

photo by Daniel Ward
It was a chilly, rainy morning, and the doubles final had to be postponed, but singles play began as scheduled on Volvo Car Stadium, as 2011 champion and 3rd seed Caroline Wozniacki faced off against 8th seed Madison Keys for the 2019 Volvo Car Open singles title. There was little to separate the two of them in the first set, though it should be noted that Keys had a 74% first serve win stat in that set--a statistic that would get even better in the second set.

Keys won that set in a tiebreak (7-5) and never looked back. In the next set, her first serve win percentage increased to 80, and she put continuous pressure on Wozniacki, whose own serve has been excellent during this tournament. Keys began dominating the longer rallies, while Wozniacki looked more defensive than she had in the opening set.

photo by Daniel Ward
Keys won the match 7-6, 6-3, and in doing so, she not only won the Volvo Car Open, she defeated the second major champion (the other was Sloane Stephens, in the quarterfinals) whom she had never before beaten. It was also Keys' first clay title, and next week, her ranking will climb to number 14 in the world.

Keys picked up a trophy, a key to the city of Charleston and a new Volvo, which she will get to design herself.

photo by Daniel Ward
Wozniacki, who won the title in 2011 (and was the runner-up in 2009, also) mentioned in her speech that she had never won a car at a tournament, and asked if she could perhaps borrow Keys' new Volvo. The champion replied that she would be happy to share her new ride with Caroline.

"...just very proud of how I played today." (photo by Daniel Ward)
all photos by Daniel Ward

Champions and runners-up in Charleston--a look at the numbers

SerenaWilliams in 2008 (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
The Volvo Car Open (formerly the Family Circle Cup) has been in Charleston since 2001. During that period, only two players--Serena Williams and Justine Henin--have repeated championship runs. Williams win the event in 2008, 2012 and 2013. In those finals, she defeated Vera Zvonareva, Lucie Safarova and Jelena Jankovic, respectively.

Williams was also a runner-up in 2003, when she lost to Justine Henin, who also won the event in 2005.

Both Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki have held both runner-up and champion status. Jankovic won the tournament in 2007. Wozniacki was the runner-up in 2009 (lost to Sabine Lisicki in the final), and was the champion in 2011.

In a category of her own is Martina Hingis, who was twice a runner-up in Charleston. However, Hingis won the event in 1999, when it was held at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Patty Schnyder (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
Three players have reached the finals twice but have not won the title in Charleston: Patty Schnyder was a finalist in 2002 and 2006, and lost the final to Iva Majoli and Nadia Petrova, respectively. Vera Zvonareva lost the final to Serena Williams in 2008, and to Sam Stosur in 2010. Elena Vesnina lost the final to Wozniacki in 2011, and to Sloane Stephens in 2016.

Of special interest was Schnyder's 2002 run. Unseeded, the Swiss player--a rock star in Charleston--blazed through the tournament, using her considerable bag of tricks to take out the likes of 6th seed Amelie Mauresmo, 3rd seed Serena Williams, wild card Mary Pierce, and top seed and defending champion Jennifer Capriati. It was an amazing run, but the Swiss player was defeated 6-4, 7-5 in the final by the also-unseeded Iva Majoli.

In 2005, Schndyer, seeded 3rd, lost in the final, but in order to get there, she again took out the defending champion and top seed, Justine Henin, in the semifinals.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Caroline Wozniacki and Madison Keys reach Volvo Car Open final

Madison Keys and Caroline Wozniacki (photos by Daniel Ward)

On a damp, sometimes rainy, sometimes chilly, day on Daniel Island, Caroline Wozniacki and Madison Keys advanced to the final of the Volvo Car Open. The two finalists are seeded 5 and 8 respectively, and they have both reached the final of the event in the past. Wozniacki was the runner-up in 2009, and the champion in 2011. Keys was the runner-up in 2015.

In the day's first semifinal, a sometimes physically-challenged Petra Martic faced a very in-form Wozniacki. And while the scoreline of that match was 6-3, 6-4--straight sets--the quality of play from both women was very high. There was some creative shot-making, which made for a crowd-pleasing match.

The second match was interrupted by rain in the middle of the first set, which was quite competitive. After the rain delay, however, it was all about Madison Keys, as her opponent, Monica Puig, struggled to find the level of play that had gotten her to the semifinals. Also, in the second set, Keys revved up her own level of play.

Keys hit nine aces, and had first and second serve win percentages of 76 and 58. She defeated Puig 6-4, 6-0.

clockwise from upper let: Petra Martic, Monica Puig, Madison Keys, Caroline Wozniacki (photos by Daniel Ward)

Wozniacki and Keys have never before faced each other on a clay court. They have, in fact, played each other only twice, both times on hard courts (and not since 2017), and Wozniacki won both of those matches in straight sets.

Paths to the final:

round 1--bye
round 2--def. Laura Siegemund
round 3--def. Mihaela Buzarnescu (12)
quarterfinals--def. Maria Sakkari (15)
semifinals--def. Petra Martic (16)

round 1--bye
round 2--def. Tatjana Maria
round 3--def. Alona Ostapenko (10)
quarterfinals--def. Sloane Stephens (1)
semifinals--def. Monica Puig