Saturday, August 24, 2019

Injury (and other) questions loom over U.S. Open draw

Morningside Park (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

I enjoy the U.S. Open. Too much. Because so many matches are available for me to watch, I sometimes resent that I have to do things like go to work and go to the gym because I am watching the U.S. Open, thank you very much.

The upcoming Open is going to be as interesting, I think, as the other majors were this year. Defending champion Naomi Osaka enters in questionable shape; she retired from her quarterfinal match in Cincinnati because of a leg injury. Simona Halep does enter as a big favorite, but there's a lingering question about her foot. If it has totally healed, her chances are excellent to claim the title.

And, speaking of health, as far as I'm concerned, if she's not injured or doesn't get injured, Bianca Andreescu has as good a chance as anyone of claiming the trophy. The other player who enters as a top contender is French Open champion Ash Barty.

Some players whom we expected to be favorites are not. Kiki Bertens isn't on fire the way she was last year, and Karolina Pliskova--though I still consider her a favorite--has lost some currency. There's quite a bit of talk about former runner-up Madison Keys, who just brilliantly won Cincinnati. With Keys, though, you just never know. Elina Svitolina has yet to win a major, and she's best on hard courts, but her performances are inconsistent, and--at this time--she can't be considered a top contender.

Petra Kvitova has always struggled at the U.S. Open because of her asthma (which is now under better control, but which still makes her vulnerable), but this year, she also has to contend with an injured forearm. In Cincinnati, she said that she was still dealing with occasional swelling, and she wasn't sure whether it was caused by scar tissue, or perhaps an issue involving her wounded hand. She then withdrew from the Bronx tournament. I wouldn't be surprised if Kvitova withdraws from the Open.

And then there's Serena Williams, who has historically had a hard time at the Open--not playing it, but staying within a circle of calm. We know never to count her out, but how much should we count her in? Unfortunately, before she even steps onto a court, there's drama surrounding her. First, there's the matter of last year's final and the fact that the media continues to deconstruct it. Granted, it was an unfortunate and complex event, but the continuing preoccupation with it is tiresome.

And as if that weren't enough, Williams' first opponent is Maria Sharapova, and the dynamics between them have been projected into overblown 21st Century sociological myth. In the age of reality television and gossip-as-news, both fans and the media will have a field day with this match.

The Osaka quarter includes Anett Kontaveit, Aryna Sabalenka, Donna Vekic, Julia Goerges (whose level has dropped, but she can still be dangerous), and Bertens.

The Halep quarter includes Andreescu, 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, Cincinnati runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova, Alona Ostapenko (you never know), Garbine Muguruza (you really never know), and Kvitova.

In the Pliskova quarter are Svitolina, Venus Williams, Sonya Kenin, and 2017 runner-up and Cincinnati champion Madison Keys.

The Barty quarter includes Serena Williams, Anastasija Sevastova, 2016 champion Angie Kerber, and Maria Sakkari.

First rounds of interest:

Aryna Sabalenka (9) vs. Vika Azarenka

Aleks Krunic vs. Alona Ostapenko

Alison Riske vs. Garbine Muguruza (24)

Jo Konta (16) vs. Daria Kasatkina

Serena Williams (8) vs Maria Sharapova

Angie Kerber (14) vs. Kiki Mladenovic

Maria Sakkari (30) vs. Camila Giorgi

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Final thoughts on Cincinnati

Several unexpected things happened this year at the Western and Southern Open, but then--it's the WTA, and it's generally best to expect the unexpected. We weren't expecting Naomi Osaka to retire, though she was wise to do so (Osaka said that she has a high pain tolerance and sometimes plays on when it would be best for her to stop). We also weren't expecting the retirement of Belinda Bencic, which occurred in the first round.

Ever the optimist when it comes to the Spaniard, I didn't think 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza would go out in the first round, but given that she lost to our champion, Madison Keys, the loss doesn't seem as stunning as it might have. Keys played great tennis from the moment she arrived at the tournament.

The bigger surprise was the elimination of defending champion Kiki Bertens, who lost to Venus Williams in the second round. Williams was in especially good form in Cincinnati.

The best surprise was the stunning run of wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova, who made it all the way to the final, and took out four seeded players--three in the top 10--and one up-and-coming young player on her way there. Given Kuznetsova's long injury layoff, no one--including Kuznetsova--was expecting this to happen. The 34-year-old veteran put on quite a show the entire time she was here, and was, of course, her usual entertainingly philosophical self.

It was blazing hot and humid the entire week. Last year, through some weather fluke, it was mild and comfortable, but this year, it was back to normal, but with only one rain delay. The weather prevented me from seeing a few matches I wanted to see (well, I watched them on the monitor), and it frequently caused me to watch only part of a match while I was outside.

Of all the matches I saw--"live" or otherwise--the one that sticks out for me was the third round contest between 9th seed Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari. It was full of twists and turns, with both players going at it as though they were fighting for their very careers. I think everyone who saw it was mesmerized by it. Sakkari won--and though she would go out in the next round against top seed Ash Barty--the Greek player continued to establish herself as someone to watch.

Other players who impressed this week were Sonya Kenin (who continues to impress), Anett Kontaveit, Donna Vekic and, of course, the inimitable Hsieh Su-Wei, who played a memorable match against Naomi Osaka.

Finally, this may have been the "turn the corner" event for Madison Keys, who said that she felt that she had finally put all the elements of her game together this week. She also said that she felt calm, and not putting so much pressure on herself. Her serve was mostly strong, and her movement was superb. She goes into the U.S. Open with a lot of momentum.

The Cincinnati experience is an exciting and fan-friendly one, with almost all of the top WTA and ATP players competing. The grounds are filled with flowers, parking is free, and fans have a wide variety of food and vendor choices. 2019 did not disappoint,

Madison Keys wins Cincinnati title

 

Down 3-5 in both sets, 16th seed Madison Keys overcame wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova to defeat her 7-5, 7-6 and win the Western and Southern Open title this afternoon in Cincinnati. In her previous matches, it was Kuznetsova who came back from a 3-5 deficit, but today, she was unable to stop Keys, who aggression and outstanding service game took her to victory.

 

Keys is now 4-0 against Kuznetsova, who said, after the match: "I think Madison served well, served much better than I did. But still, I had all the chances. Sometimes it goes this way, you know. The game is like this."

"I'm totally Dory on this."  
 
About the upcoming U.S. Open, the Russian veteran said: "I can draw any player in the first round, so wish me luck in the draw."

When asked about her game plan, considering her losing record against Keys, Kuznetsova replied: "Oh, I don't--when I saw I lost to her three times, I won't even remember. Like, this is good about me. I don't remember anything like good or bad...my memory is like Dory from Looking for Nemo. I'm totally Dory on this."

Keys acknowledged that "It was a tough draw from the very start. I really think I’ve played some of my best tennis ever this week." She went on to say, "I think Iwas just really calm…and I kind of dropped dropped the expectations of myself a little bit."     

This is Keys' fifth WTA title, and her first Premier 5 title. She's now back in the top 10 and is definitely a contender for the U.S. Open title. In 2017, she was the runner-up, losing the final to Sloane Stephens.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Keys and Kuznetsova to contest for Cincinnati title


 

It's doubtful that anyone who wasn't throwing darts at a draw sheet picked Madison Keys and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the Cincinnati singles finalists. Well, maybe Keys, though her side of the draw also included world number 1 Naomi Osaka, defending champion and 5th seed Kiki Bertens, 2018 runner-up and 7th seed Simona Halep, and 7th seed Elina Svitolina.

Kuznetsova, on the other hand, got a wild card into the tournament and has been off of the tour quite a bit because of injuries. She is currently ranked number 153 in the world; on paper, she is an unlikely candidate to be one of the last two women standing. In reality, however, she has looked stunning throughout the tournamnent, and has taken out three top 10 players.

This morning, Kuznetsova handily defeated top seed Ash Barty, 6-2, 6-4, after which she presided over a very entertaining press conference in which she talked about the Russian way vs. the Spanish way: Kuznetsova did her early training in Spain, where she learned how to deliver her heavy topspin. "...why Russian people go so well with Spanish tennis," she said, is "because we are, like, really crazy and really go 100% and risk it. Spanish, they put us calmer." She went on to say that, despite that, sometimes she had to play "Russian."

"Everyone has a different mess in their head" 

 

This cultural combination served her well today. Earlier in the week, Kuznetsova said that she likes to think a lot--"sometimes too much." But, she said today, "I learn so much to trust what I feel....Everyone has a different mess in their head." When asked about the possibility of playing Russian-born Sonya Kenin in the final, Kuznetsova said she knew that Kenin was playing really well, and that she "probably has less mess in her head."

Barty referred to Kuznetsova as "a legend in the sport," and said that the Russian "was in control from the get-go." The top seed went on to describe her opponent: "She's not a one-trick pony, and she's better at problem-solving than most."




Kuznetsova will need to do some problem-solving tomorrow because she'll be competing against a woman who has beaten her all three times that they've played. 16th seed Madison Keys, moving superbly around the court all week, defeated Kenin 7-5, 6-4 in a stunning display of shot-making and court coverage.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA
round 1--Anastasija Sevastova (11)
round 2--Dayana Yastremska
round 3--Sloane Stephens (8)
quarterfinals--Karolina Pliskova (3) [2016 champion]
semifinals--Ash Barty (1)

MADISON KEYS
round 1--Garbine Muguruza [2017 champion]
round 2--Daria Kasatkina
round 3--Simona Halep (4)
quarterfinals--Venus Williams
semifinals--Sonya Kenin

Friday, August 16, 2019

Kuznetsova gets past Pliskova to advance to Cincinnati semifinals


 

Probably no one saw it coming, but Svetlana Kuznetsova advanced to the Cincinnati semifinals today with a three-set victory (3-6, 7-6, 6-3) over 3rd seed and 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova. Kuznetsova, who was unable to defend her Citi Open title because of a visa problem, was able to go to Toronto, where she made it to the third round. In Cincinnati, she has defeated 11th seed Anastasija Sevastova, impressive newcomer Dayana Yastremska, 8th seed Sloane Stephens, and Pliskova.

The Russian veteran has had to deal with both a wrist injury and a knee injury this season. She's also had issues with coaching changes, and says that "nothing has been easy." The two-time major champion (U.S. Open, 2004, French Open, 2009) is known for many things--her heavy topspin, strong legs, fair-mindedness and candor, and her tendency to lose matches she "should" win. Today, she looked dominant throughout much of her quarterfinal match, in which she beat one of the best hard court players on the tour.

Kuznetsova, currently ranked number 153 in the world, will next face top seed Ashleigh Barty. Barty defeated Maria Sakkari 5-7, 6-2, 6-0 in today's first quarterfinal. The two have never before played one another.

Another surprise came this afternoon when world number 1 Naomi Osaka retired in the third set of her match against Sonya Kenin. Osaka experienced pain in her knee, but--as of a couple of hours ago--had no idea what was wrong. She said in her press conference that she has a high pain tolerance and so she sometimes keeps playing when she should stop. Today, she stopped right away. Obviously, as the U.S. Open defending champion, Osaka is even more concerned than a player would normally be about an injury. She said she wasn't troubled by the thought of not winning the U.S. Open; rather, she was troubled by the thought of perhaps not playing in it.

Today's last quarterfinal featured Venus Williams and 16th seed Madison Keys. Keys, continuing her excellent form, hit 32 winners and made only 17 unforced errors. She defeated Williams 6-2, 6-3, and will play Kenin in the semifinals.

In doubles, 8th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Andreja Klepac wild cards defeated Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova 7-6, 7-5, and  5th seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Demi Schuurs defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe 7-6, 7-6.

Fascinating quarterfinal lineup in Cincinnati today

 

World number 1 Naomi Osaka takes on Sonya Kenin in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open today. Osaka was put to the test in the third round by the inimitable Hsieh Su-Wei, and Kenin--with only a slight wobble--dominated 7th seed Elina Svitolina in the second night match.

Serving for the match at 4-5 in the second set, Kenin double-faulted, then double-faulted again to get broken. But in what we have now come to see as "the Kenin way," she made a rapid mental recovery and just went on with her business on the court and won the match in a tiebreak. Kenin was in command of the baseline, at times hurling shots into the corner in a Kvitova-like fashion, and she also executed a number of deadly drop shots. Kenin's timing on drop shots is excellent; she knows exactly when to use them.

Simona Halep, struggling with a left foot problem that hampered her signature movement, lost in three sets to Madison Keys, who has been playing exceptionally well in Cincinnati.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Maria Sakkari
Karolina Pliskova (3) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova
Venus Williams vs. Madison Keys (16)
Sonya Kenin vs. Naomi Osaka (2)

 

In doubles, top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova gave a walkover to their quarterfinal opponents, 8th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Andrja Klepac. They will play Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova in the semifinals. The Pliskova sisters, playing with a wild card, upset 3rd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova in the quarterfinals.

In the other semifinal, 5th seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Demi Schuurs will compete against Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Look who's back!

 

It took Svetlana Kuznetsova only 52 minutes to overcome 8th seed Sloane Stephens at the Western & Southern Open today. The Russian veteran totally dominated Stephens, whose first and second serve win percentages for the match were 41 and 30. Kuznetsova is into the quarterfinals of a premiere event for the first time in two years. To get to the third round, Kuznetsova defeated 11th seed Anastasija Sevastova and rising star Dayana Yastremska.

Also winning today were Maria Sakkari and top seed Ash Barty, who was taken to three sets by Anett Kontaveit, who led 5-3 in the third set. 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova defeated qualifier Rebecca Peterson 7-5, 6-4, and Venus Williams defeated Donna Vekic, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Hsieh Su-Wei, known for her creativity, did not disappoint in her match against world number 1 Naomi Osaka. Osaka prevailed, 7-6, 5-7, 6-2, but not until she had been forced through several hoops by her tricky opponent. The stands were packed, the sidewalk was packed, and the adjoining court was occupied by people standing on top of the highest seats so that they could see the action. In my opinion, the best thing to come out of this crowd gathering was that more people got to see the amazing Hsieh cast her spell.

Sakkari wins thrilling battle of intensity and nerves

 

It took her two hours and 43 minutes, and she had to come from a set and 1-4 down. Yet Maria Sakkari emerged the victor in a gritty, intense, sometimes frustrating battle against 9th seed Aryna Sabalenka in the third round of the Western & Southern Open. At times, it seemed that each player was looking into a mirror and fighting herself. Sabalenka saved 20 of 23 break points and double-faulted 17 times. Those stats alone should tell you how "unusual" this match was.

Sabalenka won the first set in a tiebreak, during which Sakkari became somewhat undone by an argument she had with the chair umpire. The Greek player went on to win the second set, and the third set was an drama unto itself. The seventh game of that set, in fact, was as good a microcosm of the match as one could have hoped for. Sabalenka served at 3-4, and--after multiple deuces--Sakkari broke on her sixth break point.

After that break, the Greek player went down 0-40 on her own serve, then saved four break points. She then broke Sabalenka again, and successfully served for the match.



It was exhausting to watch this highly entertaining match; I can only imagine what it was like to play it. Sakkari told us, after, "I never thought I was gonna lose this match." She said she was aware, during the match, that there were a lot of break points being contested, but she didn't know how many until after the match, when she saw the stats.

Sakkari and Sabalenka have played doubles together, but they had never before played each other in singles. 


Sakkari's plan for this evening is to do a lot of physical recovery, then to do something (perhaps a TV show) "that is nothing to do with tennis." Her next opponent is Ash Barty.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Osaka, Barty and Pliskova advance in Cincinnati



The contest for the top ranking in the world is still on. The three women who could leave Cincinnati as number 1--Naomi Osaka (the current number 1), Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova all advanced today at the Western & Southern Open. Barty and Pliskova both won in straight sets; Osaka was taken to a third set by Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who had to get treatment for her left knee during the match.

Top seed Barty defeated Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-1. The first set was competitive, but in the second, Sharapova became too error-prone to give Barty much trouble. In her press conference, the Russian star appeared world-weary, and was obviously troubled by what had occurred. She said that she couldn't account for the lapse, but guessed that part of the problem may have been that this was her first daytime match.

Sharapova committed six double faults, a phenomenon that has rarely let up since her last shoulder surgery. She did report, however, that she felt very good physically. She also said that she was not looking for a coach at this time.

Someone commented that Sharapova's many injuries and episodes of starting over "seems like four lifetimes." "It feels," Sharapova responded, "like twenty."

Last year's runner-up, Simona Halep, started today's center court play with a three-set victory over Ekaterina Alexandrova. Halep is still dealing with the foot injury that took her out of the Rogers Cup last week. Her next opponent will be Madison Keys, who has now beaten both 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza and a somewhat resurgent Daria Kasatkina. 



Anett Kontaveit won a very entertaining match against Iga Swiatek, and her reward will be to play Ash Barty. Aryna Sabalenka is back on the upswing (she looked really good here last year, too), and in the third round, she'll face Maria Sakkari, who defeated Petra Kvitova last night. Venus Williams may have her hands full with Donna Vekic, who defeated Vika Azarenka in straight sets. And Karolina Pliskova will play Rebecca Peterson.

Other winners today were Elina Svitolina, Hsieh Su-Wei, Sonya Kenin, and Sveta Kuznetsova. The Russian has defeated both Anastasija Sevastova and Dayana Yastremska. Kenin will play Elina Svitolina, whom she defeated in Toronto, in the third round.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Defending champion Bertens out of Cincinnati

Kiki Bertens, the 2018 Western & Southern Open champion, lost to Venus Williams today in the 2nd round of play in Cincinnati. Williams defeated 5th seed Bertens 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. Not long after that match ended, 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza was defeated, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, by Madison Keys.

There are still a few former champions left in the draw. 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova, seeded 3rd, has yet to play her second round match. Also yet to play is Serena Williams, who won the event in 2014 and 2015. 2011 champion Maria Sharapova won her opening round match against Alison Riske last night.

2016 runner-up Angie Kerber was also defeated today--by Anett Kontaveit. Belinda Bencic retired in the second set of her match against Vika Azarenka; Bencic sustained a left foot injury.

In doubles, the 6th-seeded Chan sisters went out to the comeback team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe. The Chans aren't the only sisters on the doubles court in Cincinnati: The Pliskova sisters are here, too, and they won their opening match yesterday.

The weather today was very warm and humid (yesterday was mild and pleasant), with the sun coming out every now and then. Rain was expected today, but--with the exception of a light, brief sprinkle--there was none.