Sunday, June 10, 2018

My French Open top 10

Here are my top 10 French Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. A second serving of Coco: There's another Coco to watch in USA tennis. Cori "Coco" Gauff is the 2018 girls French Open champion. the 14-year-old Gauff defeated Catherine McNally, also from the USA, in the final. Last summer, Gauff became the younger girl to ever reach the final at the U.S. Open. McNally and her partner, Iga Swiatek, won the doubles championship, defeating Yuki Naito and Naho Sato in the final.

9. Japanese sweep: 9. Yui Kamiji, the world number 1 wheelchair player, won the French Open for the third time this week. Kamiji watched her Japanese compatriot, Shingo Kunieda, win the men's championship, and said that seeing him win "pushed me very much." But it wasn't easy for Kamiji because she had to face her rival, Diede de Groot, who won their first set, 6-2. The world number 1 came back, however, to win the last two sets 6-0 and 6-2.

In doubles, de Groot and her partner, Aniek van Koot defeated Kamiji and Marjolein Buis, who were the defending champions.

8. The doctor is in: Miaela Buzarnescu had never won a main draw match at a major when she entered the 2018 French Open. The 30-year-old Romanian, who was off of the tour for four years because of shoulder and knee injuries (and who earned a doctorate while she was on haitus), reached two WTA finals last year. At Roland Garros, she defeated both Vania King and Rebecca Peterson, then drew worldwide attention when she upset 4th seed and title contender Elina Svitolina in straight sets. Buzarnescu would fall to Madison Keys in the round of 16, but--what a run.

7. Last samba in Paris: Some of us were really looking forward to watching defending champion Alona Ostapenko compete (and do everything else she does), but we didn't get to see much. Ostapenko lost to world number 67 Kateryna Kozlova in the first round. This is the first time the defending champion has lost in the first round at Roland Garros since 2005 when Anastasia Myskina was defeated by the unseeded Maria Sanchez Lorenzo. But there's more: Ostapenko, through one of those tennis twists of fate, also gets this year's Wooden Spoon award.

6. More stunning than a flat Earth video!: Not many saw Yulia Putintseva coming, but the Kazakhstani player known for on-court verbal expressiveness had a great run in Paris. Putintseva began her campaign by taking out 22nd seed Jo Konta in straight sets, then defeated Jennifer Brady, and--in a tense, two-hour and 18-minute match--Wang Qiang. In the round of 16, Putintseva upset 26th seed Barbora Strycova, but finally fell, in the quarterfinals, to Madison Keys. 

5. The championship run that almost wasn't: Latisha Chan may have lost her number 1 ranking in women's doubles last week, but she received a very nice consolation prize. She and Ivan Dodig won the French Open mixed doubles championship, defeating Gabriela Dobrowski and Mate Pavic in the final. Chan was ill before the tournament, and had doubts about even entering, but fortunately, she was able to team with Dodig and win her first mixed doubles major championship. Chan, playing with Martina Hingis, won the 2017 U.S. Open women's doubles title.

4. Not the champion--this time: Sloane Stephens is never afraid to say what's on her mind, and during a press conference in Paris, she made it clear to the media that the "Sloane wins big in the U.S. but not outside of her country" routine can be put to rest. And, with her ascension to the final at Roland Garros, it looks like she's right. The 2017 U.S. Open champion operates on Sloane Time, and that works just fine for her, thank you very much. She moved smoothly through most of her draw in Paris, and very skillfully took the first set of the singles final. That was the last set she won, but there's no doubt about it: Sloane Stephens, with her easy power and fluid movement, is a force.

3. They were the favorites: Before the tournament began, there was quite a bit of talk about several potential champions--Simona Halep, of course, but also Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens, and former champions Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova. I thought that the talk about Williams wasn't realistic, and--until the last minute--I thought the Sharapova talk wasn't realistic, either.

It turned out that reality wasn't on the side of any of them but Halep, though Muguruza advanced all the way to the semifinals, in which she was routinely taken out by Halep. Bertens lost in two tiebreak sets to an in-form Angie Kerber in the third round, Williams retired from the tournament with an injury after her third round win, and Sharapova fell to Muguruza in the quarterfinals. Two other players who I thought would have excellent tournaments--Julia Goerges and Caroline Garcia--went out in the third and fourth rounds, respectively (losing to Williams and Kerber).

As for Svitolina, who many thought would win her first major in Paris: She continued her pattern of slaying in regular tournaments and making a fairly early exit in majors. This time, it was Mihaela Buzarnescu who delivered the blow--again, in the dreaded third round.

2. Fulfilling junior promise: The Czech team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova made up one formidable junior doubles team, winning not only the French Open, but also Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, all in 2013. Today, they won their first major, defeating Eri Hozumi and Makoto Ninomiya 6-3, 6-3 in the final. Hozumi and Ninomiya, incidentally, are the first Japanese team to reach the final of a major. Their path to the final included defeating top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic.

And then there's the news that, tomorrow, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina will achieve the number 1 doubles ranking for the first time. Makarova and Vesnina did not compete (as a team) in this year's French Open.

1. Romanian relief, Romanian pride: Going for the title for the third time--and not helped by also having seen the 2018 Australian Open title pass her by--Simona Halep did the only thing she could do--she cleared her head and willed herself to victory. Of course, this is Halep, so she did this after she lost the first set of the final to Sloane Stephens. But some players need to come from behind in order to get the momentum they need, and the world number 1 appears to be one of them. Maybe this won't always be the case (a good start in this direction was her straight-set dismissal of 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza in the semifinals).

However she did it doesn't really matter. Simona Halep, the first player to win her first major while holding the number 1 ranking, banished the psychological demons that have plagued her for some time, and did so against a really tough opponent. Every player is filled with joy upon winning a major, especially a first major, but the look on Halep's face after she hit match point was priceless. She did it. It was a long time coming, but she never gave up, and she found a way to make her mind as flexible as her body.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Si-mo-na! (Fi-nal-ly!)

I didn't think, in my lifetime (or maybe anyone's) I would ever see people travel around the world to cheer loudly for a female athlete, but that's exactly what the Romanians have done for Simona Halep since she caught up with all the potential some of us saw in her many years ago. Today, Halep gave her fans something about which to cheer loudly: On her third try, she won the French Open, defeating 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Of course, it went three sets--this is Simona. In 2012, she played a dazzling three-set final against Maria Sharapova, who later said it was the toughest final she had ever played. In 2017, Halep was up 3-1 in the third set against interloper Alona Ostapenko, who frolicked through the draw as though she were practicing one of her wilder ballroom dances. Ostapenko won that match, leaving Halep with two almost-wins at Roland Garros.

To make matters even more tense, Halep lost a three-set final at this year's Australian Open when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki. Again, Halep was, I suppose, what people call "always a bridesmaid, never a bride," but--since I find that phrase somewhat offensive--I'll use Fran Lebowitz's version--"always a godmother, never a god."

But not now. The speedy, agile, frequently dazzling shot-maker from Romania, who also happens to be the world's number 1 player, has won La Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen. Halep, a fine athlete with a strategic mindset, has struggled for years with her head. A perfectionist who is very hard on herself, Halep has had trouble "moving on" if a point or a game goes badly. This makes her especially vulnerable to players like Ostapenko and Stephens, who have are especially adept at letting things go and getting on to the next moment, or game, or set.

But Halep has worked on this issue, just as she has worked on her fitness and her groundstrokes. And today, that work paid off. The fluid, powerful Stephens--who does just about everything very well--dominated Halep in the first set, using her easy power. Stephens was seeing and picking up the ball so well, it appeared sometimes that she had cloned herself and there were Sloanes all over the court.

After winning the first set 6-3, Stephens broke Halep immediately in the second set. Halep then went on a tear, winning nine consecutive points and breaking a somewhat tired-looking Stephens. But then, things got even, and at 4-all, 30-all, the tension was palpable. Halep did break, though, and then stormed through the third set like the woman on a mission that she obviously was.

I really liked the semifinal draw, and would have been happy to see Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza or Madison Keys hold the trophy. But it was especially touching and gratifying to see the hard-working, stylistic Halep overcome her cerebral demons and win a major. I also especially like her game.

Not since the great Amelie Mauresmo finally won her first major in 2006 have I felt such relief on behalf of a player. On that January day, I went out and bought a bottle of champagne (I'm talking about real champagne, from France). I can't think of an equivalent thing to do now, but I join many others (including Simona's peers on the tour) in admiring her for pushing herself so hard for so long to achieve the distinction of winning a major--my favorite major, at that. And here's hoping that this is just the first one. Si-mo-na!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

If at first you don't succeed, think of Evonne Goolagong Cawley (and Simona Halep)

This week, Evonne Goolagong Cawley was honored with the Philippe Chatrier Award at the World Champions Dinner in Paris. The Australian star, who was practically a dancer on the court, won the French Open in 1971. In that event, Goolagong Cawley defeated Helen Gourlay in straight sets in the final. She came close to defending her title the next year, but lost to Billie Jean King in the final.

What makes Goolagong Cawley's Roland Garros success interesting is the fact that she played in the event only four times in her career.

Goolagong Cawley is much better known for having won the Australian Open four times, and Wimbledon twice. Her second Wimbledon championship, which she achieved in 1980, was also notable because, three years earlier, she had given birth to a daughter.

That brings me to the story of Evonne Goolagong Cawley and the U.S. Open. Goolagong Cawley played in New York only half a dozen times, but at four of those tournaments--1973, 1974, 1975, and 1976--she was in the final.

She never won the U.S. Open. On those four occasions when she came close, she was defeated by Billie Jean King in 1974, and the other three times by her old rival, Chris Evert. She wouldn't play in New York again until 1979, when she got as far as the quarterfinals.

Goolagong Cawley's presence in Paris this week made me think about Simona Halep, and what it must feel like to get to a final, lose it, then get to it again, lose it, then get to it again, and--well, stay tuned.

For any player, the pressure to finally get that trophy has to be immense, but for a person like Halep, it might be excruciating. The world number 1, no stranger to anxiety and perfectionism, has handled herself extremely well these past two weeks, and her easy defeat of a scary-in-form Garbine Muguruza today was very noteworthy.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley picked herself up and kept trying, and was later amused to recall that, at least she made it into Trivial Pursuit a second time after her four consecutive U.S. Open losses in finals. And as painful as it must have been for Goolagong Cawley to finally accept that she was never going to win the U.S. Open, she had seven major titles to console her.        

Halep, who was also the runner-up in this year's Australian Open, is still trying for her first one. She was philosophical about the situation in her press conference, saying "So I lost three times until now, and no one died, so it will be okay."

Down to two—Halep and Stephens to face off in French Open final

The anticipated thriller—or at least drawn-out—semifinal contest between world number 1 Simona Halep and former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza turned out to be neither thrilling (except for a while in the second set, when the Romanian saved three break points), nor drawn out. Halep totally domimated Muguruza in the first set. Muguruza made more of an inroad in the second, but the world number 1 appeared determined to prevent any possibility of third-set tension.

Halep was strong in her returns to the powerful Spaniard, she hit relentlessly to Muguruza's forehand, and she was more than proficient at the net. She was also able to break Muguruza six times. Her 6-1, 6-4 victory not only puts her into her third French Open final, it also assures that she will retain her number 1 ranking.

Her opponent will be 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, who defeated her U.S. Open final opponent, Madison Keys 6-4, 6-4. Keys, for all her big serving and forehand dazzle, made unforced errors all over the place—41 in all.

Halep and Keys have played each other seven times, and Halep won five of those matches, including the last four that they played. She also won their only two clay court matches.

Here are the players’ paths to the final:

round 1–def. Alison Riske
round 2–def. Taylor Townsend
round 3–def. Andrea Petkovic
round of 16–def. Elise Mertens (16)
quarterfinals—def. Angelique Kerber (12)
semifinals—def. Garbine Muguruza (3)

round 1–def. Arantxa Rus
round 2–def. Magdalena Frech
round 3–def.Camila Giorgi
round of 16–def. Anett Kontaveit (16)
quarterfinals—def. Daria Kasatkina (14)
semifinals—def. Madison Keys (13)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Simona, Garbine, Madison, and Sloane have a story to tell

Every good draw has a story, and the semifinal draw of the French Open has a story worth telling.

The lead character in this story is world number 1 Simona Halep. If she defeats Garbine Muguruza, she holds onto her number 1 ranking--and goes to her fourth major final. It would also be her third French Open final, and so much appears (I don't want to be like a television commentator and read Simona's mind) to be riding on what happens. In fact, the stakes seem so great, that a loss to Muguruza in the semifinals might even be less painful than another loss in the final.

The Romanian seems ready for anything. Her clever game and impressive speed and flexibility have frequently been greater than her mental stability on court, but right now, Halep seems to have finally put all the pieces together.

Muguruza, however, is more than just "another" semifinal opponent. Many are saying that she has "the look"--that's the look she gets when she's about to finish off the remainder of the seven women she faces in a major draw. The Spaniard (who will return to the number 1 spot if she wins her semifinal match) isn't consistent. She can "mugu" around and make an early exit--or she can display such deadly fluidity that she becomes a one-woman SWAT team. She looks like a woman on a mission, and it won't be easy for even the talented, determined Halep to stop her.

What a contrast they are. Muguruza, at her best, makes everything look so easy. Halep, on the other hand, dazzles with her ability to struggle, fight relentlessly and come back from behind. Muguruza is 4-1 against her, but the one match Halep won was played on clay.

The other semifinal has its own story. Two close friends, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens--both from the USA--will compete to see who goes to the final. Stephens beat Keys in the 2017 U.S. Open final. She also beat Keys the only other time they played, in Miami in 2015. Keys contends she can't stand playing on clay, but she probably wouldn't give up this opportunity to reach the final in Paris.

Keys is hardly a Halep. She has a big serve and forehand, and lacks Halep's speed. But she'll be facing someone not unlike Muguruza: When Stephens is "on," she, too, makes it look so fluid and easy. And also like the Spaniard, Stephens isn't known for being "on" on a consistent basis.

My gut feelilng is that everyone is going to be "on," and the story may be, in part, a thriller. There will be happy endings and sad endings--and anticipation for the sequel, which will occur on Saturday.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

A week later, and the draw looks--kind of empty

Top of Moulin Rouge
Defending champion Alona Ostapenko is out of the French Open (remember that?!). Kiki Mladenovic is out. Schmiedy and Alex Krunic are out. Former champion Sveta Kuznetsova is out, as are Laura Siegemund and Dominika Cibulkova. Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams and Jo Konta are all out. Former champion Francesca Schiavone is gone, as is Anastasija Sevastova. And former finalist Sara Errani.

And that was just the first round.

In the second round, we lost Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, CoCo Vandeweghe, Ash Barty, former finalist Lucie Safarova, Ekaterina Makarova, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Alize Cornet.

The third round was also brutal, as we might expect. Out of competition are Daria Gavrilova, Kiki Bertens, Julia Goerges, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, and Petra Kvitova.

Not all of these players were seeded (most were); a few were just players I expected (and hoped) to see stick around longer. Some were suffering the effects of injury, illmess and absence. A few were probably tired.

Four who went out in the third round--Bertens, Pliskova, Svitolina, and Kvitova--were considered contenders for the title (I also thought of Goerges as a dark horse). Of those, the one for whom the loss may be the most bitter (though Kvitova's 6-7, 6-7 loss had to hurt) is Svitolina. Her curse at the majors continues, just when most of us thought it would finally be lifted, championship or not.

I can't watch all the matches I want to because I can't get up at 4 a.m. But I do get up early, and it angers me that on this weekend, I still can't watch what I want to watch because NBC has the broadcast rights after a certain time of day. I was lucky enough to find a good livestream of the Halep vs. Petkovic match, but I was unable to watch any of the Kerber vs. Bertens match, which I waited all day to see.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Simona Halep (1) vs. Elise Mertens (16)
A lot of this will be about Mertens' serve, which--when it's "on"--is deadly. As good a returner as Halep is, if Mertens gets into a fancy serving zone, she can be very big trouble. 
Angie Kerber (12) vs. Caroline Garcia (7)
I didn't get to see Kerber's match today, as I angrily mentioned, but my understanding is that she's continuing her comeback mission quite nicely. It should be a good match.

Garbine Muguruza (3) vs. Lesia Tsurenko
The Spaniard seems to always play under the radar, kind of quietly drifting through the draw until someone upsets her--or until she leaves the blood of seven players on the courts. So far, so good. Tsurenko is one of the surprises of the tournament. She's already taken out two seeded players, CoCo Vandeweghe and Magdalena Rybarikova. It would take some real "muguing around" on the former champion's part, however, for her unseeded opponent to advance.

Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova (28)
The insults are already flying, and I'm already feeling ill. I really don't want these two to play each other because, as I Tweeted earlier today, I'm sick to death of the fan and commentator narratives about their match-up.

Barbora Strycova (26) vs. Yulia Putintseva
How can it be anything but entertaining? For those who like their tennis spicy, it's a dream draw.

Madison Keys (13) vs. Mihaila Buzarnescu
Buzarnescu, so far is the story of the tournament. Prior to now, she had never won a main draw match at a major. Her career, similar to that of Laura Siegemund's, was derailed by injury, so she became a serious student. And now, she's taken out 4th seed (and predicted, by many, to be the 2018 champion) Elina Svitolina. Can she keep it up?

Anett Kontaveit (25) vs. Sloane Stephens (10)
Kontaveit is scary-good on clay. This season, she's been on an upset rampage that would impress anyone, and has already beaten five top-10 players. Her fifth victim was the season's hottest clay court player (how odd it sounds to say that), Petra Kvitova. Kontaveit beat Kvitova in two tense tiebreak sets, so she doesn't seem to be having any problems in the nerves department.

Daria Kasatkina (14) vs. Caroline Wozniacki (2)
Kasatkina, despite being a very good clay court player with a lot of potential (and one very nice clay court title--Charleston, 2017) has yet to break out in a way that would send her up the next rung of the tour ladder. But the ability is there. The Russian is strategic and clever, but Wozniacki has seen it all, and has run it all down.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

What do Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Alona Ostapenko have in common?

photo by Daniel Ward
Alona Ostapenko's first-round loss at the French Open was, quite obviously, connected to her poor serving performance. Also, in her press conference, she revealed that she'd experienced very negative feelings from the moment she woke up on Sunday.

Recently, in a New York Times article, Christopher Clarey reported that Ostapenko's mother said that, at one time, serving was one of her daughter's strengths. At age 15, Ostapenko had to have shoulder surgery, which caused her to change her service motion. Her serve then deteriorated.

But that's just part of the story. Jelena Jakovleva went on to say that “It’s something mental probably now. The pain is gone, but she cannot find the right motion.”

And it's not a new story. Elena Dementieva, who--sadly--became known for her terrible serve, once had a good serve, too, but after shoulder surgery, it never returned. It was painful to watch the very talented Russian struggle so much when serving.

And then there's Maria Sharapova. Sharapova played for months with a torn rotator cuff because her doctors were somehow incapable of reading an X-ray or MRI. When she finally had surgery, the tear was really bad. Rehab failed, and had to be repeated. 

That's a lot of trauma, even for someone as tough as Sharapova. Once the holder of one of the best second serves on the tour, post-surgery, the Russian couldn't find a second serve. She double-faulted a great deal, and when her first serve went in, it frequently wasn't the first serve of the pre-surgery Sharapova. And while the situation has improved, Sharapova is still struggling with her serve.

What are the factors behind this phenomenom? There are two. One has to do with belief. It's possible that Ostapenko and Sharapova no longer believe that they can serve well. It's also possible that they consciously believe that they can serve well, but their unconscious belief is that they will fail.

The second factor is the fact that serving is an action, not a reaction. When we react to something, our instincts take over, and they take over quickly. But serving has nothing to do with reacting; it's a conscious, deliberate action totally within the control of the server. When the reaction "switch" isn't turned on by a stimulus, the player is left with too much time on her hands, and too much temptation to think (or, in the case of an unconscious belief, to fulfill that belief).

What is the solution? I would suggest hypnosis, so that the conscious mind can be bypassed. But there are other interventions that would work, too--structured visualization, relaxation exercises, training in basic meditation techniques, and of course--any possible simplifying of the service motion, in order to hasten the striking of the ball.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

French Open first rounds to watch

clockwise from top: Errani, Begu, Goerges, Siegemund, Cornet (photos by Daniel Ward)

The thing about a major is that the tension begins with the first ball hit. When the first round of the French Open commences on Sunday, there will be several first rounds that could be especially tense:

Angelique Kerber (6) vs. Mona Barthel: Kerber has had a tough time of it since she had her glory year in 2016, when she was number 1 in the world and won two majors plus an Olympic silver medal. Back then, she certainly seemed in place to win at Roland Garros, given her clay court skills. Recently, she has elevated her game again, but it can't be too thrilling for her to learn that her very first opponent will be countrywoman Barthel. It's not that Barthel has done anything in particular lately, but when she's "on," she can be dangerous on a clay court. And you never know when Barthel's "on" switch will be tripped.

Irina-Camelia Begu vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova: Schmiedlova recently, dramatically, resurrected her career. The last thing she needs to face someone like Begu in the first round in Paris. The Romanian player can be quite tricky on clay, and this has the potential to be a really good match.

Garbine Muguruza (3) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: There's nothing like having two former French Open champions meet in the first round. Muguruza won in in 2016, Kuznetsova in 2009. Both are prone toward "going off," and both are outstanding clay court performers. This is the first round match I most want to watch.

Laura Siegemund vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (15): If it weren't for her accident and lengthy rehab, I'd look for the German to go deep into the tournament. She hasn't returned to her deadly form on clay, however, and Vandeweghe has suddenly begun to perform well on it. One way or the other, it will be worth watching.

Julia Goerges (11) vs. Dominika Cibulkova: The German's outstanding form has dropped a bit lately, though I still consider her someone who could do very well in Paris. And while Cibulkova tends to shine on hard courts, she could prove to be a problem if Goerges doesn't arrive in top form.

Alize Cornet (32) vs. Sara Errani: Errani is 4-3 against Cornet in general, but Cornet is 2-1 against the Italian on clay. The outcome of this match probably depends on which Cornet shows up. The Cornet who took out top seed Caroline Garcia in Charleston last month could beat any number of players. The problem is that the Frenchwoman's nerves often don't permit that Cornet to play her game.