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.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

WTA to launch Tournament of Losers

The WTA announced today that, in the near future, the first annual Tournament of Losers will be added to the tour's calendar. The event, which the WTA's chairwoman, Stacy Allaster, says will be held "somewhere in China," will feature players who make it to finals of tournaments but do not win them. There will be eight spots to fill in the round-robin tournament.

"We are excited about this innovation," Allaster said in making the announcement. "As the world leader in women's sports, the WTA wants to make certain that our most promising losers are given an opportunity to show their talents on an international stage."

"Of course," she added, "someone will win the tournament, but the runner-up will get an automatic wild card entry into the next year's Tournament of Losers."

Allaster said that a Tournament of Losers is needed because "fans want it."

The WTA has a colorful history of losers who went on to have interesting careers. "There is no greater inspiration," Allaster said, "than Francesca Schiavone, who lost nine finals before finally winning one, and she went on to win the French Open!" She added that the runner-up in that event was Samantha Stosur, who lost five finals before finally winning a tournament. Stosur, however--while she has six titles, including one at the U.S. Open--has lost an additional nine finals since winning her first one.

Wild cards will be awarded in the event that fewer than eight players without titles lose finals. Title-less players who lose multiple semifinals will be considered, as well as players who--despite having titles--continue to lose finals. According to Allaster, the wild card selection will also allow for the inclusion of a "Sloane Stephens-type situation."

As an added attraction, fans will vote for their choices to compete in an invitational tournament of Rising Headcases, to be held during the Tournament of Losers. Four young players who tend to go to pieces when they play big matches will be selected by tennis fans all over the world.

Riske tells Bencic "not quite yet"

Alison Riske
In an odd twist on the "veterans are taking over the tour" theme, 24-year-old Alison Riske won her first WTA title today, and in doing so, denied a first title to 17-year-old Belinda Bencic, one of the brightest of the tour's rising stars. Riske won the inaugural edition of the Tianjing Open, defeating Bencic 6-3, 6-4 in the final.

The doubles title was taken by Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova, who defeated Sorana Cirstea and Andreja Klepac 6-7, 6-2, 10-8. Kudryavtseva and Rodionova got not only a trophy, but also the last availble spot in the WTA Finals draw.

In Linz, the intriguing match-up of Camila Giorgi and Karolina Pliskova ended with a third WTA title for Pliskova, who beat Giorgi 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, saving a match point along the way. Raluca Olaru and Anna Tatishvili won the doubles title, defeating Annika Beck and Caroline Garcia 6-2, 6-1.

Finally, in Osaka, top seed Sam Stosur came through again. She defeated Zarina Diyas 7-6, 6-3. This is Stosur's third Osaka title.

In doubles, Shuko Aoyama and Renata Voracova won the title by defeating Lara Arruabarrena and Tatjana Maria 6-1, 6-2.

Qualifying is in progress in both Moscow and Luxembourg.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Who is next?

If you had to answer the question, "Who will be the next player to win her first major?" you'd probably say Genie Bouchard--and you would likely be correct in your prediction. In 2014, Bouchard pulled herself away from any perceived pack of peers, reaching the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, and the final of Wimbledon. She also won her first WTA title, in Nurnberg, and reached the final in Wuhan.

Bouchard injured her knee at the French Open and has continued to have some problems with it. Her last quarter has not been as stellar as the rest of her year, but she has a chance--at the WTA Finals--to make a strong comeback. The sports marketing machine has already anointed Bouchard, which undoubtedly makes her progress more complicated.

However, a strong argument can also be made for Simona Halep, who is a threat on all surfaces, and who played an outstanding final against Maria Sharapova at this year's French Open. Halep, however, has to find a way to end her chronic injury problem so that her momentum will not be constantly interrupted.

So here are two questions:

Genie Bouchard (photo by Daniel Ward)
1. If Bouchard does become the next woman to claim a major title, which title will it be? (Logic dictates that the French Open would be the most likely event for Halep to win, though arguments against that theory are welcome.)

2. Could another player beat the Canadian or the Romanian to the trophy? Who? "Sentimental" favorites like Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Sara Errani cannot be ruled out. And then there's that group of young players of whom the standouts at this time are Belinda Bencic, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova. A year ago, Sloane Stephens was on the list, and it's possible that she could put herself back on it.

Who else could surprise us and lift a big trophy in the near future?

Sharapova wins China Open and becomes number 2 in the world

Maria Sharapova continued her winning ways against Petra Kvitova in the Beijing final today, defeating the Wuhan champion 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in the final. Whoever won the final was locked in to advance to the world number 2 ranking, so that goes to Sharapova. Andrea Hlavackova and Peng Shuai won the doubles title, defeating Cara Black and Sania Mirza 6-4, 6-4.

The Beijing title is Sharapova's fourth of the year, and her 33rd in all. This is her first-ever title in China.

Winners of the "big three" Asian swing tournaments were Sharapova, Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic (Tokyo).

The eight players headed for Singapore and the WTA Finals are:
Serena Williams
Maria Sharapova
Simona Halep
Petra Kvitova
Genie Bouchard
Aga Radwanska
Caroline Wozniacki
Ana Ivanovic

Qualified for Singapore:

Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci
Hsieh Su-Wei/Peng Shuai
Ekaterina Makarova/Elena Vesnina
Cara Black/Sania Mirza
Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears
Kveta Peschke/Katarina Srebotnik

The final spot will be filled by one of these teams:
Muguruza/Suarez Navarro

Last year's winners were Serena Williams and the team of Hsieh Su-Wei an Peng Shuai.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Kvitova wins Wuhan, qualifies for Singapore

Li Na couldn't be on the court to win the Wuhan Open, but she must have been pretty pleased that her friend, Petra Kvitova, could get the job done. Kvitova defeated Genie Bouchard 6-3, 6-4. Kvitova had to serve for the match twice, after Bouchard won a tense game when the Czech star served at 6-3, 5-3. In winning the brand new Wuhan title, Kvitova also became the fourth player to qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore.

Speaking of Li, Kvitova said: "... I know everybody wished to have Li Na here standing with us, but we will remember her with this trophy. I'm just glad she's happy now; I hope she's going to be happy for the rest of her life."

Also winning a title in Wuhan were Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta. They defeated Cara Black and Caroline Garcia 6-4, 5-7, 12-10 in the doubles final. They have reached two finals before (Eastbourne and the U.S. Open(, but this was the first time that Hingis and Pennetta have won a title as a team.

In Beijing: Kirsten Flipkens, Bojana Jovanovski and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are already out in the opening round.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Asian swing already filled with drama

The Asian swing of the WTA tour has begun, and who knew that this post-U.S. Open period was going to be so filled with big news? The biggest news, of course, is the retirement of Li Na, which came right as the tournament in her home city, Wuhan, made its debut.

When something like the retirement of Li Na occurs, it's easy to forget that anything else is going on. I certainly haven't thought about much else, tennis-wise. But there is more news:

Victoria Azarenka withdrew from Wuhan and announced that her season is over. Azarenka missed much of this season because of foot and knee injuries, and says that she has been pushing herself too hard and needs to make a full recovery.

Karolina Pliskova broke her 2014 finals curse. Pliskova lost three finals this year, but this weekend, she defeated Varvara Lepchenko to win the Korea Open in Seoul. And for Lepchenko--it was her first WTA final.

Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki--two women who are pursuing serious comebacks--were the last two players standing in Tokyo. Ivanovic won the title.

Monica Niculescu won the Guangzhou title.

Victoria Duval announced that she is now cancer-free.

Ashleigh Barty announced that she is leaving the tour indefinitely, and did not give a reason for her action.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The bird that sticks out has flown: Li Na retires from tennis

The Chinese proverb is a warning to all about the consequences of not conforming: The bird that sticks out always gets shot. "Be the bird that sticks out," Li Na countered, and she was--and is--the bird that sticks out, spreads its wings and soars above the dreary expectations and phony restrictions below her. In a world--and not just a sports world--where there are so few role models for girls, Li--throughout her career--has demonstrated courage and authenticity, and has done so with charm, candor and a deliciously mischievous wit.

Li announced her retirement from professional tennis today, citing recurring problems with both knees. The 32-year-old's announcement was not a surprise, but the reality of her retirement affects tennis fans all over the world, and especially in Asia. Largely because of Li, Asian tennis is now a major factor in the women's tour.

The WTA icon's career spanned 15 years, and was frequently punctuated by huge highs and devastating lows. As a little girl, she played badminton, and when it was suggested she use her backhand skills in tennis instead, her family and community didn't know what tennis was. She did make the change, though, and became involved with the Chinese national tennis team. In 2002, she left the team to work on a degree in journalism. At the time, some reports stated that she left because the national tennis team would not let her choose her own coach; others stated that her departure was due to the strictness of the coaching system.

Li returned in 2004, and in 2006, she married Jiang Shan, who was her coach for much of her career. Two years later, Li left the national team for good and she also parted ways with the state-operated sports system in her country. This was a major step, in that it meant that she could choose her own coaches and trainers and would also be responsible for her own expenses. It also meant that 8% of her winnings would go to the state, as opposed to 65%.

Plagued by injury throughout her career, Li suffered from problems with her knees, her back, her rib, and her ankle. All athletes get injured. but Li went through a period in which she could not sustain any momentum because of injuries. To make matters worse, the Chinese star became known for choking away big matches, and for sometimes not even seeming to be fully present during big matches.

Late in her career, Li would hire Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, and he went about not only improving Li's fitness and her game, but doing what he could to counter her self-defeating beliefs. According to Rodriguez--and Li has affirmed this opinion in several interviews--Li had trouble believing in herself because, in her formative tennis years, she had been given only criticism, and no praise or encouragement.

But even with all the problems Li faced, she used her abundant talent, personal strength, and incomparable personality to emerge as an international symbol of all that is good about sport. She won two majors, the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open (while saving a match point in the third round). She was the Australian Open runner-up twice, in 2011 and 2013. Li won nine singles titles and two doubles titles, she was a member of the Chinese Fed Cup team for many years, and she was a member of the Chinese Olympic Team in 2000, 2008 and 2012. Li's highest singles ranking was number 2 in the world.

Statistics, however, just don't provide an accurate picture of Li Na, and what her career has meant to women's tennis, and to Chinese tennis, in particular. She really did "open the door" for Chinese players to emerge as significant members of the tour, in both singles and doubles. Li Na was the first Chinese player to win a WTA title, the first Chinese player to reach the top 10 and the first Asian player to win a major. Twice, she has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Known by her countrywomen and -men as Big Sister Na, Li has also been called The Great Wall of China by opponents who could not penetrate her defensive strategies. Her precision-point and powerful backhand can easily be viewed as a standard for the women's game.

I remember a time when Li had not yet mastered the English language, and her press conferences were unintentionally funny because she answered every question "yes" or "no." Later, when she became fluent in English, her on-court interviews and press conferences featured either blunt, often brutal self-criticism, or hilarity of the sort that left me wiping tears from my face, I had laughed so hard and for so long. (Li and Jelena Jankovic used to be doubles partners, and one can only imagine what those conversations were like.)

"Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing," Li wrote in her book, Li Na: My Life. I have thought about that belief a lot, about what it has probably meant to Li and her career, and even about what it has meant to my own life. There is something so fully human and open about Li that fans all over the world were drawn to her; she freely talked about the types of struggles that all us face in one way or another.

Jiang Shan, Li's husband, and the subject of many of her jokes, became a personality in his own right during the course of Li's career. Li ultimately decided that it was better for their marriage for him to be her hitting partner and not her coach, and she kept up a string of anecdotes that included everything from his annoying snoring to his fear of her well-known credit card shopping rampages.

With all her joking, Li also made it clear that Jiang's support made it possible for her to go through everything she had to go through in order to succeed on the tour. When she won the Australian Open, she thanked him for being such a nice guy. "Fix the drink, fix the rackets...." And, she added--as only Li could--"also, you are so lucky--find me."

It's almost impossible to pick one's favorite Li Na moment. Her acceptance speech at the Australian Open trophy ceremony is considered a comedy classic, but there are other memorable quotes:

"People in China say 'If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate your children, also send them to New York.'"

On what motivates her: "Prize money."

The first of her Australian Open thank-you mentions: "Max, agent, make me rich. Thanks a lot."

"I know when so many people ask where I'm from, I say Wuhan. They say small town. Not so many people. Just like 10 million."

When asked by Rennae Stubbs if she would name her rackets if she won in Melbourne: "I have eight rackets. If you want, I call them Li Na One, Li Na Two...until Li Na Eight."

No review of Li Na's career would be complete without a mention of the bizarre final she played against Victoria Azarenka at the 2013 Australian Open. In the second set, Li rolled her ankle, and though she had it taped, it would affect her for the rest of the match. But that wasn't all--in the third set, she fell down and cracked her head. And while the occasion itself was far from humorous, Li made it hilarious when she cracked up during the brief neuro exam upon being asked to follow the physio's finger and to answer questions about her orientation. At the 2014 tournament, when asked to comment on her preparation, she quickly replied, "Special. Not falling down."

Nike, one of Li's longtime sponsors, has already announced it's Be the Bird That Sticks Out campaign to honor the retiring Chinese star. This is a fitting tribute to the woman who wore a shirt bearing the Chinese characters for "My heart has no limits" at her post-Australian Open press conference this year. It won't be easy for fans to say goodbye to one of the most beloved champions the WTA has ever produced.

I leave with you with one final piece of Li Na wisdom (video no longer available for embedding).