Sunday, March 18, 2018

Naomi Osaka announces herself in the desert

A desert is a place without expectation.
Nadine Gordimer

Today, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka not only won the BNP Paribas Open; she also became the event's second consecutive unexpected champion. But the circumstances were oh, so different. Last year, champion Elena Vesnina and Svetlana Kuznetsova put on a knock-down drag-out spectacle that went on for three hours. Today, a spot-on in-form Osaka took out a clearly flat and under-performing Daria Kasatkina in just and hour and ten minutes.


So many times, in finals, we see this pattern: One player just isn't herself, and the other plays out of her mind. Naturally, one feeds on and expands the other. This "should" have been a three-set match, but instead, it fell into this too-familiar pattern.

Osaka is also following in the footsteps of her peers, Garbine Muguruza and Alona Ostapenko, in that her first WTA win is a really big one. Of course, hers wasn't quite as big as theirs, but it was big enough to turn her into an instant star. It wasn't that long ago that Osaka (like early Kvitova) was just swinging at everything and hitting it as hard as she could. Those days are over; the young Japanese player has improved her fitness and added some tactics to her game, which is now truly formidable.

This was a significant BNP Paribas Open not only because two 20-year-olds were in the final, but also because of what each of them had to do to get there. Osaka took out five-time major champion Maria Sharapova, Aga Radwanska, an in-form Maria Sakkari, and Karolina Pliskova. Kasatkina had an even tougher route: She defeated 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stevens, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, two-time major champion Angelique Kerber, and five-time major champion Venus Williams.

While their games are quite different, both players are extremely talented, and my gut feeling is that neither of them is going to fold from the pressure of either ranking or public recognition. And speaking of rankings, tomorrow, Osaka will be number 22 in the world, and Kasatkina will be number 11.

The times are changing--that's for sure.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A case for non-domination

Maria Sharapova is back. Vika Azarenka is back. Most significant of all is that Serena Williams is back. Sharapova is having a hard time getting into her groove, though there have been moments of promise, and anyway, she hasn't been dominant for a while. Azarenka is rusty, yes, but that is most likely not her biggest problem. The talented Belarusian has a history of illness and injury that is almost freakish in its manifestation, and there is no reason to think that her snakebittten days are over.

As for Serena, I expect great things from her, yes, but I don't expect tour domination. As super-human as she seems, she is--in the end--human. For a tennis player, she's old, and she just missed 14 months of play.

One could rationally expect Garbine Muguruza to step in as the next dominant player--and this could still happen-- but, for now, the Spaniard has shown us many moments of startling star power, but also many moments of failing to "be there" when it mattered. And while I think that Muguruza, a champion on both clay and grass--is still the most likely player to go on a serious roll, it isn't happening right now.

And if it never happens? I say "so what?" The tour is, in my opinion, quite interesting right now. Will Muguruza win another major this year? What about the force of nature (The Backspinner aptly calls her Latvian Thunder) known as Alona Ostapenko? When will Madison Keys take the next step? Can Venus Williams have another year like 2017? And, of course, is this going to be the year that Simona Halep holds something besides a major runner-up trophy?

And there are so many more questions! Will Petra Kvitova use her new-found strength to return to the very elite portion of the tour? When will Svitolina figure out the majors? Was the Australian Open title a one-off for Caroline Wozniacki? What will Jo Konta and Caroline Garcia show us this year? And then there's this question: What can we expect from Angie Kerber, who has revived her career in 2018?

I have my favorites just like everyone else, and I'd be very happy if they won everything. But that isn't going to happen, so I may as well sit back and enjoy the next breakthrough from one of the tour's young talents, or--maybe even more fun--relish the complete giddiness of The Ostapenko Effect.

Fans also tend to like big rivalries, and no one was more into Chris and Martina than I was, but when there isn't a big rivalry, I don't miss one. If it happens, it happens. There is so much talent on the tour, that--for me--whatever manifests is good enough.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Five things we can learn from Petra Kvitova

1. So much of life is out of our control.
Developing healthy habits, making sensible plans, and developing a fine balance between wise caution and wise risk are strategies that go a long way in allowing us to prevent a lot of trouble in our lives. But even the healthiest and wisest among us are powerless to stop some illnesses and injuries, acts of nature, and random acts of violence and cruelty. When we least expect it, a crazy person can enter our private space and try to slit our throats.

2. You have to try.
Your left hand is how you make your living (and find your joy), and it's been damaged almost to the point of no return. You're fortunate, though--a highly skilled doctor has repaired it. But you can't feel your fingers the way you used to, and it may be quite a while before you can. You can't even make a fist. But you show up several weeks before the doctors predicted you would, and you win a match in a very big event. Then, still with limited feel and strength, you win a tournament. Just like that.

3. Don't look back.
It would be so easy (especially if you already have a tendency to be inconsistent) to come down off the Birmingham cloud and fall into complacency. After all, you've undergone a life-changing trauma. And you already had significant problems with illness, even before the tragedy occurred. Or maybe you could just keep going forward and see what happens. And then--look at you--you win two tournaments (including a premier 5) in a row and return to Fed Cup glory.

4. Let it out.
Cry. Bark "pojd!" louder than you ever did, in that way that only you possess. Tingle with gratitude. Smile. Make everyone laugh, just as you always did. Be okay with the fact that, for a while, in Doha, you were "crazy a little bit in my mind."

5. Treat others with kindness and respect--you have no idea how much it will come back to you.
When you are respected and beloved (just like your dear friend, Li Na), all kinds of people--players, media, umpires, fans--feel your pain and send wholehearted hopes and prayers your way. And you need that in order to heal, both physically and emotionally. What you have given suddenly comes back to you, and you find the extra strength you need to go on, and to come back stronger than ever.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Defending champion Team USA advances to Fed Cup semifinals

The USA, Fed Cup defending champion, advanced to the World Group semifinals today with a 3-0 victory over Netherlands. Venus Williams won two singles rubbers and CoCo Vandewegh won the other. Of note was the fight that Richel Hogenkamp put up against the defending champions. Hogenkamp has done this sort of thing in Fed Cup before, so it wasn't a surprise. She dragged Vandeweghe to three sets, and played a very tight first set against Williams.

It could get a bit more difficult for team USA in the semifinals, when they will go to France to play Team France, or--judging by today--to play Kiki Mladenovic. Just in case there was any doubt that Mladenovic is out of her slump (and there shouldn't be), the Frenchwoman made it very clear this weekend. In fact, in the on-court interview after France clinched the win, Mladenovic was asked if she was "back," and her reply was: "Do I have to say it?"

Pauline Parmentier lost both of her singles rubbers, so Mladenovic had to carry most of the load for Team France. She defeated both Kirsten Flipkens and the dangerous Elise Mertens (in straight sets, which surprised me). In the deciding doubles rubber, Amandine Hesse became the second part of the almost unbeatable team of Mladenovic and Anybody. But Hesse wasn't just "anybody." She performed very well in the doubles rubber, and her poise on the court belied how stressed out she was: this was her very first Fed Cup match, and the fate of her country's team was half on her shoulders.

No problem. Mladenovic and Hesse defeated Belgium in three sets. Afterwards, Hesse and Mladenovic revealed that it wasn't their first time to play together--the won the under-14 European Championships a long time ago.

A deciding doubles rubber was also needed by Germany. Antonia Lottner, ranked number 153 in the world, rose to the occasion by defeating both Belarusian Fed Cup notable Alaiksandra Sasnovich.  A very close doubles match ensued, with Germany's Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Tatjana Maria emerging the victors--6-7, 7-5, 6-4. Sabalenka, unfortunately, was on the losing side of that contest, also.

Germany's semifinal opponent will be former (and, I believe, future) Fed Cup giant Czech Republic. A team bliss was the story, as Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova showed up to get the Czech team back where it belongs, and Switzerland was the victim. Kvitova beat both Victorja Golubic (in three sets--Golubic lights up during Fed Cup play) and Belinda Bencic, then Strycova defeated Bencic, and that was that.

There were a few players missing who--if they show up for the semifinals--could make things even more exciting. Neither Angie Kerber nor Julia Goerges played for Germany this weekend. And--while there's no sign that she intends to return to the French team (and who can blame her?)--Caroline Garcia's presence at the semifinals could make the event electrifying.

Here is how World Group II play went:
Slovakia def. Russia, 4-1
Australia def. Ukraine, 3-2
Romania def. Canada, 3-1
Spain def. Italy, 3-2

Sara Errani, a member of Four Fighting Italians who were Fed Cup legends, won both of her singles rubbers, one of them against Spain's formidable Carla Suarez Navarro. That wasn't the only problem Suarez Navarro had: she also lost to world number 179 Deborah Chiesa in Chiesa's second-ever Fed Cup match (her first, she lost in Saturday's opening rubber). It was Chiesa's 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7) victory over Lara Arruabarrena that clinched the tie for Italy.

I didn't get to see it, but Slovakia's doubles team was the hard-luck pairing of Jana Cepelova and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who won in straight sets. Cepelova has been hampered by various injuries for a long time, and Schmiedlova is just coming out (I think) of a major slump.

Daria Gavrilova of Australia lost both of her singles rubbers, which had to be a big disappointment for all involved, but especially Gavrilova.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Czech super-team on track for Fed Cup

Former Fed Cup champion Czech Republic has put together its A team for this weekend's tie. Of course, when it comes to Czech Republic, the B team can dominate, too and the C team isn't anything to be dismissed. This weekend, playing on an indoor court in Prague, the Czech team will face World Group opponent Switzerland.

Playing for the Czechs will be Petra Kvitova, the queen of indoor courts, who is fresh off of her championship performance in St. Petersburg, and Karolina Pliskova, Lucie Safarova, and Barbora Strycova. It doesn't get much better than that. Playing for Switzerland will be Timea Bacsinzky--just back from an injury and rehab absence--Belinda Bencic, Victorija Golubic, and Jill Teichmann. Bacsinszky and Bencic add danger to this team, and Golubic has been known to ruin the Fed Cup hopes of some big stars.

World Group defending champion Team USA also has a very strong team. Venus and Serena Williams are on it, as well as CoCo Vandewegh and Australian Open stand-out Lauren Davis. The USA will play Netherlands, whose team does not include its country's most notable player, Kiki Bertens. It does include Richel Hogenkamp, who--like Golubic--has been known to rise to the occasion in Fed Cup play. Also playing for Netherlands are Arantxa Rus, Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs. The tie will take place on an indoor court in Asheville, North Carolina.

Belarus and Germany will play on an indoor court in Minsk. There's no Vika Azarenka on the Belarus team, but there are two dangerous Fed Cup upstarts: Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Aryna Sabalenka, who will be joined by Vera Lapko and Lidziya Marozava. The Germans don't have Angie Kerber, nor do they have Fed Cup star Andrea Petkovic or Julia Goerges. It's definitely not an A team. Playing for Germany will be Tatjana Maria, Antonia Lottner, Anna-Lena Friedsam, and doubles specialist Anna-Lena Groenefeld.

Finally, in World Cup play, France and Belgium will play on an indoor hard court in La Roche--sur-Yon, France. The resurgent Kiki Mladenovic will lead the French team, whose members include Pauline Parmentier and Armandine Hesse (perhaps a fourth will be added later). Belgium's team is made up of the clearly dangerous Australian Open star Elise Mertens, Kirsten Flipkens, Alison Van Uytvanck, and Ysaline Bonaventure. 

Here is the World Group II draw:

Slovakia vs. Russia (in Slovakia)
Romania vs. Canada (in Romania)
Australia vs. Ukraine (in Australia)
Italy vs. Spain (in Italy)

Magda Rybarikova will lead the Slovak team, and--of note--Viktoria Kuzmova will join her. Also of note--the "who knows what may happen?" pair of Jana Cepelova and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova will also play for Slovakia. And of further note--young Anastasia Potapova will be on the Russian team.

Romania's team is strong--world number 2 Simona Halep will be joined by Irina-Camelia Begu, Sorana Cirstea, and Raluca Olaru. Canada has doubles strength in Gabriela Dabrowski.

Australia's team includes Ash Barty, Dasha Gavrilova and Casey Dellacqua, and Ukraine's team does not include Elina Svitolina and Lesia Tsurenko.

Fighting Italian (there are still a few of them around) Sara Errani will lead Italy's team, and Spain's team will be led by Carla Suarez Navarro. Also playing for Spain (seems like old times) will be Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, who has notable doubles skills. Absent from the team is Garbine Muguruza.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

My Australian Open top 10

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

10. We are experiencing technical difficulties: The event takes place once a year, yet those in power were unable to give us a phone app (there was no tablet app at all) that worked during the first week. And when it did work, it tended to be intrusive. That meant we had to rely on the website, only that didn't work, either. Scores were unavailable for days. Toward the end of the event, the draws were missing. Really?

9. Power to the petite!: Lauren Davis is small--for a tennis player, she's very small--but you wouldn't have known that her size was supposed to be a disadvantage when she took Simona Halep to the edge in the second round. Davis hung in with Halep through every twist and turn in the match, and had a chance to defeat the world number 1.

8. De Groot does it again: Diede De Groot, who won the wheelchair singles title at Wimbledon last year, won the championship at this year's Australian Open, defeating Yui Kamiji in the final. She and partner Aniek Van Koot lost the doubles final to Marjolein Buis and Kamiji.

7. Dabrowski does it again, too: Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner, Mate Pavic, won the mixed doubles title, defeating Timea Babos and Rohan Bopanna in the final. Last year, Dabrowski and Bopanna won the French Open title.

6. Another veteran rises to the occasion: Known for her doubles acumen, Hsieh Su-wei reminded us all that she can also play some spellbinding singles. One of the stand-out matches of the tournament was her round of 16 match against Angie Kerber. Kerber entered the Australian Open as her old, warrior self, and swept through the first three rounds like a woman on a mission. Then along came Hsieh, with her angles, unpredictable strategies and nonchalantly (but perfectly) hit lobs. She dragged Kerber to three sets, and while the German won, no one is likely to forget her opponent's performance.

5. Remember my name: Elise Mertens won Hobart in 2016, then returned this year and won it again. She brought confidence and a very high-quality serve to Melbourne, and played some excellent tennis. Her quarterfinal match against Petra Martic was especially good, given how well Martic was playing. The "first semifinal of a major" nerves were very much on display, however, when the Belgian played Caroline Wozniacki. Nevertheless, it was an impressive run, and we're likely to see more of those runs from her.

4. Si-mo-na!: She said she had changed her attitude and had become more aggressive, and she wasn't kidding. The new Simona exudes calm and confidence, and her game, as lovely as ever, is deadlier. Rolling her ankle in the first round and then playing some long, grueling matches left her running on reserves by the time she reached the final, but even her "reserves" were very impressive. Stay tuned.

3. I'll be there for you: Timea Babos and Kiki Mladevnovic have been friends for a very long time. After Mladenovic played (and won with) several different partners, she settled into a partnership with Babos, but then--in preparation for the Olympics--she formed a partnership with Caroline Garcia. They won the French Open, but then things went sour. Mladenovic, whose singles career went from very promising to very disastrous this season, turned up in Melbourne with Babos as her doubles partner, and they proceeded to knock out all their opponents. Their final challenge was a formidable one, but 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina--looking for a career slam--also fell to the long-term friends. The Australian Open championship is their first major championship as a team.

2. Nerves of steel, legs to match: It was dramatic. It was intense. It was was stunning in every way. Simona Halep and Angie Kerber played an "instant classic" quarterfinal that outshone all the other matches of the tournament. That's saying something, because this tournament featured some amazing matches. The two took it to each other with such intensity that they both wound up staggering around the court, but they just kept fighting. Each woman would go on to save two match points, and after two hours and 20 minutes (it seemed much longer), Halep emerged the somewhat battered victor of this match, which won't be forgotten by anyone who saw it.

1. A really great Dane: Caroline Wozniacki, a model of endurance on the court, has also proven to be a model of endurance in every other way. It took her a long time, but this week, in Melbourne, she won her first major. Wozniacki defeated Simona Halep in the women's singles final, an event that was loaded with backstory and drama.

The Danish star almost went out in the second round. Down 1-5, 0-40 in the third set, she pulled off the seemingly impossible and won the match. After that, it was a smooth journey to the final, where she was tested by an injured, exhausted, but determined Simona Halep. It was a great match, and Wozniacki's 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 victory gives her not only her first major win, but also a return to the number 1 ranking. This is the new and improved Wozniacki, a player with a consistently good serve and a desire to do more than just run down every ball she sees (which, by the way, took her to the number 1 ranking years ago, and is a notable ability). The new Wozniacki is a player to watch!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Good times never seemed so good

It was a spectacular Australian Open, filled with drama and high quality tennis, and now we have a champion. World number 2 (and that's about to change) Caroline Wozniacki--aka the Great Dane, the Golden Retriever, Sunshine--has finally won her (first?) major.

It's been a long haul for the superbly athletic Wozniacki, who spent 67 weeks, between 2010 and 2012, as the world number 1. During that period, she was not able, or perhaps not willing, to expand her defensive game and become more aggressive, and she paid dearly for that. This writer even wrote some blank verse, "The Lesson of Caroline," about the Dane's lack of aggression and subsequent fate (the publication folded, so there is no link).

Coached by her father, Piotr Wozniacki, for many years, the world number 2 frequently brought in new coaches, but they never lasted long, presumably because Piotr was always there in the background (or perhaps not so much in the background). Finally, Wozniacki gave that project up and returned to having her father as her only coach.

However, during some of these "new coach" periods, Wozniacki did become more aggressive, only to fall back into her old patterns. Last year, seemingly out of nowhere, the 27-year-old Dane did change her game, improving her serve, adding a nice dose of aggression, and winning the WTA Finals. She showed up in Melbourne in excellent form, and--despite a very big blip in the 2nd round, against world number 19 Jana Fett--she moved deftly through the draw. That second round match, however, was a magic trick: Down 1-5 and two match points, Wozniacki found a way to win.

That's a pretty dramatic story, but it pales next to what Wozniacki's last opponent, Simona Halep, went through. The world number 1 rolled her ankle in the first round, and was severely tested by Lauren Davis in the second round. Then she played a match for the ages against 2016 champion Angie Kerber in the semifinals. After playing hours and hours (sometimes in extreme heat) in sometimes very tense atmospheres--and holding an injury--Halep wasn't exactly in the condition she would have hoped for to compete in a final.

I quote myself here: "The last player you want to face after everything but your blood has been drained is Caroline Wozniacki, and that's whom Halep plays in the final.

"Wozniacki, even after all these years, could probably play consecutive five-hour matches without breaking too much of a sweat, so extreme is her athletic endurance. She has said in the past that it doesn't matter to her how long she has to stay on the court."

There was other drama. Each woman was seeking to either retain the number 1 ranking or to earn it. Each woman had saved match points on the way to the final, a first at the Australian Open. And each woman had failed twice in attempts to win majors--Wozniacki at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2014, and Halep at the French Open in 2014 and 2017.

Also, Wozniacki wasn't the only player who had changed. Halep, also known for outstanding defensive play, has recently made her game much more aggressive. She has also cleaned up her attitude problem: the Romanian player would sometimes get so down on herself during a match that her game would go to pieces. The Halep we saw at the Australian Open played like a champion, taking everything in stride, and finding ways to turn misfortune into victory.

What a backdrop!

Halep got off to a slow start in the final, dropping behind quickly, but she also caught up quickly, though Wozniacki won the first set. Halep had to fight hard in the second set, but she was able to win it. At that point, I thought that--unless Wozniacki wilted (hardly likely), Halep would have to blast through the third set quickly or her body (though maybe not her mind) would give out.

Both players had medical issues. Halep developed a blister on her foot, almost certainly from overcompensating for her other, injured foot. She also grew weak and had to have her blood pressure checked. Wozniacki had to have her knee bandaged.

The third set was a good one--better than I thought it might be--but as time went on, Halep's body wound down. Frequently bending over and grabbing her leg, the Romanian star kept finding just one more surge of energy, then another, then another--but not quite enough. When it came down to an excruciating test of nerves at the end, it was Wozniacki who came through, 7-6, 3-6, 6-4. The match lasted two hours and 49 minutes, and--while it couldn't compete with Halep and Kerbers's semifinal in terms of extreme quality and drama--it was nevertheless an outstanding final.

Caroline Wozniacki took a very long time to prove to the tennis world that she could win a major, but that's her style: She doesn't mind how long she has to wait, so great is her endurance. She did it her way, and--given her newfound serve and aggression and her high fitness level--she's likely to do it again.

As for Halep, it must be heartbreaking to have played really well in three major finals and to have lost them all. I don't believe that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but perhaps Halep does. The French Open is just a few months away, and the Romanian tends to shine there. My gut feeling is that Halep's game will get even better, and that she will eventually (maybe very soon) prevail.