Sunday, August 23, 2015

North American hard court season brings redemption and stardom

We don't yet know what we'll remember most about the 2015 North American hard court season--the part, that is, that precedes the U.S. Open. But there are already enough stories to make the season memorable.

First, Sloane Stephens not only advanced to a final, at long last--she won a title. Stephens' victory at the Citi Open (which began with an impressive draw but thinned out a bit because of injury withdrawals) had to be a huge relief for her, her team and her fans. Stephens, who was unseeded, defeated former U.S. Open champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur to get to the final, in which she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

In terms of premier tournaments, Angelique Kerber won her fourth of the season (on her third surface) in Stanford, giving her an impressive 2015 by any standard. And then--hardly out of nowhere, but still perhaps surprising many--Belinda Bencic took home the Rogers Cup trophy.

Bencic began her Toronto campaign by defeating Genie Bouchard, then took care of Caroline Wozniacki, Sabine Lisicki and Ana Ivanovic. As impressive as that was, the young Swiss star, who is coached by Melanie Molitor, went one better in the semifinals and beat Serena Williams. In the final, Bencic played an ailing (both injured and sick) Simona Halep. The stumbling Halep seemed to win the second set by using mirrors, but even she had to finally give up in the middle of the third, giving Bencic a less-than-satisfying win, but a win nonetheless.

The Rogers Cup champion went on to Cincinnati and opened with a flourish, defeating Stanford champion Kerber in the opening round. She then defeated the always-tough Flavia Pennetta, but had to retire against Lucie Safarova in the third round because of a wrist injury. But there's no question about it--Bencic has arrived.

It's hard to keep up with slumps and revivals that occur in the WTA, especially as the players go from surface to surface and environement to environment. Petra Kvitova, whose mononucleosis (in my opinion) is just the latest manifestation of a weakened immune system, is definitely "off," and the asthma-triggering humidity is no help. Genie Bouchard is still losing, but she's playing better and therefore has reason to be hopeful about the last quarter of this season. Garbine Muguruza is suddenly the left behind rising star, and Maria Sharapova continues to deal with a leg injury.

Aga Radwanska has definitely picked her impressive game up again, yet she continues to struggle with inconsistency. Victoria Azarenka remains a puzzle in the WTA story: Just as she gets into a rhythm, she gets injured again. Business as usual for the talented but fragile Belarusian.

The rise of Belinda Bencic isn't the only good story. Elina Svitolina (isn't she fun to watch?) made it to the semifinals in both Stanford and Cincinnati, and we also got to see more of Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

Perhaps the most significant development is that Simona Halep appears to be out of her funk. She had to retire in that Rogers Cup final, and she lost the Cincinnati final to Serena Williams today. But getting to two finals was quite impressive. And as far as the " ______ + Serena = a challenge" equation goes, I guess--for now--we can substitute "Halep" for the "Azarenka" variable. Williams won the final in two sets, but the second one was very competitive and very entertaining. Halep now returns to the number 2 ranking.

New Haven is next, and then, the U.S. Open. The Grand Slam is on the line for Serena Williams, and it's hard to imagine her not pulling it off. She'll probably make her fans all kinds of nervous in the process, but--if you're going to place your faith in anyone to accomplish something huge--it's always a good idea to place it in Serena.

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