Saturday, August 27, 2016

Williams, Radwanska, Muguruza, Kerber--The Four Horsewomen of the Tennis Apocalypse

The end times are near.

Well that is, in terms of the 2016 season. The last major of the season, the U.S. Open, begins Monday, and the women's draw is anchored by four formidable--yet also vulnerable--"horsewomen."

1. Serena Williams ("Death"): Williams, despite her losses in the Australian Open and the French Open, can still be lethal, as she showed at Wimbledon; hence, she's still the player most likely to issue death to the hopes of others who would hold the trophy at the end of the two-week battle in Flushing Meadows.

But Williams remains vulnerable. She's been dealing with a shoulder injury that forced her to withdraw from the Cincinnati event. Of course, the world number 1 has shown up bandaged like a mummy at major events before, and gone on to win them. But she's older now, and even greatly-feared warriors have to deal with what advancing age does to them.

Williams' other problem is that the tennis gods have denied her the right to "play into" the tournament. Her first-round opponent is Ekaterina Makarova, a powerful Russian with a strange, "big stage" career who brings her best game to the majors. Makarova, who is currently ranked number 36 in the world, reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2014. She combines a very keen lefty serve with powerful groundstrokes on both sides and--on a good day--she can find Kvitova-like angles. Makarova is also an elite doubles player (she just won gold at the Olympics) who has elite doubles skills at her disposal. She's dangerous at every major but the French. The Williams-Makarova match is one of three (I'll get to the others later) "must watch" matches.

Also lurking in Williams' quarter of the draw are up-and-coming Russian Daria Kasatkina, sometime-upsetter Yarslava Shvedova, hard-hitting Camila Giorgi and 2011 U.S. Open conqueror Sam Stosur (Giorgi and Stosur play each other in the first round). Also, Carla Suarez Navarro, the increasingly dangerous Timea Babos, Daria Gavrilova, and the again-resurgent Kirsten Flipkens.

But--most significant of all--5th seed Simona Halep is positioned at the bottom end of that quarter. The way she's been playing, it seems odd that Halep isn't a Horsewoman, but there you are. She'll have her work cut out for her, what with playing Flipkens in the opening round, and then having to face either Gavrilova or Lucie Safarova, and then possibly Babos. If the draw proceeds as it "should" (fat chance), Halep and Williams will collide in the quarterfinals.

2. Agnieszka Radwanska ("Famine"): Radwanska must surely be hungry. Ever since her run to the 2012 Wimbledon final, the tour's greatest shot-maker (of all time, in my opinion) has failed to reach a major final. She's been playing very well lately, and yesterday, allowed Petra Kvitova to win only two games in their New Haven semifinal. Today, Radwanska won the New Haven tournament by beating Elina Svitolina in straight sets.

The running theory is that Radwanska is brilliant until she comes up against a "power player," but I don't totally buy into that, since I've seen her dismantle the games of power players. The other theory is that she runs out of physical (and perhaps mental) steam, partly because her own game is so physical, and that theory seems more solid to me. Nevertheless, the Polish star with the magic hands and legs is an elite player who has a chance in Flushing Meadows.

The Radwanska quarter presents its own challenges. Caroline Garcia is there, as well as Timea Bacsinszky and Kristina Mladenovic, but all of these players run hot and cold, and all have been running rather cold lately. However, two players in Radwanska's draw are real dangers--Karolina Pliskova and Venus Williams, and especially the latter.

Pliskova has two things going for her: She skipped the Olympics, and she just won her first big title, the Western & Southern Open. The Czech Fed Cup star doesn't have a very good record at majors--she's never gotten beyond a third round--but this time, her fortunes could be different. As for Williams, she's playing quite well this year, and can definitely be seen as a threat to anyone in the Radwanska quarter.

3. Garbine Muguruza ("Conquest"): Muguruza has done what few others have been able to do--beat Serena Williams in a major final. The Spaniard won the French Open by doing just that, and then--just a few weeks later--reached the final at Wimbledon, where Williams got the better of her. Obviously, court surface isn't an issue for her, but Muguruza appears to have other issues. She can be brilliant and make her brilliance look effortless, and then, suddenly, she can just go away. In the Cincinnati semifinals, Pliskova practically ran over Muguruza.

It may (or may not) help Muguruza that she has a pretty nice draw at the U.S. Open, though Stanford champion Johanna Konta is in Mugu's quarter and is no longer a "potential" threat. Madison Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe and Barbora Strycova are also in that quarter, and any of them could make a deep run. Add to that the presence of the perennially dangerous Svetlana Kuznetsova and the Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery, Tsvetana Pironkova, who loves to pull off a big upset at a major tournament. And--just to spice things up--Olympic gold medal winner Monica Puig just sneaked in as the 32nd seed, and is in the Muguruza quarter.

4. Angelique Kerber ("War"): Kerber could just as well have been "Conquest." She, too, has defeated Serena Williams in a major final (2016 Australian Open). And also lost to her in another (2016 Wimbledon). But at this point in the 2016 season, no one represents "War" better than our KareBear. After winning the Australian, she defended her Stuttgart title, got the runner-up trophy at Wimbledon, then won a silver medal in the Olympic Games.

Kerber, like Muguruza, isn't that fussy about which surface she plays on, and has added heavy offense to what used to be a mostly defensive game. There are some worthy opponents in her quarter--Dominika Cibulkova, Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina. Oh, and Alize Cornet, who--when she has a big moment--tends to have a very big one, and who thoroughly enjoys a big stage.

One is always at least slightly tempted to say that Kvitova herself is a title contender (as well she should be), but--to paraphrase Lucinda Wiliams:

If we lived in a world without tears...
...How would Petra flop again?

Any of those four able horsewomen could walk away with the trophy, but I tend to think that the most likely candidates are Williams, Kerber and Halep. Never an "easy" tournament for Williams on an emotional level, the U.S. Open this year brings it own dramatic backstory. Had she won it last year, Williams would have achieved the Grand Slam. But it was not to be, as she was defeated in the semifinals by Roberta Vinci. Vinci's countrywoman, Flavia Pennetta, would go on to win the title, and to create an endearing U.S. Open story for tennis history. It was the only time that two Italians played each other in the final, and Pennetta pretty much dropped by Flushing Meadows to win it on her way out the professional tennis door.

Kerber is on a hot streak and could win anything, at this point. And Rogers Cup champion Halep is back from wherever she was, and, despite her recent Cincinnati loss to Kerber, is in a better position to win something big than she's been in for a while. But of course. we can't t count Radwanska out, and the same can be said of Muguruza, Kvitova, and Pliskova. Some might add Madison Keys to that list.

First round matches to watch:

Serena Williams vs. Ekaterina Makarova: If ever there were a "dangerous floater," it's Makarova. Unless the occasion gets the best of her, Makarova will do her best to take it to Williams.

Camila Giorgi vs. Samantha Stosur: Giorgi, the hard-hitting Fighting Italian, fears no one--but herself. Stosur has won the U.S. Open, which should give her a bit of an edge, but this is Stosur we're talking about, and the outcome of this match is a mystery.

Lucie Safarova vs. Daria Gavrilova: Safarova still hasn't returned to the glory days she had before becoming very ill, but she's still Lucie, and she's still crafty and tough. Gavrilova is quite a fighter, but can go "off" pretty quickly. This match could be very good, or it could be over quickly.

Kirsten Flipkens vs. Simona Halep: Flipkens knows how to "pull a Halep," and is a player who can frustrate the Romanian with her own tricky volleys and angles. The Belgian is having yet another resurgence and could make this a very entertaining match.

Julia Goerges vs. Yanina Wickmayer: The Belgian is having her best season in ages. If the right Goerges happens to show up, this might be good.

Naomi Osaka vs. CoCo Vandeweghe: Boom boom!

Barbora Strycova vs. Monica Niculescu: Oh, the possibilities! This could well be the most watchable of all the first round matches, as the all-court, all-in Strycova faces off against trickster Niculescu. Strycova has a good service game on her side.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: At least there's a third set tiebreak at the U.S. Open, or spectators might have to bring survival supplies from home. In the third round of the 2011 Australian Open, the pair played an extremely high quality match for four hours and 44 minutes. In round of 2015 French Open, they played for three hours and 50 minutes. The first was the longest women's match ever played in a major; the second, the longest French Open match played in the Open Era. Schiavone won both of them. The sight of these two on opposite sides of the net is thrilling. Another "must watch."

Petra Kvitova vs. Jelena Ostapenko: This isn't the kind of easy start the Barking Czech would like to have, I don't imagine. Ostapenko can give headaches to her opponents, and especially to Kvitova, whom she has twice defeated. And Kvitova has enough issues without having to deal with another headache.

CiCi Bellis vs. Victoija Golubic: Two possibly rising stars could give us an entertaining match. 

Alize Cornet vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni: Lucic-Baroni hasn't been pulling her signature upsets of late, but these two could nevertheless provide us with a match worth watching.


turtle said...

loved to read this. Only thing, Halep didn't lose to Radwanska. It was Kerber who defeated her in Cincinnati.

Diane said...

Thanks for the catch! I missed that even in proofreading. Glad you enjoyed, turtle.