Saturday, August 19, 2017

Muguruza advances to her first U.S. final



Playing a mentally and physically tired Karolina Pliskova on Center Court today, Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza advanced to the Western & Southern Open final, her first final in a U.S. venue. The Spaniard played as closely to perfectly as we are likely to see, hitting 15 winners and making only 13 unforced errors. There were only three break points against her in the match, and she saved all of them. Muguruza ended the match with a first serve win percentage of 80.

Things didn't look good for Pliskova in the very first game, which was very long, and which ended with a break. The world number 1 didn't even see a break point. She looked more competitive in the second set, but in the sixth game, she was broken at 15 when Muguruza hit a crosscourt backhand into the corner of the ad court. That was the beginning of the end, and after an hour and 19 minutes, the Spaniard emerged with a 6-3, 6-2 victory.
Photo by Leslie Billman


After the match, when asked about her fatigue, Pliskova said that the scheduling (she had to play two  matches yesterday because of rain) created problems both physically and mentally. She pointed out that it wasn't just that she had to play three matches in a row, but that she had to play three different types of matches in a row against a varied group of Camila Giorgi, Caroline Wozniacki and Muguruza. "I just wasn't there today," she added.

Pliskova said that it didn't help that Muguruza--against whom she now has a 6-2 record--was hitting everything to her backhand, making her less able to be aggressive.

Asked about whether she has some type of ritual--a favorite food, a glass of wine, shopping, etc.--after she experiences a loss, the Pliskova replied, in her typically droll manner, that she doesn't--and that she doesn't want to develop one.

Pliskova will remain number 1 in the world if Simona Halep does not win the Cincinnati title. Halep will play Sloane Stephens later today in the second semifinal.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Muguruza in, Svitolina out in Cincinnati




After winning the Rogers Cup, Elina Svitolina came to Cincinnati to try her hand at yet another Premier 5 win, and she was looking good until she ran into the (still) in-form Julia Goerges, who defeated the 5th seed today in the third round. Goerges, when she's in the form she's been in lately, is a trickster with flowing power, especially from her signature forehand. She beat Svitolina in Fed Cup play this year, and did it again today.

This time, the German player needed only two sets to get the job done. She had first and second serve percentages of 66 and 72, and she saved all eight break points against her. Goerges's 7-5, 6-4 victory puts her into the quarterfinals, in which she'll face Sloane Stephens. Earlier in the tournament, Goerges upset 10th seed Aga Radwanska.

Stephens, who is suddenly on quite a roll, took out Ekaterina Makarova in a hard-fought three-set match. Makarova saved two match points, but Stephens prevailed.

World number 1 Karolina Pliskova advanced to the quarterfinals with a victory over Camila Giorgi. In doing so, the Long Tall One retains her number 1 ranking, provided Simona Halep doesn't win the title.




And then there were Svetlana Kuznetsova and Garbine Muguruza, who put on a show on Center Court for two hours and 46 minutes (because that's how Sveta rolls) in their quarterfinal match. The Spaniard, wearing a black kit and a displaying a black ribbon on her visor, opened the match with a break and took the first set 6-2. The second set looked, at first, like it was going to be a repeat of the first, as Muguruza immediately went up 3-1. But the Russian star, who is nothing if not tenacious, had other plans.

Kuznetsova broke Muguruza three times, and finally found herself in the lead at 5-4. She would go on to win the set at 7-5. The third set was a show it itself, with Muguruza saving three match points, just as she had done the day before against Madison Keys. Muguruza broke Kuznetsova in a very long game when the Russian star served at 5-all, then closed on her second match point.

Muguruza called the match "probably one of the best matches of the year." Now in the semifinals, teh Spanish star will face either Pliskova or Caroline Wozniacki. Last year, Muguruza was defeated in straight sets in the semifinals by Pliskova, who would go on to win the tournament.

How things stand on Friday

Of the six major champions who entered this year's Western & Southern Open, the only two remaining are playing each other right now. Two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza are the last two standing in a group that included Venus Williams, Alona Ostapenko, Angelique Kerber, and Petra Kvitova.

The only U.S. player left in the draw is Sloane Stephens, who will play Ekaterina Makarova later today.

If Simona Halep wins her quarterfinal match against Jo Konta today and Karolina Pliskova loses her third-round match against Camila Giorgi, Halep will become number 1 in the world.

However, if Giorgi upsets Pliskova and Elina Svitolina wins the title, the Ukrainian player will be the world number 1.

If Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova defeat Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua (they were leading 6-3, 5-all when the match was suspended because of rain yesterday), Safarova will become the doubles world number 1, succeeding her injured regular partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

The sun is out and it is cloudy, but so far, so good.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rain break in Cincinnati




It's raining in Cincinnati and Center Court is soaked. Waiting for the sky to clear are Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys, who are at 2-all in the third set. Keys has had a number of coaching visits, and Muguruza had to have her thigh wrapped in the first set, which she won.

Caroline Wozniacki has advanced, with a straight-set win over Ash Barty, and Chan and Hingis got a straight-set win over Babos and Hvalackova.

During the Center Court match, there was an announcement that construction will soon be underway of a new building, to be located between the main stadium and the Grandstand, and that building will house--among other things--air-conditioned boxes. The 40,000 square-foot South Building will be 104 feet high. You can see what it will look like here.

If one has to be stranded, there are worse places to be stranded than in the media building, where we have enough coffee, tea, water, fruit, cookies, and wit to wait out any storm.

So maybe now is a good time to talk about who is going to win the U.S. Open. I have no idea, but I'm looking at (in no particular order): Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys, Elina Svitolina, Simona Halep, Jo Konta, and Garbine Muguruza. I do think that any of them could lift the trophy. Can anyone pull an Ostapenko in Flushing Meadows? Of course, but I don't think it's likely.

Speaking of Ostapenko (and I love to)--the hard court season has brought about her uncoiling, at least so far. Getting to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon was nevertheless a sign of more good things to come. If her coach can get her to apply more discipline to her game, she has the potential to be dangerous, just as she was at Roland Garros. Of course, I said this about Petra Kvitova, too, and she did apply some discipline, but Kvitova has health issues that haunt her throughout the season.

I do have the feeling, however, that for both Ostapenko and Muguruza, the hard courts will never be favorite venues. I hope they prove me wrong.

Halep and Kuznetsova advance in Cincinnati

15th seed Anastasija Sevastova got off to a fast, 3-0 start against 2nd seed Simona Halep, but once Halep grounded herself, she was able to dominate and win in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3. Meanwhile, 8th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2, 6-4.

Halep's job gets harder now. She will next face the winner of today's third round contest featuring 7th seed Jo Konta and 11th seed Dominika Cibulkova. As for Kuznetsova, her next opponent will be the winner of the highly anticipated (and coming up soon) match between 4th seed Garbine Muguruza and 15th seed Madison Keys.

The late-night match tonight features Sloane Stephens and Ekaterina Makarova. Given what Makarova went through yesterday, it's a bit difficult to believe that she'll survive, but then, it was hard to believe she would survive yesterday's match, yet she managed to prevail. Playing her third round at night gives her a fighting chance, should the match go on for a long time. Also, despite everything, the Russian must have gotten quite a boost in confidence yesterday.

Also today, red hot Elina Svitolina plays red hot Julia Goerges in the first night match, and I think this could be a highly entertaining event.

Also today: Ash Barty gets a crack at Caroline Wozniacki, and hard-hitting Camila Giorgi, the last-stand Fighting Italian, plays top seed and defending champion Karolina Pliskova. If Giorgi is "on," she can make life miserable for the world number 1.

Alona Ostapenko, sadly, has completed her Cincinnati run. Upset in singles in the second round by Aleksandra Krunic, she and partner Gabriela Dabrowski were defeated yesterday in the second round of doubles by Lyudmyla Kichenok and Lesia Tsurenko.

And finally, in the "I'm going to tip you anyway" category: This morning, my Uber driver informed me that he used to follow tennis more but it was easier back then "because it was all Americans."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sweating, cramping and dropping to the ground, Makarova bests Kerber in Cincinnati drama





When I think of Ekaterina Makarova, "drama" isn't the word that comes to mind. Quite the opposite: I think of a kind of quiet, businesslike steadiness. But after today's second round in Cincinnati, I have a an appreciation for aspects of the Russian's persona formerly unknown to me.

Makarova and 2016 runner-up Angelique Kerber played their second round match in the Grandstand in notable heat and humidity. I live in Louisiana, and you'd think I'd be "used to it," but I can barely manage sitting and watching a match; I have no idea how the players are able to perform in this weather.

Deep into today's match, Makarova didn't look as though she had much idea how to keep going, either. Makarova was sweating profusely and was obviously suffering from the heat. She had won the second set 6-4, but the heat had affected her so much in the second, that--as she later told us--all she could do was concentrate on getting on to the third. Kerber took the second easily at 6-1.

The third set was quite a thing to behold. In fact, something really extraordinary will have to happen in the remainder of the tournament to top it. Makarova, having conserved some energy, was nevertheless broken right off in the final set, and saw Kerber go up 2-0. Makarova looked forlorn, but suddenly, she turned on that switch that players can sometimes turn on, and won five straight games.

It looked like it was all Makarova, but after Kerber held for 3-5, Makarova saw two match points evaporate. After she double-faulted on Kerber's fifth break point, it seemed for all the world that her chances were gone. She looked weak, and she was sweating a lot, but then--after Kerber held for 6-5, the Russian star also held. And from a poetic standpoint, this match, I suppose, was destined to reach a third set tiebreak.

And what a tiebreak it was. Kerber easily went up 3-0, "confirming" my theory that Makarova had had her chance and now it was gone.

But what do I know? Because before you could say "Makarova is going to become unglued over this loss," it was 3-all. Makarova won two points and Kerber double-faulted.

Many things would happen after that. Makarova would have a medical timeout for her thigh. Kerber would hold a match point. But I don't think anyone anticipated what happened at 6-all: Makarova fell. Just dropped to the ground, with an intense look of agony on her face. The medics were ready to tend to her, but then--just as suddenly--she was on her feet. She explained later, in her press conference, that she fell because she was cramping so badly, and while she was on the ground, she moved her legs as much as she could. When she arose, her legs felt okay.

Makarova saw five more match points go away. Then, at 11-all, Kerber hit a forehand long, giving the Russian an eighth match point, which she executed with a drop shot. Makarova had survived the two hour and 39-minute ordeal, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (11).

After the match, Makarova had an ice massage, and, she said, ate and drank "a lot," and got plenty of salt into her system.

Asked what she did to calm herself when she got nervous in the tiebreak, she said that she concentrated on breathing and "I focused on my body."

There was also a considerable mental factor at play, which Makarova summed up as: "If I lose this match leading 5-2, I will just kill myself."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Radwanska and Ostapenko out of Cincinnati in first round

Aga Radwanksa, seeded 10th at the Western & Southern Open, fell in straight sets today to Julia Goerges, who has recently resurrected her career rather dramatically. Goerges, who is unseeded, hit 12 aces in the match. The German player had a 77 first serve win percentage and saved nine of eleven break opportunities.

Also going out today was 12th seed and French Open champion Alona Ostapenko, who was defeated 6-4, 6-4 by the unseeded Aleksandra Krunic. Yesterday, 13th seed Kiki Mladenovic was defeated 6-0, 7-6 by Daria Gavrilova.

Featured in the Grandstand tonight are wild card Sloane Stephens and Lucie Safarova. Safarova is 2-1 against Stephens, and they are 1-1 on hard courts. The late night match on Center Court will be played by 4th seed Garbine Muguruza and qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia. The two have never played each other.

We're (maybe) number 1!

There are five WTA players who, by the end of play in Cincinnati this week, could be ranked number 1 in the world. Here's the breakdown:

World number 1 Karolina Pliskova can retain her ranking if:
  • she wins the title
  • she reaches the semifinals and Simona Halep does not win the title
  • she reaches the quarterfinals, Halep does not reach the final, or Elina Svitolina does not win the title
  • she reaches the third round, Halep does not reach the semifinals or Svitolina does not win the title
World number 2 Simona Halep can become number 1 if:
  • she wins the title
  • she reaches the final and Pliskova does not reach the semifinals
  • she reaches the semifinals, Pliskova does not reach the semifinals, and Svitolina does not win the title
 World number 4 Elina Svitolina can become number 1 if:
  • she wins the title and Pliskova does not reach the semifinal
  • she reaches the final, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
World number 3 Angelique Kerber can regain the number 1 ranking if:
  • she wins the title, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
World number 5 Caroline Wozniacki can regain the number 1 ranking if:
  • she wins the title, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
And if you think that's confusing, consider it handy practice for when the Singapore round robin process rolls around.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sveta kills the pain

I had somewhat of a bad, mishap-filled morning, but even I was able to relax and laugh--and laugh--when Svetlana Kuznetsova did her all-access meeting with the media. We got on the subject of what it's like to have been on the tour for so long, how Sveta's tour life has changed, what kind of advice she would give, and has received--that sort of thing.

Kuznetsova, who serves as the unofficial source of wisdom for the tour, talked about how much it troubles her when players are criticized because they don't win a major, or they don't this or that. She spoke of the importance and uniqueness of each individual career, and made a point of explaining how much Anna Kournikova's career meant to her.

The most important thing, she said, is to have humility, and to treat every person with respect. This got my attention, and I asked her if she'd like to run our country. She demurred at first, then changed her answer to "Never say never!" and put it on her "Who knows?! future jobs to do" list, along with Fed Cup captain.

Kuznetsova said that she doesn't do long practices like she used to, but that her practice period is more intense. She likes so much to practice with top players that she and her coach are making an effort to find her other players with whom to practice.

The Russian star said that the best advice she ever got came from Martina Navratilova, who told her that, when she gets onto the court, to forget everything--no matter how bad and critical it is--and focus on the tennis. The advice she would give your younger self is "Listen more to yourself."

Kuznetsova wasn't the only player to charm us with wit. World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, when told that she was still leading the WTA in aces this year, deadpanned, "It's every year." Asked about her New Year's resolution to "bend my knees more," Pliskova said she thought she was doing "a little better--maybe five centimeters."

As a matter of fact, Pliskova is serving fewer aces these days because, she said, she has added body serves and has been hitting more of them.

Billie Jean King would have been proud of Pliskova's statement that she's learning to use the pressure to her advantage rather than be harmed by it.

Rogers Cup champion Elina Svitolina talked about the many, constant changes that players have to make because of weather, the surface, the balls---so many factors that require players to make fast adjustments. She also said that her steady progression up the rankings reflects how she was raised by her parents, who taught her to always take every task step by step.

Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, when asked about her apparent love of the big stage, said that she held that mindset from the beginning of her career: "I want to be on the center court. What do I have to do to get there?"

All of the players talked about the brutality of social media, but no one summed it up better than Jo Konta, when she described trolls, attackers and threat-makers as people "with too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to do something with it." The British star was quite entertaining, and talked about everything from her Hungarian conversations with Timea Babos to her post-Wimbledon experiences.

Simona Halep and Angie Kerber also met the press, but unfortunately, I had other obligations and was unable to attend their sessions.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

U.S. hard court swing as full of mystery as the rest of the season




Madison Keys sealed her comeback at Stanford by winning the event. Ekaterina Makarova took the smaller Washington, DC title, and--as I write this--the Rogers Cup will go to either Caroline Wozniacki or Elina Svitolina. Then it's on to Cincinnati and New Haven, followed by the last major of the year, the U.S. Open.

We know nothing at this time about whether that last major will include Maria Sharapova, though I earnestly hope it does. We do know that there's a good chance it won't include Vika Azarenka, who is preoccupied with a very difficult family situation. And of course, Serena Williams won't be in Flushing Meadows.

World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, who just lost to Wozniacki in the Toronto quarterfinals, is the defending champion in Cincinnati. Though she's known for having an excessive amount of cool, I have to wonder how the pressure of being number 1 in the world is affecting her. Pliskova hasn't won a major, but was the runner-up in last year's U.S. Open, which may create even more pressure.

In the meantime, popping up as serious contenders in the U.S. hard court season are Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki. Stephens lost to Wozniacki in the Rogers Cup semifinals, but she has played exceptionally well this week, seemingly out of nowhere (which is Sloane's way). Simona Halep, defending Rogers Cup champion, was holding her own until Elina Svitolina ate her alive in the semifinals (which must have felt pretty good after what she went through at Roland Garros). Svitolina knocked out two top 5 players in one day, which may be some kind of record. Keep an eye on the Ukrainian--she's on a roll. Also, like Pliskova, she appears to get over disappointments quickly and move on, which is a very nice quality in an athlete.

Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza hasn't returned to muguing around the court, which is a very good thing. She made it to the semifinals in Stanford, where she was defeated by eventual champion Keys. In Toronto, the Spaniard lost to Svitolina in the quarterfinals. Given her obvious preference for the big stage, she could do quite well in Flushing Meadows.

I'll be in Cincinnati next week and will keep everyone up to date.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Five is the loneliest number

Today, Caroline Wozniacki lost her fifth final of the season to 2016 runner-up Katerina Siniakova at the Swedish Open in Bastad. The top-seeded Dane has reached five finals in 2017 and has lost all of them. The champion, yet another Czech player on the rise, will now move back into the top 40, but what of former world number 1 Wozniacki? As time goes by, the Dane's career becomes stranger and stranger. She has fought her way back into the top 10, yes, but what does it mean?

I'm reminded of when Jelena Jankovic stunned almost everyone by getting herself back into the top 10 in 2013, but then was unable to capitalize much on this achievement. My gut feeling is that Wozniacki's career is on the same path. I should add that I don't think this casts a bad light on either of them; they have both been number 1 in the world and they have both had great careers.

But the WTA landscape is shifting toward a younger group of players.

Well, sort of. The winner of the Nanchang event was none other than 31-year-old Peng Shuai, whose comeback from a back injury has been quite impressive. But in general, the younger generation of players is finally making its mark on the tour.

Will the North American hard court swing make a difference? I'm looking at Jo Konta to do well, but I'm also looking at Angie Kerber to make a late-season statement. Will Muguruza make a big hard court statement? And what about Ostapenko? Both of them feel like true wild cards in that they can now be expected to do just about anything.

If there's any pressure, though, it's on world number 1 Karolina Pliskova, who has yet to win a major, and who was last year's U.S. Open runner-up. An argument can be made that Pliskova "needs" to win the 2017 U.S. Open, and--while it would be a nice touch, and take the pressure off of her--I think she'll be fine if she doesn't win it. Having said that, I should add that I do consider her a major contender for the title.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

When champions are snubbed

A very long time ago, Janis Joplin was in her car, trying to find the entrance to a venue for a big Janis Joplin concert. She was stopped by security and told that she was not authorized to drive in the area where she had her car. The security official made it very clear to her that only the star, her band and her official entourage could approach the stage parking lot. Joplin protested, but the security man would have none of it. Finally, exasperating with the driver's disobedience and practically yelling at her, he said, "Listen, I wouldn't let you in here if you were Janis Joplin!"

That's a favorite story of mine, and I thought about it in 2005 when security wouldn't allow Svetlana Kuznetsova into a restricted area of the U.S. Open. The 2004 champion tried to explain who she was, but again, security would have none of it. Finally, Kuznetsova caught a break: She saw a life-size poster of herself as the defending champion, pointed at it, then pointed to herself. She was admitted.

I thought of it again in 2011, when Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon and was barred from entering the All England Club reception area, which leads to the balcony where champions hold the trophy and greet throngs of admirers. Finally, a staff member explained to security personnel that they needed to let Kvitova through because she had just won Wimbledon.

And we can laugh about the "cheekiness" of Jelena Ostapenko's "I'm a grand slam champion!"'s complaints about having her match placed on an out-of-the-way court (one that required a loan of Jelena Jankovic's famous Wimbledon helicopter), but it isn't really funny. The newly crowned French Open champion deserved at least a little special treatment. I have to wonder if the schedulers even knew who she was. In the recent past, Wimbledon officials have not known the names of important female players and have published and spoken them incorrectly.

Also, Wimbledon has a "tradition" of snubbing important female players when it comes to scheduling, including their past champions, like five-time champion Venus Williams.

In 2013, The Times bitterly opined that the ladies' quarterfinals were going to be played by "the women you've never heard of." Those women included 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli (who would go on to win the tournament), French Open champion Li Na, the previous year's runner-up, Agnieszka Radwanska, and 2011 Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova. This was an outrageous statement, but The Times was given a pass.

The problem of snubbing female champions, especially at Wimbledon, is one that needs to be addressed. But then, there are endless problems related to sexism toward the WTA that need to be addressed, and they almost never are.

My Wimbledon top 10





Here are my top 10 Wimbledon occurrences, in ascending order:

10: Every day is a winding road: We've never had huge expectations of Simona Halep at Wimbledon, but it was interesting to see how well she'd do after having struggled for a while, and then having just missed becoming the French Open champion. She did well, getting to the quarterfinals, in which she lost a very tough match to Jo Konta. Keep watching.

9. Welcome to the club: Diede De Groot, the 20-year-old from The Netherlands, won her first singles major by defeating Sabine Ellerbrock 6-0, 6-4 in the wheelchair final. De Groot tried to do a sweep, but she and Marjolein Buis, the second seeds, lost the doubles championship to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

8. Every step is progress: Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova has never mixed well with heat or humidity. She won her first round, but in the second, she became ill, even getting her blood pressure checked toward the end of the match. The combination of the heat and perhaps exhaustion (she won Birminham) were too much for her, and she fell to Madison Brengle. But the important thing is that she was there.

7. Brits mix it up: Martina Hingis and her British partner, Jamie Murray, won the mixed doubles championship, defeating defending champions Heather Watson--also British--and Henri Kontinen. This is Hingis's second Wimbledon mixed doubles title, and her sixth major mixed doubles title. And while we may sometimes joke about a player needing an entire room for her trophies, Hingis may need an entire apartment for hers. She now has earned a total of 110 trophies, including singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and Hopman Cup.

6. Just when you thought it was safe to step back onto the grass: Bethanie Mattek-Sands' career has been hampered by injury probably more than the career of any other woman on the tour. She and her doubles partner, Lucie Safarova, were seeking a Career Slam at this event, but had to withdraw when Mattek-Sands--playing the second round of singles--sustained an injury so horrible, even veteran players were shocked. The doubles star fell, dislocating her kneecap and injuring her patella tendon. Screaming in pain, Mattek-Sands insisted that she be anesthetized before having her kneecap reset. She has undergone surgery, and the prognosis is guarded, with one expert saying that she might return in six months, but that it will more likely be a year.

5. Simply the best: The best matches at majors are often (usually) played early in the tournament, and this Wimbledon was no exception. There were two outstanding contests, both played in the second round. Jo Konta and Donna Vekic starred in a three-set thriller that ended with Konta's winning 7-6, 4-6, 10-8. Both players had better second serves than first serves. They hit 23 aces between them (12 and 11), and 97 winners.

The other stand-out match was played between Karolina Pliskova and Magda Rybarikova. Pliskova was a favorite to win the tournament, but Rybarikova had other ideas. Making a comeback from two different injuries, the Slovakian player was in a rare zone (for anyone) throughout the match, combining stunning shot selection with stunning court speed. Here is, in my opinion, the point of the tournament:





4. Once a queen, always a queen: It wasn't enough that Venus Williams got all the way to the final at the Australian Open; she had to do it again at Wimbledon. Looking like the grass queen of old, Williams swatted away the likes of the 2017 French Open champion and Jo Konta. Things didn't work out for her when she faced off with Garbine Muguruza, but it was still a remarkable run.

3. You say you want a revelation: Petra Martic and the above-mentioned Magda Rybarikova were as much the stars of this Wimbledon as anyone. Martic, a qualifier who missed a lot of time because of a back injury, made it all the way to the quarterfinals (having won three qualifying matches), taking out 20th seed Daria Gavrilova in the first round. In the quarterfinals, as fate would have it, she faced off against Rybarikova, who beat her in straight sets.

Rybarikova went on to defeat dark horse favorite CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets in the quarterfinals, but was finally stopped by Muguruza in the semifinals. What a run!

2. Are we there yet?!: 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina had to wait--and wait and wait for the very long (4 hours and 39 minutes) men's doubles final to end before they could take to the court. They also knew, when they stepped onto the court at 9:30 p.m., that all play had to end by 11 p.m. Their opponents were 9th seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Monica Niculescu, and the Russians played like they had a flight to catch, or at least an important dinner reservation that they didn't want to miss. In 54 minutes, it was over, and Makarova and Vesnina had won, 6-0, 6-0. This was the first double bagel to to delivered in a major women's double final since 1971 (Australian Open), and the first one to be scored at Wimbledon since 1953.

Makarova and Vesnina are one championship shy of having a Career Slam; they just need to win the Australian Open.

1. The strike of The Elegant Assassin: I wish I knew who the (British) commentator was who gave Garbine Muguruza the name "The Elegant Assassin" so that I could give him credit for doing so (if anyone knows, please tell me). It's as good a tennis nickname as I've ever heard. And yes, there are times when Muguruza's game isn't exactly elegant, but when she finds her zone, she's both stylish and scary at the same time. Such was the state of all things Mugu throughout the Spaniard's two-week stay in London.

She made it look so easy. The only player to take a set off of her was world number 1 Angie Kerber, and their round of 16 match was a great one. Muguruza barely broke a sweat through her other matches. When she stepped onto Centre Court with her bouquet on Saturday, she was the picture of composure. Her first set against five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams was a very tough one, but after she saved two set points, she went into assassin mode and stayed in it.

Muguruza defeated Williams 7-5, 6-0. She hit 14 winners and made 11 unforced errors. This is her second major championship--she won the French Open last year. In fact, she has won only two other tournaments in her career, one international and one mandatory premier. Muguruza was coached by former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez during this event since her regular coach could not be present, and the combination obviously worked very well.

The pressure of winning the French Open really got to Muguruza, and it didn't help when the French crowd turned against her this year when she competed against (and lost to) Kiki Mladenovic in the fourth round. Martinez is credited with getting Muguruza calm, and a calm Mugu is a deadly Mugu.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Muguruza feels a "bomb of emotions"--and drops a bomb of her own




Garbine Muguruza topped off her brilliant 2017 Wimbledon run today by defeating Venus Williams in straight sets and lifting the Venus Rosewater dish for the first time. Muguruza, the 2016 French Open champion, came close in 2015, but was defeated in that final by Serena Williams.

The first set was highly competitive and featured some stunning, very hard-hitting rallies, as one would expect from Muguruza and Williams. Muguruza had won the toss and elected to receive, but did not break her opponent in the first game, so she spent the rest of that set as the one "playing behind." And, serving at 4-5, she faced two break points--set points for Williams.

What ensued was a rally of 20 strokes, creating what was probably the most tense period in the entire match. It ended when Williams struck a forehand into the net. On the next point, Williams struck the ball long, and the set continued. And that 5-all moment changed the tone of the entire final. Neither player was the same after that. Williams' level declined, and Muguruza got control of her errant forehand, winning nine straight games. The Spaniard's 7-5, 6-0 victory backed up her very strong tendency to win a match when she wins the first set.

The match ended in a somewhat unusual way, though we've seen it before. Williams hit a ball that was called in, Muguruza challenged the call, and sure enough--the ball was out, which meant that Muguruza was the 2017 Wimbledon champion.




"It's such a bomb of emotions," the 15th seed said in her on-court interview, about what it felt like to realize that she was the champion.

Muguruza's coach, Sam Sumyk, could not be there, so she was coached during the event by the only other Spanish woman to win Wimbledon, Conchita Martinez. Muguruza dropped 44 games throughout the seven matches, and she dropped only one set--to Angelique Kerber.

The most interesting statistic, however, involves Muguruza's WTA career wins. She has won only four events, and two of them are majors. Of the others, one (Hobart) is an international tournament, and the other (Beijing) is a premier mandatory event. We sometimes talk about "big stage" players, but Muguruza has taken the meaning of this term to a whole new level.




The last two winners of majors were coached by Spanish women. Note to players: If you want to win the U.S. Open--better call Arantxa.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Williams and Muguruza in Wimbledon final: Expect thrills




 
Venus Williams, this generation's original Queen of Grass, is into her second major final of the year. A five-time winner of the Wimbledon singles title, Williams last lifted the Venus Rosewater dish in the summer of 2008, when she was a mere 28 years old. Tomorrow, she a chance to win her sixth Wimbledon championship, and to also put an exclamation point on the results of her inspiring determination to refuse to let her career be ruined by chronic illness.




But Williams has her work cut out for her because, on the other side of the net, awaits 2015 Wimbledon runner-up Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza's appearance in the final is more of a surprise than Williams' is. For as deeply talented as the Spaniard is, she can go way off (a la Kvitova) in a game, a set, a match, or a tournament. Muguruza hasn't been "herself" in a while, though we saw a strong hint of her return at the French Open, where she failed to defend her 2016 title.

Something about the sight of the Wimbledon lawns, however, inspired the world number 15, who--like her opponent--has been virtually flawless in her performance throughout the last two weeks. These two are on fire, and you can expect the final to be five-alarm, because neither of them is going to have a bad day.

There's some interesting backstory about these two. Muguruza lost the 2015 Wimbledon final to Serena Williams, and defeated Serena to win the 2016 French Open. Now here she is again in a major final, and up pops another Williams sister. Another tidbit of trivia: The last time a 37-year woman played in the Wimbledon final, it was Martina Navratilova, who was going for her tenth Wimbledon title. Navratilova was stopped by Conchita Martinez, who just happens to be the Wimbledon coach of--Garbine Muguruza.

Ah, the synchronicity of professional tennis.




The doubles final will also be played tomorrow. 9th seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Monica Niculescu will compete against 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Samds and Lucie Safarova were hoping to achieve a Career Slam at this tournament, but they had to withdraw when Mattek-Sands sustained a dreadful knee injury while playing singles.

Vesnina, by the way, made it to the semifinals of the mixed doubles competition, but she and her partner lost today.

The women's wheelchair singles final will also be played tomorrow. Diede De Groot will play Sabine Ellerbrock for the title.

Playing tomorrow for the girls' singles title will be the unseeded Ann Li and 3rd seed Claire Liu, both from the USA.

Here are the singles finalists' paths to the final:

GARBINE MUGURUZA (14)
round 1--def. Ekaterina Alexandrova
round 2--def. Yanina Wickmayer
round 3--def. def. Sorana Cirstea
round of 16--def. Angelique Kerber (1)
quarterfinals--def. Svetlana Kuznetsova (7)
semifinals--def. Magdalena Rybarikova

VENUS WILLIAMS (10)
round 1--def. Elise Mertens
round 2--Wang Qiang
round 3--Naomi Osaka
round of 16--Ana Konjuh (27)
quarterfinals--Jelena Ostapenko (13)
semifinals--def. Johanna Konta (6)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Only four women left, and none is named Simona




Sometimes I just want to buy Simona Halep a drink. This is one of those times. I had my doubts about how she would do at Wimbledon, and I was pleasantly surprised when she performed beautifully. She's gone now, but even in the process of making her exit, she played beautifully. And the "haven't I had this nightmare before?" factor has to have done a number on her head.

And yes, she has had this nightmare before--just a few weeks ago, in Paris. We all watched as a cheeky Latvian upstart took the world number 2's victory out from under her, once again denying her the French Open title. Today, it was a brilliantly serving, tough-as-nails daughter of Brittanica who seemed to be adhering to a motto that read something like, Keep Calm and Crush Simona's Dream.

It was a great match, and both women served very well. The first set established the high level of intensity, and Halep won it, 7-6. The second set was just as intense, and it, too went to a tiebreak. And there was Simona, up 5-4 with two serves to get the two points that would take her into the semifinals. Only Jo Konta had other ideas, and a combination of Halep's errors and Konta's opportunistic hitting gave the set to the Brit.

The third set was even more intense, as the British crowd realized that it might actually happen--that a British woman might reach the Wimbledon semifinals, something that hadn't been done since Virginia Wade did it in 1978. Konta went up 4-2 and never looked back. It was the only break point she saw. Halep also had only one chance to break, but she failed to convert it. Konta took the set 6-4, and will meet Venus Williams in the semifinals.

As for Simona--coming so close to something big (especially in Paris) in consecutive majors has to be a major heartbreak.

Venus Williams had little trouble dominating French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, and--as well as Williams played--it would be easy to say "well, there wasn't much Ostapenko could have done." But that would be wrong. There was plenty she could have done--like have a better second serve. And keep the ball inside the court. Ostapenko had some good moments, to be sure, but generally speaking, she played too carelessly to have any hope of extinguishing a very in-form Williams, who won, 6-3, 7-5.

But not to worry. Ostapenko will bounce back faster than a new service ball, and--one assumes--will focus on cleaning up her game and improving her second serve. Just a tweak here and there, and Ostapenko will be ready to come after everybody.




There was a long rain delay in the match that was played between CoCo Vandeweghe and Magda Rybarikova. Eventually, hours later, the match was moved to Centre Court so that it could be completed. But the rain delay did nothing for Vandeweghe, who had already lost the first set. Rybarikova served quite well and played a very clean match--Vandeweghe, not so much. In just over an hour and a half of play, the Slovakian player defeated Vandeweghe 6-3, 6-3.

In her press conference, Rybarikova said that this was the first time in a long time that she could play and practice without worrying about her knee or her wrist. She was obviously joyful, not just about getting to the semifinals, but about finally being able to move freely and without fear.

She has her work cut out for her, though, for her next opponent is Garbine Muguruza, who locked her Evil Twin in a closet and glided into Wimbledon with winning on her mind. When she isn't muguing around in a sullen state, the Spaniard is an overwhelming combination of fluidity, strategy and power. A commentator recently called her the Elegant Assassin, and the name fits her perfectly. Today, Muguruza (who was the Wimbledon runner-up in 2015), defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-4. This is the best Mugu has looked in a long time, and when she looks this good, she can be lethal.

My must-watch match for tomorrow is the doubles quarterfinal featuring 8th seeds Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua against 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Manic Monday leaves eight women standing, and leaves me as grumpy as always




This morning, yet again, I was painfully reminded of why I hate Manic Monday. It's bad enough when I have to try to keep up with two matches, but trying to keep up with four matches is an exercise in futility. I kept my eyes on the Kerber vs. Muguruza match as much as I could, but I was constantly sidetracked by the Ostapenko-Svitolina match and the Rybarikova-Martic contest. Then there was CoCo Vandeweghe and Caroline Wozniacki, and--already exhausted from getting practically no sleep--I felt more frustration than anything else. Because I could never really settle in and enjoy any match.

For the first time in my memory, all eight of my round of 16 picks were correct. The only one with which I even struggled (other than the ambivalence I normally feel about any pick I make) was the Ostapenko-Svitolina match, but in the end, I went with Ostapenko. So there was that.

Both Angie Kerber and Garbine Muguruza really rose to the occasion. I may have to watch that on replay in order to catch every moment of it. This was the best I've seen both of them play in a while, and it was especially nice to see Kerber back in form.

I don't think anyone one surprised that Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Aga Radwanska, given Radwanska's struggles of late (but yes, I know--it is Sveta). I wish I could have watched the entire match between Magda Rybarikova and Petra Martic; it was so special that they were both playing in the second week of Wimbledon. Rybarikova is in crazy-good form, and doesn't seem to be troubled by the occasion.

Probably my easiest pick was Vandeweghe over Wozniacki. CoCo would have had to have had a major struggle with her nerves for that to go another way. Today, she cut the figure of a classic grass court competitor, hitting big serves and then coming in to hit clean volleys.




Jelena Ostapenko played against a somewhat subdued Elina Svitolina, whose serve left something to be desired. Ostapenko got tight when she tried to close the match, however, but Svitolina couldn't quite capitalize on her opponent's hesitancy, and Ostapenko finally ended the match on her eighth match point. These days, we're not used to seeing a first-time major winner follow her victory with a deep run in the next major, but--coming from Ostapenko--it doesn't surprise me.

Five--time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams handled Ana Konjuh rather easily, and 2nd seed Simona Halep didn't have too much trouble with Vika Azarenka. Azarenka is only just returning to the tour, but nevertheless, Halep has been in excellent form in London. If she wins her next match, she'll take over the number 1 ranking spot. If she loses, Karolina Pliskova will become number 1.

Finally, the crowd got what they so badly wanted: Jo Konta is into the quarterfinals with her win over Caroline Garcia. I saw quite a bit of this match and rather enjoyed it. One expects Konta's service stats to be superior, and they were. But so were Garcia's; this is an area in which she has really improved. In all, there was little between the opponents in this lively three-set match, but Konta--perhaps using the strength of the crowd--was able to conjure the win.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Garbine Muguruza (14) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (7)
Magda Rybarikova vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (24)
Venus Williams (10) vs. Jelena Ostapenko (13)
Jo Konta (6) vs. Simona Halep (2)

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Only 16 remaining, and what a group it is!

The final sixteen women in the Wimbledon draw represent fourteen countries. The group includes one qualifier, two other unseeded players, one former Wimbledon champion, three former Wimbledon runners-up, and the reigning French Open champion. And there's also a player who holds two major championships, neither of which is Wimbledon.

Two nations have the distinction of having two players each left in the draw--the USA (CoCo Vandeweghe and Venus Williams) and Croatia (Petra Martic and Ana Konjuh).

Three of the remaining sixteen players are in the midst of making comebacks from injury and pregnancy leave, and their appearance in the round of 16 is perhaps the most dramatic story to be found in this draw. Vika Azarenka has recently returned to the tour after giving birth to a son, and she's performing at a high level so far. Azarenka has never done her best work on grass, so it's especially impressive to see her in week two of the tournament.





Petra Martic, who--several years ago--was close to joining the top 40, was off of the tour for ten months because of a back injury. In April of this year, her ranking was 662, but then she entered French Open qualifying, won all three qualifying matches and proceeded to reach the round of 16. During that run, she defeated Kateryna Bondarenko, 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova (also on a comeback tear). She fell to Elina Svitolina, but it was quite a run.

Then Martic did it again at Wimbledon. She entered qualifying, won all of her matches and has again reached the round of 16. This makes her the first player to ever go from qualifying to the round of 16 in consecutive majors. So far, she has beaten 20th seed Daria Gavrilova, Denisa Allertova and Zarina Diyas. Her current ranking is number 88 in the world. This is head-spinning stuff.





Martic's next opponent will be Magda Rybarikova, whose story is just as dramatic as the Croatian's. Rybarikova's ranking in mid-March was 453 (her career-high ranking was 31) and has shot up to 77. Rybarikova was out for several months because of two surgeries--one for her wrist and another for her knee.

Her performance at the 2017 Wimbledon event stands out because in the second round, she won what--at the conclusion of the tournament--will still probably be the best match played in its two-week duration. Rybarikova came out the winner of a three-hour battle involving stunning grass court skills by both players. It ended with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 upset of 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova, who was the top pick by most observers to win the tournament.




When Rybarikova takes her elegant game to the court to play Martic, the only unfortunate factor is that one of them has to lose.

For me, Martic and Rybarikova are the stories of the round of 16, but there are other stories. Azarenka's showing is, of course, one of them. And then there's the sudden resurgence (for now) of the two Wimbledon finalists who looked for all the world like they might not last long. Both world number 1 (and 2016 finalist) Angie Kerber and Garbine Muguruza (2015 finalist) have looked far less than themselves so far in 2017. And of course, the tennis gods being who they are, Kerber and Muguruza will face each other in the round of 16. So one is fated to make an exit, and the other is guaranteed to get to the quarterfinals.

Another good story belongs to Ana Konjuh. You'll recall that Konjuh had a most unfortunate incident occur at last year's Wimbledon in the second round when she was playing Aga Radwanska at a crucial moment in the final set. Radwanska won the first set 6-2, and Konjuh won the second, 6-4. The pair were at 7-all in the third when Konjuh, chasing a drop shot, stepped on the ball and turned her ankle. She received some treatment, but her ability to move was destroyed. Konjuh continued to play but her appearance on the court for the final two games was merely symbolic.

So it's nice to see Konjuh in the round of 16.

Another round of 16 story I like is that of Jelena Ostapenko, who--like those flying ants that invaded the courts last week--just won't go away. The pesky French Open champion (whom Todd Spiker has named Latvian Thunder) tends to do it the hard way, getting behind in sets and then pulling Safina-like comebacks (oh, how I miss Thrill Ride). The scary part is that she's been showing a little more finesse on grass than we saw on clay. Also, her serve has been cleaner and harder, and has earned her a lot of points. Win your first major then fall apart mentally? Not Ostapenko. She just keeps dancing.

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Angie Kerber (1) vs. Garbine Muguruza (14)
Aga Radwanska (9) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (7)
Magda Rybarikova vs. Petra Martic (Q)
CoCo Vandeweghe (24) vs. Caroline Wozniacki (5)
Ana Konjuh (27) vs. Venus Williams (10)
Jelena Ostapenko (13) vs. Elina Svitolina (4)
Jo Konta (6) vs. Caroline Garcia (26)
Vika Azarenka vs. Simona Halep (2)

Friday, July 7, 2017

The grass is still green, but the landscape has changed



Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, respective winners of Birmingham and Eastbourne, and the two top favorites to win Wimbledon, are gone. Kvitova was bested by illness, probably brought on by the sudden heat, reminding us--yet again--how fragile her body is. And there's the other (major) factor: She's still just getting used to being on the tour again and probably used up most of her energy in Eastbourne.

For those of us who thought Petra might defy realistic odds and go deep into this tournament: We were operating more from our hearts than our heads.

As for Pliskova--that was more of a true upset. Magdalena Rybariikova--who is in the middle of an extremely impressive comeback from two injuries--performed brilliantly against the 3rd seed, providing us with a match we'll remember after the tournament has ended.

Also gone are Kiki Mladenovic and Tsvetana Pironkova, who were expected to perhaps cause some trouble in the draw. Mladenovic, in particular, made an exit (second round) that  strikes me as surprisingly early.

All of the Czech players are out after the second round, which is, to me, the most shocking stat so far in this Wimbledon. The last one to go was former semifinalist Lucie Safarova. There can be little doubt that part of Safarova's misfortune was related to her having just seen her close friend and doubles partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, sustain a horrific knee injury. Mattek-Sands and Safarova were going for a Career Slam in London, but that dream has been shattered.

Jo Konta--who was in my top three favorites to win the event--is still around, however. Konta won her third round against Maria Sakkari, after winning her second against Donna Vekic in what may turn out to be the match of the tournament.

Angie Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, both former runners-up at Wimbledon, are also still in the draw, though they have yet to play their third round matches.

Simona Halep, however, has played her third round match, and she's into the round of 16. Halep, playing significantly under the radar, defeated an in-form Peng Shuai in the third round, and will next face Vika Azarenka. Azarenka had to fight Heather Watson with all her might, but she came through.

Apparently, Jelena Ostapenko didn't get the memo about falling apart mentally after one wins her first major. She's mugging, grinning and happily whacking the ball, relishing playing while behind on the scoreboard, and is into the round of 16. Her next opponent is Elina Svitolina, and that's a don't-miss event. Svitolina could give Ostapenko a lot of trouble by running down a lot of balls and keeping her errors in check, but this could easily go either way.

CoCo Vandeweghe has yet to play her third round, and it's likely to be a tough one. Vandeweghe plays Alison Riske, a player who almost always rises to the occasion on grass. If grumpy, careless CoCo shows up, it will be the end of her Wimbledon run because Riske will take advantage. If disceiplined CoCo shows up, things could still get dicey.

And then there's five-time champion Venus Williams, who is also into the round of 16 (and credit to Naomi Osaka for giving Williams a very tough third round match). Williams will play Ana Konjuh in the next round.

In doubles, the exit of top seeds Mattek-Sands and Safarova opens the way for a somewhat more open competition. 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina and 3rd seeds Chan Jung-jan and Martina Hingis are still around, as are 8th seeds Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua, and the unseeded--and potentially very dangerous--team of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Kiki Mladenovic.

In addition to the aforementioned Riske-Vandeweghe third round match, another upcoming third round contest to keep an eye on is the one featuring Anett Kontaveit and Caroline Wozniacki. Kontaveit's chances are pretty good, in my opinion. Perhaps, if she wins, Pam Shriver will figure out who she is.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hantuchova ends her distinguished career

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
Daniela Hantuchova has retired from professional tennis. The tall, intelligent, articulate Slovakian star leaves the tour as the holder of seven singles titles and nine doubles titles. She also has the rare distinction of holding a Career Slam in mixed doubles. Hantuchova was ranked as high as number 5 in the world in both singles and doubles.

Throughout her 18-year career, Hantuchova has been known for her clean, elegant ball-striking. On a different note, she has also been known for chronic choking in matches, especially big ones. Nerves cost the Slovak some titles, but at times, she was able to overcome them. A very mannered player, Hantuchova popularized the habit of turning her back to the net to collect herself before she served.

Hantuchova's big breakthrough came in 2002 when she not only won Indian Wells, but did so as the lowest-ranked player in history, and did it by beating Martina Hingis in the final. She would go on to win Indian Wells again in 2007. Hantuchova was part of the Slovakian Fed Cup team and half of the 2005 Hopman Cup championship team. She was also voted 2014's Most Valuable Female Player in World Team Tennis.

Daniela Hantuchova was also part of the most intense rivalry in recent tour history, though tennis commentators and writers have routinely ignored it. Hantuchova and Patty Schnyder played each other 19 times. Hantuchova once said she would rather play anyone on the tour than play Schnyder, but she played her over and over, and holds a 10-9 record against her. The opponents' contrasting styles always made for great viewing.

Hantuchova was trained as a classical pianist, and was also offered a university scholarship, which she turned down in order to play professional tennis. She has a gift for learning languages, and speaks several.

The tennis media sometimes had trouble "figuring out" Hantuchova because she didn't fit into any of the convenient "female tennis player" slots. A lover of fashion, she always wore simple utilitarian tennis kits. She enjoyed doing fashion shoots, but objected to the media's obsession with female players' bodies. For Hantuchova, what she did off the court was unrelated to what she did on the court, a concept that really isn't that difficult to comprehend.

My favorite memory of Hantuchova is of her performance, with Ai Sugiyama, in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Australian Open. They played top seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber in a three-hour thriller that had me on the edge of my seat. Black and Huber won the first set in a tiebreak, scoring all seven tiebreak points. Hantuchova and Sugiyama won the second set, 6-3.

The third set contained some entertaining rallies, but it was mostly about Black and Huber, who went up 5-2 and appeared to be headed for the semifinals. Then suddenly, almost out of nowhere, Hantuchova and Sugiyama went crazy on them, putting themselves in total sync with one another. It was instinctual, and it worked. Hantuchova set up volleys for Sugiyama, who delivered on all of them. This storm of synchronicity had an unsettling effect on Black, which gave Daniela and Ai some room to hit shots between their opponents.

The set went to a tiebreak, and Black and Huber went up 6-2. And as they were once again on the cusp of victory, it happened again--Hantuchova and Sugiyama stormed their opponents and saved four match points. They then proceeded to win the tiebreak 12-10, and advanced to the semifinals.

After Sugiyama retired from pro tennis, Hantuchova decided to take a bit of a break from doubles. But she eventually resumed doubles competition. She was the runner-up at the Australian Open twice--once with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2002) and once with Sugiyama (2006). She and Sugiyama were the runners-up at the French Open in 2009. Hantuchova won her four mixed doubles majors with four different partners.

Photo by Daniel Ward

The thoughtful, composed Hantuchova always cut an elegant figure, both on and off the court. And while she often struggled with inconsistency and nerves, she also clearly loved what she was doing. When she was tuned in, she was a joy to watch.

In retiring, the 34-year-old Hantuchova said about all her trophies and victories: "I won't remember that as much as all the people I got to meet, thanks to tennis." She also said that her strongest emotion was linked to being part of her country's Fed Cup team.

In her retirement statement, Hantuchova talked about joining the tour in 1999 and not knowing what to expect. "I've closed one door," she said, "and now many more are opening up, and the fact of not knowing is what really excites me."

Hantuchova was one of a kind on the WTA tour, and will no doubt bring that distinction to anything she does in the future.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

BIRMINGHAM? Czech. EASTBOURNE? Czech. WIMBLEDON??



When Petra Kvitova performed the amazing feat of winning Birmingham last week, it turned out to be just half of a Czech Republic bookended accomplishment. Today, Karolina Pliskova won Eastbourne, defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final. And while it is extremely rare for a Wimbledon warmup event champion to win in London, this could turn out to be one of those rare years.

There is an argument to be made for Kvitova's standing to win Wimbledon, and an argument to be made against it. As someone on Wimbledon Radio said earlier this week--winning seven matches over a stretch of two weeks is different from competing in Birmingham. True. Kvitova hasn't competed in a significant way (she lost in the second round of the French Open) since the U.S. Open. She doesn't have complete feeling in her left hand. She has been through a very significant trauma.

On the other hand, she's back in slay mode. And then there's what I like to call the Squared Hat Trick variable: Kvitova won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014; do the math.

As for Pliskova, she's been on everyone's hot list for a while. It's coming--whatever "it" is. And "it" might be Wimbledon. The Long Tall One has to be a favorite to hold the Venus Rosewater Dish.

Serena Williams won't be there, of course, and--unlike some others--I don't see Venus winning the tournament (nor would it shock me if she did). Vika Azarenka is back, but it's going to take her a while to get her court and tour rhythm back, and anyway, Wimbledon has never been an event at which she could be favored to win.

Now it gets interesting. World number 1 Angelique Kerber, who was the runner-up in 2016, is not the same player she was a year ago. She "should" be on the very short list, but--alas--she isn't. Still, one never knows when the German is going to make another turnaround in her career, and it's possible she could go deeper in this tournament than we expect.

Garbine Muguruza was the runner-up in 2015, but her inconsistency makes her a tenuous short list pick. Nevertheless, Muguruza could cause a lot of trouble if she has her head on straight in London.

Pending a final assessment of her Eastbourne injury, I'm putting Jo Konta near the top of the list. Yes, there's the pressure of playing in one's home country, but Konta, I think, can handle that. Her serve alone is a confidence-builder on the worst of tennis days. Here's hoping the Eastbourne damage was minimal.

What of Jelena Ostapenko? Television commentators appear to have forgotten (did they ever know?) that she was a junior Wimbledon champion--they keep asking if she can do well on grass. Well, yes, she can. But first-time major champions don't repeat these days; rather, they go into a crisis over the pressure of being famous. Ostapenko could make a deep run, though, because she seems a bit removed from some of the external circumstances that bother some players. While others are trying to sort out their priorities, Ostapenko is in a large room doing the cha-cha-cha.

Top seed Kerber anchors the first quarter of the draw, which also contains Lucie Safarova, Muguruza, 2012 runner-up Aga Radwanska, Timea Bacsinszky, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Just as important, it contains Ekaterina Makarova. Kerber is 3-2 against the Russian on grass, but Makarova--when she's of a mind to do it--can be quite destructive on a grass court and has ruined many top players' dreams.

The second quarter is anchored by 3rd seed Pliskova, and danger does lurk in that quarter. It lurks in the form of 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki, Daria Gavrilova and Daria Kasatkina--and Alison Riske, by the way--is no slouch on grass. But it looms large in Kiki Mladenovic and CoCo Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe, though seeded 24th, could tear through this draw if her mindset is right. Of note: Tsvetana Pironkova, The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, is in that quarter, and can never be counted out as someone who wreaks havoc at Wimbledon. It's possible she would face Wozniacki in the second round.

In the third quarter, anchored by 4th seed Elina Svitolina, there could be a lot of drama. Dominika Cibulkova is there, but she doesn't appear to pose much threat. Venus Williams and Jelena Ostapenko are there, as are Barbora Strycova, Ana Konjuh and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Madison Keys is in that part of the draw, too, but she's just returning from a second wrist surgery. Of note is Ash Barty, whom Svitolina plays in the first round: Danger.

The final quarter, whose anchor is 2nd seed Simona Halep, is also where Jo Konta and Petra Kvitova reside. So, in the words of Azarenka: Good luck with that. Halep made it to the quarterfinals last year, when she was taken out by eventual runner-up Kerber. Also of note in that quarter are Kristyna Pliskova, Elena Vesnina, Heather Watson, and Genie Bouchard.

Most eyes appear to be on Pliskova and Kvitova. I agree, and--assuming she'll be healthy enough following her recent injury--I'll put Konta in as a third.

As readers of this blog know, Wimbledon is my least favorite major (I wish they would move it to the Czech Republic), but even I look forward to Monday.   

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Rock rocks Birmingham, and gives new meaning to "comeback"



Winning her opening round at the French Open was a very emotional victory for Petra Kvitova. Barely losing her second round wasn't too shabby, either. Then she stepped onto the grass and did what Petra does best--slay. In Birmingham, Kvitova beat lucky loser Tereza Smitkova, wild card Naomi Broady, 5th seed Kiki Mladenovic, her friend, Lucie Safarova (by retirement), and a red hot Ash Barty, who did some very heavy lifting to get to the final.

Oh--and The Barking Czech won the Birmingham title with incomplete feeling in her left hand. You know--that hand.

Barty took Kvitova to three sets, and you know how that can sometimes work out for the Czech star. But no worries--Kvitova won the final with a 35/25 winner-unforced error result, and that included hitting thirteen aces. She also had long stretches of being Scary Petra, and--considering all that she's been through--there couldn't have been a more beautiful thing for us to watch.

From her performances in Paris and Birmingham, there is reason to postulate that experiencing a near-end to her career (and perhaps her life) may have caused Kvitova to give up her self-destructive on-court meltdowns that have kept her from winning the many major titles she "should" have won. Her priorities have been rearranged; she could be a lot looser from now on.

I should note that it would be just as likely--if not more so--that the trauma would have made the Czech star even more anxious and less self-confident. Every time we suffer a trauma, we are re-visited by any former traumas we have expeienced. If those former traumas (and we've all suffered some) were not resolved, their subsequent visits are especially intense.

Also, immediate, appropriate treatment of a trauma provides a dramatically better outcome than postponed, non-existent and/or incompetent treatment. We know that Kvitova received immediate, expert treatment for her hand injury, and I hope she received the same for the emotional/cognitive injury.

Other factors also come into play, including a trauma victim's general outlook, her level of social and healthcare support, and her ability to transcend obstacles. 

So far, the outlook for Petra appears to be excellent. She is already an inspiration to those who saw her play in Paris and Birmingham. She won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014: do the math, and bring on the pineapples!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

My French Open top 10

original photo by Daniel Ward
Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 French Open occurrences:

10. Canada finally in the mix: Gabriela Dabrowski became the first Canadian woman to win a major title when she and partner Rohan Bopanna won the mixed doubles event in Paris. In the final, Dabrowski and Bopanna fought off two match points to defeat Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah, 2-6, 6-2, 12-10.

9. Conspicuous by their absence: Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova and three-time French Open champion Serena Williams did not compete in this year's event for reasons that were ridiculous and delightful, respectively. Also missing was Vika Azarenka, who--though not known for her clay court play--is nevertheless a top player. And, sadly, among the missing was Laura Siegemund, who has been setting the clay courts on fire lately, but suffered a serious injury right before the event began.

8. This Court is closed (no repairs anticipated): Margaret Court just won't shut up. And while she has a right to practice her religion and express her beliefs--when those beliefs are contrary to masses of actual evidence, then their expression becomes harmful, and there is going to be backlash. I find Court's obsession with everything gay/evil quite interesting.

7. 1 really is the loneliest number: Angelique Kerber, the world's number 1 player, went out in the first round, a victim of Ekaterina Makarova. There's no shame in getting beaten by Makarova (though, on a clay court, that was pretty strange). And sometimes top players get upset in the first round. But Kerber's career has been on such a downward slide that she wasn't even considered a favorite going into the French Open, and she should have been.

6. They love Paris in the springtime: The French players were true stars in this year's French Open. One of them, Kiki Mladenovic, seeded 13th, was a favorite to win the whole thing. She took out former finalist Sara Errani, and she took out defending champion Garbine Muguruza, who was also a favorite to win the whole thing. Mladenovic was on a roll, but fell to Timea Bacsinszky in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet had the misfortune of having to play one another in the round of 16. Garcia won that match, but she, too, fell in the quarterfinals, beaten by Karolina Pliskova. But it was a spectacular run by the French stars.

5. More to come: They didn't win the French Open, but both Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova solidified their roles as important players on the tour. Svitolina, of course, is probably still quaking from the hurt put on her by Simona Halep just as it appeared obvious that the Ukrainian star was about to advance to the semifinals. Pliskova did advance to the semifinals, and Halep got her, too. But who thought the Long Tall One was going to do so well on clay?

4. They can't stop winning!: Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova did it again. They won their second French Open doubles title and their third major doubles title in a row. Mattek-Sands and Safarova have now won five majors together, and a Wmbledon win would give them a Career Slam.

3. The bittersweet times of Simona Halep: I've written so much about Simona Halep in the last several days, and I don't want to re-hash what I've written. My final take is this: She really has made a turnaround in attitude: Her miraculous defeat of Svitolina in the quarterfinals is all the proof I need. But brain-wiring is a tricky thing, and sometimes, nerves kick in even when you think you may have conquered them. Also, sometimes you find yourself face to face with a grinning, grimacing, "Isn't Roland Garros a blast?" hitting machine. Halep isn't the only top player who, on a given day, would have been overwhelmed by Ostapenko. Here's hoping Halep keeps the faith because many of us would love to see her lift that (or any big) trophy.

2. The Rock returns: This event has been so thrilling and so full of surprises that it's easy to "forget" some of the earlier big moments. But surely nothing could have touched our hearts more than seeing Petra Kvitova enter Court Philippe-Chatrier. Well, except maybe seeing her play--and win her first match. She lost her second match, but by the very close score of 7-6, 7-6. And it didn't matter at all. Petra had returned, and a month earlier than what had been projected as her earliest possible return time. Kvitova won't get all the feeling back in her fingers for a while, but she's able to play, and that is, as far as I'm concerned, the best thing that will happen all season.

1. They say it's your birthday: Those of us who have watched Jelena Ostapenko for a while were aware of her somewhat scary tennis skills. But there was so much more to be done--the taming of her emotions, learning some discretion in shot selection, finding a better serve. And there is still plenty of work for the young Latvian to do (I can only imagine, if she fixes her problems areas, what she might become). But that didn't stop her from pulling off one of the greatest upsets in tennis history.

The first Latvian player to win a major, the first unseeded woman to win a major since 1933 (and the first one in the Open Era), the first woman to win a major as her first WTA victory since
1979--Ostapenko crashed the record books the same way she crashed the dreams of Simona Halep and Timea Bacsinszky. It's just how she does things.

Ostapenko turned 20 the day she beat Bacsinszky (who was also observing her birthday) in the semifinals. So why not just party through the weekend and, on your way out, pick up the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen?

The ballroom dancer turned tennis pro started her campaign with a defeat of Louisa Chirico, went on to take out Olympic gold medal winner Monica Puig, the talented Lesia Tsurenko, former French Open finalist Sam Stosur, former world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki, and friend Bacsinszky, before she got to the highly favored 3rd seed (and former finalist) Simona Halep. Ostapenko entered Roland Garros (only her eighth appearance at a  major) as a teenager, and--299 winners later--left as a member of the tennis elite.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jelena Ostapenko: an expert dancer who prefers to lead



It "shouldn't" have happened. Kind of like the hummingbird "shouldn't" be able to fly. But it did happen: Jelena Ostapenko, who had never before won a WTA tournament, defeated obvious favorite Simona Halep today and became the 2017 French Open champion.

Ostapenko is the first unseeded player in 74 years to win the event. She entered the tournament ranked number 47 in the world, and on Monday, she'll be ranked number 12--with a bullet.

The young, very expressive, ballroom-dancing Latvian appears to have swirled around in a ring of magic throughout her two weeks at Roland Garros. She won her semifinal match on her birthday (oddly, played against a friend and former doubles partner who was observing her birthday, also). And we know how some people like to extend their birthday celebrations into the weekend--well, no one can do that better than Ostapenko just did.

But that coincidence pales compared with this one: The last player to win the French Open as his first tournament was Gustavo Kuerten, and he did it on June 8, 1997--the day Ostapenko was born.

You can't make this stuff up.

Halep was the runner-up in 2014, after playing a very hard-fought final against Maria Sharapova. In the next couple of years, the Romanian player--who had her break-out year in 2013--found the pressure to win get to her in ways that impeded her progress. Halep is clever, graceful (every generation has a player of notable grace, and Halep is that player), strategically superior, and extraordinarily athletic. But her self-punishing ways, tied to her perfectionism, have held her back.

Halep came into this French Open, however, with a new attitude, and that attitude was made dramatically manifest when she pulled off a miracle in the quarterfinals, beating Elina Svitolina after being down a set and 1-5. It looked, for all the world, like the Romanian had conquered her demons and would finally collect her Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Halep won the first set 6-4, against risk-taker Ostapenko, who plays all-out on every shot, with the hope that all those errors, in the end, will be neutralized by all those winners (I call it "Kvitova-style"). At that point, the match looked like my expectation--that Ostapenko would hardly fade, but that the occasion would cause her to create more errors than winners. I was almost right: She hit 54 of each.

One of the most appealing things about Ostapenko is how quickly she gets over disappointment. She misses a shot, makes a face, then moves on to the next shot. She uses a poor strategy, waves her arms at her box, then moves on to the next strategy. So today, she lost a set, shrugged it off, and moved on to the next set. No big deal. She went down 0-3 in that set, and shrugged that off, too. Down 1-3 in the third? No problem. Is it the resilience of youth, or is it just the way Ostapenko is? Regardless, she cleaned her game up in the middle of the second set, dramatically changing her winner-error ratio, and won it 6-4.

The third set was just as tense as one would have expected it to be. In that set, Halep saw only two break opportunities, and she converted one. Ostapenko converted three out of seven. And as the set progressed, Ostapenko--who "should" have been falling apart mentally--entered the zone we've seen her enter throughout the last two weeks. She entered it, and she stayed in it, finding angles that are generally known only to players like Kvitova, Kerber--and Halep. She kept the ball in the court more frequently. She had grasped the idea that she could win the French Open, and this knowledge, rather than causing her to collapse mentally, only made her more deadly. She defeated Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.



Halep had candidly stated, before the match, that she felt pressure, and she confirmed this after the match. Well, who wouldn't? We could analyze this for days: Did Halep cave mentally again, or was she just outplayed? I prefer to leave that analysis alone because I think the match was more complex than that, and because any seasoned player would have felt a bit squeamish going against the almost cartoon-like winner-smacking of the sometimes cartoon-like Latvian.

Ostapenko hit 299 winners in her French Open run. She is the first Latvian player to win a major title, and undoubtedly the first player to give up a professional ballroom dancing career in order to play professional tennis.

When she spoke with the press in Charleston, Ostapenko said that her favorite ballroom dance was the cha-cha-cha. In Paris, she said it was the samba. I'm wondering how she feels about the tango--the most fiery of dances, filled with emotion and gliding steps. The tango permits dancers to focus on individual steps, and to coordinate those steps, moment by moment, with the music and the mood of the occasion. Something tells me that Ostapenko can do a mean tango. In the meantime, we were lucky enough to watch her glide her way to a championship (my favorite championship) that most players will never achieve.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Can the final possibly top what we saw today?



I think not. Ostapenko, Bacsinszky, Halep, and Pliskova were so inspired in today's semifinals, it's hard to imagine that we'll see greater, more exciting tennis on Saturday. It was a joy to watch both matches, in which the players displayed remarkable athleticism, amazing speed and stunning shot-making. Unfortunately, two of them had to lose.

Those two would be Timea Bacsinszky and Karolina Pliskova, each of whom had great Paris runs, and who would have made equally great finalists. But it wasn't to be. What we will get is pretty great, too: 3rd seed and former French Open runner-up Simona Halep and the unseeded, never-won-a-WTA- tournament Jelena Ostapenko.

Though none of us can know how the finalists feel (it's easier to figure out how Bacsinszky and Pliskova probably feel), it's not making much of a stretch to conclude that most of the pressure is on Halep. A win would make her the world number 1, but I doubt that her ranking is a major source of pressure.

When Halep broke through in 2013 (going from number 47 in the world to number11), she set her own bar very high. Since then, she has struggled with many things--injuries (especially to her feet and ankles), coaching changes, players who know her game and form strategies to defeat her, and--most significant of all--her own piercing self-judgment. Cursed with perfectionism, Halep has often responded to her own mistakes by just giving up, which has served as her form of self-punishment.

That she has changed her ways was dramatically evident when she won her semifinal match against Elina Svitolina, who was dominating Halep, and who was on the brink of upsetting her.

Today's challenge was different. Karolina Pliskova, who sort of sneaked into the semifinals when no one was paying attention, didn't know what to do about Halep during the first set. Clay isn't exactly where the Czech star feels at home; her huge serve and big, flat groundstrokes are her bread and butter on hard and grass courts. But by the middle of the second set, Pliskova found a rhythm against Halep, and forced a deciding set. Each woman played some beautiful tennis, but in the end, Halep's extraordinary clay court athleticism--and her opponent's less than her usual high standard-serve--led her to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory.



The other match also went to three sets. Bacsinszky and Ostapenko broke each other 16 times, Ostapenko hit 50 winners, it was Bacsinszky's birthday, it was Ostapenko's birthday, and a good time was had by all. It was really a very entertaining match, with the Swiss player's speed and cleverness on display throughout; she wound up winning just one less point than her opponent. Had there been an évier de cuisine handy, I'm sure Bacsinszky would have thrown it at Ostapenko--she threw everything else.

But it wasn't quite enough. Ostapenko (somewhat like the young Kvitova) gives new meaning to "swinging freely." The average speed of her explosive forehand was 76 mph. Ostapenko is a grinning, grimacing, bending, missile-tossing phenomenon who--when she can keep the errors in check--is kind of scary. (On the court--otherwise, she's quite charming.) And as if that weren't enough, all that ballroom dancing has undoubtedly given her a superb sense of her own body, as well as a keen sense of balance.

The young (20 today) Latvian defeated Bacsinszky 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. She is the first Latvian player to ever reach the final of a major, and she's the first unseeded player in 34 years to reach the final of the French Open. Ostapenko is also the lowest-ranked player (47) to reach the French Open final since the advent of computerized rankings in 1975. This blasting through the numbers and the expectations is pure Ostapenko.

The Latvina's coach for the clay season, at least, is former WTA player Anabel Medina-Garrigues, who won the French Open doubles title twice.

However, as free and hard-hitting as Ostapenko may be, she's never been in a huge final before. She has been in three regular WTA finals, and she lost all of them. The most recent loss occurred in Charleston, when she was defeated in straight sets by Daria Kasatkina.

Halep, on the other hand, has been here before. In 2014, she took Maria Sharapova to the brink, prompting Sharapova--after she defeated Halep and won her second French Open title--to say that the match against the Romanian was the toughest final she had ever played.

But today's action wasn't all about the aforementioned players. Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner, Rohan Bopanna, won the mixed doubles title when they defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah 2-6, 6-2, 12-10. Dabrowski is the first Canadian woman to win any kind of major title.

The women's wheelchair competition began today, with top seed Jiske Griffioen getting knocked out by Aniek Van Koot. 2nd seed Yui Kamiji survived and advanced to the semifinals.

Here are the singles finalists paths to the final:

JELENA OSTAPENKO

round 1--def. Louisa Chirico
round 2--def. Monica Puig
round 3--def. Lesia Tsurenko
round of 16--def. Sam Stosur (23)
quarterfinals--def. Caroline Wozniacki (11)
semifinals--def. Timea Bacsinszky (30)

SIMONA HALEP
round 1--def. Jana Cepelova
round 2--def. Tatijana Maria
round 3--def. Daria Kasatkina (26)
round of 16--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (21)
quarterfinals--def. Elina Svitolina (5)
semifinals--def. Karolina Pliskova (2)