Saturday, October 20, 2018

A funny thing happened on the way to this post

Last year, I showed a friend the now-famous New Haven "astronomy" video done by Petra Kvitova, Kiki Mladenovic, Aga Radwanska, and Domi Cibulkova, and he howled with laughter. This year, I texted him the New Haven serve clock video, and the next time I saw him, he told me, "Those women are funny! I mean, they're genuinely funny--they could do a comedy act!"

And I told him, yes--this is one of the many reasons I love the WTA--there is so much personality on the tour, and so much silliness.

The Backspinner calls it "the most interesting tour in the world," and it is (though props to the LPGA, which is pretty interesting, too). And one of the many things that makes it interesting is the vast store of humor that resides within it. From the sometimes-caustic and always clever wit of Maria Sharapova to the unfiltered hilarity of Jelena Jankovic to the self-deprecating, yet intelligent, humor of Andrea Petkovic--any WTA event is a funny venue.

Yes, we watch primarily for the beautiful tennis and the competitive excitement. But we also watch--not just the matches, but the press conferences and the videos--because members of the tour are entertaining in every way. I think back at all the players who have made me laugh--Kvitova, Radwanska, Jankovic, Sharapova, Serena Williams, Petko, Sveta Kuznetsova, Julia Goerges, the Dashas, Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Laura Robson, Martina Hingis, the eternally droll Dinara Safina, and the master herself, Li Na--and I realize just how much I have laughed.

It's important to laugh. I can't think of a more empty state than having no sense of humor. Research shows us that laughter reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. It can also get us through hard times. And--considering how some sports fans take things (unfortunately, even some of the humor) so seriously--the comedy tour that is the WTA provides a lot of relief.

The aforementioned Safina, one of the tour's great philosophers (along with Kuznetsova, Jankovic, Petkovic and Francesca Schiavone), once said, "There are some moments when you want to break all the racquets and send everything to hell." That's true, at least metaphorically, for all of us. Thank goodness we have the comedy act of the WTA Tour to give us some relief.

The new Singapore sling


Of all the famous cocktails, perhaps none has been tampered with more than the Singapore sling. The original recipe was complicated enough, but bartenders have changed it numerous times, making it even more complicated. Originally considered a "woman's" drink, the Singapore sling is therefore pink. Here is the Women Who Serve version:

1 1/2 oz. potent Petra
1/2 oz. Sloane syrup
1/2 oz. Osaka fan club soda
4 oz. rapidly stirred Svitolina
dash of Wozniacki bitters
shake with icy Kerber resolve
garnish with deadly slice of Kiki

Serve in a long, tall, frosted Pliskova glass.

Drink more than one at your own risk!



The WTA Finals begin Monday. Kiki Bertens was added after top seed, world number 1, and winner of the Porsche Race to Singapore Simona Halep withdrew because of injury. Caroline Wozniacki is the defending champion. Here are the two round robin groups:

RED GROUP
Angie Kerber (1)
Naomi Osaka (3)
Sloane Stephens (5)
Kiki Bertens (8)

WHITE GROUP

Caroline Wozniacki (2)
Petra Kvitova (4)
Elina Svitolina (6)
Karolina Pliskova (7)

Stephens and Kvitova have winning records over the players in their respective groups. Theoretically, this should give them an advantage--and it does--but the WTA Finals can be unpredictable. I should add, however, that since the courts are playing fast, Kvitova's White Group advantage is somewhat augmented.

Monday play begins with Red Group action. Osaka will take on Stephens, and Kerber will play Bertens.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

What is it about the Asian swing?




Perhaps some players are exhausted and others are ready for a new start. That's one theory. At any rate, the Asian swing tends to bring about--if not surprises--at least, new takes on the state of the tour in a given season. Take 2011, when Aga Radwanska won both Tokyo and Beijing (there was no Wuhan tournament then). Or last year, when Caroline Garcia won both Wuhan and Beijing and launched herself into the WTA Finals.

This year, Karolina Pliskova suddenly re-emerged as a major force and won Tokyo, a premier event. Any victory is impressive, but this one may have been especially sweet because the Long Tall One defeated U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka in the final. Pliskova, in 2016, was considered the Next Big Thing. She reached the final of the U.S. Open. But her results after that were mixed. The 2018 Asian Swing, however, has put her back into the spotlight.

Wuhan, a premier 5 event, was just as interesting. And before I get to Aryna Sabalenka's victory, I want to highlight Anett Kontaveit's run to the final. Kontaveit has risen steadily, and so quietly, she has gone almost unnoticed. In Wuhan, the Estonian player defeated Sloane Stephens, Donna Vekic (another player who is finally reaching her potential), Zhang Shuai, Katerina Siniakova, and Wang Qiang. That's quite a run.

Sabalenka's Wuhan victory came as no surprise to me. The Belarusian has a complete game, and--just as important--a calm confidence. An opponent really does have to beat Sabalenka; she won't give anything away. Her 2019 season should be worth watching.

Finally (of the big ones), there was the China Open, won by Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, who won in Beijing without dropping a set. The victory was her 30th title. Wozniacki and Naomi Osaka are the only two players to win both a major and a premier mandatory in the 2018 season.




The China Open was interesting for another reason: Wang Qiang gave us another outstanding performance, going all the way to the semifinals. In Wuhan, the Chinese player defeated the often-formidable Maria Sakkari, 8th seed and Tokyo champion Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova, and Monica Puig, before she retired against Anett Kontaveit.

In Beijing--playing as a wild card-Wang defeated 12th seed Alona Ostapenko and then she defeated Karolina Pliskova (this time the 7th seed) again. She followed that with a 7-5, 7-5 defeat of Wuhan champion Aryna Sabalenka, and then was stopped by Wozniacki.

The doubles results have also been notable. The Japanese team of Miyu Kato and Makoto Ninomiya won the Tokyo doubles title, defeating top seeds Andrea Sestini Hlavackova and Barbora Strycova in the final. Demi Schuurs and Elise Mertens won the Wuhan title, and Sestini Hlavackova and Strycova made to the Beijing final, too, and this time--they won.

Of course, there's more to the Asian swing than the premier events. The swing began in Guangzhou, and who won that? Altogether now: Wang Qiang! The Asian swing has put a well-deserved spotlight on Wang Qiang, and she's now one of the players I'm most interested in watching in 2019. Wang has a compelling court presence, a good all-around game and a very good serve.

Back to the other Asian swing events: Charleston and Cincinnati champion Kiki Bertens won the Korea Open, and Margarita Gasparyan won in Tashkent. Gasparyan's victory was one of the sweetest of the 2018 season; the Russian player was out for a long time after enduring three knee surgeries and considering retirement from the tour. She is currently ranked number 138 in the world.

The last two Asian swing tournaments, Hong Kong and Tianjin, will be played this week. The top seeds are Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova (also a wild card). Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from Hong Kong because of a back injury. Also withdrawing were Ekaterina Makarova and Lesia Tsurenko.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

My U.S. Open top 10




Here are my top 10 U.S. Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head: The heat at this U.S. Open made me wonder, at times, whether I was actually watching reruns of Australian Open matches. The heat rule was often in effect, and a men’s heat rule had to be instituted. The weekend brought mild temperatures, but then it went right back to being almost unbearably hot. Some junior matches were postponed, and players suffered in ways that were sometimes hard to watch.

9. Speaking of the intense heat: Lesia Tsurenko—who reached the round of 16 by taking out, among others, 2nd seed Caroline Wozniacki—cramped and staggered her way through her third round match against Marketa Vondrousova. Vondrousova did her share of staggering, too; they were both almost overcome by the heat. Tsurenko’s issues were serious enough that I thought she would retire from the match, but instead, she won it, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2. It was fascinating (and a bit scary) to watch, but what was worse was to watch Vondrousova accuse her opponent of “acting.”

8. I don’t want what they’re having:
ESPN and Tennis Channel commentators go into some kind of delusional trance when they call matches in which U.S. players participate. You wouldn’t have known, for example, that Sloane Stephens was losing her quarterfinal match to Anastaija Sevastova. And when it was over, a prominent Tennis Channel commentator declared Sevastova’s victory was due to her “consistency.” That truth was, it was due to her dismantling Stephens’ game with her variety and cleverness.

You also wouldn’t have known—at least during part of the match—that Naomi Osaka was handily defeating Serena Williams. To say that the ESPN and Tennis Channel commentators “have blinders on” is an understatement. They repeatedly refuse to see what’s right in front of them.

7. Working the graveyard shift: The newly renovated Louis Armstrong Stadium proved to be the undoing of several top players. World number 1 Simona Halep, Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, Wimbledon champion (and former U.S. Open champion) Angie Kerber, Petra Kvitova, and Garbine Muguruza all fell in early rounds—inside Louis Armstrong stadium.

6. Showing us why she’s Diede de Great:
Diede de Groot won both the women’s wheelchair singles championship and the doubles championship. She won the doubles title with Yui Kamiji, whom she beat in the singles final. Currently ranked number 1 in the world in both singles and doubles, de Groot has now won four singles majors and four doubles majors, in addition to sevefal other major events.

5. Can’t keep her down: After sustaining a horrible injury at Wimbledon last year, Bethanie Mattek-Sands spent much of the following months in surgery, in pain, and on crutches. But at this year’s U.S. Open, she teamed with defending champion Jamie Murray (whose 2017 partner, Martina Hingis, had retired) and won the mixed doubles championship. The unseeded Mattek-Sands and Murray defeated the unseeded Alicja Rosolska and Nikola Mektic 2-6, 6-3, 11-9. This was Mattek-Sands’  third major mixed doubles victory; she also won an Olympic gold medal (with Jack Sock).

4. What’s wrong with this picture?:
As the U.S. Open approached, there was much speculation about whether Elina Svitolina could finally overcome her peculiar pattern of winning huge titles on the regular tour, even defending titles, but crashing out too early in majors. Well, she did a little better in Flushing Meadows. The Ukrainian star went out in the round of 16, a victim of Anastajia Sevastova (who played a bagel third set). There’s no shame in losing in the fourth round, and certainly no shame in losing to someone as clever as Sevastova. But, looking at the big picture, Svitolina should be doing better at majors. She has let go of her coach, which is something she does from time to time; we’ll all have to stay tuned.

On a similar note, Alona Ostapenko set a very good precedent (for these times) when she reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon right after she won the French Open last year. But since then, the Latvian star has managed to both stun and disappoint at the same time. Her undisciplined game neutralizes her rather amazing power and aggression. If not her current coach, then some coach needs to help Ostapenko play a somewhat lower-risk game. She’s too talented to be this sloppy.

3. One is the loneliest number:
Simona Halep is the first number 1 player in the Open Era to go out in the first round of the U.S. Open. She lost in straight sets to big-hitting Kaia Kanepi, who has made somewhat of a career of being a ginat-killer at majors. It’s unforttunate that this occurred, but it wasn’t like she wasn’t facing a dangerous opponent. On the other hand, it’s probably inaccurate to assume that winning a major has somehow transformed Halep into a less mercurial player. I think she is less fragile, but she’s still Simona. (And that’s okay.)

2. The real final: Everything a fan could have wanted in a major final took place—on Sunday. Ash Barty and CoCo Vandeweghe defeated Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic 3-6, 7-6, 7-6. The rallies were thrilling, the tension never let up, both teams held championship points, and it was just non-stop excitement. Mladenovic was the stand-out player, which made it all the more bitter (also because she’s such a good server) that the match ended on her double fault. All in all, though, this was an outstanding match. Also, it's the first major title for both Barty and Vandeweghe.

1. A championship performance:
Big, poweful hitters often need to learn to control their aggression and develop more shot variety, though it’s tempting for them to avoid this part of their tennis education. Petra Kvitova learned. Alona Ostapenko is still (we hope) taking classes. Naomi Osaka took a crash course. She blazed her way through the draw with power, precison, and a much-improved serve, dropping only one set along the way.

Serena Williams is Osaka’s idol. No problem. The shy, soft-spoken Japanese player, once she stepped onto the stage that is Arthur Ashe Stadium, was in control, much like an introverted actor who switches into a totally different gear once the play starts. It was unfortunate that the drama which came to define the match robbed Osaka of the glory she deserved, but she handled that well, too. It was a very strange way to win a first major, but I believe she’ll be holding more big trophies—under better circumstances. Osaka is the first Japanese woman to win a singles major.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Naomi Osaka defeats her idol and wins U.S. Open

\



Now I'm back
Unpacked
Sidewalk and pigeon
You look like a city
But you feel like a religion
To me
Laura Nyro, "New York Tendaberry

The U.S. Open has always been a mixed bag for Serena Williams. Unpleasant things have happened to her at the Open. I won't review these because fans know what they are, and also, because recorded accounts of them are filled with inadequate or incorrect information, which would take me pages to amplify and explain. But the result is that New York hasn't been a walk in Central Park for the six-time champion.

There was plenty of drama before the match even began. Williams was entering her second major final after giving birth to her daughter. Her opponent, Naomi Osaka, had burned through the draw, playing only one three-set match. Williams had long been Osaka's idol. It was as dramatic a setup for a major final as we could imagine.
And that would have been enough drama, thank you very much. But of course, it was only the beginning of what turned into a most unfortunate parade of incidents. What happened, in fact, was so unfortunate and so controversial, that I find myself unable to say too much about it.

And the past is a blue note
Inside me

Williams was cited for a coaching violation. Her coach, Patrick Mourataglou, was clearly coaching her from her box. This, of course, wasn't Williams' fault, but the rule is that a player gets a penalty warning for illegal coaching. Williams later broke her racket, and received a point penalty for that. Any additional infraction would result in a game penalty, and umpire Carlos Ramos gave her just that when she called him "a thief." Technically speaking, Ramos was within his rights to exact the penalty. What has many people so angry, though, is that umpire abuse--mainly practiced by ATP players--is routinely ignored by chair umpires.

It became a matter of context.

Both John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors had a history of saying very abusive things to chair umpires, and fans called their behavior "colorful" and "great theatre." Andre Agassi was very abusive to a lineswoman. More recently, David Ferrer was abusive to a chair umpire; in fact, he managed to insult all females, and he got away with it (and was hailed a sporting hero during this U.S. Open). Only Fabio Fognini was penalized for his atrocious behavior toward a chair umpire, and that penalty was significantly watered down.

During all of this horror, Naomi Osaka--a somewhat shy, sensitive young player--managed her emotions like a boss, not letting it affect her game. It's important to note that--even if none of the drama with the umpire had occurred--Osaka was controlling the match and very well would have won it, anyway.

New York tendaberry
True berry
I lost my eyes
In east wind skies
Here where I've cried
Where I've tried
Where God and the tendaberry rise

So Naomi Osaka, who hit sixteen winners and made fourteen unforced errors, prevailed as impressively in the final as she had in her previous six matches. Osaka is the real thing, and her improvement under the tutelage of coach Sascha Bajin has been dramatic. She played fearlessly, with great precision. She defeated her idol 6-2, 6-4, to claim her first major victory, and only her second tour victory.

The look on Osaka's face when she won, and during the trophy presentation, was not a look we want to see in a first-time (or any-time) champion. To her credit, Williams was very protective toward her opponent, beseeching the crowd to stop booing. I don't want to do any judging; I have respect for both the champion and the runner-up. I just wish this final had never happened. It was a strange trial by fire for Osaka, and she will have to sort it out as best she can.

In the meantime, Osaka is the first Japanese person in history to win a singles major. Next week, she enters the top 10 as number 7 in the world. We'll have to see if she continues to be a big stage player (a popular WTA trend) or whether she starts to make a dent in the regular WTA calendar.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Naomi Osaka to face her idol in U.S. Open championship match




Playing in your first major final has to be one of the most exciting, most stressful things imaginable for a professional tennis player. Having to play an opponent  in that final who is considered the best in the sport increases the tension. And if that opponent also happens to be your professional idol? Your head could (metaphorically) blow up.

Sascha Bajin (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
But that's just what Naomi Osaka will have to do tomorrow when she faces off against Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. Osaka, who announced herself to the sports world when she won the BNP Paribas Open earlier this year, has transformed from a big-hitting power player to a big-hitting power player with court sense and a good serve.

This transformation is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to her decision to hire Sascha Bajin to be her coach. Bajin, who spent many years as Williams' hitting partner, has taken the raw talent of the young Japanese star and helped her to refine it. Theoretically, such refinement could turn Osaka into an especially dangerous player on the WTA tour.

But in the meantime, she has to deal with Serena Williams. Osaka and Williams have played each other only once before, in Miami this year, in the first round. Osaka won that match in straight sets, but that was when Williams was just returning from her pregnancy break. Osaka, who says she started playing tennis mainly because of Williams, told the media after the Miami match that her goal had been to avoid a double bagel.




That Serena Williams won't be the one on the other side of the net tomorrow. A very much back-on-track Williams will be seeking her 24th major singles championship, and it will take a mighty effort to deny her that.

Osaka does have a few things (besides her game) going for her: She has played Williams before (the victory part may not count that much), she has won a final on a very big stage, and she has a coach who probably knows more about the intricacies of Williams' game than anyone. Fans will cheer for Williams, but will also show a lot of appreciation for Osaka. who has won hearts and minds with her mature game and her goofy, unguarded charm.

When I sat down to write this, I thought of that popular cartoon image of a domestic cat looking in the mirror and seeing a lion. It may be like that for Osaka: She will look across the net and see what she may be able to become. And at the end of the day, one of them will roar.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Francesca Schiavone, Italian warrior and stylist, retires from professional tennis

"I give you Capricciosa, different kind of ingredient."


Francesca Schiavone, one of the four great Fighting Italians of the WTA tour, retired from professional tennis this week. Schiavone combined style, athleticism and heart with such vitality and originality that it was hard to watch her and not feel some of the joy that radiated from her entire being when she was on a tennis court.

Schiavone's path to greatness was impeded by a not uncommon obstacle: For years, she fought her way to finals, and then lost them. Losing eight finals was enough for the Italian, and she engaged a "mental coach" to help her. It worked. In 2007, she won Bad Gastein; in 2009, she won Moscow.

And then, in 2010, Schiavone won the French Open, taking out Li Na, Maria Kirilenko, Caroline Wozniacki, and Elena Dementieva. In the final, she played the highly favored (but not by this writer) Sam Stosur, the player who defeated Schiavone in the first round of the 2009 French Open. Stosur had done a lot of heavy lifting in the tournament. The Australian had beaten the likes of Simona Halep, four-time champion Justine Henin, former champion Serena Williams, and Jelena Jankovic.

Schiavone's straight-set win over Stosur was inspired. She had brought along Italian Fed Cup captain Carrado Barazzutti to help her (this decision was later echoed by Marion Bartoli when she chose French Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo to accompany her to Wimbledon in 2013, when she won the title), and this proved to be a wise choice.

During the French Open, Schiavone compared herself with Capricciosa pizza. "I don't give you margherita," she said. "I give you Capricciosa, different kind of ingredient."




In the final, Schiavone--who was not troubled at all by Stosur's kick serve--continually rushed the net, gave Stosur back as much topspin as she recieved, and served extremely well (against one of the tour's best servers). Just shy of 30 years old, Schiavone became the first Italian woman to win a major. Her superb performance and her unbridled joy in winning turned her into an unforgettable champion (despite some cynical writers bemoaning the fact that she wasn't "marketable”). Her prone court-kissing photo is iconic.

In 2011, Schiavone came very close to repeating her 2010 achievement. She defeated Jankovic, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Marion Bartoli, only to be undone by Li Na in the final.

Schiavone's excellence was also present in her participation on the Italian Fed Cup team, along with the other three Fighting Italians--Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. That team won Fed cup in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2013, defeating Belgium, the USA (twice) and Russia. Their fighting spirit and team cohesion was one of the wonders of Fed Cup competition.

"We had success because we were different," Schiavone said of her Fed Cup team. "It’s not just forehand and backhand; it’s touch, it’s tactics, and strategy. You have to find the solution when there is a problem. It’s always about going through something where sometimes you understand what’s going on, and sometimes not. It’s a mix of talent, and big work."

With her spins, lobs, slices, and leaps, Schiavone was a bigger-than-life model of the mix of talent and big work. She sometimes appeared to be indefatigable, and never did this quality appear more prominently than when she competed against another athlete's athlete--Svetlana Kuznetsova.

In fact, no profile of Schiavone would be complete without mention of the great Russian competitor. In 2011, Schiavone and Kuznetsova competed in an Australian Open round of 16 match that totally deserves the description "instant classic." Schiavone had very recently injured her groin and would experience groin pain throughout the match; Kuznetsova's feet were covered with blisters. They played for four hours and 44 minutes, which is a feat in itself, but--more important--every moment was an exhibition of high quality, sometimes stunning, tennis.

At one point, when Schiavone served for match, she had to stop and call for the trainer. Both players, in fact, had to call for the trainer during the match. The third set lasted exactly three hours.

Schiavone won that match, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14. It was the longest ever played in the Open Era (althoug hthe second-longest match in the Open Era had been played the previous year--also at the Australian Open). And while--for some reason--it's rarely mentioned, the pair did another version of this match in 2015, this time at the French Open. In the second round, they played for "only" three hours and 49 minutes. Schiavone won this one, too, 6-7, 7-5, 10-8. And once again, the quality of the tennis was stunning.
  
 "Everyone loves me, and I didn’t know this."

Francesca Schiavone won a total of eight singles titles and seven doubles titles. She reached the doubles final of the French Open (with Casey Dellacqua) in 2008. Her highest singles ranking, number 4 in the world, came in 2011; her highest doubles ranking, number 8, was achieved in 2012.

Statistics, however don't define players. And they certainly don't define Francesca Schiavone, whose beautiful one-handed backhand wreaked havoc on many opponents throughout her career, and whose athleticism, combined with her ability to construct points, made her a joy to watch.

In announcing her retirement, the Italian star said: "For me, it's a very important moment of my life. I arrived at this decision, to say goodbye to tennis, with my heart. Because my head, when I arrived here, said 'Please go to the court, to fight.' But my heart says that I am in peace like this. I am very happy about my career, my life, and everything."

"When I was 18 years old, I had two dreams," Schiavone explained. "The first one was to win Roland Garros, and the second one was to become Top 10 in the world. And I completed them, so I'm very, very happy, and lucky."

"Everyone loves me, and I didn’t know this," the great Italian player said at her final tour press conference. I'm glad she knows it now. Count me as one of the people who will miss her.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Lesia Tsurenko lurches into the U.S. Open quarterfinals

"Are they slow-moving, chief?"
"Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up."
Night of the Living Dead 


I seem to be stuck on a ghoulish theme. But, watching Lesia Tsurenko and Marketa Vondrousova in their round of 16 match today, I couldn't help but think of the slow, lurching walk of zombies. First it was Tsurenko, who was so overcome by the heat that she frequently looked one bend-over from retiring from the match. Then her opponent started doing the same thing, and it was a really strange thing to watch--two women bending over in pain, walking like zombie movie characters, and--oh yes--competing rather gamely in the middle of their suffering.

Tsurenko got off to a quick start, going up 3-0, but before the set was over, she was showing signs of cramping and heat illness. She hung in, but lost the set in a tiebreak. And although it looked like the Ukrainian player might not have much left to give, she won the second set 7-5. The third set was pretty much about Tsurenko, who won it 6-2. They played for two and a half hours (and made 130 unforced errors), but for them, it must have seemed like half a lifetime.

After the match, Tsurenko said that--at her worst moment--she asked "nature, the god..." to send some shade over. Once she had it, she was able to go on.

In fact, Tsurenko wound up getting a lot more shade than she bargained for. In her press conference, Vondrousova (who appears to have taken the Tatjana Maria course on post-match graciousness) accused the Ukrainian of faking it. "I don't think she was struggling so much. She was just acting. She played normally; it was just acting."
Well, if it was acting, it was worthy of one of those statues that are distributed in New York City in June.

One can only wonder what kind of shape Tsurenko will be in for her quarterfinal match against Naomi Osaka. But, no matter what happens, both she and Vondrousova will be remembered for showing an immense amount of heart in their match.

Osaka played another big hitter, Aryna Sabalenka, but Sabalenka--like so many players with her style of play--made a lot of unforced errors and committed a rash of double faults. It was a disappointing performance from the Belarusian player, but ultimately, it doesn't take away from her immense potential.

In the other matches, Madison Keys handled Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets, and Carla Suarez Navarro did likewise with 2006 champion Maria Sharapova.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Serena Williams (17) vs. Karolina Pliskova (8)
Sloane Stephens (3) vs. Anastasija Sevastova (19)
Carla Suarez Navarro (30) vs. Madison Keys (14)
Naomi Osaka (20) vs. Lesia Tsurenko
There are still three USA players in the draw. Defending champion Sloane Stephens is the highest remaining seed, and Lesia Tsurenko is the lone unseeded player. 
In doubles, the top seeds--Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova--have reached the quarterfinals, in which they will play a very good team, 7th seeds Elise Mertens and Demi Schuurs. That could be an outstanding match. The second seeds, Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, will face Cincinnati champions and 6th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Ekaterina Makarova.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

"She hits like a ghoul"--new Louis Armstrong Stadium = new graveyard court




Kaia Kanepi. Lesia Tsurenko. Karolina Muchova. Marketa Vondrousova. Dominika Cibulkova. Aryna Sabalenka. They all played in the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, and they all upset major opponents.

We're just three rounds in at the U.S. Open, but the carnage in the new stadium has already earned it the "graveyard court" distinction. The above players' victims, repectively, were: number 1 seed Simona Halep, number 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki, 12th seed and two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, 13th seed and red-hot player Kiki Bertens, 2016 champion (and 2018 Wimbledon champion) and 4th seed Angie Kerber, and 5th seed Petra Kvitova.

Both Kanepi and Tsurenko accomplished their big feats early in the tournament, and they're both still around. Kanepi went on to defeat qalifier Jill Teichmann and up-and-coming player Rebecca Peterson, and Tsurenko went on to defeat Katerina Siniakova.

Today, 6th seed Caroline Garcia was shown the exit by 30th seed Carla Suarez Navarro, a less-shaky Maria Sharapova took out a (still) wildly undisciplined Alona Ostapenko, Naomi Osaka double-bageled Aliaksandra Sasnovich, and Madison Keys needed three sets to vanquish Aleks Krunic. Bertens, Kerber and Kvitova all went out today, also.

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Kaia Kanepi vs. Serena Williams (17)
Ash Barty (18) vs. Karolina Pliskova (8)
Sloane Stephens (3) vs. Elise Mertens (15)
Anastasija Sevastova (19) vs. Elina Svitolina (7)
Carla Suarez Navarro (30) vs. Maria Sharapova (22)
Madison Keys (14) vs. Dominika Cibulkova (29)
Aryna Sabalenka (26) vs. Naomi Osaka (20)
Marketa Vondrousova vs. Lesia Tsurenko

There are three former champions left in the draw, as well as two former runners-up.  The draw includes three players from the USA, two from the Czech Republic and two from Ukraine.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Crazy from the heat--week 1 of the U.S. Open not yet over




It's been quite a week at the U.S. Open, what with the extreme heat and humidity, the exit of the top two seeds in the first two rounds, and the 30th meeting on court of the Williams sisters. There was plenty of the usual uninformed bashing of Maria Sharapova, and a sudden onslaught of nastiness directed at Chris Evert, whose "sin" has been to make sense all week (except for tonight's assertion about Patrick Mouratoglou's having "introduced strategy" to Serena). All the while, people were tearfully lamenting the U.S. Open exit of a man who considers all females stupid, and defending a "nice" umpire who violated any reasonable definition of umpire boundaries.

In other words, everything was normal.

What wasn't "normal" was--as The Backspinner has pointed out--Katerina Siniakova's digging in to an odd groove if ever there were one. At both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Siniakova won her first two rounds against opponents who had served for the match against her. I don't know if something like that has ever happened before.

With not only world number 1 Simona Halep and world number 2 Caroline Wozniacki out, but also two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, the draw has, as they say, opened. Still with us, at this writing, are Wimbledon champion Angie Kerber, Alona Ostapenko, Madison Keys, defending champion Sloane Stephens (who is looking very much like a champion), Elina Svitolina, Caroline Garcia, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova--and yes, Kiki Bertens and Elise Mertens.

Svitolina has reached the round of 16 at the U.S. before--last year, in fact. The Ukrainian star has begun to lift her performance at majors, and such a move couldn't come too soon for her, given the remarkable success she's had in other events. Next for her is Anastasija Sevastova, who defeated Ekaterina Makatova today. Sevastova can be tricky; the match could be interesting.




Also still around is Kaia Kanepi, who began her campaign by upsetting the world's number 1 player, and has survived to reach the round of 16. Her reward? She plays six-time champion Serena Williams, who defeated Venus Williams in straight sets tonight.

Coming up tomorrow (and being played at approximately the same time!) are two don't-miss matches. Two French Open champions, Alona Ostapenko and Maria Sharapova, will face off to see who goes to the quarterfinals.

Neither of them is playing her best tennis. Ostapenko is still the untamed big hitter who hasn't yet learned, as Petra Kvitova did, to try a few safer tactics. On the other hand, her "unsafe" tactics can be deadly. Sharapova looked terrible in her second round match against Sorna Cirstea. The 2006 champion double-faulted ten times (back to that) and made 33 unforced errors in two sets. She also looked really uncomfortable out there--and yet, she wound up keeping her perfect record in playing U.S. Open night matches.

The other match will feature 5th seed Petra Kvitova and upstart Arnya Sabalenka. Lucky for Kvitova, the weather is expected to stay mild all weekend, which--combined with the fast court--could make Sabalenka's life miserable. But, one way or the other, there is going to be some big geometrical hitting!

Another match of great interest should be the one played by Angie Kerber and Dominika Cibulkova. Kerber is 7-5 against Cibulkova, and is 6-3 against her on hard courts. These two have had some knock-down-drag-out contests, and--if fans are lucky--they'll have another one tomorrow. I always enjoy watching them play each other. Kerber will have to move into her best offensive mode against Cibulkova, who can be just as much of a wall as Kerber.

If Karolina Muchova were a more mature player, the match she played tonight against Ash Barty would have been a beautiful thing. Even as it was--with Muchova just not ready to go toe-to-toe with someone like Barty (and their games are quite similar)--it was a thing of interest and much beauty. (Also, Muchova's going from 1-5 to 4-5 in the second set wasn't too trashy). This is the kind of tennis I like to watch, with both players bringing a great variety of guile and a lot of different shots. It was interesting that the commentators were comparing the players with such stylistic and strategic greats as Rosie Casals (Barty) and--one of my all-time favorites--Hana Mandlikova (Muchova).

A shout-out here to Johanna Larsson, who gave Angie Kerber a real run in their second round match. It was a beautifully played thriller.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Seems like old times--Schnyder and Sharapova meet again

Just like old times, staying up for hours
Making dreams come true, doing things we used to do
Seems like old times being here with you
"Seems Like Old Times"--Carmen Lombardo & John Jacob Loeb

photo by Diane Elayne Dees
The sight of Patty Schnyder, one of my favorite players of all time, whipping that loopy forehand on the Louis Armstrong Stadium Court tonight would have been an emotional occasion for me under any circumstance. But to see Maria Sharapova on the other side of the net really made me think that I was back in 2008, the last time Schnyder and Sharapova played each other.

There was a sadness for me, seeing these two, neither of whom is the player she used to be. But it also made me happy to see them together.

Schnyder let a sub-par Sharapova run away with the first set and a half of their first-round U.S. Open match. Then the former Swiss star woke up and started taking advantage of Sharapova's error-filled game. She took that set all the way to a tiebreak, but then her own errors did her in. Sharapova won, 6-2, 7-6, and advanced to the second round.

But the 2006  champion will have to clean up her game considerably if she expects to keep advancing. Her next opponent is the mercurial Sorana Cirstea, who--from time to time--has served as a giant-killer in majors. It's been a while since Cirstea has done that, however, and Sharapova isn't looking like a giant. Still, the Russian has been known to turn the switch on when we least expect it.

The very entertaining match of the day was played between Andrea Petkovic and 10th seed Alona Ostapenko. It was a bit of a roller coaster affair, with Petkovic coming back and coming back, just when Ostapenko appeared to have the match clinched. In the end, after two hours and 18 minutes, Ostapenko won, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. She hit 38 winners and made 60 unforced errors, but that isn't an unusual statistic for the "swing like there's no tomorrow" Latvian.

Not surprisingly, Timea Babos gave Daria Kasatkina a hard time. After playing three sets, Kasatkina advanced, as did Petra Kvitova, Madison Keys, Angie Kerber, Kiki Bertens, Caroline Wozniacki--and 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva.

Also taken out today were Jo Konta, 24th seed CoCo Vandeweghe, and 28th seed Anett Kontaveit. Seeds and other notables who made an exit yesterday were 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Aga Radwanska, 27th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 31st seed Magdalena Rybarikova--and, of course, top seed Simona Halep.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

U.S. Open first rounds to watch

Patty Schnyder (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
I'm always intrigued by some of the first rounds the draws provide us at majors (and anxious about whether I'll get to see the more interesting ones). Here the ones I hope to watch this week:

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Venus Williams
The 2004 champion meets the 2000 and 2001 champion, and it's anyone's guess who will prevail. It isn't that often that two champions face off, and it's really unusual for it to happen in the first round.

Caroline Garcia vs. Jo Konta
Both the 6th seed and the British number 1 have had a lot of ups and downs lately, so I don't have a clear sense of who will prevail. Konta may have a bit of an edge on a hard court, but I don't really think that will matter.

Maria Sharapova vs. Patty Schnyder
Who would have thought? At 39, Schnyder is the oldest player to successfully go through qualifying at a major in the Open Era. I remember their round of 16 match at the 2007 French Open, in which Schnyder came so very close to taking Sharapova out (Sharapova won the 3rd set tiebreak 9-7). It was a thrilling match. Sharapova has a 7-1 record against Schnyder.

Andrea Petkovic vs. Alona Ostapenko
We occasionally see flashes of a former Petko, and if Ostapenko goes on an unforced error spree, we might see get one of those flashes. Ostapenko should be a contender for the title, but her game is still too undisciplined for us to have those expectations. I wonder how long we'll have to wait.

Sam Stosur vs. Caroline Wozniacki
This first-round meeting between the 2010 champion and the two-time finalist is a veterans' special. Wozniacki, who launched somewhat of a "new" career when she won the Australian Open this year and temporarily regained her number 1 ranking, is the clear favorite. However, the Dane had to retire in the first round because of a left knee injury (just weeks before, she had sustained a right leg injury). If she's healthy, she should advance.

Friday, August 24, 2018

What we can learn from Kiki Bertens

all photos by Daniel Ward
I recently wrote about Kiki Bertens' simple, but often difficult to accomplish, strategy for turning her career around. While we were in Cincinnati, the world number 13 (and Cincinnati champion) talked about what she had to do to even want to keep playing professional tennis after her 2017 season.

"I really needed a break," she said, "needed the holiday, to determine how I wanted to continue. I think, if I were feeling the same now as I was feeling last year, it was better for me to stop.

"I had some great results, but still I could not really enjoy it. So it always like, if I won, okay, it was more like kind of a relief, and not like, happiness. And like, already, it seemed like 'but tomorrow, I have to go again.' And everything was more like 'okay, I have to do this,' and not like, 'okay, it’s another opportunity to play some great tennis.

"From then on, I...just made some rules for myself: 'Okay, how do you want to play, how do you want to feel on court?'

Bertens also talked about the importance of just relaxing, which she does by watching movies, doing yoga, reading, or just "going to get a coffee."
photo by Daniel Ward

Bertens wasn't exactly a slouch before this season. A ferocious Fed Cup competitor, she led her team to victory over and over, and she was highly respected for her clay court skills. But this year, Bertens showed us what she can really do, winning her first premier tournament in Charleston, reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and winning her first hard court tournament--which just happened to be a premier 5 event--in Cincinnati.

Add to that the Dutch star's recent defeat of ten top 10 players, including world number 1 Simona Halep in the Cincinnati final.

What Kiki Bertens did was to realize that she no longer liked her job, and that she had to decide whether to quit that job or find a way to like it. Sometimes, when we reach such a crossroad, we're in the best position to make a difficult decision.

For Bertens, the decision was to find a way to like her job, and she did that by making a conscious decision to enjoy and appreciate her victories instead of dreading what came next. She decided to keep herself in the present and clear her head of distractions. How easy it sounds--but how difficult it can be to accomplish, especially when one's job involves always having to be the best; after all, only one player or one team emerges as the winner of a tennis tournament.

Was Bertens' mental shift a key to her 2018 success? Absolutely. She also trained hard and practiced a lot. But it was quieting the noise in her head and letting herself appreciate her success that gave her the freedom to believe she could do even more.

See other posts about players from whom we can learn:

How to Siegemund--a brief guide for dealing with life's more difficult stuff

The lesson of Martina Hingis

Schmiedlova plays winning tennis and teaches a worthwhile lesson

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Hradecka and Makarova win Cincinnati doubles championship

Lucie Hradecka and Ekaterina Makarova are the 2018 Cincinnati doubles champions. Hradecka and Makarova, seeded 7th, defeated 6th seeds Elise Mertens and Demi Schuurs 6-2, 7-5 in the final on Saturday. Hradecka and Makarova had not played as a team in seven years, and this is their first title as a team.

Hradecka and Makarova upset 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic in the quarterfinals. Mertens and Schuurs upset the top seeds, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, also in the quarterfinals.

Makarova was in Cincinnati without her usual partner, Elena Vesnina, who is injured.

Kiki "Top 10 Killer" Bertens defeats world number 1 Halep to win Cincinnati title

photo by Daniel Ward

Today in Cincinnati, Kiki Bertens saved a match point in the second set tiebreak of the championship singles match, then went on to defeat world number 1 Simona Halep in three sets, 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2. Bertens emerged with first and second serve win percentages of 72 and 54, and she hit 34 winners.

Simona Halep (photo by Daniel Ward)
Halep got off to a strong start, breaking her opponent twice and taking the first set easily. The second set was more competitive, and it was thrilling toward the end when Bertens took it to a tiebreak. Halep held a match point at 6-5, but Bertens--going for everything--hit a stunning crosscourt forehand that Halep hit wide. It was the only match point that Halep would see.

By the third set, the world number 1--who had arrived in Cincinnati immediately after winning the Rogers Cup in Montreal--was just about out of fuel. The match was physically draining, and Bertens was able to move her around and sap the last drops of energy from her.

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
Afterwards, Bertens said that, at 2-1 in the third set, she felt like she had run out of energy. "I was, like, 'I'm dead.' Then I said to myself, 'No, I can do this. Let's go for it.'"

photo by Daniel Ward
Bertens, for some time, has been known as a clay court specialist, but that designation has gone out the window this year. She did win on the clay in Charleston, which was her first premier tournament victory. Then she went all the way to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. And now, she has won her first hard court tournament ever--a premier 5 event.

Medical science may have to come up with a vaccine to inoculate the WTA's top 10 players because Kiki Bertens is coming to get them. She had already beaten nine of them this season when she arrived in Cincinnati, and now she's beaten the world number 1.

On Monday, Bertens will rise to a career-high ranking of number 13 in the world.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Halep and Bertens to play for Cincinnati title

photos by Daniel Ward




Tomorrow at 2 p.m., world number 1 Simona Halep will try for the third time to win the singles title at the Western and Southern Open. Standing in her way is Kiki Bertens, whose game has been on fire on every surface all season.

Halep holds a 3-1 record against the Dutchwoman, but the Kiki Bertens of 2018 is not the Kiki Bertens of even a year ago. Always a fierce competitor on clay, Bertens has turned into an exceptionally fierce competitor on all surfaces. By the same token, Halep, the 2018 French Open champion, has now fully embraced her number 1 status, and is playing superior tennis.

Bertens has been knocking off top 10 players left and right. Can she knock off the top one, or will Halep be too much for her?

Here are the players' paths to the final:

SIMONA HALEP (1)
round 1--bye
round 2--def. Ajla Tomljanovic
round 3--def. Ashleigh Barty (16)
quarterfinals--def. Lesia Tsurenko
semifinals--def. Aryna Sabalenka

KIKI BERTENS
round 1--def. CoCo Vandeweghe
round 2--def. Caroline Wozniacki (2)
round 23-def. Anett Kontaveit
quarterfinals--def. Elina Svitolina (5)
semifinals--def. Petra Kvitova (8)

A last look at the final four

Petra Kvitova, Kiki Bertens, Simona Halep, and Aryna Sabalenka all put on a great display of althleticism and clever tennis today at the Cincinnati semifinals. Here's a look at them in action (all photos by Daniel Ward)


Simona Halep reaches her third Cincinnati final

photo by Daniel Ward
World number 1 Simona Halep reached her third Western and Southern Open final today when she defeated the unseeded Aryna Sabalenka 6-3, 6-4. And while the scoreline may seem routine, the match was anything but. Sabalenka, perhaps the up-and-comer on the tour right now, played the same fearless tennis against Halep that she has played throughout the tournament. Her huge serves and her willingness to go toe-to-toe with Halep in hitting groundstrokes kept the match exciting from the beginning.

Aryna Sabalenka (photo by Daniel Ward)
Cracking 114, 116 and 117 mph. serves like it was nothing, Sabalenka gave Halep plenty to do from a retrieval standpoint. And Halep, who likes to tell us that she is "strong on the legs," was up for it. In the end, the world number 1 was too savvy for the Belarusian upstart, but what an entertaining match it was.

In her post-match press conference, Sabalenka said she was angry with herself--that she realized she was waiting for Halep to make errors, rather than being as aggressive as she needed to be. But watching Sabalenka crack a 116 mph. serve at match point gives one the belief that the young player will take her lesson seriously.

Tomorrow, Halep will play Kiki Bertens to determine who will be the 2018 champion. This is Halep's third time to be in the Cincinnati final. If she wins, it will be her first Cincionnati title. In 2015, she lost to Serena Williams, and in 2017, she lost to Garbine Muguruza.

Kiki Bertens defeats Kvitova, reaches Cincinnati final

I just put on my best walkin’ shoes
I got myself and honey, that’s good news
Gonna try, try to be happy now
Meslissa Manchester, "Be Happy Now"

photo by Daniel Ward
Unseeded? No problem. Kiki Bertens, who has been on fire all season, did a repeat of her Rogers Cup feat today and took out 8th seed Petra Kvitova in the Cincinnati semifinals. The Bertens breakthrough this year has been huge. Not only is she more confident and positive--she's decided to take her well-established clay court acumen to every surface on the tour. This expansion included the Dutchwoman's making the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.

The will be Bertens' third final of the 2018 season (she won in Charleston). Bertens credits her turnaround in attitude--she felt very discouraged at the end of 2017--to making a conscious decision to think and feel differently. Just like that. In doing so, the Dutch star tapped into one of the most powerful methods of effecting change, whether you're a tennis star, an artist, an executive, or simply a person surviving on the Earth.

Petra Kvitova (photo by Daniel Ward)
Today, Bertens had some help from her exhausted opponent. The long matches finally caught up with Kvitova, and the sudden change (back to hot) in the weather aggravated her asthma. The good news, Kvitova told us after the match, is that she has made sufficient interventions with
her asthmatic condition so that it isn't as great a problem as it used to be.

The match was fun to watch. Even tired, Kvitova was causing people in the stands to gasp. The Czech's fitness was on display again and again as she ran for balls that looked un-returnable and converted them into winners with a combination of stretch and touch. Her drop shot from the baseline may have been the shot of the match.
Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
But, even after winning the first set, Kvitova ultimately wasn't able to keep up with Bertens, who had
to "play her way into" the match. After being dominated in the opening set, Bertens got tuned in with her serve, which helped her quite a bit. Her stats looked good: She hit 23 winners to 21 unforced errors, and hit 10 aces.

Bertens' 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory sends her into the final against either world number 1 Simona Halep or the unseeded Aryna Sabalenka.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Fab Four are ready!

clockwise, from top left: Petra Kvitova, Kiki Bertens, Aryna Sabalenka, Simona Halep (all photos by Daniel Ward)




We're down to the final four in Cincinnati. They played in rainy conditions, they waited--and waited-- for the rain to stop; a couple of them played two matches in one day. Tomorrow, they vie to see who makes the final.

World number 1 Simona Halep had to play twice today. In her first first match, she defeated Ash Barty 7-5, 6-4. In her quarterfinal, she defeated Lesia Tsurenko 6-4, 6-1. The Rogers Cup champion will next face Aryna Sabalenko, an unseeded upstart from Belarus who has been going after top players. So far, in Cincinnati, she has knocked out Jo Konta, 9th seed and 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova, 6th seed Caroline Garcia, and 13th seed Madison Keys.

Her match tonight against Keys marks the first time that Sabalenka has won in straight sets in this tournament. She's an exciting and confident player, and we should expect a good match.

Meanwhile, Petra Kvitova has reached the final four, having played her most dramatic and exciting match today, against Elise Mertens. Kvitova, who is seeded 8th, will face the unseeded (please don't let that fool you) Kiki Bertens. Bertens, once known as a clay court specialist, has torn up that script and has become a threat on every surface. She gone after the top 10 in a way that must surely make her one of the last players that anyone wants to see on the other side of the net.

In the meantime, both the number 1 and number 2 seeds were knocked out of doubles today. French Open and Wimbledon champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova were defeated by Elise Mertens (the busiest woman in Mason today!) and Demi Schuurs, and Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic were defeated by Lucie Hradecka and Ekaterina Makarova.

Scattered thunderstorms are forecast for tomorrow, so there will most likely be more interruptions.

They call her "Dr. Buz"--they call HIM "Dr. Buzz"

This is Mihaela Buzarnescu, whose story we all know. Shoulder and knee injuries, and subsequent surgeries, forced her off of the tour for two years. During that time, she earned a doctorate at Romania's National Academy of Physical Education and Sport. This year, Buzarnescu won her first WTA title, a premier event, in San Jose, California. Also this year, she reached the round of 16 at the French Open, upsetting Elina Svitolina along the way.

Because of her academic status, Buzarnescu has earned the nickname, "Dr. Buz." 


This is Ziggy Stardust, one of my cats, though he no longer lives with me. Because of his agility and speed, we always thought that--when we weren't around--he was showing off on the tennis court. Even as a kitten, he had a very loud purr, which earned him the nickname, "Dr. Buzz." This nickname because even more appropriate when he began "tending" wounds and sore places on my body.

Dr. Buz and Dr. Buzz--"pickup" doubles, anyone?

Kvitova defeats Mertens in a long, grueling roller coaster match

player photos by Daniel Ward

The first set of Petra Kvitova and Elise Mertens' quarterfinal match, played on The Grandstand at the Western and Southern Open, looked like it was going to be all Kvitova--unless, that is, you knew anything about Mertens. Down 0-4, the 15th seed came to life and fought back until the set was even at 5-all. Kvitova then got a break and was able to serve our the set.

By this time, Mertens, confident that she had found her game, went up a quick 3-0. It was a mirror image of the first set: Kvitova caught up, but this time, Mertens got the extra break and won the set 7-5.

By the time the third set rolled around, it was anyone's guess as to who would advance. Kvitova won that set 6-3, but she had to fight--just as she had fought the entire match--through deuce after deuce, because Mertens was relentless. The match took two hours and 42 minutes to play, and there were 15 breaks of serve. The weather was very pleasant throughout, making it a perfect match to watch.

The Barking Czech will next face either Elina Svitolina or Kiki Bertens.

The Cincinnati quarterfinals are set

world number 1 Simona Halep (photo by Daniel Ward)
It took a while, but we finally have a quarterfinal draw for singles in Cincinnati. Here's how it looks:

Simona Halep (1) vs. Lesia Tsurenko
Madison Keys (13) vs. Aryna Sabalenka
Petra Kvitova (8) vs. Elise Mertens (15)
Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Kiki Bertens

Halep has now played eight straight matches since she began her title run in Montreal. There have been multiple rain delays and changes conditions. She did receive a medical timeout a couple of nights ago, but has shown no other signs of wear and tear. All the same, it's fair to wonder if--at some point--some type of fatigue will set in.

Win or lose, Tsurenko has had a good tournament, taking out both Ekaterina Makarova and the defending champion and world number 7, Garbine Muguruza.

Keys got her second win over Angie Kerber yesterday, and now faces another big hitter in Sabalenka. Sabalenka is on a roll in Cincinnati, where she has already shown the exit to Jo Konta, 2016 champion and 9th seed Karolina Pliskova and 6th seed Carolina Garcia, who held a match point in their third round contest. The Belarusian has had to go three sets in every round, which is never helpful to any player. On the other hand, she possesses healthy doses of both grit and confidence.

The cooler weather has been a boon to Kvitova, but the humidity, if it intensifies, could be a problem. Kvitova has never played Mertens before, which could create some discomfort. A lot of this will have to do with serving: Both players possess very good serves (though different kinds of serves), and both can be inconsistent with their serves.

Perhaps the most interesting of the four matches will be the one to be played by Svitolina and Bertens. They have played each other once, in 2016, on a hard court. It went to three sets, and Svitolina won. But this is a more aggressive, more confident Bertens than we saw two years ago. No longer a threat just on clay, the Dutchwoman is looking good on all surfaces. Speedy Svitolina, however, can given any player headaches on the right day.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Elise Mertens advances to Cincinnati quarterfinals

photo by Daniel Ward

Elise Mertens' 2018 season continues to gain momentum in Cincinnati, where--today--she defeated 3rd seed Sloane Stephens and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Western and Southern Open. Mertens has a really good serve, not that fast and powerful, but often placed with precision. She weathered a first set tiebreak, in which each player had chances to take the set, but it was Mertens who grabbed it with a 10-8 score. The second set was easier for her, as she elevated both her first and her second serve, and won the match 7-6, 6-2.
Petra Kvitova (photo by Daniel Ward)

Mertens' next opponent will be a woman whom she has never played--Petra Kvitova. Kvitova, who defeated Serena Williams Monday night, played an efficient match against Kiki Mladenovic, whom she defeated 6-4, 6-2. After the match, the Czech star said that she wasn't that pleased about her serve, but was very happy with her returns. (Asked what she did during the many long rain delays, Kvitova said that she "slept, read, ate--nothing.")

Another player whose winning ways were on full display today was Arnya Sabalenka. Sabalenka, already the victor over Jo Konta and 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova, went a step farther today and took out 6th seed Caroline Garcia. In each of her Cincinnati matches, Sabalenka has lost the first set. Her next opponent will be Madison Keys, who had her second victory over Angie Kerber tonight.

Madison Keys (photo by Daniel Ward)
Kerber was totally dominant in the opening set, winning it 6-2. The second set was much tighter, and went to a tiebreak, in which Kerber lost her way. Toward the end of the final set, Keys broke the German star (and 2016 runner-up), and went on to win the match.

Lesia Tsurenko also had another good day. After taking defending champion Garbine Muguruza out of the tournament yesterday, she beat Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets today.

Simona Halep (photo by Daniel Ward)
Two matches left over from last night were also completed today, with world number 1 and top seed Simona Halep defeating Ajla Tomljanovic, and Amanda Anisimova defeating Petra Martic.

There was hope that today would be a catch-up day after yesterday evening's rain, but it didn't work out that way. My much anticipated doubles clash between the world number 1 team of Krejcikova/Siniakova and Mertens/Schuurs could not be played.

In fact, it's raining as I write this. Anett Kontaveit and Kiki Bertens are in a second set (Bertens won the first), and two doubles matches had commenced.

It's a rainy morning in Cincinnati

 


It's probably a good thing for Simona Halep, but not so much for the rest of us, that the rain is coming down in Cincinnati, and--more important--in Mason. Last night, after both Halep and her opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, took medical time-outs, their match was suspended because of rain (it had also rained a lot earlier in the day).

When play stopped, Halep was up 4-3 in the third set. The physical (and undoubtedly, mental) rigor of the world number 1's last several days have no doubt taken a toll on her, as they would on anyone. If Halep defeats Tomljanovic, she'll have to play yet another match today, in order to do rain delay catch-up.

The other match that was interrupted last night was the contest between Amanda Anisimova and Petra Martic. When play was suspended, Anisimova was up 5-4 in the first set, with a set point on Martic's serve. The delay certainly isn't a gift for Anisimova.

There is likely to be rain on and off throughout the day today. The question, of course, is: how hard will it come down? Rain like what we had yesterday causes long delays because it takes so long to dry the courts.

One of the biggest matches scheduled today puts Angie Kerber against Madison Keys. Kerber is 7-1 against Keys, and 6-0 against her on hard courts. Kerber's last hard court victory against Keys occurred in the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open.

Petra Kvitova returns to the courts today, and will play Kiki Mladenovic. Kvitova is 5-1 against Mladenovic; they last met in the 2018 St. Petersburg final, which Kvitova won, 6-1, 6-2.

Mladenovic, with partner Timea Babos, is also scheduled to play doubles today. However, the doubles match to watch today is the quarterfinal that features top seeds Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova and 6th seeds Elise Mertens/Demi Schuurs. The Czechs--who won both the French Open and Wimbledon--are on fire, but so is Schuurs, and having Mertens as a partner is a plus.

The early evening singles match is of interest because it features two "clay court specialists" who are turning out to be something more. At least one of them, Kiki Bertens, has already proven that she can be a terror on other surfaces, too. Her opponent, Anett Kontaveit, has already defeated two good players--Barbora Strycova and Maria Sakkari.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Lesia Tsurenko rains on Muguruza's parade


Here comes the rain again
Falling on my head like a memory
Falling on my head like a new emotion

The umpire said "Game, set, match--Tsurenko." Then, no sooner than the handshake was finished and the defending champion had walked off the court, the clouds dumped heavy rain all over the Western and Southern Open. 

Was it falling on Garbine Muguruza's head like a memory? Probably, but maybe not like a new emotion.

It was cloudy and a bit dark when the match began. I was sleepy and exhausted, so I assumed that I was projecting my own state onto the event. It wasn't just that, however. The match was a languid ordeal that never really caught fire. There were some nice rallies and some good shots. Muguruza, when she was switched on, was--as always--a joy to watch. 

But there was just something dark and cloudy about the entire affair, despite Muguruza's kit, which cheered some of us.




But let me stop here and give credit to Lesia Tsurenko, who didn't allow the sight of the defending champion to take her off of her own mission. The first set, won at 6-2, belonged to Muguruza, but anyone who watches the tour regularly knows that--with certain players--that doesn't "mean" anything. In the second set, the defending champion started to mugu around the court, hitting fourteen unforced errors, and letting a suddenly precise Tsurenko take over. The Ukrainian player took that set 6-4.

The third set looked like the script for the expected plot. Muguruza regained her momentum and accuracy to go up 3-0. Soon it was 4-1, and then it happened: Tsurenko was able to break back, and at 4-all, the writing wasn't yet on the wall, but the wall looked like it might crack. Tsurenko served for the match at 5-4 and double-faulted, which is often a sign that a lower-ranked player has the match-closing blues, but Muguruza couldn't take advantage. A shot into the net and then a long forehand ended the match, and Tsurenko walked away into the rain with a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Muguruza made 43 unforced errors in the two-hour contest. Afterwards, she conceded that she hadn't played at the right level, but that she was controlling the match before her opponent came back, "so I'll take that." 

Garbine Muguruza brings a strange kind of inconsistency to the tour. She loses when we think she should win, and then--sometimes, when we don't necessarily expect it--she wins the biggest prizes in the sport. When she's "herself," she plays with a fluidity that we rarely see. Other times, she loses in her first round at a Premier 5 event.

As for Tsurenko, she'll next face Ekaterina Makarova (my most memorable player from last year), who defeated Alize Cornet in straight sets in the second round.