Tuesday, August 14, 2018

On her eighth try, Karolina Pliskova defeats Aga Radwsanska

For 2016 Cincinnati champion Karolina Pliskova, winning the first set against Aga Radwanska was a big deal; in her seven failed attempts to defeat the Polish star, Pliskova had never taken a set. Today was different, though, as the Czech player needed only to two sets to banish her opponent. Pliskova said, after the match, that she liked her chances from the beginning, partly because this was Radwanska's first hard court match since her return from injury in June. Also, Pliskova said that she liked the conditions: "...it's flying, it's pretty fast, so I felt like there was no wind, so it was perfect for me today."

 Pliskova has begun working with Rennee Stubbs, who she describes as "always positive." They are going to work together for the rest of the season and then re-assess. Pliskova indicated, however, that she's leaning toward continuing their contract. Asked whether Stubbs' influence has caused her to feel more positive, Pliskova said: "Look, I've been around her like, four days, so it's not much, but actually I feel positive, and I beat Radwanska for the first time in my life!"

Pliskova said that "I think maybe Tomas (Krupa) sometimes wanted too much from me and I just was not able to do it...." She added that "I feel like he's a little bit negative; I am also negative."

Regarding the tendency of Czech players having Czech coaches, Pliskova responded, "I'm done." She also concurred, in that wry, Pliskova way, that she'd "used them all up," and there weren't any more Czech coaches she could hire.

Maria Sakkari beats Naomi Oksaka and advances to Cincinnati second round

On a cloudy, but very hot, day in Cincinnati, Maria Sakkari and Naomi Osaka met on the Grandstand court for an hour and fifty-minute backhand blitz, from which Sakkari emerged the victor. Both women are big hitters, and both have (perhaps not "typical" of big hitters) athletic flexibility. The latter was put to good use, as both players kept the ball as low as they could (and yes, a lot of balls went into the net).

Not surprisingly, both hit more unforced errors than winners. The difference, though not great, lie in both offense and defense. Sakkari wound up with an impressive first and second serve win ratio of 80/69. And she saved the only two break points against her in the match (Osaka saved seven of nine).

Sakkari won the first set 6-3. Osaka's serve, especially her second serve, improved in the second set, and there were some close calls for her opponent as Osaka forced break points. The set went to a tiebreak, in which Sakkari saved three set points and won the tiebreak 10-8.

After the match, Sakkari said she thought she'd played a great match and that she'd served really well, especially when Osaka had set points. Asked to consider how her belief in herself had changed, she reflected on how having played the same top players more than once has helped her, and she has improved in her consistency.

Sakkari said that her lack of height and big power has caused her to use every tactic she can to win matches. "My goal," she said "is to become a very solid player." She named Kim Clijsters as the player she most admired when she was growing up.

Sakkari said that working with Thomas Johannson has helped her, partly because "he inspires me." She said that they understand each other, both on and off the court, and that is what makes the relationship strong. She also said that she was very inspired by the success of her countryman, Stefanos Tsitsipas, whom she considers a role model. Sakkari said that the two of them "look after each other."

Asked to reveal some things about herself, she said "I can tell that I'm a nice person, I'm polite." She also said that if she weren't a professional tennis player, she would "for sure be an athlete, I don't know what kind of sport."

The young Greek will next face Anett Kontaviet, another young player of considerable talent. Sakkari and Kontaviet have played each other three times, twice on hard courts and once on clay. Sakkari won both of the hard court contests in straight sets.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Top players take a seat at the round table in Cincinnati

The top players did their round table discussions with the media in Cincinnati today, and they didn't disappoint. Defending champion Garbine Muguruza said that in both San Jose and Montreal, she didn't feel that her injured arm was in the shape that it should be in, and that she's had to learn more patience. Muguruza said that she was utilizing both rest and treatment to heal her arm, but that she was also training, and "trying to be more wise."

The Spanish star said that experience has helped her a lot. For example, how she dealt with not defending her French Open title helped her to deal with not defending her Wimbledon title. She said that she has gotten much better at letting go of a feeling or a reaction and moving on.

Muguruza also talked at length about sports psychology, saying that--while the extra pair of ears and the advice are helpful--it's also sometimes difficult to discern whether a clinician truly understands what a player goes through.

(As a mental health specialist, I find this argument flawed. Not every one of us has had the experience of every other one of us, but we have all experienced the same feelings. Also, a good clinician knows appropriate interventions to use for just about every person/situation.)

Elina Svitolina had an interesting thing to say about the new shot clock. She has noticed that she has plenty of time to spare. "...now I can take my time more....I think I'm really, really quick. Sometimes I don't even make a decision where I'm gonna serve next, so now...I can take my time."

Asked about her new, more slender, physique, Svitolina responded to concern that lost muscle mass might affect her game. She said that this is an experiment--that her team wanted to try something different, and that she and her team will assess the outcome. She added that "I think I'm on the right path already."

The 5th seed went on to talk about how she has learned to stay in the present. She said that she had to start changing her mentality when she made the transition from junior to playing on the regular tour. "I had to be ready to compete with women...Everyone is really focused on each point."

Montreal champion Simona Halep, looking remarkably fresh after a grueling week in Montreal, said that she's now better able to manage the pressure of being the world number 1. After acknowledging her turnaround after her coach, Darren Cahill, stopped working with her for a while, Halep said that another thing that has helped her mentally has been her work with a psychologist. "She makes me feel like I'm able to do some things, to change some things. Finally, she gave credit to her team for pushing her "past my limit." And then she added, in that self-deprecating way of hers: "I'm not perfect."

Caroline Garcia told us about what it was like to be a teenager and have her father as a coach. Not surprisingly, it wasn't always easy. She said that the things she needed to hear were perhaps more painful coming from a parent than a regular coach. Garcia also talked about the tour's depth. "You can see it's getting more and more athletic. ...Every match is very tight, and it doesn't matter, the rankings, there is some good fighter on."

Asked about the shot clock, Petra Kvitova had a typically deadpan response: "Actually, I'm fine with it. I got a time violation already--but I don't think it was my fault."

Kvitova said she was "trying to have a Plan B, and I think it's paid off this season already. She said that sometimes, it's taken her some time to know when to shift to Plan B, but "mostly, it's clicking."

The Czech star was realistic about the pitfalls of being an offensive player. "That's where the bigger hitters have the problem, because they need to hit one, two, three balls more--which is kind of stressful for us sometimes, though. You know, when you see the opponent is still running and putting the balls back when you just wanted to have the winner, and it's just not coming, so that's probably why we make mistakes...."

She went on to talk about the difficulty of competing against exceptionally talented defensive players: "Well, it tough to find a balance, playing those great players. Well, you just need to still kind of put the pressure, but you need to find a balance, but sometimes it's really tough when you are not really clear in the mind and you don't really know what's happening on the court--it's a bit of a mess. Just talking from my side."

Wimbledon champion Angie Kerber said that she still needs some time to fully realize her achievement in London, but that her post-victory time was better after Wimbledon because she has learned when to say "yes" and when to say "no."

For the last six months, the German star has been working on making her game more aggressive. She also changed her serve a little bit, she said.

"You know, I think it is also life, how it was with my tennis," Kerber said in response to a question about making the transitions from a glorious 2016 to a not-so-memorable 2017 to winning another major in 2018." She looked back at the arc of her career, and all those years prior to 2016, a year that she says would be "impossible" to repeat. She said she learned a lot in 2017, and it was helpful to her.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The dark side of being a fan

Two and a half years ago, I wrote about what it means to be a fan. My main points (for those who want a summary) were that we can be overcome by the beauty of a player's game or athleticism, we can be inspired by a player's personal struggles, or we can conveniently project our own insecurities and other uncomfortable feelings onto players. This last process can make it easier for us to carry our own pain (my favorite players are scared, insecure, anxious, fill-in-the-blank, too!), but it can also make it easier to lash out at them rather than examine the motives behind our very strong feelings.

In most cases, I suspect that real fans are emotionally involved because of all of these things. Athletes are living metaphors for everything about life: working hard, sacrificing, developing skills, overcoming obstacles, taking risks, handling defeat. Their inspiring behaviors are larger-than-life, and their losses and embarrassments are, also. And both are very public, exposing players' vulnerabilities to the world.

There's also a dark side of fandom. The Nadal camp vs. the Federer camp is a good example of enthusiasm run amok, with some fans on both sides finding it "necessary" to insult the other camp (and player) at every opportunity. But it happens in women's tennis, also. There are--it should go without saying--always people who attacks WTA players because of their race, and of course, there are many ATP fans who attack the entire women's tour because it is composed of women, a gender which they consider inferior and not capable of playing "real" sports.

Bigotry is the worst kind of fan behavior, but it isn't the only aspect of "dark" fandom. On social media, players are attacked by fans who are big on opinion but extremely short on fact (something we know a lot about here in the USA). Expressing strong opinion without having the facts is not only intellectually lazy--it's mean-spirited. It may also represent a need to have an "enemy."

And then there are the fans who absolutely insist that your favorite player must be compared with theirs. And you know where this scenario goes--their favorite is "better." Or the fans who can't resist making snarky comments about players who are not their personal favorites.

And then there are the fans who cannot tolerate personality styles with which they are not personally comfortable. Here's the thing: If there weren't a lot of different personality styles on the WTA tour, the tour would be a lot less interesting. Alize Cornet's theatrics may not be your cup of tea, but so what? Simona Halep's tendency to get angry on court may not be your style, but so what? Alona Ostapenko's extreme expressiveness may not appeal to you, but--so what?

Finally, there are intense verbal attacks made toward players who slump or choke or don't appear to make progress with strengthening their weaknesses. This, I can assure you, is pure projection on the part of fans. (It's also about sports betting, yes, but that isn't the subject with which this post is concerned.) Are we disappointed when players exhibit stunning errors or weaknesses? Yes. But becoming enraged and delivering attacks or posting insults isn't about the player--it's about the "fan."

The WTA, as The Backspinner describes it, is "the most interesting tour in the world." Why waste our time and energy using it to project our own dark and uncomfortable feelings, reject what we don't understand, or insist that we are "right" and that we are on the "superior" team?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

My Wimbledon top 10

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

10. We are Wimbledon: When the first men’s semifinal went on and on for hours, it might have occurred to those in charge to go ahead and start the second one on a different court. But that didn’t happen, so the second one—not exactly a brief affair itself—was postponed when the 11:00 p.m. curfew was reached. That meant that it had to be continued the next day on Centre Court when the women’s singles final had been scheduled to begin.

So the women’s finalists had to wait. Everything got backed up, and—as of Friday night—the women’s doubles final wasn’t even assigned a court; it wound up on Court number 1. The logical argument was made that the men’s semifinal couldn’t be scheduled after the women’s singles final because the winner needed to rest. I agree with that. The problem was that the “planners” didn’t exactly plan, and—surprise!—it was women who were forced to wait to play one of the biggest matches of the season, and women who were forced to play on a court that should have never featured a major final.

9. Ostapenko’s face: Probably a top 10 at every major

8. Diede De Great does it again
: Mentored by world-class athlete Esther Vergeer, Diede De Groot, at the age of 21, has already made a name for herself in the tennis world. She just defended her 2017 Wimbledon wheelchair singles title, and--with Yui Kamiji--she won the doubles championship, too. (Kamiji has now won five consecutive doubles majors.) De Groot also won the Australian Open singles title. For the past couple of years, the world number 1 wheelchair player has been collecting big trophies all over the world, and--while the competition is strong--she appears to have a very bright future.

7. The ballet artist vs. the running wonder: It was a thing to behold, the quarterfinal match played by Dasha Kasatkina and Angie Kerber. The Russian—in the tradition of such graceful icons as Suzanne Lenglen, Maria Bueno and Evonne Goolagong—is sometimes mesmerizing on the court. Her easy-to-watch athleticism was put to the test by the equally dazzling athleticism of Kerber. Kerber prevailed, but Kasatkina left everyone wanting more.

6. A potent mix: The doubles landscape is changing, and nowhere has that been more obvious than at Wimbledon. USA player Nicole Melichar, hardly a "tennis household" name, made appearances in both the women's doubles final and the mixed doubles final. She lost the first, but--with Alexander Peya--she won the mixed championship. Melichar and Peya defeated the formidable team of Vika Azarenka and Jamie Murray 7-6, 6-3 in the final. Melichar was born in the Czech Republic, which means that--according to a certain way of looking at things--Czech women cleaned up in doubles at this event.

5. It’s all about Germany!: Julia Goerges has re-invented her career, so it’s no surprise that she would wind up, for the first time, in a major semifinal. The surprise was that she wound up in one at Wimbledon. A superb clay court and hard court player, the German has never felt very comfortable on grass. But it turns out that the re-invention brought about a new set of beliefs, and Goerges—with her big serve—moved skillfully through the draw. She was stopped by Serena Williams, but what a run it was!

4. Lots of grass, but few seeds: You had to start watching early if you wanted to see some of the tour's top seeds at Wimbledon. In the first round alone, we lost French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, Coco Vandeweghe, Magnalena Rybarikova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, two-time champion and favorite-to-win Petra Kvitova, former champion Maria Sharapova, and Caroline Garcia. In the next round, we lost defending champion Garbine Muguruza, Jo Konta and former finalist Aga Radwanska. It was a brutal opener for the tournament.

3. The Rock rolls away: I fully expected Petra Kvitova to end last week by holding up her third Venus Rosewater dish; her lead-up to Wimbledon made her an easy favorite. It was, therefore, a shock when she was upset in the first round by Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Kvitova appeared to be in pain/discomfort throughout the match. She said, afterwards, that her problem was nerves. I don’t imagine we’ll ever know the whole story. I should add that Sasnovich—playing a lot like Kvitova herself—gave a stunning performance.

2. Czech them out!: They won the French Open, then turned around and won Wimbledon. Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, seeded 3rd in London, defeated Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 in the final, and--when no one was looking--became top WTA threats.

Krejcikova was coached by Jana Novotna, who--20 years ago--won both the singles and doubles championships. In 2013, Krejcikova and Siniakova won the junior doubles title at Wimbledon. That same year, they also won the championships at the French Open and the U.S. Open. It was after this last victory that the Czech pair gave us a gift that I do hope they give to us again, and very soon, please:

1. 2017? What 2017?: When you’re as busy as Angie Kerber is, time races by, and who knows?—you might suddenly realize that you lost twelve months or so. Oops. But when you’re Kerber, you also remember how you took yourself from journeywoman-plus status to that of elite champion. So she went through the steps again, getting better every tournament, and now, she’s the 2018 Wimbledon champion.

Hers wasn’t an easy draw, either. She had to defeat former Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva, a tricky Claire Liu, 18th seed Naomi Osaka, the once-again dangerous Belinda Bencic, Russian trickster Daria Kasatkina, and a very in-form Alona Ostapenko. Then came the real test, as Kerber faced off, yet again, with Serena Williams. Kerber’s amazing defense, paired with the accuracy of her shot-making, earned her a third major championship, and put her one win shy of a Career Slam.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Call her Angie. Call her KareBear. Call her Wimbledon champion!

Angelique Kerber won her third major today when she defeated Serena Williams 6-3, 6-3 in the Wimbledon women's final. Kerber is now one major--the French Open--shy of having a Career Slam, and, given her expertise on clay courts, it's certainly possible that she'll accomplish that feat.

I considered this match a toss-up from the beginning. Yes, Williams has been amazing at this tournament, but there were other factors to be considered. One is that, until she reached the final, she had not encountered a human wall such as Kerber. Another factor is that Kerber had already beaten Williams in a final, which had to be a real confidence-booster. And finally--Kerber had lost a Wimbledon final to Williams, and that fact had to be highly motivating for the German star.

Obviously, Williams was not at her best in this final. She seemed frozen at times. But, at the same time, Kerber was spot-on almost every moment. Consider that she hit only five unforced errors in the match. Kerber's ability to run down balls, combined with her laser-like accuracy, took her all the way to the championship, in which she lost only one set. She also emerged with very respectable 70/59 first/second serve win percentages. And it was her down-the-line shots that did the damage at crucial moments.

Every match has a context (though you wouldn't know it by reading social media posts). And a big part of the context of this match was that Williams not only gave birth ten months ago, but almost died in the process. That she was suddenly in the Wimbledon final at all is a testament to her force-of-nature persona, her self-belief and her extreme athletic prowess. She lost this one, but we probably won't have to wait long for her to win her 24th singles major.

There's also a dramatic context regarding Kerber. In 2016, she "came out of nowhere" (not true, but you know the sports media) to win the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, become the Wimbledon runner-up, and grab a silver medal at the Olympic Games. Then, in 2017, she experienced a year-long flop. But this year, having made changes she thought were appropriate, she returned, looking more and more like herself every month. It was only a matter of time until she did something big--six months, to be exact.

There has been a lot of contentious discussion about the postponement of this final, which has included a lot of contentious discussion about the men playing best-of-five with no fifth set tiebreak at Wimbledon. I have a whole lot to say about this (and have already said some of it), but I don't want to use this post about two great champions to say it. Well, except for two things:

1. The incredible barrage of misogyny on social media is heartbreaking.

2. The "you're upset about wealthy players' tennis matches is ridiculous when there are so many other problems in the world, including wonen's problems" enrages me. Rich or poor, tennis or anything else, it's about equality. For example:

Those of us who object to sexist language (and women are still using it to attack sexism, which drives me mad, like the Twitter post about Wimbledon's needing to "grow a pair" and give women their due--sorry, but courage is simply not an exclusively male attribute) vehemently challenge the "it's just language" dismissal. Language is the most important medium of exchange we have. It isn't about "language"--it's about equality.

One of the other favorites in my country is the dismissal of "women in the U.S. don't know how well off they have it." Yes, we do. It's about equality.

Now back to something more pleasant: The remarkable Angie Kerber, long considered a journeywoman, is now a three-time major champion. And the remarkable, totally stunning sportswoman, Serena Williams, is back and playing very well.

And to all the people (you know who you are) who consider women's tennis (and women's sports, in general) inferior because it isn't men's sports: In the interest of fairness and human evolution, maybe you need to grow a pair--of X chromosomes.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Angie and Serena--together again, as you always wanted to see them

This has been a strange Wimbledon, with so many seeds going out early, and with the most highly favored seed going out very early. But now we're down to two, and the tennis gods have so conspired to make that pairing a very tasty one indeed. Angie Kerber and Serena Williams, who bring out the best in each other, will contend for a major title for a third time on Saturday.

I expected the semifinal played between Kerber and Alona Ostapenko to go three sets, but it didn't, despite Ostapenko's strong second set resurgence. My main takeaway from the match was that Ostapenko--who has made a real improvement in her serve--still needs to calm down a bit with the hitting. She continues to remind me of early Kvitova--swings that are hard and laser-accurate. Except when they aren't.

Ostapenko is very young, and has plenty of time to add some nuance and safety to her already impressive game. Today, she was unable to take so many risks and still dominate. After all, she was playing against a human wall, but a clever wall who also has a lot of offensive skills.

Kerber's 6-3, 6-3 victory puts her into her second Wimbledon final. In 2016, she was the runner-up, defeated 7-5, 6-3 by Serena Williams. The German had beaten Williams earlier that year in the Australian Open final, in which Williams was the defending champion.

Now, Kerber and Williams will meet again on Centre Court to determine who is the 2018 Wimbledon champion. Williams defeated Kerber's countrywoman, Julia Goerges, 6-2, 6-4 today in the semifinals. It was a wonderful run for Goerges, who has more or less re-invented her entire career, and who handled the biggest match of that career with poise and grit.

Because of an injury, Williams wasn't able to serve for a while, and had no serving warmups before Wimbledon. Her service speed hasn't been as fast as it it's been in the past, but her placement remains spot-on. 

Here are the players' paths to the final:

1st round--def. Vera Zvonareva
2nd round--def. Claire Liu
3rd round--def. Naomi Osaka (18)
round of 16--def. Belinda Bencic
quarterfinals--def. Daria Kasatkina (14)
semifinals--def. Alona Ostapenko (12)

1st round--def. Arantxa Rus
2nd round--def. Viktoriya Tomova
3rd round--def. Kristina Mladenovic
round of 16--def. Evgeniya Rodina
quarterfinals--def. Camila Giorgi
semifinals--def. Julia Goerges (13)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The fearless, fabulous four!

When Wimbledon began, I thought Petra Kvitova would take home a third Venus Rosewater dish. But, barring that, I was looking at Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Angie Kerber, and Alona Ostapenko as potential champions. Well, three of them are still standing. (A few weeks ago, I mentioned Julia Goerges as a dark horse, and--what do you know?).

Theoretically, Williams had the easiest job today, yet it took her three sets to defeat the hard-hitting Italian, Camila Giorgi. Giorgi was all over Williams in the opening set, winning it 6-3. But we know how this story goes: The seven-time champion found her game early in the second set, and that was pretty much that. She defeated Giorgi 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Giorgi wasn't the only hard hitter on the courts today. Two of them--Dominika Cibulkova and Alona Ostapenko--faced off in another quarterfinal. And Ostapenko, who has yet to drop a set at Wimbledon, emerged the winner, 7-5, 6-4. Ostapenko hit 33 winners and made 26 unforced errors. Her newly improved serve (it's always nice when you can tell a player has been working on weaknesses) helped her to hit five aces, too.

Close friends Kiki Bertens and Julia Goerges also played each other. Bertens lost her way a little in the second set and by the third, Goerges pulled away emphatically. Nevertheless, this has been a wonderful event for Bertens, and one in which she took out both Venus Williams and Karolina Pliskova. Goerges won the match 3-6, 7-5, 6-1. The tour's ace queen hit only three of them in this match. But she hit 36 winners and made only 21 unforced errors. She also had very respectable first/second serve percentages of 72 and 68.

Finally, Dasha Kasatkina and Angie Kerber played one of the finest matches of the tournament, so far. The Russian's ballet-like athleticism and the German's rugged athleticism clashed in ways that had the crowd "oohing" and "ahhing" throughout the match. It was beautiful to watch. Kerber won 6-3, 7-5, and--toward the end of the second set--Kasatkina went all Flavia Pennetta on her opponent and saved six match points with a series of stunning shots. At one point, the Russian fell down, but it didn't stop her from keeping the ball in play.

With all the woe-are-we talk about the upsets of the top seeds, we wound up with four very fine semifinalists--three who have won majors (one of them, a lot of majors), and one who has practically re-invented her entire career. Also, there are two Germans remaining in the draw, and that hasn't occurred in London in a very long time.

Here is the semifinal draw:
Alona Ostapenko (12) vs. Angelique Kerber (11)
Julia Goerges (13) vs. Serena Williams (25)

Now, on to the doubles draw. Top seeds Timea Babos (our new world number 1) and Kiki Mladenovic are still around, as are the 3rd seeds, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. And--so is the team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. This time last year, they were seeking a Career Slam at Wimbledon when Mattek-Sands fell and sustained a truly horrible knee injury.

The wheelchair draw is out, and top seed Diede De Groot will play Sabine Ellerbrock in the quarterfinals. In doubles, De Groot is paired with Yui Kamiji, and they are the top seeds.

Demi Schuurs didn't play women's doubles at this event, but you can bet she's still around--in mixed doubles. Schuurs and Jean-Julien Rojer have reached the quarterfinals.

Viewing the tournament this morning was so frustrating. Because one of the men's matches was held over, ESPN kept pulling away from the Cibulkova-Ostapenko match, which I really wanted to see. The problem was that it wasn't being shown on ESPN Plus. So I had the Kasatkina-Kerber match on my computer, but could watch the other match only when ESPN decided to show it to me. It was the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, but we weren't permitted to watch it all.

It's bad enough that the Wimbledon organizers put two quarterfinals on at the same time, but then ESPN makes it so that you can't watch them.

Also, someone needs to tell Chris Evert that Ostapenko won the junior Wimbledon title. She was amazed that Alona said she preferred playing on grass.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Bertens defeats Pliskova and advances to Wimbledon quarterfinals

The Charleston trophy has always served as somewhat of a good luck charm for its champions. And now that good luck (as well as a lot of hard work and great tennis) has brought together the 2018 finalists in a way we might not have anticipated: Champion Kiki Bertens and runner-up Julia Goerges will meet in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Bertens, having already defeated Venus Williams in the third round, took out 7th seed Karolina Pliskova (the last of the top 10 seeds) today in the round of 16. Bertens out-served the Czech, which isn't usually easy to do, and used all of her variety and new-found grass acumen to defeat Pliskova in straight sets.

Meanwhile, Goerges defeated Donna Vekic, also in straight sets.

In Charleston, Goerges played almost flawlessly, and seemed to be on a clear track to win the title. But she arrived very flat for the final (she later said she was really tired) and Bertens--made easy work of her. Bertens' victory was especially dramatic because, due to a rain dealy, she had to play a grueling semifinal that same day. Bertens said later that, after winning that semifinal, she was determined not to lose her last match.

The only player who needed three sets to win today was Dasha Kasatkina, who defeated Alison Van Uytvanck. Van Uytvanck got off to a very good start, winning the first set in a tiebreak, but then proceeded to make too many errors.

Dominika Cibulkova--doing pretty well without that seed--defeated Hsieh Su-wei, and Camila Giorgi defeated Ekaterina Makarova,  And then there was this:

Alona Ostapenko defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 7-6, 6-0. Ostapenko's serve, by the way, has improved tremendously, which makes things interesting.

Seven-time champion Serena Williams, looking like she hasn't taken even a  month off, beat Evygniya Rodina in just over an hour. And then there was 11th seed Angie Kerber, the 2016 runner-up. Kerber defeated Belinda Bencic 7-6, 6-3 in a match that was entertaining to watch. Both players wound up with good winner/unforced error ratios, and it's been nice to see Bencic back in form.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:
Dominika Cibulkova vs. Alona Ostapenko (12)
Daria Kasatkina (14) vs. Angelique Kerber (11)
Kiki Bertens (20) vs. Julia Goerges (13)
Serena Williams (25) vs. Camila Giorgi

This is the first time that Goerges and Giorgi have ever been in a major quarterfinal.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

"I hate middle Sunday" is back!

During the past few years, I stopped blogging about middle Sunday, but today, my "acknowledgement" of the dreaded day is again a thing.

I hate middle Sunday. For one thing, Sunday is a perfect day for people to relax and watch big-time tennis, but there isn't any to watch. Another reason is that, if it rains, the tournament schedule becomes even harder to manage. And then there's this: If there were play on middle Sunday, we wouldn't have to deal with the dreaded Manic Monday. Wimbledon bills Manic Monday as a glorious thing, but for viewers, it's a nightmare. We're into the business end of the tournament, when we like to believe we can watch every--or almost every--match we want to watch. But no--AELTC makes it all as frustrating as possible. At Wimbledon, that's how they roll.

So, to amuse yourself on middle Sunday, here are some things you can do:

Enjoy this song about the only mother (so far) to win Wimbledon, the great Evonne Goolagong. (Her first Wimbledon victory was the event that drew me into professional tennis.)

You can also enjoy one of my favorite Wimbledon moments of all time, Amelie Mauresmo's 2006 victory over Justine Henin:

And another of my favorites:

Take a moment to remember the lovely (and very talented) Tatiana Golovin and her sublime interpretation of the Wimbledon white rule.

Players who got in trouble for their Wimbledon outfits include Gussy Moran, Maria Bueno, Rosie Casals, and Anne White. (Designer Ted Tinling was banned from Wimbledon because he was the cause of several clothing infractions; he was especially fond of dressing up Rosebud in ways that "skirted" the rules.) And of course, there was La Divine, who was nicknamed "The French Hussy" because she showed up at Wimbledon without a corset.

And speaking of the great Maria Bueno, here is the conclusion of her first Wimbledon championship, in 1959:

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Long Tall One stands alone

Down they went, top 10 seed after top 10 seed, and today, number 1 seed Simona Halep joined them when she was upset by Hsieh Su-wei, who is a bit of an upset specialist. "Why is Hsieh not ranked higher?" (she's currently ranked no. 48) is a question that gets asked from time to time, and is probably being asked right now. She's primarily a doubles player and has won 20 doubles titles, but her bag of tricks is so impressive that, once in a while, she turns a match into a nightmare for a higher-ranked player.

That happened today, when the aggressive trickster let loose on Halep, trading huge groundstrokes with her, then confounding her with slices, drop shots, spins, and whatever came to her mind at the time. On ESPN, during the match review, Renee Stubbs was practically yelling "Come to the net!" every time Halep stood back during a rally (which was almost always). The world number 1's instincts took over, and she froze herself to the baseline. That works for her on clay much of the time, but on a quick surface, more is required. Hsieh had that "more."

This is part of what Halep had to say after the match:

I just was too negative to myself, talking too much. I was leading the match and I couldn't finish it. I'm just realistic and honest with myself. I accept that it was an unprofessional attitude from me. I am too tired. My muscles are gone. I couldn't stay focused.

I had a great year. Six months have been great, but even though the final [at the Australian Open] in Melbourne is a long time ago, all the pressure and tension is still in my body. I have pain everywhere. I am tired from everything. I’m quite relaxed about saying this. I don’t want to hide anything.

So, the world number 1 is gone, the defending champion is gone, and the two-time Wimbledon champion who I really thought was about to become a three-time champion, is gone.

Of the top ten seeds, the only one left is Karolina Pliskova, who is seeded 7th, and--considering her Wimbledon history--who would have thought it? But there are two other seeds in the draw who--though they may not have the numbers 1-10 next to their name--loom as the two most dangerous competitors remaining.

One, of course, is seven-time Wimbledon champion and all-around slayer Serena Williams. Back from maternity leave and looking fit and spot-on Serena-like, the 25th seed is looking for an eighth title, and is quite likely to get one. Her next opponent is Evgeniya Rodina, the last qualifier standing. Anything can happen (especially at this year's event!), but--assuming Williams wins her round of 16 match--next for her would be either Camila Giorgi or Ekaterina Makarova. I'm guessing it will be the Russian, and--if she stays in form--she'll present a challenge to Williams. If she stays in form. (If she beats Giorgi.)

Makarova is the mother of all big-stage players, though her results have dwindled in the last few years. But she's looking great in London, and when she's "on," she plays with a fluidity that's a pleasure to watch, and she also adds a lefty serve that has proven to be quite helpful to her.

And then there's 11th seed and 2016 runner-up Angie Kerber. Kerber is looking more and more like herself, and I do expect her to go far in this draw. Her next opponent is Belinda Bencic, who's also looking more and more like herself. If Kerber gets past the Swiss player, she'll face either Alison Van Uytvanck or 14th seed Daria Kasatkina.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Hsieh Su-wei vs. Dominika Cibulkova
Alona Ostapenko (20) vs. Aliaksandra Sasnovich
Alison Van Uytvanck vs. Daria Kasatkina (14)
Angelique Kerber (11) vs. Belinda Bencic
Karolina Pliskova (7) vs. Kiki Bertens (20)
Julia Goerges (13) vs. Donna Vekic
Serena Williams (25) vs. Evgeniya Rodina
Camila Giorgi vs. Ekaterina Makarova

Cibulkova is on a roll, possibly fueled by her pique over losing her seeding. She's a much more consistent player than Hsieh, though she has more grass court skills.

Ostapenko is performing so far under the radar, she could blow down the stadium and no one would notice. Sasnovich, who upset Petra Kvitova in the first round, has made a name for herself--first, in Fed Cup, and now, at Wimbledon. If Ostapenko can keep the unforced errors down, though, it will be she who advances.

The pairing of Van Uytvanck and Kasatkina intrigues me; I don't expect it to be easy for either of them. Kasatkina, by the way, is a bit of a surprise here, given her propensity for playing on a slower court.

And that brings me to the clay-loving Kiki Bertens, who suddenly finds herself not only in the second week of Wimbledon, but as the player who knocked Venus Williams out of the tournament. Bertens' success in London doesn't appear to be "one of those things"--she's actually figured out how to play on the grass and looks pretty comfortable doing it. She has a fairly good chance, I think, of pulling an upset.

Finally, Goerges--also not known for grass court play--may have her hands full with Vekic, if the young Croatian player doesn't let the occasion get to her.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The bleeding continues on day 5

Yesterday, I mentioned some clay court specialists who were still in the Wimbldon draw, and I wondered how far they would go. Well, today, the most "clay court specialist" of all of them--Kiki Bertens--went right into the round of 16. And she did it by defeating five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams. It was a long, hard-fought match, in which Bertens suddenly looked as though she does this grass thing all the time. She defeated Williams 6-2, 6-7, 8-6, winning on her third match point.

Meanwhile (literally--they were playing at the same time), seven-time champion Serena Williams had all she could handle with Kiki Mladenovic, but she persevered, 7-5, 7-6.

While these two matches were being played, thee was some very high entertainment going on on Court No. 2. I had really been looking forward to watching Julia Goerges play Barbora Strycova; it felt to me like a possible thriller in the making. I wasn't wrong, but it was really hard for me to concentrate on the match with both Williams matches going on at the same time.

I did get to see a lot of it, though, and it was a great thing to behold. The third set was epic, and featured Goerges serving for the match three times. It finally ended, after almost three hours, and--if I had the time (and I might have to find it)--I'd watch it all in replay because it was the match to watch today. This match had everything--great serving, fine shot-making, crucial breaks, and a very speedy Czech. Strycova darted all over the place, at one point, careening right into the stands, and later, crashing into the chairs and dumping Goerges' stuff all over the court.

Venus Williams wasn't the only major exit today; Madison Keys also went out. Evgeniya Rodina defeated the 10th seed 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.

Also winning were Katya Makarova (def. Lucie Safarova), Donna Vekic (def. Yanina Wickmayer), Camila Giorgi (def. Katerina Siniakova), and Karolina Pliskova (def. Mihaela Buzarnescu). The Pliskova-Buzarnescu match was a bit painful to watch, in that the generally rather even Romanian had a prolonged meltdown and just couldn't summon the steady calm that she has shown for a while.

There were a few upsets in doubles today. The team of McHale/Ostapenko defeated 7th seeds Chan/Yang, Maria/Watson defeated 11th seeds Atawo/Groenefeld, and Rosolska/Spears defeated 5th seeds Chan/Peng.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Defending champion out of Wimbledon, adding to a week of chaos

This evening, the commentators spent an inordinate amount of time "discussing" her surname, while Alison Van Uytvanck spent her time confounding--and eventually defeating--Wimbledon defending champion Garbine Muguruza. The Belgian player lost the first set 5-7, but didn't bat an eye about that; she went on to win the next two sets 6-2 and 6-1.

The first two rounds of play has had our heads spinning with the upsets, and Muguruza's wasn't even the first one today. Earlier, 22nd seed and former top 10 player Jo Konta was defeated in straight sets by Dominika Cibulkova. The Slovak player missed out on being seeded and wasn't too happy about it (I can't blame her), but, as Li Na once said: "Anger is stronger than sorrrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing." Hell, yes.

Meanwhile, world number 1 Simona Halep quietly slid into the third round, as did 2016 runner-up Angie Kerber, and 12th seed Alona Ostapenko, who defeated Kirsten Flipkens in under an hour. It's going to get really interesting now (as opposed to just over-the-top dramatic). Several clay court specialists--Elise Mertens, Dasha Kasatkina, Kiki Bertens, Carla Suarez Navarro, Lucie Safarova--are still around, and one wonders how far they can go on the grass.

And--in addition to Halep, Kerber and Ostapenko--there are some other big names who are still around, like seven-time champion Serena Williams--and five-time champion Venus Williams. Also still in the mix are 7th seed Karolina Pliskova and 10th seed Madison Keys. Both Pliskova and Keys have reached major finals before; both, in fact, reached the final of the U.S. Open.

Speaking of Ostapenko--the commentators stuck verbal pins in her throughout the match, doing what commentators do worst: mind-reading. This talk was interspersed with a good dose of sexism about boys and girls and sports. It was not amusing. (Also, an anatomy lesson is badly needed--the heart is a muscle, not the brain). Meanwhile, while the commentators were finding numerous things wrong with Alona, she was wiping Flipkens off the court.

Halep and Cibulkova (who has to first get past Mertens) could meet in the round of 16. If that happens, it could be a thriller. Both players are happy to stay on the court until half past Kuznetsova, so things have the potential to get dicey.

A third-round match I'm looking forward to is the one that will be competed by Julia Goerges and Barbora Strycova. I enjoy watching both of them play.

Next for Serena is Kiki Mladenovic, who's looking good at this tournament. If Serena wins, there's a good chance she'll face Keys in the round of 16.

Some good news: Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, finally back togeher, won their opening round against Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alla Kudryavtseva. Last year, Mattek-Sands and Safarova were seeking a Career Slam at Wimbledon when Mattek-Sands fell in the second round and sustained a terrible injury. A dislocated kneecap and ruptured patellar ligament caused her to undergo surgery. After a long rehab, she's back to seek another major title with her Czech partner. These two have been through a lot in the past few years.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Two former champions exit Wimbledon, and I'm not feeling so good myself

I missed some of the first set of Petra Kvitova's first round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, but settled in for the rest of it. I was alarmed to see Petra breathing hard, obviously laboring under the heat, and periodically bending over in pain or discomfort. This is how we expect to see her in Flushing Meadows, but not in London.

She lost in three sets (0-6 in the third), and said afterwards that it was a case of nerves--that she wanted it too badly, her feet were heavy, her hand didn't work, etc. I believe her, but I have to wonder whether those nerves created what were obvious physical symptoms. It doesn't take much for that to happen.

On the other side of the net, things were quite different. Sasnovich played like--well, she played like Kvitova. Petra had a bit of a taste of what it's like for her opponents when she's firing on all cylinders. This happens so often in pro women's tennis: An elite player is off in some way, and this provides a sometimes super-human boost for a talented opponent.

I thought this was Petra's tournament--that she was going to add a third Venus Rosewater Dish to her collection, and I'm still stunned by what happened. It will probably take me the full two weeks to get over it.

But that wasn't all. Vitalia Diatchenko, qualifier from Russia, handed former champion Maria Sharapova her fourth first-round loss at a major, defeating her 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 in a match that lasted over three hours.

Those two losses were such big news, it would be easy to overlook a couple of other big results from today. 6th seed Caroline Garcia also went out, to Belinda Bencic. The other seeded player (30) to lose today was Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but who can be surprised by that?

Defending champion Garbine Muguruza advanced to the second round, as did world number 1 Simona Halep, former runner-up Angie Kerber, Alona Ostapenko, and British hope Jo Konta.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Upsets, yes--but the usual suspects

The first day of Wimbledon has come and gone, and Sloane "Get Me Out of Here" Stephens is gone with it. Donna Vekic was always going to be a potential threat on grass, but she really didn't have to do anything remarkable to defeat Stephens. The U.S. Open champion/French Open runner-up/4th seed spent the entire match looking like she just didn't want to be there. Stephens played no grass warm-up tournaments, and didn't even arrive at Wimbledon until Friday. Maybe she didn't feel well--or maybe she was just being, you know, Sloaney.

Then there was 5th seed Elina Svitolina, whose tendency to crash out in majors has recently taken on an even worse turn than usual. Out in the 3rd round of the French, today, the Ukrainian made an exit in the first round. She was defeated by 57th-ranked Tatjana Maria, who does know her way around a grass court.

A few days ago, I wrote that I didn't think Coco Vandeweghe was a reliable contender for the title. She's gone, too--a victim of Katerina Siniakova. We can cut Vandeweghe a lot of slack, though; she played injured throughout the match, but still managed to drag it out for three hours. Vandeweghe took a bad spill during the match, and her ankle was troubling her quite a bit.

Three other seeds were upset today--grass specialist Magda Rybarikova, Anastasija Sevasatova and Zhang Shuai, who were defeated, respectively, by Sorana Cirstea, Camila Giorgi and Andrea Petkovic.

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova made another three-set, first-round exit, going out to Kiki Mladenovic. Grass is probably Schmiedy's most difficult surface. At least she's going three sets now.

I had trouble focusing on watching today's matches. There were too many that I wanted to watch that were being played at the same time, and my inability to settle with one took me all over the place and destroyed my concentration. Also, other things were going on. My worst "performance" today was not watching one moment of Aga Radwanska's match. Normally, I would be glued to anything featuring Radwanska, but I let this one go, only to learn that she saved six match points against Elena-Gabriela Ruse.

And speaking of Romanians--that Buzarnescu-Sabalenko match (I did get to see some of it) was a pretty good one, as far as I could tell, but--as predicted--Aryna Sabalenko was a bit drained from all of her recent match play. Mihaela Buzarnescu now has a main draw victory at Wimbledon, and who knows how far she might go? Next for her is Great Britain's Katie Swan.

The most dramatic thing that occurred today, in my opinion, was the defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova by Barbora Strycova (7-6, 7-5), which will knock the Russian out of the top 100 for the first time since August of 2002.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams won her opening match, as did Karolina Pliskova, Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, Julia Goerges, Madison Keys, and Vika Azarenka.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Wimbledon first round matches to watch

Here are some intriguing first round matches at Wimbledon:

Alize Cornet vs. Dominika Cibulkova: The unpredictable Frenchwoman will try to eliminate the hard-hitting, not-too-happy-these days Cibulkova. The Slovak lost her seeding because of the decision to seed Serena Williams as number 25, and she has been clear about her disagreement with that move. Cibulkova is not one to hold back (which I like), though sometimes, what comes out of her mouth (I'm talking about her nastiness toward Sharapova here) can be totally uncalled for.

But in this case, I wish fans and media would cut her some slack. While I stand by the decision to seed Serena, I can't imagine any player who loses her seeding because of that not feeling upset. At any rate, there's some built-in drama now, and of course, Cornet loves some drama. It could be a very straightforward thing--or not.

Heather Watson vs. Kirsten Flipkens: Watson, whose star has been eclipsed by that of Jo Konta's, is nevertheless a player who has been known to do well at Wimbledon. Flipkens is especially good on grass. I think we could see some good tennis here.

Angie Kerber vs. Vera Zvonareva: Zvonareva is back and through qualifying, but the tennis gods didn't want to make it easy for her. It's hard to imagine that she can get past Kerber, but it might be a nice match to watch--just to see Vera again.

Monica Niculescu vs. Naomi Osaka: Niculescu vs. Anybody is always a good match to watch, especially on a big stage, where the Romanian tends to get show-offy, sometimes in a deadly way.

Aryna Sabalenka vs. Mihaela Buzarnescu: Well, this is the one. It feels so unfair that these two have to meet in the first round. Buzarnescu is arguably the hottest non-elite player on the tour right now, and Sabalenka just showed the world what she can do on grass. What a shame that one of them will have to leave so early. Sabalenka, who made it all the way to the final in Eastbourne, may be a bit tired, which could affect the outcome.

Julia Goerges vs. Monica Puig: Goerges is best known for her clay and hard court play, but now that she's so much more consistent with that big serve of hers, she can probably do some damage on grass. Puig is a talented player whose inconsistency is puzzling. If they both show up in form, this could be a great match.

Donna Vekic vs. Sloane Stephens: This will be all about Stephens. If she shows up in form, that will be that. But if she doesn't, Vekic is just the kind of player who could make it hard for the U.S. Open champion to maneuver on grasss.

Crashing the lawn party

A few days ago, I wrote about the women who are likely (and a few not as likely) to contend for the Venus Rosewater Dish. Today, I want to look at the women who can make life miserable for some of those contenders. There aren't nearly as many grass court specialists as there are clay court specialists, but there are a few. Also, there are some players who are dangerous on all surfaces.

Magda Rybarikova
She is a grass court specialist. The Slovak player made it to the semifials last year, and could cause problems for those in her draw.

Coco Vandeweghe
I mentioned Vandeweghe in my other post, but I do look upon her more as a trouble-maker than a contender, at this point. I could be wrong. At any rate, she's capable of doing some big damage.

Aryna Sabalenka
Her performance in Eastbourne this week made it obvious that she's ready for Wimbledon.

Ash Barty
Barty's game is looking more stable, and she'll feel at home on Wimbledon's lawns. 

Genie Bouchard
She could get it all back. What if she does it next week?

Kirsten Flipkens
When she's "on," she tends to be "on" on grass.

Maria Sakkari
I now consider the Greek upstart a danger on all surfaces. She made it to the third round last year, and could do even better this year.

Aga Radwanska
She's back, and she's looking good. The 2012 runner-up loves the grass, and she's still capable of driving her opponents absolutely crazy.

There are others who, of course, will surprise us--some of them are known for their clay expertise. Julia Goerges, Andrea Petkovic and Caroline Garcia (who made it to the fourth round last year) could all make good runs.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Strawberries, grass, white dresses, and tone-deaf organizers--it's almost here!

Having just recovered from the drama of my favorite major, I now must prepare for the drama of my least favorite major. Wimbledon is almost here, whether I like it or not. I do like the looking at the lawns, at least for the first few days.

The powers that run the tournament have decided to seed Serena Williams as number 25. Whatever they decided would probably have upset people, and--in the end--does it really matter? Williams, the seven-time Wimbledon champion, wasn't really ready for the French Open, but fans have reason to believe that she's more than ready for the grass.

Another player who's ready is 8th seed and two-time champion Petra Kvitova. The Barking Czech has stormed through the 2018 season, winning five titles and generally looking as scary as she ever has. I thought she would do better at the French Open, since her clay season was excellent, and while she lost a very tight match in the third round to a very tough clay opponent--Anett Kontaveit--I was nevertheless surprised.

But this is grass, where Kvitova always feels at home. The bad news is that she withdrew from Eastbourne on today with a hamstring injury which she first noticed during her championship run in Birmingham the week before. The good news is that she has some time to tend to that injury.

Aside from Kvitova and Williams, are there other players who can contend for the Wimbledon championship? There are:

First, there's the defending champion, Garbine Muguruza, who is seeded 3rd, and who--as we all know--could romp through the entire draw, or crash out in the second round. There's simply no predicting the mercurial Spaniard, but if anyone could defend a big title, it's Muguruza.

Anyone else? I'm going to throw a couple more names into the mix. The first one is 11th seed Angie Kerber, who was the finalist in 2016, which was pretty much the Year of Kerber. The German's fortunes haven't been as good since that year, but lately, she's looked pretty good, and I think it's only fair to include her as a contender.

My other name is Alona Ostapenko. The 2017 French Open champion and former junior Wimbledon champion isn't very happy with her performance at Roland Garros this year. She has also changed coaches. And while this combination of occurrences might sound like a recipe for instability with any other player, it very likely isn't for the woman that Todd Spiker calls Latvian Thunder.

Ostapenko gets past negative emotions pretty well. The dancing upstart lets emotions out quickly and moves on quickly. Her fast, hard hitting can get her into trouble when she does what I call the "early Kvitova" routine. But it also blows a lot of opponents off of the court. And she's won a major and knows what it feels like to advance through seven big-stage matches.

I know that 2017 runner-up Venus Williams is a favorite among many fans. Her performances last year (finalist at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon) were astounding. And while that kind of thing could happen again on her best surface--she's won Wimbledon five times--I don't consider her as likely to win the event as I do others.

And what about world number 1 Simona Halep? I think her chances will be better at the U.S. Open, but--having taken a great load off of her back--nothing would surprise me, either. The same goes for Caroline Wozniacki--we don't think of her as a potential Wimbledon champion, but now that she has a major win and and a game that just keeps improving, we can never count her out.

Elina Svitolina has yet to show us that she can do well in majors, and grass is probably the last surface on which we'd expect her to break through, but stranger things have happened. Coco Vandeweghe has the game, but if she isn't playing in a Fed Cup competition, she can't be counted on to have the mental focus necessary to win.

Madison Keys has the game, but can she make her biggest breakthrough in London? I don't know. And then there's Sloane Stephens, who is now officially scary everywhere she goes. But she's also Sloane, and it just isn't like her to make two really deep runs in succession.

I wish I could say that there's Maria Sharapova, but the 2004 champion--while playing at a better level as the season progresses--doesn't appear to have reached the level that took her to five major championships.

I'll mention Karolina Pliskova, whose game has been uneven as of late. But the big-hitting Czech is certainly someone we'll all be watching. And finally, Jo Konta appears to be coming alive on grass after having had some rough months on the tour. It's her home tournament, and with the right draw, she could make her countrywomen and -men very proud.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

My French Open top 10

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

10. A second serving of Coco: There's another Coco to watch in USA tennis. Cori "Coco" Gauff is the 2018 girls French Open champion. the 14-year-old Gauff defeated Catherine McNally, also from the USA, in the final. Last summer, Gauff became the younger girl to ever reach the final at the U.S. Open. McNally and her partner, Iga Swiatek, won the doubles championship, defeating Yuki Naito and Naho Sato in the final.

9. Japanese sweep: 9. Yui Kamiji, the world number 1 wheelchair player, won the French Open for the third time this week. Kamiji watched her Japanese compatriot, Shingo Kunieda, win the men's championship, and said that seeing him win "pushed me very much." But it wasn't easy for Kamiji because she had to face her rival, Diede de Groot, who won their first set, 6-2. The world number 1 came back, however, to win the last two sets 6-0 and 6-2.

In doubles, de Groot and her partner, Aniek van Koot defeated Kamiji and Marjolein Buis, who were the defending champions.

8. The doctor is in: Miaela Buzarnescu had never won a main draw match at a major when she entered the 2018 French Open. The 30-year-old Romanian, who was off of the tour for four years because of shoulder and knee injuries (and who earned a doctorate while she was on haitus), reached two WTA finals last year. At Roland Garros, she defeated both Vania King and Rebecca Peterson, then drew worldwide attention when she upset 4th seed and title contender Elina Svitolina in straight sets. Buzarnescu would fall to Madison Keys in the round of 16, but--what a run.

7. Last samba in Paris: Some of us were really looking forward to watching defending champion Alona Ostapenko compete (and do everything else she does), but we didn't get to see much. Ostapenko lost to world number 67 Kateryna Kozlova in the first round. This is the first time the defending champion has lost in the first round at Roland Garros since 2005 when Anastasia Myskina was defeated by the unseeded Maria Sanchez Lorenzo. But there's more: Ostapenko, through one of those tennis twists of fate, also gets this year's Wooden Spoon award.

6. More stunning than a flat Earth video!: Not many saw Yulia Putintseva coming, but the Kazakhstani player known for on-court verbal expressiveness had a great run in Paris. Putintseva began her campaign by taking out 22nd seed Jo Konta in straight sets, then defeated Jennifer Brady, and--in a tense, two-hour and 18-minute match--Wang Qiang. In the round of 16, Putintseva upset 26th seed Barbora Strycova, but finally fell, in the quarterfinals, to Madison Keys. 

5. The championship run that almost wasn't: Latisha Chan may have lost her number 1 ranking in women's doubles last week, but she received a very nice consolation prize. She and Ivan Dodig won the French Open mixed doubles championship, defeating Gabriela Dobrowski and Mate Pavic in the final. Chan was ill before the tournament, and had doubts about even entering, but fortunately, she was able to team with Dodig and win her first mixed doubles major championship. Chan, playing with Martina Hingis, won the 2017 U.S. Open women's doubles title.

4. Not the champion--this time: Sloane Stephens is never afraid to say what's on her mind, and during a press conference in Paris, she made it clear to the media that the "Sloane wins big in the U.S. but not outside of her country" routine can be put to rest. And, with her ascension to the final at Roland Garros, it looks like she's right. The 2017 U.S. Open champion operates on Sloane Time, and that works just fine for her, thank you very much. She moved smoothly through most of her draw in Paris, and very skillfully took the first set of the singles final. That was the last set she won, but there's no doubt about it: Sloane Stephens, with her easy power and fluid movement, is a force.

3. They were the favorites: Before the tournament began, there was quite a bit of talk about several potential champions--Simona Halep, of course, but also Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens, and former champions Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova. I thought that the talk about Williams wasn't realistic, and--until the last minute--I thought the Sharapova talk wasn't realistic, either.

It turned out that reality wasn't on the side of any of them but Halep, though Muguruza advanced all the way to the semifinals, in which she was routinely taken out by Halep. Bertens lost in two tiebreak sets to an in-form Angie Kerber in the third round, Williams retired from the tournament with an injury after her third round win, and Sharapova fell to Muguruza in the quarterfinals. Two other players who I thought would have excellent tournaments--Julia Goerges and Caroline Garcia--went out in the third and fourth rounds, respectively (losing to Williams and Kerber).

As for Svitolina, who many thought would win her first major in Paris: She continued her pattern of slaying in regular tournaments and making a fairly early exit in majors. This time, it was Mihaela Buzarnescu who delivered the blow--again, in the dreaded third round.

2. Fulfilling junior promise: The Czech team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova made up one formidable junior doubles team, winning not only the French Open, but also Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, all in 2013. Today, they won their first major, defeating Eri Hozumi and Makoto Ninomiya 6-3, 6-3 in the final. Hozumi and Ninomiya, incidentally, are the first Japanese team to reach the final of a major. Their path to the final included defeating top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic.

And then there's the news that, tomorrow, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina will achieve the number 1 doubles ranking for the first time. Makarova and Vesnina did not compete (as a team) in this year's French Open.

1. Romanian relief, Romanian pride: Going for the title for the third time--and not helped by also having seen the 2018 Australian Open title pass her by--Simona Halep did the only thing she could do--she cleared her head and willed herself to victory. Of course, this is Halep, so she did this after she lost the first set of the final to Sloane Stephens. But some players need to come from behind in order to get the momentum they need, and the world number 1 appears to be one of them. Maybe this won't always be the case (a good start in this direction was her straight-set dismissal of 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza in the semifinals).

However she did it doesn't really matter. Simona Halep, the first player to win her first major while holding the number 1 ranking, banished the psychological demons that have plagued her for some time, and did so against a really tough opponent. Every player is filled with joy upon winning a major, especially a first major, but the look on Halep's face after she hit match point was priceless. She did it. It was a long time coming, but she never gave up, and she found a way to make her mind as flexible as her body.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Si-mo-na! (Fi-nal-ly!)

I didn't think, in my lifetime (or maybe anyone's) I would ever see people travel around the world to cheer loudly for a female athlete, but that's exactly what the Romanians have done for Simona Halep since she caught up with all the potential some of us saw in her many years ago. Today, Halep gave her fans something about which to cheer loudly: On her third try, she won the French Open, defeating 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Of course, it went three sets--this is Simona. In 2012, she played a dazzling three-set final against Maria Sharapova, who later said it was the toughest final she had ever played. In 2017, Halep was up 3-1 in the third set against interloper Alona Ostapenko, who frolicked through the draw as though she were practicing one of her wilder ballroom dances. Ostapenko won that match, leaving Halep with two almost-wins at Roland Garros.

To make matters even more tense, Halep lost a three-set final at this year's Australian Open when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki. Again, Halep was, I suppose, what people call "always a bridesmaid, never a bride," but--since I find that phrase somewhat offensive--I'll use Fran Lebowitz's version--"always a godmother, never a god."

But not now. The speedy, agile, frequently dazzling shot-maker from Romania, who also happens to be the world's number 1 player, has won La Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen. Halep, a fine athlete with a strategic mindset, has struggled for years with her head. A perfectionist who is very hard on herself, Halep has had trouble "moving on" if a point or a game goes badly. This makes her especially vulnerable to players like Ostapenko and Stephens, who have are especially adept at letting things go and getting on to the next moment, or game, or set.

But Halep has worked on this issue, just as she has worked on her fitness and her groundstrokes. And today, that work paid off. The fluid, powerful Stephens--who does just about everything very well--dominated Halep in the first set, using her easy power. Stephens was seeing and picking up the ball so well, it appeared sometimes that she had cloned herself and there were Sloanes all over the court.

After winning the first set 6-3, Stephens broke Halep immediately in the second set. Halep then went on a tear, winning nine consecutive points and breaking a somewhat tired-looking Stephens. But then, things got even, and at 4-all, 30-all, the tension was palpable. Halep did break, though, and then stormed through the third set like the woman on a mission that she obviously was.

I really liked the semifinal draw, and would have been happy to see Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza or Madison Keys hold the trophy. But it was especially touching and gratifying to see the hard-working, stylistic Halep overcome her cerebral demons and win a major. I also especially like her game.

Not since the great Amelie Mauresmo finally won her first major in 2006 have I felt such relief on behalf of a player. On that January day, I went out and bought a bottle of champagne (I'm talking about real champagne, from France). I can't think of an equivalent thing to do now, but I join many others (including Simona's peers on the tour) in admiring her for pushing herself so hard for so long to achieve the distinction of winning a major--my favorite major, at that. And here's hoping that this is just the first one. Si-mo-na!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

If at first you don't succeed, think of Evonne Goolagong Cawley (and Simona Halep)

This week, Evonne Goolagong Cawley was honored with the Philippe Chatrier Award at the World Champions Dinner in Paris. The Australian star, who was practically a dancer on the court, won the French Open in 1971. In that event, Goolagong Cawley defeated Helen Gourlay in straight sets in the final. She came close to defending her title the next year, but lost to Billie Jean King in the final.

What makes Goolagong Cawley's Roland Garros success interesting is the fact that she played in the event only four times in her career.

Goolagong Cawley is much better known for having won the Australian Open four times, and Wimbledon twice. Her second Wimbledon championship, which she achieved in 1980, was also notable because, three years earlier, she had given birth to a daughter.

That brings me to the story of Evonne Goolagong Cawley and the U.S. Open. Goolagong Cawley played in New York only half a dozen times, but at four of those tournaments--1973, 1974, 1975, and 1976--she was in the final.

She never won the U.S. Open. On those four occasions when she came close, she was defeated by Billie Jean King in 1974, and the other three times by her old rival, Chris Evert. She wouldn't play in New York again until 1979, when she got as far as the quarterfinals.

Goolagong Cawley's presence in Paris this week made me think about Simona Halep, and what it must feel like to get to a final, lose it, then get to it again, lose it, then get to it again, and--well, stay tuned.

For any player, the pressure to finally get that trophy has to be immense, but for a person like Halep, it might be excruciating. The world number 1, no stranger to anxiety and perfectionism, has handled herself extremely well these past two weeks, and her easy defeat of a scary-in-form Garbine Muguruza today was very noteworthy.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley picked herself up and kept trying, and was later amused to recall that, at least she made it into Trivial Pursuit a second time after her four consecutive U.S. Open losses in finals. And as painful as it must have been for Goolagong Cawley to finally accept that she was never going to win the U.S. Open, she had seven major titles to console her.        

Halep, who was also the runner-up in this year's Australian Open, is still trying for her first one. She was philosophical about the situation in her press conference, saying "So I lost three times until now, and no one died, so it will be okay."

Down to two—Halep and Stephens to face off in French Open final

The anticipated thriller—or at least drawn-out—semifinal contest between world number 1 Simona Halep and former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza turned out to be neither thrilling (except for a while in the second set, when the Romanian saved three break points), nor drawn out. Halep totally domimated Muguruza in the first set. Muguruza made more of an inroad in the second, but the world number 1 appeared determined to prevent any possibility of third-set tension.

Halep was strong in her returns to the powerful Spaniard, she hit relentlessly to Muguruza's forehand, and she was more than proficient at the net. She was also able to break Muguruza six times. Her 6-1, 6-4 victory not only puts her into her third French Open final, it also assures that she will retain her number 1 ranking.

Her opponent will be 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, who defeated her U.S. Open final opponent, Madison Keys 6-4, 6-4. Keys, for all her big serving and forehand dazzle, made unforced errors all over the place—41 in all.

Halep and Keys have played each other seven times, and Halep won five of those matches, including the last four that they played. She also won their only two clay court matches.

Here are the players’ paths to the final:

round 1–def. Alison Riske
round 2–def. Taylor Townsend
round 3–def. Andrea Petkovic
round of 16–def. Elise Mertens (16)
quarterfinals—def. Angelique Kerber (12)
semifinals—def. Garbine Muguruza (3)

round 1–def. Arantxa Rus
round 2–def. Magdalena Frech
round 3–def.Camila Giorgi
round of 16–def. Anett Kontaveit (16)
quarterfinals—def. Daria Kasatkina (14)
semifinals—def. Madison Keys (13)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Simona, Garbine, Madison, and Sloane have a story to tell

Every good draw has a story, and the semifinal draw of the French Open has a story worth telling.

The lead character in this story is world number 1 Simona Halep. If she defeats Garbine Muguruza, she holds onto her number 1 ranking--and goes to her fourth major final. It would also be her third French Open final, and so much appears (I don't want to be like a television commentator and read Simona's mind) to be riding on what happens. In fact, the stakes seem so great, that a loss to Muguruza in the semifinals might even be less painful than another loss in the final.

The Romanian seems ready for anything. Her clever game and impressive speed and flexibility have frequently been greater than her mental stability on court, but right now, Halep seems to have finally put all the pieces together.

Muguruza, however, is more than just "another" semifinal opponent. Many are saying that she has "the look"--that's the look she gets when she's about to finish off the remainder of the seven women she faces in a major draw. The Spaniard (who will return to the number 1 spot if she wins her semifinal match) isn't consistent. She can "mugu" around and make an early exit--or she can display such deadly fluidity that she becomes a one-woman SWAT team. She looks like a woman on a mission, and it won't be easy for even the talented, determined Halep to stop her.

What a contrast they are. Muguruza, at her best, makes everything look so easy. Halep, on the other hand, dazzles with her ability to struggle, fight relentlessly and come back from behind. Muguruza is 4-1 against her, but the one match Halep won was played on clay.

The other semifinal has its own story. Two close friends, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens--both from the USA--will compete to see who goes to the final. Stephens beat Keys in the 2017 U.S. Open final. She also beat Keys the only other time they played, in Miami in 2015. Keys contends she can't stand playing on clay, but she probably wouldn't give up this opportunity to reach the final in Paris.

Keys is hardly a Halep. She has a big serve and forehand, and lacks Halep's speed. But she'll be facing someone not unlike Muguruza: When Stephens is "on," she, too, makes it look so fluid and easy. And also like the Spaniard, Stephens isn't known for being "on" on a consistent basis.

My gut feelilng is that everyone is going to be "on," and the story may be, in part, a thriller. There will be happy endings and sad endings--and anticipation for the sequel, which will occur on Saturday.