Sunday, March 18, 2018

Naomi Osaka announces herself in the desert

A desert is a place without expectation.
Nadine Gordimer

Today, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka not only won the BNP Paribas Open; she also became the event's second consecutive unexpected champion. But the circumstances were oh, so different. Last year, champion Elena Vesnina and Svetlana Kuznetsova put on a knock-down drag-out spectacle that went on for three hours. Today, a spot-on in-form Osaka took out a clearly flat and under-performing Daria Kasatkina in just and hour and ten minutes.


So many times, in finals, we see this pattern: One player just isn't herself, and the other plays out of her mind. Naturally, one feeds on and expands the other. This "should" have been a three-set match, but instead, it fell into this too-familiar pattern.

Osaka is also following in the footsteps of her peers, Garbine Muguruza and Alona Ostapenko, in that her first WTA win is a really big one. Of course, hers wasn't quite as big as theirs, but it was big enough to turn her into an instant star. It wasn't that long ago that Osaka (like early Kvitova) was just swinging at everything and hitting it as hard as she could. Those days are over; the young Japanese player has improved her fitness and added some tactics to her game, which is now truly formidable.

This was a significant BNP Paribas Open not only because two 20-year-olds were in the final, but also because of what each of them had to do to get there. Osaka took out five-time major champion Maria Sharapova, Aga Radwanska, an in-form Maria Sakkari, and Karolina Pliskova. Kasatkina had an even tougher route: She defeated 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stevens, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, two-time major champion Angelique Kerber, and five-time major champion Venus Williams.

While their games are quite different, both players are extremely talented, and my gut feeling is that neither of them is going to fold from the pressure of either ranking or public recognition. And speaking of rankings, tomorrow, Osaka will be number 22 in the world, and Kasatkina will be number 11.

The times are changing--that's for sure.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A case for non-domination

Maria Sharapova is back. Vika Azarenka is back. Most significant of all is that Serena Williams is back. Sharapova is having a hard time getting into her groove, though there have been moments of promise, and anyway, she hasn't been dominant for a while. Azarenka is rusty, yes, but that is most likely not her biggest problem. The talented Belarusian has a history of illness and injury that is almost freakish in its manifestation, and there is no reason to think that her snakebittten days are over.

As for Serena, I expect great things from her, yes, but I don't expect tour domination. As super-human as she seems, she is--in the end--human. For a tennis player, she's old, and she just missed 14 months of play.

One could rationally expect Garbine Muguruza to step in as the next dominant player--and this could still happen-- but, for now, the Spaniard has shown us many moments of startling star power, but also many moments of failing to "be there" when it mattered. And while I think that Muguruza, a champion on both clay and grass--is still the most likely player to go on a serious roll, it isn't happening right now.

And if it never happens? I say "so what?" The tour is, in my opinion, quite interesting right now. Will Muguruza win another major this year? What about the force of nature (The Backspinner aptly calls her Latvian Thunder) known as Alona Ostapenko? When will Madison Keys take the next step? Can Venus Williams have another year like 2017? And, of course, is this going to be the year that Simona Halep holds something besides a major runner-up trophy?

And there are so many more questions! Will Petra Kvitova use her new-found strength to return to the very elite portion of the tour? When will Svitolina figure out the majors? Was the Australian Open title a one-off for Caroline Wozniacki? What will Jo Konta and Caroline Garcia show us this year? And then there's this question: What can we expect from Angie Kerber, who has revived her career in 2018?

I have my favorites just like everyone else, and I'd be very happy if they won everything. But that isn't going to happen, so I may as well sit back and enjoy the next breakthrough from one of the tour's young talents, or--maybe even more fun--relish the complete giddiness of The Ostapenko Effect.

Fans also tend to like big rivalries, and no one was more into Chris and Martina than I was, but when there isn't a big rivalry, I don't miss one. If it happens, it happens. There is so much talent on the tour, that--for me--whatever manifests is good enough.