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.

Myrtle McAteer--Cincinnati's first champion

In 1899, a new tennis tournament emerged in Cincinnati--the Cincinnati Open. The Open was played at the Avondale Athletic Club (now the site of Xavier University), and featured both female and male players. All matches were best of three except for the finals--singles and doubles--which were best of five. The surface was described as "elastic clay and brick dust."

The singles champion in 1899 was Myrtle McAteer of Pittsburgh, who--at the time--was 20 or 21 years old, and was the reigning U.S. doubles champion.  In the final, she defeated future Hall of Fame member Juliette Atkinson of Brooklyn. McAteer and Atkinson also won the doubles title that year, defeating two players from Cincinnati. The crowd for the final day of play was estimated at 2,000.

McAteer's prize was a Brookwood vase, valued at $100. For their doubles achievement, McAteer and Atkinson were awarded a three-piece Silver Berry set.

The next year, McAteer won the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open). In 1901, she won a second doubles championship at the U.S. Nationals.

McAteer died in Los Angeles in 1952, at the age of 74.

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.