Saturday, May 18, 2019

Lightning in a bottle is still lightning

Some fans like to say that a particular upset or a particular victory is a "fluke," but to call an achievement a fluke is to make something negative of it, and--unless cheating is involved--a victory isn't a negative thing. By the same token, so many commentators, fans and even players say of a player: "She deserved to win." Who, I ask--unless there is cheating involved--doesn't "deserve" to win? But the implication is clear: If one deserves to win at a given time, then sometimes one does not. That is simply incorrect.

Sometimes a player has an especially good season, and then the next season comes around, and she's in a slump. Fans and the tennis media tend to focus on the slump, and not the achievements. Given the human brain's anthropological need to focus on negative factors, there is little doubt that the player, also, focuses on the slump. And to some degree, this is necessary, if she is to overcome it. But it can also prevent the very outcome the player seeks.

This is a tricky balancing act for all of us--working to overcome our deficiencies while not becoming so focused on them that they dictate our future. For a professional athlete, learning to work that balance is crucial. If it doesn't come natural to a player to do that (or if she doesn't have the kind of epiphany that Kiki Bertens did), a coach can help. And if a coach cannot help, then a sports psychologist or other mental health clinician can.

Sometimes, however, try as she might, a player cannot get back the magic, or she gets it back, then loses it again. This is when belief and positive memory can make a difference.

Regardless, a player's accomplishments--whether transient or consistent--are still accomplishments, and should be celebrated. Kiki Bertens overcame some major demons by realizing that she didn't enjoy her victories--she saw them as merely finished products that paved the way to the next hard grind. This realization caused her to start relishing her accomplishments, which led to increased enjoyment, which led to--well, we all know where it led.

"But she never won a major" is a phrase we sometimes hear. And that is indeed disappointing to fans and, undoubtedly, to the player, but it does not invalidate her career. And that brings to mind a phrase I especially dislike: "one-slam wonder." (First of all, I dislike it because a major is not a "slam" or a "grand slam"--it's a major.) Calling someone a one-major wonder immediately invalidates both the player and her amazing accomplishment.

Gabriela Sabatini, Iva Majoli, Conchita Martinez, Ana Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone, Marion Bartoli, and Flavia Pennetta each did something that very few athletes will ever do: They reached a pinnacle of achievement in their sport. To not give them full credit for their victories because they reached this pinnacle only once is both inaccurate and mean-spirited.

Professional tennis is a brutal career, filled with grueling court and gym training, successive injuries, jet lag, separation from the home environment, psychological stress, long hours, and chronic--sometimes obscene--attacks from so-called fans. One player's personal best will never be another player's.

And that brings me to another phrase I don't like--"over-achieve." To say that a player over-achieves is to automatically place a limit on her potential. One day she might be a reliable German journeywoman, and the next day, she might become Angie Kerber. But even if she doesn't become a major champion (and very, very few players will), every match and every tournament she wins is a thing to be celebrated, not a thing to be minimized, dismissed, or compared with the achievements of another player.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Fighting Italian, a hard-hitting Frenchwoman, and--in Rome--a very clever Spaniard

The 2010 clay season will always be remembered (as well it should be) for the emergence of Francesca Schiavone as the French Open champion, but--so dramatic was that emergence--it may be easy to forget some of the other drama that occurred.

Aravane Rezai surprised the tennis world by winning Madrid. The very hard-hitting Frenchwoman, known for her metallic-colored dresses, began delivering her surprises in the very first round. The unseeded Rezai upset five-time French Open champion Justine Henin, and that defeat included a 6-0 third set.

A Tennis Channel commentator remarked that Rezai "cruised through the rest of the tournament," but he was obviously watching a different event. Rezai had to fight hard to get to the final. She beat Klara Zakapalova in the second round, but had to play the thriller of the tournament (and probably one of the best matches of the season) in the next round against a very in-form Andrea Petkovic. Petkovic, though she saved six match points, was finally overcome by the Frenchwoman, who defeated her 6-4, 7-6 (8).

Next came Jelena Jankovic, and Rezai had to fight like mad to win that one, too especially in the first set (do you think that, at Tennis Channel, they don't even watch the matches?). She got a break in the semifinals, when Lucie Safarova had to retire after the first set. Then, in the final, Rezai faced Venus Williams. The unseeded Frenchwoman began the match by holding a first serve win percentage of 100; needless to say, she won that set.

Rezai then went down 2-5 in the second set, but she rallied, saved six set points, and suddenly, held three match points. She won the championship on her first one, defeating Williams 6-2, 7-5, and becoming the second unseeded player to win a premier WTA event.

That was a lot of drama, but there was also quite a bit of drama in Rome that year when another unseeded player, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, took that title. Her draw was impressive. After beating Alla Kudryavtseva in the opening round, she then defeated soon-to-be French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, Caroline Wozniacki, Lucie Safarova, and 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic.

Martinez Sanchez's opponent in the final was two-time (2007, 2008) Rome champion Jelena Jankovic, who had knocked out Serena Williams in the semifinals. Jankovic was highly favored to win her third Italian Open title, but the tricky Spaniard with the tricky serve had other ideas.

Making Jankovic run generally doesn't have the effect of making some other players run. The Serbian star, in her day, loved to run. But this was the final, both players had to be a bit tired, and Martinez Sanchez made sure that Jankovic ran plenty--both vertically and horizontally. With her sharp lefty serve and her slices, spins and volleys, the Spaniard had a lot to throw at Jankovic. She also had a cunning drop shot, which--in the end--worked for her even when Jankovic got to it, because going for it only increased the Serbian player's fatigue.

But Martinez Sanchez wasn't just hitting a lot of drop shots--she was using the drop shot as a return of serve. This very clever strategy enraged some fans, who said the Spaniard wasn't playing "real" tennis. Really? I thought the object was to win the match.

It was quite a spectacle, what with Jankovic running all over the court and falling down multiple times until her lime kit was caked in red clay. Toward the end of the second set, the pair engaged in rapid-fire volleying right at the net, which thrilled spectators.

Martinez Sanchez, who hit 44 winners, defeated Jankovic 7-6, 7-5, in a truly stunning championship match. "You were killing me with those drop shots," Jankovic said to her at the trophy ceremony.

What made Martinez Sanchez's victory even more dramatic was that she was known as a talented player whose nerves tended to betray her when she faced top players. But for some reason, that year in Rome, the Spaniard kept her nerves intact and completed what was possibly the most entertaining run of the season.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The French Open--always a beautiful mystery

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
The French Open, my favorite major, will begin soon, and--as always--it's a bit of a mystery as to who will win it. That makes the already-thrilling event even more interesting!

Who can win the French Open?

Defending champion Simona Halep: There is no doubt (at least in my mind) that if anyone can defend a French Open title, it's the Romanian star. Halep is looking better than ever, and her confidence--sometimes a wavering factor--appears stable. But there are others who could take the title away from her, and key among them is Dutch star......

Kiki Bertens: Madrid champion Bertens is being widely touted as a potential 2019 French Open champion. I join those who think that her chances are very good, but then, I said several years ago that I thought Bertens (this was before she became a "thing") could win at Roland Garros. Is this her year? I would pick her over anyone in the field, including Halep. Her confidence is high, and she has richly enhanced her game, especially her serve. Always excellent on clay, Bertens is now truly dangerous.

Caroline Garcia: The Frenchwoman used to hate playing on any center court, and especially in Paris, but she has matured a lot, her clay game is solid, and she will have the crowd solidly behind her whenever she's on the court. She's definitely a contender.

Garbine Muguruza: Yes, I know that Muguruza's game is kind of a mess, and that she is one of the most (if not the most) inconsistent champions ever, but there's a switch in the Spaniard that sometimes gets turned on at majors. When that switch is turned on, Muguruza becomes the most fluid ball-striker to be found anywhere. She has won the French Open already, which is always an advantage.

Elina Svitolina: Yes, I also know that waiting for Svitolina to win a major is like waiting for Tennis Channel commentators to pronounce players' names correctly. But I still believe that it's going to happen, and who konws? Unfortunately, she's been struggling with a knee injury, but if she recovers in time for Paris, she's on the list (albeit at the very edge).

Petra Kvitova: I heard a commentator say yesterday that Kvitova now has belief in her clay court skills, and I don't know where she got that information, because--no matter how many clay court tournaments she wins--the Barking Czech has always had trouble believing in her clay court skills. Also, the clay titles that she has won have involved faster-playing courts than those used at the French Open. But I'm still naming her a contender because she is playing quite well and it doesn't seem right to omit her from the list.

Angelique Kerber: Yes, she's currently dealing with an ankle injury, and she recently had to deal with a viral illness. Yes, she has always shied away from stating a belief that she could win at Roland Garros. But Kerber, like Muguruza, can pop up and win anything at the least expected time. (I put her on the list with the caveat that she fully recovers from the ankle injury.)

Then there are the players who perhaps should be on a contender list, but they are not:

Alona Ostapenko: The 2017 French Open champion has not made the changes to her game that are needed for her to be an elite player. If anyone on the tour needs a coach who is able to force those changes, it's Ostapenko, and I hope she finds one because she is too talented (and far too entertaining) to slip down the rankings they way she has.

Julia Goerges: As recently as a year ago, I considered Goerges a dark horse to win the title, but she has been dealing with a neck injury and has a way to go before she can get back to her previous level.

Sloane Stephens: The 2018 runner-up could surprise me, but I just can't go with her because of her inconsistency. I know that Muguruza is inconsistent, too, but for me, the Spaniard is in a different--albeit strange--category.

Daria Kasatkina: This should be the year that Kasatkina makes the contender list, but the Russian player is somewhat of a mess right now. I hope that she (and her beautiful game) can make the contender list next year.

Obviously, I have omitted Naomi Osaka from the contender list. Others, I'm sure, will disagree. But I just don't see Osaka winning in Paris this year.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

That was just the SEMIFINALS?!

I can't imagine how the players feel because I am exhausted from watching this weekend's Fed Cup World Group semifinals, not to mention all the other Fed Cup matches I watched. There were many exciting moments. Some, I'm sure, occurred during the Australia vs. Belarus tie, but because of the time difference, I wasn't able to watch any of that. However, the France-Romania tie had enough drama to wear me out.

Today reminded me, once again, of why I love Fed Cup. Fed Cup is filled with drama, almost every moment. Players we don't get to see much on the tour suddenly become their nation's most valued players. Major champions are upset by players ranked far below them. The crowds go wild. What's not to love?

Romania has seemed poised to reach the Fed Cup final for a while. With Simona Halep as the leader and the stunningly inventive Monica Niculescu around as the creative force, just add a touch of Begu and a visit from Dr. Buz, and the potential is high. Earlier this year, Romania and defending champion Czech Republic went to a fifth rubber, and Romania's task was to take out the world number 1 doubles team, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu did just that, in three tough sets.

This weekend, Halep defeated both (together again!) Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia. I sometimes think that the word "epic" is overused in describing tennis matches, but if anyone wants to call the Garcia-Halep match epic, I'm all in. It was three hours of of absolutely grueling clay court tennis, featuring the highest quality imaginable from both players. We'll still be talking about it at the end of the season.

The match had some unusual features. Both players won an amazing number of points off of their second serves. Neither did well at the net. It was a baseline slug-out that featured repeated gasp-worthy shots. It was an event. But, sadly, someone had to lose, and it was Garcia who blinked when she double-faulted twice at 4-all in the third.

Halep's defeat of Garcia put the teams at 2-1, but then Pauline Parmentier was put in to play Begu in the fourth rubber, and she evened the score at 2-all. It took a doubles rubber to determine who would reach the Fed Cup final. And it was only fitting that that rubber went three sets. Former French Open champions Garcia and Mladenovic, who had a falling out and haven't played together in a long time, were supposed to have faced off against Begu and Niculescu. However, Begu injured her ankle in the third rubber, so Halep was sent in as her replacement. And, while Niculescu was clearly the star (as she in any doubles match she plays), Halep was pretty impressive on the doubles court.

Garcia and Mladenovic were rusty, and it didn't take much for the Romanians to get an edge over them and take the first set. In fact, Romania looked rather good in the second set, too, and then--suddenly--some switch was pulled on the French side. The symbiotic muscle memory returned, and the French team started to look like themselves again. They won that set, and they won the third set, whose turning point occurred toward the end when an obviously fatigued Halep double-faulted.

France was in the Fed Cup final in 2016, under the able and creative leadership of Captain Amelie Mauresmo, but they lost to the Czech Republic in another five-rubber event. Now they're back in the final, this time under the leadership of Julien Benneteau, who appears to have that Mauresmo spirit. Their opponent will be team Australia, who will host the event.

Looking ahead to the final--and assuming that no one important is sick or injured (and no one insults anyone), I can't help but imagine yet another fifth rubber, in which the current Australian Open champions play the former French Open champions. A match featuring Ash Barty and Sam Stosur opposing Garcia and Mladenovic sounds pretty exciting.


Barty, of course, has come into her own, and is one of the most exciting players on the tour. In Australia's tie against Belarus, Barty defeated both Vika Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka. Both members of team Belarus defeated Stosur, so tie also went to a deciding fifth rubber, which Barty and Stosur won.


There were a lot of other things going on. Katie Boulter was a stand-out this weekend as she played two great rubbers against team Kazakhstan. She lost the first one--a three-set thriller--to Yulia Putintseva, then she defeated Zarina Diyas to take Great Britain over the line, after her teammate, Johanna Konta, defeated Putintseva. Great Britain is now into World Group II for the first time.

Not surprisingly, the Czech Republic won its World Group Play-Offs tie against Canada, and Lucie Safarova, playing in her final Fed Cup event, was given a worthy send-off. Also in the World Group Play-Offs, Alona Ostapenko lost both of her singles rubbers (to Julia Goerges and Mona Barthel). Anastasija Sevastova wasn't there to assist, and Germany defeated Latvia.

Sevastova wasn't the only top player missing this weekend. Angie Kerber, Belinda Bencic, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Elise Mertens, Dasha Kasatkina and Fed Cup Beast Kiki Bertens were all absent.

Garbine Muguruza was there, but that didn't help Spain in its tie against Belgium. The former French Open and Wimbledon champion lost both of her singles rubbers, to Kirsten Flipkens and Ysaline Bonaventure. Spain won, anyway, with the help of Carla Suarez Navarro (and Muguruza, in the doubles rubber).

Finally, also in the World Group Play-Offs, the USA played Switzerland. Viktorija Golubic, known for her Fed Cup antics, took out a listless Madison Keys in straight sets. The mercurial Sloane Stephens won both of her singles rubbers, beating both Golubic and Timea Bacsinszky, and Sonya Kenin, substituting for Keys, defeated Bacsinszky, thereby taking the USA over the line.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Groenefeld and Rosolska win Charleston doubles title

Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Alicja Rosolska, seeded fourth at the Volvo Car Open, won the doubles title today when they defeated the unseeded team of Irina Khromacheva and Veronika Kudermatova 7-6, 6-2 in a match that had to be postponed because of rain.

Groenefeld and Rosolska, tour veterans, were playing together for the first time, and they did not drop a set throughout the tournament. Though this is obviously their first title together (and what a way to start a partnership!), they now have a combined total of 30 titles--21 for Groenefeld and 9 for Rosolska.

Khromacheva and Kudermatova were also playing together for the first time, and--in the course of the tournament--they took out both the 2nd and 3rd seeds. The Russian team held a set point in their first set against Groenefeld and Rosolska.

Madison Keys--your new Charleston champion!

photo by Daniel Ward
It was a chilly, rainy morning, and the doubles final had to be postponed, but singles play began as scheduled on Volvo Car Stadium, as 2011 champion and 3rd seed Caroline Wozniacki faced off against 8th seed Madison Keys for the 2019 Volvo Car Open singles title. There was little to separate the two of them in the first set, though it should be noted that Keys had a 74% first serve win stat in that set--a statistic that would get even better in the second set.

Keys won that set in a tiebreak (7-5) and never looked back. In the next set, her first serve win percentage increased to 80, and she put continuous pressure on Wozniacki, whose own serve has been excellent during this tournament. Keys began dominating the longer rallies, while Wozniacki looked more defensive than she had in the opening set.

photo by Daniel Ward
Keys won the match 7-6, 6-3, and in doing so, she not only won the Volvo Car Open, she defeated the second major champion (the other was Sloane Stephens, in the quarterfinals) whom she had never before beaten. It was also Keys' first clay title, and next week, her ranking will climb to number 14 in the world.

Keys picked up a trophy, a key to the city of Charleston and a new Volvo, which she will get to design herself.

photo by Daniel Ward
Wozniacki, who won the title in 2011 (and was the runner-up in 2009, also) mentioned in her speech that she had never won a car at a tournament, and asked if she could perhaps borrow Keys' new Volvo. The champion replied that she would be happy to share her new ride with Caroline.

"...just very proud of how I played today." (photo by Daniel Ward)
all photos by Daniel Ward

Champions and runners-up in Charleston--a look at the numbers

SerenaWilliams in 2008 (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
The Volvo Car Open (formerly the Family Circle Cup) has been in Charleston since 2001. During that period, only two players--Serena Williams and Justine Henin--have repeated championship runs. Williams win the event in 2008, 2012 and 2013. In those finals, she defeated Vera Zvonareva, Lucie Safarova and Jelena Jankovic, respectively.

Williams was also a runner-up in 2003, when she lost to Justine Henin, who also won the event in 2005.

Both Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki have held both runner-up and champion status. Jankovic won the tournament in 2007. Wozniacki was the runner-up in 2009 (lost to Sabine Lisicki in the final), and was the champion in 2011.

In a category of her own is Martina Hingis, who was twice a runner-up in Charleston. However, Hingis won the event in 1999, when it was held at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Patty Schnyder (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
Three players have reached the finals twice but have not won the title in Charleston: Patty Schnyder was a finalist in 2002 and 2006, and lost the final to Iva Majoli and Nadia Petrova, respectively. Vera Zvonareva lost the final to Serena Williams in 2008, and to Sam Stosur in 2010. Elena Vesnina lost the final to Wozniacki in 2011, and to Sloane Stephens in 2016.

Of special interest was Schnyder's 2002 run. Unseeded, the Swiss player--a rock star in Charleston--blazed through the tournament, using her considerable bag of tricks to take out the likes of 6th seed Amelie Mauresmo, 3rd seed Serena Williams, wild card Mary Pierce, and top seed and defending champion Jennifer Capriati. It was an amazing run, but the Swiss player was defeated 6-4, 7-5 in the final by the also-unseeded Iva Majoli.

In 2005, Schndyer, seeded 3rd, lost in the final, but in order to get there, she again took out the defending champion and top seed, Justine Henin, in the semifinals.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Caroline Wozniacki and Madison Keys reach Volvo Car Open final

Madison Keys and Caroline Wozniacki (photos by Daniel Ward)

On a damp, sometimes rainy, sometimes chilly, day on Daniel Island, Caroline Wozniacki and Madison Keys advanced to the final of the Volvo Car Open. The two finalists are seeded 5 and 8 respectively, and they have both reached the final of the event in the past. Wozniacki was the runner-up in 2009, and the champion in 2011. Keys was the runner-up in 2015.

In the day's first semifinal, a sometimes physically-challenged Petra Martic faced a very in-form Wozniacki. And while the scoreline of that match was 6-3, 6-4--straight sets--the quality of play from both women was very high. There was some creative shot-making, which made for a crowd-pleasing match.

The second match was interrupted by rain in the middle of the first set, which was quite competitive. After the rain delay, however, it was all about Madison Keys, as her opponent, Monica Puig, struggled to find the level of play that had gotten her to the semifinals. Also, in the second set, Keys revved up her own level of play.

Keys hit nine aces, and had first and second serve win percentages of 76 and 58. She defeated Puig 6-4, 6-0.

clockwise from upper let: Petra Martic, Monica Puig, Madison Keys, Caroline Wozniacki (photos by Daniel Ward)

Wozniacki and Keys have never before faced each other on a clay court. They have, in fact, played each other only twice, both times on hard courts (and not since 2017), and Wozniacki won both of those matches in straight sets.

Paths to the final:

round 1--bye
round 2--def. Laura Siegemund
round 3--def. Mihaela Buzarnescu (12)
quarterfinals--def. Maria Sakkari (15)
semifinals--def. Petra Martic (16)

round 1--bye
round 2--def. Tatjana Maria
round 3--def. Alona Ostapenko (10)
quarterfinals--def. Sloane Stephens (1)
semifinals--def. Monica Puig

Friday, April 5, 2019

Down to four in Charleston

l to r: Petra Martic, Madison Keys, Caroline Wozniacki, Monica Puig (photos by Daniel Ward)

Only one quarterfinal match went to three sets in today's Volvo Car Open, but each match was interesting in its own way.

In today's first match, a very steady and in-form Petra Martic upset 9th seed Belinda Bencic. Martic, the tournament's 16th seed, defeated Bencic 6-3, 6-4. Martic posted first and second serve win percentages of 68 and 74, respectively, and she wasn't broken throughout the match.

The second match featured 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki and 15th seed Maria Sakkari. Wozniacki defeated Sakkari 6-2, 6-2. The Dane won in Charleston in 2011. Should she win this year, she would break Martina Navratilova's record of having the longest time span (seven years) between Charleston title wins.

The third match was a much-anticipated contest between 8th seed (and 2015 runner-up) Madison Keys and the tournament's top seed, Sloane Stephens, who was also the 2016 champion. They had played each other three times before, and Stephens had won all of those matches. Today's first set featured constantly shifting momentum, right through the tiebreak, which was ultimately won by Keys, 8-6. Keys went on to win the match, 7-6, 4-6, 6-2.

Monica Puig and Danielle Collins contested the night match, and--for the first time since she came to Charleston--Collins lost her edge. Puig brought her impressive backhand and some very steady nerves, and dominated Collins from start to finish, defeating her 6-3, 6-2.

In tomorrow's semifinals, Puig will play Keys, and Martic will play Wozniacki. Puig and Keys have played each four times; each woman has won two matches. They have played twice on clay, and have split those wins, also. Martic and Wozniacki have played each other five times, and Wozniacki has won all five matches. They have never played each other on clay.

So far this season, there have been fourteen tournaments and fourteen different champions. The title winners in both Charleston and Monterrey will guarantee that the tour will have sixteen different champions.

In today's doubles quarterfinals, the unseeded team of Irina Khromacheva and Veronika Kudermetova defeated 3rd seeds Raquel Atawo and Katarina Srebotnik 1-6, 6-3, 10-5. Also, 2nd seeds Lucie Hradecka and Andreja Klepac defeated wild cards Chloe Beck and Emma Navarro 6-3, 6-2.

In Charleston, players show insight about their struggles

Alona Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)
One of the things that has stood out for me this week at the Volvo Car Open is the way several players have addressed their losses and analyzed their difficult times on the tour. What I heard from them amounted to quite a bit of self-examination and insight.

The most prominent example would be Alona Ostapenko, who talked with us about how things have changed for her since she won the French Open in 2017. (Ostapenko has also had to deal with injury since that victory.

"I think the most important is to be just fearless like I was there," she said. "I was just not trying to miss the ball and I was just going for it. And I didn't think too much, because after everything changed so much, and I'm thinking much more like during the points. Also I'm trying to get rid of it and just try to be fearless and play again the way I played there."

On the subject of finding her fearlessness again, she continued: "Actually, I have realized that it's like once you don't have, like not don't have it anymore, but once you start to think too much, it's very hard to get rid of it, and it's hard to get that feeling, like fearless feeling again, because I'm in a different position right now, like ranking-wise and also a Grand Slam champion. And, yeah, like people, as I said, expect more from me. But I think now I deal with this pressure already enough, so now it's much better than it was."

Ostapenko also said that she realizes that she doesn't have to rush the points--that when a rally goes on for a while, she is likely to  win it.

Monica Puig (photo by Daniel Ward)
Monica Puig, whose career has been oddly flat since she won an Olympic gold medal in 2016, also addressed the idea of redeeming fearlessness, and she said that Ostapenko's words resonated with her.

"So sometimes, you know, when you have those weeks like I did at Rio, and all of a sudden you're a Grand Slam champion or Olympic gol medalist and all eyes are on you all of a sudden, and you expect so much more from yourself and you don't tolerate yourself losing in the first round of a tournament or you expect yourself to get to the quarterfinals or better every single week, there's that added pressure and you're just kind of like, when it's not there, you're discouraged, you get disappointed. And then losses and confidence issues.

"But, you know, I think it's just settling into your own skin and just saying, hey, you know, it happened, it can happen again. And I didn't play that way by chance. It's in you. It's always going
to be in you. You just have to find the courage to bring it out time and time again."

Puig said that she has had to change from being a results-oriented person to a process-oriented person, something which obviously goes against her nature.

Sloane Stephens (photo by Daniel Ward)
Leave it to Sloane Stephens to distill her feelings about a slump into a few choice words:

Why did you want this one more than other ones?

"Because I'm tired of f___ing losing!...You gotta figure it out somewhere, and it kind of like eventually gets going, but you have to, like, make it happen for yourself. Like I have to show energy and fight and try to like turn it around for myself."

Aryna Sabalenka (photo by Daniel Ward) 
Aryna Sabalenka was also quite humorously forthcoming about her work with a sports psychologist:

"I actually worked with her for like, two years, and it's really helped me a lot, because two or three years ago I was like really deep, like really crazy. Like if you look back, like, try to find some matches--ITF tournaments--you'll see the big difference. Right now I am still crazy. I still get pissed like really easily, but it's better. Still need to improve."

If we listen--really listen--to these athletes, we can pick up some tips for our own lives. Tennis, after all, is about winning, losing, setting goals, staying in the present, and challenging our assumptions about ourselves. Sounds like life to me.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

USA dominates Charleston quarterfinals

Top seed Sloane Stephens (photo by Daniel Ward)
Four of the eight quarterfinalists at this year's Volvo Car Open are players from the USA, and--making the equation even more unusual--all four of them are in the same half of the draw. Top seed and 2016 champion Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Monica Puig, and Danielle Collins are all in the top half of the draw. Puig is the only unseeded player left in the draw.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Sloane Stephens (1) vs. Madison Keys (8)
Stephens and Keys have played each other three times (once on clay, at the French Open), and Stephens has won all three matches in straight sets. Both players have excelled in Charleston: Stephens was the 2016 champion, and Keys was the runner-up in 2015.

Monica Puig vs. Danielle Collins (11)
Puig and Collins have played each other twice, both times on hard courts, and are tied 1-1. Puig reached the quarterfinals by upsetting 3rd seed Aryna Sabalenka in the third round.

Belinda Bencic (9) vs. Petra Martic (16)
Bencic and Martic have never played each other. Bencic's best showing at the Volvo Car Open occurred in 2014 (the tournament was the Family Circle Cup at that time), when she reached the semifinals.

Caroline Wozniacki (5) vs. Maria Sakkari (15)
Wozniacki and Sakkari have played each other only once, on a hard court in Wuhan, and Sakkari won that match. Wozniacki, the Charleston champion in 2011, was also the runner-up in 2009.

2nd and 3rd seeds both out in Charleston third round

2nd seed and defending champion Kiki Bertens was eliminated from the Volvo Car Open draw today by Maria Sakkari, who defeated Bertens 7-6, 6-3 in a match that lasted almost two hours and which featured an especially exciting first set tiebreak. Bertens went up 5-1 in that tiebreak, only to have Sakkari win three straight points, then eventually bring the score even. Both players had set points, but 8-all proved to be the breaking point for the Greek player, who escaped from the tiebreak with a 10-8 score.

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
Sakkari, seeded 15th, has a similar game style to Bertens, and their shots and strategies often mirrored each other's. Bertens was able to save only one break point, however. Later, at her press conference, she said that she hadn't felt any pressure about being the defending champion; rather, " it didn't feel like that it was the pressure, more it was like my level was not really there. I'm still a little bit searching for my level, I think, this year."

Aryna Sabalenka, the 3rd seed, fell to Monica Puig, the 2016 Olympic gold medal winner whose career has been strangely quiet since her out-of-nowhere victory in Rio. So remarkable was her 2016 win, in fact, that Puig was named Best Female Athlete of Rio 2016 by the Association of National Olympic Committees Awards.

Monica Puig (photo by Daniel Ward)
When she talked with the press, the Puerto Rican player said that she has always been results-oriented and that she is learning to be more process-oriented, and to have patience and allow her progress to unfold.

Puig will next face 11th seed Danielle Collins, who put on something of a hitting clinic in her third round match against Kaia Kanepi. Especially impressive was the first set tiebreak, in which Collins performed what I've been calling Kvitova Theatre, hitting laser-like shots onto the lines and into the farthest corners of the court.

Danielle Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)
5th seed and 2011 champion Caroline Wozniacki was taken to three sets by Mihaela Buzarnescu, but the Dane prevailed. 9th seed Belinda Bencic defeated Taylor Townsend, and 16th seed Petra Martic defeated Jessica Pegula.
In the final match of the day session, 8th seed Madison Keys defeated 10th seed (and 2017 finalist) Alona Ostapenko in straight sets. And in the night match, top seed Sloane Stephens defeated Ajla Tomljanovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

In doubles, the top seeds, Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke, were upset by Anna-Lena Friedsam and Sara Sorribes Tormo in the quarterfinals. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Round of 16 set in Charleston after a day of thrills and upsets

Caroline Wozniacki (photo by Daniel Ward)
 It was a day of upsets, as four seeded players went out in the second round of the Volvo Car Open. The day began with the 6-4, 6-2 upset of 4th seed Anastasija Sevastova by Jessica Pegula, and shortly thereafter, 7th seed and 2018 finalist Julia Goerges lost to Taylor Townsend. Goerges didn't really seem "present," and made a number of uncharacteristic errors; also, her usually feared serve wasn't working for her.

Kaia Kanepi, who has made a career out of giant-killing, took out 6th seed Elise Mertens with the attention-getting scoreline of 0-6, 6-0, 7-5. And Monica Puig defeated 13th seed Sonya Kenin in straight sets.
Alona Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)

2017 finalist Alona Ostapenko, down 1-5 in the third set against Shelby Rogers, looked as though she would surely be the next seed (10) to fall, but the mercurial Latvian staged a jaw-dropping comeback, winning five straight games and forcing the set to a tiebreak. The tiebreak was close, but toward the end, Ostapenko gathered her champion's mindset and defeated hometown favorite Rogers 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4).

"You really have to fight for every ball," Ostapenko said after the match, "and that's what I did today."

 3rd seed Aryna Sabalenka had to go three sets to beat Kateryna Kozlova; however, 5th seed (and 2011 champion) Caroline Wozniacki prevailed over the tricky Laura Siegemund 6-2, 6-2, in some cases, "pulling a Siegemund" (there were a lot of drop shots).
Danielle Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)

Ajla Tomljanovic, Danielle Collins, Belinda Bencic, Petra Martic, Mihaela Buzarnescu, and Maria Sakkari all won their matches. Sakkari defeated 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic. And in the last singles match of the day, Madison Keys defeated Tatjana Maria. Two players, 2016 champion Sloane Stephens and defending champion Kiki Bertens, won their second round matches yesterday.

The many faces of Ostapenko

all photos by Daniel Ward

Big names lined up to play today in Charleston

Alona Ostapenko will play Shelby Rogers later today (photo by Daniel Ward)
Aryna Sabalenka, Anastasja Sevastova, 2015 finalist Madison Keys, 2011 champion Caroline Wozniacki, Elise Mertens, 2018 finalist Julia Goerges, Belinda Bencic, and 2017 finalist Alona Ostapenko are all playing today at the Volvo Car Open. In addition, Sonya Kenin, Danielle Collins and Shelby Rogers will be among the U.S. players taking to the green clay courts.

Of special interest (at least, to me) is the match-up featuring 5th seed Wozniacki and Laura Siegemund. Last night, Siegemund, in good form and up to her old tricks, defeated wild card Emma Navarro, who handled her WTA debut with skill and poise. Siegemund is a clay court player's clay court player, and has a drop shot that can slay. It will be fun to watch her take her game to the relentless and speedy Dane. They have played each other only once--this year, in Auckland. Wozniacki won that hard court match in straight sets.

Sonya Kenin will also be in action today (photo by Daniel Ward)

Another match of interest will be played by 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic and Maria Sakkari. This will be their first time to compete against one another.

Finally, Tatjana Maria will take on 8th seed Madison Keys, so a big contrast in styles will be on display.

The weather in Charleston has improved tremendously. The sun is shining, and it's currently a pleasant 60 degrees on Daniel Island.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The return of Professor Petkovic

photo by Daniel Ward

Professor Petkovic is back in Charleston, and we're the better for it.

"I think I've achieved so many things, if I was to retire today, I would be happy. I still want to achieve much more, but I would be satisfied. Not happy, but I would be satisfied, and I think I could look back at a good career."

photos by Daniel Ward
"And now I think tennis is more of a tool for me to evolve as a human and as a personality, because there are still so many things where I'm so stubborn and just sometimes think I'm smarter than everybody else just because I read two books in my life, you know. And those are the things that I tryto change, and tennis is a tool for me to achieve that, where I have to listen to others and I have to sort of be open-minded and just evolve every day."

"So that's what I like about tennis, and when you do the right things, also you get a reward. Maybe not right away, but it pays off at one point, and I've been through so many ups and downs in my career that I know that, and so now tennis is sort of a tool for me to just evolve my personality and work on these things that are still my weaknesses somehow."

Monday, April 1, 2019

Top seeds gather for All Access Hour in Charleston

l to r: Sloane Stephens, Danielle Collins, Aryna Sabalenk, Julia Goerges (photos by Daniel Ward)
The top Volvo Car Open seeds met the tennis press today in an extended All Access "Hour" (it was two hours this year), and we discussed everything from Netflix to the ITF to jewelry designing to motivation.

"What's crucial is to really listen to your body."

Caroline Wozniacki talked about how her practice regiment has changed since she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. "I always said, if I could, I would push through anything...that's what I'm kind of known for," Wozniacki said, "but now, I just need to really listen to my body and see how I feel...."

The Danish star also said that having a change of perspective has helped her a lot--she's grateful to be playing tennis, and she doesn't want anything to stress her out.

Someone asked her if there was a turning point from when she was a good player to when she became a great player, and Wozniacki was quick to say "I always thought of myself as a great player." She explained that she always set small goals and always met them.

"I found a way to understand what a loss means, what a win means."

Last year's runner-up, Julia Goerges, said that she has great memories of last year's tournament, and that she's impressed with the Volvo Car Open because it's very rare to see so many crowds at the qualifying matches. 

Goerges has been polishing her footwork for the clay season. "I can feel that already in practice," she reported. She also said that she would consider her career to be successful. Of course, she thinks in terms of her "first career" and "second career," and said that--during her first career, "I wasn't really fair to myself at that time. I think, overall, I changed a lot. I found a way to understand what a loss means, what a win means."

"I've seen everything."

Anastasia Sevastova gave us this report on her Netflix viewing: "I've seen everything." Later, when talking about why it's important for kids to play tennis, she said that it's good for them to learn discipline and it keeps them moving and "not watching Netflix, like me."

Sevastova retired from professional tennis, then came back. Her return, she said, wasn't difficult, because she had no big goals, which helped her; there was no pressure. She talked a lot about the variety we're seeing in women's tennis these days--variety that the Latvian star has always displayed in her own tennis. Sevastova said she thinks there's more variety now because most courts are playing slower. 

When asked if she had any regrets, the droll Sevastova deadpanned "I played Doha this year."

clockwise from top left: Caroline Wozniacki, Madison Keys, Anastasia Sevastova, Kiki Bertens (photos by Daniel Ward)

"I don't want to be old and broke."

Sloane Stephens talked about how she became a tennis player: She said it was her mother's decision--that her mother attended the French Open before Sloane was born, and that she then insisted that Sloane play tennis. Stephens recalled having fun playing tennis as a child, and said that it's fun now, too, but in a different way. Asked if she's glad that her mother wanted her to play, the 2016 champion quickly replied, "I don't know."

Stephens said that she thinks we're at the end of an era, in terms of players continuing to play into their mid-to late thirties. The game has changed so much, she said, that she can't see that happening in the future. She certainly doesn't see it for herself, she said, but she believes that her tennis career will prepare her well for whatever comes next. 

As for  the state of her finances, Stephens said, "I don't spend any money at all. I don't want to be old and broke."

"It's not that hard to play doubles."

Aryna Sabalenka arrived in Charleston after winning (with doubles partner Elise Mertens) the Sunshine Double, but said that she felt good physically. "It's not that hard to play doubles," she said, getting a laugh from all of us. "it's a lot of fun," she continued, "there's not that pressure like when you're playing singles."

Sabalenka talked about the two tough matches she had earlier in the year, when she held match points but still lost. She said she thought she'd learned her lesson the first time, but when it happened again, she realized she hadn't. The lesson, she explained, was "don't rush."

"You're stuck sometimes, sliding into it."

Defending champion Kiki Bertens is no stranger to green clay; she played on indoor green clay courts for a decade when she was very young. The ball doesn't bounce as high on green clay as it does on red, and sliding is more difficult. Bertens loves clay courts, and--until last year--was known as a clay court specialist. However, now that she's done so well on all surfaces, she's recognized as an all-surface star. Nevertheless, she's glad to be back on clay, where she says she has more freedom.

"Tennis has brought so much to my life..."

Madison Keys was in a philosophical mood, and told us that what has been really important to her has been to learn "how to handle the highs and lows." 

Her advice to young players? "Just have fun." 

"Tennis has brought so much to my life," Keys said, "not even just the profession of it, just the experience and the friendships and the relationships have been so much more important."

Keys also gave us an update on FearlesslyGiRL, her organization which promotes kindness and helps girls learn how to deal with bullying, especially online bullying. She said that--rather than holding the summits which have characterized the movement (and which are costly)--the schools are now starting their own clubs.

"Your destiny is really in your own hands."

Danielle Collins, new to the Volvo Car Open, is one of the few players who came from a college tennis environment. Colloins believes that every player has the option to mold her career to her own liking, whether that means playing in college, playing juniors or playing ITF events. 

"You can create your own path," she said. "Your destiny is in your own hands." 

In her spare time, Collins designs jewelry, and is a partner in a jewelry business.

Asked about her propensity to yell a lot during her matches, Collins responded with good humor, saying that to her, it's an expression of passion that's a part of sport: "In everyday life, I don't go pump gas and go like 'Yes! Come on!'"

Monday, March 18, 2019

Bianca--a stunning desert bloom

In the last several years, Indian Wells has produced some champions that have excited me. Flavia Pennetta's 2014 victory was very satisfying, as was Elena Vesnina's 2017 triumph. And now, seemingly "out of nowhere," we have Bianca Andreescu (though, to be fair, some people may have found a Kerber victory somewhat "out of nowhere," too).

As with all "out of nowhere" winners, Andreescu was actually coming from somewhere. Serious tennis fans have had their eyes on the Canadian teenager for a while. But--as she said in her press conference--last year was a rough one for her, so to win an event like the BNP Paribas Open was just "crazy."

Watching Andreescu--who took out the likes of Dominika Cibulkova, Wang Qiang and Garbine Muguruza on her way to the semifinals--challenges us to describe her as a player because she does so much so well. Imagine concocting a desert hybrid that contains the laser-like hitting of Kvitova, the fluidity of Muguruza, the volleying savvy of Vinci, the geometric intelligence of Halep and Radwanska, and the grit of Pennetta. Toss it in the sand and wait--and the result is a Canadian-Romanian flower that is both beautiful and hardy.

When Andreescu reached the semifinals, she had her hands full with world number 6 Elina Svitolina, who often outruns and out-thinks the best of them. It didn't help the Canadian's cause that, for much of the match, she was cramping rather badly. Yet, somehow, she contained the pain just enough to defeat Svitolina 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

In the final, Andreescu faced someone else who is as tough as she is--Angie "Never Count Her Out" Kerber. The German star had made quick work of Belinda Bencic in the semifinals (breaking her 12-match win streak), though many assumed that Bencic was on her way to the final.

Andreescu took the first set off Kerber, 6-4.

But the mighty German, doing what she does best, figured out quite a bit about her opponent's game, then came on strong in the next set, taking it 6-3. The final set was simply stunning. Andreescu began cramping again, only worse than she had in the semifinals. But even with that ("I want it so bad," she told her coach during an on-court coaching session in which she was in obvious physical pain), she kept at it.

At 5-4, Andreescu had match points, and Kerber saved them. It seemed logical (though logic wasn't really very useful, at this point) to assume that--if Kerber held--her opponent wouldn't be able to withstand the demands of a 5-all score. And sure enough, suddenly, the Canadian had a match point on Kerber's serve. And then Kerber hit one of the best serves she'd hit in the entire set, setting her up for a deuce score, but--following Andreescu's return--she hit a forehand into the net, and it was over.

The tennis press is already all over Andreescu's report that she meditates and uses visualization. That's a shame, because I'm sure that the vast majority of the tennis press doesn't really know what that means. In time, (I hope) Andreescu will learn how to manage questions and remarks about her mind-body practices. Her mature approach to tennis and her articulate presentation notwithstanding--she's only 18, and it will be interesting to see how she matures as a tennis celebrity, if indeed, that is what she is becoming.

It is an absolute pleasure to watch her play. Sometimes, players who have a huge variety of shots and strategies available to them get confused about what to do when, but there is also something very instinctive about Andreescu's tennis.

This is one complex desert flower.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Notes on slump

It's rare for even an elite player to not have a slump now and then, and it's not at all uncommon for slumps to visit other members of the top 20 (or beyond). But what causes an otherwise winning (and uninjured) athlete to suddenly enter a period of poor play--at worst--or--at best--a period of playing well but not being able to close?

There are many reasons.

An obvious one involves returning from an injury layoff. The body may be repaired, but the player has lost her momentum, and may also have a tendency to guard the injured part of her body. Both Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova had service problems after they had their shoulders repaired. In fairness, "repaired" shoulders often force players to change their service motions, which creates a whole new learning situation, complete with the anxiety that accompanies such situations.

Another common issue on the WTA Tour is a player's response to sudden success and fame. Petra Kvitova struggled to adjust to being suddenly famous, and the struggle manifested itself in her performance (granted, the Czech isn't the most consistent player, under any circumstance). We don't know, but we might make an educated guess that--to some extent--this kind of pressure also affected Alona Ostapenko. And while we'll never know for sure, we can also speculate about Ana Ivanovic, who just never seemed to quite pull herself together after she won the French Open.

A reason less talked about is mental health vulnerability. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress from trauma all plague athletes, just as they plague everyone else. Having a psychological problem can be devastating, and can cause physical pain, fatigue, increased irritability, an inability to focus, and a loss of interest in one's career.

Closely related is personal stress, caused by such factors as family problems, other relationship problems, or financial problems. In the case of tour athletes, the perception of stress may be magnified because they are traveling and cannot be with their families or significant others (or attorneys), and they may therefore feel powerless and/or excluded.

Also, as we know, the online of abuse of players--primarily, but not entirely--by members of the sports betting community, is a potent source of stress, especially for younger players who lack experience in dealing with really ugly situations.

Then there is the issue of youth, in and of itself. There are some very young players on the tour, and some of them may be even younger in developmental terms, i.e., they may not yet have a level of maturity that matches their age. Given that they probably didn't have "normal" childhoods or adolescent experiences, this isn't a surprise. Some of them may exhibit pseudo-maturity, and are advanced in some ways, but developmentally lagging in others.

Some players take slumps in stride and just go about the business of working their way out of them. A coach should be able to address the slump with the player and help her with problem-solving. But in order to do that, the coach needs to understand what is really going on. That means s/he has to be someone whom the player trusts.

Some players seek the services of sports psychologists or other sports psychology clinicians, which is a good thing, but I wonder whether they may also need to see regular psychotherapists. And that brings up another problem: How can you engage in psychotherapy when you're always traveling? I'm not a fan of tele-psychotherapy, but in this case, it would certainly be better than nothing.

Of course, there's always the possibility that a slump isn't caused by any of these things--that it just appears, like spot of bad weather, and then passes. My guess is that this type of slump is most likely caused by mental fatigue, or a bad match that erodes confidence.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Remembering the Virginia Slims tour

From 1984 through 1987, New Orleans hosted a Virginia Slims tournament. The first four years, the event was played on indoor carpet at the Lakefront Arena; the final year, it was played on hard courts in City Park, an atmosphere I found inferior to the indoor one.

New Orleans wasn't one of the original Virginia Slims venues, but got the event when Detroit was forced to give it up (that venue lost its main sponsor, the Junior League of Detroit).

Of the five tournaments that were played in the Crescent City, Chris Evert won three and Martina Navratilova won two. Navratilova and Evert were also on the championship doubles teams (with Pam Shriver and Wendy Turnbull, respectively) the first two years of the event.

I loved attending the Virginia Slims matches. They were the first professional matches I'd ever seen that weren't on my television. The atmosphere was very relaxed. I recall, one year, no one had bothered to tell one of the top players about the city's unpredictable, thrill ride of a public transportation system, and play was delayed because she had taken the bus to the stadium. Rather than being upset, fans just shook their heads knowingly and crossed their fingers.

Some really good players came to New Orleans over the years. In addition to Evert, Navratilova, Shriver, and Turnbull, we had Anne Smith, Lori McNeil, Zina Garrison, Sylvia Hanika, Kathy Rinaldi, Bettina Bunge, Elise Burgin, Gigi Fernandez, and Monica Seles.

The purse was generally around $150,000.

The Virginia Slims Circuit was founded in 1970 by the Original 9, when they broke off from the USLTA because of the extreme pay inequality between male and female players. The Virginia Slims Circuit was a creation of the heart, and while some people were not pleased that a sports organization was taking money from a tobacco company, it wasn't like the founders had a choice. "You've come a long way, baby," the company's female empowerment advertising slogan, took on a whole new meaning when it funded what would eventually become the WTA.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The mighty Czechs fall to Romania in the season's first Fed Cup tie

During the 2018 World Group Fed Cup final, I wrote "No Petra, no Karo, no problem." After this weekend's tie, I expected to write "No Petra, no Lucie, no Bara, no problem." But there were problems, and their names were Simona Halep and Monica Niculescu. Of course, I expected world number 2 Halep to be a problem. Her defeat of Katerina Siniakova didn't come easily in the opening set, but Halep ran away with the second. She then defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in a two hour and 37-minute extravaganza of superb play. In the end, it was Halep's total mastery that won the point for Romania.

Pliskova and Siniakova both defeated Mihaela Buzarnescu, so the final decision was made in the doubles rubber. This contest certainly looked stacked in favor of the Czechs, given that the Czech doubles team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are the number 1 doubles team in the world. Last season, they won two majors. But, as well as they played, they couldn't quite get past the storm of determination and variety that came at them in the form of Romania's Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu.

The match was an absolute joy to watch, and if you had a favorite, you were probably a wreck by the last third of the third set. It was that close. The Czechs, always playing behind, took the first set 7-6 by raising their level in the tiebreak. The Romanians won the second set 6-4, and the third set was up for grabs. Again, the Czechs played from behind, as Niculescu kept popping up from nowhere like a cartoon character, slapping every conceivable type of volley and flummoxing the world's top team.

But at 3-4, with Niculescu finally winding down and going off her game, the Czechs broke at love (the ninth break of the match), and it looked, for all the world, like a case of champions figuring out how to win. But the Romanians would have none of it. They broke back, and then held their final serve with Niculescu, of course, popping up at the net one last time at match point.

It was the first time in a decade that the defending champion Czech team had lost a Fed Cup tie at home.

In the semifinals, Romania will face France, who defeated Belgium 3-0. Caroline Garcia, returning to France's team after taking a break, defeated both Alison Van Uytvanck and Elise Mertens. Interestingly, it was the Van Uytvanck rubber that went three sets. But for me, the story of this tie was Alize Cornet's defeat of world number 21 Mertens. Cornet has historically been a disaster with regard to her Fed Cup efforts, and consequently, she generally isn't high on the list to compete, despite her talent.

That talent, in terms of both athleticism and tennis intelligence, is superior, but the Frenchwoman's inconsistent exploitation of it is infamous. When Cornet is good, she's very, very good--and when she's off her game, she's such a disappointment. Cornet has long been my pick for "most underused potential" on the entire tour, and it can be very frustrating to follow that career.

But this weekend, Cornet brought her athleticism, her tennis finesse and her positive mindset to the court. Her match against Mertens was a two-set contest, but it was a thing of beauty, and my favorite singles match of those I saw during this Fed Cup tie. Cornet defeated Mertens 7-6, 6-2, which doesn't sound like a very interesting scoreline, but the match itself had everything, for Mertens--like Cornet--has a lot of variety in her game and a good (but inconsistent) serve.

Not suprisingly (though surprises do run rampant during Fed Cup play), Belarus defeated Germany 3-0. With Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the team, Belarus is a force.

Finally, in World Group play, the USA and Australia had to go to a fifth rubber to determine who would advance to the semifinals. In singles, Ash Barty defeated both Sofia Kenin and Madison Keys, and Keys defeated Kimberly Birrell. Then Danielle Collins, playing in her first Fed Cup match, came from a break down in the third set to defeat Dasha Gavrilova 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.

In the doubles rubber, Barty returned, and Australia substituted Priscilla Hon for Gavrilova. USA doubles specialist Nicole Melichar was teamed with Danielle Collins. The match was well-played by all four participants, and it was quite entertaining. Australia won, 6-4, 7-5, and advanced to the semifinals to play Belarus.

Here are the World Group II results:

Switzerland def. Italy, 3-0
Latvia def. Slovakia, 3-0
Spain def. Japan, 3-2
Canada def. Netherlands*, 3-0

*Fed Cup beast Kiki Bertens was not on the team for this tie.

Latvia will now enter the World Group Play-Offs for the first time.

(Note: Dead rubbers are not counted in the above scores.)

Sunday, January 27, 2019

My Australian Open top 10

Following, in ascending order, are my top 10 Australian Open occurrences:

10. Czechapalooza!:  Players from the Czech Republic were all over the quarterfinals. Both Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova played in singles competition. And in doubles, there were two teams--top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, and Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova.

9. Now you see her, now you don't: Maria Sharapova's defeat of defending champion Caroline Wozniacki was quite a thing to behold. The Russian star performed like vintage Sharapova, controllling the rallies, blistering the groundstrokes, and serving more than efficiently. "She's back!" I thought, but then, in her next round, Sharapova fell apart. Most significantly, her serve fell apart, and she lost to Ash Barty in the round of 16.

8. De Great still great: Defending wheelchair singles champion Diede De Groot picked up her sixth major singles trophy in Melbourne, defeating Yui Kamiji 6-0, 6-2 in the final. De Groot and partner Aniek Van Koot also won the doubles title, defeating Marjolein Buis and Sabine Ellerbrock 5-7, 7-6, 10-8 in the final.

7. When German engineering fails: Before the tournament began, I had a list of four players I thought could win it, and of the four, I gave Angelique Kerber a very slight edge over the others. What do I know? The mighty German, seeded 2nd, got blown off the court in the round of 16 by Danielle Collins, who upset the 2016 champion 6-0, 6-2. Of all the things I saw at this Australian Open, that one was the strangest.

6. When you get a second chance, take it: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, the world's top doubles team, were upset in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Stosur and Zhang (who also took out the other Czech team). But Krejcikova, with partner Rajeev Ram, went on to win the mixed doubles title. Krejcikova and Ram, seeded 3rd, defeated Australian wild cards Astra Sharma and John-Patrick Smith in the final.

5. Facing Houdini: Already known as a cool customer, Karolina Pliskova took that reputation to a new level when she went from 1-5 down in the third set to win her quarterfinal match against Serena Williams. The match contained as much drama as one could imagine--an injury, a foot fault at match point, and some nerves of steel from Pliskova.

4. Oh yes she did!: Danielle Collins, a former collegiate champion, has played on the tour only a few years. Until this Australian Open, she had never won a main draw match at a major, so it was quite a sneak attack she made, going on a tear and making it all the way to the semifinals. Collins began her campaign by taking out 14th seed Julia Goerges. That certainly got my attention. In the second round, Collins beat Sachia Vickery, then--in the third round--she upset 19th seed Caroline Garcia. This was becoming some serious run.

But it was in the round of 16 that Collins got everyone's attention. She allowed 2nd seed and 2016 champion to win only two games. Then, in the quarterfinals, she beat a suddenly-hot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Collins' run came to an end when she played Petra Kvitova. Kvitova won the second set 6-0, but in the first, Collins fought her all the way to a tiebreak. It was an amazing run.

3. Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!: Sam Stosur and Australia mix well--except on a tennis court. The Australian veteran has experienced a career's worth of disappointment in her home country, but all that turned around at this Australian Open. Stosur and her partner, Zhang Shuai (for whom I'll shout out an honorary Oi! Oi! Oi!), unseeded, upset defending champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Moadenovic in the final. Stosur is, at last, an Australian Open champion. And Zhang--who almost retired a few years ago, but instead, went on a singles tear in Melbourne--also, at age 30, gets the distinction of winning a major.

2. The Rock returns: Petra Kvitoa has been winning one tournament after another, so she was already back, so to speak. But returning to a major final was kind of an exclamation point placed on a hefty, run-on sentence. She didn't win the tournament (it always seemed that the Australian trophy could be hers at some point, and it still seems that way), but she played wonderfully, even in the final that she lost. The story of Petra Kvitova is still in the making, but even at this point in its arc, it's one of strength, inspiration and marvelous tennis.

1. Meet the new boss: She won the 2018 U.S. Open. For her next act, she began 2019 by winning the Australian Open. Naomi Osaka had to do it the hard way. She was challenged throughout the tournament, and especially in the final, by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. It was a tense, thrilling final that ended with a victory for the 21-year-old Japanese star. Osaka, for all her talent, has much more that she can add to her game, so we can only guess how long her shadow will eventually stretch over the tour. In the meantime, she's the 2019 Australian Open singles champion, and on her way to being a household name.