Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Sharapova, the wounded warrior, retires from professional tennis


 

Maria Sharapova--having sustained the wounds of a chronic shoulder injury, incompetent medical care, and a "scandal" in which facts were easily exchanged for sensationalism and mob rule--announced her retirement from professional tennis today. The 32-year-old five-time major champion and Career Slam holder said to Vanity Fair:

"Looking back now, I realize that tennis has been my mountain. My path has been filled with valleys and detours, but the views from its peak were incredible. After 28 years and five Grand Slam titles, though, I’m ready to scale another mountain—to compete on a different type of terrain."

The Russian star shot to fame in 2004 when, at age 17, she defeated Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final, and went on to defeat her again in the WTA Finals that year. Maria and her father had left Russia for the United States when she was a little girl so that she could fulfill her tennis potential. She didn't know the language or the culture, and she had to live without her mother while her father scrapped a living for them and helped her find coaches and facilities. There is no doubt that this difficult situation helped to toughen her.

And tough she was. Known for her serve (that would falter following a shoulder injury and a botched treatment that very likely led to her continued vulnerability) and her blazing groundstrokes, Sharapova was equally known for her mental toughness and fighting spirit. She was able to pull herself together when things went wrong on the court, and she possessed the kind of steely determination that defines truly elite athletes.

In 2006, Sharapova won the U.S. Open, defeating Justine Henin in the final (and wearing a fabulous “little black dress” that sparkled), and then having the trophy lid fall off and almost hit her in the head during the awards ceremony. Then, in 2008, she won the Australian Open, defeating world number 1 Lindsay Davenport in the second round, and Ana Ivanovic in the final.

In April of 2008, Sharapova tore her right rotator cuff, yet her doctors failed to detect the tear. (How doctors could fail to detect a rotator cuff tear remains a mystery.) She continued playing for three more months, not realizing what the problem was. During this time, of course, her injury became much worsse. To make matters worse, this was the second shoulder injury of her career. She finally went to a doctor who diagnosed her correctly, and she underwent surgery. But her problems continued. Sharapova went to Arizona to do her rehab, but it was unsuccessful, so—after playing some more with an injured shoulder—she had to undergo rehab a second time.

Sharapova was never the same after that. Her serve, once the foundation of her game, turned into a shower of double faults. Even the mentally strong Maria struggled mightily with her toss and with her service motion (something similar happened to her countrywoman, Elena Dementieva, who had a good enough serve until she had to have shoulder surgery). But she forged on—did she ever. In 2011, she returned to the top10, but she still had a problem to solve.

Sharapova’s problem was to find a way to win big with a modified skill set that included better movement and footwork, and she solved it in a way that surprised just about everyone—she solved in on clay, where everything was slowed down somewhat. No one, least of all Maria, ever expected her to win the French Open, but in 2012, she did just that, defeating Sara Errani in the final, and thus becoming only the tenth woman to hold a Career Slam. My post about the final is probably my all-time favorite of the many tennis blog posts I’ve written. The occasion had a kind of magic about it, even more so—in my opinion—than the 2004 Wimbledon victory or the glamorous 2006 U.S. Open achievement.

That year, Sharapova also won a silver medal at the Olympic Games.

In 2013, Sharapova launched Sugarpova, a candy company featuring whimsically designed gummy candies. The company has since expanded to include chocolate confections. Sharapova would go on to win the French Open again in 2014, this time, defeating Simona Halep in what the Russian star described as the toughest major final she had ever played.

The injuries continued, and the shoulder became more vulnerable as the years went on, although Sharapova continued to play at a very high level. Then, in 2016, the five-time major champion announced that she had been suspended by WADA for doping. I’m not going to go into the Meldonium affair here, other than to say that I stand today where I stood when it happened:

Having read the full report and the results of all the not-very-scientific-at-all studies, having consulted medical and pharmaceutical specialists, and having looked at the suspicious timing and heard the atrocious words of Craig Reeedie, my conclusion remains—that Sharapova was in error, but not nearly so much as her accusers and her punishers (not to mention some of her peers and numerous members of the sports media and the public). Both WADA and the ITF were, in my opinion, much more at fault than Sharapova.

And as of this writing, there are still no valid scientific studies that indicate that Meldonium is a performance-enhancing substance.




Sharapova, having had her suspension shortened from 24 months to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (who found no significant fault on her part), returned to the tour in 2017 and won her first title in two years in Tianjin. She continued to struggle with injuries, especially those involving her right shoulder.

In 2017, Sharapova’s autobiograpny, Unstoppable: My Life So Far was published. In it, she reveals that she had postponed her retirement because of the ITF ban. The book is personal and entertaining, and reflects a lot of the “edge” that is a highlight of the Russian’s personality.

That edge includes a sharp wit. “Isn’t she back in Poland already?” and “Check her blood pressure” remain my two favorite Sharapova verbal shots.

No review of Sharaapova’s career would be complete without discussing her professional relationship with Serena Williams. Though sometimes called a “rivalry,” it was anything but—Sharapova never defeated Williams again after the 2004 Wimbledon and WTA Finals. The other 19 times they played each other, Williams won. Among those losses to Williams were the 2007 Australian Open final, the 2012 Olympic Games, the 2012 WTA Finals, the 2013 French Open final, and the 2015 Australian Open final.

In addition to her losses to Williams at the above-listed majors, Sharapova also lost the 2011 Wimbledon final to Petra Kvitova, and the 2012 Australian Open final to Victoria Azarenka. She lost the WTA Finals in 2007 to Justine Henin.

Sharapova also had a hard-luck run in Miami, never winning the tournament, but making it to the final five times. The most memorable of those, for me, was the 2012 final. I was on Daniel Island at the time, covering the Family Circle Cup, and several of us headed to the on-site bar to watch the match. I was a fan of Aga Radwanska, and I watched with rapt attention as the tricky Polish player known as The Ninja dismantled Sharapova’s game and defeated her 7-5, 6-4. But nothing I can say about that match could ever come anywhere close to Todd Spiker’s unforgettable take, which you can read here.

Maria Sharapova won 36 singles titles and spent 21 weeks as the world number 1. She played on the Russian Fed Cup team in both 2008 (when Russia won the championship) and 2011, and in the 2011 final, she defeated both Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, though the Czech Republic went on to win the championship. In 2014, Maria was the first of a succession of torch-bearers at the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Sharapova founded the Maria Sharapova Foundation to help children throughout the world achieve their goals, and to fund Chernobyl-related projects.

Like so many elite athletes, Maria Sharapova’s career presents us with some significant “what if?”s. What if she hadn’t sustained a shoulder injury? What if, when she had her second shoulder injury, she hadn’t been under the care of incompetent professionals? What if she hadn’t experienced the ITF ban?

We cannot answer these questions, of course, and even if we could, it would be nothing more than an intellectual exercise. What we do know is how the arc of Sharapova’s long career played out, both on and off the court. Maria brought excitement and a fierce intensity to the tour, and she became an international celebrity, which—in turn—brought attention to the tour and to the sport of tennis. Also, owning a Career Slam, five major singles titles, 36 total singles titles, a Fed Cup championship, and an Olympic silver medal isn’t too shabby, by any standard.

When I saw Sharapova at a press conference in Cincinnati last year, she appeared so world-weary, and I suspected a retirement announcement would come soon. When it did come, today, she said: “Tennis showed me the world—and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth.”

Maria Sharapova will undoubtedly continue to thrive as an entrepreneur and as an activist in her foundation. I suspect there are also other paths that she’ll take, and I look forward to learning what they are. I’ll miss her fighting spirit, her wit, and her one-of-a-kind persona. People are overly fond of saying that a retirement is the “end of an era,” but in Maria’s case, I think that it truly is the end of an era—and what an era it was.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Kenin, Ostapenko, Sevastova--a recipe for Fed Cup thrills

 

Toward the end of last year, Alona Ostapenko began to look like herself again. Now, teamed with coach Marion Bartoli, the 2017 French Open champion is looking more herself than ever (that includes the parts that need work, but I'll maintain hope about those), and she was in full flight this weekend in Everett, Washington when Latvia faced off against the USA in Fed Cup World Group competition.

Ostapenko lost her singles rubber against Serena Williams, but the scoreline--7-6, 7-6--says a lot. The Latvian star's other single rubber was against Australian Open champion and world number 7 Sofia Kenin. I had been looking forward to this. Just last week, I wrote that Kenin reminded me of Ostapenko in that they both have an automatic reset button when things go wrong on court. This is a mental gift that many players just can't seem to attain.

 

Ostapenko won that rubber, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2. The talented Anastasija Sevastova lost to Kenin in straight sets, but came back the next day to defeat Serena Williams (her first-ever Fed Cup singles loss) 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 in a real thriller. But in the deciding doubles rubber, the USA--represented by Kenin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands--handily defeated Ostapenko and Savastova 6-4, 6-0.

Here are the results of the other World Group ties:

Belarus def. Netherlands, 3-2
Russia def. Romania, 3-2
Germany def. Brazil, 3-0 (4-0 with dead rubber)
Spain def. Japan, 3-0 (3-1 with dead rubber)
Switzerland def. Canada, 3-1
Belgium def. Kazakhstan, 3-1
Slovakia def. Great Britain, 3-1

There were some notable upsets. Sara Sorribes Tormo defeated world number 10 Naomi Osaka 6-0, 6-3. Afterwards, Osaka remarked that “For me, I’m kind of dealing with some stuff and I couldn’t mentally get into the match. It’s sort of… my fault.” Also upset was world number 5 Belinda Bencic, who lost in straight sets to 17-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez.

Those of us who live in the USA were out of luck--all ties outside the U.S. were blocked on Fed Cup TV (which we didn't need to watch the USA tie). I'm still waiting to hear back on whether the April ties will be blocked, so I don't know whether to cancel my subscription (which was useless this weekend).

I'm also not at all thrilled with the new format, and doubt that I ever will be.

Finally, there was this!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

My Australian Open top 10




Here are my top 10 Australian Open happenings and phenomena, in ascending order:

10. Australia on fire: The horrible bush fires preceded the Australian Open, and there was talk of postponing the tournament. The atmosphere received the second-worst rating that can be given, and Victoria’s chief health officer called the overnight air quality in Melbourne “the worst in the world.” Nevertheless, after a brief delay, qualifying began, and—sure enough—three of the players sustained significant problems with coughing and weakness.

The atmosphere cleared in time for the main draw to begin, and players contributed to the cause by pledging money for every ace and/or double fault they hit. Simona Halep did something different; not a big producer of aces, the Romanian instead agreed to chip in money every time she gave coach Darren Cahill the evil eye. Halep made it all the way to the semifinals, and the relief fund thereby gained an extra $20,000.

9. The second time is harder: Defending champion and 3rd seed Naomi Osaka lasted until the third round, when she was upset by Coco Gauff in straight sets.

8. The party ends too soon: World number 1 Ash Barty, playing before her home crowd (which isn’t an easy thing to do) looked for all the world like she might just grab the trophy on the final weekend. She knocked out the likes of Polona Hercog, Elena Rybakina, and an in-form (until the second set) 2019 runner-up Petra Kvitova. But then Barty ran into one Sofia Kenin, and—though they were both beset by what appeared to be a case of nerves—it was Kenin who figured out how to make the best of a bad situation, defeating Barty 7-6, 7-5 in the semifianls.

7. It’s so dark, I can’t see the women:
No big women’s matches were played at night. On a personal, self-serving level, I benefited from this because I was able to watch all of the big WTA matches. But there was absolutely no excuse for this kind of scheduling.

6. New partner, same trophy:
Barbora Krejcikova defended her mixed doubles title, this time with partner Nikola Mektic. Last year, the Czech doubles star won the trophy while playing with Rajeev Ram.

5. As good as it gets:
4th seed Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza put on the best show of the tournament in their semifinal. Someone had to lose, and that was Halep, but the quality of play by both opponents was exceedingly high.

4. The upset of the tournament:
Most fans probably didn’t see it; most fans proably didn’t even think about it. But Zhenzhen Zhu, playing in her first major, upset top seed and all-around major wheelchair tennis threat Diede De Groot in the quarterfinals. De Groot’s defense was stunning—she saved eight match points—but toward the end of the match, her serve let her down. Then De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, the top doubles seeds, lost the doubles final to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

Kamiji swept the tournament, also winning the singles championship by defeating Van Koot in the final.

3. It was so much fun, we did it again: 2018 champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the Australian Open doubles championship again, this time by defeating top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova in the final. This is the team’s third major championship; they also won the 2019 French Open.

2. Do do that Mugu that you do so well:
She’s……back! Two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, who has been wandering around in who-knows-what shadow world for a couple of years, entered this year’s Australian Open in a not very auspicious way—she had the flu. Indeed, it looked as though she would have to retire after the first set of her opening round. But Muguruza, back from a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season, found a way to carry on, and carry on she did. In fact, she almost won the tournament. And though her loss in the final has to hurt deeply, the good news is that Mugu has returned to the top of the WTA mountain, where she belongs.

1.“What? Like, it’s hard?”: During the tournament, U.S. commentators barely acknowledged that Sofia Kenin existed. They just carried on with their Coco mantra, even after the teen phenom was out of the tournament (courtesy of Kenin). Then, when Kenin upset world number 1 Ash Barty, everyone had to take notice. A top junior who faded once she entered the tour, Kenin was determined to find her way, and find her way she did. The 21-year-old came to Melbourne with a good serve, a great drop shot, a very poor memory regarding errors and misfortune, and a tenacity and self-belief that should be the envy of all of us.

Kenin lost the first set of the final, and while that would serve as the kiss of death to almost any other first-time finalist, to Kenin, it was no big deal. She faced down Garbine Muguruza and took advantage of a letdown in the Spaniard’s energy, something many first-time finalists are not able to do, simply because they are overcome by the occasion. Kenin won the final 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. When the rankings are published tomorrow, Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin will be the world number 7. Take notice.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Babos and Mladenovic win Australian Open




Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, seeded 2nd at the Australian Open, defeated top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova 6-2, 6-1 yesterday to win the championship. Babos and Mladenovic, who are long-time close friends, won the Open in 2018, and they won the French Open in 2019. The pair also won the WTA Finals last year. The 2020 champions did not drop a set throughout the tournament.


 

Barbora Krejcikova defended her Australian Open mixed doubles title, playing with partner Nikola Mektic. They defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Murray5-7, 6-4, 10-1. Last year, the Czech doubles star won the event with Rajeev Ram.

The junior singles trophy went to 9th seed Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva of Andorra. Jimenez Kasintseva defeated Polish player Weronika Baszak. In junior doubles, 4th seeds Alexandra Eala and Priska Madelyn Nugroho won the championship when they defeated Ziva Falkner and Matilda Mutavdzic in the final.

The wheelchair doubles team of Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley (back from maternity leave) upset top seeds Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot in straight sets.

The wheelchair singles champion is also Yui Kamiji. Kamiji defeated Van Koot 6-2, 6-2 in the final. The singles draw was shaken up when top seed De Groot went out in the quarterfinals to Zhenzhen Zhu, who was playing in her first major. De Groot is the winner of seven singles majors.

In other wheelchair tennis news, Sabine Ellerbrock has announced her retirement from the sport, and Marjolein Buis has announced her forced retirement from the sport. Buis has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which has been taken off the list of eligible handicaps by the ITF and the International Paralympic Committee. The ITF and the IPC  state that the tennis eligible handicaps list must conform with that of other Paralympic sports, or tennis players will be cut out of Paralympic competition.

"They are taking away my job and my passion," Buis commented. "I am happy that I am already 31 years old and have had a wonderful career...."

EDS is a connective tissue disorder that weakens the ligaments and tendons that hold muscles together. And while I understand why this change came about, I can only imagine how it must feel to be told that you aren't "disabled enough" to compete in a wheelchair.

Zone, meet Sofia




For those fond of understatement, "under the radar" would be one way to describe Sofia Kenin's Australian Open run. Her career--post-juniors--has been largely ignored, even though she drew attention for her spirited Fed Cup play when she brought home the victory for the USA in the fourth rubber of last year's tie against Switzerland.

In Cincinnati last year, Kenin defeated both Julia Goerges and 7th seed Elina Svitlina, both in straight sets. She got a third set retirement from Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals, and was finally stopped by eventual champion Madison Keys. Anyone who was paying attention saw a very clever and formidable competitor in the 21-year-old Floridian.

Like Alona Ostapenko, Kenin has an automatic reset button in her mentality. Something goes wrong, she makes a face (though she will never outclass Ostapenko in that department!), then moves on to the next point. This vital mental skill served Kenin well throughout her run in Melbourne, and was ultimately a major factor in her winning the championship.

The final pair competing in Melbourne may not have been what fans were expecting (though it's never really wise to rule out Garbine Muguruza at a big event), and the Muguruza-Halep semifinal was a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Kenin and Muguruza gave fans an exciting match, whose scoreline doesn't really reflect the ins and outs of the competition.

For her part, the unseeded Garbine Mugurza's appearance in the final, no matter what ultimately happened, was in itself an announcement, and that announcement screamed "I'm back!" More of a lost, wandering soul than an elite tennis player in the last couple of years, the Spaniard used her Melbourne run to remind us all of how superior her game is, with its sometimes breathtaking fluidity, big serving, power, and variety. And it was no surprise that she did this while under the guidance of Conchita Martinez.


 

During the off-season, Muguruza took a page from the Amelie Mauresmo playbook and climbed a mountain--Mount Kilimanjaro, to be exact. We have no way of knowing (though I hope that, some day, she tells us) the effect this adventure had on the Spaniard's mentality, but it's a safe bet to guess that it had a major one.


There was, however, some question as to whether the Spanish star would even play in the tournament. She arrived in Melbourne with a case of flu, and became ill in her opening match. After losing the first set 0-6, she had her blood pressure checked. Given the go-ahead, Muguruza returned to the court and won the match.


The two-time major champion's ability to control the situation was apparent in the first set of the final, when she broke Kenin twice to win the set 6-4. Muguruza was broken once, and--it should be noted--she had a lot more opportunities to break Kenin, but Kenin was able to save seven break points. At this point, it would have been easy (and I did flirt with the idea) that Muguruza was about to pick up her third major trophy. After all, Sofia Kenin--for all her mental toughness--had never won a major (she had never won anything beyond an international tournament title), and she had just lost the first set of her only major final to a two-time major champion.

Kenin's response to this reality was to totally ignore it. She began the second set as though it were the first, using her mind's giant eraser to blot out the fact that she was a set away from holding the runner-up plate. She also got a gift from Muguruza when errors started creeping into the Spanish star's game and her serving dominance decreased. Kenin took that set 6-2. Muguruza looked a bit tired, and--while commentators speculated that this was related to her tough semifinal against Simona Halep--I was more inclined to note that she entered the tournament with a case of influenza.

The third set became increasingly dramatic as it wore on, and reached its peak in the fifth game, when Kenin, down 0-40, hit four winners--three of them shot down the line--and a wickedly high ace into the deuce court to save five break points. I immediately flashed on an image of Flavia Pennetta, possibly the all-time Queen of Grit, in the fourth round of the 2009 U.S. Open. In that match, the Italian star hit six winners to save six match points.

After the 14th seed saved all those break points, the match was pretty much about her. Muguruza's serve became less and less effective. She double-faulted four times, including on match point, and Kenin emerged the champion with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory. Muguruza was subdued and sad at the trophy ceremony, which was understandable. She had lost, but also, she had fought so hard, especially against Halep--to get to the final, and she had given away match point in a way that no one, let alone a champion, wants to give it away.

Someone in the crowd held up a sign that said Mugu Is Back!, and that, too, is true. It is also a very good thing.




Russian-born Kenin (commentators were confused about Kenin's age, but none more so than Chris Evert, who informed us that Kenin had "come over from the Soviet Union") and her Russian-born father/coach rate about a 9 on the Sharapova/Sharapov Intensity Scale, which is fitting, since Sharapova is Kenin's tennis idol. She'll be someone to watch at the French Open, where she reached the round of 16 last year, knocking out Serena Williams in the third round, and losing to eventual champion Ash Barty.

About playing Muguruza, Kenin said: "I knew I had to take my chance. I had to be brave by playing a two-time Grand Slam champion. All respect to her. She played a really tough match. Every point, it was such a battle...."

And Sofia Kenin is nothing, if not brave. Stay tuned.