Sunday, July 10, 2022

My Wimbledon top 10

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

10. Tennis gods--40, Wimbledon--0 (tennis media--forfeit): It's hard to avoid making the observation that--after Wimbledon banned Russian players from entering the tournament, the women's singles title went to a woman who is Russian-born and who sometimes trains in Moscow. It's one thing to shake one's head and appreciate (or not) the irony. It's another thing to bombard Elena Rybakina with questions about her birthplace, her national identity, and whom she supports in Russia's war against Ukraine. Not since the media told us a thousand times that Varvaro Lepchenko was a naturalized citizen of the U.S. has there been so much inappropriate media chatter and questioning about a player's national identity. It all needs to stop.

9. That was then: There were five former champions in the draw this year. I was closely watching Angie Kerber, who made it to the semifinals last year before losing to eventual champion Ash Barty. This year, Kerber lost in the third round to Elise Mertens. Serena Williams lost in the opening round, but--given her long absence from the tour--this wasn't a major surprise. Petra Kvitova lost in the third round to Paula Badosa, and Simona Halep--whom many had chosen to win the event--was routinely defeated in the semifinals by eventual champion Elena Rybakina.

Make what you will of these losses. The one that really caught everyone's attention, however, was the first round defeat by world number 88 Greet Minnen of Garbine Muguruza. Anyone can lose to anyone on a given day, but Muguruza has recently shown signs of making a comeback. Not at Wimbledon, though--the sometimes sullen Spaniard looked sad and lost, and it wasn't an easy thing to watch.

8. YOU get banned! YOU don't get ranking points!: The tennis world's version of "It's small, but it's uncomfortable" occurred when Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players from entering the tournament, and the WTA and ATP responded by refusing to award ranking points to participants. Everyone loses, despite ESPN's Rennae Stubbs' exclamation, "Who cares about ranking points?!" Yeah, right.

7. Number 4 for Diede the Great: Diede De Groot won her seventh straight major singles title at this year's event, and her fourth Wimbledon title. There was no sweep this time, however. Now and then, De Groot's serve goes wayward, and that happened during the doubles final; her partner, Aniek Van Koot, wasn't serving well enough, either. They lost the first set, and--though they made the second set competitive, even going up a break--they were defeated by Yui Kamiji and Dana Matthewson. The new Wimbledon wheelchair doubles champions had never before played together.

6. Desirae rules doubles: Desirae Krawczyk, who remains the most under-praised player in the U.S., won her third mixed doubles major. She and her Wimbledon partner, Neal Skupski, successfully defended their 2021 title.

5. It had to end some time: World number 1 Iga Swiatek's 37-match win streak was most likely going to end on a grass court. The Polish star isn't that comfortable on grass, and AlizΓ© Cornet was happy to show her the exit in the third round. Cornet would go on to lose to Ajla Tomljanovic in a three-set match in the next round, but--once again--in the latter part of her career--the Frenchwoman stood out from the crowd.

4. The Minister of Happiness just misses the ultimate joy: Ons Jabeur entered Wimbledon as a favorite (along with Halep) to win the title. Her tennis was stunning and her attitude was great. But sport is nothing if not fickle, and it turned out that her opponent in the final--after easily losing the first set--came back as a formidable foe and she was able to flummox Jabeur. Jabeur, nevertheless, is the first Arab player to reach a major singles final, and her future remains very bright.

3. When grass is a canvas: Sometimes a match is not only thrilling, it's also a thing of great beauty. Such was the case when Tatjana Maria and Jule Niemeier took to the court in the quarterfinals. Friends and countrywomen, the German pair had impressively worked their way to the final eight. When they opposed each other in that quarterfinal match, they brought everything--grace, stunning athleticism, tricks, angles, multiple thrills. It was, for me, the match of the tournament, and one that I won't forget.

2. Too good: 2nd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won their second Wimbledon doubles title, defeating top seeds Elise Mertens and Zhang Shuai in the final; Mertens was the defending champion (she won the 2021 tournament with Hsieh Su-Wei). The Czech team has now won five major titles, and this year, they achieved Career Slam status.

1. Making it look easy: It was only a couple of years ago that we were talking about how Elena Rybakina was taking the season by storm--and the season had only just begun. The then-20-year-old from Kazakhstan won Hobart and reached the finals of three other events, including Dubai. Then came Covid lockdown, illness and injury, and Rybakina's momentum was stopped cold.

Rybakina rebounded well in 2021, reaching career high rankings in both singles and doubles, and reaching the quarterfinals at the French Open and the round of 16 at Wimbledon (in which she lost to 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka). So--despite what some are saying--it really shouldn't have been a big surprise that the tall, business-like Rybakina, the tour's ace leader, would clean up at the world's most prestigious grass court tournament.

In a rather unusual occurrence, each finalist played only one seeded player in her draw. But seeding can be deceptive. Both women had to play dangerous players, and especially Rybakina, who who had to defeat the likes of 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, Zheng Qinwen, Alize Cornet, and Ajla Tomljanovic. Then she had to defeat the overwhelming favorite to win the title--16th seed (and 2019 champion) Simona Halep. 

By the time she reached the final, the only set Rybakina had dropped was one that she gave up to Tomljanovic. But then she dropped one right away to her final opponent, Ons Jabeur. Jabeur is a tricky, clever player, and she also has a good serve. But Rybakina figured out what to do, and eased her way through the next two sets. She is the first player from Kazakhstan to win a major singles title.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

The light and the joy are really gone

photo by Daniel Ward

Jelena Jankovic—aka JJ, Drama Queen, Glitter Queen, Queen Chaos, The Empress—has, at long last, officially retired from professional tennis, and in doing so, she leaves behind a legacy that will never, ever be filled by anyone. The hilarious, intelligent, good-natured, rubber-bodied Serb brought fans equal pleasure through both her stunning tennis and her inimitable worldview.

In announcing her retirement, Jankovic wrote: 

"I suddenly stopped playing because I didn't really know the situation with my injury. I didn’t know how long it would last and what would happen, so I left the door open and a year and a half after thebreak, after the last match at the US Open against Kvitova, I was in pain, I couldn't function. As time went on, there was no need for me to say anything, I accepted myself the fate of not being able to compete and play professional tennis anymore. My health is a priority, especially now that I have a child and she needs me."

photo by Daniel Ward
 

Over the years, I’ve looked at hundreds of photos taken of Jankovic in action, and in each of them, every muscle in her body was activated. Her ability to do wide splits on any surface may have surpassed even the Clijsters Straddle. She was never afraid to fall down, never afraid to hit from a fallen-down position, and—in her peak days—her backhand down the line set the standard for the tour.

Jankovic began her professional career in 2000. 2007-2010 were her glory years. During that three-year period, she won Auckland, Charleston, Rome (twice), Birmingham, Beijing, Stuttgart, Moscow, Marbella, Cincinnati, and Indian Wells. Also, in 2008, she was the runner-up in Miami and at the U.S. Open. In 2007, Jankovic won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title (with Jamie Murray).

For a long time, Jankovic’s serve was her only real weakness. Eventually, she turned it into something that was efficient, and—at times—very good, but then she would go through periods in which this skill would diminish. She also had some problems in 2009 when she bulked up. She did it to make herself stronger, but the extra muscle impeded her outstanding movement, so Jankovic then reversed her strength-training regime.

After experiencing an extended professional slump following her peak seasons, during which many fans wrote her off for good, she revived her career in 2013 and returned to the top 10.

The Serbian star won a total of fifteen singles titles and two doubles titles. She played for twelve seasons on the Serbian Fed Cup team, and was a member of the Serbian Olympic Team in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

Though she never won a major, Jankovic was a highly accomplished competitor who could beat anyone on a given day. For a long time, she was second only to Venus Williams in her victories over Serena Williams. Jankovic was a clean hitter whose strength lay in her precise baseline game and her astounding athleticism. 


      “I almost need a helicopter to go to my court.”

 

Fond of putting glitter in her hair during night matches, the fashionable Serb was quick to select the red Porsche as part of her prize when she won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart—because it matched a pair of heels she had in her closet.

When she became a victim of Wimbledon’s relentless scheduling of top-rated WTA players on outer courts, and was assigned Court 18, her response was: “I was almost playing in the parking lot. I almost need a helicopter to go to my court.”

Chaos followed Jankovic everywhere she went. In 2011, in New Haven, she was playing Elena Vesnina, and she suddenly looked up and saw the stands swaying. An earthquake had hit, and there was a stadium evacuation. This wasn’t really funny, of course, but—if you followed Jankovic’s career—it kind of was. A couple of years later, just as Jankovic began her night match in Charleston, the media tent began to shake. There was a terrible storm (not unusual for Charleston), but we all just looked at each other and said: “Jankovic.”

admiring her hospital bracelet (photo by Daniel Ward)
Only Jelena Jankovic could take a moment in the middle of a match so that she could admire herself on the JumboTron. Or do a showy towel shimmy in the middle of a final, or stretch her calves on the umpire’s chair—while the umpire was in it. Only JJ could yell “My feet are hot!” in the middle of a match. She once changed her underwear on court, and she once had a ballboy repair her bra strap. Jankvovic fans know that the Serb seemed to have a never-ending cold throughout her career, and she was often preoccupied with blowing her nose. She was obsessed with her hair.

photo by Daniel Ward
Jankovic saved a lot of her best off-court performances for Charleston, where players tend to get a bit loose and live more in the moment. There was nothing better than watching her and Andrea Petkovic play doubles together. Once, a few members of the media were sitting right behind them on the Althea Gibson Club Court, and a frustrated Jankovic—after struggling mightily to open a sports drink bottle—turned completely around, looked at us, pointed to Petko, and yelled, “What’s wrong with her?! Do something to pump her up!" After they won their opening match in 2014, Jankovic said that playing in that match had been the most fun she had ever had on a tennis court, and I found that easy to believe.

The hilarious duo did a series of Charleston videos with Nick McCarvel that will probably be shown forever. Here’s an example, in which JJ and Petko discuss--among many other things--proper tennis spectator etiquette:


                  
                       “…My hair is like concrete.”

 

Even better were some of Jankovic’s Charleston press conferences. She once entered the room with a blanket wrapped around her like a cape, and declared herself a superhero. When I asked her what her super power was, she was quick to reply “To talk too much.”

photo by Daniel Ward

Here are some of her Charleston press conference gems:

Do you remember what she (Serena, in Rome) said to you at the net? You exchanged some words about something.
“I don't remember. I really don't remember. I have no idea. You know, I don't know what I was saying just now.”

“You can't glitter during the day. It doesn't shine.”

“A lot of times, you know, my mind just keeps running, and sometimes it makes sense, what I say, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“…my hair is like concrete.”

“I kind of feel like I’m a ballerina. I keep going from side to side.”

“I have these bangs, you know. So they can't fit in the ponytail, so I gotta glue it in. Imagine if I get frustrated with my hair--what would that look like?”

"I'm not too sure about my body. If I go into a split, who knows if I'll come back up, you know?"

“Here, I want to look like a beast. I just want to look as scary as possible. I don't want to look pretty and all nice and dolled up. For what? I'm going to get dirty and sweaty. The only thing—my hair has to be slick.”

                   “I bring the light—and the joy.”


In 2013, after arriving in Istanbul and being greeted by a member of the press, Jankovic replied, “I bring the light.” Then, as she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and added, “and the joy.”

And she did. Whether arguing with the umpire (which she did with relish), looking across the net from her bottom-down position on the court, making the media laugh until tears came, or hitting a laser-sharp backhand winner down the line, JJ made everything more exciting, more whimsical, more colorful. Sometimes she made things downright bizarre. She could find the humorous angle in anything, and she was always able to laugh at herself.

I was very fortunate to interview Jankovic in Charleston in April. She was there to attend the tournament’s 50th anniversary celebration, and she talked with me about motherhood, and about her memories of Charleston and all the good times she had there.

I consider JJ an international treasure, and one of the most wonderful things to ever happen to professional tennis. She brought the light and the joy—and so much more.

photo by Daniel Ward

Elena Rybakina serves big, stays cool, and wins the 2022 Wimbledon singles title

Ons Jabeur, seeded third at Wimbledon, came in as somewhat of a favorite in today's women's singles final match. She had played some of her very best tennis throughout the event, and it looked as though the time very well had come for her to win a very big title.

But then there was 17th seed Elena Rybakina, who stormed through the tour a couple of years ago with great promise She had won two singles titles, and was the runner-up in six (including Dubai), which is both impressive and troubling at the same time, depending on how you look at it. It hasn't been easy for Rybakina; the Covid crisis interrupted her momentum, as did illness and injury. But on the lawns of Wimbledon, it was as if she had closed an uncomfortable chapter and was returning to the heart of the story.

Jabeur, for her part, has worked steadily to fix the gaps in her game, and to further showcase her many strengths. 

The match was promoted as a contrast in styles, which--to a great extent--it was. Jabeur is the WTA's trickster, giving us the kind of pleasure we used to get from watching a Radwanska or a Schnyder. But she also has a really good serve, which makes her a threat on many fronts. Rybakina, the tour's ace leader, is known for her big serve and big groundstrokes.

In the first set, Jabeur was able to use her considerable bag of tricks to wrong-foot her opponent, or to catch her in a vulnerable court position. She won that set 6-3, and looked to be on track to perhaps pull off a straight-set victory. But things changed in the second set. Rybakina caught on to Jabeur's strategies, most obviously, the drop shots. She began to read Jabeur better, and she also decided to emulate Jabeur in moving to the net more. As a matter of fact, Rybakina wound up going to the net more than twice as often as her opponent.

Rybakina also varied her serve more in the second set, and she made a point of attacking Jabeur's backhand. Rybakina took that set 6-2, and while many fans were no doubt expecting an exciting and close third set, the tall, 23-year-old Kazakhstani player didn't let up. Both Rybakina and Jabeur are known to have frustrating mental lapses at big moments, but in this match, it was Jabeur who became frustrated while Rybakina held it together. 

Rybankina's 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory makes her the first player from Kazakhstan to win a major singles title, and the youngest woman to win Wmbledon since Petra Kvitova did it at age 21 in 2011. Jabeur is the only Arab player to ever reach the final of a major.

Rybakina surprised some by her very low-key reaction to winning--no falling to the knees, no jumping in the air, no screaming--just a raise of the racket and a faint smile. I may have to take Pliskova's "Tall Cool One" nickname and give it to the new Wimbledon champion. (It also apparently upset some people because--why should a player be allowed to possess her authentic personality?)

The potential has been there for a few years, and it shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that Rybakina overcame several obstacles and did something really big. It's also no surprise that Jabeur reached the Wimbledon final. Both players appear to have bright futures.

In other big news today, Diede De Groot (aka Diede the Great) won her seventh straight singles major and her fourth Wimbledon title. Top seed De Groot defeated 2nd seed Yui Kamiji 6-4, 6-2 to win the women's wheelchair singles title.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Rybakina and Jabeur to compete for Wimbledon title

No one has been on a more expansive improvement track than Ons Jabeur. We knew that she was getting closer and closer to reaching something big, and today, she did just that--she defeated her friend, Tatjana Maria 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 to advance to the 2022 Wimbledon final. It was an entertaining match, given that both Jabeur and Maria possess a variety of shots, and they used them all. It didn't equal Maria's semifinal in intensity and thrills, but it was nevertheless well played by both competitors.


And few have come as "close to being close" as Elena Rybakina. Much has been expected of her for some time, but she has had trouble closing big matches. Not yesterday, and not today. Today, the 17th seed defeated 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3. Rybakina had first and second serve percentages of 73 and 53, and she had a winners-to-unforced errors ration of 22-16. She broke Halep four times.

Halep, for her part, saw only one break opportunity, which she converted. She also double-faulted a non-characteristic nine times. In sbort, it was all about Rybakina. 

Jabeur is the first Tunisian person (and the first African woman) to reach a major singles final. Rybakina is the first player from Kazakhstan to reach a major singles final.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

ELENA RYBAKINA (17)
round 1—def. Coco Vandeweghe (LL)

round 2—def. Bianca Andreescu
round 3—Zheng Qinwen
round of 16—def. Alize Cornet
quarterfinals—def. Ajla Tomljanovic
semifinals—def. Simona Halep (16)

ONS JABEUR (3)
round 1—def. Mirjam Bjorklund (Q)
round 2—def. Katarzyna Kawa (Q)
round 3—def. Diane Parry
round of 16—def. Elise Mertens (24)
quarterfinals—def. Marie Bouzkova
semifinals—def. Tatjana Maria

Also today, Desirae Krawczyk and Neal Skupski successfully defended their 2021 mixed doubles title. Krawczyk now has three major mixed doubles titles.

Wheelchair singles competition began today also, with top seed Diede De Groot and 2nd seed Yumi Kamiji winning their quarterfinal matches. De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, also won their semifinal doubles match today.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Wimbledon semifinals set

Someone not familiar with the tour might look at the Wimbledon semifinal draw and conclude that it's a bit askew--the 16th seed will play the 17th seed, but the 3rd seed will play an unseeded competitor. But the 16th seed is 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, so the levels are actually not that disparate.

Halep played 20th seed Amanda Anisimova in today's quarterfinal match, and--toward the end of the second set, the Romanian star slipped into the old "Simona mode"--she let her opponent in, and Anisimova was quick to assert herself. Having won the first set, and with a 5-1 lead in the second set, Halep saw some opportunities slip away. Her frustration was obvious, but she was nevertheless able to continue her run of straight-set victories by defeating Anisimova 6-2, 6-4.

In today's other quarterfinal, big-serving Elena Rybakina, seeded 17th, defeated Ajla Tomljanvic 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. Rybakina, like Halep, had a "moment" when she first served for the match, but she was able to use her mighty serve to erase any doubts when she served for the match a second time. In that game, she held at love, and--for good measure--hit two aces (including match point), bringing her ace total for the match to 15.

This is Rybakina's second time to play at Wimbledon.

Here is the semifinal draw:

Elena Rybakina (17) vs. Simona Halep (16)
Ons Jabeur (3) vs. Tatjana Maria

The semifinals are also set in doubles competition:

Elise Mertens/Zhang Shuai (1) vs. Danielle Collins/Desirae Krawczyk
Lyudmyla Kichenok/Alona Ostapenko (4) vs. Barbora Krejickova/Katerina Siniakova (2)

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Maria and Niemeier play their hearts out and put on a spectacular show at Wimbledon

Sometimes a match has potential greatness written all over it, but--too often--the match itself turns out to be disappointing. The Wimbledon quarterfinal played between Tatjana Maria and Jule Niemeier had the potential to be vastly entertaining and well played, and the two German players saw to it that that potential was met at every turn. To add to the drama, Maria is a 34-year-old mother of two, and Niemeier is playing in her first major main draw. The two countrywomen had never played each other before.

So adept were Maria and Niemeier at navigating the grass on the Number 1 Court, there were times when my mind's eye flashed back to the days of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova slicing, smashing and lobbing each other without mercy on the Wimbledon lawns.

The momentum, as one might expect, shifted constantly in this match, which was chock full of both strategy and athleticism. The spirit of another German, Angie Kerber, was present, as both players found outrageous angles over and over, and both players displayed the speed necessary to negotiate those angles. Niemeier approached the net 74 times, Maria 40 times.

As one might also expect, the match went to three sets. Niemeier took the first set, 6-4, and Maria took the second, 6-2. The third set was a thrill ride from the first point. At 5-6, duece, the two women played a rally of such skill and intensity, that Maria took a spill at the net and wound up rolling on the grass.

A third set tiebreak would have been the perfect way to end this match, but it wasn't to be. Serving at 5-6 in the third, Niemeier suddenly looked a bit shaky. Her opponent, who--by this time--had survived coming from behind in every match she'd played (and had saved a couple of match points in the round of 16), was ready. Maria broke Niemeier at 15 and booked herself a spot in the semifinals.

In the second quarterfinal of the day, Marie Bouzkova and 3rd seed Ons Jabeur faced off for a chance to play Maria in the semifinals. Jabeur got off to a slow start, made even slower by the fact that Bouzkova came out blazing. The Czech player (you knew there would be one) took the first set 6-3, after which the sleeping giant awoke and won the next two sets 6-1 and 6-1. Jabeur has reached a point in her career in which she can think like a champion during stressful times, and that served her well today.

In other Wimbledon news, 2nd seeds Barbora Krejicikova and Katerina Siniakova and 4th seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alona Ostabpenkos reached the semifinals in doubles today.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Si-mo-na! has arrived

Many of us were looking forward to the round of 16 match played between 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep and 4th seed Paula Badosa. Halep, however, didn't care if we were especially entertained; she decided to get off of the court fast--in exactly an hour, to be specific. That was how long it took her to end the Badosa challenge, 6-2, 6-2. Halep, seeded 16th, has been working her way back to her elite position on the tour, following an injury, and she's looking ever so elite on the grass courts at Wimbledon.

If you did want to be entertained, you were watching the amazing match played between AlizΓ© Cornet and Ajla Tomljanovic. It had everything--speed, angles, drop volleys, drop shots, long rallies, battles at the net. Cornet arrived with both thighs taped, of course, and--toward the end--both players looked exhausted, with Cornet stumbling around from time to time. Tomljanovic won, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, and advanced to her second consecutive Wimbledon quarterfinal.The two-and-a-half extravaganza was tennis at its best.

Earlier, 17th seed Elena Rybakina, playing some of her very finest tennis, defeated Petra Martic 7-5, 6-3, and reached the second major quarterfinal of her career. And finally, 20th seed Amanda Anisimova put an end to Harmony Tan's exciting run with a 6-2, 6-3 victory.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Ajla Tomljanovic vs. Elena Rybakina (17)
Simona Halep (16) vs. Amanda Anisimova (20)
Marie Bouzkova vs. Ons Jabeur (3)
Tatjana Maria vs. Jule Niemeier

In doubles, the 3rd seeds, Gabriela Dabrowski and Giuliana Olmos, were upset in the third round by Danielle Collins and Desirae Krawczyk. The tops seeds, Elise Mertens and Zhang Shuai, remain in the draw, as do the second seeds, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova.

Wheelchair competition begins tomorrow.