Saturday, June 3, 2023

In Paris, the upstarts keep upstarting

There are always upsets, and especially on clay, so it's no surprise that some big names dropped out of the French Open early. It does seem especially dramatic this year, though, because of the presence of a couple of young players whose names will become better known soon enough. 16-year-ld Mirra Andreeva, who already had plenty of buzz going around her, won three qualifying rounds, then made it to the third round, in which she took a set off of 6th seed Coco Gauff. 

Then there was lucky loser Elina Avanesya, who began her campaign by upsetting 12h seed Belinda Bencic, then went on to also take out young star Clara Tauson. Avanesya is the first lucky loser in 30 years to advance to the round of 16 of a major (only five players have accomplished this). And in that round of 16, Avanesya will face Karolina Muchova, which should be quite a test for the 20-year-old. Muchova, by the way, upset 8th seed Maria Sakkari in the first round.

Not all of the upstarts are among the very young. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, whose up-and-down career has always leaned toward the "up" part when Schmiedlova plays on clay, has reached the French Open round of 16 for the first time. Schmiedlova, who possesses an especially potent backhand, began with a bang, taking out 11th seed Veronika Kudermetova. She then went on to win two more rounds and has yet to drop a set. 

Then there's Bernarda Pera, who began with a win over Anett Kontaveit, knocked out 22nd seed Donna Vekic, then defeated Elisabetta Cocciaretto, the 22-year-old who upset Petra Kvitova in the first round.

It was a big first week for Ukrainian players. Elina Svitolina, returning to Paris as a new mom, won her first three rounds, but it was veteran Lesia Tsurenko who pulled off the shock upset: She defeated 2021 champion Barbora Krejicikova in the first round. Then, in the third round, she allowed only two games from a visibly sluggish Bianca Andreescu.

But the biggest upset was the one that commentators aren't even talking about: Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, the top seeds, lost in the first round of doubles to the unseeded Ulrikke Eikrei and Eri Hozumi, who defeated them 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. 

A good deal is being made of the fact that Krejcikova has gone out in the first round for two years straight, but this is not a fair assessment of the situation. In 2022, she was just coming back from a long injury layoff, and it didn't seem odd at all that she would make an early exit (but hey--who cares about context, right?). This year's upset, however, was shocking.

Last year, Krejcikova and Siniakova almost won the Grand Slam. They won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. However, they were unable to play at the French Open (where I feel reasonably sure they would have won the title) because Krejcikova was ill and the team had to withdraw. There is currently talk that the Czech pair has now missed a chance to win a non-calendar year Slam, so I'll take this opportunity to say: There is no such thing--you win the Grand Slam (and, by the way, a major is not a grand slam) or you don't. 

Krejcikova hasn't had an especially good clay season, but I did expect her to get past the first round, or even to come alive on the clay again and do something big. She and Iga Swiatek were on a collision course in the draw, which would have been interesting, since the Czech star has defeated the world number 1 twice in finals. Those finals were on hard courts, and it may be that it will be on hard courts that we see the best of Krejcikova in the future.

Here is the singles round of 16 draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Lesia Tsurenko
Anna Karolina Schmiedlova vs. Coco Gauff (6)
Sara Sorribes Tormo vs. Beatriz Haddad Maia (14)
Bernarda Pera vs. Ons Jabeur (7)
Karolina Muchova vs. Elina Avanesya (LL)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Elise Mertens (28)
Elina Svitolina vs. Daria Kasatkina (9)
Sloane Stephens vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

My greatest viewing hope is that the Sorribes Tormo vs. Haddad Maia match is on at a time that I can watch it; it has the potential to be an intense clay contest.

Monday, May 22, 2023

No shortage of French Open contenders

Statue, Jeanne d'Arc, Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

It's rarely wise to try to figure out who will win the French Open (or any major, for that matter, but especially the French Open)--power hitting gets neutralized by clay courts, though power hitters have also been successful in Paris. However, going into the 2023 tournament, there are a few players who appear ready to hold the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. 

World number 1 Iga Swiatek injured her right thigh in Rome, which could hardly be more unfortunate for the two-time (and defending) Roland Garros champion. A slight injury can heal by the time Swiatek plays in Paris, so we should know something soon. If she's healthy, the Polish star has a good chance to win yet another French Open championship.

But other contenders will also be in Paris. The two most talked about are world number 2 (and Madrid champion) Aryna Sabalenka and world number 4 (and Rome champion) Elena Rybakina. Sabalenka, who struggled for some time with consistency--and who still sometimes struggles with her serve--is now looked at as a threat, regardless of where she plays. The reigning Australian Open champion lost to Swiatek in the Stuttgart final, but defeated her in the Madrid final.

Reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina isn't known for her clay court skills, but winning Rome has caused many to look at her as a potential winner in Paris. (And--not to take anything away from Rybakina, but it's worth nothing she did have three players retire against her in Rome.)

But those aren't the only three women who could win in Paris. Other contenders include:

2021 champion Barbora Krejcikova: The Czech star was out for a while with an elbow injury last year, and it took her a while to get her groove on again, but when she did, she looked as deadly as ever. Krejcikova defeated Swiatek in the Dubai final this year, and she also defeated her in last year's Ostrava final. I think that she should be part of the "Who's going to win Roland Garros" conversation, but perhaps she isn't because her clay court season, so far, has been less than stellar.

Krejcikova (sadly) didn't enter Charleston. In Stuttgart, she lost to Sabalenka in the second round. In Madrid, she lost to Petra Martic in the round of 16, and in Rome, she lost to Alona Ostapenko in the third round. But the Czech feels comfortable in Paris, and she could resume her winning ways.

Speaking of Ostapenko--she was scary good in Rome, yet she lost her semifinal match against Rybakina in straight sets. However, the 2017 French Open champion--if she continues to play the way she did in Rome--she is definitely a contender.

Charleston champion Ons Jabeur, who was last year's Wimbledon runner-up and last year's U.S. Open runner-up, should also be considered a potential French Open champion. However, Jabeur had to retire against Swiatek in her Stuttgart semifinal because of a calf injury, and she then had to withdraw from Madrid, where she was the defending champion. She lost to Paula Badosa in the second round in Rome, but is healthy and ready to compete in Paris.

And that brings me to Badosa, who--though currently ranked number 29 in the world--wouldn't be a surprise Roland Garros champion (well, not to me, anyway). Finally, there's world number 11 (and 2021 Charleston champion) Veronika Kudermetova, who reached the semifinals in both Madrid and Rome, and whom I've been looking at for a while as someone with the potential for a big breakout.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Madrid and Rome, and the women who turned them upside down in 2010

Clay court tennis is known for producing unpredictable results, and it's hard to beat the results that occurred in Madrid and Rome in 2010. 

Aravane Rezai, the small woman in the gold lame tennis dresses, surprised a lot of people when--as an unseeded player--she won Madrid by defeating Venus Williams in the final. Rezai began her Madrid campaign by upsetting four-time French Open champion Justine Henin, and adding a bagel for good measure. That was just the first round. The hard-hitting Frenchwoman went on to defeat the likes of Andrea Petkovic and Jelena Jankovic, before defeating Williams in straight sets. But it wasn't an easy task; Rezai was down 2-5 in the second set and had to save six set points.

The same year, Jankovic--who had won Rome twice--once again reached the final, and this time, her opponent was the unseeded Maria José Martinez Sanchez, who defeated Francesca Schiavone, Caroline Wozniacki, Lucie Safarova, and Ana Ivanovic--all in straight sets. The Spaniard had a good, rather tricky, serve, which she used to her advantage against JJ. But what fans will probably remember most vividly was Martinez Sanchez's use of the drop shot as a return of serve.

When Roger Federer introduced SABR, he was a genius. But when Martinez Sanchez used a drop shot as a return of serve, some fans said that she wasn't playing "real tennis." (This kind of thing isn't unusual. Once, when Francesca Schiavone hit a tweener, a commentator said "oh, she's copying Roger." Right. Schiavone was hitting tweeners while Roger was still figuring out his game.) 

She was playing very clever tennis, and she defeated Jankovic 7-6, 7-5.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Some final thoughts on Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward

Tennis is nothing if not filled with surprises, and that reality was on display over and over this year at the Credit One Charleston Open. Historically, the tournament has dodged most of the big storms (except for a few big ones at night, one of which included hail) in the area, but this year, its luck ran out. Constant rain delayed play on semifinal day, and only one semifinal was completed. On finals day, therefore, the schedule had to be adjusted.

None of this appeared to bother the crowd, but--as I've written many times--the Charleston crowd is special. They are sophisticated, knowledgeable (including about doubles) and possess empathic good humor. Players who might get booed at other tournaments get encouraged or applauded in Charleston. In other words, the crowd knows the difference between bad sportswomanship and the quirky behaviors of a wide span of personalities. 

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)
"I'm happy to be part of the champions here in Charleston. It was nice when they show, you know, the names. I always wanted to have my name there. Definitely the crowd, they're amazing, and just amazing because they're not just following me from this tournament, but all over the other tournaments, and they told me that they watch also the Netflix show. So that's really amazing to hear that I have support and not just for one tournament, but the whole season."
--Ons Jabeur

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)

"It's really like a different vibe. I feel like more attached to this tournament than maybe I feel to other tournaments....I think it's no secret that everybody really loves this tournament. After Indian Wells and
Miami, you are very tired, you just want to go home, but for me, like this has always been a very nice stop, even like this--like tired like this, I mean. And, yeah, it just has different vibe really. Like it's not just a tournament for me."
--Belinda Bencic

Danielle Collins & Desirae Krawczyk (photo by Daniel Ward)





"The atmosphere was amazing, and I think all of our matches we've had a great crowd, and for everyone to come out, it's so cold today, and everyone came out and supported, and it really gave you some motivation, you know, being both Americans and playing at home, you know, on home soil. So it was so much fun, and I really appreciate that, because as a doubles player who plays week to week, you don't get those crowds and you really want to relish it and really appreciate that. So it means a lot."
--Danielle Collins

The rain delay was the least of the special things that occurred during the event. For the first time in 23 years, the top four seeds played in the semifinals. And for the first time ever, the same two women competed in the final in consecutive years. Last year, it was Belinda Bencic who received the champion's trophy; this year, it was Ons Jabeur. Or, as Ons said to her friend, Belinda--"We both have one big trophy and one small trophy."

Eleanor Adams (photo by Daniel Ward)
And while it wasn't a total surprise, Tournament Manager Eleanor Adams' announcement of her retirement elicited a very emotional reaction (also not a surprise) among staff, volunteers, members of the media, and--perhaps most of all--players. Adams, working alongside Tournament Director Bob Moran, has long been the force behind the event's extreme popularity on the tour. Her attention to detail, and her ability to anticipate the players' needs--and to fulfill them--is well known on the tour. Bob and Eleanor know how to run a tournament, and they do it with thoroughness and kindness. Eleanor Adams has worked for the Charleston Open for 23 years, and she has left a mark on the event that can never be erased.

It was a busy week, filled with great tennis, as well as other enjoyable fan activities. Players will tell you--there's no tennis experience quite like Charleston.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Call her Ons, Call her the Minister of Happiness, call her Charleston champion!

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)

Ons Jabeur became the 2023 Credit One Charleston Open singles champion today when she defeated Belinda Bencic 7-6, 6-4 in the final. Jabeur's path to the championship was a winding, and somewhat unusual, one. Last year, she left Charleston as the runner-up when Bencic defeated her 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in the final. This was the first time in the tournament's history that the same two players competed in consecutive finals. 
photo by Daniel Ward

But that wasn't the only unusual occurrence at this event. For the first time in 23 years, the top four seeds played in the semifinals; it was also the first time in eleven years that the top four seeds had played in any WTA semifinals. And as if all that weren't enough, the finalists weren't even decided until today, shortly before the final took place.

There was a lot of rain in the Charleston area this week, and Saturday's semifinals were interrupted more than once. Jabeur was able to complete her match against Daria Kasstkina, but Bencic and top seed Jessica Pegula had to stop for the day during the second set tiebreak. Bencic won that tiebreak, despite being down 2-4 when the rain came, and 2-5 when play resumed. Not long after, she and Jabeur competed in the final.

In the first set, Bencic again found herself in a tiebreak. At 5-6, she proceeded to save five set points, and the excitement in the stadium was palpable. Jabeur took the set on her sixth set point, and then went up a double break for 4-1. But just as it looked as though the Tunisian star might run away with the match, Bencic began to apply the kind of pressure that we have come to expect from her. She broke Jabeur, then also created three break points when Jabeur served for the match at 5-4. It was an estimable effort, but it wasn't enough. The 2nd seed saved all three break points, saved the only game point that Bencic had, and won the match on her second match point.



photo by Daniel Ward


At the trophy ceremony, Bencic said to her friend, "I'm glad you're back. It's amazing when you're playing. It's a pain to play against you."

Later, in press, Bencic said: "I mean, it's a very difficult--I mean, I just woke up. I was just focusing on the Pegula match, and then you win and like fifteen minutes later you're playing a final. I mean, I know Ons, but it's still different when you are sleeping and when you're preparing mentally for the final. And for me it was a bit trickier today, but this is normal for us players. We always have to adapt."

That rang true. Bencic played well, but it did seem that the quick transition from semifinal to final did put her off her game a bit. Bencic went on to say: "I mean, it's tough to beat her, just, anyhow. I think she's really a high quality player, and she really has all the tools in her box. And, of course, you know, when I'm playing my best, I can try to press her and push her. But I think today she just also moved very good, and she was really counter-attacking very well."

For her part, Jabeur confirmed her statement that her friend Bencic doesn't play like anyone else. "she doesn't give you time. She goes for a lot of winners, and she has like certain--takes the step open to hit the backhand or the forehand. Doesn't give you a lot of time, which is not great for most of the players and also not great when you're moving on clay, because you never know where the ball is coming. And mentally she's someone that doesn't give up. Like she's always there, making you hit one more shot...."

Jabeur explained: "...I know I had to be patient and just run, like Daria yesterday, and get every ball....But you know, hanging in there and not getting angry was part of it. And I'm really glad that I maintained calm and just stick to the plan and continue to do what I am supposed to do during this match."

This is Jabeur's fourth WTA title. She has three titles on clay, and one on grass.

all photos by Daniel Ward
 

And we have Charleston finalists!

Ons Jabeur & Belinda Bencic (photos by Daniel Ward)

When top seed Jessica Pegula and 4th seed and defending champion Belinda Bencic had to stop play at the Credit One Charleston Open last night because of rain, Pegula was up 4-2 in the second set tiebreak. When they resumed a while ago, Bencic--who had won the first set 7-5--won the tiebreak 7-5 (after going down 2-5) and advanced to the final. Bencic will play 2nd seed Ons Jabeur for the title, and if that sounds familiar, it's because they competed for the title last year. This is, in fact, the first time in the history of the tournament that the same two finalists will appear on the court for two consecutive years.

Paths to the final:

BELINDA BENCIC (4)
round 1--bye
round 2--def. Katherine Sebov
round of 16--def. Shelby Rogers
quarterfinals--def. Ekaterina Alexandrova (7)
semifinals-def. Jessica Pegula (1)

ONS JABEUR (2)
round 1--bye
round 2--def. Lesia Tsurenko
round of 16--def. Caroline Dolehide
quarterfinals--def. Anna Kalinskaya (ret.)
semifinals--def. Daria Kasatkina (3)

Collins and Krawczyk win 2023 Charleston Open doubles championship


Danielle Collins & Desirae Krawczyk (photo by Daniel Ward)


The USA team of Danielle Collins and Desirae Krawczyk have won the 2023 Credit One Charleston Open doubles championship. The unseeded pair upset top seeds Giuliana Olmos and Ema Shibahara 0-6, 6-4, 14-12 on a very cold and damp day on Daniel Island. The champions won each of their matches in a tiebreak. This is Collins's first doubles title, and Krawczyk's eighth (she also has four mixed doubles titles--two Wimbledon, one French Open, and one U.S. Open).
Ema Shibahara & Giuliana Olmos (photo by Daniel Ward)


Krawczyk & Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)