Monday, January 23, 2023

Australian Open quarterfinals feature surprises--or are they?

Top seed and world number 1 Iga Swiatek isn't playing in the Autralian Open quarterfinals, nor is 2nd seed and world number 2 Ons Jabeur. Also gone are 4th seed Caroline Garcia, 6th seed Maria Sakkari, and the rest of the top 10, save Jessie Pegula and Aryna Sabalenka. 

But that doesn't mean that the quarterfinal draw isn't filled with quality. Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, seeded 22nd because of a ridiculous political dispute between the WTA (and the ATP) and Wimbldeon, should have a much higher seed/ranking. Victoria Azarenka is a two-time Australian Open champion, and Alona Ostapenko is a former French Open champion.

Donna Vekic, who has shown so much promise for so long, has reached a major quarterfinal for the second time in her career--she made it to the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2019. And the hard-working Magda Linette has reached a major quarterfinal for the first time in her career. So far, the 30-year-old Polish player has upset 16th seed Anett Kontaveit, 19th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova and 4th seed Garcia.

And then there's Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up and the 2021 Wimbledon runner-up. Pliskova has long been just on the edge of winning a major, and is certainly a contender to win this one.

 Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Elena Rybakina (22) vs. Alona Ostapenko (17)
Jessie Pegula (3) vs. Victoria Azarenka (24)
Karolina Pliskova (30) vs. Magda Linette
Aryna Sabalenka (5) vs. Donna Vekic

Notes on the draw:

If (and "if" is the operable word) French Open (and--so far--2023 Australian Open) Ostapenko shows up, she can give Rybakina a very hard time, though Rybakina's serve can do the same to Ostapenko.

Pegula gets stronger with every match, and it will be interesting to see her (which I won't be able to) play against a fully in-flight Azarenka, who loves the courts in Melbourne. Pegula won't get rattled, though.

Pliskova has yet to drop a set in Melbourne. Defeating her looks like a tough task for Linette, who will either build on the tremendous confidence that she's gained--or be done in by the occasion. My gut feeling is that Linette--who has worked for so long to get to this point--won't fold; this could be an interesting match.

Aryna Sabalenka also hasn't dropped a set, and has been in full control of her matches--even against the formidable Belinda Bencic--at this event. She does have a tendency to "go off," especially with her serve, but if she keeps playing in her current form, Vekic has an uphill battle.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Round of 16 set for Australian Open

As I write this, top seed Iga Swiatek is playing her round of 16 match against Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. Gone is 2nd seed Ons Jabeur and gone is Danielle Collins (courtesy of Rybakina); both of them were considered serious contenders for the title. 6th seed Maria Sakkari is also out.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Elena Rybakina (22)*
Alona Ostapenko (17) vs. Coco Gauff (7)
Jessie Pegula (3) vs. Barbora Krejcikova (20)
Viktoria Azarenka (24) vs. Zhu Lin
Karolina Pliskova (30) vs. Zhang Shaui (23)
Magda Linette vs. Caroline Garcia (4)
Aryna Sabalenka (5) vs. Belinda Bencic (12)
Donna Vekic vs. Linda Fruhvirtova

*Rybakina should be ranked higher, but she was denied ranking points after her Wimbledon victory.

The three matches that intrigue me the most are the one that's being played now--Swiatek vs. Rybakina, Peguala Vs. Krejcikova, and Sabalenka vs. Garcia. 

Rybankina's serve could allow her to boss Switek around, and the world number one may have to do more problem-solving than ususal (as I write this, she's down a set). Pegula and Krejcikova could give us a thriler, and Sabalenka's big hitting won't get her as far against Bencic as it does against many other players.

Fruhvirtova is already a winner of sorts, making it to the round of 16 of a major at 17 years old. Petra Kvitova and Karolina Muchova are already out of the tournament; Muchova (back in good health and good form) lost in a thrilling match against Collins. And Marketa Vondrousova, back after two wrist surgeries, sustained a foot injury in her third round match and faded away as she played in considerable pain in her third set against countrywoman Fruhvirtova. But there are always more Czechs, and Krejcikova and Fruhvirtova are carrying the Czech flag at the business end of the Australian Open.

The only former champion left in the draw is Azarenka, who won the tournament in 2012 and 2013.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

10 questions for 2023

< A new season has begun, and there are some questions hanging in the air:

1. Will anyone seriously challenge Iga Swiatek? My best bet for that task is Barbora Krejcikova, who--healthy again--is ready to resume her slaying ways. The final that the two of them played in Ostrava last year was as high-quality and thrilling a sports event as one could hope to see. But Krejcikova isn't the only one who could give the world number 1 trouble: Ons Jabeur is also a good choice, and it's probably time to look fearfully at Caroline Garcia again. There are others, of course, but these are the names that come to (my) mind first, when I consider all the contingencies.

2.  Which Garbine Muguruza will show up? Good luck making a guess on that.

3. Will Paula Badosa get out of her mini-slump? I say yes.

4. Will Ons Jabeur win a major? My answer is yes. 

5. Will Maria Sakkari overcome whatever it is that keeps her from winning finals? Probably--her serve has improved quite a bit, and that could give her the confidence she needs.

6. Will Danielle Collins stay healthy? Oh, how I hope she does--a healthy Danielle can go very far.

7. Will Bianca Andrescu stay healthy? Same answer as above--a healthy Bibi can rise to a very high level and change the WTA landscape.

8. Will Liudmila Samsonova make it past the fourth round of a major? Yes.

9. Will Liudmila Samsonova win a 1000 tournament? Again, I'll go with yes.

10. Who is likely to quietly make a huge statement? My bet is on Veronika Kudermetova, who has a splendid and fluid game, with lots of doubles skills to assist, and who appears to have gained quite a bit of confidence.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

My 2022 top 10

2022 was the year that Alizé Cornet competed in her 63rd consecutive major (a “runner-up” for my list), the year that Ons Jabeur collected the runner-up trophy at two majors, and the year that the WTA and its “women’s health” partner chose to play its biggest tournament in a city where women’s health is endangered every moment. It was also the year when former world number 1 Simona Halep because the latest probable victim of WADA, an orgnaization whose corrupt ways are never even questioned by the very organizations that they harm.

And it was also the year in which there was palpable tension between at least one Ukrainian player and the players from Russia and Belarus, and the year when Wimbledon and both tennis tours had a political spitting contest.

Here, in ascending order, are my top ten 2021 happenings:

10. Now you see her, now you don’t: World number 1 Ash Barty fulfilled a dream at the start of the 2022 season—she won the Australian Open. And then she retired from professional tennis. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), this act was reported as her second retirement, which it was not; Barty’s earlier break was just that—a break. But who cares about facts?

Barty was so talented that she could have gone on and won who konws how many majors and big tournaments, but—in typical Ash Barty fashion—she did what she needed to do for herself, regardless of what anyone else might think.

The Australian star won three singles majors and one doubles major (a peculiar stat, given how very gifted she was in doubles). She won fifteen singles titles and twelve doubles titles, and she held the year-end number 1 ranking for three consecutive seasons. Barty also won the WTA Finals in 2018.
Last year, I wrote:

A doubles star who leaves tennis behind for two years in order to sort things out and to play professional cricket, then returns to become number 1 in the world in singles--wins the French Open, then takes a year off because of the pandemic, during which time she wins a golf tournament. Then injures her hip at the French Open, but shows up at Wimbledon--and wins the title.

Oh, that movie is too over-the-top to be made! It was, however, exactly what happened in the professional life of Ash Barty, 2021 Wimbledon singles champion, and world number 1.


9. Diede the even greater: Diede de Groot (aka Diede the Great), who is world number 1 in both singles and doubles, won the Golden Slam in 2021, and she hasn’t let up since. The 25-year-old, mentored by the great Esther Vergeer, won the Grand Slam in singles this year (and, in fact, went 38-0 in singles), and won three majors in doubles (with partner Aniek Van Koot). But that wasn’t all—De Groot also won both the NEC Wheelchair Singles Masters championship (her fifth), and—with Van Koot—the Wheelchair Doubles Masters title.

8. Fly (high) with Caro:
Caroline Garcia ended a lengthy slump this season, and she did it in style. The Frenchwoman began the 2022 season ranked number 78 in the world and is currently number 4. Garcia won the French Open (with Kiki Mladenovic) in doubles (her doubles game had never left her), and won Bad Homburg and Warsaw, defeating Iga Switek in the quarterfinals. But she wasn’t done—she went on to win Cincinnati, reached the U.S. Open semifinals for the first time, then capped her glorious year off by winning the WTA Finals. 

7. Epic—and awesome: World number 1 Iga Swiatek was on a ten-match win streak in finals. Her opponent in the Ostrava final was Barbora Krejcikova, who spent much of this year either out with injury or working to find her game again. She found it in front of her home crowd, in what was easily the match of the year. Krejcikova and Swiatek threw everything they had at each other for three hours and sixteen minutes, and it was a spectacle to behold.

Krejcikova went down 1-5 in the first set, but wound up losing it 5-7. She won the second and thrd sets 7-6, 6-3. The scoreline alone communicates how thrilling the match was, but the shot-making and athleticism made it something beyond thrilling. The players were very emotional, the people in the stands were very emotional, and those watching on television were very emotional, also.

6. I’ll have another, please:
The French Open champion in 2020 (Krejcikova won in 2021), Iga  Swiatek, did it again in 2022, taking out the likes of Jessie Pegula, Dasha Kasatkina and—in the final—Coco Gauff.

5. And one of these, too:
When I wrote about Swiatek and the 2022 U.S. Open, I described her as having a kind of Princess and the Pea role. She made it clear that she didn’t like the “special” women’s tennis balls used in Flushing Meadows (she isn’t alone), and she was constantly replacing her racket because she was dissatisfied with the string tension. But that didn’t stop her from winning the championship. Swiatek defeated 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, Jessie Pegula and Aryna Sabalenka, before defeating Ons Jabeur in the final. 

4. The master steps away?: Serena Williams retired from professional tennis this year—or did she? At first, it seemed like she did, but now, it’s hard to know.

3. Like a boss: Elena Rybakina may have been a first-time major champion, but her Wimbledon win should have come to no surprise to anyone who was paying attention. Seeded 17th, Rybakina had faced the challenges of both illness and injury, as well as having won only two of the eight finals that she had contested. But on the lawns of Wimbledon, she left all that behind, dropping only two sets in the entire tournament, and taking out 2019 champion Simona Halep in the process. Her victory made Rybakina the first Kazakhstani to win a major.

That was the good part. Rybankina received no ranking points for winning Wimbldeon, due the the WTA/ATP’s decision to strip ranking points as a protest against Wimbledon’t decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players fron competing. (As a result of both of these actions, Vladimir Putin has—of course—suffered greatly.)

2. A worthy encore: Last year, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won the Golden Slam and the WTA finals. We’ll never know what would have happened, but the pair just missed winning another Grand Slam this year when they had to had to withdraw from the French Open because Krejcikova contracted the Covid virus. They took home trophies after the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, which is still very impressive, especially coming after experiencing their glory year of 2021.

1. It’s all about Iga: World number 1 Iga Swiatek is now living in the rarified air of very elite sport. Her victory in San Diego gave her her eighth title of the year (including two majors), and she ended the season 24-1 in the USA. The Polish star also had a ten-match winning streak in finals (broken by Krejcikova), and—at one point in the season—she was on a 37-match win streak. She can only get better (I’m thinking lots of practice on grass courts?), and I, for one, can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in 2023.

Aside from her tennis, Swiatek is developing a rare (how unfortunate) Azaarenka-type voice; she is comfortable speaking out on everything from the U.S. Open’s insistence on forcing WTA players to use lightweight tennis balls to the problem of player abuse by authority figures.

But that’s not all. The Russian players are avid readers, but only the world number 1 has been spotted reading Wuthering Heights during a changeover (back when I read it, I couldn’t put it down, either). And my personal favorite Iga moment this year was her revelation that “Seven” is her favorite song from Folklore.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Four things we learned from the WTA Finals

 

The WTA Finals are brutal because the players have to play multiple matches in a six-day span--more, if they get to the knock-out rounds, and even more if they play both singles and doubles. And all this takes place at the end of the season, when they're already mentally and physically exhausted. 

For those reasons, it's not at all unusual for big upsets to take place, and the 2022 event was no exception. Here are some takeaways:

1. Iga Swiatek is human. 

One could argue that Barbora Krejcikova reminded us of that in Ostrava. But Ostrava was different--the final played between Swiatek and Krejcikova was of the very highest quality in every way; the Czech star simply figured out how to win. Aryna Sabalenka's semifinal upset of the world number 1 in Forth Worth was different. Swiatek looked flat (for her), and unable to put all of her skills together at one time. To Sabalenka's credit, she kept the pressure on Swiatek throughout the match and didn't let the occasion get to her.

2. Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are human, too. 

Throughout the first set of the doubles final, Krejcikova was so out of sorts that she looked a bit lost at times. Even her characteristically winning serve abandoned her. Not for the first time, Siniakova was able to not only work around her partner, but to lift her spirits. In fact, after the Czech team won the second set, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought that they were on their way to defending their title. 

But Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens had other ideas, and managed to overcome the top seeds in a tense and thrilling 11-9 tiebreak. It was a dramatic match, and a fitting end to the competition.

3. Caroline Garcia is so back.  

Garcia's slump lasted so long that it was easy to think that her glory days were behind her. She began the season as world number 79 in singles. Her doubles game, however, was intact, and she and Kiki Mladenovic won the French Open for a second time. Garcia then began her resurgence tour, winning Bad Homburg, Warsaw (defeating Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinal) and--most important--Cincinnati. Last night, the Frenchwoman defeated Aryna Sabalenka to win the 2022 WTA Finals--what a way to punctuate a return to form! Garcia is now the world number 4, a ranking she previously held in 2018.

4. Cognitive dissonance continues to rule.

The WTA Finals event, scheduled to be played in Shenzhen, was moved to Fort Worth, Texas because of the tour's ongoing protest of China's refusal to demonstrate the safety and well-being of Peng Shuai. That's understandable. But what about the safety of the women and girls in Texas? The WTA purports to be an organization that advocates for women, though--when advocacy is needed--the organization almost always fails to find its voice--it's all just talk, with little action.

But in this particular case, the situation was especially disheartening. The WTA's major sponsor just happens to be a women's health company. According to the WTA: "As one of the world’s top medical technology innovators, Hologic focuses primarily on improving women’s health and well-being." Hologic's mission statement declares that the company is dedicated to "enabling healthier lives, everywhere, every day." 

Even before the current laws in Texas were put in place, the state already had an unusually high maternal mortality rate, with that rate being exceptionally high for black women. Now, the situation is horrific because Texas has some of the most draconian abortion laws in the country. And--though protecting the life of the mother is the only exception--in Texas, as in other states, doctors are afraid to perform surgeries that will save women's lives and/or prevent those women and girls from having permanent disabilities. 

The WTA didn't need to announce that it wouldn't take the tour finals to a place where the lives of women and girls are not valued (though that would have been a great move); it just needed to find a place less hostile to women to stage its biggest event.

Monday, October 17, 2022

A season of resurgence

During the last two weeks, we've had the pleasure of watching some really great tennis, especially in Ostrava, where just about every match was a high quality contest. Also during this brief period of time, we've seen three WTA players revive their careers, with one of them winning her first WTA title.

Anna Blinkova, whose highest ranking, achieved in 2020, was number 54 in the world, has now returned to the top 100 (79), where she hasn't been in over a year. Blinkova,  a qualifier, won the Transylvania Open last week, defeating Jasmine Paolini in the final. During her long run, Binkova also took out the second and fourth seeds.

Then there was qualifier Donna Vekic, who made a run all the way to the final in San Diego. And what a run it was--Vekic defeated Emma Mandlik and Jil Teichmann in the qualifying rounds, and in the main draw, she defeated fifth seed Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, third seed Aryna Sabalenka, and Danielle Collins. She was stopped--as have so many--by world number 1 Iga Swiatek in the final, but she did set off of the world number 1. 

The talented Vekic has had an up-and-down career, and the biggest "down" occurred early last year when she had to undergo surgery on her injured right knee. Following surgery, the Croatian player's favoring of her left leg led to a plantar fascia tear in her right foot. Vekic feared that she might not ever regain the full functioning of her right leg.

In 2019, Vekic was ranked number 19 in the world; she is now number 47. Her performance in San Diego was exceptional. Unfortunately, she had to finish playing her semifinal match the day of the final (not to mention that her opponent was Swiatek). But it was a brilliant run--one that indicates a turnaround for a player who has had a tough couple of years.

Caroline Garcia, once ranked as high as number 4 in the world in singles, experienced a major slump that lasted so long, one might have thought that her best days were behind her. But this year, the Frenchwoman came roaring back. She and Kiki Mladenovic won the French Open (for the second time), then Garcia went on to win three singles titles, including Cincinnati.

In 2021, Barbora Krejcikova won everything. She won the French Open in singles as an unseeded player, then she won the doubles title with Katerina Siniakova. Then she won an Olympic gold medal (with Siniakova) in doubles, and then she and Siniakova won the WTA Finals. 

Krejcikova reached the quarterfinals at the 2022 Australian Open, and she and Siniakova won the doubles title. But an elbow injury caused the Czech star to stay away from the courts for three months. It was a tough journey back for Krejcikova, but in early October, she won the Tallinn Open, defeating top seed Anett Kontaveit in the final. She also defeated Ajla Tomljanovic, Marta Kostyuk, third seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, and second seed Belinda Bencic. 

But that was just the warm-up. Last week, Krejcikova did what no one else has been able to do in a long time--she defeated Iga Swiatek in a final, and she did from a set down. The world number 1 had not lost a final in three years, and had, indeed, won ten straight finals, and her loss to Krejcikova was only her second in twelve finals. The match lasted three hours and sixteen minutes, and it was, quite simply, the match of the year. 

Not only was the final continually thrilling, but the shot-making and athleticism from both women was often breathtaking. Krejcikova defeated Swiatek 5-7 (after being down 1-5), 7-6, 6-3. The trophy ceremony was an emotional occasion--especially since the champion had won in her home country--and viewers, both in Ostrava and at home, shared in the outpouring of emotions.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Lucie Hradecka, long-time Czech doubles star, retires from proessional tennis

On Wednesday, in a lovely and emotional ceremony in Ostrava, Lucie Hradecka was honored for her long and successful career. The Czech player, known primarily for her doubles skills, won 26 doubles titles, including the 2011 French Open (with Andrea Hlavackova) and the 2013 U.S. Open (also with Hlavackova) in doubles, and the 2013 French Open (with Frantisek Cermak) in mixed doubles. 

Hradecka also won a silver medal in doubles (with Hlavacklova) at the 2012 Olympic Games, and a bronze medal in mixed doubles (with Radek Stepanek) at the 2016 Olympic Games. She was a Wimbledon finalist in doubles in 2012, and an Australian Open finalist in doubles in 2016. Hradecka was also a finalist in mixed doubles at the 2013 Australian Open. Hradecka was a member of the Czech Fed Cup team 2010-2016.

The Czech doubles star, playing with three different partners, won the Western & Southern Open three times. In 2012, she and Andrea Hlavacklova won the WTA finals.

The 37-year-old Hradecka played her final tournament in Ostrava with 17-year-old Linda Noskova, one of the Czech Republic's most promising young players. Hradecka and Noskova lost to the top seeds in their round of 16 match. Hradecka and Noskova defeated Serena and Venus Williams at the 2022 U.S. Open in the sisters' final match.