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.

Friday, September 30, 2022

My thoughts on Serena's retirement

It wasn't my intention to wait this long to comment on Serena Williams' retirement, but the U.S. Open and various life stressors got in the way of my writing anything. I won't go over Serena's amazing professional resumé--I'll leave that to others. Instead, I want to address what she has meant--and continues to mean--to not only the tennis world, but to the culture in general.

Until 2020, I was a psychotherapist. I treated many women from various walks of life--different ages, different political beliefs, different backgrounds. Yet--when they discovered that I was part of the tennis world--they all expressed a great admiration for Serena. Her accomplishments attracted them, but they also talked about her strength, her resilience, and her authenticity.

When I was younger, I watched Chris Evert grow up. Later, I watched Serena grow up and find her voice, and it was a thing to behold. Yes, she made mistakes; however, some of those "mistakes" were obviously a consequence of her most serious health challenge--a pulmonary embolism. I didn't write about it at the time because it didn't seem respectful, but I mention it now just to set the record straight.

If you're a woman, life is more difficult for you (even if you're one of those women who chooses not to recognize that reality). If you're a woman of color, the difficulty is greater. If you're a famous woman or a famous woman of color, it can be brutal. Serena Williams endured years of sexist, misogynistic and racist attacks every time she spoke or  played a match. She also endured multiple injuries and a life-threatening health problem. But she carried on, she improved, she solved problems, and she demonstrated the concept of "champion" in a way that was breathtaking.

There will never be another champion like Serena. She began her career as a very talented girl with a highly competitive spirit, and by the time she retired, she had become a cultural icon for the ages. She is a voice for all women, and her career is a dramatic reminder that female athletes are strong, spirited, competitive, and relentless.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

My U.S. Open top 10

Here are my top U.S. Open occurrences, in descending order:

10. Look who's in the final!: She didn't win (Alexandra Eala did that), but Lucie Havlickova from the Czech Republic made it to the final, and it's no surprise. Havlickova won the junior French Open singles title, and in 2021, Linda Noskova won the French Open. The Czech female tennis machine is a mighty thing.

9. Storming through the draw: Storm Sanders, with partner John Peers, won the mixed doubles championship. The Australian team defeated Kirsten Flipkens and Edouard Roger-Vasselin 4-6, 6-4, [10]-[7] in the final.

8. Sexism is as sexism does: You can name the facility after Billie Jean King, but your true colors will always come out. The U.S. Open's Twitter account was dismissive of women in so many ways--referring to "sportsmanship" between the two singles finalists, for example, and announcing that Matteo Berrettini and Jannik Sinner were the first Italians to ever reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open (Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci would like a word). But they outdid themselves when they drew a "cute" cartoon that was intended to insult Richard Gasquet (in a "fun" way, of course), by calling him a woman (in the most vulgar way imaginable).

7. French flair/French perseverance: Alizé Cornet began her U.S. Open campaign by upsetting the defending champion, but the most signiicant part of the Frenchwoman's run was that it was her 63rd consecutive appearance in a major tournament. Oh là là!

6. Hot wheels: Diede De Groot defended both her singles and doubles titles at this year's U.S. Open. She defeated Yui Kamiji (yet again) in three sets to win the singles title, and she and partner Aniek Van Koot defeated Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane to win the doubles title. This is De Groot's fifth U.S. Open singles victory in a row, and it's also her second consecutive Grand Slam--last year, it was actually a Golden Slam. During the trophy ceremony, the Dutch star acknowledged the U.S. Open for expanding the wheelchair draw. Diede the Great has now won 16 major singles titles and 15 major doubles titles.

5. Giving live-streaming a bad name: It was really difficult to watch the Open because ESPN's streaming was pure trash from day one. The screen would turn black, the screen would disappear altogether, a message would appear, telling you that the match you were watching wasn't included in your package. The only "solution" was to continually reboot the app, and that didn't always work. To their credit, the ESPN tech staff responded immediately to requests for help, but they insisted that the problems were at the users' end, and they were quite obviously (people all over the country were having the same issues) not.

4. There should have been a garden: So many top seeds and notable players fell in the first two rounds, it was shocking. Gone in the first round were defending champion Emma Raducanu, Simona Halep (a favorite to win the tournament), two-time champion Naomi Osaka, Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, and Dasha Kasatkina. In the second round, we lost 3rd seed Maria Sakkari and 4th seed Paula Badosa.

3. End of a golden era: The great Serena Williams retired from professional tennis at this year's U.S. Open. After her opening round, there was a ceremony to honor her, and--after she was defeated in the third round by Ajla Tomljanovic--her exit was an emotionally touching event. The six-time U.S. Open singles champion is a sports icon for the ages, and her appearance (in her gorgeous kit) in New York one final time is a top story in 2022, not just in the sports world, but throughout the culture at large.

2. History is made: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, seeded third, are the new U.S. Open champions; the Czech team defeated Caty McNally and Taylor Townsend 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the exciting final, despite being down a set and 1-4. But the new championship--the team's sixth major trophy--is part of a much greater story: Krejcikova and Siniakova are the first doubles team in history to win all four majors, the WTA Finals, and a gold medal in the Olympic Games. I'm calling it the Super Golden Career Slam, and it is very impressive. Sadly, however, Krejcikova and Siniakova were not able to try for a Grand Slam this year--despite also winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon--because Krejcikova was ill during the French Open.

1. Iga! Iga! Iga!: Iga Swiatek took on a kind of Princess and the Pea role at this year's U.S. Open. Before the tournament, she said that she didn't have high expectations because it was difficult for her to play with the lightweight tennis balls that are provided for the women at the U.S. Open (former world number 1 Ash Barty had the same issue), and that this was a problem that many WTA players had. Perhaps because of that, throughout the event, she was constantly replacing her racket because she wasn't satisfied with the tension of the strings. There was a low level of frustration involved with her on several occasions.

But never mind--the world number 1 walked away the 2022 champion. That's how good Swiatek is--whatever is bothering her, she either figures out or finds a way to ignore. Her countrywoman, Aga Radwanska, once remarked that good tennis players didn't need sports psychologists (or their equivalent)--I forget her exact words. I wonder what Radwanska thinks now, as the ever-present Daria Abramowicz has indeed been a major factor in forming Swiatek's mental strength.

The two most winning players on the tour, Swiatek and Ons Jabeur, contested the final, and--to the surprise of most fans, I would imagine--Swiatek totally dominated Jabeur for a set and a half. She went on to win the match, 6-2, 7-6, and thus became the first Polish woman to win the U.S. Open. Ealier in the year, Swiatek won the Sunshine Double and the French Open (for the second time).

After the trophy ceremony, ESPN invited the new champion to sit at the desk and chat, but it was sometimes hard to hear the conversation because a massive throng was yelling "Iga! Iga! Iga!" This went on for some time, and is undoubtedly a taste of what is to come as the 21-year-old Swiatek continues to make her mark on the tennis world.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Iga Swiatek, world number 1, wins the U.S. Open

I think that "what goes around comes around" is nonsense, but after today, Ons Jabeur may believe in it with some conviction. Because, for a set and a half in the U.S. Open final, she looked kind of like Caroline Garcia looked when she had to face Jabeur in the semifinals. Jabeur and Garcia are both outstanding players, yet each of them--for various reasons--could barely compete against their opponents when it really counted.

World number 1 Iga Swiatek, now a U.S. Open champion, didn't look that comfortable throughout the event. She made it clear that she dislikes the lightweight "women's" tennis balls that are used, and she was constantly changing her rackets because of issues with string tension. But it was Swiatek who solved the problems, one by one, then tolerated her discomfort, held her nerve, and won seven straight matches.

In today's first set, Swiatek took control quickly. She got in 90% of her first serves, and was successful with 100% of her returns. There really wasn't much that Jabeur could do. In the second set, the Polish star's level did drop a bit. Jabeur broke her, but Swiatek broke right back. The set wound up in a tiebreak, which Swiatek won, ending the match, 6-2, 7-6. 

Swiatek, who--earlier this year--won 37 consecutive matches, has won her last ten finals in straight sets. Her U.S. Open victory is her seventh title of 2022, and her second major of the year. She is the first Polish woman to win the U.S. Open.

Jabeur was also the runner-up at Wimbledon, and while these consecutive losses are undoubtedly very frustrating for her, it's a huge accomplishment to get to the final of two majors in one year.

Swiatek has already won the French Open (twice) and the Sunshine Double, and she's only 21 years old. After the match, the new champion was invited to the ESPN desk for an interview/chat, and I could hardly hear what she said because the very large crowd wouldn't stop yelling and screaming for her.

Also today, 4th seeds Storm Sanders and John Peers won the mixed doubles title, defeating Kirsten Flipkens and Eduard Roger-Vasselin in the final. And top seeds Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot won the women's wheelchair doubles title; they defeated 2nd seeds Yui Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane.

The doubles final will be held tomorrow. 3rd seeds Barbora Krejicikova and Katerina Siniakova will face off against Caty McNally and Taylor Townsend. If the Czech team wins, they will own what I guess we'll have to call the Super Golden Career Slam.

Also, the women's wheelchair singles final will be contested by top seed De Groot and 2nd seed Kamiji.