Sunday, March 19, 2023

Turns out that, in the desert, there IS someone to give you pain--lots of it

That would be Elena Rybakina, who took out both the number 1 and the number 2 players in the world to grab the BNP Paribas Open singles title. Rybakina beat world number 1 Iga Swiatek in the semifinals. She had a bit of help in that Swiatek was playing with a rib injury, and was obviously not herself. However, had Swiatek been healthy, she still might have lost to Rybakina, who was hitting bombs left and right.

In the somewhat herky-jerky final with its maddening first set tiebreak, Rybakina defeated Aryna Sabalenka, whose service woes (supposedly behind her, but it's true that "under stress, you regress") paid a visit. Sabalenka double-faulted ten times in the first set, and it was obvious--in the second set--that she became very cautious about her serves.

For her part, Rybakina didn't serve at the level that she did against Swiatek, but she did hit seven aces. Her 7-6, 6-4 victory took just over two hours to complete, and represents her first WTA 1000 event title.

Rybakina also defeated Sofia Kenin, Paula Badosa, Varvara Gracheva, and Karolina Muchova, who dragged the champion to three very tough sets. 

Not at all surprisingly, top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won the doubles title, defeating Beatriz Haddad Maia and Laura Siegemund 6-1, 6-7, 10-7.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Beware of kryptonite in the desert, part 2

When I wrote that world number 1 Iga Swiatek might consider lining her cap with lead the next time she faces Barbora Krejcikova, I failed to suggest that she do the same regarding Elena Rybakina. The Wimbledon champion, who defeated Swiatek in straight sets in the round of 16 at the Australian Open, did it again tonight in Indian Wells. Tonight, however, the win was more dramatic.

Rybakina--who carries the demeanor of Chris Evert in a long, tall body--barely escaped the attacks of Karolina Muchova in an exciting, two and three-quarter-hour quarterfinal match. Squeaking out that kind of victory can relax a player. It can also cause fatigue, but that obviously wasn't the case with Rybakina. She came out like the boss she often is, posting an 82.4 first serve win percentage, and quickly winning the opening set against Swiatek, 6-2. 

The world number 1 looked a bit stunned, and I imagine that most fans expected her to come back after the break with a fresh plan. She didn't. Finally, when she was down 0-5, some switch got pulled, and she began to navigate the court's geometry the way she generally does. When she held for 1-5, the crowd roared. She continued the aggression and broke Rybakina when she served for the match. For the first time, the world number 10 looked a bit vulnerable, but she wasn't to be broken again (she retained that 82.4% state, which is quite unusual), and after an hour and sixteen minutes, she deprived Swiatek of her chance to claim a second consecutive Indian Wells title.

The WTA tour is nothing if not ironic, and Rybakina's opponent in the final will be Aryna Sabalenka, who defeated her in the Australian Open final. Sabalenka won her Indian Wells semifinal against Maria Sakkari, 6-2, 6-3. 

During her post-match interview--when asked what she plans to do this time in order to conquer Sabalenka--he ever-coolheaded Rybakina said that her goal is to play on Sunday the way she played tonight. That is indeed a worthy goal.

(Postscript: It turns out that Swiatek sustained a rib injury while she was in Indian Wells, and it was troubling her.)

Meanwhile, the doubles final is set. Top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova will face Beatriz Haddad Maia and Laura Siegemund for the title.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Beware of kryptonite in the desert

World number 1 Iga Swiatek practically waltzed to the final in Doha, albeit she had some help with both a bye and a walkover (from Belinda Bencic). She defeated Danielle Collins 6-0, 6-1, and she defeated Veronika Kudermetova with the same scoreline. Those two victories were shocking enough, but then she defeated 2nd seed Jessie Pegula 6-3, 6-0 in the final. 

Seemingly fresh from spending so little time on court in Doha, Swiatek moved on to Dubai, where she again had both a bye and a walkover (from Karolina Pliskova). She defeated Leylah Fernandez 6-1, 6-1, and Liudmila Samsonova 6-1, 6-0 (another shocking scoreline), then Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-2.

But in the final, as Swiatek sought to win the Desert Double, she had to deal with Barbora Krejcikova, who defeated her in the Ostrava final, a match that was so amazing in every way, I still think about it. The Czech star has been on a dramatic comeback tour since having to drop out for a while because of an elbow injury. In Dubai, she defeated the likes of Dasha Kasatina, Petra Kvitova, 2nd seed (and world number 2) Aryna Sabalenka, and 3rd seed (and world number 3) Jessie Pegula.

Sometimes, when a player does that kind of heavy lifting in a tournament, she doesn't have much left by the time she gets to the final. And imagine that that final is to be played against the world number 1, who has been dispensing bagels as though she were heir to a famous New York City bakery. And then imagine that the world number 1 hasn't really spent that much time on court. Oh--and that she was eager to get some revenge following the Ostrava final.

Krejcikova apparently didn't trouble herself with any of those facts. She defeated Swiatek 6-4, 6-2 with excellent serving (first and second serve win stats of 70%/57%), and by reading the court expertly, hanging in with Swiatek during long rallies, and interrupting the Polish star's rhythm. Swiatek was able to convert only one of six break opportunities.

Commentator Claire Curran remarked that Krejcikova is an expert disruptor, but that it is also very hard to disrupt her. Curran said that she thought that these were the traits to which Krejcikova was referring when she said that she had used her doubles skills to defeat Swiatek in Ostava.

In completing her Dubai run, the Czech player became the fifth woman to defeat the three top-ranked players in the world at a tournament.

Swiatek and Krejcikova are now 2-2 against each other, and Krejciova has won both of their finals. Is Krejcivkova now in Swiatek's head, or is the world number 1 immune to that sort of thing? Regardless, it may be a good idea for Swiatek to line her cap with some lead the next time she meets Krejcikova in a final.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Farewell to the Forehand of Fire

If it seems like Sania Mirza has been on the tour for ages, well--it's because she has. Mirza began her WTA career in 2003, when she showed up with a forehand that demonstrated why her favorite player was Steffi Graf. But having one of the deadliest forehands ever seen on the tour also cost Mirza, who was sustaining wrist injuries as early as 2007. Eventually, she would play doubles exclusively, a move which allowed her to significantly reduce her injuries.

In 2005, Mirza became the first Indian woman to win a WTA tournament when she won her hometown event in Hyderabad. Ten years later, she would become the first Indian woman to attain a number 1 ranking (in doubles), and the first Indian woman to win a major, when she and Martina Hingis won Wimbledon.

Mirza won 43 doubles titles, including the aforementioned 2015 Wimbledon title, the 2015 U.S. Open (also with Martina Hingis), and the 2016 Australian Open (with Hingis). She also won three major mixed doubles titles: the 2009 Australian Open (with Mahesh Bhupathi), the 2012 French Open (also with Bhupathi), and the 2014 U.S. Open (with Bruno Soares). Mirza also won the WTA Finals in 2014 (with Cara Black) and 2015 (with Hingis).

In 2018, Mirza went on maternity leave. She returned to the tour in 2020, won the first tournament that she entered, and returned to the top 25 in doubles.

In 2014, Mirza was appointed brand ambassador for the Indian state of Telangana. She was also the first Asian woman to be named UN Women Goodwill Embassador for South Asia. Mirza, who has established a tennis academy in Hyderabad, used her influence in 2012 to bring about the awarding of equal prize money for all tennis tournaments in India. 

I was disappointed--though not surprised--a few years ago, when the Indian star and activist told a journalist that she wasn't a feminist. The word's meaning has become so distorted, I suppose, that women who support social, economic and political equality for women (i.e., feminism) find ways to avoid claiming the identity (e.a., Christina Aguilera's "I don't want to be labeled" and Patti Smith's "reasoning," which is so outrageously upside down-ridiculous that I won't even go into it here). 

Many years ago, the mother of a WTA player told me that Mirza and her mother--who often accompanied Mirza to tournaments--were the nicest, most gracious people that she had encountered on the tour. This didn't surprise me--Sania Mirza, whose early career was sometimes overshadowed by controversy (e.a., in 2005, a group of Muslim clerics ordered her to wear long tunics and headscarves when she competed), had to learn, early on, to handle not only the pressure of being a professional athlete, but also the pressure of bearing publicity that she never sought.

This week, the 36-year-old Mirza retired from professional tennis, leaving a legacy that includes the expansion of tennis in India, a model of grace under pressure, a stellar doubles career---and a forehand of fire.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

My Australian Open top 10

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

10. Putting on a (long) show: 15-year-old Alina Korneeva, playing in her first major, not only had to oppose her doubles partner, Mirra Andreeva, in the singles final, but also had to do so for three hours and 18 minutes. Korneeva won the championship, and she and Andreeva scored major points for junior level competitiveness and fitness.

9. Remember their names: If you follow junior tennis, you know that Diana Shnaider has been a standout in both singles and doubles (and especially doubles) for the past few years. This year, the 18-year-old Russian qualified for the singles main draw in Melbourne and won her first round, defeating Kristina Kucova. She played her second round match against 6th seed Maria Sakkari, took a set off of the Greek star, and dragged her through a two-hour and 33-minutes contest. She lost that battle, but the lefty in the all-business head wrap was a formidable opponent and a joy to watch.

Sakkari escaped that challenge, but in the next round, she couldn't escape Zhu Lin. After beating Rebecca Marino in the first round, Zhu went on to upset 32nd seed Jil Teichmann. That would have been impressive enough, but then the Chinese player went on to take out Sakkari in the next round. She would fall to two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the round of 16, but not before pushing Azarenka to three sets.

8. An outstanding career
: Samantha Stosur, who had already retired from singles competition,  made the 2023 Australian Open her last tournament in doubles. The Australian player was a doubles star before she broke out as a singles star, a trend that would be repeated by her countrywoman Ash Barty, and----more recently--by Czech player Barbora Krejcikova.

Stosur reached the number 1 ranking in doubles, and the number 4 ranking in singles.  She won eight doubles titles (including four majors), three mixed doubles titles (all majors), and eight singles titles, including the 2011 U.S. Open championship. She was also the runner-up at the 2010 French Open.

7. Just how great is Diede the Great?: Pretty great. The defending champion won her fifth Australian Open singles title, even though it was a bumpy ride in the final, in which she lost 0-6 to Yui Kamiji in the first set. And she and Aniek Van Koot defended their doubles title, making it their fourth win in Australia. de Groot has now won 17 singles majors and 16 doubles majors.

6. A pairing made in broadcast heaven
: We hear so much bad commentary in tennis (and the one commentator that so many of us loved disappeared from the airwaves) that it was an absolute pleasure to listen to Laura Robson and Daniela Hantuchova at this Australian Open. I've enjoyed listening to both of them for a while, but putting them together sparked magic. They are both intelligent analysts, and each of them has a delicious sense of humor. More, please.

5. The comeback just keeps getting better
: After her knee surgery, Brazlian doubles player Luisa Stefani was out for almost a year. Upon returning in the fall of 2022, she got right down to business, winning in Guadalajara (with Storm Sanders), then winning in Adelaide (with Taylor Townsend) at the beginning of 2023. Stefani was scheduled to play doubles with Caty McNally at the Australian Open, but McNally had to withdraw. She did play mixed doubles, however, with countryman Rafael Matos, and they won the title.

4. "It ain't over 'til it's over" doesn't begin to describe it: Miriam Kolodziejova and Marketa Vondrousova played 7th seeds Beatriz Haddad-Maia and Zhang Shuai in the second round of doubles. The situation was already complicated because Vondrousova was injured, but it got a lot more complicated as the match wore on.

Haddad Maia and Zhang won the first set, 6-3. It looked like they were going to win the second set--and the match--but by the end of the set, the Czech team had saved six match points before going on to win a tiebreak, 11-9. That was exciting enough, but it paled compared with what took place in the third set. Haddad Maia and Zhang, obviously frustrated with what happened in the second set, quickly went up 5-0, but Kolodziejova and Vondrousova were still there to play. They won five straight games, saved a match point, and then took the match to another tiebreak, in which they saved two more match points, and won, 14-12. Their 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory took two hours and 31minutes to achieve.

While I was watching this incredible match, I thought of another Australian Open doubles match, played in 2009, in which Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama played Cara Black and Liezel Huber. Black and Huber won the first set in a 7-0 tiebreak, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama won the second, 6-3. 

In the third set, Hantuchova and Sugiyama went down 2-5, but--just as it looked as though they didn't have a chance--some switch got turned on, and they began to play in complete sync with one another, with Hantuchova setting up repeated winning volleys for Sugiyama. The set went to a tiebreak, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama went down 2-6, but they wound up winning it 12-10. The match lasted three hours, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama saved seven match points.

3. Polish power in Melbourne: We were expecting it, and we got it. But it wasn't world number 1 Iga Swiatek--she went out in the round of 16 to eventual finalist Elena Rybakina. What we did get was Magda Linette. After defeating Mayar Sherif in the first round, she went on to upset 16th seed Anett Kontaveit, 19th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, 4th seed Caroline Garcia, and 30th seed (whose status is certainly higher than the seed number next to her name) Karolina Pliskova. 

Linette's run to the semifinals was thrilling. The 30-year-old had never made it past the third round of a major before this year, but she kept trying, and she kept working on the mental aspect of her game. In her semifinal match, Linette took eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka to a first set tiebreak, but lost in straight sets. It was a great run, and further proof that the "older" athlete can be a force on the tour.

2. We liked it so much, we did it again!: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova were the top seeds and defending champions at this year's Australian Open, and now they're the new champions. The Czech pair defeated 10th seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara in straight sets in the final. Last year, they won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but missed a chance to win the Grand Slam because Krejcikova was ill and could not compete at the French Open. Now the new champions--who already own a Career Slam (a golden one)--have another chance to go for the Grand Slam.

1. When it all comes together: Aryna Sabalenka has always been a fiery ball of potential. The 24-year-old from Minsk not only plays power tennis, she also has an abundance of doubles skills. But lately, she has been plagued with problems with her serve, and--throughout her career--she has had to struggle with her emotions on court. Determined to put these issues behind her, Sabalenka arrived in Melbourne with an Adelaide trophy, a new serve, and a new attitude. Sabalenka didn't drop a set until she ran into Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the final, but she hit 17 aces and a total of 51 winners in that very exciting match, and emerged the 2023 Australian Open singles champion.

Sabalenka's Australian Open victory gives her twelve singles titles. She also won the Australian Open doubles championship in 2021, with partner Elise Mertens, whom she defeated this year in the third round of singles competition.

Krejcikova and Siniakova win Australian Open doubles title--again

Top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are once again the Australian Open doubles champions. They defeated 10th seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara 6-3, 6-4, thereby setting up another possible try for the Grand Slam. There's every reason to believe that the Czech pair would have won the Grand Slam in 2022, but they were unable to compete at the French Open because Krejcikova was ill. They won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Krejcikova and Siniakova (who are ranked number 2 and number 1, respectively) have been playing together for ten years. Their 2023 Australian Open victory gives them seven major titles. The pair already owns a golden Career Slam, having won the U.S. Open once, and the other majors twice.

Krejcikova won the French Open in singles in 2021, and both she and Siniakova intend to continue focusing on their singles careers, while playing selected events in doubles.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Sabalenka overcomes her demons and overwhelms the field

In the last couple of years, Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semifinals of majors three times, and it seemed, in some ways, inevitable, that she would take the next step. However, a combination of emotional unsteadiness on court and an increasingly unreliable serve also gave credence to the possibility that she wouldn't. But the world number 5 solved that puzzle in style these past two weeks in Melbourne, and topped off her run with a three-set win (4-6, 6-3, 6-4) over Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. 

Sabalenka approached her problems in a very Kerberesque way, identifying them and seeking expert help to overcome them. She worked with a biomechanics expert to get her serve back on track, and she also worked with a sports psychologist. Just the other day, however, Sabalenka said that she had stopped working with the psychologist. "I realized that nobody other than me will help," she said. "In pre-season, I spoke to my psychologist, saying, 'Listen, I feel like I have to deal with that by myself, because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it's not fixing my problem.'"

Well, of course it isn't. Note to Aryna: Sports psychologists (and all other mental health professionals) aren't there to fix your problems--they're there to guide you in fixing your problems. 

The Australian Open final definitely lived up to expectations. What Mary Carillo once dubbed "big babe tennis" (a tribute to Mary Pierce) was on display throughout the entire two hours and 28 minutes, but it was also big babe tennis with style. Rybakina showed off some very deft touch at the net, and of course, Sabalenka's considerable doubles skills were on display when needed.  

Rybakina's first serve is scary good. She sometimes hits aces with seeming abandon, and the ones that aren't aces are deadly, more often that not. Prior to the final, she had an Australian Open first serve win percenrage of almost 80, a statistic which is practically unknown. Her second serve, however, is inconsistent, but she made it to the final on the strength of that first serve. Rybakina hit nine aces in the final, but here's the stat that fans may not have expected: Sabalenka hit seventeen. 

Sabalenka's shadow did appear from time to time--she double-faulted seven times. But she didn't let it get to her. She hit 51 winners and made 28 unforced errors. Rybakina's stats in that department weren't bad, either--she hit 31 winners and made 25 unforced errors. However, "51 winners" says it all.

It's interesting to note that--in the first set, which Rybakina won--the Wimbledon champion's second serve win percentage was 75. But in the second set, it went down to 44, and in the third, it dipped all the way to 29. Fans logically expected Sabalenka to have problems with her serve (and she did, from time to time), but in the end, it was Rybakina who missed too many first serves and couldn't compensate with her second serve. Sabalenka's response to all the first and second set missed first serves was deadly.

Rybakina had to do a lot of heavy lifting during the tournament. She took out three major champions, including world number 1 Iga Swiatek; perhaps there was some mental fatigue in the final. But even if there was, she played extremely well, but she just wasn't up to handling the barrage of aces and winners coming off of Sabalenka's racket.

In other big Australian Open news, defending wheelchair singles champion Diede de Groot won the Australian Open for the third time in a row, but it was a bit of a wild ride. In 2020, de Groot began to have problems with her serve, and failed to defend both her Australian Open and French Open titles. Her service problems were on display again in the opening set of the final against 2nd seed Yui Kamiji. Kamiji won that set 6-0, which--in the world of Diede the Great--is a stunning phenomenon. 

de Groot double-faulted five times in that set, and six times in the second set, but Kamiji also struggled with her serve in that set. de Groot's 0-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory gives her four Australian singles titles, and a total of seventeen major singles titles. She and partner Aniek Van Koot defended their doubles titles, and that means that de Groot also possesses sixteen major doubles titles. Then there are her four Masters singles gold medals and two Masters doubles gold medals--and her Paralympic gold medals in both singles and doubles. The protogé of the great Esther Vergeer is a grand reflection of her mentor. 

And finally, in a contest between two Russian teens, 9th seed Alina Korneeva, playing in her first major, defeated 7th seed Mirra Andreeva 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 in a final that lasted three hours and eighteen minutes to play. I don't recall another major junior match lasting that long, and the fact that this one did is a tribute to the girls' fitness. The two 15-year-olds are also doubles partners. They were seeded 2nd at the Australian Open, and made it to the semifinals. The new junior doubles champions are the unseeded team of Renata Jamricho and Federica Urgesi. They defeated 4th seeds Hayu Kinoshita and Sara Saito in the final.