Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Imagine, for a moment

Imagine, for a moment, that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had made comments about the inferiority o LGBTQ players.

Imagine, for a moment, that Giles Simon had insulted Jewish players.

Imagine, for a moment, that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and John Isner had made "back door" derogatory comments about people of color.

Imagine, for a moment, that Roger Federer had defended someone accused of brutally beating a Mexican player.

Imagine, for a moment, that David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Toni Nadal, and the entire Spanish Fed Cup team had made insulting comments about gay players or black players. 

Sure, the bigots would have been down with it all, but there would also have been a huge uproar against such comments. 

But they didn't do that. They made insulting, derogatory, and sometimes sneakily offensive comments about women.

Furthermore, some of the same fans who push back against the campaign against equal pay, and who push back against the atrocious threats and insults directed at WTA players on social media, continue to idolize sexist--and sometimes misogynist (and really, does the difference even matter?)--ATP players. The double standard is breathtaking. 

Until sexism and misogyny are taken seriously by those who purport to disown all prejudice and bigotry, WTA players, and all female athletes (and all females, for that matter), will continue to be seen as not as good, not as worthy, not as human, as men.

Monday, May 23, 2022

French Open first round--big upsets, mighty German

There are some things you can always count on at the French Open: It will rain, the crowd will be even ruder than the crowds in Australia, London and the United States, Angie Kerber will act (at least for a while) like she's never won a clay tournament, and I will find it hard to do anything but watch the matches at my favorite major.

And of course, there will be upsets early on. The first to go this year was a surprise--yet, maybe not to the degree that people seem to think. It was a surprise because it was 6th seed Ons Jabeur, who has won more clay matches this year than any other player on the tour. Jabeur won Madrid, and was the runner-up in Charleston and Rome. The Tunisian star was the favorite of some to win the title, but she fell to Magda Linette in the opening round. Linette, while ranked number 52 in the world, is no slouch on a clay court, and she was able to get the best of an increasingly rattled Jabeur in three tough sets.

The next to go was 10th seed and former champion Garbine Muguruza, who was shown the exit in the first round by giant-slayer Kaia Kanepi. And while it's true that any giant can be taken out by Kanepi on a given day, the Spanish star may have been especially vulnerable. Muguruza's inconsistency and inability to close matches are no longer "new" problems; Muguruza just isn't herself anymore.

Another first-round upset--this one especially sad--was that of 2nd seed and defending champion Barbora Krejcikova. The Czech star has been out for a several months with an elbow injury, and no one who pays attention to the tour expected her to do that well--she has hardly played any matches in a while. Still, I hoped that she'd at least be able to go for a few rounds. But French teenager Diane Parry had other plans; she defeated Krejcikova 1-6, 6-2, 6-3, and thus marked her first victory over a top 10 player (and her first over a top 50 player, for that matter). 

Krejcikova said, after the match, that she was able to play pain-free, but that she "hit the wall" physically after going for so long without playing matches.

Also going out in the first round were Petra Martic, former world number 1 Naomi Osaka, Dayana Yastremska, 25th seed Liudmila Samsonova, Anett Kontaveit, and last year's junior champion, Linda Noskova, who took Emma Raducanu to three sets. 

And then there was this:

I don't know which is stronger--the legs or the fight--but Angie Kerber remains a force of nature. This match was stunning, and peak Kerber--as always--left me breathless.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Iga, Ons and ??--just add red clay and mix vigorously

The recipe for French Open deliciousness is a bit of a mystery--but not by too much. Now that world number 1 Iga Swiatek has won Stuttgart and defended her title in Rome, she is the stand-out favorite to again win at Roland Garros. In defending her Rome title, Swiatek didn't drop a set--and she delivered two bagel sets. In Stuttgart, she dropped only one set--to Liudmila Samsonova. 

The other strong contender is Madrid champion Ons Jabeur, whose climb up the rankings (she is currently number 6 in the world) has been dramatic. Both Jabeur and Swiatek (the finalists in Rome) are excellent examples of what happens when players make commitments to improve various parts of their games. Hard work really does pay off, and all eyes will be on both of these players in Paris.

Who else?

Six weeks ago, I would have said that the two to watch would be Swiatek and Paula Badosa, but the Spaniard's spark has dimmed since then. But that doesn't mean that it won't come back in time for the French Open; she definitely has the game to go far in my favorite major. Former champion Simona Halep is another question mark: Right now, she doesn't look like a top contender, but it would be unwise to rule her out.

Unfortunately, last year's champion, Barbora Krejcikova, has been injured for a while, and has withdrawn from the recent clay tournaments that she entered. It's questionable whether she'll even be competing in Paris, which is sad under any circumstance, but especially when I consider her unforgettable 2021 performances. The Czech star's overall dominance in Paris last year was unforgettable.

There are other contenders, of course. Dasha Kasatkina, once considered a potential clay court star (she did win Charleston in 2017) kind of dropped off for a long time, but she's back, and her considerable show-womanship has been augmented by more solid serving and hitting. The USA has two potential contenders--both Amanda Anisimova and Jessie Pegula (the runner-up in Madrid) have looked very good on red clay this year.

Maria Sakkari is always hovering in the "contender" area, and Bianca Andreescu is back (again), and looking better on clay than maybe some would have expected. My biggest hope for the Canadian star is that she stays healthy.

Of course, there are many players who may not be contenders but who can cause trouble on clay courts; the list is too long to publish. Last year, it was Maria Sakkari who took out Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals. Sakkari has a 3-2 record against Swiatek, and none of their matches has ever gone past two sets. Their match in Paris last year was the only match they have ever played against each other on clay. However, the 2022 version of Swiatek is even more deadly than the 2020 version that swept through Roland Garros like a red dust storm.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Some final thoughts on Charleston

2022 champion Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)

The 2022 Credit One Charleston Open was special for several reasons: It was the first time since 2019 that fans (and media) were permitted to attend, it was the first year of Credit One's sponsorship, it was the tournament's delayed 50th anniversary celebration, and it was the unveiling of the new Credit One Stadium. 

The new stadium has so many enhanced features--additional seating, more bathrooms, better lighting, a new shade canopy, a new players' lounge, and a new media center. The already-lovely landscaping around the stadium has also been enhanced.

2022 champions Andreja Klepac & Magda Linette (photo by Daniel Ward)

Several past champions--including Charleston's first champion, Rosie Casala--were on hand to help celebrate, and the beautiful Althea Gibson Club Court was re-dedicated to the memory of Althea Gibson.

past champions Rosie Casals, Tracy Austin, Arantxa Sanchez (photo by Daniel Ward)

There's nothing quite like the Charleston Open. The palm trees, water views and irises....the beautiful club court....the good-humored, tennis-savvy crowd....the unpredictable weather--it's an event unlike any other.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees

Last year, I covered the tournament virtually, and that, too, was a laid-back, pleasant experience. This year, I experienced the new media center, which was comfortable and well-furnished, with plenty of space for interviews and press conferences. I have to confess, though, that I miss the old "media tent," the temporary building which used to shake during thunderstorms, and from which we were once evacuated (while wearing garbage bags) during a hail storm. I will always miss it; I can't help it. For years, we sat in there, hearing the sometimes-violent weather, and waiting for the players to arrive in golf carts for their press conferences and interviews.

I also really miss the coffee bar, where I used to pick up various hot drinks--what happened to it? Of course, for many years, I've missed the veggie hot dogs that used to be sold in the stadium. 

Magda Linette (photo by Daniel Ward)
There was a lot going on this past week, so the exploits of one particular player may have been lost in the flood of news stories and interviews that were made public. That player was Magda Linette, who probably had the most unusual--and stressful--experience of anyone in the field--and she walked away with a trophy.

On Tuesday, Linette defeated Katie Volynets in a three-set match in the first round. She then played her second round match against Leylah Fernandez, but it began to rain, so that match resumed on Thursday. It, too, went to three sets and ended in a tiebreak, which lasted 17 minutes. During that time, Fernandez saved six match points before Linette won on her seventh match point.

Later that day, Linette defeated Kaia Kanepi in another three-set match. On Thursday, Ekaterina Alexandrova defeated her 6-0, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. After the match, Alexandrova said: "...I also knew that she played yesterday like two three-set matches, and I think she finished like super late, and for her it would be extremely tough to play today. I knew that, but still, I was trying to play every single point, because I know, like you don't know when, but she can start to play like just amazingly and it will be super tough."

But that's not all! The same day that Linette played both Fernandez and Kanepi, she and her partner, Andreja Klepac also played their first round doubles match, defeating Alicija Rosolska and Erin Routliffe (and yes, there was a super tiebreak). 

If there were a trophy awarded for stamina and resiliance, Magda Linette would be holding it. Instead, she's holding the doubles championship trophy, and that feels like a happy ending.

It was great to attend the Credit One Charleston Open in person again, to see all of lovely enhancements and additions, and to enjoy the presence of a number of past champions. I learned a lot about the creation of Alize Cornet's book, and about Jelena Jankovic's new life as a mom. The players, as always, were open, insightful, and often very funny. For them, the Charleston tournament is a place where they can relax a bit and get the kind of personal attention that keeps them coming back.

all photos by Diane Elayne Dees

Sunday, April 10, 2022

What do you give a woman who has Olympic gold?

photo by Daniel Ward

Her first clay court trophy, of course.

Belinda Bencic of Switzerland became the 2022 Credit One Charleston Open champion today when she defeated Ons Jabeur 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in a thrilling and highly entertaining final that lasted two hours and 35 minutes and had the crowd enthralled throughout. One is tempted to use the old expression, "everything but the kitchen sink" to describe what the players threw at each other, but that doesn't quite get it because they threw the kitchen sink, too.

There were slices, drop shots, lobs, tweeners, and winners hit like lasers to the corners of the court. Jabeur got off to a slow start, dropping the first set 1-6. Meanwhile, Bencic won 90% of her first serve points and didn't face a break point. Jabeur later said that the shadow on the court was an especially difficult obstacle for her, and she also had trouble because Bencic takes the ball so fast. "I'm someone who needs to see the bounce of the ball," she told us at her press conference. 

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)

The second set was a different story, as Jabeur adjusted to the court and to Bencic's speed. The shot-making was intense and varied, and Jabeur--making fewer unforced errors--had a dramatic hold of serve to go up 6-5. She would go on to win this very tense set, 7-5.

The third set was also tense. At 3-all, Jabeur hit a drop shot that Bencic was able to get, and what commenced after that was possibly the most crowd-pleasing moment of the match. The rally featured a tweener, and then a fast run by Jabeur to get to a ball that Bencic hit into the corner. Jabeur got to the ball, but not in time to position herself to make a shot, so she kicked the ball over the net.

Bencic broke for 4-3, and had a match point on Jabeur's serve at 5-3. Jabeur saved that match point, but was unable to stop Bencic from serving out the match, giving the Swiss star her sixth WTA title, and her first title on clay. Bencic's defeat of Jabeur also marked the 29th top 10 win of her career. (She also defeated world number 3 Paula Badosa in Charleston.)

photo by Daniel Ward
It was a tough loss for Jabeur, who has won only one of the five finals in which she has competed. Bencic was very complimentary of her opponent: "I think Ons, she took everything from me today. And at some point, I just really didn't know what to do anymore, and I think she played great in the second set."

"...serving it out," Bencic said, "I really don't know how. Like I was so nervous. I was just like, okay, just put the serve in. And then somehow my instincts, they took over, and I played those rallies, and I think I played great three points, and then on the match point I just kind of, yeah, put it in."

The champion went on to talk about the evolution of her career--so much was expected of her when she was very young, and then she sustained a series of injuries. 

"It's not easy. And maybe I had some years where I had to really figure out myself and find myself and kind of get back to what I'm doing the best and appreciate tennis more after the injuries. But I never felt like my career is wasted or something."

Bencic also talked about her opponent's disappointment:

"I lost a lot of finals. I don't have a positive final record. And it's hard to accept sometimes, because you feel like you play an amazing tournament and you lose the last match and you are kind of disappointed with yourself.

"...So I feel like she does everything right to make her career like the best as possible. And I feel like if you keep doing that, then it will reward you, like later or sooner. So I just believe that sport is fair at one point, but sometimes you cannot feel it right away. So sometimes you lose, but then you feel later it's good for something."

Finally, the new champion told us what she most wants to do before she leaves Charleston: "I really want to go to Krispy Kreme doughnuts."

Andreja Klepac & Magda Linette (photo by Daniel Ward)

Bencic wasn't the only champion today. Earlier, 4th seeds Andreja Klepac and Magda Linette won the doubles title when they defeated Lucie Hradecka and Sania Mirza 6-2, 4-6, 10-7 in the final. It was Linette's first doubles title. Both players were without their usual partners, so they got together right before the tournament and entered as a team at the last minute. 

Sania Mirza & Lucie Hradecka (photo by Daniel Ward)

Rosie Casals, the first Charleston champion (photo by Daniel Ward)

Saturday, April 9, 2022

I Drove All Night--Jankovic in Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward
2007 Charleston champion Jelena Jankovic was determined to make it to the city to help fans and players celebrate the tournament's (delayed) 50th anniversary. Her flight was delayed, then she was flown to New York City, where she discovered that all of the flights to Charleston has been canceled. She then drove fourteen hours and arrived in Charleston early Saturday morning. She was determined to make it for the celebration, and she said that she was surrounded by people with so much positive energy, that she was able to forget about her exhaustion.

I sat down with JJ this afternoon to talk about her new life as a mom, and about her memories of Charleston, where she was practically a rock star for years.

Jankovic said that she had many great memories of the stadium, and--of course--her favorite memory is of winning the title in 2007. That was the year that there were serious storms and very high winds on finals day. Jankovic handled the wind really well, while her opponent, Dinara Safina, cursed the wind. "“She was cursing, and I was probably cursing as well, but inside myself," Jankovic recalled.

I asked her if there were any other matches that stood out for her, but she said that--though she remembered being in several exciting matches, she couldn't recall them specifically. She asked me if I could recall one, but unfortunately, the only one I could think of was a quarterfinal that she lost in 2010 to Daniela Hantuchova. I remember it because it was so well played.

We talked about her great comfort level in Charleston, where she always tended to be outrageously funny, and to get up to various antics, especially in the company of her friend, 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic.

photo by Daniel Ward
“I’m an open and honest person; I always show my emotions....

“Charleston, every year I came back to Charleston, they always made us feel like, you know, coming back to family. I think that’s what made me open up even maybe more….because I never take life very seriously, I’m just that type of person, so I think that’s why you could maybe get some more. Because maybe in other places, it was more serious—they didn’t give me that freedom to open and say some of the things maybe I would say here.”

  "I haven't slept in like one year and three days."

Jankovic's little girl, Una, had her first birthday just a few days ago, and the former champion describes herself as a full-time mom. JJ said that she doesn't have any nannies, and that she prepares all of her daughter's food, though she does have a cook for herself. She said that--because of teething issues--her baby wakes up "all the time." "I haven't slept in like one year and three days."

I asked if perhaps we can look forward to Una's picking up a racquet some day. Jankovic said: “I see her handle the balls, unbelievable, in her tiny little hand, she found a way to hold two balls, and I don’t know how she even did that....“She has very good motor skills, I see that from early, maybe three or four months.”

Jankovic stressed that she won’t put any pressure on her daughter,  but she hopes that Una plays sports "so she can learn about being disciplined, responsible, respectful." She said that she also wants her to be active rather than be preoccupied with electronic devices all the time.

“For me, the most important thing is that I want her to be a good person, to be respectful, and to have a good heart.”

JJ said that she, herself, is not currently involved in any fitness activities, but will eventually resume some type of fitness schedule. Right now, she simply has no time for anything other than taking care of her baby.

I asked her if, like some other players, she may be interested in writing a book. 

“Actually, I would have a lot to say; I think it would be a fun book to read.” 

Jankovic said that a lot of interesting things have happened, and that she had a lot to share, coming from a small country with no tradition in tennis. For a long time, people didn’t take her professional tennis goals seriously. 

“I had a vision, I had motivation, I was dedicated….'You’re too ambitious, too confident…it’s not gonna happen,'" people told her, and then she became the number 1 player in the world. “I opened the doors for other players.”

photo by Daniel Ward

Finally, I asked Jelena about her shoes. After all, this was the woman who--when she won Stuttgart--chose the red Porsche because she had a matching pair of heels at home. She was wearing Prada today, a pair she'd had for many years that she says have held up well because she's hardly ever worn them. She wore them today, she said, because the heels are low.

clockwise, from left: JJ and Petko, playing doubles in 2014, at a press conference in 2013, wearing her "superhero" cape for the press in 2014 (all photos by Daniel Ward)

Bencic and Jabeur to contest for the Charleston championship

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)
10th seed Belinda Bencic got a big step closer to winning her first title on clay today, when she defeated Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-4, 6-3 in the Credit One Charleston Open semifinals. The Swiss star didn't have an easy time getting to the final--her first on clay. In her first round match against Wang Xiyu, she was two points away from defeat, and in her quarterfinal match, she had to make a comeback to defeat Paula Badosa, whom she had not defeated in three other tries. 

Discussing her feelings about playing on clay, Bencic told the press: "I feel like over-analyzing sometimes it's worse, and that's what I said on the on-court interview. I just had like two days of practice after Miami to play the first round here. And I think sometimes that's better. You just, I don't know, just play and not think too much. You adapt quickly, and your body knows what to do."

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)
The final promises to be intriguing: Bencic's opponent will be 4th seed Ons Jabeur, who defeated 15th seed Amanda Anisimova in the second semifinal. That was a match of intense momentum swings, as Anisimova won the first set 6-2 with very aggressive play, and Jabeur won the second set 6-1. The 4th seed took the final set 6-4. It was a chilly windy day, which added to the drama.

Last year, Jabeur reached the semifinals of the tournament, in which she was defeated by Danka Kovinic. She then reached the final of the MUSC Health Women's Open, a WTA 250 event also held in Charleston, in which she lost to Astra Sharma. 

"...I don't have very good records in the finals. Let's start by that. Let's start by showing that I can really
push myself more mentally, physically and on the court, you know, playing a player that is strong enough and not easy to play in the finals. I think let me start by showing that side of me, the mentality that I'm going with tomorrow. I think that will be the best thing that I can show tomorrow."

Both Bencic and Jabeur are stylish players who each possess a large variety of shots. And while Jabeur is known as a stunning shot-maker with a lot of variety, Bencic is dangerous because she takes the ball very early, and also has superb touch.

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)


The doubles final will feature Lucie Hradecka and Sania Mirza, who upset top seeds Caroline Dolehide and Zhang Shuai, and 4th seeds Andreja Klepac and Magda Linette, who defeated Vivian Heisen and Xu Yifan.