Monday, March 18, 2019

Bianca--a stunning desert bloom

In the last several years, Indian Wells has produced some champions that have excited me. Flavia Pennetta's 2014 victory was very satisfying, as was Elena Vesnina's 2017 triumph. And now, seemingly "out of nowhere," we have Bianca Andreescu (though, to be fair, some people may have found a Kerber victory somewhat "out of nowhere," too).

As with all "out of nowhere" winners, Andreescu was actually coming from somewhere. Serious tennis fans have had their eyes on the Canadian teenager for a while. But--as she said in her press conference--last year was a rough one for her, so to win an event like the BNP Paribas Open was just "crazy."

Watching Andreescu--who took out the likes of Dominika Cibulkova, Wang Qiang and Garbine Muguruza on her way to the semifinals--challenges us to describe her as a player because she does so much so well. Imagine concocting a desert hybrid that contains the laser-like hitting of Kvitova, the fluidity of Muguruza, the volleying savvy of Vinci, the geometric intelligence of Halep and Radwanska, and the grit of Pennetta. Toss it in the sand and wait--and the result is a Canadian-Romanian flower that is both beautiful and hardy.

When Andreescu reached the semifinals, she had her hands full with world number 6 Elina Svitolina, who often outruns and out-thinks the best of them. It didn't help the Canadian's cause that, for much of the match, she was cramping rather badly. Yet, somehow, she contained the pain just enough to defeat Svitolina 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

In the final, Andreescu faced someone else who is as tough as she is--Angie "Never Count Her Out" Kerber. The German star had made quick work of Belinda Bencic in the semifinals (breaking her 12-match win streak), though many assumed that Bencic was on her way to the final.

Andreescu took the first set off Kerber, 6-4.

But the mighty German, doing what she does best, figured out quite a bit about her opponent's game, then came on strong in the next set, taking it 6-3. The final set was simply stunning. Andreescu began cramping again, only worse than she had in the semifinals. But even with that ("I want it so bad," she told her coach during an on-court coaching session in which she was in obvious physical pain), she kept at it.

At 5-4, Andreescu had match points, and Kerber saved them. It seemed logical (though logic wasn't really very useful, at this point) to assume that--if Kerber held--her opponent wouldn't be able to withstand the demands of a 5-all score. And sure enough, suddenly, the Canadian had a match point on Kerber's serve. And then Kerber hit one of the best serves she'd hit in the entire set, setting her up for a deuce score, but--following Andreescu's return--she hit a forehand into the net, and it was over.

The tennis press is already all over Andreescu's report that she meditates and uses visualization. That's a shame, because I'm sure that the vast majority of the tennis press doesn't really know what that means. In time, (I hope) Andreescu will learn how to manage questions and remarks about her mind-body practices. Her mature approach to tennis and her articulate presentation notwithstanding--she's only 18, and it will be interesting to see how she matures as a tennis celebrity, if indeed, that is what she is becoming.

It is an absolute pleasure to watch her play. Sometimes, players who have a huge variety of shots and strategies available to them get confused about what to do when, but there is also something very instinctive about Andreescu's tennis.

This is one complex desert flower.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Notes on slump

It's rare for even an elite player to not have a slump now and then, and it's not at all uncommon for slumps to visit other members of the top 20 (or beyond). But what causes an otherwise winning (and uninjured) athlete to suddenly enter a period of poor play--at worst--or--at best--a period of playing well but not being able to close?

There are many reasons.

An obvious one involves returning from an injury layoff. The body may be repaired, but the player has lost her momentum, and may also have a tendency to guard the injured part of her body. Both Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova had service problems after they had their shoulders repaired. In fairness, "repaired" shoulders often force players to change their service motions, which creates a whole new learning situation, complete with the anxiety that accompanies such situations.

Another common issue on the WTA Tour is a player's response to sudden success and fame. Petra Kvitova struggled to adjust to being suddenly famous, and the struggle manifested itself in her performance (granted, the Czech isn't the most consistent player, under any circumstance). We don't know, but we might make an educated guess that--to some extent--this kind of pressure also affected Alona Ostapenko. And while we'll never know for sure, we can also speculate about Ana Ivanovic, who just never seemed to quite pull herself together after she won the French Open.

A reason less talked about is mental health vulnerability. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress from trauma all plague athletes, just as they plague everyone else. Having a psychological problem can be devastating, and can cause physical pain, fatigue, increased irritability, an inability to focus, and a loss of interest in one's career.

Closely related is personal stress, caused by such factors as family problems, other relationship problems, or financial problems. In the case of tour athletes, the perception of stress may be magnified because they are traveling and cannot be with their families or significant others (or attorneys), and they may therefore feel powerless and/or excluded.

Also, as we know, the online of abuse of players--primarily, but not entirely--by members of the sports betting community, is a potent source of stress, especially for younger players who lack experience in dealing with really ugly situations.

Then there is the issue of youth, in and of itself. There are some very young players on the tour, and some of them may be even younger in developmental terms, i.e., they may not yet have a level of maturity that matches their age. Given that they probably didn't have "normal" childhoods or adolescent experiences, this isn't a surprise. Some of them may exhibit pseudo-maturity, and are advanced in some ways, but developmentally lagging in others.

Some players take slumps in stride and just go about the business of working their way out of them. A coach should be able to address the slump with the player and help her with problem-solving. But in order to do that, the coach needs to understand what is really going on. That means s/he has to be someone whom the player trusts.

Some players seek the services of sports psychologists or other sports psychology clinicians, which is a good thing, but I wonder whether they may also need to see regular psychotherapists. And that brings up another problem: How can you engage in psychotherapy when you're always traveling? I'm not a fan of tele-psychotherapy, but in this case, it would certainly be better than nothing.

Of course, there's always the possibility that a slump isn't caused by any of these things--that it just appears, like spot of bad weather, and then passes. My guess is that this type of slump is most likely caused by mental fatigue, or a bad match that erodes confidence.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Remembering the Virginia Slims tour

From 1984 through 1987, New Orleans hosted a Virginia Slims tournament. The first four years, the event was played on indoor carpet at the Lakefront Arena; the final year, it was played on hard courts in City Park, an atmosphere I found inferior to the indoor one.

New Orleans wasn't one of the original Virginia Slims venues, but got the event when Detroit was forced to give it up (that venue lost its main sponsor, the Junior League of Detroit).

Of the five tournaments that were played in the Crescent City, Chris Evert won three and Martina Navratilova won two. Navratilova and Evert were also on the championship doubles teams (with Pam Shriver and Wendy Turnbull, respectively) the first two years of the event.

I loved attending the Virginia Slims matches. They were the first professional matches I'd ever seen that weren't on my television. The atmosphere was very relaxed. I recall, one year, no one had bothered to tell one of the top players about the city's unpredictable, thrill ride of a public transportation system, and play was delayed because she had taken the bus to the stadium. Rather than being upset, fans just shook their heads knowingly and crossed their fingers.

Some really good players came to New Orleans over the years. In addition to Evert, Navratilova, Shriver, and Turnbull, we had Anne Smith, Lori McNeil, Zina Garrison, Sylvia Hanika, Kathy Rinaldi, Bettina Bunge, Elise Burgin, Gigi Fernandez, and Monica Seles.

The purse was generally around $150,000.

The Virginia Slims Circuit was founded in 1970 by the Original 9, when they broke off from the USLTA because of the extreme pay inequality between male and female players. The Virginia Slims Circuit was a creation of the heart, and while some people were not pleased that a sports organization was taking money from a tobacco company, it wasn't like the founders had a choice. "You've come a long way, baby," the company's female empowerment advertising slogan, took on a whole new meaning when it funded what would eventually become the WTA.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The mighty Czechs fall to Romania in the season's first Fed Cup tie

During the 2018 World Group Fed Cup final, I wrote "No Petra, no Karo, no problem." After this weekend's tie, I expected to write "No Petra, no Lucie, no Bara, no problem." But there were problems, and their names were Simona Halep and Monica Niculescu. Of course, I expected world number 2 Halep to be a problem. Her defeat of Katerina Siniakova didn't come easily in the opening set, but Halep ran away with the second. She then defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in a two hour and 37-minute extravaganza of superb play. In the end, it was Halep's total mastery that won the point for Romania.

Pliskova and Siniakova both defeated Mihaela Buzarnescu, so the final decision was made in the doubles rubber. This contest certainly looked stacked in favor of the Czechs, given that the Czech doubles team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are the number 1 doubles team in the world. Last season, they won two majors. But, as well as they played, they couldn't quite get past the storm of determination and variety that came at them in the form of Romania's Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu.

The match was an absolute joy to watch, and if you had a favorite, you were probably a wreck by the last third of the third set. It was that close. The Czechs, always playing behind, took the first set 7-6 by raising their level in the tiebreak. The Romanians won the second set 6-4, and the third set was up for grabs. Again, the Czechs played from behind, as Niculescu kept popping up from nowhere like a cartoon character, slapping every conceivable type of volley and flummoxing the world's top team.

But at 3-4, with Niculescu finally winding down and going off her game, the Czechs broke at love (the ninth break of the match), and it looked, for all the world, like a case of champions figuring out how to win. But the Romanians would have none of it. They broke back, and then held their final serve with Niculescu, of course, popping up at the net one last time at match point.

It was the first time in a decade that the defending champion Czech team had lost a Fed Cup tie at home.

In the semifinals, Romania will face France, who defeated Belgium 3-0. Caroline Garcia, returning to France's team after taking a break, defeated both Alison Van Uytvanck and Elise Mertens. Interestingly, it was the Van Uytvanck rubber that went three sets. But for me, the story of this tie was Alize Cornet's defeat of world number 21 Mertens. Cornet has historically been a disaster with regard to her Fed Cup efforts, and consequently, she generally isn't high on the list to compete, despite her talent.

That talent, in terms of both athleticism and tennis intelligence, is superior, but the Frenchwoman's inconsistent exploitation of it is infamous. When Cornet is good, she's very, very good--and when she's off her game, she's such a disappointment. Cornet has long been my pick for "most underused potential" on the entire tour, and it can be very frustrating to follow that career.

But this weekend, Cornet brought her athleticism, her tennis finesse and her positive mindset to the court. Her match against Mertens was a two-set contest, but it was a thing of beauty, and my favorite singles match of those I saw during this Fed Cup tie. Cornet defeated Mertens 7-6, 6-2, which doesn't sound like a very interesting scoreline, but the match itself had everything, for Mertens--like Cornet--has a lot of variety in her game and a good (but inconsistent) serve.

Not suprisingly (though surprises do run rampant during Fed Cup play), Belarus defeated Germany 3-0. With Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the team, Belarus is a force.

Finally, in World Group play, the USA and Australia had to go to a fifth rubber to determine who would advance to the semifinals. In singles, Ash Barty defeated both Sofia Kenin and Madison Keys, and Keys defeated Kimberly Birrell. Then Danielle Collins, playing in her first Fed Cup match, came from a break down in the third set to defeat Dasha Gavrilova 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.

In the doubles rubber, Barty returned, and Australia substituted Priscilla Hon for Gavrilova. USA doubles specialist Nicole Melichar was teamed with Danielle Collins. The match was well-played by all four participants, and it was quite entertaining. Australia won, 6-4, 7-5, and advanced to the semifinals to play Belarus.

Here are the World Group II results:

Switzerland def. Italy, 3-0
Latvia def. Slovakia, 3-0
Spain def. Japan, 3-2
Canada def. Netherlands*, 3-0

*Fed Cup beast Kiki Bertens was not on the team for this tie.

Latvia will now enter the World Group Play-Offs for the first time.

(Note: Dead rubbers are not counted in the above scores.)

Sunday, January 27, 2019

My Australian Open top 10

Following, in ascending order, are my top 10 Australian Open occurrences:

10. Czechapalooza!:  Players from the Czech Republic were all over the quarterfinals. Both Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova played in singles competition. And in doubles, there were two teams--top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, and Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova.

9. Now you see her, now you don't: Maria Sharapova's defeat of defending champion Caroline Wozniacki was quite a thing to behold. The Russian star performed like vintage Sharapova, controllling the rallies, blistering the groundstrokes, and serving more than efficiently. "She's back!" I thought, but then, in her next round, Sharapova fell apart. Most significantly, her serve fell apart, and she lost to Ash Barty in the round of 16.

8. De Great still great: Defending wheelchair singles champion Diede De Groot picked up her sixth major singles trophy in Melbourne, defeating Yui Kamiji 6-0, 6-2 in the final. De Groot and partner Aniek Van Koot also won the doubles title, defeating Marjolein Buis and Sabine Ellerbrock 5-7, 7-6, 10-8 in the final.

7. When German engineering fails: Before the tournament began, I had a list of four players I thought could win it, and of the four, I gave Angelique Kerber a very slight edge over the others. What do I know? The mighty German, seeded 2nd, got blown off the court in the round of 16 by Danielle Collins, who upset the 2016 champion 6-0, 6-2. Of all the things I saw at this Australian Open, that one was the strangest.

6. When you get a second chance, take it: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, the world's top doubles team, were upset in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Stosur and Zhang (who also took out the other Czech team). But Krejcikova, with partner Rajeev Ram, went on to win the mixed doubles title. Krejcikova and Ram, seeded 3rd, defeated Australian wild cards Astra Sharma and John-Patrick Smith in the final.

5. Facing Houdini: Already known as a cool customer, Karolina Pliskova took that reputation to a new level when she went from 1-5 down in the third set to win her quarterfinal match against Serena Williams. The match contained as much drama as one could imagine--an injury, a foot fault at match point, and some nerves of steel from Pliskova.

4. Oh yes she did!: Danielle Collins, a former collegiate champion, has played on the tour only a few years. Until this Australian Open, she had never won a main draw match at a major, so it was quite a sneak attack she made, going on a tear and making it all the way to the semifinals. Collins began her campaign by taking out 14th seed Julia Goerges. That certainly got my attention. In the second round, Collins beat Sachia Vickery, then--in the third round--she upset 19th seed Caroline Garcia. This was becoming some serious run.

But it was in the round of 16 that Collins got everyone's attention. She allowed 2nd seed and 2016 champion to win only two games. Then, in the quarterfinals, she beat a suddenly-hot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Collins' run came to an end when she played Petra Kvitova. Kvitova won the second set 6-0, but in the first, Collins fought her all the way to a tiebreak. It was an amazing run.

3. Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!: Sam Stosur and Australia mix well--except on a tennis court. The Australian veteran has experienced a career's worth of disappointment in her home country, but all that turned around at this Australian Open. Stosur and her partner, Zhang Shuai (for whom I'll shout out an honorary Oi! Oi! Oi!), unseeded, upset defending champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Moadenovic in the final. Stosur is, at last, an Australian Open champion. And Zhang--who almost retired a few years ago, but instead, went on a singles tear in Melbourne--also, at age 30, gets the distinction of winning a major.

2. The Rock returns: Petra Kvitoa has been winning one tournament after another, so she was already back, so to speak. But returning to a major final was kind of an exclamation point placed on a hefty, run-on sentence. She didn't win the tournament (it always seemed that the Australian trophy could be hers at some point, and it still seems that way), but she played wonderfully, even in the final that she lost. The story of Petra Kvitova is still in the making, but even at this point in its arc, it's one of strength, inspiration and marvelous tennis.

1. Meet the new boss: She won the 2018 U.S. Open. For her next act, she began 2019 by winning the Australian Open. Naomi Osaka had to do it the hard way. She was challenged throughout the tournament, and especially in the final, by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. It was a tense, thrilling final that ended with a victory for the 21-year-old Japanese star. Osaka, for all her talent, has much more that she can add to her game, so we can only guess how long her shadow will eventually stretch over the tour. In the meantime, she's the 2019 Australian Open singles champion, and on her way to being a household name.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Naomi Osaka wins Australian Open in a match for the ages

I suggested on Thursday that the women's final would be a thriller, and I was on to something. Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova delivered big strikes, sharp angles and repeated tests of will in the two and a half-hour momentum-shifting battle of big hitters. I made copious notes on the match, but I've decided to leave it to others to perform the point-by-point deconstruction. What stood out more, for me, was the essence of the match, which was--to a great extent--formed by the shifting mentality of the players.

Osaka's winning the first set surprised me. Kvitova began brilliantly, finding her wicked angles and serving like a Wimbledon boss. The fact that Osaka was able to run away with the tiebreak was a hint of what was to come (and a reminder of what had occurred throughout Osaka's Australian Open run). Each player experienced letdowns, and they were predictable letdowns. Osaka became sullen when things didn't go her way; Kvitova had patches of making unforced errors. Both were able to will themselves out of these bad places.

One of the most memorable moments in the championship match occurred when Osaka and Kvitova engaged in a long, exciting rally (not something either player especially likes) at 5-all in the first set. The rally required both players to run to extreme corners outside the court, and the crowd was thrilled. Kvitova won the rally with a bit of net cord help, but Osaka held her serve.

Prior to advancing to the first set tiebreak, Kvitova saved two set points on her own serve. This was a taste of the thrills that were to come later in the match, when the stakes were to become very high indeed.

Kvitova played from behind for almost the entire second set. It didn't look good at all for the Barking Czech, who then proceeded to perform a kind of tennis miracle (seems to be a Czech thing lately). Serving at 3-5, 0-40, Kvitova saved three championship points, held her serve, then broke Osaka. The Czech star then saved a break point on her next serve, and followed that by breaking Osaka at love (Osaka double-faulted on the final point).

With a 7-5 win in the second set, Kvitova looked poised to turn the match around. Kvitova's record in finals is superb, so there was every reason to believe that she was realistically close to holding the trophy. However, Osaka had a record of her own--she had won the last 59 3-set matches in which she had won the first set. The histories of these players added even more tension to the contest, especially when we consider that Osaka and Kviotva had never before competed against one another. And to increase that tension even more--the winner of the final would become number 1 in the world.

Osaka went up 3-1 rather easily. Suddenly, Kvitova was serving at 2-4, 0-40, and--once again--it appeared that all of her chances had disappeared. But she held serve, topping the hold off with an ace. Osaka then held, and Kvitova held for 4-5.

Could the Czech wonder do it again? She had done it over and over. Osaka, however, held at 15, and on her fourth championship point, she became the 2019 Australian Open singles champion.

Throughout the tournament, Osaka had to go three sets on three occasions before she reached the final--against Hsieh Su-Wei, Anastasija Sevastova and Karolina Pliskova. In each of those matches, she figured out how to solve the problem at hand, just as she eventually figured out how to cope with Kvitova's serving (of course, she had some help from Kviotva, herself, whose service game took some dips in the latter part of the match).

Not since Jennifer Capriati's successive wins at the Australian Open and the French Open in 2001 has a player followed a debut major win with a consecutive major win. In addition to being the first player in 18 years to repeat Capriati's feat, Osaka is also the first Asian player to win the Australian Open. And now, she's the first Asian player to be ranked number 1 in the world (Li Na's highest ranking was number 2 in the world, which--so far--is also Kvitova's highest ranking).

Li Na was on hand to present the trophy, and her presence was probably a comfort to her dear friend Petra Kvitova. The crowd was wonderfully receptive of both players, and--at one point, when Kvitova talked about the fact that, after she was attacked, there was thought that she might not ever play again--there was very long applause.

One gets the rather certain feeling that both of these players will be holding more big trophies. Kvitova, despite losing this tournament, appears to be at her peak. As for Osaka--she has more skills to add to her game. Just imagine, when she does add them (as other big hitters such as Kvitova and Maria Sharapova have done), what a huge impact she'll have on the tour.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

We have reached the finals!

As outrageously as the draw unfolded in Melbourne, in the end, we come down to the final two players, and they are two women who are certainly at home in big finals. Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2018 U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka will play to determine not only who is the 2019 Australian Open champion, but also who will become number 1 in the world.

The Czech star, for all her achievements, has never held the number 1 ranking. And while she has traditionally done well in the Australian Open warmup tournaments and has always looked like a title contender, she has never won the title. The last time she was in a semifinal in Melbourne was 2012, and she lost that match to Maria Sharapova.

Osaka, who began playing at the Open in 2016, reached the round of 16 last year, and was defeated in that match by Simona Halep,

There will big serving and big hitting in the women's final. Both players play aggressively and like to take charge of the rallies. It's not wishful thinking to believe that this last match of the tournament could be a thriller.

Paths to the final:

round 1--def. Magda Linette
round 2--def. Tamara Zidansek
round 3--def. Hsieh Su-Wei (28)
round of 16--def. Anastasija Sevastova (13)
quarterfinals--def. Elina Svitolina (6)
semifinals--def. Karolina Pkiskova (7)

round 1--Magdalena Rybarikova
round 2--Irina-Camelia Begu
round 3--def. Belinda Bencic
round of 16--def. Amanda Anisimova
quarterfinals--def. Ash Barty (15)
semifinals--def. Danielle Collins

On the one hand, it's notable that Osaka had to knock out four seeded players to get to the final, while Kvitova faced only one. However, Bencic, Anisimova and Collins were all very dangerous players in this draw; Kvitova's draw, in other words, was tougher than it looks on paper.

In doubles, defending champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic will face the unseeded team of Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai in the final. Of course, the team of Stosur and Shuai is hardly an obscure entity; Stosur is a former doubles world number 1. Stosur and Shuai knocked out the top seeds, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, they took care of the other Czech team, Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova.

Mladenovic, in addition to winning the 2018 title with Babos, also won the 2016 French Open, with Caroline Garcia. The Frenchwoman was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2014, and she was a finalist at the U.S. Open in 2016 and 2018.

Stosur, with Lisa Raymond, won the U.S. Open in 2005. In 2006, Raymond and Stosur won the French Open. Stosur was a finalist in Melbourne in 2006, and was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2008, 2009 and 2011.