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.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Tomorrow: The Minister of Happiness vs. The Secretary of Swing

Yesterday afternoon, I was talking with a tennis fan, and I told her to be sure and watch the first semifinal on Arthur Ashe because it would be so exciting. Imagine my surprise when it was not only not exciting, but also a one-sided shut-down. I don't know what happened to Cincinnati champion Caroline Garcia (I don't accept Chris Evert's "She peaked too early" explanation--Garcia is made of better stuff than that), but she was a mere shadow of the player who won Cincinnati and cruised through the first five rounds of the U.S. Open

My comment isn't intended to take anything away from Garcia's opponent, Ons Jabeur, who was certainly a big part of what happened to Garcia. Jabeur, who is always difficult to play because of her creative shot-making, also brought an on-fire serve to her semifinal match against Garcia. The Tunisian star hit eight aces and 21 winners in the 66-minute match, in which she never gave her opponent a single chance to break. Still, considering the brilliance of Garcia's 13-match win streak, her 1-6, 3-6 loss was a big surprise.

The second semifinal was a different story altogether. Aryna Sabalenka, in the U.S. Open semifinals for the second year in a row, had to deal with world number 1 Iga Swiatek, normally a formidable task. But Swiatek hasn't looked that comfortable throughout the New York event, and it wasn't unreasonable to think that the huge-hitting Sabalenka might be the one to stop her run.

Sure enough, the sixth seed easily overwhelmed Swiatek in the first set, which she won, 6-3. The loss apparently woke Swiatek up, because--as I like to say--when she returned to the court for the second set, she remembered who she was. Swiatek steamrolled Sabalenka 6-1.

The third set was exactly what one would have expected--a tight contest in which the momentum rapidly shifted. At 4-all, the tension was palpable. But it was the world number 1 who--once again, remembering who she was--brought the whole thing to a close with a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

IGA SWIATEK (1)
round 1-def. Jasmine Paolini
round 2--def. Sloane Stephens
round 3--def. Lauren Davis
round of 16--def. Jule Niemeier
quarterfinals--def. Jessica Pegula (8)
semifinals--def. Aryna Sabalenka (6)

ONS JABEUR (5)
round 1--def. Madison Brengle
round 2--def. Elizabeth Manklik
round 3--def. Shelby Rogers
round of 16--def. Veronika Kudermetova (18)
quarterfinals--def. Ajla Tomljanovic
semifiunals--def. Caroline Garcia (17)

Also yesterday, 3rd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won their semifinal match. If the Czech pair wins the U.S. Open, they will be the owners of what I've decided to name the Super Golden Career Slam. Stay tuned.

And also yesterday: Top seed Diede De Groot won her quarterfinal match when her opponent retired, and she and partner Aniek Van Koot won their quarterfinal doubles match.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Down to four

In yesterday's quarterfinal competition, Ajla Tomljanovic--now a household word because she defeated Serena Williams in her final U.S. Open match--made her own exit from the Open at the hands of close friend and Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur. Jabeur was frustrated throughout parts of the match, threw a couple of rackets, and worried later that "I think I'm going to be fired from my job as Minister of Happiness."

But she persevered by keeping up with Tomljanovic's hard hitting, and by grabbing more of the key points. Despite occasionally being somewhat rattled, Jabeur displayed a keen tennis intelligence throughout the match, and hit more than twice as many winners as Tomljanovic. Hitting as hard and precisely as her opponent, and using her well-known variety of shots, the Tunisian star prevailed, 6-4, 7-6. The tiebreak "should" have been tension-filled, but Tomljanovic saw nerves creep in at that point, which made it easier for Jabeur to close the match.

In Tuesday's other quarterfinal, Caroline Garcia posted a 78 first serve win percentage, and she was successful at the net in 81% of her attempts. Those stats would make anyone hard to beat, and indeed, Garcia won the match against Coco Gauff 6-3, 6-4. Garcia was in a major slump for a very long time, and she has dramatically pulled herself out of it, winning Cincinnati, and now reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

Garcia is known for "flying" after a victory, and her stylish French plane has been on view a lot lately. Aryna Sabalenka, on the other hand, may have channeled her inner Lockheed Blackbird when she met Karolina Pliskova in their quarterfinal match today. 

Pliskova, who broke her wrist at the beginning of the season, has finally come back into form, but not quite enough to do much about her opponent. Sabalenka hit seven aces, and had first and second serve win percentages of 72 and 63. Most significant--Pliskova never saw a break opportunity; Sabalenka was too powerful and too fast. The 2016 finalist picked up her level considerably in the second set, but Sabalenka would have none of it--she won their match 6-1, 7-6, and reached the U.S. Open semfinals for the second straight year.

In the night match, world number 1 Iga Swiatek faced off against the USA's number 1 player, Jessie Pegula, who is seeded number 8 in New York. Swiatek won the first set with relative ease, but the second set was another thing altogether. Pegula became more aggressive, as Swiatek experienced periods in which she made repeated unforced errors. In the end, though, it was the Polish star who knew what to do, and she defeated Pegula 6-3, 7-6. This is the first time that Swiatek has reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. 

Here is the semifinal draw:
Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (6)
Caroline Garcia (17) vs. Ons Jabeur (5)

In other U.S. Open news, 3rd seeds Brbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova advanced to the semifinals today, as did 13th seeds Caroline Dolehide and Storm Sanders (who defeated Caroline Garcia and Kiki Moadenovic). And defending champion Diede De Groot advanced to the semifinals in women's wheelchair competition.

Monday, September 5, 2022

U.S. Open quarterfinals set

I could sense it coming, and--unfortunately--it did: Petra Kvitova, who has been on fire at this U.S. Open, put up a half-spirited resistance against round of 16 opponent Jessie Pegula in today's first match, allowing Pegula to easily defeat her, 6-3, 6-2. The Czech player served well, but she made twice as many unforced errors as Pegula, who broke her six times. This "should" have been a tightly contested, entertaining match, but almost from the moment she stepped onto the court, the Czech star looked depleted. We have seen this pattern over and over with Kvitova, and it's very unfortunate.

This is to take nothing away from Pegula, who is staying calm and playing at a consistently high level.

World number 1 Iga Swiatek had her hands full in the first set of her match against Jule Niemeier, whose quarterfinal match at Wimbledon was, in my opinion, the finest match played at that event. But Swiatek, as she so often does, solved the problem, and returned to win the next two sets, posting a 2-6, 6-4, 6-0.

Vika Azarenka served for the first set at 5-4 in her round of 16 match against 2016 runner-up Karolina Pliskova, but she was broken (in the final point, she broke herself by double-faulting), and Pliskova went on to take that set 7-5. Again, Azarenka took the lead in the second set, again, Pliskova caught up, but eventually lost the set in a tiebreak. Nevertheless, she prevailed, 7-5, 6-7, 6-2.

The final round of 16 match was played between Danielle Collins and Aryna Sabalenka. It was notable partly because Collins could not find a first serve. It was equally notable because her abysmal service stats didn't seem to bother her; she got creative with her second serve, and she went to work on Sabalenka's serve. The degree of mental energy that Collins preserved by just accepting that she was having a bad serving night and getting on with things was likely quite high.

Collins took the first set. In the grueling seventh game of the second set, Sabalenka saved seven game points, and then had treatment for her left thigh. Her serve intact, she went on to win the second set, after which she received some sort of leg treatment. But something else had happened, too: It was as if someone had pulled a plug and let all the air out of Collins. She had practically been willing herself to win points, and suddenly, she was just a good player without much of a serve who was being dominated by a steam-rolling opponent. 

When Sabalenka served at 4-1 in the third set and was broken, it looked like Collins might come back to life, but she was broken back in the next game, and Sabalenka proceeded to successfully serve for the match. Her 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory was hard-won, despite her opponent's issues. Between them, the players hit 72 winners and made 63 unforced errors, including 20 double faults.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Jessie Pegula (8)
Karolina Pliskova (22) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (6)
Coco Gauff (12) vs. Caroline Garcia (17)
Ons Jabeur (5) vs. Ajla Tomljanovic

There have already been three major upsets in doubles, though one of them is more of an upset on paper than anything else. Top seeds Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens were defeated in the second round by the unseeded team of Kirsten Flipkens and Sara Sorribes Tormo, and 2nd seeds Coco Gauff and Jessie Pegula went out in the first round to the unseeded team of  Leylah Fernandez and Daria Saville. 4th seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alona Ostapenko lost in the third round to 14th seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic, but that team's seeding doesn't really reflect their level of competence.

About last night

Both Caroline Garcia and Coco Gauff won their round of 16 matches yesterday in fairly straightforward fashion, though Gauff got quite a challenge from Zhang Shuai. Not so the for the night matches, in which Ajla Tomljanovic and Ons Jabeur took the scenic--and by "scenic," I mean "crazy curves over cliffs with potential rock slide activity"--route.

Liudmila Samsonova, arguably the hottest competitor on the tour right now, stepped onto Louis Armstrong Stadium on a 13-match win streak. She went up 5-2 in the first round, looking for all the world like she was headed for number 14, but then things went wrong. One of the things that went wrong was that Samsonova's already-fragile knee became more fragile as the match wore on. The Russian player looked tired, and she made repeated unforced error,

The other thing that went wrong for Samsonova was that her opponent played better as the match progressed. Tomljanovic won the first set in a 10-8 tiebreak--after "pulling a Serena" and saving eight set points in the ninth game, which lasted 18 minutes and featured 12 deuce points. By the second set, Samsonova was a mere shadow of herself, and Tomljanovic took that set 6-1. 

Then there was Ons Jabeur, who had to face her nemesis, Veronika Kudermetova, whom she had never defeated. Kudermetova is a double threat: She hits the ball flat and very hard, but she's also an excellent doubles player, so she has exceptional net skills. 

Once again, the perhaps-favored player, Kudermetova, led 5-2 in the first set. Jabeur looked somewhat tentative, remaining on the baseline (which isn't where she does her best work), but then some switch got turned on, and Jabeur began to work her special magic against the Russian. Jabeur took the set to a tiebreak, in which she all but ran over (7-1) Kudermetova, then she won the second set 6-4.

Now Tomljanovic and Jabeur will meet in the quarterfinals, and we'll see what kind of route they decide to take.