Sunday, July 15, 2018

My Wimbledon top 10

Here are my top 10 Wimbledon occurrences, in ascending order:

10. We are Wimbledon: When the first men’s semifinal went on and on for hours, it might have occurred to those in charge to go ahead and start the second one on a different court. But that didn’t happen, so the second one—not exactly a brief affair itself—was postponed when the 11:00 p.m. curfew was reached. That meant that it had to be continued the next day on Centre Court when the women’s singles final had been scheduled to begin.

So the women’s finalists had to wait. Everything got backed up, and—as of Friday night—the women’s doubles final wasn’t even assigned a court; it wound up on Court number 1. The logical argument was made that the men’s semifinal couldn’t be scheduled after the women’s singles final because the winner needed to rest. I agree with that. The problem was that the “planners” didn’t exactly plan, and—surprise!—it was women who were forced to wait to play one of the biggest matches of the season, and women who were forced to play on a court that should have never featured a major final.

9. Ostapenko’s face: Probably a top 10 at every major

8. Diede De Great does it again
: Mentored by world-class athlete Esther Vergeer, Diede De Groot, at the age of 21, has already made a name for herself in the tennis world. She just defended her 2017 Wimbledon wheelchair singles title, and--with Yui Kamiji--she won the doubles championship, too. (Kamiji has now won five consecutive doubles majors.) De Groot also won the Australian Open singles title. For the past couple of years, the world number 1 wheelchair player has been collecting big trophies all over the world, and--while the competition is strong--she appears to have a very bright future.

7. The ballet artist vs. the running wonder: It was a thing to behold, the quarterfinal match played by Dasha Kasatkina and Angie Kerber. The Russian—in the tradition of such graceful icons as Suzanne Lenglen, Maria Bueno and Evonne Goolagong—is sometimes mesmerizing on the court. Her easy-to-watch athleticism was put to the test by the equally dazzling athleticism of Kerber. Kerber prevailed, but Kasatkina left everyone wanting more.

6. A potent mix: The doubles landscape is changing, and nowhere has that been more obvious than at Wimbledon. USA player Nicole Melichar, hardly a "tennis household" name, made appearances in both the women's doubles final and the mixed doubles final. She lost the first, but--with Alexander Peya--she won the mixed championship. Melichar and Peya defeated the formidable team of Vika Azarenka and Jamie Murray 7-6, 6-3 in the final. Melichar was born in the Czech Republic, which means that--according to a certain way of looking at things--Czech women cleaned up in doubles at this event.

5. It’s all about Germany!: Julia Goerges has re-invented her career, so it’s no surprise that she would wind up, for the first time, in a major semifinal. The surprise was that she wound up in one at Wimbledon. A superb clay court and hard court player, the German has never felt very comfortable on grass. But it turns out that the re-invention brought about a new set of beliefs, and Goerges—with her big serve—moved skillfully through the draw. She was stopped by Serena Williams, but what a run it was!

4. Lots of grass, but few seeds: You had to start watching early if you wanted to see some of the tour's top seeds at Wimbledon. In the first round alone, we lost French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, Coco Vandeweghe, Magnalena Rybarikova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, two-time champion and favorite-to-win Petra Kvitova, former champion Maria Sharapova, and Caroline Garcia. In the next round, we lost defending champion Garbine Muguruza, Jo Konta and former finalist Aga Radwanska. It was a brutal opener for the tournament.

3. The Rock rolls away: I fully expected Petra Kvitova to end last week by holding up her third Venus Rosewater dish; her lead-up to Wimbledon made her an easy favorite. It was, therefore, a shock when she was upset in the first round by Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Kvitova appeared to be in pain/discomfort throughout the match. She said, afterwards, that her problem was nerves. I don’t imagine we’ll ever know the whole story. I should add that Sasnovich—playing a lot like Kvitova herself—gave a stunning performance.

2. Czech them out!: They won the French Open, then turned around and won Wimbledon. Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, seeded 3rd in London, defeated Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 in the final, and--when no one was looking--became top WTA threats.

Krejcikova was coached by Jana Novotna, who--20 years ago--won both the singles and doubles championships. In 2013, Krejcikova and Siniakova won the junior doubles title at Wimbledon. That same year, they also won the championships at the French Open and the U.S. Open. It was after this last victory that the Czech pair gave us a gift that I do hope they give to us again, and very soon, please:

1. 2017? What 2017?: When you’re as busy as Angie Kerber is, time races by, and who knows?—you might suddenly realize that you lost twelve months or so. Oops. But when you’re Kerber, you also remember how you took yourself from journeywoman-plus status to that of elite champion. So she went through the steps again, getting better every tournament, and now, she’s the 2018 Wimbledon champion.

Hers wasn’t an easy draw, either. She had to defeat former Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva, a tricky Claire Liu, 18th seed Naomi Osaka, the once-again dangerous Belinda Bencic, Russian trickster Daria Kasatkina, and a very in-form Alona Ostapenko. Then came the real test, as Kerber faced off, yet again, with Serena Williams. Kerber’s amazing defense, paired with the accuracy of her shot-making, earned her a third major championship, and put her one win shy of a Career Slam.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Call her Angie. Call her KareBear. Call her Wimbledon champion!

Angelique Kerber won her third major today when she defeated Serena Williams 6-3, 6-3 in the Wimbledon women's final. Kerber is now one major--the French Open--shy of having a Career Slam, and, given her expertise on clay courts, it's certainly possible that she'll accomplish that feat.

I considered this match a toss-up from the beginning. Yes, Williams has been amazing at this tournament, but there were other factors to be considered. One is that, until she reached the final, she had not encountered a human wall such as Kerber. Another factor is that Kerber had already beaten Williams in a final, which had to be a real confidence-booster. And finally--Kerber had lost a Wimbledon final to Williams, and that fact had to be highly motivating for the German star.

Obviously, Williams was not at her best in this final. She seemed frozen at times. But, at the same time, Kerber was spot-on almost every moment. Consider that she hit only five unforced errors in the match. Kerber's ability to run down balls, combined with her laser-like accuracy, took her all the way to the championship, in which she lost only one set. She also emerged with very respectable 70/59 first/second serve win percentages. And it was her down-the-line shots that did the damage at crucial moments.

Every match has a context (though you wouldn't know it by reading social media posts). And a big part of the context of this match was that Williams not only gave birth ten months ago, but almost died in the process. That she was suddenly in the Wimbledon final at all is a testament to her force-of-nature persona, her self-belief and her extreme athletic prowess. She lost this one, but we probably won't have to wait long for her to win her 24th singles major.

There's also a dramatic context regarding Kerber. In 2016, she "came out of nowhere" (not true, but you know the sports media) to win the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, become the Wimbledon runner-up, and grab a silver medal at the Olympic Games. Then, in 2017, she experienced a year-long flop. But this year, having made changes she thought were appropriate, she returned, looking more and more like herself every month. It was only a matter of time until she did something big--six months, to be exact.

There has been a lot of contentious discussion about the postponement of this final, which has included a lot of contentious discussion about the men playing best-of-five with no fifth set tiebreak at Wimbledon. I have a whole lot to say about this (and have already said some of it), but I don't want to use this post about two great champions to say it. Well, except for two things:

1. The incredible barrage of misogyny on social media is heartbreaking.

2. The "you're upset about wealthy players' tennis matches is ridiculous when there are so many other problems in the world, including wonen's problems" enrages me. Rich or poor, tennis or anything else, it's about equality. For example:

Those of us who object to sexist language (and women are still using it to attack sexism, which drives me mad, like the Twitter post about Wimbledon's needing to "grow a pair" and give women their due--sorry, but courage is simply not an exclusively male attribute) vehemently challenge the "it's just language" dismissal. Language is the most important medium of exchange we have. It isn't about "language"--it's about equality.

One of the other favorites in my country is the dismissal of "women in the U.S. don't know how well off they have it." Yes, we do. It's about equality.

Now back to something more pleasant: The remarkable Angie Kerber, long considered a journeywoman, is now a three-time major champion. And the remarkable, totally stunning sportswoman, Serena Williams, is back and playing very well.

And to all the people (you know who you are) who consider women's tennis (and women's sports, in general) inferior because it isn't men's sports: In the interest of fairness and human evolution, maybe you need to grow a pair--of X chromosomes.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Angie and Serena--together again, as you always wanted to see them

This has been a strange Wimbledon, with so many seeds going out early, and with the most highly favored seed going out very early. But now we're down to two, and the tennis gods have so conspired to make that pairing a very tasty one indeed. Angie Kerber and Serena Williams, who bring out the best in each other, will contend for a major title for a third time on Saturday.

I expected the semifinal played between Kerber and Alona Ostapenko to go three sets, but it didn't, despite Ostapenko's strong second set resurgence. My main takeaway from the match was that Ostapenko--who has made a real improvement in her serve--still needs to calm down a bit with the hitting. She continues to remind me of early Kvitova--swings that are hard and laser-accurate. Except when they aren't.

Ostapenko is very young, and has plenty of time to add some nuance and safety to her already impressive game. Today, she was unable to take so many risks and still dominate. After all, she was playing against a human wall, but a clever wall who also has a lot of offensive skills.

Kerber's 6-3, 6-3 victory puts her into her second Wimbledon final. In 2016, she was the runner-up, defeated 7-5, 6-3 by Serena Williams. The German had beaten Williams earlier that year in the Australian Open final, in which Williams was the defending champion.

Now, Kerber and Williams will meet again on Centre Court to determine who is the 2018 Wimbledon champion. Williams defeated Kerber's countrywoman, Julia Goerges, 6-2, 6-4 today in the semifinals. It was a wonderful run for Goerges, who has more or less re-invented her entire career, and who handled the biggest match of that career with poise and grit.

Because of an injury, Williams wasn't able to serve for a while, and had no serving warmups before Wimbledon. Her service speed hasn't been as fast as it it's been in the past, but her placement remains spot-on. 

Here are the players' paths to the final:

1st round--def. Vera Zvonareva
2nd round--def. Claire Liu
3rd round--def. Naomi Osaka (18)
round of 16--def. Belinda Bencic
quarterfinals--def. Daria Kasatkina (14)
semifinals--def. Alona Ostapenko (12)

1st round--def. Arantxa Rus
2nd round--def. Viktoriya Tomova
3rd round--def. Kristina Mladenovic
round of 16--def. Evgeniya Rodina
quarterfinals--def. Camila Giorgi
semifinals--def. Julia Goerges (13)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The fearless, fabulous four!

When Wimbledon began, I thought Petra Kvitova would take home a third Venus Rosewater dish. But, barring that, I was looking at Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Angie Kerber, and Alona Ostapenko as potential champions. Well, three of them are still standing. (A few weeks ago, I mentioned Julia Goerges as a dark horse, and--what do you know?).

Theoretically, Williams had the easiest job today, yet it took her three sets to defeat the hard-hitting Italian, Camila Giorgi. Giorgi was all over Williams in the opening set, winning it 6-3. But we know how this story goes: The seven-time champion found her game early in the second set, and that was pretty much that. She defeated Giorgi 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Giorgi wasn't the only hard hitter on the courts today. Two of them--Dominika Cibulkova and Alona Ostapenko--faced off in another quarterfinal. And Ostapenko, who has yet to drop a set at Wimbledon, emerged the winner, 7-5, 6-4. Ostapenko hit 33 winners and made 26 unforced errors. Her newly improved serve (it's always nice when you can tell a player has been working on weaknesses) helped her to hit five aces, too.

Close friends Kiki Bertens and Julia Goerges also played each other. Bertens lost her way a little in the second set and by the third, Goerges pulled away emphatically. Nevertheless, this has been a wonderful event for Bertens, and one in which she took out both Venus Williams and Karolina Pliskova. Goerges won the match 3-6, 7-5, 6-1. The tour's ace queen hit only three of them in this match. But she hit 36 winners and made only 21 unforced errors. She also had very respectable first/second serve percentages of 72 and 68.

Finally, Dasha Kasatkina and Angie Kerber played one of the finest matches of the tournament, so far. The Russian's ballet-like athleticism and the German's rugged athleticism clashed in ways that had the crowd "oohing" and "ahhing" throughout the match. It was beautiful to watch. Kerber won 6-3, 7-5, and--toward the end of the second set--Kasatkina went all Flavia Pennetta on her opponent and saved six match points with a series of stunning shots. At one point, the Russian fell down, but it didn't stop her from keeping the ball in play.

With all the woe-are-we talk about the upsets of the top seeds, we wound up with four very fine semifinalists--three who have won majors (one of them, a lot of majors), and one who has practically re-invented her entire career. Also, there are two Germans remaining in the draw, and that hasn't occurred in London in a very long time.

Here is the semifinal draw:
Alona Ostapenko (12) vs. Angelique Kerber (11)
Julia Goerges (13) vs. Serena Williams (25)

Now, on to the doubles draw. Top seeds Timea Babos (our new world number 1) and Kiki Mladenovic are still around, as are the 3rd seeds, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. And--so is the team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. This time last year, they were seeking a Career Slam at Wimbledon when Mattek-Sands fell and sustained a truly horrible knee injury.

The wheelchair draw is out, and top seed Diede De Groot will play Sabine Ellerbrock in the quarterfinals. In doubles, De Groot is paired with Yui Kamiji, and they are the top seeds.

Demi Schuurs didn't play women's doubles at this event, but you can bet she's still around--in mixed doubles. Schuurs and Jean-Julien Rojer have reached the quarterfinals.

Viewing the tournament this morning was so frustrating. Because one of the men's matches was held over, ESPN kept pulling away from the Cibulkova-Ostapenko match, which I really wanted to see. The problem was that it wasn't being shown on ESPN Plus. So I had the Kasatkina-Kerber match on my computer, but could watch the other match only when ESPN decided to show it to me. It was the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, but we weren't permitted to watch it all.

It's bad enough that the Wimbledon organizers put two quarterfinals on at the same time, but then ESPN makes it so that you can't watch them.

Also, someone needs to tell Chris Evert that Ostapenko won the junior Wimbledon title. She was amazed that Alona said she preferred playing on grass.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Bertens defeats Pliskova and advances to Wimbledon quarterfinals

The Charleston trophy has always served as somewhat of a good luck charm for its champions. And now that good luck (as well as a lot of hard work and great tennis) has brought together the 2018 finalists in a way we might not have anticipated: Champion Kiki Bertens and runner-up Julia Goerges will meet in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Bertens, having already defeated Venus Williams in the third round, took out 7th seed Karolina Pliskova (the last of the top 10 seeds) today in the round of 16. Bertens out-served the Czech, which isn't usually easy to do, and used all of her variety and new-found grass acumen to defeat Pliskova in straight sets.

Meanwhile, Goerges defeated Donna Vekic, also in straight sets.

In Charleston, Goerges played almost flawlessly, and seemed to be on a clear track to win the title. But she arrived very flat for the final (she later said she was really tired) and Bertens--made easy work of her. Bertens' victory was especially dramatic because, due to a rain dealy, she had to play a grueling semifinal that same day. Bertens said later that, after winning that semifinal, she was determined not to lose her last match.

The only player who needed three sets to win today was Dasha Kasatkina, who defeated Alison Van Uytvanck. Van Uytvanck got off to a very good start, winning the first set in a tiebreak, but then proceeded to make too many errors.

Dominika Cibulkova--doing pretty well without that seed--defeated Hsieh Su-wei, and Camila Giorgi defeated Ekaterina Makarova,  And then there was this:

Alona Ostapenko defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 7-6, 6-0. Ostapenko's serve, by the way, has improved tremendously, which makes things interesting.

Seven-time champion Serena Williams, looking like she hasn't taken even a  month off, beat Evygniya Rodina in just over an hour. And then there was 11th seed Angie Kerber, the 2016 runner-up. Kerber defeated Belinda Bencic 7-6, 6-3 in a match that was entertaining to watch. Both players wound up with good winner/unforced error ratios, and it's been nice to see Bencic back in form.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:
Dominika Cibulkova vs. Alona Ostapenko (12)
Daria Kasatkina (14) vs. Angelique Kerber (11)
Kiki Bertens (20) vs. Julia Goerges (13)
Serena Williams (25) vs. Camila Giorgi

This is the first time that Goerges and Giorgi have ever been in a major quarterfinal.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

"I hate middle Sunday" is back!

During the past few years, I stopped blogging about middle Sunday, but today, my "acknowledgement" of the dreaded day is again a thing.

I hate middle Sunday. For one thing, Sunday is a perfect day for people to relax and watch big-time tennis, but there isn't any to watch. Another reason is that, if it rains, the tournament schedule becomes even harder to manage. And then there's this: If there were play on middle Sunday, we wouldn't have to deal with the dreaded Manic Monday. Wimbledon bills Manic Monday as a glorious thing, but for viewers, it's a nightmare. We're into the business end of the tournament, when we like to believe we can watch every--or almost every--match we want to watch. But no--AELTC makes it all as frustrating as possible. At Wimbledon, that's how they roll.

So, to amuse yourself on middle Sunday, here are some things you can do:

Enjoy this song about the only mother (so far) to win Wimbledon, the great Evonne Goolagong. (Her first Wimbledon victory was the event that drew me into professional tennis.)

You can also enjoy one of my favorite Wimbledon moments of all time, Amelie Mauresmo's 2006 victory over Justine Henin:

And another of my favorites:

Take a moment to remember the lovely (and very talented) Tatiana Golovin and her sublime interpretation of the Wimbledon white rule.

Players who got in trouble for their Wimbledon outfits include Gussy Moran, Maria Bueno, Rosie Casals, and Anne White. (Designer Ted Tinling was banned from Wimbledon because he was the cause of several clothing infractions; he was especially fond of dressing up Rosebud in ways that "skirted" the rules.) And of course, there was La Divine, who was nicknamed "The French Hussy" because she showed up at Wimbledon without a corset.

And speaking of the great Maria Bueno here is the conclusion of her first Wimbledon championship, in 1959:

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Long Tall One stands alone

Down they went, top 10 seed after top 10 seed, and today, number 1 seed Simona Halep joined them when she was upset by Hsieh Su-wei, who is a bit of an upset specialist. "Why is Hsieh not ranked higher?" (she's currently ranked no. 48) is a question that gets asked from time to time, and is probably being asked right now. She's primarily a doubles player and has won 20 doubles titles, but her bag of tricks is so impressive that, once in a while, she turns a match into a nightmare for a higher-ranked player.

That happened today, when the aggressive trickster let loose on Halep, trading huge groundstrokes with her, then confounding her with slices, drop shots, spins, and whatever came to her mind at the time. On ESPN, during the match review, Renee Stubbs was practically yelling "Come to the net!" every time Halep stood back during a rally (which was almost always). The world number 1's instincts took over, and she froze herself to the baseline. That works for her on clay much of the time, but on a quick surface, more is required. Hsieh had that "more."

This is part of what Halep had to say after the match:

I just was too negative to myself, talking too much. I was leading the match and I couldn't finish it. I'm just realistic and honest with myself. I accept that it was an unprofessional attitude from me. I am too tired. My muscles are gone. I couldn't stay focused.

I had a great year. Six months have been great, but even though the final [at the Australian Open] in Melbourne is a long time ago, all the pressure and tension is still in my body. I have pain everywhere. I am tired from everything. I’m quite relaxed about saying this. I don’t want to hide anything.

So, the world number 1 is gone, the defending champion is gone, and the two-time Wimbledon champion who I really thought was about to become a three-time champion, is gone.

Of the top ten seeds, the only one left is Karolina Pliskova, who is seeded 7th, and--considering her Wimbledon history--who would have thought it? But there are two other seeds in the draw who--though they may not have the numbers 1-10 next to their name--loom as the two most dangerous competitors remaining.

One, of course, is seven-time Wimbledon champion and all-around slayer Serena Williams. Back from maternity leave and looking fit and spot-on Serena-like, the 25th seed is looking for an eighth title, and is quite likely to get one. Her next opponent is Evgeniya Rodina, the last qualifier standing. Anything can happen (especially at this year's event!), but--assuming Williams wins her round of 16 match--next for her would be either Camila Giorgi or Ekaterina Makarova. I'm guessing it will be the Russian, and--if she stays in form--she'll present a challenge to Williams. If she stays in form. (If she beats Giorgi.)

Makarova is the mother of all big-stage players, though her results have dwindled in the last few years. But she's looking great in London, and when she's "on," she plays with a fluidity that's a pleasure to watch, and she also adds a lefty serve that has proven to be quite helpful to her.

And then there's 11th seed and 2016 runner-up Angie Kerber. Kerber is looking more and more like herself, and I do expect her to go far in this draw. Her next opponent is Belinda Bencic, who's also looking more and more like herself. If Kerber gets past the Swiss player, she'll face either Alison Van Uytvanck or 14th seed Daria Kasatkina.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Hsieh Su-wei vs. Dominika Cibulkova
Alona Ostapenko (20) vs. Aliaksandra Sasnovich
Alison Van Uytvanck vs. Daria Kasatkina (14)
Angelique Kerber (11) vs. Belinda Bencic
Karolina Pliskova (7) vs. Kiki Bertens (20)
Julia Goerges (13) vs. Donna Vekic
Serena Williams (25) vs. Evgeniya Rodina
Camila Giorgi vs. Ekaterina Makarova

Cibulkova is on a roll, possibly fueled by her pique over losing her seeding. She's a much more consistent player than Hsieh, though she has more grass court skills.

Ostapenko is performing so far under the radar, she could blow down the stadium and no one would notice. Sasnovich, who upset Petra Kvitova in the first round, has made a name for herself--first, in Fed Cup, and now, at Wimbledon. If Ostapenko can keep the unforced errors down, though, it will be she who advances.

The pairing of Van Uytvanck and Kasatkina intrigues me; I don't expect it to be easy for either of them. Kasatkina, by the way, is a bit of a surprise here, given her propensity for playing on a slower court.

And that brings me to the clay-loving Kiki Bertens, who suddenly finds herself not only in the second week of Wimbledon, but as the player who knocked Venus Williams out of the tournament. Bertens' success in London doesn't appear to be "one of those things"--she's actually figured out how to play on the grass and looks pretty comfortable doing it. She has a fairly good chance, I think, of pulling an upset.

Finally, Goerges--also not known for grass court play--may have her hands full with Vekic, if the young Croatian player doesn't let the occasion get to her.