Sunday, July 14, 2024

My Wimbledon top 10

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

10. Put the whole thing under a roof: We expect it to rain in London in the summer (or any time), but this year's tournament was cursed by almost constant rain, making scheduling very difficult.

9. It doesn't get worse than this: I cringe every time I have to listen to Tennis Channel commentators. I try to avoid them; the world feed commentators can't pronounce the players' names, either, but at least they do a good job with everything else. I was grateful to have the world feed for most of the tournament, and during the semifinals, I was lucky--Wimbledon Radio was in perfect sync with my television, so I just slipped my iPad under my set. But I was forced to listen to ESPN for several of the late-week matches, and it was painful. And much of the nonsense was directed at Barbora Krejcikova, whom commentators treated as though she had just popped up out of the grass and no one had ever heard of her. 

"She isn't familiar with this (Centre) court," said one, though Krejcikova had won two Wimbledon doubles titles. A little while later, the other commentator said, "She isn't familiar with this court," and I thought that my head might snap off. Even after Krejcikova won the singles title, Chris Evert and Chris Fowler treated the accomplishment as though it were a big novelty. Hello! Krejcikova won the French Open a few years ago and she was number 2 in the world in singles. She hasn't done that well this year, but she was ill, and also out for two months with a back injury. 

Also, between Evert and Chris McKendry, Jasmine Paolini's name was mispronounced in so many ways, I almost needed a chart to track them. Toss is the expected sexism from Cliff Drysdale, and it was the usual major embarrassment.

8. The grass is greener on the red clay side: It's always tempting to believe that world number 1 Iga Swiatek is ready to compete seriously at Wimbledon, but--so far--she hasn't figured the grass out. This year, people were awaiting a round of 16 clash between Swiatek and her main nemesis, Alona Ostapenko, but that didn't happen. Instead, Yulia Putintseva upset Swiatek in the third round, which wasn't really a surprise; big hitters can get the best of Swiatek on fast courts, or--as Ostapenko once explained it--"I don't give her any time."

7. It was joyful, it was painful: Donna Vekic is a hard-working veteran who has had injury (and surgery) issues that have plagued her for some time, and have kept her from meeting her potential. She recently came close to retiring from the tour. However, at this Wimbledon, Vekic finally got the attention that she deserved, getting all the way to the semifinals. She lost to Jasmine Paolini in a thrill ride of a match that lasted almost three hours, and it must have broken her heart. But she has so much to be proud of, and it was a pleasure to see her shine in London.

6. Remember her name: And what a lovely name it is. Lulu Sun, who had to win three qualifying rounds before main draw play began, was the breakout star at this year's Wimbledon tournament. She made quite a splash when she upset Zheng Qinwen in the first round. She went on to also defeat Emma Raducanu, and she made it all the way to the quarterfinals, in which she was finally stopped by Donna Vekic. Sun's game was impressive, as was her calm and steady court demeanor. Stay tuned.

5. Diede the Great rolls on: Top seed Diede de Groot, who has won 23 major singles titles, won her 15th consecutive singles title in London when she defeated Aniek Van Koot 6-4, 6-4 in the final, giving her a total of six Wimbledon titles. de Groot and her partner, Jiske Griffioen lost the doubles final to top seeds Yui Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane. de Groot won both titles at the Australian Open and the French Open.

4. Why do it once when you can do it twice?: Hsieh Su-wei and Jan Zielinkski won the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open. Seeded 7th at Wimbledon, they won that title, too, defeating Giuliana Olmos and Santiago Gonzales 6-4, 6-2 in the final. In addition to winning these two mixed doubles titles, Hsieh has also won seven major women's doubles titles, and she won three of those after taking a year and a half off. The 38-year-old, known to fans as the Casual Queen, turned pro 23 years ago, and--whether wearing a dragon head or hitting an overhead--she never fails to entertain.

3. How to win in doubles: Back in the day, some of us used to say that Mladenovic and Anybody comprised a winning doubles team. These days, it's Siniakova and Anybody; the Czech star won the French Open with Coco Gauff, and she just won Wimbledon with Taylor Townsend (both of whom are, of course, Somebodies). Siniakova and Townsend, who had already taken out the top seeds, Hsieh Su-wei and Elise Mertens, defeated 2023 U.S. Open champions Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1).

During the match, one of the commentators was concerned about Siniakova's body language. Had she never watched Siniakova play?! During the course of a big match, the Czech player goes into nervous wreck mode on a regular basis, and it doesn't effect the score. It wasn't that long ago that Barbora Krejcikova, after she and Siniakova had won a major title, turned to her partner and said, "Thank you for playing with me for so long. It's very stressful, but I enjoy it."

Siniakova and Krejcikova won nine doubles titles and an Olympic gold medal (and will be playing together at the 2024 Olympics). Siniakova has already marked her place as one of the great doubles players, and I'm sure that there are more big trophies to come.

2. Italian delicacy: Fighting Italians progress in different ways. Jasmine Paolini, at the age of 28, decided to just go for it, and in 2024, she has the distinction of being the finalist at both the French Open and Wimbledon. The five-foot, four-inch high-spirited Paolini is a joy to watch as she speeds around the court and makes shots that sometimes seem impossible to execute. She was stopped by Barbora Krejcikova in the Wimbledon final, but expect to see more of her beautiful tennis in a big match soon.

1. A Czech pattern is always in style: Last year, it was Marketa Vondrousova. In 2011 and 2014, it was Petra Kvitova. In years past, it was Jana Novotna and Martina Navratilova (who was a Czech citizen for part of her career). Czechs like grass--even Czechs who appear to prefer other surfaces. I've always thought of Barbora Krejcikova as more of a hard court player, but then she went and won the French Open. And now she has demonstrated that what she really is is an all-surface champion.

Krejcikova was out for two months with a back injury and was also ill for a while. She hadn't been doing much of anything on the court, and she wasn't exactly on anyone's radar (well, she's always on mine). But, from the moment she stepped onto the Wimbledon grass, it was clear that Barbora was back in a big way. Krejcikova took out Danielle Collins, a red-hot Alona Ostapenko, and Wimbledon favorite (and 2022 champion) Elena Rybakina. She then held her nerve and defeated Jasmine Paolini in an entertaining final

When Krejcikova won the French Open, she was overcome with emotion while talking about her history with the late Jana Novotna, her mentor and coach, who remains her inspiration. Winning Wimbledon--the title that eluded Novotna for five years--had to be the most emotionally charged accomplishment imaginable. Early on, Novotna told the young Krejcikova to win a major--and to make enough money to fly business class. I'd say that the Czech star has met those goals, and then some.

A former world number 2 in singles, Krejcikova has beaten Iga Swiatek in two finals, and is, of course, a huge star in doubles. Despite her success, the new champion continues to fly under the radar (see number 9), but she's probably okay with that. Her racket, as they say, does the talking, and it delivers even better speeches than Barbora herself.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

We have more winnners!

For years now, we've become accustomed to saying that Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova have just won another major. It's true today, too, but not in the way that it used to be. Krejcikova, of course, won the Wimbledon singles title today, and Siniakova--playing with Taylor Townsend--won the doubles title.  They defeated 2023 U.S. Open champions and 2nd seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe 7-6, 7-6 in the final.

Siniakova and Townsend, seeded 4th, had already upset the top seeds, Hsieh Su-wei and Elise Mertens, in the semifinals. This is Siniakova's ninth major women's doubles title--she won seven of them with Krejcikova--and she also won a gold medal (with Krejcikova) at the 2021 Olympics. This is Townsend's first major title of any kind.

Also today, Diede de Groot won her 15th consecutive singles title when she defeated Aniek Van Koot 6-4, 6-4. Diede the Great and her partner, Jiske Griffioen, seeded 2nd, will contest for the doubles title tomorrow they play top seeds Yui Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane. de Groot holds 23 major singles titles and 19 major doubles titles, as well as multiple Masters titles and two Olympic gold medals.

A resurgent Krejcikova adds the Venus Rosewater Dish to her considerable collection of hardware

After her semifinal victory over 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, Barbora Krejcikova commented that--after finally breaking Rybakina--"I got into a zone, and I didn't want to leave that zone." In the first set of today's final, the Czech star was definitely in that zone, making opponent Jasmine Paolini uncomfortable with almost every stroke of her racket. (It couldn't have been easy for Krejcikova, who--according to ESPN's commentators and personalities--had to battle multiple opponents on the other side of the net: Paolina, PaOHlini, Pollina, and occasionally, Paolini. It takes effort to do a worse job than Tennis Channel does, but ESPN always manages to pull it off.)

Krejcikova won that set 6-2, but the second set was a different story. Of course, anyone who watches professional tennis expected it to be a different story. Paolini is too good a player and too good a competitor to fold in a major final. She became more aggressive in the second set, and Krejcikova--though she should have been prepared for this--looked rather flummoxed as Paolini displayed the kind of fearless tennis that got her into the final. The Italian star's court speed and shot invention was, at times, stunning, and she took the second set 6-2.

The third set was a a chapter we might call "Whack You, Whack Me, Now What?" Each player held serve easily for several games, which introduced the match's first really dramatic tension. At this point of a championship match, it's almost all about nerve: Who can hold her nerve better? Who has the nerve to take risks? At 4-all, Krejcikova broke Paolini, but in a moment so crucial, there's still some mystery about who will prevail.

The usually calm Czech went up 30-0 as she served for the championship. But then (just as a commentator said how "calm" she looked), Krejcikova appeared to be about to break into a sweat. Eventually, she was at deuce, then Paolini saved two championship points and attained a game point, which Krejcikova saved. Krejcikova then served an ace, and the calm returned to her face. After Paolini hit a return out, the 2021 French Open champion won Wimbledon on her third championship point, taking the match 6-2, 2-6, 6-4.

Krejcikova hit 28 winners, including six aces. She had first and second serve win percentages of 73 and 57, and that's a stat that says a lot on its own. 

The new champion hasn't had an easy time of it in the past several months. She was out for two months with a back injury, and she also has had to deal with an illness, as well as the break-up of her extremely long doubles partnership (they began playing doubles together whent they were 12) with Katerina Siniakova. She and Siniakova have won seven majors, including two Wimbledon titles. Krejcikova also holds three Australian Open mixed doubles titles. 

The Czech star, formerly number 2 in the world in singles, now holds a total of twelve major titles in three disciplines, and she has lost only one major final--Krejcikova and Siniakova were defeated by Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in the 2021 Australian Open. Krejcikova would go on a few months later to win the French Open singles championship. She also won a gold medal (with Siniakova) at the 2021 Olympics.

Of course, one cannot discuss Krejcikova's success without mentioning the late Jana Novotna, who served as Krejcikova's coach and mentor when Krejcikova was young. Most serious tennis fans have heard the story of how Krejcikova's mother drove her to Novotna's house (they lived in the same city), and the young Krejcikova knocked on the door and asked Novotna if she would help her. The 1998 Wimbledon champion replied with the Czech version of "Show me what you got, kid," and history was then in the making. 

When Krejcikova won the French Open, she delivered an emotional tirbute to Novotna, and said that "It was amazing that I had a chance to meet her and that she was such an inspiration for me." And as emotional as that occasion was, the emotion had to be even more intense at Wimbledon, the tournament that Novotna came so close to winning in 1993, then finally won five years later. I can't fully imagine what Krejcikova is feeling now when she thinks of her mentor and inspiration, who left us almost seven years ago. The two stars will forever be linked, and especially in Wimbledon lore.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Czechs and Fighting Italians are (always) coming for you

Today, we were privileged to see two very entertaining semifinals at Wimbledon. The first one, which lasted almost three hours, featured a third set thrill ride that had some of us on the edge of our seats. During that match, unseeded Donna Vekic--for whom it had to be a dream come true to reach this level of her favorite major--battled against French Open runner-up Jasmine Paolini, and I don't use the word "battled" lightly.

Both players are 28-year-old tour veterans. Vekic's potential has been on display for a long time; she has had a good career and has won four singles titles. She has also been a finalist nine times, which perhaps reveals something about her court mentality. It hasn't helped that Vekic has also experienced chronic knee and foot injuries, and was out for some time because of knee surgery. It wasn't that long ago that she considered retiring from the tour. 

Vekic's joy in reaching the semifinals was palpable, and anyone who has followed her career had to have been touched by the sight of her after she defeated qualifier Lulu Sun, the breakout star of this year's tournament. 

Paolini, for her part, won the Portoroz title in 2021, but it was this year, when she won Dubai, a 1000-level tournament, that she commanded our attention. The 5-foot, 4-inch Italian with the fast legs and cheerful attitude laid down a calling card in Dubai that we probably didn't read closely enough. She would go on to reach the final of the French Open, in which even her speed and guile couldn't do much to stop Iga Swiatek. And now she has reached the final at Wimbledon, too.

Vekic and Paolini played for almost three hours. On the face of it, it was a case of the hard hitter vs. the speedy, clever opponent. But the Croation player is more than just a hard hitter; she can play with aggression, and she can use some touch when she needs to. She dominated her opponent in the first set, but in the middle of the second set, Paolini gained momentum. Vekic, at times, looked distraught, but--just when it looked like she might cave--she would come up with shots that left Paolini helpless. Vekic made Paolini work to the very end, saving two match points, but finally--after two hours and 51 minutes--the Italian prevailed, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (8).

In the second semifinal, 2022 champion Elena Rybankina, a favorite to win the title--and the favorite as the tournament progressed--faced the clever, strategy-oriented Barbora Krejcikova, who won the French Open in 2021. Both women have gone through hard times lately. Rybakina was chronically ill for about three months, and Krejcikova, in the past several months, has gone through illness, injury, and the demise (at least for now) of her very long-term doubles partnership--a partnership that resulted in seven major titles and an Olympic gold medal.

Krejcikova has a good serve, and anyone who plays Rybakina needs to have a good serve, for Rybakina has ones of the best (if not the best) serve on the tour, and she's also a powerful returner. And maybe if Rybakina had had more time to recover from illness, she would have walked away as the winner; on the other hand, she was facing the woman who has defeated Iga Swiatek in two finals. When Krejcikova is in form, she's hard to beat.

Before today, Rybakina had a 19-2 record at Wimbledon. She also had an 0-2 record against Krejcikova, who, each time she has played the world number 4, has lost the first set. Today, Rybakina won the first set 6-3 (following a 4-0 lead), and there were probably a lot of people who expected her to win the second set. But Krejcikova, after struggling to break Rybakina's serve, finally broke her, and then pivoted into an entirely different rhythm, eventually breaking her opponent four times, and winning the match, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. The Czech star hit 25 winners and made 26 unforced errors.

Following the match, Krejcikova acknowledged her ongoing inspiration--the late Jana Novota, who won Wimbledon in 1998 and was the young Krejcikova's mentor. Several years ago, I wrote about WTA players who inspire us, and today, I realized that the four semifinalists are all quite inspiring. Rybakina, who has been sick for several months, nevertheless made it all the way to the semifinals. Krejcikova, in the last several months, has had to deal with illness, injury, the breakup of her very successful doubles team, and what most of us would call a slump. Paolini has slogged along for years, and--at the "old" tennis age of 28, has become a star. And Vekic, as I mentioned earlier, was close to just throwing it all in, she had been through so much.

I admire all four of them. They are made of the stuff that propels us to look for relatable metaphors in sports so that we can apply them to our own lives.

Paths to the final:

BARBORA KREJCIKOVA (31)

round 1--def. Veronika Kudermetova
round 2--def. Katie Volynets (Q)
round 3--def. Jessica Bouzas Maneiro
round of 16--def. Danielle Collins (11)
quarterfinals--def. Alona Ostapenko (13)
semifinals--def. Elena Rybakina (4)

JASMINE PAOLINI (7)

round 1--def. Sara Sorribes Tormo
round 2--def. Greet Minnen
round 3--def. Bianca Andreescu
round of 16--def. Madison Keys (12)
quarterfinals--def. Emma Navarro (19)
semifinals--def. Donna Vewkic

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

A Wimbledon champion, a tough veteran, a Fighting Italian, and--of course!--a Czech survive the field

I can't remember the last time that I called all four quarterfinals of a major correctly, but I got it right this time. There was a lot of talk about how "open" the draw was, but was it really? Had Aryna Sabalenka played, yes, that would have made a difference. But Iga Swiatek still isn't ready to win Wimbledon, Karolina Muchova is still finding her way back (and getting injured again), and Ons Jabeur's game was just more vulnerable than it was in 2023.

The big question, for me, was "Is Elena Rybakina healthy?" The 2022 champion has suffered from some type of chronic illness for a few months, and none of us knew whether she had recovered when she entered the Wimbledon event. It appears that she has, which is great news, and today, she defeated Elina Svitolina in straight sets (6-3, 6-2).

Also today, Barbora Krejcikova, who hasn't had an easy time of it lately, defeated Alona Ostapenko 6-4, 7-6. The Czech star has looked like "herself" since arriving in London--using every shot imaginable in the most strategic ways, moving deftly, and serving well. Ostapenko didn't make it easy for Krejcikova--she broke when Krejcikova served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. But the 2021 French Open champion held steady and won the tiebreak.

The "surprise" quarterfinal result was Jasmine Paolini's 6-2, 6-1 victory over Emma Navarro. I expected Paolini to win, based on her previous performances on the Wimbledon courts, but I, too, was surprised at how easily she dominated Navarro. Perhaps the most interesting fact is how we suddenly have such high expectations of Navarro--she has made such impressive progress.

Finally, as great as qualifier Lulu Sun's out-of-nowhere run was, only a truly uncharitable person could fail to be happy for Donna Vekic, the talented veteran who has been through so much, all the while showing us so much potential. Vekic loves grass, and her 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Sun places her in the semifinals of her favorite event, and it's just a wonderful thing to see. Sun was impressive, and my instinct is that that this won't be the last time that we see her having a really good run.

Here is the women's singles semifinal draw:

Barbora Krejcikova (31) vs. Elena Rybakina (4)
Donna Vekic vs. Jasmine Paolini (7)

Krejcikova is 2-0 against Rybankina. They have not played one another on grass before. Paolini is 2-1 against Vekic, and they have not played each other on grass before.

Monday, July 8, 2024

8 women left standing at Wimbledon

Round of 16 play has concluded at Wimbledon, and now eight women, representing eight different countries, will compete in the quarterfinals. The highest seed left is number 4, and there's also a qualifier in the quarterfinal draw. 

Today, there was another sad occasion when Anna Kalinskaya had to retire in her round of 16 match against 4th seed Elena Rybakina. The Russian player, who has looked so good in London, sustained a wrist injury during the match.

Also today, Elina Svitolina handily defeated Wang Xinyu 6-2, 6-1, and Alona Ostapenko defeated Yulia Putintseva 6-2, 6-3. Ostapenko hit 29 winners and broke Putintseva five times. This was the Latvian player at her best, but--as we all know--another version of Ostapenko could show up in the next match.

Finally, Barbora Krejcikova--looking like Barbora Krejcikova--defeated Danielle Collins 7-5, 6-3. Krejcikova had first and second serve win percentages of 80 and 50, which says a lot about how this match went. Also, as the match went on, Collins became more and more prone to error. 

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Alona Ostapenko (13) vs. Barbora Krejcikova (31)
Elena Rybankina (4) vs. Elina Svitolina (21)
Lulu Sun (Q) vs. Donna Vekic
Jasmine Paolini (7) vs. Emma Navarro (19)

Ostapenko is 5-2 against Krejcikova, and 1-0 against her on grass (this year, in Birmingham). 

Rybakina and Svitolina are 2-2, with Rybakina winning their only match on grass. 

Navarro has won all three of her matches against Paolini; they have never played each other on grass.

Sun and Vekic have never played each other.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

The drama continues during Wimbledon round of 16 play

It rained today at Wimbledon. Then it rained some more. It seemed, in fact, as though Paula Badosa and Donna Vekic would never get to finish their match, but after multiple delays, they did. Vekic defeated Badosa 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, and--in doing so--reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon for the first time in her career. We've all watched Vekic for so long, and we've seen what she's capable of; it's a pleasure to see her reach this milestone.

The painting next to the TV is Robert Hoover's "The Day of the Sun"

Meanwhile, qualifier Lulu Sun, who upset 8th seed Zheng Qinwen in the first round, stopped Emma Raducanu's run by hitting 50 winners and defeating her 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. Raducanu had a good run, however, which included the defeat of both of both Elise Mertens and 9th seed Maria Sakkari.

Emma Navarro, who just keeps improving, upset 2nd seed Coco Gauff in straight sets. Navarro appears to be comfortable on all surfaces, and her court poise is very impressive.

The match of the day, unfortunately, came to a sad end. Jasmine Paolini and Madison Keys threw everything they had at each other, and they were a joy to watch. But Keys injured her leg in the final set and had to retire before that set ended. The result was that Paolini (who's also looking good on all surfaces) won the match, 6-3, 6-7, 5-5.

The highest seed left in the draw is 4th seed and 2022 champion Elena Rybakina, who has been chronically ill since spring, but who appears ((fingers crossed) to be in good health now. 

Round of 16 play will continue tomorrow. And while I don't consider popcorn to be breakfast food, it would certainly be appropriate for when I watch Yulia Putintseva play Alona Ostapenko.