Sunday, December 19, 2021

The holiday sing-along returns!

Photo by Daniel Ward

 Memos come, are you masking?
Are you vaxxed? they’ll be asking
A pitiful sight
No card games tonight
Living in a Covid wonderland

Gone away are the side trips
Here to stay are the swab tips
Aryna’s not sure
The science is pure
Stumbling through a Covid wonderland

In the hotel, we will build a prison
And pretend that it’s a luxury suite
Paula’s pounding balls
With great precision
While rodents make a run at Yulia’s feet

Later on, we’ll be testing
You can hear the protesting
The virus waylaid
The plans that were made
Living in a Covid wonderland



Saturday, December 4, 2021

My 2021 top ten

In a way, 2021 was even stranger than 2020. More tournaments were played, but with a limited number of fans, and often with very limited (or no) media. In fact, so much happened this year that I found it unusually hard to formulate a top ten. There were the Olympics, and the return of the Billie Jean King Cup--or rather, a ridiculous, crippled version of it, and the International Hall of Fame induction (finally) of the Original Nine. The media went all-out fabricating and promoting a non-story, and--this came so close to making the top ten--Camila Georgi won a premier event.

It's also worth noting that 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek was the only player to reach the second week of all four majors, a quiet accomplishment that causes me to believe that her future remains very bright. And let's not forget Garbine Muguruza's topping off her comeback by winning the WTA Finals (also a top ten contender).

There was also the forced disappearance of Peng Shuai, which became an international story, and--while it's the tennis story of the year--it deserves its own place in the world of tennis events, and is therefore not on this list of happenings, which focuses on accomplishments.

Here, in ascending order, are my top ten 2021 happenings:

10. Mixing metals is so on trend: Ask Belinda Bencic--she won a gold medal for Switzerland in women's singles, and a silver medal in women's doubles (with Viktorija Golubic). And Brazil surprised a lot of people by earning a medal. Here is the complete list of medal winners:

Women's Singles
gold--Belinda Bencic (Switzerland)
silver--Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic)
bronze--Elina Svitolina (Ukraine)

Women's Doubles
gold--Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (Czech Republic)
silver--Belinda Bencic/Viktorija Golubic (Switzerland)
bronze--Laura Pigossi/Luisa Stefani (Brazil)

Mixed Doubles
gold--Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, with Audrey Rublev (Russia)
silver--Elena Vesnina, with Aslan Karatsev (Russia)
gold--Ash Barty, with John Peers (Australia)

9. The Russians are here!: The Russians didn't just dominate mixed doubles at the Olympics. For the first time since 2008, they won the Billie Jean King Cup, defeating Switzerland in the final. The standout player was Ludmilla Samsonova, who was sent in as a substitute when Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was unable to play. Samsonova and her big serve went at it for two and a half hours against Belinda Bencic, and emerged the victor, and the hero of the Russian Tennis Federation's winning team.

8. They will all be missed: Sadly, it was a big year for retirements. Kiki Bertens, Carla Suarez Navarro and Barbora Strycova--all long-time treasures of the WTA--announced their retirement earlier this year. And just days ago, Johanna Konta announced that she, too, is retiring from professional tennis. Konta brought a lot of tennis pride back to the UK, reaching as high as number 4 in the world in singles. Her most memorable win was in Miami in 2017. (She also modeled for the WTA how to handle offensive members of the media.)

7. She does it with mirrors: Watching Naomi Osaka win a major is always a little like viewing a magic show. Her fluidity, her serve, and her strategic command of the court sometimes make it appear that she she's winning matches effortlessly. This year, she won the Australian Open by running through an especially difficult draw. In order to get to get the trophy, she had to beat the likes of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ons Jabeur, Garbine Muguruza, Serena Williams, and Jennifer Brady. This was Osaka's second Australian Open championship; she also won the event in 2019.

6. R-e-s-p-e-c-t/find out what it means to her: Desirae Krawczyk is not a WTA household word, but it certainly should be. This year, the USA doubles specialist came out one major shy of winning the Grand Slam in mixed doubles. She won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open--with three different partners (a new take on "Mladenovic and Anybody"). This was a huge accomplishment (though undoubtedly somewhat disappointing for her), but the sports media, including the tennis media, seems to not even know that she exists.

5. They're all coming for you!: The upstarts took over in 2021. Ons Jabeur, Anett Kontaveit and Paula Badosa all went on a tear, and close behind them were Leylah Fernandez, Katerina Siniakova, Clara Tauson, and Viktorija Golubic, all making their marks (Fernandez's mark was huge). Jabeur has steadily improved, in both skill and confidence, over the last few seasons, and is now the highest ranked Arab player of all time. Jabeur is also the first Arab woman to reach the WTA top 10 (no. 10). Kontaveit, from whom some of us have long expected great things, gave a dramatic master class on how to close a season, winning four titles, and practically willing herself into the WTA Finals. As for Paula Badosa, she won Indian Wells. Watch out.

4. She's number 1!: Ash Barty hasn't been on the scene too much because of Covid restrictions. But she did two very big things this season, in spite of that. She retained her number 1 ranking, and she won Wimbledon. Barty knocked out two big Czechs--Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova, as well as an on-fire Angie Kerber (who I thought was going to win her second Wimbledon championship), and Karolina Pliskova. 

3. The Golden Slam--so 1988: It's really, really hard to win the Golden Slam. A player has to win all four majors and an Olympic gold medal--next to impossible. But let's say that a player does that, but then--just to put the icing on the cake--also goes on to win both the singles and doubles championships at the prestigious end-of-year Masters event, and also leads her team to World Team Cup victory. How is that even possible? As Diede De Groot. She won all four wheelchair singles majors, both gold medals at the 2021 Paralympics, and the both the singles and doubles championships at the Masters.

But wait--she almost won the Grand Slam in doubles, too. She and partner Aniek Van Koot, the defending champions, lost in the semifinals at Wimbledon. 

It's hard to imagine that anyone could repeat this feat, but if anyone could, well--it would be De Groot. Diede the Great absolutely rules (and for this reason, she is also 2021's Ms. Backspin). 

2. Ranking really doesn't matter: Emma Raducanu was ranked number 150 in the world when she entered the qualifying rounds to compete at Wimbledon. Earlier in the year, she had received a wild card into Nottingham, but had lost in the first round. But then we saw the young Brit come out of nowhere to make it to the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and she might have gone even farther if she hadn't had to retire. 

Raducanu, not surprisingly, won all three of her qualifying rounds, and she did it without dropping a set. That was when we should have taken note, but how were we to know what was about to occur? She would go on to win every match she played (and she played a total of ten) without dropping a set. Raducanu beame the only qualifier in history to reach the final of a major. She won that, too, defeating a brilliant Leylah Fernandez, who had taken out such formidable opponents as 3rd seed and former champion Naomi Osaka, former champion Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elena Svitolina and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka. 

Raducanu's draw wasn't as tough as Fernandez's, but it was no walk in the park, either. She had to beat Sara Sorribes Tormo (whom, to my shock, she blew off the court), Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic, and a very in-form Maria Sakkari. It was astounding enough that the two teens made it to the final (though we already knew about Fernandez's talent), but then Raducanu won that in straight sets, too. 

Raducanu's victory was so historic in nature that we'll be talking about it for years.

1. All that glitters is Czech: 2021 was the year that Barbora Krejcikova glided onto the big stage, knocked down the sets, dismissed the other actors, and took enough bows to make even a dancing Czech dizzy. The Czech doubles star entered the French Open singles draw as an unseeded player, and left with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. In achieving this unexpected accomplishment, Krejcikova took out, among others, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, former finalist Sloane Stephens, young star Coco Gauff, and Maria Sakkari. She then defeated a resurgent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final. To add to the drama, the Czech champion also became the third woman in the Open Era to win the French Open after saving a match point (agains Sakkari).

But why stop there? Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, also won the French Open doubles championship (the first Roland Garros sweep in 21 years), then went on to win an Olympic gold medal. But why stop there? The Czech star qualified for the WTA finals in both singles and doubles, and she and Siniakova won the doubles trophy. Krejcikova also entered the top 10 in singles, rising as high as number 3 in the world (she is currently number 5).

The French Open champion also won Strasbourg and Prague; prior to 2021, she had never won a singles title. She was a very busy woman this year: She won the Australian Open mixed doubles title (with Rajeev Ram), and she and Siniakova were the runners-up for the women's doubles title. Also, she and Siniakova won titles in Gippsland and Madrid. Krejcikova is currently ranked number 2 in the world in doubles, but has been ranked as high as number 1. 

The Czech star was the protege of the late Jana Novotna, and remains inspired by her.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Muguruza completes her comeback in high style in Guadalajara

2021 was the year that Garbine Muguruza really started looking like Garbine Muguruza again. She didn't win anything big, but with each tournament, she looked more and more like the woman who--a few years before--won both the French Open and Wimbledon. And now, at the end of the season, she has won something big--the 2021 WTA Finals.

There were no finals played last year because of Covid, and this year, the host city, Shenzhen, was unable to accommodate the event. Given just eight weeks of preparation, Guadalarjara stepped in as host, and we were all the better for it. From the mariachi bands greeting players as they arrived at the airport to the beautiful dancers to the extraordinary crowds, the city proved to be a perfect (other than the altitude) spot to hold the tournament. 

And the crowd especially embraced Spain's competitors, Muguruza and Paula Badosa (who received the full mariachi birthday treatment while she was there). Muguruza and Badosa embraced them right back, and when Muguruza won the event, she looked as excited as I've ever seen her.

The 2021 Finals were a bit unusual, with world number 1 Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep opting not to compete. But their absence didn't make the event any less competitive or any less exciting. 

Muguruza lost her first match to Karolina Pliskova in round robin play, but won her other two matches, defeating Barbora Krejcikova and an on-fire Anett Kontaveit. In the semifinals, she defeated Badosa, and in the final, she prevailed 6-3, 7-5 over Kontaveit. This was, incidentally, the first time in the history of the WTA Finals, that the champion defeated the same player twice. It was also the first time that a Spanish player won the event.

And while Muguruza was the big story in singles, there were other great stories. Kontaveit, the last player to qualify, willed herself into the slot through some amazing end-of-season play, and Badosa was close behind her. And some of the most exciting tennis we saw in Guadalajara came from the racket of Maria Sakkari.

Barbora Krejcikova was the only player to go 0-3 in this year's round robin play, but she made up for this deficit in doubles (she was the only player competing in both singles and doubles), winning the WTA Finals with her partner, Katerina Siniakova. This final prize moves Krejcikova's season from outstanding to whatever is beyond outstanding. The Czech team, seeded first, defeated Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-4 in the final. As a bonus, Siniakova has secured the year-end world number 1 ranking in doubles.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Russia wins Billie Jean King Cup for the fifth time

Every Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup) produces a few stand-out players. With all of the rubbers being played together in a round robin format (more on that later), it was hard to keep up. But one name that will certainly linger is Liudmilla Samsonova, the young Russian who had the heavy task of going in as a substitute in the final when countrywoman Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had to withdraw because of an injury.

Russia's opponent in the final was Switzerland, led by Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic. Bencic took the first set, and Samsonova--who displayed the grit of Flavia Pennetta and the game face of Elena Vesnina--practically willed herself through the second set with a victory. Samsonova's serve was very much her friend today, but it's good to have more than one friend, and her other close ally was her raw determination.

The final four teams were Russia, Switzerland, Australia and the USA. Russia (with help from Samsonova, who defeated Sloane Stephens, and--with a red hot Veronika Kudermetova--defeated the USA doubles team) knocked out the USA, and Switzerland eliminated the Australian team. In the first rubber of the final, Dasha Kasatkina defeated Jill Teichmann in straight sets, then Samsonova and Bencic went at each other for almost two and a half hours.

The last time Russia won the Cup was in 2008. They did play in the 2015 final, but were defeated by eleven-time champions Czech Republic. 

The competition's format was changed because it was difficult for many players to commit to playing three times a year, in a quarterfinal, semifinal and final tie. Of course, Fed Cup was much more complicated than that, what with the different groups providing opportunities for countries to get into the elite World Group. 

Changing the format to a one-week round robin event did indeed streamline it, but it has made it much harder for fans to participate. With everyone playing pretty much at the same time, there are fewer opportunities than ever to watch the matches. And seeking information about anything is even harder than it used to be. The Fed Cup app was always pretty bad; the Billie Jean King Cup app is useless. And, whereas the Fed Cup website was excellent, the Billie Jean King Cup website is one of the least user-friendly websites I've ever seen. I gave up.

The only good thing is that Tennis Channel Plus (kind of) picked up the event, meaning that we didn't have to rely on Fed Cup TV. I never cared for Fed Cup TV because of the technical issues. But last year, there were other issues. All of the ties were blocked in the U.S., except for USA team ties, which I didn't need Fed Cup TV to watch. I asked for my subscription fee back, and each body I asked said "Oh, we don't do that--you have to talk to these people." This went on and on for months.

I recently decided to pick up where I left off, and--once again--I got "Oh, we can't do that--someone else has to help you," but I was having none of it. I'm finally getting my refund, but this was some of the worst "customer service" I've ever received (like, a 9 on the Sony scale).

Saturday, October 23, 2021

With apologies to Johnny Otis--Camila and the Hand Shove


Camila and the Hand Shove

I know a chick named Way-Out Camila
She’s a lotta things, but not vanilla
She can walk and stroll like Genie do
And do that crazy hand shove too

Papa told Camila, “you’ll ruin my show
You and that hand shove have got to go”
Camila said “Papa, don’t be a pain
Been doin’ that hand shove all over Spain”

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Mama, mama, look at our Cami
She’s doin’ that hand shove with Sakkari
Some people said she crossed a line
But she’ll do that hand shove one more time

Well a trainer and a coach and a referee
They all dig that crazy beat
Way-Out Camila gave them all a treat
When she did the hand shove with her feet

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Well, Camila played another Maria this fall
It was two sets done but that ain’t all
You know Camila lost again and it’s plain to see
Doin’ that hand shove on TV

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Paula Badosa rules in the desert

She had a shoulder injury.

She double-faulted eleven times.

She hit four fewer winners and eight more unforced errors than her opponent.

And she won Indian Wells, in a three-hour thriller that stands out as a highlight of the 2021 season.

Paula Badosa of Spain also had the draw from hell. In order to get to the final, she had to beat Dayana Yastremska, Coco Gauff, French Open champion and 3rd seed Barbora Krecjikova, the always formidable Angie Kerber, and Ons Jabeur. Her opponent in that final was two-time BNP Paribas Open champion Vika Azarenka, which would be enough to put fear into even the most seasoned competitor.

Badosa's backstory is dramatic in itself. The first player to test positive for the Covid-19 virus at the Australian Open, she was placed in an extended quarantine. During that time, she said, she wasn't given the training equipment that she had requested, so she resorted to using water bottles as weights and doing sit-ups in her 50-square foot room. Badosa said that she felt abandoned by tournament organizers.

Then there was the French Open, where the Spanish player emerged as a threat after having just won her first title in Belgrade. And she did make it all the way to the quarterfinals, but lost to Tamara Zidansek in a tight and thrilling 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 contest.

Badosa, seeded 21st, was a very worthy opponent for 27th seed Azarenka. They engaged in lengthy baseline rallies featuring some stinging shots. Badosa looked kind of tired in the third set, or perhaps her shoulder was bothering her more than usual. She had taken out four top-20 players en route to the final, but had dropped only one set (to Yastremska). Nevertheless, her fighting spirit was, well--Azarenka-like. 

And when it mattered, it was Badosa who made the high-risk shots count at the right times. In the final tiebreak, she was nothing short of brilliant, and defeated Azarenka 7-6, 2-6, 7-6. "I wouldn't be here without you," she told the Belarusian veteran when she accepted the trophy.

Playing in the longest final of the season, Badosa is the first Spanish woman to win Indian Wells, a prestigious 1000 event. As of tomorrow, she will be number 11 in the world, and she's definitely on a path to the WTA Finals.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

My U.S. Open Top 10

Here are my top 10 U.S. Open happenings, in ascending order:

10. Always striving to be worse: I’m no fan of Tennis Channel—not by a long shot—but ESPN is something else again. This time, we were treated to commentators shaming Emma Raducanu because of the incident at Wimbledon. One (I forget who) said that she “admitted” to it, and Chris Fowler said that she “owned up” to it. This is also ironic in light of the supposed “mental health” meme that’s being circulated. Then there was Cliff Drysdale, who talked about the current players from--wait for it-- Czechoslovakia. But none could top Kat Adams, who explained to us that when Iga Swiatek won the French Open, “people didn’t even know how to pronounce her name.” She said this as she was calling her “ShwEYEtek.”

9. It’s not just nature that abhors a vaccum: Serena and Venus weren’t there. Sofia Kenin wasn’t there. Jen Brady had to withdraw. No worries—it was still the most exciting U.S. Open that anyone could have imagined, what with the teens, and some big-time thrillers that were played throughout the event.

8. “__________” is in the eye of the beholder: The aftermath of the match featuring French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova and former U.S. Open champion Garbine Muguruza had a kind of Rashomon quality to it, in that the people who saw it came away with such significantly different accounts of what happened. This isn’t unusual, of course, but the disparity seemed more pronounced to me this time.

One camp insisted that Krejcikova faked the MTO and therefore Muguruza was angry. Another camp said, no, the MTO was legitimate, but Krejcikova created long delays (getting towels) before Muguruza’s serves, and that made Muguruza angry. A third group claimed that it was both a fake MTO and the towel delays that upset the Spaniard. And yet another group claimed that Muguruza played badly and needed to blame someone other than herself.

Well, Muguruza did play poorly—until she didn’t. And adrenaline is a powerful painkiller; it seemed plausible to me that Krejcikova knew that she had to get the job done in straight sets or retire, so she went for it. As for the towel delay issue—it was made worse by the fact that ballkids cannot fetch towels for players during the pandemic. Was it legitimately annoying? I say yes. But none of us will ever know exactly what either player was feeling. All in all, it was an unfortunate affair.

7. And this was just the second round
: When 4th seed Karolina Pliskova played Amanda Anisimova, it looked like a final. The quality of play was so high from both of them, and it was nice to see Anisimova back in form. Pliskova—who hit 24 aces—prevailed, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6.

6. The match that had everything: 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu and Maria Sakkari put on a show of Schiavone-Kuznetsova proportions in the round of 16. Sakkari’s serving was spectacular, and Andreescu was right back to making shots that appeared impossible to make, but that she can somehow summon from her vast repertoire of impossible shots. They were at each other for three and a half hours. Andreescu fell several times, and the last fall—in the third set—produced an injury. But of course—this is Bianca Andreescu we’re talking about. The Canadian star could still hit some wicked shots after that, but she could no longer push off to serve, and fell to Sakkari, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3.

5. Better with a friend
: The team of Coco Gauff and Caty McNally, seeded 11th, created a stir when they knocked out the top seeds, Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens, in the quarterfinals. "McCoco" made it all the way to the final (with a little help when their Canadian opponents had to retire in the semifinals), but they couldn't get past good pals and 14th seeds Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai. The pair also won the Australian Open in 2019. This is Stosur’s second U.S. Open doubles title—she and Lisa Raymond won the championship in 2005.

4. One shy of a Grand Slam: U.S. commentators love to talk about U.S. players, yet they forget that accomplished doubles specialists Desirae Krawczyk and Nicole Melichar exist. It’s definitely time to remember Krawczyk: She just won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title (with partner Joe Salisbury), after also winning the French Open and Wimbledon titles. If someone comes that close to achieving the Grand Slam, it’s time to say her name.

3. Pure gold: She did it! Diede De Groot, known by fans as Diede the Great, has achieved the Golden Slam, winning all four majors and a Paralympic gold medal. And in addition to winning the wheelchair singles title, De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, also won the doubles title. This is De Groot’s fourth U.S. Open singes title, and her fourth U.S. Open doubles title. She is the first wheelchair player to win the Golden Slam. De Groot was discovered and mentored by the great Esther Vergeer, who, today, must be very proud.

2. The force that is Leylah: Some of us have been watching Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez for a while, and expecting great things from her. She didn’t disappoint us during this U.S. Open. In fact, her performances were sometimes jaw-dropping in their scope. Fernandez, who turned 19 during the tournament, was unseeded, yet she upset 3rd seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka, former champion (and extremely in-form) Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka.

How did she do it? Fernandez moved extremely well, showed excellent court judgment, and hit her shots with stunning precision. She also kept her cool throughout each match, trusting her sharp problem-solving brain to help her figure out her opponents. She didn’t wind up with the trophy, but this is one case of a runner-up deserving every word of praise that can be thrust upon her.

1. No teen angst here!: Emma Raducanu had her tour debut just recently, in Nottingham, where she was given a wild card, but failed to get past the first round. She got our attention soon after, though, at Wimbledon, where she reached the round of 16. Unfortunately, she had to retire because of what appeared to be a panic attack. But the 18-year-old Brit swatted that issue away, just like she swatted away her opponents in Flushing Meadows.

Raducanu had to go through qualifying, so she played three more matches than her opponent in the final, Leylah Fernandez. In an odd twist, though, Fernandez wound up spending more time on court because so many of her matches went to three sets. Not Raducanu---she didn’t drop a set the entire tournament. The first qualifier to win a major, Raducanu was ranked number 150 in the world when she entered the qualifying tournament.

The young Brit got my attention when she allowed Sara Sorribes Tormo one game in their third round match. It was hard for me to imagine anyone having that much dominance over the intrepid Spaniard, but Raducanu did. In fact, she easily dominated every opponent she played, though—before reaching the quarterfinals, in which she played 11th seed Belinda Bencic—Raducanu had never played a top 40 player.

The new champion didn’t have as tough a draw as Fernandez had, to be sure (with the exception of Sorribes Tormo, who—though not an elite player—can be a nightmare to play), but at the business end of the  tournament, she did have to face the likes of Olympic gold medal winner Bencic and an on-fire Maria Sakkari. She beat them 6-3, 6-4 and 6-1, 6-4, respectively.

Raducanu was the first qualifier to reach the final in the Open Era. In that final, she faced the toughest opponent she could have faced—the unseeded teenager, Fernandez (this was the first major final to feature two unseeded players). Though it was against all odds that it could happen, it nevertheless—in another way—felt like it was meant to be.

Was Fernandez a bit tired after her three-set ordeals? Probably. But she played extremely well. But Raducanu, who is as quick on the court as Fernandez, just continued to play her aggressive game, serving well, taking second serves from inside the baseline, and hitting laser-like forehands and backhands down the line. It was a champion’s display of tennis, and Emma Raducanu is a champion who made history over and over at the 2021 U.S. Open.