Thursday, January 30, 2014

Svitolina advances to quarterfinals in Paris

Elina Svitolina, who upset 6th seed Roberta Vinci in the first round of play at the Open GDF SUEZ, advanced to the quarterfinals today when she defeated Galina Voskoboeva. Voskoboeva, it should be noted, won a very tight match (5-7, 7-5, 7-6) against Stefanie Voegele in the second round. Svitolina's next opponent will be 3rd seed Sara Errani.

Defending champion Mona Barthel went out in the first round. She lost to Kirsten Flipkens, who has also advanced to the quarterfinals.

Kristina Mladenovic kept the home fires burning for a little while. In the opener, she upset 5th seed Simona Halep, but in the second round, Mladenovic lost to Andrea Petkovic.

Defending doubles champions and top seeds Errani and Vinci also advanced to the quarterfinals.

WTA Live All Access Hour--Paris

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Oh yes she did

Caroline Wozniacki has fired coach Thomas Hogstedt. Anybody surprised by this announcement?

I didn't think so.

USA Fed Cup team announced

Madison Keys, Alison Riske, Christina McHale, and Lauren Davis will face defending champion team Italy February 8 and 9 in Cleveland in the season's opening World Group Fed Cup tie. Playing for Italy will be Karin Knapp, Camila Giorgi, Nastassja Burnett, and Alice Matteucci.

Both Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens are injured, and the usual members of the Italian team have asked for a rest from Fed Cup.

Here are the other World Group teams:

Spain vs. Czech Republic:

Carla Suarez Navarro
Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor
Silvia Soler-Espinosa
Lara Arruabarrena

Czech Republic
Petra Kvitova
Lucie Safarova
Klara Zakopalova
Andrea Hlavackova

Slovak Republic vs. Germany

Slovak Republic
Dominika Cibulkova
Daniela Hantuchova
Magdalena Rynbarkova
Jana Cepelova

Angelique Kerber
Sabine Lisicki
Andrea Petkovic
Julia Goerges

Australia vs. Russia

Samantha Stosur
Casey Dellacqua
Ashleigh Barty
Storm Sanders

Victoria Kan
Irina Khromacheva
Valeria Solovyeva
Veronika Kudermatova

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sweeping the court

Serena Williams has put her name on the Indian Wells entry list, apparently putting aside her resolve to stay away from the event for the rest of her career.

The stars of the Italian Fed Cup team--Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, Flavia Pennetta, and Francesca Schiavone--have asked to be relieved of their duties for the upcoming tie with the USA. Italy is the defending champion. And while team USA is probably breathing a digh of relief, that sigh probably shouldn't be too loud--Camila Giorgi and Karin Knapp have signed on to play for Italy against the USA.

And speaking of Fed Cup: Storm Sanders has been chosen to play on the Australian team when Australia plays Russia next month.

50 of the WTA's top 200 players are over 30 years of age.

The WTA has launched WTA TV.

Anything Maria and Novak can do, Aga and Jerzy can do, too:

Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Australian Open top 10

My top 10 Australian Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Czeched out: Petra Kvitova lost in the first round to world number 98 Luksika Kumkhum. Enough said.

9. Mixing it up: Kristina Mladenovic and her partner, Daniel Nestor, won the mixed doubles title. They won Wimbledon last year, and were in the French Open final.  Mladenovic looks like a good candidate for a Career Slam in mixed doubles, and we can look forward to her winning more in women's doubles, too.

8. Quirky: 2006 champion Maria Sharapova fell victim to Dominika Cibulkova in this year's Australian Open. It's always something these days.

7. Army of me: The Genie Army was there to cheer Genie Bouchard on, but the 19-year-old Canadian did all the heavy lifting. She took out crowd favorite Casey Dellacqua and seed 14th Ana Ivanovic and made it all the way to the semifinals, where she was stopped by Li Na.

6. "She also is normal": This was Li Na's explanation for top seed Serena Williams' exit in the round of 16, courtesy of Ana Ivanovic. I'll add that she also was injured, but that hasn't always stopped Williams from going to the final. I kind of like Li's take on the matter.

5. Hot or not?: The court temperature went as high as 108 degrees during the first few days of the event, and it took officials a long time to decide when the close the roof and stop play on the outer courts. A long time. A doctor did appear along the way, however, to inform us that the players were in no danger. Caroline Wozniacki tangled with a baby kangaroo, too.

4. Strong to the core: Commentators keep saying that Dominika Cibulkova is little, but she isn't--she's short. The Slovakian player has a strong core and extremely strong legs, and she's quite muscular. She had a remarkable run at the Open, taking out Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. Li Na kept her from winning the title, but Cibulkova showed us that, with a new racquet, a new training regimen and a new attitude, she's more dangerous than ever.

3. Plates are for pasta: No one in the entire tournament had a more "under the radar" presence that defending doubles champions Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. The Italian team didn't dominate the tour in 2013 the way they did in 2012, and little mention was made of them, even though they made it all the way to the final. And in that final, they went down 2-5 in the third set. But hey--these are Fighting Italians, and they won the final set 7-5 and lifted the trophy, while their Russian opponents had to be content with the silver runner-up plate.

2. High art: Aga Radwanska makes us gasp at almost every event she plays. Her drop shots, ingenious volleys and angles are the stuff of endless replays. She is an artist on the court, not to mention an astonishing athlete. She outdid even herself, however, in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Her upset of defending champion Victoria Azarenka had the crowd screaming and the television commentators moaning. The third set, in which Azarenka did not win a game, was a tour de force of such intensity that it stirred in those who saw it the kind of awe that all great art inspires. Unfortunately, the effort drained Radwanska of all strength and she was easily defeated in the semifinals. Still, her quarterfinal performance, especially in the third set, ranks as one of the greatest performances ever of a woman on a tennis court.

1. Not falling down: This was Li Na's announcement to spectators after her quarterfinal victory--that an important part of her game plan for the Australian Open was "not falling down." This was, of course, a reference to the 2013 final, in which the Chinese star fell twice, turning her ankle and hitting her head. Having lost two finals at the Open, Li was dead set on lifting a trophy this time around. And she did it. Lucie Safarova almost stopped her in the third round, but after the Czech's errant match point shot flew outside the court, Li was transformed into The Champion. From that moment on, her performance was--if not perfect--certainly the performance of a woman on a mission. Li defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6, 6-0 in the final to win her second major. The mission was accomplished.

Mladenovic and Nestor win Australian Open mixed doubles title

The team of Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor won the Australian Open mixed doubles title yesterday. The French and Canadian pair beat Sania Mirza and Horia Tecau 6-3, 6-2. Mladenovic and Nestor also won Wimbledon last year, and they were the runner-up at the 2013 French Open.

Mladenovic and partner Flavia Pennetta, playing together for the first time (not unusual in Mladenovic's case) were surprisingly upset in the second round of women's doubles.

Australian Open--what they said

The first thing is not to be afraid of returning men's serve because obviously it's going really fast.  Sometimes it's heavy on the racquet, so you have not to be scared, first of all. And the second thing is that I like the challenge. I like the fact to just go for it and try to return the men's serve. They just get crazy when the return is back or even a winner.
Kristina Mladenovic

KRISTINA MLADENOVIC: ...For me it was a huge thing that Danny asked me for playing. You know, I just forgot about playing mixed. He came and asked me. Yeah, but otherwise, now that we are starting to get good results, there are a few asking me when Danny is going to retire from tennis so I can have another partner.
DANIEL NESTOR: Who are they, he wants to know.
KRISTINA MLADENOVIC: Well, all the men's doubles specialists. Was Robert (Lindstedt), Kubot asked me, Qureshi.
DANIEL NESTOR: They say when I retire or they just ask you?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Kulichkova wins junior Australian Open title

4th seed Elizaveta Kulichkova of Russia won the Australian Open junior girls title yesterday when she defeated Jana Fett of Croatia 6-2, 6-1 in the final. Kulichkova said that this match would be her last in the junior division. The Russian and her partner, Anhelina Kalinina won the doubles title.

Top seed Sabine Ellerbrock of Germany won the women's singles wheelchair title when she defeated 2nd seed Yui Kamiji 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the final. Kamiji won the doubles title with partner Johanna Wiley.

Still to come is the mixed doubles final, in which Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor will play 6th seeds Sania Mirza and Horia Tecau.

Australian Open--what they said

How important was the first set? Did you feel like you broke her?
No, it's not like I broke her. It's like after if you win a very tight first set, you think, Okay, already one set in the pocket. Like feeling one feet already touching in trophy.
Li Na

We often see underdogs make it to the final stages of a tournament by having a beautiful draw. She had a horrific draw.
Chris McKendry, referring to Dominika Cibulkova

Now I want to thank my team. Max, agent--make me rich. Thanks a lot.
Li Na

On the stand there was Chris Evert. Li Na, as well. Do you sense she's a special personality?
I have to say she's one of the nicest players on tour, you know. I really like her. I think everybody likes her sense of humor, you know. Yeah, she's a great player and a grand champion. It was nice to be there next to her and to Chrissie.
Dominika Cibulkova

Like the red wine, it got better with the age.
Martina Hingis, on Li Na's mental strength

Thanks for him--give up everything, just traveling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drink, and fix the rackets....
Li Na, referring to her husband

When you won, when people win junior Grand Slams, most of them jump up and down and get really excited. You just sort of went, Yep, okay.
Like I said, I felt I'm going to do this. I was pretty sure. I was really confidence. I was the girl who was expected to win. I mean, I wouldn't be happy if I wouldn't win. That's why I'm not jumping and stuff.
Elizaveta Kulichkova

When you decided to hire Carlos, did you genuinely believe that you would be here, or did it take time to believe it actually?
You know, when like last year I say I want to be top 3, nobody believe. Beginning this year I say, I want to win another Grand Slam title. Nobody believe. More important is I believe, he believe, my team believe. That's all.
Li Na
How much confidence does this give you for the future?
I would say a lot. I would say really, really a lot. When you play a Grand Slam finals, it's not just like that, you know. It's a big step. I'm ready to take it, you know. I was waiting for this for a long time. Now I want to do 100% to keep it up.
Dominika Cibulkova

What are the Chinese characters on your t-shirt?
My heart has no limits.
Li Na

At long last, Li Na wins Australian Open

In one of her promotional pieces for television, Li Na says of life, "You have to challenge it every second." That sounds exhausting, but maybe it explains why the 31-year-old international star has brought her best tennis to what is generally considered the last stage of a player's career. Last night, Li won the Australian Open, after achieving runner-up status in both 2011 and 2013. She defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6, 6-0 and received her trophy from the great Chris Evert in what was an understated celebration of a significant victory.

It's easy to say "the draw opened up when Serena Williams was upset," or "the draw opened up when defending champion Victoria Azarenka was upset." It's easy to point out that Li had a softer draw than she might have, but in a major tournament, the numbers don't always mean that much. Li had to beat the dangerous Ekaterina Makarova, the Comeback Queen Flavia Pennetta, and the very upwardly mobile Genie Bouchard. And she had to make sure she didn't beat herself, which has been a problem for her in the past.

"Special," she told the crowd after her quarterfinal match when asked about her preparation and planning this year. "Not falling down." Exactly. Last year, Li--who looked ripe to upset Azarenka--fell down twice, turning her ankle and cracking her head. The falls did her in. In 2011, she went on a mental vacation in the middle of a very close final against Kim Clijsters. She went on to win the French Open that year, but until now, that was her only major championship.

Li looked to Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, for guidance. In the early part of her career, Henin choked a lot of matches away, and she refused to move forward toward the net. Now she's remembered for her mental toughness and her volleys. Rodriguez has helped Li, also, to steady herself mentally, and she has become a more aggressive player under his tutelage. And while she had her wobbles in this Australian Open--including being a match point down to Lucie Safarova in the third round (Li is only the fourth player in the Open Era to win in Melbourne after being down a match point)--Li demonstrated something important: An athlete, even a top athlete, and even an "older" athlete, can change and fulfill more of her potential.

But this final wasn't just about Li Na. Dominika Cibulkova, the shortest woman on a tour that includes the likes of Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, also has a history of letting down mentally when she is ahead, not to mention a long history of thigh and hip strains. But with a new training regimen and a new attitude, the Slovakian pocket rocket shot through the draw from hell in Melbourne. As I mentioned before, she did have some luck: Both the very talented Simona Halep and shot-maker supreme Aga Radwanska folded in the latter stages of the tournament--the former because of nerves, and the latter because of exhaustion, probably both mental and physical.

Cibulkova enthusiastically took advantage of her opponents' weaknesses and played dynamic, thoughtful tennis throughout the event. Her run was superb. Sometimes, though, no matter how hard we are running, we still come up against the Great Wall of China.

Li broke Cibulkova right away in the first set when the Slovakian player double-faulted twice. Li hen held, but it wasn't that easy a hold--an early sign that Li, too, was feeling the enormity of the occasion. Down a break at 0-2, Cibulkova hit her first winner and the crowd cheered enthusiastically. She held for 1-2.

Li, already inflicting pain with her backhand, held for 3-1. Then things turned a bit; Cibulkova held and then broke Li when the 4th seed double-faulted on break point. Li then complained about the string tension of her rackets, and several of them (Li Na 2? Li Na 3?) were taken to be restrung. By this time, with the break in hand, Cibulkova was hitting with the kind of authority that got her to the final. She held for 4-3.

Li held too, but again, it wasn't easy for her because her first serve was off. When Cibulkova served at 4-all, she responded to Li's first return with a very low, well-struck drop shot. But Li got to it and turned it into a winner. Cibulkova went on to earn three game points, but because of double-faulting, she suddenly found herself fighting off a break point. She held, however, when Li hit a return long.

The 4th seed hit her first ace to open the next game. At this point, both players were taking the ball off the ground really quickly and the rallies were getting longer. Li held, and in the next game, Cibulkova committed her sixth double fault. With two break point in front of her, Li cracked a stunning backhand crosscourt return off of her opponent's very well struck forehand down the line. Li broke for 6-5. She then began having trouble with her ball toss, and she flubbed a volley to down break point. Li saved that break point with her forehand, but then got broken on the next break point.

The tiebreak was a microcosm of the first set. Li quickly went up 5-1, but then the 20th seed made two points, one with a beautifully angled crosscourt backhand net-skimmer. That was as far as she could go, however, and Li won the tiebreak 7-3.

The second set might just as well be called The Li Na Show. All the nerves shaken off, the Chinese star stepped onto the court and held and broke in a businesslike manner. She hit her second ace to go up a game point in the next game, but Cibulkova saved that game point. Never mind. Li let loose with her backhand again, and it was 3-0.

At this point, Li was unstoppable. She hit yet another wonderfully angled crosscourt backhand to break Cibulkova and go up 4-0, then held for 5-0. Cibulkova saved one match point on her own serve, but Li won the 2014 championship on her next break point.

Early in her career, Li left the tour and considered herself retired. But she returned, and when she did, she told the Chinese Tennis Federation that she would no longer give them 65% of her earnings, and that she wanted to choose her own coaches. The Federation backed down, and Chinese tennis was changed forever.  Li was the first Chinese player to ever reach the quarterfinals of a major (2006 Wimbledon), and she and Zheng Jie became the first Chinese players to ever reach the semifinals of a major (2010 Australian Open). In 2011, Li came seemingly out of nowhere (she said that clay was her worst surface) and won the French Open.

There have been other Chinese milestones. Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the gold medal in women's doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games, and Zheng Jie and Yan Zi won the doubles championships at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006.

But it is the woman known in her country simply as Big Sister Na who has become the face of Chinese tennis and the face of Asian tennis. The WTA tour now has a healthy and growing partnership with Asia, and no one doubts that the presence of Li Na has been the catalyst for that growth.

A maverick, an international star and an elite athlete, Li is perhaps most beloved because of her delicious sense of humor. I remember when she could speak very little English, and the only answers she gave in English at press conferences were "yes" and "no." Now she she cracks up the entire world on a regular basis with one-liners that zing with the force of her backhand. It's not a stretch to say that we cheer for her not only because of her superb tennis, but because we so eagerly want another interview from her. Fortunately, we'll get to hear a lot more of them as Li, the world's new number 2 player, once again bears the title of "champion."

Friday, January 24, 2014

Australian Open--what they said

t was very strange, very difficult," Errani said of the third set turnaround. "We went from 2-0 up in the third set to 5-2 down in the third set, and we weren't really playing very well at that time. - See more at:
"It was very strange, very difficult," Errani said of the third set turnaround. "We went from 2-0 up in the third set to 5-2 down in the third set, and we weren't really playing very well at that time. - See more at:
I read some article which says you changed your grip when you are serving and hitting the backhand. Is that true?
Yeah, yeah. I was change a lot after season of last year.
Could you explain a little bit how it helps on your serve and backhand.
...Of course, beginning was tough because I have to forget like old thing maybe I used for 20 years.  Of course, first couple days or first week is terrible for me because I always think about the new one or old one. I think now at least I try to change something. Now I use on the court I think pretty good.
Li Na

It was very strange, very difficult. We went from 2-love up in the third set to 5-2 down in the third set, and we weren't really playing very well at that time.
Sara Errani

Tennis match is not care about how tall you are, how short you are.
Li Na

Errani and Vinci win Australian Open

Though the publishers of the Australian Open's official website didn't think it was big enough news to put it on their front page, I do: Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the women's doubles title yesterday, which means that they have now won the Australian Open two years in a row. The defending champions beat 3rd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, and they did it in classic Fighting Italian mode--overcoming two match points for the Russians in the third set. Leading 5-2, Makarova and Vesnina suddenly found themselves at 5-all, and then they were overcome by the top seeds.

Errani and Vinci won the championship match 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. The Italians held the number 1 spot last year, but their stronghold on the tour weakened, with the emergence of such teams as Makarova-Vesnina, and--most notably--Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. With the 2014 Australian Open trophy in their hands, that could change. This has to be a real confidence-booster.

Both Errani and Vinci--top singles players--went out in the first round of singles, so all of their energy was focused on winning the doubles title. That may have helped, too.

In mixed doubles, we now have finalists. Sania Mirza and Horia Tecau defeated defending champions Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden 2-6, 6-3, 10-2 in the semifinals. Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor defeated Zheng Jie and Scott Lipsky 6-3, 6-1. Gajdosova and Ebden held wild cards in both 2013 and 2014.

Jana Fett and 4th seed Elizaveta Kulichkova will vie for the junior girls title. Fett and Kulichkova are from Croatia and Russia, respectively. Kulichkova enters the final already a champion. She and partner Anhelina Kalinina (oh, what a great name), the top seeds, won the junior girls doubles title yesterday. They defeated 2nd seeds Katie Boulter and Ivana Jorovic 6-4, 6-2.

In wheelchair singles, top seed Sabine Ellerbrock will contest 2nd seed Yui Kamiji for the championship. Kamiji, with partner Jordanne Whiley, won the doubles title by defeating 2nd seeds Marjolein Buis and Jiske Griffioen 6-2,  6-7, 6-2. Kamiji and Whiley were the top seeds.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Australian Open to get a first-time champion

No matter who wins the women's final, the Australian Open will soon have a brand new women's champion--one who has never before raised the trophy. Li Na has come close twice, losing finals to Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka. In both of those matches, she was a strong contender. Against Clijsters, the Chinese star faltered mentally, and against Azarenka, she literally faltered, falling down twice and injuring both her ankle and her head.

Theoretically, all Li has to do is keep her head together and her feet on the court in order to finally become the champion of the event that comes closest to being her "home" major. In reality, however, she has to do a little bit more. Dominika Cibulkova--who has a history of losing big matches in which she has the lead-appears to have changed her ways. The strong-cored, high-energy Slovak took out four seeded players, including a former Australian Open champion, last year's hottest player, and the woman who upset the defending champion. She is filled with confidence.

This is going to be a hitting contest, for sure. Both players are very strong from the baseline, and Li sports a crosscourt backhand that can be scary. Her forehand has improved quite a bit under the guidance of coach Carlos Rodriguez, so--assuming she keeps her head together--she can take it to Cibulkova from both sides of the court. Historically, neither player is that fond of coming forward, but I think that each knows that she has to, and each has done so in this event. Neither likes to be pushed around, so getting in a good first serve and controlling the point will be crucial. If it comes down to defense, however, Cibulkova won't be afraid to engage her opponent in long, tiring rallies.

Both players are very fit, and we might see some long games, or even long sets. Li has won all for of the matches they've played against each other, including their only hard court match last year in Toronto. Because of her record against Cibulkova and because of her history in Melbourne, Li will most certainly be feeling a great amount of pressure. That kind of pressure can make just about any player vulnerable, and Li is no stranger to feelings of vulnerability. She will have to shut out any memory of Clijsters, any memory of cracking her head on the court, and any of the sometimes over-enthusiastic carrying on of her fans.

Paths to the final:

round 1--def. Ana Konjuh
round 2--def. Belinda Bencic
round 3--def. Lucie Safarova (26)
round of 16--def. Ekaterina Makarova (22)
quarterfinals--def. Flavia Pennetta (28)
semifinals--def. Eugenie Bouchard (30)

round 1--def. Francesca Schiavone
round 2--def. Stefanie Voegele
round 3--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (16)
round of 16--def. Maria Sharapova (3)
quarterfinals--def. Simona Halep (11)
semifinals--def. Agnieszka Radwanska (5)

Australian Open--what they said

Well, I think I feel like in slow motion today.
Agnieszka Radwanska

You know, this top 10 talk, I don't want to talk about it anymore. So many years that everybody kept telling me, You should be top 10; why you not top 10? I'm just not.
Dominika Cibulkova

Remember--no falling down, no hitting the head, no turning the ankle.
That's pretty good; I will try that.
Li Na

What lesson will you have learned in this tournament that can help you in the future?
Playing shorter matches, two set matches. That would be great. Less than one and a half hours.
Agnieszka Radwanska

You're pretty close friends with Marion Bartoli.  How much did you draw from her Wimbledon win?
She was a big inspiration. When she won the Wimbledon, we are very close friends, we are one of the best friends, so I knew she was working like so hard for it, so she was the one who deserve it so much. Yeah, when she won it I knew like everything is possible. Yeah, it was nice.
Dominika Cibulkova
If you win here, will you send Safarova a note or give her a part of your prize money?
I will send her a smile, you know. Is only I can do, yeah.
Li Na

This is essentially a real-life adaptation of "Lose Yourself"
Ben Rothenburg

After 5 love down you played pretty even with her for a while. Any reason you couldn't sort of quite turn it?
I mean, I think she played really well. You have to give her credit. All of her groundstrokes were like a foot from the baseline and she was very consistent. Even her serves were really solid. I felt like she didn't give me much breathing space, much room to do what I want to do on the court. I tried to put pressure, but she just played too good at moments.
Eugenie Bouchard

Everyone want to be famous. Doesn't matter which way, right? Right now in this world, so many people, they make wrong decision but they still come famous.
Li Na

Li and Cibulkova to compete for Australian Open championship

The Genie Army had to pack its artillery of loud songs and stuffed Australian creatures and leave the battefield yesterday when their cause, Eugenie Bouchard, fell in straight sets to two-time Australian Open finalist Li Na. It wasn't a surprise. Bouchard is an impressive hitter with a lot of instinct, but she isn't quite ready to take on Li.

After the match, Bouchard--who rather quickly found herself down 0-5 in the opening set--set that Li's hitting winners from side to side "just wasn't really my game." It was Li's game. And the crosscourt backhands coming off of Li's racket were deadly.

Bouchard did get to 2-5 in the first set, and she saved a set point. She had a clean slate after that, and went up 2-0 in the second set. But she had little breathing room, despite the break, and Li won that set 6-2. Li would go on to win the second set 6-4.

In the other semifinal, there was a different vibe altogether. The women's semifinals are played the day after the quarterfinals conclude; neither Agnieszka Radwanska nor Dominika Cibulkova had a day of rest between the quarterfinals and the semifinals. Theirs was the only match in the tournament in which this unfortunate phenomenon occurred. It didn't appear to bother Cibulkova, who came out like the fireball she is, and took control from the first ball struck.

Radwanska, on the other hand, was done before she even started the warmup. Her amazing performance against defending champion Victoria Azarenka the day before had apparently taken the very tennis soul out of her. I suspect it was much more of a mental thing than a physical thing, though she was undoubtedly physically tired after all that running and squatting and twisting that she did in the quarterfinals.

At any rate, Radwanska was slow and mediocre in her shot-making, and just "not there." But I don't mean to take anything away from Cibulkova, who was spot-on throughout the match. Cibulkova has had a problem with choking throughout her career, and during this tournament, she held fast mentally, even at really big moments. Her reward is a trip to the final.

The Slovak has had a few things going for her at this tournament. She's not only mentally stronger, she has also improved her serve. And she had some luck, too, when she most needed it. Her quarterfinal opponent was so nervous she could hardly play, and her semifinal opponent was physically and mentally spent. Had Halep and/or Radwanska played at their usual levels, who knows what might have happened? But they didn't, and that's tennis, and now the hard-working, hard-hitting Cibulkova gets a crack at Li Na.

The doubles final is also set. Top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who defeated Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik in the semifinals, will play 3rd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Australian Open--what they said

She's a genius, isn't she, Radwanska.
Pam Shriver

You've had tough losses and big wins against both of them.  How does that affect you going into this match?
You know, I already beat both of them. It's going to be very tough, for sure. Both opponents are big fighters and a great player. It just gives me enough confidence, you know, to go into this match and to know that I beat both of them. I know what I have to do. We know each other really well. We are the same age. We played so many times each other.
Dominika Cibulkova

The seed of doubt has been planted in Azarenka's head about what Radwanska is going to do next.
Martina Navratiliva
She was just doing everything a little bit better than me. I was just watching. I was like a spectator a little bit.
Victoria Azarenka

I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn't manage this. Before the match I was very nervous and I didn't feel the ball at all. I couldn't move my body and I couldn't play.
Simona Halep

She's not finding any holes in Radwanska's game because there aren't any today.
Chris Evert

The Genius and the Domi-Nator advance to Australian Open semifinals

Often, it takes Simona Halep a set or even a set and a half to realize to what extent she has positioned herself on the court to prohibit her aggression. Generally, at that point, she becomes aggressive and plays catch-up. Today, in the Australian Open quarterfinals, she never really reached the second step of that needlessly complicated process. Halep kept her distance and became the latest victim of Dominika Cibulkova, who really does have a new attitude.

Cibulkova pretty easily beat Halep 6-3, 6-0 in what was a less-than-stellar showing from the Romanian player. It was way stellar from Cibulkova, though. The Slovak had first and second serve win stats of 76% and 50%, and she broke her opponent five times. She made it look pretty easy, and it took her exactly an hour to get the job done. The victory puts Cibulkova into the Australian Open semifinals for the first time in her career. In her next match, she'll play someone she may not have expected to face.

The best way I know how to describe the first set of the match played between Aga Radwanska and defending champion Vika Azarenka is to say that Radwanska very skillfully lulled Azarenka into a false sense of insecurity. Pulling out every trick in her considerably overstuffed trick bag, Radwanska  lobbed (brilliantly), spun, dropped, and pace-changed Azarenka into a state of visible frustration. Watching Radwanska made me long (as I always do) for the days when wildly versatile shot-making and savvy were what mattered in tennis, and the quick, very clever players were rewarded for their speed and cleverness. Give me a Radwanska or a Hingis or a Mandlikova any day.

But I digress. Radwanska won the first set 6-1, but Azarenka pulled herself together for the second set, yet didn't cut down enough on the unforced errors to have an easy go of it. Radwanska's service level dropped a bit, but not enough to make a significant difference. The set appeared to be headed toward a tiebreak when Azarenka broke Radwanska when she served at 5-6.

Throughout the match, the defending champion appeared to be less than emotionally steady, but we've seen that from Azarenka before, and it isn't always a bad sign. But today, she was fighting to go for a third title, and she was being flummoxed right and left by her opponent. The third set was about as show-offy as anything I've ever seen from Radwanska. She was getting to balls that mere mortal tennis players--even the really good ones--just can't get to, and when she got to them, she was hitting winners. She hit volleys from her toes, volleys from behind her back, volleys from places you don't usually see on television. Radwanska's level of anticipation from all parts of the court was practically perfect. Azarenka didn't win a game.

It's always hard to make this kind of judgment, but this very likely was the best performance of the Polish star's career. I caught myself gasping and exclaiming throughout the final set. If Azarenka showed up not quite glued together, by the middle of the third set, she had to be practically unraveling. She made a total of 47 unforced errors, while Radwanska made 15.

So Radwanska--into the Australian Open semifinals for the first time in her career--will play Cibulkova in the semifinals, and Li Na will play Genie Bouhard. Not what most people expected, but very interesting.

Meanwhile, 3rd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina advanced to the doubles final with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 victory over 8th seeds Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears.

Australian Open--what they said

I think you missed the first backhand after 28 minutes. That never happens or is normal?
So I should improve for next match. Next match I will try after 30 minutes.
 Li Na
Things are just simple for Genie. She's the definition of gamer and a jock. See it, hit it, win the match.
Courtney Nguyen

Was there any point in the match where you felt you had it in the bag?
After I won, yeah.
Genie Bouchard

What was your reaction when you saw Serena lose the other day?
I think everyone can lose the match, you know. She also is normal.
Li Na
In the last year she improve a lot her game. She's more, I think, consistent with the forehand. And her serve, it's working really good also. She's a really good player.
Flavia Pennetta, referring to Li Na

Do you have luggage space?
I will create luggage space. It's worth it to take my wombat home.
Genie Bouchard

She's very aggressive player. It's sometimes very hard to read her game. There is no really patterns like with other players you have. She's a great mover.
Ana Ivanovic, referring to Genie Bouchard

Tennis players get very upset sometimes, and sometimes they break their racket, but you never do. I'd like you to tell people why.
Because I'm feeling racket is my friend. So--because she was with me on the court all the time, I have to be friend with her, and also, she can be nice to me.
Does she have a name?...Will you give her a name if she wins for you?
I have eight racquets. If you want I call them Li Na One, Li Na Two, until Li Na Eight.
Li Na

Monday, January 20, 2014

A veteran and an upstart advance to Australian Open semifinals

The Genie Army was ready today, with a list of songs and a stuffed wombat. And after playing for two and a half hours against Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open quarterfinals, Eugenie Bouchard had enough energy left to run toward the stands and collect her wombat, one in a series of stuffed Australian creatures thrown to her by her enthusiastic fans.

The way this Australian Open has been going, it was hardly a surprise that someone would sustain an injury in the quarterfinals. Today (and let's hope today is the only day), it was Ana Ivanovic, who received medical treatment for her hip (not the bandaged one) in the middle of the second set. Ivanovic had taken the first set 7-5, after she and Bouchard broke each other five consecutive times. Ivanovic served for the set at 6-4, then had to serve for it again at 6-5.

As the match went on, Bouchard became more aggressive, and she didn't appear to be the slightest bit thrown off by her opponent's injury. Ivanovic, hampered by that injury, nevertheless continued to play at a high level, and I should point out that there was nothing that looked like a mental lapse on her part. Despite her loss today, the Serbian player made a strong statement in Melbourne, and could actually be on a true comeback.

As for Bouchard, she made a pretty big announcement today, charging into the semifinals of a major. She hit 47 winners and made 37 unforced errors, and she broke seven times out of thirteen opportunities. She also won at the net 79% of the time. Those are good numbers. The 19-year-old Canadian can improve her serve and she can become more comfortable with hitting up and down the lines.

Bouchard failed to make it out of qualifying at last year's Australian Open. The 2013 WTA Newcomer of the Year is suddenly spinning forward with all of the power of a ball that might be hit by someone like Li Na.

Li Na. That's who Bouchard has to play in the semifinals, and--assuming Li stays out of Na Na Land and continues on her present path--there isn't much likelihood that we'll see a stuffed platypus on the court at the end of the match. But an assumption is just that; with Li, there's always that bit of uncertainty, and Bouchard showed today that she isn't shy about taking advantage of her opponent's weakness.

It's been almost 30 years, by the way, since a Canadian woman made it as far as the semifinals in Melbourne. Win or lose in the next round, Bouchard has already made a mark on Canadian tennis.

Li beat Flavia Pennetta 6-2, 6-2, and--not to take anything away from Li, who was superb--but Pennetta just didn't look right. Maybe she was ill; maybe she was just having a really bad day.

In doubles, Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears ended the surprise run of Shahar Peer and Silvia Soler-Espinosa. The 8th seeds beat Peer and Soler-Espinosa 6-4, 6-0 and advanced to the semifinals. And in the second round of mixed doubles, top seeds Anna-Lena Groenfeld and Alexander Peya were beaten in the second round by Zheng Jie and Scott Lipsky.

Tomorrow, Simona Halep will play Dominika Cibulkova and Aga Radwanska will play defending champion Victoria Azarenka. It's likely that we're headed toward another Li-Azarenka final, but when the temperature reaches 108 degrees on court and wombats fall out of the sky, you can't be too sure about anything.

Just keep lowering the bar

And everyone can jump over it.

A few years ago, Pam Shriver announced the result of a study that had been done on the accuracy of line officials. They were correct 70% of the time. Just as I was thinking "that's even worse than I thought," Shriver told us all how great it was.

A while ago, an announcement was made that at the 2014 Australian Open, the officials have been correct 70% of the time in the women's matches, and 75% of the time in the men's. Then ESPN commentators told us something special must be going on for the line officials to be that good.

What if I "got it right" 70% of the time in my job? I would be searching everywhere, for either another job, or a way to correct my apparently errant ways. If your job is to call the lines, then 70% (or even 75%) accuracy isn't good at all. But ESPN says it's great, so you know, it must be great.

Radwanska tops off final 8 in Australia

There's an assumption--a mythology, to some degree--that Agnieszka Radwanska, tricky as she is, cannot finesse her way past big hitters. That isn't actually true, though the Polish star appears to have come to believe it. Consider how she freezes the moment she sees Serena Williams on the other side of the net. I'm not implying that Radwanska can change her attitude and beat Williams, but she could at least give it a go. Radwanska frequently appears to give up when she faces a big hitter, but when she has some belief and actually plays her game, sometimes good things happen. Just ask Maria Sharapova.

The Australian Open 5th seed faced such a big hitter in yesterday's night match, when she played Spain's Garbine Muguruza for a spot in the quarterfinals. Muguruza did not make it easy for Radwanska; in fact, she imposed herself on the Pole in the very early part of the match. But Muguruza's big hitting was actually bait for Radwanska, whose footwork, shot variety and cunning strategy were way more than the Spaniard could handle. Radwanska won 6-1, 6-3.

I am so weary of the tennis media. Bill Macatee, from whom I expect better, is now 27-year-old Andrea Hlavackova and 28-year-old Lucie Hradecka "young ladies." (He shouldn't be calling any of the players "young ladies," for that matter). Apparently, if you hang out with Tracy Austin long enough, you, too, can develop sexist language. And I winced when Renee Stubbs "humorously" asked Victoria Azarenka a question about her personal life that is none of Stubbs' (or our) business.

Then there was the reporter who asked Simona Halep how her breast reduction surgery had affected her off-court life. Halep laughed it off, but oh, how I wish she had instead asked the reporter a question about his or her (does anyone know who the reporter was?) genitals or sexual habits. And I really wish she would formally complain, but, of course, that particular reporter's question will just float around with Tsonga's lecture on women's hormones in the great "don't make such a big deal over it, it's all good fun" sexist beyond.

Two quarterfinals will be played today. Li Na will play Flavia Pennetta, and that match will be followed by Ana Ivanovic vs. Eugenie Bouchard. Also today, top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci play Cara Black and Sania Mirza. And surprise quarterfinalists Shahar Peer and Silvia Soler-Espinosa take on Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Australian Open--what they said

Were you bothered by her messing around with her toss?
Let me say maybe a little bit. When the match was coming to the end, I was getting like a little bit angry about that, you know. I was keep talking myself, like, Why she doing that? I thought it was on the purpose.
Dominika Cibulkova 

Jelena Jankovic ran out of challenges in the first game of the third set. Even for her that may be a record.
Ben Rothenberg

Can you talk a little bit about the second set? Topsy turvy. She raced to 5-0. You climbed back. Looked like the return game was maybe not your best return game of the match.
That's being nice. Let's be honest.
Maria Sharapova

When she does the right thing, she makes it look so easy.
Chris Evert, referring to Sloane Stephens

She's having a conversation with the box.
It's not a pleasant one, from what we're seeing.
Commentators discussing Jankovic

She owns victories over a slew of elite players, including Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, and Sam Stosur. On Monday Jankovic became another high-profile victim.
Matt Cronin, writing about Simona Halep
I'm very good player, so I don't want to have two opponents, the real one and me. I'm just trying to play against the opponent.
Dominika Cibulkova

Azarenka still hasn't looked at Sloane Stephens and acknowledged her.
Chris Evert, after Stephens apologized for hitting Azarenka in the groin

Sharapova melted by Pocket Rocket at Australian Open

Where seeds fall, flowers bloom. It takes a bit of rain, and apparently, a lot of heat. Today it was 3rd seed Maria Sharapova who fell in the Australian Open  round of 16. Sharapova made her exit courtesy of Slovak Dominika Cibulkova, who now advances to the quarterfinals.

Sharapova served for the first set at 2-5 and was broken at love. She then broke back at 30 on her second set point when Cibulkova double-faulted. But even after she won the first set 6-3, Sharapova looked vulnerable. It was clear that she had to fight very hard against an opponent who had gotten the better of her in the past because she knows how to force the Russian into engaging in long rallies.

Sure enough, Cibulkova broke right away in the second set, and then easily held. Sharapova didn't win a game until she broke for 1-5. Then she held and broke again, but Cibulkova won the set 6-4.

After the second set, Sharapova took a medical timeout for a hip strain. There's a bit of irony here, since Sharapova's opponent has practically lived with a thigh or hip strain for much of her career, though she's been unbandaged and moving freely in Melbourne. Broken right away in the third set, Sharapova had to fight impressively to get to 1-3. And that was that: It was the only game the Russian won in the final set.

It was hard to tell how much the strain was bothering the Russian star. One of the commentators noted that, when there's a tweaky injury like that, a player just to wait and see how bad it's going to get, and then she can play on with relative comfort. That appeared to be the case today, but of course, only Sharapova knows. At any rate, Sharapova was outhit and outplayed by Cibulkova, who really does seem comfortable with her new racket, and who is hitting the ball as hard as ever. 

Cibulkova's second serve was quite impressive; Sharapova's wasn't. Sharapova also double-faulted eight times. What happens next for 'Pova? That's a conversation for another time. But, as she said after the match, she feels lucky to be healthy and back on the tour.

I wanted to burn insense in Hisense Arena after the Jankovic-Halep match, just to remove the bad vibes. This was Jankovic in her foulest mood, yelling at her box incessantly, failing to appear on the court when she was supposed to and forcing her opponent to just stand there and wait, and then--wait for it--complaining because Halep was playing too slowly. Throughout this drama, the chair umpire just sat there, apparently believing it was better to just let things take their course.

The players have such similar games that I wondered if either of them could really grab onto anything to get some momentum. During certain stretches of the match, they did both seem to be moving through Jell-O in order to make their shots. Halep took the first set 6-4 and then fell apart in the second. She became especially deficient in her serve. After the match, she said she had become suddenly very tired during the second set. I've heard Halep say this before, and I wonder what's going on there. At any rate, it didn't take much effort for Jankovic to win the second set 6-2.

It really looked like it was over for Halep, but she arrived for the third set a different woman. She picked her serve up again, and went into a very aggressive mode. Jankovic didn't win a game. Part of the reason for this lopsided score, however, was Jankovic's rash of unforced errors. She was just a mess. As for Halep, she needed to be more aggressive earlier in the match and not give herself so much work.

This is the Romanian's first time to reach a quarterfinal in a major. Her quarterfinal opponent will be Cibulkova.

And then there was Victoria Azarenka vs. Sloane Stephens. Hello, commentators! Azarenka is the two-time defending champion. That means she has actually won the Australian Open twice, and that she really exists. And after a week of "Blah blah Sloane," "Oh my Sloane"--it's the defending champion who will play in the quarterfinals. Did I say that Vika won in straight sets?

I couldn't really get that involved in the match. I was watching two matches at once, and as crazy as the Jankovic-Halep match was, I found it more interesting. I suppose it had never occurred to me that Azarenka would be upset by Stephens, so I just kind of watched that match in order to keep up with it. One of the things I did notice, however was that Stephens kept slipping in and out of killer mode and "I'll just stick around and see what happens" mode. You don't do this with Azarenka. She's a great mover, and she's equally adept at the baseline and the net. Stephens has a lot of skills, but she doesn't seem to have that much belief. Or maybe she lacks focus.

At one point, Stephens hit Azarenka in the groin with the ball. (Save that kind of thing for Liezel Huber, I say.) A couple of points later, Stephens had to duck because Azarenka's backhand volley was sailing directly for her head. Stephens smiled--and then applauded.

Azarenka's 6-3, 6-2 victory gives her a quarterfinal slot opposite the winner of the Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Garbine Muguruza match, which is yet to be played.

Genie Army prepares for another battle

Genie Bouchard says that the Genie Army--a group of fans who have serenaded her from the beginning of the Australian Open--have made such an impact on her that she hears their songs in her head, even after they have stopped singing. Yesterday, the Army had to go against a huge crowd of Aussies who were cheering for their own player, Casey Dellacqua. Dellacaqua took the first set off of Bouchard in a tiebreak, but after that, it was pretty much all about the Canadian, who took the other sets 6-2 and 6-0.

Bouchard served impressively, and tended to keep the rallies very short. Her next job will be to play 14th seed Ana Ivanovic, who upset Serena Williams in the round of 16. This scenario is probably not what Bouchard was expecting. If Ivanovic continues to play at her current level, the Genie Army will be well advised to keep their day jobs. But this is tennis, and this is Ivanovic, and anything can happen. At any rate, Bouchard appears ready to give her opponent a good fight.

I'll go on record here as saying I really, really like Genie Bouchard's outfit. I believe Ted Tinling would have been tempted to "take on" Bouchard as his own, after seeing her Australian Open ensemble. (I wish she had a different color top, but that's a quibble.)

Most of the outfits at this Australian Open have bored me, though I liked Venus's EleVen dress and I liked Serena's pink and black Nike outfit.

Round of 16 competition will be completed today, with Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbine Mugurza getting the night match in Rod Laver Arena. Jelena Jankovic will play Simona Halep (do I dare even watch?), Maria Sharapova will play Dominika Cibulkova, and defending champion Victoria Azarenka will play Sloane Stephens. Those of us who live in the USA are going to be forced to watch this match on ESPN, so turning off the sound may be a good option.

Australian Open--what they said

I had to remind myself all the time, you know, just stay in the moment.
Ana Ivanovic

...If I get nervous or if I get tired, maybe even thinking too much I forget what I should do on the court. Also, I think before I think too much how is opponent do something, but I forgot most important thing is what I should do on the court.
Li Na
People are playing really tough. Everyone in this competition is really hard and everyone is playing really tough, namely against me.
Serena Williams
When you started your comeback last February, it's been almost a year now. Did you think you would get to this point?
Flavia Pennetta

Williams' departure did not so much open up the draw as ripped it to shreds.
Alix Ramsay
It's not easy playing such a champion...but she is also just a human.
Ana Ivanovic

I made a tremendous amount of errors, shots I missed I normally don't miss--I haven't missed since the 80s.
Serena Williams

Ivanovic ends Serena Williams' run in Melbourne

If you were in Melbourne on Sunday afternoon and you became very quiet and listened very carefully, you might have heard a sigh of relief. That would have come from Maria Sharapova, whose worst nightmare--facing Serena Williams in a major final--is not going to occur. Ana Ivanovic settled that matter by upsetting Williams in the Australian Open round of 16.

Not that Sharapova can dance to the final--she still has to face Dominika Cibulkova before she can even begin to think about the final, and there are more hazards ahead for her, should she get past Cibulkova.  Sharapova, I think, is quite vulnerable, but at least what must be her most dreaded scenario will not come to pass.

Ivanovic beat Williams 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, and Williams' loss is open to a number of interpretations. Yes, she was moving below her usual standard. And after her coach blabbed to the press (tacky, that) that she had hurt her back, it became clear that her movement was indeed hampered by injury. But Williams has played through injury before and beaten her opponents, and especially those opponents who are not that strong in the head department--players like Ana Ivanovic.

One can conjecture that having a locked back is worse than having a leg injury or a shoulder injury. Who knows? Williams managed to hit 13 aces. One thing, however, is certain: Ivanovic played at her peak level. She was returning everything with power and finesse, and calmly engaging Williams in long rallies, using her slice to keep Williams on the move for a longer time than she probably wanted. The Ivanovic forehand finished the job again and again. The Serbian player's serve was working really well, too. She told ESPN that she had not just worked on her serve, but that she had worked on her mentality about her serve.

The 14th seed gave us a preview of her performance when she defeated Sam Stosur, another big server. With both her return game and her service game cooking at high levels, Ivanovic forced us to remember that inside her somewhat shaky court persona lives the 2008 French Open champion. It was a masterful performance by an obviously more level-headed Ivanovic.

The most amazing thing about Sunday's competition was that Ivanovic wasn't the only player who stunned on the court. Li Na, who has been walking on the edge for the past week, all but blacked out Ekaterina Makarova's appearance in Hisense Arena. Poor Makarova probably didn't even know what hit her. For the entire match, which lasted just short of an hour, the Russian couldn't even get her foot in the door. Li served so well, and hit her backhand so well, that Makarova was reduced to the status of victim.

Of course, this is Li Na. She could win the Australian Open, or she could take another trip to Na Na Land. She'd better be sharp in the next round because she has to face Flavia Pennetta, against whom she has a 2-2 record. Pennetta--Queen of Fed Cup, Queen of Career Comebacks (this is the third major one that I can recall), the woman who put the fight in Fighting Italian--took out 9th seed Angelique Kerber in the round of 16 in an entertaining, and sometimes exciting, match that went three sets. And in the first set, which Pennetta won 6-1, the Italian gave a Li Na/Ana Ivanovic kind of performance. What has the heat done to these players?!

Meanwhile, Shahar Peer and Silvia Soler-Espinosa, not content just to take out Hsieh and Peng, advanced to the doubles quarterfinals by defeating Lucie Hradecka and Michaella Krajicek.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Australian Open--what they said

What do you think you learned from that semifinal match last year?
Nothing. I don't know there's anything to learn. As a match itself, it was good. I think actually it was my first time playing against Sloane. I don't think you can take so much out of it because, you know, the year pass by.
 Victoria Azarenka

The Olympics is coming up real soon. I understand you're going to have a gig as a commentator with NBC. Can you talk about that? Excited about that?
Everyone seems to think I will be commentating on winter sports. I'm not a bobsledding expert. I will confirm I won't be commentating.
Maria Sharapova

What were you most pleased with in your play today?
Just that I figured out which way the wind was blowing.
Sloane Stephens

Azarenka went on quite a bit talking about how wonderful her grandmother is and Casey Dellacqua did the same thing yesterday.
Who doesn't like their grandmothers? I mean...I mean, they cook, they clean, they tell you you're the best. What's not to like?
Maria Sharapova

Here comes Muguruza

The young Spaniard, Garbine Muguruza, announced her presence in a new way yesterday; she advanced to the Australian Open round of 16 by defeating 10th seed Caroline Wozniacki. It took her 2 hours and 24 minutes, and she had to fight her own nerves more than once, but Muguruza hung in and showed why she's most likely the player Spain has been waiting for for some time. She does a lot things well, and she has an admirable court attitude.

Muguruza's ascent was delayed last summer because of ankle surgery. She took a six-month leave, then came back and won Hobart. Not bad. She's already knocked off Kaia Kanepi and Caroline Wozniacki (who's now out of the top 10) in Melbourne. She's also accumulated a lot of unforced errors, and that trend--though it reflects how "big" her game is--may also get her into trouble sooner than later. Next up for Muguruza is 5th seed Aga Radwanska, who's known for making few unforced errors and for throwing opponents off of their games. On the other hand, the Spaniard is a big hitter who can give Radwanska a bad day.

Radwanska, for her part, got a bit lucky. She looked totally out of sorts against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who took the first set 7-5. But in the second set, Pavlyuchenkova became dizzy. She received medical treatment and then played the third set, but it was all over for her; Radwanska won 5-7, 6-2, 6-2. Television commentators seemed shocked that the Russian player would experience dizziness on the first good-weather day of the tournament, but it seemed kind of obvious to me that the cumulative effects of playing in very intense heat could cause someone to become ill.

Maria Sharapova defeated Alize Cornet 6-1, 7-6, but continued to have problems with her serve. Her next opponent will be Dominika Cibulkova, whose serve has been fine-tuned to the point of giving Carla Suarez Navarro a 6-1, 6-0 send-off in under an hour. With her serve working, Cibulkova again becomes a hard court threat to anyone, including Sharapova.

Defending champion Victoria Azarenka defeated Yvonne Meusburger, and will now go against Sloane Stephens (Stephens beat Elina Svitolina). This match-up, of course, has television commentators practically drooling with anticipation. I have a lot of things to say about ESPN's commentary on the upcoming match, but I don't have to say them because Todd already did.

Jelena Jankovic defeated Karumi Nara and Simona Halep defeated Zarina Diyas, which brings up (for me, anyway) one of those "I can't stand to see either of them lose" matches in the round of 16.

The home favorites, Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua, were upset in the second round of doubles. The 5th seeds lost to Timea Babos and Petra Martic. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur also lost, as did Kristina Mladenovic and Flavia Pennetta.

Coming up later today is top seed Serena Williams, who will play Ana Ivanovic. Angelique Kerber will look across the net and see someone as tough as she is--Flavia Pennetta, and Li Na will have to deal with Ekaterina Makarova. Finally, last Aussie standing Casey Dellacqua actually won't have the entire crowd cheering for her when she plays Genie Bouchard.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Casey Dellacqua--last Aussie standing

Casey Dellacqua's straight-set win over Zheng Jie yesterday at the Australian Open puts her into the round of 16, and makes her the last Australian in the draw. Her countrywoman, Sam Stosur, went out in three sets to Ana Ivanovic. Stosur has appeared better able to handle the pressure at this Australian Open, and she played well in the third round. Ivanovic, however, played even better.

That Li Na. She likes to live on the edge, and she was almost pushed over it yesterday by Lucie Safarova. Safarova took an easy 6-1 first set off of the 4th seed, who actually began the match while in Na Na Land. The left-handed Czech served for the match at 5-3 in the second set, but was easily broken, as one might expect: When she's about to go down in flames, Li can usually create some heat of her own.

Safarova got a match point on Li's next serve and went for a down-the-line shot that was the right choice, but that sailed long. Commentators are making a big deal about how close Safarova came to winnning--that the ball just went that tiny bit of distance out. Actually, it went rather definitively out, but nevertheless, the miss must have been a heart-breaker for Safarova. She was never to get another chance; Li won the second set 7-6 and she won the third set 6-3. Once the second set tiebreak began, Li had all the momentum she needed.

Li made 50 unforced errors in the match. She will have to clean up her game quite a bit for her next match, which she'll play against Ekaterina Makarova. The Russian player beat Monica Niculescu in straight sets.

Top seed Serena Williams defeated Daniela Hantuchova in straight sets, but her serve was broken for the first time in the tournament. Williams' victory was her 61st at the Melbourne event--a WTA record.

Eugenie Bouchard advanced, as did Angelique Kerber and Flavia Pennetta. And leave it to Pennetta to be the last Fighting Italian left standing. The comeback continues.

Pennetta's good fortune continued in doubles. She and partner Kristina Mladenovic (who tends to bring good fortune in doubles, anyway) won their first round match in straight sets. They were to have played Serena and Venus Williams, but the Williams sisters withdrew because Venus has a leg injury.

The big news in doubles, however, was the upset of 2nd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai by Shahar Peer and Silvia Soler-Espinosa. Who saw that coming? Peer and Soler-Espinosa won 7-5, 3-6, 6-4.

There was intense heat and there was rain. The television commentators can't stop talking about a doctor in Australia who declared that the overwhelming heat was not a health factor for tennis players. I don't blame them. Every once in a while, someone says something so ridiculous that it boggles the mind.

Australian Open--what they said

In tennis history, players typically do not improve at 32. Yet all signs are that you have. How does that happen?
I don't know. I feel like, you know, in life 32 is young, you know. In sports it's old. But for whatever reason, I feel like I just never was really able to reach my full potential, and I feel like recently I just have been able to do a little better. I just keep trying to improve on everything.
 Serena Williams

How do you actually feel physically after that match? 
Feeling good. At least I'm not cramping, okay?
Li Na

The last point where the rain started falling really hard, do you think the last point should have been replayed?
I don't know. I don't know if there's a rule that says once some raindrops fall on the court you should stop. Maybe whoever won or lost that point was not going to be happy about it. But, yeah, I don't know. I can't really comment.
 Sam Stosur

Li Na's self-exhortation "Come on, Li Na" works great for her....less so for "Come on, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova."
 Jon Wertheim

I always go into matches thinking it'll be my day. She played very well on the important points; it made a difference.
 Daniela Hantuchova

Do you need to raise your level at this point now that you're in the fourth round?
Well, if I don't, I won't be in the tournament much longer.
 Serena Williams

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sweeping the court

Sloane Stephens had to go three sets against Ajla Tomlijanovic, but did advance to the third round. Also advancing were Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, Yvonne Meusburger, and Kurumi Nara. 

Here she is: a six-year-old Pironkova!

The Donald meets The Marion.

During her only Australian Open singles match, Bethanie Mattek-Sands wore a flashy, Bartoli-designed wristband.

"There should be a 10-minute break for the men after 3rd set," tweets Darren Cahill, which is quite a contrast to his annual Australian Open "complaining about the heat is for sissies" speech.

"If ______ wins this match, I'll eat my racket!"

Australian Open--what they said

Your matches are always pretty exciting.
So dramatic. I like to keep it interesting. Obviously I don't like to sleep because I like going home super late.
Sloane Stephens

Do you take confidence moving forward after this performance today against Maria?
Yes, yes, it gave me confidence, because Maria is, I mean, in the three best players of the world. So I trying to find as much as possible these feelings and getting to play games like this all the time, and it gave me confidence, yes.
Karin Knapp

Can you tell what you say your body was saying to you? What feelings you had?
I mean, on one hand you're trying to get as much rest in between points as you can, but then you have an umpire who is giving you a time violation. Then you're asking yourself whether that's fair, as well in whatever degree weather that was.
Maria Sharapova

After the match I couldn't stand up for 4 hours! Sunstroke, headache, upset stomach, shiver, and sickness! Not enough?!!
Galina Voskoboeva

...I think the question I have is no one really knows what the limit is. Not the players; the trainers themselves, when you ask them, "When will the roof be closed?" No one actually knows what that number is in comparison to humidity or the actual heat. Sometimes you wish you know, because it's it just depends on I'm not sure who, a referee or the meteorologist, and there are just a lot of questions in the air that maybe, you know, should be solved. Because I asked the trainer the other day, "What does it take for the roof to be closed or matches to be stopped?" She said, "We have no control over this."
Maria Sharapova

Does somebody need to, like, die before they say "Maybe we should close the roof...."?
Martina Navratilova

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sharapova gets past Fighting Italian

I figured Karin Knapp would give Maria Sharapova trouble in their Australian Open second round match, and did she ever. The big-hitting Italian, who career has been repeatedly derailed by health issues, didn't seem to even notice the heat that was practically melting the entire tournament. Neither did 'Pova, for that matter. But heat fatigue was obviously a factor in the match, which lasted 3 hours and 27 minutes.

Sharapova won the first set 6-3, Knapp won the second set 6-4, and the third set was an out-and-out thriller. At 3-all, Sharapova converted on her fifth match point, and then the real tension began.

Knapp saved three match points when Sharapova served at 5-4, then broke the Russian when she double-faulted again.

Knapp broke Sharapova at 6-all. At 7-all, the Italian went down 0-30, but saved herself with four great consecutive serves. Sharapova then broke her. Serving for the match a second time, the third seed double-faulted twice in a row, then, at 30-all, she double-faulted again. But by this time, Knapp had let down a bit, having been broken at love at 8-9. A Sharapova victory didn't seem "inevitable," but it seemed very likely. And so it was, when the Russian star took the third set 10-8.

It should be noted that it wasn't just Sharapova who had trouble with her serve; Knapp double-faulted 9 times to Sharapova's 12. I'm going to give them a pass because of the intense heat. The chair umpire, on the other hand--who was most definitely not Eva Asderaki--didn't seem to care about one player's vocalizations during her opponent's hitting and/or serving.

So much attention was paid to this match that the commentators apparently didn't notice that another match, played in the same horrible conditions, went on for 3 hours and 10 minutes. The winner of that match was Carla Suarez Navarro, who beat Galina Voskoboeva 7-6, 3-6, 8-6. There was. as ome would expect, plenty of drama, with Voskoboeva leading 5-2 and 5-4, and serving for the match in the final set. And speaking of the heat, it did Varvara Lepchenko in. Lepchenko won the first set 6-4 against Simona Halep, but lost the next two 0-6 and 1-6. She had to have treatment for heat illness, and I was surprised she even went back onto the court.

Dominika Cibulkova ran over Stefanie Voegele, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Alize Cornet both advanced. So did Zarina Dyas, a little-known player with an extremely aggressive style. Elina Svitolina ended Aussie Olivia Rogowska's run, and--ever so quietly--Garbine Muguruza advanced to the third round.

In doubles, top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won their first round match. They both got knocked out of singles in the first round of play, so there's nothing (except the heat) to distract them at this point.

2nd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai also advanced to the second round.

Play has been suspended on the outer courts because of the excruciating heat.

Hantuchova advances to third round in Melbourne

Daniela Hantuchova has always played some of her best tennis at the Australian Open. Yesterday, she beat both Karolina Pliskova and the Australian heat. It took Hantuchova three hours and thirteen minutes and five match points, but she walked away with a 6-3, 3-6, 12-10 victory.

Her next job? She has to play Serena Williams. Williams is 8-1 against Hantuchova, though it's worth mentioning that the Slovak's one win against Williams was at the 2006 Australian Open. That's a memory Hantuchova can call on. Of course, there's also that memory of the time when, while playing--for all practical purposes--with just one hand and one leg, Williams still defeated a constantly choking Hantuchova. At any rate, it will be good to see them play one another again.

Madison Keys is out, a victim--not surprisingly--of Zheng Jie, who beat her 7-6, 1-6, 7-5. Casey Dellacqua easily defeated Kirsten Flipkens, Mona Barthel put an end to Luksika Kumkhum's brief but famous run, and Lucie Safarova won an all-Czech, all-Lucie contest against Lucie Hradecka.

Li Na knocked off her second 16-year-old in a row with her straight set victory over number 1 junior Belinda Bencic. Bencic was clueless in the first set, but put up a great fight, even getting two breaks, in the second. She was also very pleasing to watch, and looked as though she was savoring the experience.

A (surely) very tired Tsvetana Pironkova fell easily to a (surprisingly) confident Samantha Stosur. Stosur's serve was spot-on. Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Eugenie Bouchard, and Ekaterina Makarova all advanced. Sabine Lisicki did not. The German was put completely out of sorts by the freaky slicing forehand of Monica Niculescu, who has flummoxed many a peer in her day. But let's face it--better Niculescu than a stretcher and a team of medics.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Australian Open--what they said

Height is something that can't be taught.
Martina Navratilova

I think she play, really, like Martina Hingis.
Li Na, referring to Belinda Bencic
Do you feel like people will expect this of you now at every Grand Slam? I mean, qualifying is a very hard thing to achieve. Does that bother you?
No. I just will enjoy the next Grand Slam, and I will not let me stay under pressure from anybody, so I will just play what I can and hopefully the results will come.
Belinda Bencic

The ball doesn't care whether you're two inches from it or two feet, as long as you hold your body position while you're hitting it.
Martina Navratilova
Your opponent today, just sixteen, young girl.
Sixteen or seventeen? Sixteen? Okay. My half age, yeah. Yes?
Did that make you feel like an old lady?
No, I think I'm mostly young in this room, right?
Li Na

Heat the number one opponent at Australian Open

Maria Sharapova wore an ice vest. A ball girl had to be treated for heat illness. Caroline Wozniacki saw her water bottle melt. Peng Shuai vomited. It became very hot at the Australian Open yesterday--108 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact. Tournament administrators are said to be discussing possibility to closing all of the courts except those with roofs during the current heat wave. I don't think it will happen because too many days will be lost.

Can you imagine what this would be like if the tournament still had the old rebound ace surface? Most of the players would have ankle injuries because the courts would be such a sticky mess. As it is, ankle injuries occur, anyway. Jelena Jankovic rolled her ankle and hurt her knee in her first round match against Misaki Doi, but prevailed in straight sets.

Defending champion Victoria Azarenka had a difficult time with Johanna Larsson in the first set, but then dominated the second set, winning 7-6, 6-2. Azarenka often looks uncomfortable in early rounds, but she gets through them. Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska (playing three crazy sets and hitting nine aces), Simon Halp, and Sloane Stephens all advanced. 2013 quarterfinalist Svetlana Kuznetsova, however, was beaten in straight sets by Elina Svitolina.

Two recommended second round matches coming up today are Sam Stosur vs. Tsvetana Pironkova, and Zheng Jie vs. Madison Keys. One is the featured night match, and the other comes on very late in the U.S., so I may have to miss both of them.

Australian Open--what they said

I put the bottle down on the court and it started melting a little bit underneath, the plastic, so you knew it was warm.
Caroline Wozniacki

It felt pretty hot, like you're dancing on a frying pan or something like that.
Victoria Azarenka

It was a real curate's egg of a performance from both women. But what set Azarenka apart was her ability to spot an opportunity and seize it.
Alix Ramsay

...I kept looking at my phone. Mine is in Fahrenheit. I'm like 108 Fahrenheit, why is that happening? Then I kind of like Googled 45 Centigrade like just to see what's happening.
Sloane Stephens

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kvitova upset by Kumkhum in Australian Open round 1

Fans of Petra Kvitova need no longer worry about how far she'll go in the Australian Open. Luksika Kumkhum has kindly removed that anxiety for you. The 20-year-old from Thailand, who hits double-handed on both sides, defeated the 6th seed 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 in the first round. Kumkhum took over Kvitova's mastery of the crosscourt angle and flummoxed the Czech player repeatedly on both sides. Kvitova made 40 unforced errors.

Sam Stosur fans--your anxiety will continue a while. Stosur beat Klara Zakopalova, who had just beaten her last week in the Hobart semifinals.

Both Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci also went out in the opening round. Errani met up with Julia Goerges on one of those days when the forehand could do no wrong. Goerges' forehand can betray her, but when it's doing what it's supposed to do--watch out. The Frenchwoman hit 27 forehand winners and 12 backhand winners. As for Vinci, she lost to the speedy and often dangerous Zheng Jie.

The recently injured Elena Vesnina, not surprisingly, lost her match to Alison Riske. Sydney champion Tsvetana Pironkova advanced, as did top seed Serena Williams.

So the 6th, 7th and 12th seeds are already out, before the brutal weather even begins. Get ready.

Makarova defeats Venus Williams in Australian Open first round

Down 0-3 in the third set, Ekaterina Makarova--who had played it safe throughout most of her opening round Australian Open match against Venus Williams--just went for it. The Russian had reached a final set pretty much by holding fast and waiting for Williams to make errors. Makarova didn't really look like herself, in my opinion, and then--with time running out--she finally turned on the aggression and forced Williams to react more quickly than she probably wanted to. It seemed like a risky strategy, but it worked.

During the first set, and at the beginning of the third set, Williams did look like herself, volleying up a storm and playing a good nerve game in long rallies against the big-hitting Russian. But inconsistency can be Williams' downfall, and it was today. The 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 loss marks the first time that Williams has made a first round exit in a major.

If inconsistency is a problem for Venus Williams, then it's an absolute bugaboo for Angelique Kerber. The German had improved her serve quite a bit, but that improvement has apparently been erased. She beat an injured Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 0-6, 6-2. Go figure.

Daniela Hantuchova, who tends to shine in Melbourne, won her first round match against Heather Watson, and Watson's countrywoman, Laura Robson, was shown the exit by 18th seed Kirsten Flipkens. Vera Zvonareva quietly went out in straight sets to Casey Dellacqua, and Li Na advanced with a 6-2, 6-0 win over Ana Konjuh. Kimiko Date-Krumm lost, but--not surprisingly--dragged Belinda Bencic to three sets.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Australian Open--what they said

It's putting the complete match together that's been tough for Venus.
Mary Joe Fernandez

How was the wrist?
I prefer not to talk about my wrist because then it's just going to become this massive excuse and whatnot.
Laura Robson

We've seen her go away mentally, physically, but then she gets it together.
Mary Joe Fernandez, referring to Angelique Kerber

Are you patient with yourself?

Yes, now I am. I am now.
Venus Williams

Australian Open championship--expert picks

Darren Cahill--Serena Williams
Brad Gilbert--Serena Williams
Mary Joe Fernandez--Serena Williams
Pete Bodo--Serena Williams
Bruce Jenkins--Victoria Azarenka
Chris Evert--Serena Williams
Ed McGrogan--Serena Williams
Pam Shriver--Serena Williams
Matt Wilansky--Serena Williams
Kamakshi Tandon--Li Na
Richard Pagliaro--Serena Williams
Jon Wertheim--Serena Williams
Jane McManus--Serena Williams
Patrick McEnroe--Serena Williams
Howard Bryant--Serena Williams
Greg Garber--Serena Williams
Todd Spiker--Serena Williams
Courtney Nguyen--Serena Williams
Steve Tignor--Serena Williams
Cliff Drysdale--Serena Williams

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Hampton withdraws from Australian Open

Jamie Hampton, the 27th seed, has withdrawn from the Australian Open because of a hip injury. Last year, Hampton appeared on the verge of upsetting defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the third round when she experienced significant pain because of a chronic problem she has with herniated lumbar discs. She didn't retire, but she was a pale shadow of herself in the final set.

Hampton has been replaced in the draw by lucky loser Irina Falconi. Hampton's seeding now goes to Bojana Jovanovski.

Serena Williams seeks 6th Australian Open title

Serena Williams hasn't won the Australian Open since 2010. She was absent the next year, and in 2012 and 2013, she was defeated in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals, respectively. Williams, going for her 18th major singles title (and can sports writers please stop "comparing" this number to the titles of Evert and Navratilova--the "comparison" has no meaning), is generally considered the player most likely to lift the trophy.

But there are others who would challenge that assumption. Two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, for example. Azarenka, having won the title in both 2012 and 2013, has momentum on her side. Australia is the place where she has been called upon to show her very toughest nature, and she has answered that challenge with considerable guts and heart.

Then there's Li Na, who was the runner-up in both 2011 and 2013. An argument can be made, in fact, that had the Chinese star not sustained two injuries (it's still hard to believe) in the course of the bizarre 2013 final, she would have taken Azarenka's title away. We'll never know. What we can safely assume, though, is that Li wants that trophy really, really badly.

Li's fortunes have changed a bit in the past several days, in that she has gone from the number 3 ranking to the number 4 ranking, which means that she has landed in the Serena half of the draw. But in the end, a draw is a draw, and Li needs to create her own good fortune.

Can anyone else (realistically) win the Australian Open? Though I would hardly consider her a favorite at this point, I'm going to throw Maria Sharapova into the mix, simply because I believe in her ability to turn her career around at a given moment. It feels wrong to count her out. It feels wrong to count Petra Kvitova out, too, but if the 2011 Wimbledon champion has taught us anything, it's to lower our expectations. Still, Kvitova does have what it takes to win, and if she's ever going to harness it and use it again, it might as well be in Melbourne.

Todd Spiker has a good breakdown of the draw on WTA Backspin. One of the Backspin categories for every major draw quarter analysis is "the poor soul." I'm going to riff on that (thanks, Todd) and declare Sam Stosur "the poor soul" of the entire tournament. Stosur just can't handle the pressure of playing in Australia. During her Hobart semifinal match, a commentator noted the large of image of the Australian star on the wall of the court, and wondered what it might be like for Stosur to look up and see it. I can tell you what it was like--a little slice of hell. (It reminded me of what Amelie Mauresmo used to go through when she would arrive at Roland Garros and see a cardboard cutout of herself on the grounds.)

It should be noted that Jelena Jankovic and Simona Halep are destined to meet in the round of 16, if all goes according to plan. That would be a match worth watching (blogger curse, I know) at any price, except for the part about absolutely hating to see either of them lose. Halep hasn't made a very good start to the season, but she tends to get over these mishaps quickly these days.

Is there anyone who can give Williams trouble early on? Daniela Hantuchova is lurking, and while Hantuchova just isn't the player she used to be, she does have a particular fondness for bringing her good game to Melbourne. Stosur is close by, too, but certainly doesn't appear to be a threat. Tsvetana Pironkova might consider it a fun challenge to go after a different Williams sister at a major event, but not only is she no Serena--she's got to be feeling a bit tired after playing eight straight matches in Sydney. Madison Keys, Eugenie Bouchard and Laura Robson could be waiting for Williams, but Robson recently sustained a wrist injury (again), so she very likely won't be that competitive. Keys and Bouchard? I guess it could happen, but it's hard to imagine.

Azarenka's quarter is more interesting. Agnieszka Radwanska and Sloane Stephens are both there, and of course, with regard to a possible Azarenka vs. Stephens match--oh, the drama! Svetlana Kuznetsova is in that quarter, too, and while she tends to be ignored these days, she does know a thing or two about playing at the Australian Open.

Qualifiers gone wild

When, I wonder, was the last time that two tournaments in the same week were won by qualifiers? That's what happened this week. First, Tsvetana Pironkova won Sydney, then--yesterday--Garbine Muguruza won Hobart.

The two outcomes, however, are vivid career contrasts. Whereas, with the young and gifted Murgurza, it was only a matter of time. But with Pironkova, the victory was the fulfillment of years of promise and talent, all of which had been swept away by the Bulgarian's considerable problem with anxiety, and her apparent attitude of giving up when things didn't go well. She said that part of her off-season training was to change her attitude, and it paid off handsomely.

In the 6-4, 6-0 Hobart final, Muguruza defeated 7th seed Klara Zakopalova, who had taken out top seed Sam Stosur in the semifinals. The young Spaniard had only just returned to the tour after undergoing a lengthy ankle rehab.

Zakopalova, with partner Monica Niculescu, did win the doubles title. They defeated 2nd seeds Lisa Raymond and Zhang Shuai 6-2, 6-7, 10-8. Raymond and Zhang led 6-1 in the tiebreak set but were overtaken by the champions.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dream run no longer a dream--Pironkova wins Sydney title

It's about as good as a tennis story gets: A qualifier who was 0-7 in semifinals in her career knocks off three top-10 players to win her first WTA title--and it's at a premier event. Leave it to Tsvetana Pironkova to pull off something like that. The Bulgarian player, who was ranked number 107 in the world prior to entering qualifying at the Apia Sydney International, beat world number 9 Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-4 in the final. She had already defeated world number 7 Sara Errani and world number 6 Petra Kvitova.

Pironkova hit 32 winners in the final. Her already weak second serve was practically nonexistent, but she got her first serve in 67% of the time, and converted it into a winning shot 71% of the time. She had 21 chances to break Kerber and converted only six of them, but that was enough.

When Pironkova went down 2-4 in the first set, there was probably a common "ah--here it is" heard all around the women's tennis world. This was it--the point at which Pironkova gave into her considerable nerves and her very tough opponent cleaned up. Only it wasn't. The Bulgarian just kept on going, viewing the break as a mere blip in her week of victory, and the next thing you knew, she was serving for the set, and then the match. She had come this far, and she wasn't going to let a few breaks dismantle her.

Throughout the week, Pironkova's confidence was high. She served extremely well (which, for some reason, shocked commentators--do they even watch women's tennis?), used her backhand convincingly, won a lot of points with her much-maligned forehand, and hit some sweet overheads. Against Kerber especially, the Bulgarian's movement was a delight to watch, and she controlled points by pulling the German around on an invisible string.

In doubles, the unseeded team of Timea Babos and Lucie Safarova upset top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, 7-5, 3-6, 10-7.

In Hobart, top seed Samantha Stosur lost to Klara Zakopalova in straight sets. Zakopalova's opponent in the final will be Garbine Muguruza, who beat Estrella Cabeza Candela 6-0, 6-1. Zakopalova, with partner Monica Niculescu, will play 2nd seeds Lisa Raymond and Zhang Shuai in the doubles final.

Stosur and Zakopalova will meet again very soon in the first round of the Australian Open.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Pironkova and Kerber to meet in Sydney final

Qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova, already the surprise of the week in Sydney, has extended the surprise: In yesterday's semifinals, the Bulgarian player (known in some circles as The Pironkova, and perhaps appropriately so at the moment) defeated 2nd seed Petra Kvitova in straight sets. Pironkova served very well, though the rest of her game wasn't at the level she displayed in the quarterfinals. But an imploding Kvitova made it fairly easy for Pironkova (aka IWTM) to get her 6-4, 6-3, victory.

In this match, Pironkova relied more on her backhand, which is certainly the stronger of her choices. However, despite the fact that fans tend to criticize the Bulgarian's slicing forehand, she's won her share of points off of it in this tournament, and especially against Errani. As for Kvitova--she was sweating a lot and some rummaging around for her asthma inhaler during the changeovers.

This is Pironkova's very first final by the way. She'll face Angelique Kerber, who defeated Madison Keys in straight sets. In doubles, top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will play Timea Babos and Lucie Safarova in the final.

In Hobart, top seed Sam Stosur advanced to the semifinals with a win over Bojana Jovanovski. Also advancing were Klara Zakopalova and Estrella Cabeza Candela. The big win of the day came from Garbine Muguruza, who upset 2nd seed Kirsten Flipkens.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Quote of the day

"Maybe there's something in the water!"
Petra Kvitova, on why so many Czech players are left-handed

Pironkova unleashed

Other than the lawns of Wimbledon and the sight of Venus Williams, it's hard to know what motivates the International Woman of Tennis Mystery known as Tsvetana Pironkova. Possessed of a very fine first serve, an understated aggression and a deceptively lethal forehand, the Bulgarian player can do a lot of damage on those occasions when she appears to really "be there."

She has been "there," in Sydney, for a while now, having had to go through qualifying to get into the main draw. In the qualifying rounds, she beat Ayumi Morita, Marnya Zanevska and Shahar Peer. In the opening round, Pironkova defeated Sorana Cirstea, and in the second round, she defeated Varvara Lepchenko. Yesterday, she beat 3rd seed Sara Errani 7-6, 6-3.

It was a very enjoyable match, with some strong momentum changes. Pironkova's confidence was very high in the first set, and she was able to match the Italian's signature relentless barrage of groundstrokes. Pironkova won a lot of those rallies with her forehand, which loops just a little (when it's not being sliced) and therefore differs from what we now think of as a potentially deadly forehand shot. Pironkova's tennis is like--well, like Pironkova. The Bulgarian player is loose-limbed and relaxed, and not given to producing postures that make commentators talk about "focus." The thing is, when she's in a winning frame of mind, Pironkova makes it all look so easy.

It wasn't easy, though. Sara Errani is a tough cookie, and she broke Pironkova when she served for the first set at 5-3. Broke her easily. And then we got the "not so there" version of Pironkova that we know only too well. This was the point at which things could have taken a big turn, but the Bulgarian player--perhaps unexpectedly--got her groove back and forced a tiebreak which she won with ease.

Errani had to take a medical timeout during the second set; her back was hurting her. But after she was treated, she fought her way, Italian style, back into the match. Still, Pironkova was able to claim victory in straight sets. Certainly Errani was less than herself once the back injury occurred--although she put on a pretty good show in spite of it--but that shouldn't take away from Pironkova's outstanding performance. Alas, the Bulgarian has a terrible second serve (kind of unusual for someone capable of hitting so many good first serves), but so does Errani, so that issue was equalized.

Next up for the IWTM--Petra Kvitova. In an all lefty-Czeck contest, Kvitova beat Lucie Safarova 7-6, 6-2. The first set was stunning, as Safarova took it to Kvitova from the outset. Both players served wonderfully, and we really had no way of knowing who was going to take the first set until the very end. But it was Kvitova who took it, and she used that momentum to leave Safarova behind in the second set.

Those were two really good matches! Also winning was Angelique Kerber, who beat Carla Suarez Navarro, and Madison Keys, who won when Bethanie Mattek-Sands retired with a groin injury (here we go again?--I hope not).

Meanwhile, in Hobart, Sam Stosur has to fight off Kristina Mladenovic. Stosur won, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6. She also saved two match points. Mladenovic saved one match point right before Stosur won the tiebreak. Sadly, defending champion Elena Vesnina had retire in the third set of her match against Cabeza Candela. The Russian has a hip injury.