Monday, December 29, 2014

But I thought you meant tennis

Sometimes, when they learn the truth about me, non-fans want to talk with me about pro tennis. This is often a problem for me, however, because many of them mean U.S. Tennis, and men's tennis. Bring up a sport--tennis, basketball, golf--and people assume you are talking about the men's game, which, of course, is considered the real game. After all, sports are "for men" and everyone knows it.

I recently had someone ask me, "What's wrong with American (I don't like that term either, but that's another discussion) tennis?" My answer was: "What don't you like about number 1 in the world?" He stared at me with a blank expression on his face. "Serena," I said, and he gave me an "oh, you know what I mean--real tennis" look. "Did you mean men's tennis?" I asked.

Television broadcasters perpetuate the sexism by referring to the men's games as tennis, basketball, golf, etc. and then saying women's golf, women's basketball, etc. This doesn't always happen with tennis, I've noticed, which means that on some unconscious cultural level, female athletes get a bit of respect when they play with rackets.

I can't speak for anywhere but my own region, but it seems like a lot of people around here know who Federer and Nadal are, but I can't find anyone who knows who Djokovic is. Go figure. Many know who Sharapova is, but they have never heard of Kvitova, Radwanska or Azarenka. People are accustomed to following team sports in which all of the players are from the same country--this country. Golf opens the field a bit, but nothing opens it quite like tennis.

I'll close this with something that is quite good: When I hear people talk about the Williams sisters, it is generally with a lot of admiration. When I introduce them to facts they didn't know, such as Venus's illness and Serena's life-threatening post-accident condition, they are amazed by the Williams sisters' resilience and strength of character.

Quote of the day

"I'm excited to see if the emerging stars--Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza--continue to improve and win majors, or if Petra Kvitova finally decides she's never going to lose again and beats everyone."

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Hopman Cup begins in a week

Hopman Cup play begins on Sunday, January 4, and--barring the (always possible) withdrawal of more players--here's what the teams will look like:

Group A

Canada--Eugenie Bouchard/Vasek Pospisil
Czech Republic--Lucie Safarova/Adam Pavlasek
Italy--Flavia Pennetta/Fabio Fognini
USA--Serena Williams/John Isner

Group B

Australia--Casey Dellacqua/Nick Kyrgios
France--Alize Cornet/Benoit Paire
Great Britain--Heather Watson/Andy Murray
Poland--Agnieszka Radwanska/Jerzy Janowicz

Pavlasek is the replacement for Radek Stepanek (yes, one is tempted to say something, but I'm refraining), Isner is the replacement for Jack Sock, and Paire is the replacement for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The French team of Cornet and Tsonga won last year's Hopman Cup.

The event will be played in the Perth Arena, on an indoor Plexicushion court. Action will begin with competition between Canada and the Czech Republic.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Christmas Song, WTA version

Photo by Daniel Ward

 Bloggers roasting you from east to west
Jack Sock nipping at your toes
Songs of gloom being sung by the press
And fans fed up with certain pros

Everybody knows a trophy and some prize cash
 Would help to make next season bright
Tennis fans with their hopes all but dashed
 Will find it hard to cheer tonight

They know that Genie's on her way
With lots of confidence and willingness to play
 And then Simona is standing by
To demonstrate how her ranking got so high

So I'm offering this simple phrase
Don't wait until you're thirty-two
Try to get into a final some day
Sloane, I'm talking to you

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some thoughts on nicknames

I've been thinking lately about how quick we are to give professional athletes nicknames, though we rarely give nicknames to other celebrities. Oh, there's Madge (thanks, Brits!) and Mimi and J-Lo (a name Lopez dislikes), but those celebrities are of the larger-than-life variety, and are therefore the exceptions. But with athletes, we're quick to provide funny and/or affectionate names.

Some WTA nicknames--A-Rad, AnaIvo, JJ--seem inevitable because they are shortened forms of the players' names. Many of us referred to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez as simply MJMS. Svetlana Kuznetsova is still sometimes caused Kuzy, though she has repeatedly asked people to stop calling her that (her friend Martina Navritalova appears to have missed all of those memos). Some call Francesca Schiavone Francie, some call her Schia. And some nicknames, of course, are simply names players grew up with, like Masha and Kiki. Then there's Li Na, whose countrywomen and -men have long called her Big Sister Na.

Probably the most famous WTA nicknames are the ones invented by Bud Collins, and Collins' masterpiece is Fraulein Forehand, his name for Steffi Graf. Other famous Collins creations include Rosebud (Rosie Casals) Chris America (Chris Evert), The Barcelona Bumblebee (Arantxa Sanchez Vicario), and The Siberian Siren (Maria Sharapova).

Collins calls Caroline Wozniacki The Golden Retriever, but she has more often been called The Great Dane. And though Wozniacki is usually called Sunshine, it's interesting to note that she has several nicknames, and two of them involve canine species.

There have been many other nicknames for WTA players. Amanda Coetzer was known as The Little Assassin, Chris Evert was called The Ice Maiden, Rennae Stubbs was always Stubbsy, and Martina Hingis remains The Swiss Miss. On this blog, Dinara Safina was usually referred to as Thrill Ride.

Todd Spiker is so good at creating nicknames that he has nicknamed national groups of players as well as individual players. The Bannerettes represent the USA, the Hordettes are the Russians, the Swarmettes are Romanian, and the Pastries, of course, are French.

Spiker's name for Justine Henin was La Petit Taureau, while her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, was known as Belgian Barbie (there's a context to that). Who can forget Punch Drunk/Punch Sober (Elena Dementieva) and La Trufflette (Marion Bartoli)? And then there's my personal favorite, Queen Chaos (yes, gentle reader, that would be JJ).

Sabine Lisicki is often called Boom Boom, a nod to both her big serve and the big serve of her countryman, Boris Becker. Andrea Petkovic is known as either Petko or Petkorazzi, her self-created alter ego. In 2013, Leif Shiras referred to Simona Halep as Halepeno, but the name doesn't seem to have stuck. I, for one, would like to hear Shiras and his colleagues make another run at that.

And speaking of commentators, perhaps no one is worse at creating WTA (and ATP) nicknames than Brad Gilbert, whose WTA "masterpiece" was Wicker Chair (Yanina Wickmayer).

I think we give players nicknames as a way of establishing a kind of fan intimacy. We love tennis not only for the game but also for the varied personalities that make up the tour. They give us theatre, and we give them pet names.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

2015 may defy prediction

If 2014 was the year of the unexpected, then 2015 is--at least for now--a year in which we aren't really sure what to expect. The times occasionally appear to be changing, and then--just like that--it feels as though the beloved veterans run the show. Who will rise in the coming season, who will struggle, and who will inevitably fade, albeit with an unchanged fighting spirit?

All eyes are always on world number 1 Serena Williams, whose performance tends to defy prediction--of any kind. Williams is 33 years old in biological years, but in tennis years, she's practically ageless. We've seen her play (and win) while she was all bandaged up from head to toe, and that was several years ago! Williams appears to be less injury-prone these days, she's very fit, and--given her historical ebb-and-flow pattern, it wouldn't be surprising to see her come on strongly in the new season. I like her chance to add at least one major singles trophy.

Maria Sharapova's tennis career has been interesting, and sometimes puzzling. Winning the French Open for a second time--and doing so in such a high-quality final--gave Sharapova a boost she probably really needed. But there are still things she needs to do--get her erratic serve under control, and beat Serena Williams. The reality, however, is that it's nothing short of a miracle that the Russian survived all her shoulder issues and is the number 2 player in the world. I, for one, believe in Maria and am looking forward to her 2015 performance.

If Williams and Sharapova are unpredictable, then Petra Kvitova is a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces fly around and then re-arrange themselves in ways that sometimes make no sense. A huge talent and an established champion, the Czech star could do so much more. There's the issue of her asthma and the related issue of her tendency to develop respiratory infections. And then there's just that meltdown habit that may or not be related to her physical health at any given moment.

Kvitova had a strong season, especially in the second half. She not only won Wimbledon again, but she played one of the most dramatic Fed Cup matches in recent history and clinched her country's repeat as Fed Cup champions. Her Wimbledon win alone was masterful enough to be one of the year's top stories. Will 2015 be the year that Petra plays like--well, Petra--from beginning to end? If she does, she'll strike considerable fear in all kinds of opponents.

The player to keep watching (and who wouldn't want to?) is Simona Halep, who, in 2013, gracefully announced her arrival in the elite group of WTA players. At last. She had a good 2014, reaching the final of the French Open, among other accomplishments. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing holding Halep back is her tendency to get injured. Her feet and her back are the most vulnerable. She does have confidence issues now and again, but with her much improved serve and her solid two-season record, the Romanian star is looking at a very bright future--if she can stay healthy.

One of my wishes for Halep would be for her to retain the services of Alex Stober, but Kvitova has already hired him, and that, too, is a very good thing.

That brings me to Genie Bouchard. She stunned the tennis world last year with a dramatic breakthrough that took her to the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, and the Wimbledon final. The rest of her season didn't go too well because of injuries, and she was just injured again recently.

There's a kind of edge to Bouchard which appears to work well for her during the heat of competition, but which might also have a shadow side. Bouchard has created a "me against them all" persona for herself (which I thought about when I saw so many players weeping as they said emotional goodbyes to Li Na), but it feels a bit forced. Shes having to deal with massive amounts of media and fan attention, and she had to endure being blown to the other side of London by Kvitova in the Wimbledon final. She has also parted ways with her coach. There's a lot going on there.

Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki re-invented themselves in 2014, so it will be especially interesting to see what they do in 2015. Wozniacki is the steadier of the two, by history, yet it's Ivanovic who has already won a major.

Ekaterina Makarova likes the big stage, and with her 2014 U.S. Open semifinal appearance, she made me think that with a bit more confidence (maybe with help from a psychological expert?), she could rock the entire tennis world.

Victoria Azarenka's 2014 pretty much didn't count. The two-time Australian Open champion could win a third Melbourne title, finally win a U.S. Open title, or find a variety of ways to get sick and injured and lag behind. The fragility of Azarenka is in constant conflict with her talent and fighting spirit.

I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Lucie Safarova (who has also re-invented herself), the under-appreciated Angelique Kerber and her countrywoman, Andrea Petkovic. Alize Cornet, too. (Li Na may be gone, but JJ, Alize and Petko are available, and that's a lot of entertainment.)

Will Aga Radwanska pull herself back together? I hope so. And I think she will.

The youth attack is on. Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova are all looking good. Muguruza is looking especially good, and there's a kind of calm, comfortable aura around the Spaniard that I think will serve her well in 2015 and beyond.

Both Camila Giorgi and Caroline Garcia have lots of potential, but also a lot of nerves to tame. Kristina Mladenovic is the tour's wild card in singles right now--anything could happen. As for doubles, I see her continuing to take home trophies. She and Timea Babos are a fairly consistent team now; I also liked the team of Mladenovic and Lucie Safarova. Of course, we may see another round of "Mladenovic and Anybody," which tends to be a winning combination.

Will we be saying goodbye to any Italians next year? Flavia Pennetta is 32 years old. She's also number 12 in the world and won Indian Wells this year, so maybe we'll have the great pleasure of keeping her around a while. Francesca Schiavone is 34 and could very well end her pro career soon.

As for the other Italian stars--Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci should remain a force in doubles.