Sunday, December 13, 2015

16 questions for 2016

1. How many majors will Serena win? 
After what was at once a magnificent and an ultimately disappointing 2015, what will the world number 1 do? I don't like to ever count Serena out, but a certain amount of common sense says that 2016 has to be the year she wins the Grand Slam, if she wins it at all. It is a very hard thing to do. So will she win all four? Three? Two? One?

2. Will Genie Bouchard recover her position as the greatest all-around threat on the tour?'
The Canadian star's slump was of epic proportions, only to be followed by her sustaining a concussion, only to be followed by a lawsuit. Will all of this adversity make her tougher than ever, or has the wind been knocked out of Bouchard? Also, will she have sufficiently recovered from her injury by the start of the season?

3. Will Aga Radwanska win a major?
The former Wimbledon finalist redeemed her less-than-stellar season with a great fourth quarter, which included winning the WTA Finals. Is 2016 the year that the WTA's greatest shot-maker ever wins something really big?

4. Will Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova overcome Santina?
They certainly could.  The pair won two majors last year. Safarova's illness and Mattek-Sands' injury caused them to wind down toward the end of the season, but they are legitimate threats.

5. Can Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina overcome Santina?
They shouldn't be counted out.

6. Can Venus stay in the top 10?
It won't be easy, but Venus could possibly travel in and out of the top 10 next year.

7. Will Simona Halep win a major?
This is hard to predict. She should, but the Romanian star has problems closing big matches. Still, she has her wonderful 2014 French Open final performance to use as a reference. She lost, yes, but she played magnificently. With the right help, Halep can get past her psychological issues and go home with a very big trophy.

8. Will The Rock finally win something really big that isn't Wimbledon?
She has the ability to win any of them, but seems to be best suited to win in Melbourne, and the least suited to win in New York. But this is tennis, and "best suited" doesn't always mean that much. And anyway, this is Petra we're talking about. Here's hoping.

9. Will Vika Azarenka return to her former position of high relevance?
She was looking very "Azarenka-like" in the second half of 2015, so there's reason to believe that the two-time Australian Open champion will be ready to compete seriously in 2016.

10. Can France beat Italy again?
They play one another again in the opening round of Fed Cup!

11. Will Maria Sharapova finally win Miami?
I always have to ask.

12. Will Camila Giorgi, Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic (or any of them) overcome their particular demons--which include double-faulting, choking, anxiety, and inconsistency--and race up the rankings? 
If I had to pick one who can do it, I'd go with Mladenovic.

13. Where will Schmiedy's backhand take her in 2016?
It could be somewhere with a very nice view.

14. Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Karolina Pliskova--will one of them do something really big next season?
They are a charming, exciting triple threat. Muguruza has the momentum at the moment, but any of these three could stage an even bigger break-out in 2016.

15. Will Ekaterina Makarova take it to the next level?
The under-the-radar Russian has improved her play in majors in increments, and she's taken her time about it. If she continues to follow her consistent pattern, she'll make it to the final of a major in 2016. That means, of course, that she could win a major, but given Makarova's slowly creeping progress, maybe this would just be a runner-up year.

16. Who will retire in 2016?
Roberta Vinci has already announced that she will retire at the end of next season, but who could join her? Common sense dictates that Francesca Schiavone is highly likely to retire. There are several older players who could retire, but these days, players stick around longer and longer, so there's no way of telling who might leave.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

2015--all drama, right to the end

Every year is dramatic in the world of professional sports, and especially in the WTA, but this past season just seemed to be built around drama. Now that it's over, we're left with some familiar questions, but also with some new ones.

Some of the struggles were, unfortunately, ones we've seen before. Petra Kvitova was so exhausted in the early spring that she withdrew from both Indian Wells and Miami. Late in the summer, she would finally get a diagnosis--mononucleosis. But this illness is only the latest in a series; Kvitova, who suffers with asthma and has had repeated respiratory infections, is physically fragile. Nevertheless, she won three titles in 2015, made it to the final in Singapore, and ends the year ranked number 6 in the world.

Vika Azarenka, who is also physically fragile--but in a different way--once again had to deal with the foot injury that kept her off the tour for five months in 2014. The highlight of her season, one could argue, was her third round match against Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open. This was a grueling contest, won by the former world number 1, in which Azarenka got to display her very best tennis.

Caroline Wozniacki, another former world number 1, took a step forward and a step back in 2015, showing us some aggressive play and then kind of fading away. Venus Williams, however, won three titles and put herself back into the top 10, proving--yet again--that you can never, ever count out a Williams sister.

Timea Bacsinszky and Caroline Garcia played in two finals in two weeks in Mexico. Bacsinszky own them both, and earned herself an additional title, the Queen of Mexico. The Swiss star, who also reached the semifinals of the French Open, ends the season ranked number 12 in the world.

The double Mexican final was unusual, but perhaps even odder was Anna Karolina Schmiedlova's personal battle against Italy. The Slovak with the killer backhand was in three finals this season, all against Italians. She lost the first one to Sara Errani, but won the next two, against Camila Giorgi and Errani, respectively.

Also this year, Teliana Periera made history by becoming the first Brazilian woman to win a tour title in over a quarter of a century. Periera won Bogota and then backed it up with a victory in her native country when she also won the event in Florianopolis.

Genie Bouchard, attempting to recover from a world-class slump, had some of the worst luck on the tour this year. She slipped on a wet floor in the locker room at the U.S. Open and sustained a concussion, which took her out of the tournament and ended her season because of recurring dizziness. The floor of the physio room had been mopped and was still wet and slippery when Bouchard entered the room. She has filed a negligence suit against the USTA.

Belinda Bencic and Karolina Pliskova continued to impress, though Pliskova continued to disappoint in the majors. She has yet to get beyond the third round of any major; however, her amazing Fed Cup performance at the end of the season may very well have set the tone for a whole new phase of the young Czech's career. She ends the season as number 11 in the world.

Bencic won both Eastbourne and the Rogers Cup. With the Toronto victory, she propelled herself out of the "rising star" category and into the category of "serious competitor" when she mowed down a field that included Genie Bouchard, Ana Ivanovic and Serena Williams. The spontaneous Swiss, who is only 18, reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and appears to have nowhere to go but up.

As for the rising stars--they were busy in 2015. Elina Svitolina, Daria Gavrilova, Lesia Tsurenko, Johanna Konta, Kiki Mladenovic (already a doubles star), Danka Kovinic, Madison Keys, and Daria Kasatkina provided us plenty of thrills all year long. In Istanbul, Svitolina and Gavrilova created a last-minute doubles team that entertained as much with humor and antics as it did with tennis. The pair, who had never before played together and came in as alternates, knocked out the top seeds and then won the tournament. One can only hope that these two will play more doubles together. Svitolina ended the season in the top 20 in singles.

It wasn't all about rising stars, though. Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who dazzled the tennis world in 2009 with their brilliant four-hour, 44-minute Australian Open round of 16 match, did it again. The two clay court veterans met in the second round of the French Open and played for three hours and 49 minutes. Once again, Schiavone won (6-7 [13-11], 7-5, 10-8), and once again, the level of play from both women was stunning.

Maria Sharapova started her year by winning Brisbane and then reaching the final of the Australian Open, but she was defeated--yet again--by Serena Williams. Sharapova won Rome, then injured her leg in the spring, became ill, and didn't play much after Wimbledon. However, she won both of her rubbers in her first-ever Fed Cup final. Maria Sharapova is a warrior, wounded or otherwise, and has a good year even when she has misfortune. The Russian star ends 2015 as number 4 in the world.

Lucie--meet Potential. For those of us who have waited so long to see Lucie Safarova rise to her considerable potential, 2015 was as good a year as we thought it would be. Top on her list of accomplishments was getting to the final of the French Open, and beating defending champion Maria Sharapova on the way.

Perhaps the most surprising news of the year was that Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci ended their doubles relationship. The world's top-ranked team had won five majors and had attained a Career Slam. They were best friends. No one saw it coming.

And then there is the puzzle that is Simona Halep. Halep got her early season off to a roar by winning two premier titles--Dubai and Indian Wells--back to back. She tried for a third, but was knocked out of the semifinals in Miami. It looked for all the world like the Halepeno heat was turned on big-time for 2015--and who can argue with a finish of number 2 in the world?

The problem is that Halep's ranking looks a little better on paper than it does in "real (tennis) life" because she had letdowns in really, really big matches. It's nothing to be ashamed of to lose to Ekaterina Makarova in a major, but the Russian's 6-4, 6-0 defeat of Halep in the Australian Open quarterfinals was an example of Halep's just "not being present" during the competition. The Romanian later said that she was done in by stress.

Halep's brilliant performance in the 2014 French Open final gave hope that she would redeem herself in Paris, but instead, she was knocked out by the ever-dangerous Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the second round. At Wimbledon, Jana Cepelova beat Halep in the first round. The Romanian did much better at the U.S. Open, taking out Vika Azarenka in the quarterfinals, but then losing to eventual champion Flavia Pennetta in the semifinals.

Despite what she often says about not feeling pressure, it's obvious that Halep feels a lot of pressure during her biggest matches. Halep recently announced that Darren Cahill will be her coach next season, and that's a plus because she had previously stated she would not work with anyone who was not Romanian. Losing that kind of rigidity is always a step in the right direction, regardless of whether the Cahill relationship works out.

Here are my personal top 10 2015 occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Talk about "Just Do It": Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova had never played doubles together, but at the last minute, they entered the Australian Open as a team. Unseeded, Mattek-Sands and Safarova won the tournament, and then turned right around and won the French Open, too (Mattek-Sands also won the mixed doubles title, with Mike Bryan). The pair also won Stuttgart and Toronto, and were on their way to perhaps even greater accomplishments, but Mattek-Sands sustained an injury that forced the team to retire from the WTA Finals round robin.

9. Excusez-moi!: France played Fed Cup giant Italy in the opening round of 2015 Fed Cup competition. Not only is Italy a threatening team within Fed Cup circles--they led 2-0 at the end of the first day of play. France had never come back from a 0-2 deficit in the history of Fed Cup, but Captain Amelie Mauresmo didn't let that fact trouble her. On the second day of play, she substituted Kiki Mladenovic for Alize Cornet, and Mladenovic defeated Sara Errani, after which Caroline Garcia defeated Camila Giorgi. That left doubles, and Mladenovic (of that winning team, "Mladenovic and Anybody") and Garcia took out--of all people--Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, and took them out in straight sets, producing Vinci's first-ever Fed Cup doubles loss. It was one of the most thrilling Fed Cup ties of recent times.

And guess who Italy has drawn in the opening round of next year's Fed Cup?

8. How do you like me now?: Angelique Kerber gave no warning that she was about to go on a major tear in 2015. But, after under-performing in a number of tournaments, the German won Charleston in style, having to fight off numerous opponents who were determined to upset her. She also had two injuries, but instead of taking a rest, she went straight to Stuttgart and won that, too. And in doing so, she issued defending champion Maria Sharapova her first-ever Stuttgart defeat. Kerber was just getting started. She won Birmingham, and then she won Stanford. Winning four premier titles on three different surfaces makes for an excellent season.

7. Lady of Spain: At the end of last season, some of us were wondering when Garbine Muguruza was going to settle down. I guess she showed us: The Spaniard has ended her year with a ranking of number 3 in the world. Muguruza, who reached the final at Wimbledon, also won Beijing. Muguruza reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. And while she has won only two WTA singles titles, there's just something about Muguruza that says "inevitable." She had to take almost a year off because of injury, and she can still be inconsistent, but the 22-year-old has a kind of on- and off-court poise that just makes you feel confident about her. Playing doubles with Carla Suarez-Navarro has also been very good for Muguruza.

6. You should endorse these Czechs: They did it again. Those Fed Cup-loving Czechs won the big trophy yet again, and they did it by beating Russia in the final. Lucie Safarova wasn't available to play, and Russia brought along Maria Sharapova as their special weapon. No matter. With help from Petra Kvitova and an on-fire Barbora Strycova, Karolina Pliskova unexpectedly led the charge. The final went to a fifth rubber, and Pliskova and Strycova (in a brilliant performance both at the net and on the baseline)--after dropping the first set--went on to clinch the deal for their country.

5. Addio!: Flavia Pennetta, whom Women Who Serve acknowledges as the original Fighting Italian, retired from professional tennis in 2015. Pennetta's career spanned 15 years, during which she won 11 singles titles (including Indian Wells and the U.S. Open), 17 doubles titles (including the Australian Open), and the hearts of countless fans. I long ago named her the Queen of Fed Cup. A fierce Fed Cup competitor who was part of the "big four" who brought Italy so much glory, Pennetta retired with a 21-4 Fed Cup singles  record, and an overall record of 25-5.

4. Revenge of The Ninja: It wasn't that good a year for Aga Radwanska (aka The Ninja, aka Disco Ball)--that is, until the fourth quarter, when the tour's greatest shot-maker turned it all around. Radwanska, who likes the Asian swing a lot, won Tokyo, then won the international tournament in Tianjin--her first two titles of 2015. The biggest was yet to come. Radwanska didn't think she was going to qualify for the WTA Finals, but these late-season victories got her into the top 8. However, once in Singapore, she went down 1-2 in round robin play.

Nevertheless, given the odd circumstances of an already sometimes puzzling event, the world number 5 made it to the final, in which she beat Petra Kvitova. No one saw it coming, including Radwanska, whose jaw-dropping trick shots and "how did she do that?" shots were on display constantly throughout the week in Singapore. What a treat to see that kind of talent rewarded with such a big title.

3. Perfezioni!: You are about to retire from a sport you love and to which you have given so much for so long. Your record of accomplishments is a thing of beauty, and you are beloved by fans and peers. What more could you ask for? Well, if you're Flavia Pennetta, on your way out, you could drop by Flushing Meadows and win the U.S. Open. Pennetta became the first Italian woman to win the Open, and the player who performed in the most majors (49) before finally winning one. She had to beat friend and countrywoman Roberta Vinci in the final, which only added to the drama. Prior to that match, Pennetta took out both Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep. What a way to leave the tour!

2. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: World number 1 Serena Williams won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. She needed one more win, the U.S. Open, to achieve the Grand Slam, one of the few accomplishments missing from her career. It wasn't the smoothest path for Williams, but she made it to the semifinals, defeating sister Venus in the process. And then--with just two matches to go--the much-anticipated historical occasion became something quite different than what people were expecting.

Williams lost to Roberta Vinci, who was unseeded for the first time since 2010. Fans were stunned, the press was stunned. Suddenly, there was history alright, but it was about having two Italians in the final, and not about a Grand Slam. The upset was huge, and Williams ended her season shortly thereafter.

1. Show me how you Santina!: With the demise of Errani and Vinci as the dominating doubles team, in stepped Martina Hingis and her latest partner, Sania Mirza. The very idea of Hingis playing with the Forehand of Fire was kind of exciting (the Hingis-Pennetta pair-up was a very good one, but apparently, it wasn't quite was Hingis was looking for). The competition was keen. Both the new and very successful pairing of Bethanie Mattek-Sands with Lucie Safarova and the established Russian team of Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova were on the rise.

Hingis and Mirza entered Indian Wells just a couple of weeks after they began practicing together. They won the title, then went to Miami and won that, too. But winning two premier titles back to back wasn't enough for them. They went straight from Miami to Charleston and won that title, too. At that point, Mirza became the first Indian woman to hold the rank of world number 1 in doubles. Mirza's singles career was ended by multiple wrist injuries and surgeries, but fortunately, that amazing, wristy forehand is still on display, and it's as deadly as ever.

Santina would go on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, then three titles in the Asian swing, and also the WTA Finals. In the meantime, Hingis and Leander Paes won the mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It's not a stretch to believe that a Career Slam is in the making.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Champions again! Czech Republic wins 2015 Fed Cup

We knew we were going to get a very competitive final this weekend when Fed Cup giants Russia and the Czech Republic contested for the 2015 trophy. One of the reasons I like Fed Cup so much is that anything can happen--and it usually does. This weekend was no exception.

The Czechs, defending champions, went into the final with both a big advantage and a big disadvantage. The advantage was that their leader, Petra Kvitova, excels on indoor courts, and in Fed Cup play, in general. The disadvantage was that their other major Fed Cup force, Lucie Safarova, had to sit out play because of a wrist injury.

On the Russian side, Maria Sharapova was on hand to help boost Russian to its fifth title. On the down side for Russia, Svetland Kuznetsova wasn't part of the on-court team, and Ekaterina Makarova wasn't recovered enough from her injury to participate as a player.

So both countries went into this weekend's final with teams that were not exactly constructed the way they had wished, but these kinds of disappointments are part and parcel of Fed Cup competition.

In the opening rubber, Kvitova's nerves got the best of her in her first set against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but the Barking Czech recovered and took that opening rubber for her team, 2-6, 6-1, 6-1. Newcomer Karolina Pliskova then lost 3-6, 4-6 to Sharapova, so the first day ended with a 1-1 score.

Kvitova played masterfully against Sharapova in the opening set of the third rubber, but then, as Sharapova's game vastly improved, Kvitova became an error machine. The Russians took that rubber 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, following Sharapova's very fine performance.

It was then up to Pliskova to keep the Czech Republic in the competition. She had never before been in that position--or even one similar--but the big-serving world number 11 rose to the occasion with very big serves (79 and 89 first and second serve percentages) and a lot of poise. She defeated Pavlyuchenkova 6-3, 6-4.

It should be noted that Pliskova was running on fumes throughout the entire event. She had an extremely busy schedule in 2015 and had declared herself exhausted. But she was nevertheless able to prevent a 3-1 Russian victory, and she did so under extreme pressure.

But there was more! Pliskova had to substitute for Safarova in the deciding doubles rubber. The Czech Republic has some outstanding doubles players--Safarova, Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka, Barbora Strycova--but only Strycova was on the nominated team. A substitute had to be made on the Russian team, too. The very formidable top 10 team of Makarova and Elena Vesnina had to withdraw from the WTA Finals in Singapore and--because of Makarova's injury--could not compete in Prague, so Vesnina played with Pavlyuchenkova, who is also a fine doubles competitor.

In the first set, Vesnina was on fire, both serving and at the net, and the Russians won it, 6-4. Now the pressure was palpable for the Czechs, and in the second set, Strycova went all out with an attacking game which raised her team's level. The Czech Republic took that set 6-3. By the third set, Strycova and Pliskova had established a rhythm. Vesnina, by this time, had gone into her unfortunately famous slump mode and was missing everything she'd been getting easily in the first half of the match. This was a shame because her performance had been--and still was, at times--very impressive.

As for Strycova, she was everywhere--at the net, on the baseline, and frequently down on the court, dodging flying balls, falling, tumbling, and seemingly doing her best imitation of Jelena Jankovic, minus the prolonged seat-on-the-surface time-outs. This was Strycova at her very best, and before you could say "Maria Sharapova looks really fed up in the stands," Strycova was serving for the championship. Which seemed entirely appropriate. And the Czechs took that last set 6-2, giving them their fourth title in the past five years.

To get to the final, the Czech Republic defeated Canada 4-0, and France 3-1. The Czechs (including the period when the country was part of Czechoslovakia) have won nine Fed Cup titles.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Russia vs. Czech Republic: Would you want it any other way?

Two of this era's three Fed Cup giants, Russia and the Czech Republic, will meet this weekend on an indoor court in Prague to determine who wins the 2015 Fed Cup championship. The Czechs, who are the defending champions, have won 14 consecutive rubbers and five straight ties. Their leader, Petra Kvitova, who tends to dominate any indoor court contest in which she competes, will be accompanied by leader number 2 Lucie Safarova, as well as Karolina Pliskova and Barbora Strycova. All four are strong singles players, and Safarova and Strycova are especially talented doubles players.

The Russian team will be led by Maria Sharapova, whose team includes Ekaterina Makarova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Vesnina. The latter three are doubles stand-outs, and on a good day, Makarova is a dangerous singles player.

The Czech team leads Russia 3-2; three of the ties were actually played by Czechoslovakia and the USSR.

The Czech Republic has the home team advantage, as well as the aforementioned Petra-friendly indoor court.

There are other factors to be considered. Kvitova's health has been fragile this season--in fact, it's fragile every season, but the world number 6 generally motivates herself to be deadly in Fed Cup competition, no matter what. She wasn't feeling well in last year's final and said she didn't have much energy, yet--to seal the victory--she defeated Angelique Kerber in a dramatic three-hour rubber. Safarova has also had serious health issues, but appears to have fully recovered.

On the Russian side, Makarova's health status caused her and partner Vesnina to withdraw from the WTA finals. Makarova hasn't had much match play lately; on the other hand, she's probably pretty well rested, considering it's the end of the season.

Unless something goes awry, both Kvitova and Safarova will have to face Sharapova. Head-to-head records mean less at Fed Cup venues than anywhere else, so it doesn't do that much good to analyze them. The Czech Republic won Fed Cup in 2011, 2012 and 2014; four-time champion Russia last won it in 2009. Sharapova is making one of her rare Fed Cup appearances (and the first in a final), which will add considerably to her team's strength. On the minus side for Russia, however, is the absence of fierce Fed Cup competitor Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Both teams have very good captains. Anastasia Myskina does the job for Russia, and Petr Pala is the Czech Republic's team captain. For those who like Fed Cup as much as I do, this weekend should be a real treat with lots of excitement and maybe some twists and turns.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The original Fighting Italian leaves the battlefield

Flavia Pennetta, the woman who put the fight in "Fighting Italian," has reached the end of her professional tennis career. Pennetta made the very public announcement of her retirement during the U.S. Open trophy ceremony, right after she won the biggest prize of her long and very impressive career. At age 33, she ends that 15-year career on a very high note.

Pennetta will be remembered for many things--her consistently tough singles play, her championship doubles performances, her gritty and painful career comebacks, and--perhaps most of all--her domination of Fed Cup. She was one of a group of four I have long called Fighting Italians, a group which included Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci (and later, Camila Giorgi, who--while she lacks some other qualities--has a high volume of the Italian fight in her blood). These were the women who led Italy to four Fed Cup victories.

Long known on this blog as the Queen of Fed Cup (Petra Kvitova later became the co-queen), Pennetta approached the competition with warrior-like intensity. When things got shaky, the team could count on Pennetta to go in, win a rubber, and get things back on an even keel. Her facial expressions alone had to put fear into whoever was on the other side of the net (in fact, the Pennetta Snarl merits somewhere around an 8.5 on the Bartoli Death Glare Scale).

The Queen of Fed Cup went 6-0 in 2010, when Italy won its third championship. Her Fed Cup record for both singles and doubles is 25-5, and that includes 21-4 in singles.

Though the Fighting Italian's career was sometimes taken down by injury, it was unwise to count her out, because she always came back stronger. She advanced to the top 30 in 2005 and stayed there in 2006, but lost half of that season because of a left wrist injury. When Pennetta returned the next season, she came close to falling out of the top 100, but--Fighting Italian that she is--she wound up in the top 40.

The next two years were stand-outs for the Pennetta, who entered the top 20, and, in 2009, became the first Italian woman in history to enter the top 10.

2012 was a difficult year for Pennetta. A back injury kept her out for a while at the beginning of the season, and then she injured her right wrist and had to have surgery, which kept her off of the tour for six months. Pennetta considered retiring from the sport, but changed her mind, and that has to be one of the most fortuitous mind-changes in tennis history. In 2014, she won the singles title in Indian Wells, defeating 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens and top seed Li Na. Pennetta was seeded 20th in the tournament, which is one of the most prestigious events on the tour's calendar.

Pennetta's 2015 season didn't go that well--until it was time to play in the U.S. Open. The Fighting Italian had made up her mind that this would be her last season, and--in what I now think of as typical Pennetta fashion--she made one more comeback, and this one was epic. Seeded 26th, Pennetta took out Stosur again, then defeated both 5th seed Petra Kvitova and 2nd seed Simona Halep. Her last task was to beat countrywoman and friend Roberta Vinci, and she did just that, making her the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open. She also became the oldest woman to win a first major, and the player who performed in the most majors (49) before winning one.

Pennetta's doubles career was also a great one. The Italian star won titles with several players, but is probably best known for her pairing with the hard-hitting Gisela Dulko. Dulko and Pennetta seemed like they were born to play doubles together, and were a lot of fun to watch. I once had the pleasure of watching them play an exhibition match, and while I generally cannot abide watching exhibition matches, the Argentine and the Italian were so hilarious that even I was won over. Dulko and Pennetta won the Australian Open in 2011, and Pennetta came close to winning the U.S. Open (with Martina Hingis) in 2014.

Flavia Pennetta finishes her career in possession of 11 singles titles and 17 doubles titles. She was part of the Italian Fed Cup team for a total of 11 years, and she was a member of the Italian Olympic team in both 2008 and 2012. Pennetta was awarded the title of Knight of Order of Merit of the Republic by her country. This is the highest order that can be bestowed on an Italian citizen.

Pennetta's record is very impressive, but it doesn't really reflect what made her so popular with both fans and peers (who expressed extreme affection for her when she won the U.S. Open and announced her retirement). Her fierce backhand, potent forehand and excellent net skills tell part of the story, but the other, more elusive part has to do with carisma, and with strength of heart. Flavia never gave up, never minced words, never wasted her energy on insignificant drama, and never let anything interfere with her sense of humor. Her natural intelligence shown through every match she played and every interview she gave.

“I'm really proud to be strong all the time," Pennetta said today after her loss to Maria Sharapova at the WTA Finals in Singapore ended her career. "I had so many injuries, so many stops in my career. I had to start a few times from nothing." After the match, Pennetta just walked off of the court as she has so many times for 15 years. "I don't like drama, and I don't like to cry," she explained in a press conference. She did leave room, however, for the possibility of getting a formal sendoff in Rome.

When she announced her retirement, Pennetta said "I don't know what I like to do, so I have to discover." It will be interesting to see what the Fighting Italian's future holds. In the meantime, she will remain a role model for players--and the rest of us--who seek to be strong in every way, both for self and for the team.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Red, white and--who?

Friday's WTA Finals singles draw resulted in these two round robin groups:

Simona Halep
Maria Sharapova
Agnieszka Radwanska
Flavia Pennetta

Garbine Muguruza
Petra Kvitova
Angelique Kerber
Lucie Safarova

Here is the doubles draw:

Martina Hingis/Sania Mirza
Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic
Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears
Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Hradecka

Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova
Chan Hao-Ching/Chan Jung-Jan
Caroline Garcia/Katerina Srebotnik
Garbine Muguruza/Carla Suarez Navarro

Safarova and Muguruza  are doing double duty at the event, playing in both competitions.

Round robin singles play begins in Singapore on Sunday, when Halep and Pennetta hit the first white group balls. The Red Group is interesting in that Radwanska and Pennetta come in with some momentum. Radwanska's season was sub-par until she hit the Asian swing and won Tokoyo. Pennetta won the U.S. Open, is retiring from tennis at the end of the season, and--while I don't like the expression--"nothing to lose" kind of suits her.

Halep and Sharapova, on the other hand, have both been dealing with injury issues; also, Halep has had some problems closing big matches.

Somehow, right-hander Muguruza slipped into the White Group, which is filled with left-handed troublemakers. Kvitova, who has won the event before, will get an automatic boost by playing on an indoor court. Her countrywoman, Safarova, has been recovering from serious illness and expectations regarding her performance are lower than they would have been earlier in the season.

Kerber is always unprdictable, but has had such a good season that she shouldn't be counted out. Muguruza has everyone's attention; the fact that she's in the final eight says it all.

The WTA Finals can never be predicted, however. We're always surprised that "(fill in the blank) lost all 3 of her round rubber matches." Players are tired, players are dealing with a season's worth of injury and rehab, and--to make the question mark bigger this year--world number 1 Serena Williams won't be there.

Of note:

Pennetta has winning records over both Halep and Sharapova.

Kvitova and Muguruza have never before played one another.

In seven tries, Safarova has never beaten Kvitova.

Radwanska and Sharapova have played each other 12 times, and Radwanska has won only two of those matches.

Three of the players--Pennetta, Muguruza and Safarova--are making their WTA Finals debuts.

The Red Group has already distinguished itself: All the players wore black for the draw ceremony, except for Sharapova and Pennetta, who wore black-white combo dresses. A sign of things to come?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Limping toward Singapore

Sometimes I wonder why we have the WTA Finals at all. By this time, players are exhausted and injured, yet they must trudge on to the last big event of the year. Maybe I'm just too influenced by the moment, but 2015 seems worse than usual to me.

Four players have qualified in singles: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova, and Garbina Muguruza. Now subtract Williams because she has withdrawn from the event and ended her season.

Halep will be the top seed in Singapore; however, she's dealing with a foot injury and it's not certain that she'll be able to compete. And even if she's healthy, there's some doubt as to her ability to win the event. The Romanian star apparently didn't get the memo about pressure being a privilege, and she tends to perform stunningly well until she gets to the final segment of a big tournament. On the other hand, Singapore could serve as a turnaround for Halep's career. (I know--she's number 2 in the world! But her career still needs a turnaround--she's that good).

Sharapova has just returned to the court to practice after taking a few months off because of injuries; it's also fair to say that she won't be at her best in Singapore.

Muguruza, who has been out-shone by fellow star-in-the-making Belinda Bencic for much of this season, has suddenly gotten out of her slump--undoubtedly with the help of Sam Sumyk--and is about to play in her second final of the last two weeks. She lost the Wuhan final to Venus Williams, and will face Timea Bacsinszky (also in the middle of a mini-comeback) in the Beijing final.

The Spaniard, who has just entered the top 5, is kind of the wild card of wild cards, everywhere she goes. She could win Beijing, she could win the WTA Finals, she could not win either of them. My instinct, however, is that the round-robin format will agree with Muguruza. And with the two top seeds returning from injury recovery (if they are there at all), Mugurza is in a position to do extremely well.

As of now, the remaining players in the top 8 on the Road To Singapore are Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, and U.S. Open champion Flavia Pennetta. Kvitova won the event in 2011, when it was played in Istanbul. The Barking Czech lost only two sets in that tournament, and beat Victoria Azarenka in the final. Having won a big event in the past is always an advantage, but who knows which Petra will show up, and for how long?

Kvitova's friend and countrywoman, Safarova, was recently hospitalized for a bacterial infection. Assuming she has fully recovered and gets some practice in, Safarova could be threat in Singapore. But an infection that's serious enough to put someone in the hospital can be debilitating.

Kerber is having the season of her career, and though she sometimes loses when we think she "should" win, she's shown that she can collect trophies on all surfaces. Pliskova was in four big finals this year and lost all of them. Playing in Singapore, in a round robin format, might help her with confidence issues. As for Pennetta--assuming she even plays in the WTA Finals if she qualifies--she's the ultimate "nothing to lose" competitor. The Italian star is retiring at the end of the season, which could make her not as focused as needed in Singapore, or deadly. She'll be on a hard court, her favorite.

Next in line right now are Carla Suarez Navarro, Venus Williams and Aga Radwanska. Any of them could make it to Singapore, and of course, there are always alternates.

In the doubles race, six teams have qualified so far. The team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova (those two are ranked number 2 and 3 in the world) has not competed lately because of Safarova's illness. A face-off between them and the team of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza would be tasty, but that may not happen.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The return of The Ninja, and other tales of the WTA

She's back. After slumping (or at least, her version of it) for most of the season, Aga Radwanska is now in possession of a second beautiful Tokyo trophy. The new title is Radwanska's first of 2015, and she won it by defeating CoCo Vandeweghe, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, and Belinda Bencic--an impressive run by any standard. The Polish star's defeat of Bencic in the final was especially impressive. Bencic was red-hot at this event, and while the 6-2, 6-2 scoreline doesn't begin to do justice to the young Swiss star's performance in the final, it does tell the story of The Ninja At Her Best.

Radwanska, whose skills and artistry practically defy description, is capable of being more aggressive than she sometimes is. But for the Tokyo final, she brought out the full package, and there was little Bencic could do to stop her.

Radwanska likes this Asian swing. In 2011, she won Tokyo and Beijing back to back.

World number 1 Serena Williams turned 34 yesterday. And today marks the 24th birthday of world number 2 Simona Halep.

The Road To Singapore is paved with uncertainty. Only three players--Williams, Halep and Maria Sharapova--have qualified for the WTA Finals. Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Flavia Pennetta, Angelique Kerber, and Carla Suarez Navarro are currently in the top 8 of the race, followed by Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Radwanska, and Bencic.

Earlier in the season, it looked as though Muguruza were "it"--the young player who was most likely to make a giant move soon. Now, most observers would probably pick Bencic. Anything could still happen, and "anything" could also be Karolina Pliskova--or Sloane Stephens, or Genie Bouchard, for that matter.

Meanwhile, Halep has played her way to the number 2 spot in the world, but has yet to win a major. Both Halep and Radwanska play beautifully artistic and athletic tennis, and neither--in my opinion--has met her full potential.

Sharapova, who has been out with a leg injury, returns this week as an entrant in Wuhan. The defending champion is Petra Kvitova, who won the event last year just as her dear friend Li Na was retiring. To astute observers, in fact, it appeared that Kvitova won Wuhan "for" Li, who did not enter the tournament. The Czech star received the trophy after she defeated Genie Bouchard in straight sets in the final. This occurred, of course, a couple of months after Bouchard lost to Kvitova in the Wimbledon final.

Bouchard, by the way, is scheduled to play Bencic later today in the Wuhan first round. Never a dull moment.

Monday, September 14, 2015

My U.S. Open top 10

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

10. Whiley joins exclusive club: Jordanne Whiley became a member of the women's wheelchair tennis elite, winning the U.S. Open women's wheelchair singles title. Whiley, who is from Great Britain, defeated three-time major winner Yui Kamiji with a lopsided score of 6-4, 0-6, 6-1.

9. Oh, Petra: Petra Kvitova, seeded 5th, pretty much romped through the draw, mowing down opponents and displaying her sly sense of humor. But the New York humidity, when it was at its worst, had its usual effect on her, rendering her helpless in her quarterfinal match against Flavia Pennetta. It didn't help that she was recovering from mononucleosis. The good news is that she finally made it to the quarterfinals. But The Rock is still no match for the steamy air in Flushing Meadows, or for the fragility of her own immune system.

8. Mother Nature def. U.S. Open: It rained, sometimes a lot, and it rained at some of the most crucial times in the tournament. It's possible that the rain had an effect on the outcome of both the women's semifinals and the men's final. And while environmental conditions are part of the sport, that doesn't mean that some control can't sometimes be exercised, especially for the sake of the fans. It will be, beginning next year, when Arthur Ashe Stadium gets a roof.

7. Angie & Vika's Excellent Adventure: Two outstanding hard court players put on one of the greatest shows--perhaps the greatest show--of the tournament in the third round. Victoria Azarenka defeated Angelique Kerber 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, and you just didn't want it to end. Both women possess so much fight, and the tension was unrelenting. A commentator remarked afterwards that almost every thrilling match she's seen lately featured Kerber, which is a spot-on observation. However, the still-coming-back Azarenka would "pull a Kerber" at this U.S. Open, going on to play another high-quality match against 2nd seed Simona Halep. That would be the end of Azarenka's run, but it was a promising run indeed.

6. She's a rocker, she takes after me: It isn't often that an all-female sports contest becomes one of the most talked-about topics of the week, but the promotion surrounding the quarterfinal match between Venus and Serena Williams was just that. Everywhere I went, in my relatively small community, someone mentioned the upcoming match, even if that someone knew nothing about tennis. The match was excellent, and showed us, once again, that Venus Williams is still a force with which to be reckoned. The older Williams would lose, putting an end to the 24/7 dialogue about what it would feel like to deny one's sister the Grand Slam (an Italian took on that task).

5. The Not (Quite) Ready for Prime Time Player: Simona Halep talks a lot about being relaxed and not letting the pressure get to her, but it's obvious that it does. The number 2 seed didn't breeze through the draw the way Kvitova did, but she put her mighty talent on display through five rounds, and was, of course, expected to be the finalist from her half of the draw. But when she played Flavia Pennetta in the semifinals, she was all but blown off of the court. The Italian sensed vulnerability early on, played a very clean (23/16) match, and beat Halep 6-1, 6-3. The Romanian star was flat throughout the contest, and Pennetta wasn't about to let her in. The problem is that we've seen this before from Halep; as the stakes become greater, Halep loses her way.

4. Forget SABR: What we really got last week was Sneak Attack By Italy. Conveniently shaped like a boot, Italy will kick your ass. They've done it in Fed Cup, and they've done it in countless tournaments where they were supposed to be the "challengers." Now they've done it in a way that will go down in tennis history, taking out the first and second seeds--in the semifinals, no less--and assuring that an Italian woman would win the U.S. Open for the first time in history.

3. The Grand Slam that almost was: Serena Williams was only two matches away from winning the Grand Slam, one of the very few accomplishments missing from her amazing resume (and missing from almost every great player's resume). But if anyone could pull it off, Serena could, and that would also be a 33-year-old Serena. The common wisdom, based on history, is that if no one can pull off an upset against Williams in the first week of a major, forget it. At the business end, she goes into full flow and dominates, often hitting her signature ace on match point.

What Williams hadn't counted on was that Sneak Attack By Italy. Roberta Vinci, unseeded for the first time since 2010, sneaked through the draw, got a walkover in the round of 16, then defeated the on-fire Kiki Mladenovic in the quarterfinals. Suddenly, she was facing the world number 1 at a historic moment in Williams' career. And what did she go and do? She defeated Williams in three sets, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. I saw it, but I couldn't quite believe it. When Vinci served for the match at 5-4, I just assumed she would be broken and go home with nice memories. Even when she reached 40-0, I thought there was a good chance we would soon see 5-5 on the scoreboard.

But Vinci, who played Williams fearlessly throughout the match, had no intention of being broken. And as if to say "How do you like me now?," she threw in a sweet half-volley for match point. Cheeky. And so Italian. It was done. The great Serena Williams, whom we all assumed would win her 22nd major and thrill in the rare, unearthly light of Grand Slam glory, was defeated. It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of women's tennis (certainly the biggest one since Marion Bartoli beat Justine Henin in the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals), and it stunned fans across the world.

2. Her mother named her "Martina": And not for nothing. Creating a brand new career in doubles only, just like her namesake, Martina Hingis swept the U.S. Open doubles competition, winning the women's title with partner Sania Mirza, and the mixed title with partner Leander Paes. And she did the same thing at Wimbledon several weeks ago. The partnership of Hingis and the Forehand of Fire is one of the great combinations to come about in recent women's doubles history, and this latest victory gives Mirza two major titles in women's doubles.

The U.S. Open title is Hingis's fifth major doubles title of 2015: She and Paes also won the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Martina Hingis has now won a total of 20 major titles--five singles, eleven women's doubles and four mixed doubles.

1. Forza!: Unlike most others, I have long thought that Flavia Pennetta had it in her to win the U.S. Open. She excels on hard courts, loves to play in New York, and has nicely exorcised most of her player demons. After taking out both Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, the Queen of Fed Cup was expected to play Serena Williams in the final, and--while Pennetta has performed well against Williams in New York in the past--she had little chance to do anything but take pleasure in holding the runner-up trophy.

But then countrywoman, Fed Cup teammate and close friend Roberta Vinci threw the entire draw into turmoil, and in the end, there were only two Italians standing, and each of them had spent considerable time as the number 1 doubles player in the world. It was the first time two Italian women had faced each other in a major final, and the first time that two women over 30 had played in a major final in the Open Era. Pennetta was visibly nervous and overly cautious in the first set, while Vinci--even after enduring an extremely emotional 24 hours--was on her game. That set went to a tiebreak, and it was then that Pennetta turned on the aggression. She won the tiebreak and then stayed in aggressive gear for most of the second set, showing off her precision-point groundstrokes, and defeating Vinci 7-6, 6-2.

Pennetta is the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open, and she is the player who has performed at the most majors (49) before finally winning one. The popular Italian also took fans and the media by surprise when she retired from the sport during the trophy ceremony. Pennetta will play in at least two more tournaments this year, and then she will leave the world of professional tennis. (I'll have a lot more to say about that at another time.)

The tennis world was expecting history to be made at this U.S. Open, and it was. It just wasn't the history people assumed would be written. Two Fighting Italians stole the show with their friendship, and with their beautiful volleying, lobbing and stylish, clever games, And one of them--the Fighting Italian--wound up holding the trophy. The outpouring of warm and loving messages from her peers-- which Pennetta said surprised her--is a testament to the on- and off-court delight that is Flavia Pennetta.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Brava, Flavia!--U.S. Open champion

Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.
Sophia Loren

For several years, Flavia Pennetta has been known on this blog as the Queen of Fed Cup and as one of a core group of Fighting Italians, which also includes 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, and newest member Camila Giorgi. One of the toughest competitors on the tour, the Italian star may be known for her amazing Fed Cup performances, but her story is much greater than that. And as of today, her story includes a chapter about how she won the U.S. Open.

And while shock seemed to be one of the dominant reactions of the week, it wasn't mine. For the last few years, I've thought that Pennetta could win the U.S. Open, and were it not for the presence of Serena Wiliams (whom Pennetta has competed well against, but not well enough), I would have thought the Italian player's chances to win were even greater.

And this is where the story gets "only in pro tennis" interesting. Pennetta, the 26th seed, would have faced world number 1 Williams today, but that matter was taken care of by her close friend of 20 years, Roberta Vinci, who upset the presumed U.S. Open champion in the semifinals. That set up a final between two Italians--the first ever in a major. It also set up a match between two players who are over 30, a first in the Open Era. To make the occasion even more dramatic, it should be noted that both players have held the ranking of number 1 in the world in doubles. And, as mentioned, they are longtime friends and even former roommates.

People were expecting drama: Serena Williams, had she won the title, would have also achieved the Grand Slam. That was not to be, but the Italian drama was about as good as it gets.

Before the match began, commentators were discussing whether Vinci could come up with any game after garnering instant fame yesterday in her upset of Williams. Rain caused the Thursday night semifinals to be postponed until Friday, so Vinci didn't have much time to "come down" after her huge win. But it was she who came out with an aggressive game, while Pennetta played safe shots and took few chances.

In the fifth game of the first set, with the players tied at 2-all, Pennetta had break opportunities. She needed seven of them to get the job done, but getting the job done did more than get her a break--it loosened her up. She finally hit her signature backhand down the line, followed by an ace, followed by a successful drop shot. It was a strong hold of serve.

Vinci, using her backhand slice and rushing the net, also held, then broke back when Pennetta double-faulted on break point. Pennetta, at this point, returned to a position of passivity, and also began making more errors. But both players continued to hold, forcing a tiebreak.

It was then that the match turned around. Pennetta got a minibreak, lost it, then got it back. At this point, she was playing it so cautiously, she seemed to just be waiting and hoping for Vinci to make errors. But then she lifted her game just a little, hit the ball a little harder, and won the tiebreak 7-4.

It wasn't quite all Flavia after that, but it was close enough. A different player in the second set, Pennetta became more aggressive and paid more attention to ball placement. She went up 4-0 before Vinci could even get on the scoreboard. But then she was broken. Vinci held, and it looked for a moment that the second set could also be a real contest, but Pennetta would have none of it. When Vinci served at 2-5, 0-40, her life-long friend took the tournament on her first match point.

For fans like I am, who want to see tactical, graceful, geometric, artistic tennis, the match was a total treat. Between them, Pennetta and Vinci can do it all. We got slices, wonderful lobs, angled drop shots, volleys and half-volleys, and also some very good serving. The Italians, as they always do, put on a great show.

I always wanted to be different. I always wanted to be first.
Miucccia Prada

In winning the 2015 U.S. Open, the 33-year-old Pennetta became the oldest woman to win a first major, and also the player who performed at the most majors (49) before finally winning one. She is also the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open. Pennetta, who--with Gisela Dulko--won the 2011 Australian Open doubles title--said that her victory today was "a dream come true."

We all retire one day. If we want to, if we don't want to.
Donatella Versace

After making her speech today, as the microphone was being taken from her, the new U.S. Open champion asked to have it back so she could say one more thing. Pennetta then announced her retirement from professional tennis. She'll play a few more tournaments this year, and then she'll be done. Those close to her were expecting her retirement, but it was a bit of a shock to some people that Pennetta announced it right after accepting her trophy.

To me, it seemed just right. She knows she's leaving the sport (a huge loss for us, and I'll have plenty to say about that at another time), and she decided to go out in style. That's what Fighting Italians do. And they leave you in tears, and smiling, and shaking your head, and yelling "Grazie, grazie!"

Friday, September 11, 2015

Never, EVER underestimate a Fighting Italian

For several years now, a tiny corner of my mind has sheltered a belief that Flavia Pennetta could win the U.S. Open. Not a destiny thing, like I thought about Marion Bartoli and Wimbledon, but more of a glimpse at possibility. She now has an opportunity to do just that, only first, she'll have to get past....Roberta Vinci?!

It was a day of total carnage at the U.S. Open. Scheduled to be played last night, the  women's semifinals had to be moved to today because of the rain. When the matches were rescheduled, their order was reversed, and--as I discussed with a friend today--that rearrangement might have made a difference in today's outcome.

Flavia Pennetta, the Queen of Fed Cup (now sharing her reign with co-queen Petra Kvitova, whom Pennetta conveniently removed from the U.S. Open quarterfinals), came to New York with a 3-1 record against Halep, and quickly became the number 2 seed's worst nightmare when they faced off today in Arthur Ashe Stadium. This is nothing new: the 33-year-old Italian is comfortable in the role of "worst nightmare."

Halep couldn't handle the pressure (how many times have I written that in the last several months?) as she competed against a player who just about never beats herself. It took Pennetta, the 26th seed at the Open, just under an hour to crush Halep 6-1, 6-3. It was a confident and efficient performance that resulted in 23 winners and only 16 unforced errors. No one moves as well as Halep, but Pennetta repeatedly flummoxed the Romanian by blasting forehands and then cleaning up at the net. It didn't help that Halep's demons were practically dancing on the tramlines while she played.

That was an upset, of course, though not a stunning one, since Pennetta came in with such a good record against Halep and the Italian plays her best tennis at the U.S. Open. The upset was yet to come.

Returning to my second paragraph--the matches were reset in reverse order, so Pennetta's countrywoman, Roberta Vinci, came onto the court in Ashe Stadium after Pennetta had beaten Halep. The Italians, like the Czechs, give life to one another on these big occasions. The unseeded Vinci was undoubtedly inspired by what Pennetta had just done. She played world number 1 Serena Williams without fear, and with a good deal of guile. And while Vinci's performance will be noted for the considerable doubles skills the Italian put to use, what was remarkable was how well Vinci was able to return Williams' serve. Vinci kept herself in the point, and was then able to create problems for Williams to solve. Many of those problems involved the 32-year-old Italian's superb backhand slice.

Williams has looked vulnerable throughout the tournament, but that isn't unusual. She's the kind of champion who works her way into a major, and the common wisdom is, if you don't take her out in the first week, she's unbeatable. This time around, Bethanie Mattek-Sands took a set off a her, as did her sister, Venus, in the quarterfinals. But none of that foretold what would happen today.

Williams needed to win the U.S. Open in order to achieve the Grand Slam (and hey, commentators and writers, it's not the "Calendar Year Grand Slam"). She had already locked in her second "Serena Slam," winning four majors in a row, and was on the verge of doing what no WTA player had done since Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988. But a Fighting Italian stood in her way.

This match will be deconstructed until kingdom come, but the simple answer is this: Williams was tight, with so much on the line, and Vinci, following the "nothing to lose" formula--and inspired by her countrywoman's very recent upset over the world number 2--simply "played her game"--and a little extra. Sport is cruel, and while no one (including me) expected this to happen, it did.

For those of us who have been following Williams for years, Vinci's serving for the match at 5-4 (after failing to break Williams) appeared to mean relatively little. How many times have we seen someone serve for the match against Serena, only to have Serena break her, and then go on to win the match with a win and a break and another win? Countless. Even when Vinci reached 40-0 on her serve, I thought Serena would turn things around. But she didn't. Vinci was committed to winning at this point, and her final half-volley was a testament to how much she believed in her own game.

Both Pennetta and Vinci have been ranked number 1 in doubles--Pennetta with Gisela Dulko, and Vinci with Sara Errani (who was Pennetta's doubles partner in the U.S. Open). Both have won majors in doubles. Both have been instrumental in leading Italy to its four Fed Cup championships. Pennetta leads Vinci 5-4, and they are 1-1 in hard court matches. This is the first time that either of them has reached a major final. This occasion marks the first time that two Italians have competed in the U.S. Open final. It is also the first time in the Open Era that two players over 30 have competed in the final. Despite all the dashed expectations about this tournament, it turns out that this final is also a historic occasion.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

Flavia Pennetta
round 1--def. Jarmila Gajdosova
round 2--def. Monica Niculescu
round 3---def. Petra Cetkovska
round of 16--def. Sam Stosur (22)
quarterfinals--def. Petra Kvitova (5)
semifinals--def. Simona Halep (2)

Roberta Vinci
round 1--def. Vania King
round 2--def. Denisa Allertova
round 3--def. Mariana Duque-Marino
round of 16--def. Genie Bouchard (25) (walkover)
quarterfinals--def. Kristina Mladenovic
semifinals--def. Serena Williams (1)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Halep hangs with the elders

Simona Halep, a mere 23 years old, was the last woman to fight her way into the U.S. Open semifinals today. The other three are top seed Serena Williams, and Italians Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta, who are 33, 32 and 33, respectively. The win didn't come easily for Halep, who--arguably--had some help from Mother Nature.

The Romanian star's opponent was the always-formidable Victoria Azarenka, who has attacked this U.S. Open in a way that has made me think of Australian Open Vika. Halep played close to flawless tennis and won the first set 6-3, but then wavered a bit as she faced the elevated game of Azarenka. By the middle of the second set, both Halep and Azarenka--who make no attempt to hide any of their on-court emotions--were in and out of various frenzies. I was kind of hoping the deejay would cue up "Poker Face."

Halep is an obvious perfectionist who becomes impatient with herself over the slightest perceived flaw. Vika is--well, Vika. These two match each other in intensity, and they matched each other in groundstrokes in today's match. Azarenka took the second set 6-4, and went up a break in the third. It looked, for a moment, like the former U.S. Open runner-up was going to take control of the set, but Halep broke back. Serving at 2-1 with game point, Halep got what may have been just the break she needed: It began to rain.

When the players came back, the Simona Show commenced. And Halep's Romanian fans, who could barely be heard in the previous set (and were not heard at all, and apparently not in attendance, in her previous matches), penetrated the stadium with their trademark cheer, "Si-Mo-Na! Si-Mo-Na! Halep got her serve back on track and cleaned up the errors. She would win the set 6-4, and would wind up with an impressive 40 winners and 19 unforced errors.

After the match, Azarenka remarked that she was a bit surprised by how hard her opponent was hittng the ball. Flavia Pennetta, who will be Halep's next opponent, maintained that Halep hits the ball harder than Azarenka. Of course, the Romanian's greatest asset is her movement, both speed and footwork, but she has made an obvious effort to put more power into her groundstrokes.

Pennetta reached the semifinals by defeating 5th seed Petra Kvitova. Kvitova has looked really good throughout the tournament, but today was an especially hot and very humid day, and the sun was so bright on one end of the court, it was causing all kinds of problems, and not just with serving. Kvitova won the first set, Pennetta won the second, and by the middle of the third, it appeared that the Barking Czech was doing the best she could to just stay on the court.

Kvitova suffers with asthma, which is triggered by humidity (she has also suffered with chronic respiratory infections), and she is currently recovering from mononucleosis. Playing at the U.S. Open has never been her strong suit, largely because of the humidity issue. If you are feeling ill and exhausted and vulnerable, one of the last things you need to see when you look up is a Fighting Italian, and Pennetta is the original Fighting Italian.

Pennetta is also the Queen of Fed Cup, but Kvitova has become the second reigning Queen of Fed Cup. I couldn't help but wonder, while I was watching the match, what the dynamics would have been if this were Fed Cup competition and not the U.S. Open. No problem for Pennetta, though. She soldiered through the sun, the heat, the sweat, and the occasion, to reach her second U.S. Open semifinal, with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.

In yesterday's quarterfinal, the heat also marked the end of Kiki Mladenovic's run. Mladenovic was cramping, and by the third set, she was in real trouble. Vinci defeated her 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. Vinci reached the quarterfinal when she got a walkover from Genie Bouchard in the round of 16. This is the first time since 2010 that the Italian has been unseeded at a major, and this is the first time she has ever reached a semifinal at a major. For her efforts, she will next face off against Serena Williams.

It's an interesting semifinal draw, even if you take away the age factor. There are two Italians remaining, which is probably not what anyone expected (though you would have been wise to consider that one Italian might still be around). The first and second seeds are there, but their opponents are the unseeded Vinci and the 11th-seeded Pennetta. Halep is playing extremely well but is still vulnerable to making patches of errors, which appear to be generated--to a great extent--by her perfectionistic pique toward herself.  Pennetta is over that sort of thing in her own career, is tough as nails, and represents real danger if the Romanian star struggles.

As for Vinci, her U.S. Open run might be the icing on the cake, and the cake is many-layered and beautiful. The former doubles world number 1 has always had a lovely game, and while it's doubtful that anything she does can pose a threat to our world number 1, it's nevertheless a fine achievement that Vinci has reached the semifinals. (It should be noted that Pennetta is also a former doubles world number 1.)

As for Serena--she beat Venus and has two more to go. Halep is, of course, favored to be her opponent in the final (assuming Serena winds up there, of course), and after today's masterful performance against Azarenka, she is probably highly favored. But be it Halep or Pennetta--when Serena looks across the net, she will see a dedicated fighter.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

16 women standing after Act 1 of a drama called the U.S. Open

Statue in Straus Park, on New York City's Upper West Side
I'm sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned house (or an air-conditioned coffee shop) watching the U.S. Open, and I feel exhausted. Just from watching.

First, there were all the early upsets--Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Carla Suarez Navarro, Karolina Pliskova, Lucie Safarova, Timea Bacsinszky, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Alize Cornet all fell in the first round. By the end of the second round, Garbine Muguruza and Caroline Wozniacki were gone. Several players have suffered on court from the excessive heat, and there has also been a good bit of illness going around.

Every major has its share of drama, to be sure; this one has a huge share.

Surviving the heat and the germs, somehow, is Petra Kvitova. Go figure. And surviving everything else is Genie Bouchard.

Who wrote this script?!

There has been plenty of drama on court. Johanna Konta's upset of Garbine Muguruza was exciting, in that Konta has shown so much potential for so long. The match was also notable for Muguruza's failure to perform well on a big stage. She can perform well, but is still a puzzle of inconsistency.

Likewise, Petra Cetkovska (the "other" Petra)--whose career has been terribly marred by injury despite her grace and talent--rose to dramatic heights to defeat Wozniacki, the 2014 runner-up. And then there was Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who needed nine match points to put away Danka Kovinic. That was a highly entertaining match, and maybe my favorite so far, though it competes with what we saw today between Vika Azarenka and Angelique Kerber.

Azarenka had to fight with everything she had to hold off Kerber. I forget who it was, but after the match, a commentator remarked that many of this year's most exciting matches had one thing in common--Kerber was in them. The quality of the tennis was very high, and Azarenka's 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 victory included 50 winners. There wasn't much between the two opponents, though: Both served well, returned well, and volleyed well, though Azarenka came to the net much more.

The crowd's enthusiasm for the two-time Australian Open champion will dim somewhat in the round of 16, however, because in that round, Azarenka will play Varvara Lepchenko.

Of course, the biggest drama of all took place yesterday when Bethanie Mattek-Sands took a set off of Serena Williams. Mattek-Sands (imagine what her career would have been like if she hadn't sustained all those injuries) played extremely well in the first two sets, and didn't play badly in the third, despite the 6-0 result. Williams, by the way, has dropped the first set in the third round of the last three majors, all of which she would go on to win.

Williams' next opponent is countrywoman Madison Keys who upset (a somewhat ill) Aga Radwanska. If Williams wins, she could very well play Venus Williams in the quarterfinals.

Something to make note of: Former champion Sam Stosur has been given the same "What's your name again?" treatment in this tournament that she was given the year she won it. Flying softly under the radar seems to suit the Australian.

The round of 16 includes four players from the USA and two from Italy. The other ten players represent ten different nations. Serena Williams was the only USA player to make the round of 16 last year. Flavia Pennetta, Genie Bouchard, Ekaterina Makarova, and Vika Azarenka all made it to the 2014 fourth round.

All eyes will be on the Williams-Keys match tomorrow. The other one I recommend is the one to be played between Makarova and Kiki Mladenovic. If both players are in form, it could be highly entertaining.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Charleston event now the Volvo Cars Open

When players gather next April to compete on Charleston's green clay, they will no longer be competing at the Family Circle Cup, but rather, at the Volvo Cars Open. The Meredith Corporation, which owns and publishes Family Circle, is still very much involved as a sponsor, as you can see from the above logo.

The Volvo Cars Open has quite a history, and some of that history involves the Meredith Corporation because it is the longest-running sponsor of a tennis event in history. The partnership began in 1973, and history was made right away: Charleston was the first women's tennis event to be broadcast on network television, and the first women's tournament to offer $100,000 in prize money.

The event will continue to be owned and operated by Charleston Tennis, LLC, a subsidiary of the Meredith Corporation.

In making the announcement, Lex Kerssemakers, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, said: "As we are establishing our U.S. manufacturing footprint in the Charleston area, this is an ideal way for us to leverage our presence in the community."

The Volvo Cars Open attracts around 90,000 fans to the stands each year, and more than 10 million television viewers worldwide. It is the largest all-women's tennis tournament in the world.

The 2016 Volvo Cars Open will be played April 2-10 on Daniel Island. Tickets go on sale September 15.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Gone, baby, gone

I tried to warn you about the need for a strong beverage today. The first day of the 2015 U.S. Open was indeed a day of carnage. Here is what happened:

A former U.S. Open champion (Svetlana Kuznetsova) and a former Junior U.S. Open champion (Heather Watson) went out in the opening round.

Two former world number 1s (the "Serbian Sisters," Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic) went out, too.

The 2015 U.S. Open Series winner (Karolina Pliskova) went out. In fact, she won only three games against Anna Tatishvili.

10th seed Carla Suarez Navarro is out. Even Daria Gavrilova, who didn't have to face Maria Sharapova again, after all, went out.

Sloane Stephens is gone, too, courtesy of countrywoman CoCo Vandewege. Genie Bouchard, however, is still standing.

Pity Magda Linette, who defeated countrywoman Ula Radwanska; Linette's second round opponent is Aga Radwanska. 

And then there was defending champion Serena Williams, who faced an obviously injured Vitalia Diatchenko, who retired after Williams had achieved a 6-0, 2-0 score against her. Williams won't get a real warmup until she plays Kiki Bertens in the second round.

USA players who advanced today were Serena Williams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, CoCo Vandeweghe, Madison Keys, Venus Williams, Madison Brengle, Anna Tatishvili, Lauren Davis, and Jessica Pegula. USA players in action tomorrow are Nicole Gibbs, Louisia Chirico, Christina McHale, and Shelby Rogers.

Also in action tomorrow is 2011 champion Sam Stosur, who will face Timea Babos.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Accidents waiting to happen

Every major features "popcorn" first rounds, but the 2015 U.S. Open probably requires popcorn, beer and a shot. Here are some of the match-ups to watch:

CoCo Vandeweghe vs. Sloane Stephens (29): Stephens is the favorite here, not just by virtue of ranking, but also by virtue of her recent form. Nevertheless, Vandeweghe is somewhat of a slugger, and if the two get into it, it could be entertaining.

Kiki Mladenovic vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Mladenovic is now officially dangerous on any surface, but Kuznetsova is a former (2004) U.S. Open champion who--when she is in form--is brilliant.

Oceane Dodin vs. Jelena Jankovic: JJ is the clear favorite, but Dodin is capable of giving her a hard time.

Genie Bouchard vs. Alison Riske: Given Bouchard's current troubles, she could do better than starting her U.S. Open campaign against Riske.

Dominika Cibulkoa vs. Ana Ivanovic: The popcorn match. Cibulkova has been very nicely making her way back after a long injury/surgery/rehab break, and these two could provide the best first-round match of the draw.

Andrea Petkovic vs. Caroline Garcia: Two players who frequently fight themselves more than they fight their opponents. Anything could happen.

Timea Babos vs. Sam Stosur: Why not?

Lucie Safarova vs. Lesia Tsurenko: Safarova just beat her in the New Haven semifinals. Will Tsurenko's desire for revenge and Safarova's possible fatigue cause an upset?

Timea Bacsinszky vs. Barbora Strycova: Both are in a bit of a slump; either could turn her late season around.

One of the the first matches to watch was scheduled to be the one between Maria Sharapova and Daria Gavrilova (Gavrilova took Sharapova out of Miami), but Sharapova has withdrawn from the U.S. Open, so that one won't take place.

If pressure really is a privilege...

...then Serena Williams is the most privileged woman in New York right now. The subject of constant commentary, major magazine covers and feature stories, the world number 1 is poised to win the Grand Slam, one of the few achievements in tennis that she's never pulled off. Of course, few have. (Commentators have been cheapening the accomplishment lately by calling it the Calendar Year Grand Slam, but there'll be none of that talk here. There will also be no "match Steffi" talk, since I find these comparison invalid.)

Just how "privileged" is Serena? Only Williams and her team know that. But it's fair to say that when you are already holding all four majors at the same time and "all you have to do" is win the U.S. Open again, you're feeling some heat, no matter how much experience you have.

Serena Williams is, of course, somewhat of an escape artist. She does get into trouble at the majors, but--as long as the trouble brews during the second week--she finds remarkable ways to get herself right back out of trouble. Common wisdom dictates that if you want to get Serena out of a major, you better do it during the first week when she hasn't quite "played herself into" the event yet.

And that may well be the key for her preparation in Flushing Meadows--to "play into" the event at a faster pace than she prefers. Mind you, a bad day for Serena is still better than a good day for other players. But she isn't unbeatable: Ask Garbine Muguruza. Or Alize Cornet. Like every other player on the tour, Williams' serve can suffer when she isn't feeling quite right, and that can open a window, albeit just a crack, for an ambitious opponent. Williams can also be a little clumsy with her feet, and that, too, is more likely to occur if she's feeling "off."

Still, it's hard to imagine the world number one not completing the 2015 Grand Slam, probably with an ace ("You know how I like to do it") if she's serving for that last match. Winning the Grand Slam simply suits Serena Williams, who is one of the world's greatest athletes, both physically and mentally.

However, there really will be "other things" going on at the U.S. Open, including doubles, mixed doubles and wheelchair competition. And--oh, yes--other women will be competing to win the singles trophy. Play won't start until Monday, but there's already a lot to talk about, beginning with the U.S. Open Series.

Karolina Pliskova, by virtue of points, won the series, though she failed to win any of the U.S. Open Series events. To make this distinction even a bit more awkward, Pliskova has yet to get past the third round of a major. She thrives at regular events, not so much at really huge ones (kind of the anti-Sloane, anti-Genie). On the other hand, Pliskova's star is still in "rising" mode and she could have a bigger breakout at any time.

Angelique Kerber completed her 2015 all-surface-all premier run by winning Stanford, Belinda Bencic won the Rogers Cup, defending champion Serena Williams won Cincinnati, and Petra Kvitova won a third New Haven title yesterday. Kvitova, showing up in Scary Petra form, beat friend and countrywoman Lucie Safarova in three sets. Notable, of course, is Simona Halep, who had to retire in the Toronto final because she was both injured and sick. Halep also reached the Cincinnati final.

Injury and physical vulnerability, as always, are big factors at the U.S. Open. Victoria Azarenka, who has played some of her best tennis in Flushing Meadows, is once again struggling with injury. Former champion Maria Sharapova has some leg issues, Simona Halep can be physically fragile, and Petra Kvitova's asthma flares in the humid weather. 2014 runner-up Caroline Wozniacki still has knee problems. All five of these women are theoretical contenders for the title, but their ability to remain physically stable for two weeks is in question. Of the five of them, Halep is probably the least vulnerable.

There are a lot of players to watch this year. Aga Radwanska is looking like her old self again, Angelique Kerber is a definite threat, as is French Open runner-up Lucie Safarova. Belinda Bencic has moved to the front of the line of the rising stars and could make a deep run. She is joined by an ever-improving group of players consisting of the likes of Elina Svitolina, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Lesia Tsurenko, Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova, and Garbine Muguruza (though Muguruza has been in a slump lately).  Veteran Flavia Pennetta tends to do quite well at the U.S. Open, and now is as good a time as any for Timea Bacsinszky to pick up her winning ways again; I'm kind of expecting her to do so.

Venus Williams, Alize Cornet, Madison Keys, Kiki Mladenovic, Jelena Jankovic, Sloane Stephens, and Dominika Cibulkova should also be taken seriously, and there are a number of upset specialists who will be on hand to turn the entire draw on its head. And of course, you never know quite when Ekaterina Makarova will strike, but it's generally at a major.

Four former champions will be part of the competition: Serena Williams (6 titles), Venus Williams (2 titles), Svetlana Kuznetsova (1 title), and Sam Stosur (1 title).

Of note in the Williams (1) quarter
Sloane Stephens
Madison Keys
Aga Radwanska
Belinda Bencic
Venus Williams
Karolina Pliskova
Lurking: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

Of note in the Sharapova (3) quarter
Daria Gavrilova
Kiki Mladenovic
Svetlana Kuznetsova
Elina Svitolina
Ekaterina Makarova
Jelena Jankovic
Dominka Cibulkova
Ana Ivanovic
Lurking: Genie Bouchard

Of note in the Wozniacki (4) quarter 
Petra Kvitova
Anna Karolina Schmiedlova
Andrea Petkovic
Garbine Muguruza
Sara Errani
Flavia Pennetta
Lurking: Aleksandra Krunic

Of note in the Halep (2) quarter
Lucie Safarova
Lesia Tsurenko
Vika Azarenka
Angelique Kerber
Timea Bacsinszky
Camila Giorgi
Alize Cornet
Lurking: Barbora Strycova

Sunday, August 23, 2015

North American hard court season brings redemption and stardom

We don't yet know what we'll remember most about the 2015 North American hard court season--the part, that is, that precedes the U.S. Open. But there are already enough stories to make the season memorable.

First, Sloane Stephens not only advanced to a final, at long last--she won a title. Stephens' victory at the Citi Open (which began with an impressive draw but thinned out a bit because of injury withdrawals) had to be a huge relief for her, her team and her fans. Stephens, who was unseeded, defeated former U.S. Open champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur to get to the final, in which she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

In terms of premier tournaments, Angelique Kerber won her fourth of the season (on her third surface) in Stanford, giving her an impressive 2015 by any standard. And then--hardly out of nowhere, but still perhaps surprising many--Belinda Bencic took home the Rogers Cup trophy.

Bencic began her Toronto campaign by defeating Genie Bouchard, then took care of Caroline Wozniacki, Sabine Lisicki and Ana Ivanovic. As impressive as that was, the young Swiss star, who is coached by Melanie Molitor, went one better in the semifinals and beat Serena Williams. In the final, Bencic played an ailing (both injured and sick) Simona Halep. The stumbling Halep seemed to win the second set by using mirrors, but even she had to finally give up in the middle of the third, giving Bencic a less-than-satisfying win, but a win nonetheless.

The Rogers Cup champion went on to Cincinnati and opened with a flourish, defeating Stanford champion Kerber in the opening round. She then defeated the always-tough Flavia Pennetta, but had to retire against Lucie Safarova in the third round because of a wrist injury. But there's no question about it--Bencic has arrived.

It's hard to keep up with slumps and revivals that occur in the WTA, especially as the players go from surface to surface and environement to environment. Petra Kvitova, whose mononucleosis (in my opinion) is just the latest manifestation of a weakened immune system, is definitely "off," and the asthma-triggering humidity is no help. Genie Bouchard is still losing, but she's playing better and therefore has reason to be hopeful about the last quarter of this season. Garbine Muguruza is suddenly the left behind rising star, and Maria Sharapova continues to deal with a leg injury.

Aga Radwanska has definitely picked her impressive game up again, yet she continues to struggle with inconsistency. Victoria Azarenka remains a puzzle in the WTA story: Just as she gets into a rhythm, she gets injured again. Business as usual for the talented but fragile Belarusian.

The rise of Belinda Bencic isn't the only good story. Elina Svitolina (isn't she fun to watch?) made it to the semifinals in both Stanford and Cincinnati, and we also got to see more of Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

Perhaps the most significant development is that Simona Halep appears to be out of her funk. She had to retire in that Rogers Cup final, and she lost the Cincinnati final to Serena Williams today. But getting to two finals was quite impressive. And as far as the " ______ + Serena = a challenge" equation goes, I guess--for now--we can substitute "Halep" for the "Azarenka" variable. Williams won the final in two sets, but the second one was very competitive and very entertaining. Halep now returns to the number 2 ranking.

New Haven is next, and then, the U.S. Open. The Grand Slam is on the line for Serena Williams, and it's hard to imagine her not pulling it off. She'll probably make her fans all kinds of nervous in the process, but--if you're going to place your faith in anyone to accomplish something huge--it's always a good idea to place it in Serena.