Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A note to readers

I am participating in the Mindfulness in May project in order to provide clean water to people in developing countries. A donation to sponsor me will provide clean water to one person for life. All of us who are seeking sponsors will be participating in a mindfulness meditation experience for the duration of the fund-raising period, i.e., the month of May.

To donate, please click on the water icon on the top right of this blog page, or click on the above link. All donations are very much appreciated.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mental health problems--when you can't call for the trainer

A few years ago, a member of the WTA told a journalist that if all of the tour's eating disorders were cured, the top 20 would change dramatically. Some players' eating disorders have been easy to discern--those players have suddenly become frighteningly thin, and then just as quickly, they have become obviously overweight, then very thin again. Others may have eating disorders that are not as obvious to onlookers.

Anxiety runs high among players in terms of performance, and that is to be expected in sport. Players who choke a lot are suffering with a form of anxiety, and this fear of performance outcome is more likely to be manifest in left-handed players, since left-handed people are more prone to being fearful than right-handed people. (Take a look at your favorite "head cases" and you'll see a pattern.)

None of this is talked about, of course, except for the occasional acknowledgment by a player that she is seeing a sports psychologist or "mental coach." Such professionals help players overcome the mental blocks that keep them from performing at their highest level. One player who has talked freely about receiving such help is Francesca Schiavone. The Italian star was in a number of finals that she didn't win, but after adjusting her mental approach, she went on to win tournaments, including the French Open.

Depression is another story, and one that is rarely discussed. Victoria Azarenka was open about the depression she felt when she couldn't play for a long time because of injury. Marion Bartoli went through something similar, as have many injured players. This is situational depression, and it is generally extinguished when a player is able to return to the sport. In fact, players often return with a renewed commitment to performing at their best level.

Sometimes situational depression among athletes can get very serious, as with skier Picabo Street, but it can generally be overcome. You don't have to be a professional athlete, in fact, to understand how hopeless it can feel to suffer an injury and go through physical pain.

But what about more serious depression that isn't related to injury? We rarely hear this subject discussed in sport, yet common sense informs us that just as many athletes experience clinical depression (and there are several kinds of clinical depression) as individuals in the general population. We know about Jennifer Capriati's experience with depression, and not that long ago, the tour lost Rebecca Marino to depression.

As all fans know, a number of top WTA players have had abusive parents. The only ones we hear about are the famous ones, but there are more. There is no way that the daughter of an abusive parent  (make that "parents" because the other one is allowing the abuse to occur) cannot suffer emotionally. Abuse (of all kinds) by parents is the main reason people do suffer emotionally. And while these elite players have shown great strength in "overcoming" the abuse, all that we as fans see is their performance on the court.

An athlete who has been very candid about her depression is golfer Christina Kim, who--I can't help but think--has helped others by her candor. But surely she isn't the only member of the LPGA who has had to cope with clinical depression, just as Marino can't possibly be the only member of the WTA who has had to cope with it.
In the non-sports celebrity world, there is often a lot of talk about mental health issues, probably because celebrities feel their every move is exposed to the public, anyway. But the professional sports world is more closed, and the socially defined role of "athlete" is considered "stronger" than the role of "actor" or "musician." Quite possibly, there is perceived to be more shame among athletes if they acknowledge mental health issues. A few years ago, you'll recall, an ATP player became enraged when he heard that people thought he might have suffered from depression.

Professional tennis players are given nutritional advice, massage and physical training on a regular basis, but I can't help but wonder who is looking out for their mental health.

Kerber continues clay court tear and wins Stuttgart

When Angie Kerber won Charleston the week before last, she was just warming up. Today, in front of her home crowd, the German star won Stuttgart and had a white Porsche added to her trophy and flower bouquet.

A final played between Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki was bound to have long rallies and excitement, and this one did. Wozniacki, who has played some excellent clay court tennis this week, took the first set easily, as Kerber appeared somewhat heavy-legged and unable to make the ball penetrate into the corners as she had earlier in the tournament. She looked tired, and her opponent (who never looks tired) was very much in control, winning the opening set 6-3.

That changed in the second set, when Kerber suddenly seemed to wake up from a stupor and hit the ball faster and harder. With a little confidence carrying her, she also began to add some variety to her game and to make Wozniacki run vertically as well as horizontally. Kerber took that set 6-1.

This match had "tight third set" written all over it, and that, too, turned out to be reality. Wozniacki went up an early break and eventually, led 5-3, when Kerber threw everything she had at the Dane and broke her. It was a true turning point, as Kerber went on to hold and then to break Wozniacki again. It took her four match points, but the KareBear prevailed with 7-5 in the third.

The trophy ceremony, always a good one in Stuttgart, was especially emotional since a German player won the tournament (someone needs to tell the emcee, however, that Stuttgart is not the first clay tournament of the season). Kerber gave her new Porsche a spin, after telling the crowd that her victory wouldn't have been possible without them.

This is Kerber's fifth WTA title and her eleventh consecutive match win. She is now 6-4 against Wozniacki, and 2-0 against her on clay.

The doubles title went to 3rd seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, who defeated 2nd seeds Caroline Garcia and Katarina Srebotnik 6-4, 6-3. This is the second title the pair has won; they also won the 2015 Australian Open.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Russia and Czech Republic advance to Fed Cup final

Two teams whose members are quite accustomed to playing in Fed Cup finals will play in one later this year. Russia and the Czech Republic advanced today, defeating Germany and France, respectively. The Russian victory was made easier by the absence of both Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic on the first day of play. I don't know why Kerber didn't play, but I know that Petkovic cited mental and physical exhaustion.

The Russian team defeated Germans Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki on day 1, and on day 2, Kerber and Petkovic turned it around with defeats of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Svetlana Kuznetsova. It came down to doubles, and the team of Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Vesnina were too good for Petkovic and Lisicki. Vesnina, in fact, was superb, and was given more than able support by her partner.

With the Czech-France opposition, there was never going to be much hope for France on an indoor court in Ostrava--if Petra Kvitova showed up rested and ready. She did. Kvitova beat both Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in straight sets. On day 1, Garcia was defeated by Lucie Safarova after holding five match points, one of many brutal moments in the weekend's activities.

In the World Group playoffs, Italy defeated the USA 3-2. Serena Williams won both of her singles rubbers, and Lauren Davis and Christina McHale were beaten by Sara Errani and Flavia Pennetta, respectively. In her first singles rubber, Errani took a set from Williams. Then came the doubles rubber, and Italy, represented by Errani and Pennetta, all but ran over the USA, 6-0, 6-3. Williams' partner was Alison Riske, and they had obviously not played doubles together before (actually, they had never met before), and were no match for the Italians.

One of the surprises of the weekend was The Netherlands' victory over Australia, also in the World Group playoffs. Sam Stosur had to withdraw because of injury, but the able Casey Dellacqua was put in to join teammate Jarmila Gajdosova. No matter. Kiki Bertens beat both of them, and Arantxa Rus defeated Gajdosova.

Also in the World Group playoffs, Poland and Switzerland endured more drama than anyone. Martina Hingis, who hadn't played a competitive match since 2007, was put in to play two singles rubbers. On day 1, she was beaten 6-4, 6-0 by Aga Radwanska, which maybe should have provided some type of hint to the team captain about what to do on day 2. Only it didn't. Hingis next played Ula Radwanska, and led by a set and 5-2 when everythig fell apart for her.

Hingis injured her leg and almost couldn't move at all. She stayed in the rubber and also received medical treatment, but Radwanska won five straight games, then won the third set 6-1. But all wasn't lost for Switzerland since Timea Bacsinszky won both of her singles rubbers. Now, in a world that made sense, Hingis would be teamed with just about anyone for the doubles rubber. But Hingis was unable to play, and Bacsinszky's doubles partner was Victorija Golubic, ranked number 178 in the world in doubles. Their opponents were A-Rad and doubles specialist Alicja Rosolska.

No worries--almost. At 5-3 in the third set, Switzerland--specifically, Bacsinszky--served for the tie, and Poland broke. Switzerland broke back, and at 7-all and was able to successfully serve for the rubber and the tie. It was one of the most exciting rubbers I saw all weekend (disclaimer--I wasn't able to rise very, very early to see many of them). The Queen of Mexico may be coming to your territory soon--watch out! And all credit to Golubic, by the way.

Fnally, in the World Group playoffs, there was Canada vs. Romania, a tie that was controversial before it even began. Both Genie Bouchard and Simona Halep declined to participate, then--at the last minute--Bouchard changed her mind, probably to her eternal regret.

Young Francoise Abanda was certainly not expected to defeat Irina-Camelia Begu, but she did, giving Canada the first chance for victory. Then along came Bouchard, who lost to Alexandra Dulgheru. This is, of course, the point at which the story takes a twist. Bouchard and Dulgheru had met before--at the pre-Fed Cup press conference--and Bouchard had declined to shake Dulgheru's hand (she did the same thing to Kristina Kucova in February). Dulgheru laughed it off, then went about the business of tearing into Bouchard on the court, beating the Canadian in straight sets, then delivering some "how do you like me now?" handshake mockery with her team.

So if you're a tennis fan, you already know that Bouchard is slumping like Sugarpova sales at a dentists' convention, but that surely she wouldn't--oh yes she would. Bouchard, in her second singles rubber, lost to Andreea Mitu, a last-minute substitute for Begu on the Romanian team. And while Bouchard is obviously way off of her game, it should be noted--as is often the case in these types of situations--that Mitu was way on hers. She was just superb, and won the rubber in three sets.

That put Albanda in a spotlight she probably never expected in her wildest imagination. She and Dulgheru split sets, then Dulghuru kind of went into "official Romanian mode" and took the final set 6-2, putting Romania into the World Group. It was a strong performance, but Abanda should also be commended for coming close to carrying things to a fifth rubber. 

In World Group II playoffs, Serbia defeated Paraguay, Slovakia defeated Sweden, Belarus defeated Japan, and Spain defeated Argentina. Paula Ormaechea's second rubber, against Lara Arruabarrena, was a heartbreaker for her. She fought furiously to even the third set, her chances looked good, but Arruabarrena won it 9-7.

The Fed Cup stories that will stay with us a while revolve around the extended nature of Genie Bouchard's dramatic slump, the "what were they thinking?" decisions of some of the team captains ( Barbara Rittner, Heinz Guenthardt and--of course--Mary Joe Fernandez) and the enduring strength of both Russia and the Czech Republic. And we all learned more about Andreea Mitu, who--until this weekend--had never beaten a top 50 player (except for Varvara Lepchenko in Charleston, but that was due to Lepchenko's retirement).

10 things my imaginary parrot can't stop saying

"It's gonna be tough"

 "At the end of the day...."

"Maria is such a fighter"

 "I'm just going to play my game"

"She has such a good work ethic"


 "What are you doing, you Czech fool?!"

"Kim Clijsters had a baby"

"She's a great player"


Saturday, April 18, 2015

A non-defense defense of Genie Bouchard

When Genie Bouchard refused to shake the hand of her Fed Cup opponent, Kristina Kucova, before the rubbers began in February, it was hard to believe that she would repeat the act again this weekend, but she did--with Romania's Alexandra Dulgheru. The whole "I don't believe in wishing my opponent good luck" thing is ridiculous since the handshake isn't about "good luck"--it's about sport, and what sport is supposed to represent. One would think that Bouchard wouldn't need to have that explained to her.

But apparently, it's a "thing" with the Canadian star, and undoubtedly one that is part of something more important in Bouchard's worldview. What that might be, I don't pretend to know.

But I do know what it feels like to hold a conviction that goes against the convictions of close to 100% of those who surround you in your culture. Most of the things that I'm told are "good" and "positive" and that people around me support and cherish, I oppose, usually because I find them morally or ethically unacceptable, but sometimes because I find them intrusive or just plain stupid. I believe in fact-finding and fact-checking, and in remembering history, and I'm terrible at denial.

The international female star-making machine may have made a "sweet, beautiful tennis star" out of Genie Bouchard, but if you actually watch Bouchard and listen to her, there's quite an edge there. This is a woman who sometimes sounds as though her insides are drawn tight as a top. This is a woman who says very tough words but cries on the court. Readers, this is a woman who wore a kimono to a press conference.

I'm sorry that Bouchard chose a benign, but very sporting gesture, to make the object of her "me against the world" stand. I'm reminded of what the White Queen said about Alice in Through the Looking-Glass: "She's in that state of mind that she wants to deny something--only she doesn't know what to deny!"

Believe me, Genie, if you have the will to stand against what everyone around you thinks is "positive," you will make friends with yourself, even in your cultural isolation, and some people will even respect you. But first, do the fact-finding and fact-checking. From my point of view, shaking the hand of your soon-to-be Fed Cup opponent is just plain sporting, and even a social and political iconoclast like I am can't find anything that isn't positive about that.

Czech Republic and Russia go into day 2 of Fed Cup semifinals with clear leads

There's nothing like going into day 2 of a World Group Fed Cup tie with a 2-0 lead (well, unless you're Italy back in February): There's just so much pressure on the opposing team, who cannot lose one rubber. That's the kind of pressure France is bound to feel tomorrow, since the French team went 0-2 to the Czech Republic today. Of course, it was France who came back from 0-2 down against Italy in February, but pulling off another trick like that would be extremely difficult.

Not that the French team has lost any of its sizzle. In fact, it looked for all the world that Caroline Garcia was going to take the first rubber from Lucie Safarova. Garcia held five match points, but she was denied all of them. Safarova defeated her, 4-6, 7-6, 6-1. There is talk, of course, about whether Garcia will be up to playing on day 2; only she knows that.

In the second rubber, Petra Kvitova, back from an extended break, defeated Kristina Mladenovic 6-3, 6-4; Mladenovic did make that rubber competitive.

Meanwhile, a German team with no Angelique Kerber and no Andrea Petkovic lost both rubbers to team Russia. Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Julia Goerges 6-4, 6-4, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova--in match that neither player appeared to want to win--defeated Sabine Lisicki 4-6, 7-6, 6-3. The rubber was a festival of unforced errors and difficult to watch.

I'm not sure why Kerber didn't play, but Petkovic has cited physical and mental exhaustion as of late. She and Kerber are scheduled to play doubles, and I suspect we'll see Kerber, at least, in a singles rubber. I'm not ruling out Petko's singles appearance, but it makes sense to me that she might not play.

In World Group playoffs, Italy and the USA are 1-1, The Netherlands and Australia are 1-1, Poland and Switzerland are 1-1, and Canada and Romania are 1-1. Sam Stosur withdrew from play for Australia because of her injury (not unexpected), and was replaced by Casey Dellacqua, who won her rubber.

Martina Hingis played her first competitive singles match since 2007 and was beaten 6-4, 6-0 by Aga Radwanska. Timea Bacsinszky defeated Ula Radwanska, who will now play Hingis, who is highly favored to win. The other singles rubber, between Aga Radwanska and Bacsinszky, could be interesting, given Bacsinszky's current level of confidence and Rawanska's current level of slumpiness. If it goes to a deciding doubles rubber, Hingis will play for Switzerland, and I think that says it all.

Francoise Abanda of Canada had a great win over Irina-Camelia Begu, which put Canada ahead 1-0. Then Genie Bouchard played Alexandra Dulgheru, and anyone who has followed the Romanian's career knows that closing a match is not her strong suit. Bouchard was, once again, hitting without thinking much (that works sometimes, but usually not), and making all kinds of errors when the tenacious and pesky Dulgheru just kept getting everything back. Because that's what Dulgheru does.

Dulgheru had a match point on Bouchard's serve, but Bouchard saved it. Serving for the match, it was a pretty typical Dulgheru project: There were seven deuces, Dulgheru double-faulted on match point, and on and on until, on her fifth match point, Dulgheru won the rubber, 6-4, 6-4. Dulgheru then made a gesture beyond perfect: She fake hand-shaked the Romanian bench. To do this alone must have been a heavy motivation to win the rubber, never mind getting a point for your country.

Here are the results of the World Group 2 playoffs:

Serbia, 2--Paraguay, 0
Slovakia, 2--Sweden, 0
Japan, 1--Belarus, 1
Argentina, 0--Spain, 2

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fed Cup teams bring more than racket bags to semifinals

This weekend's Fed Cup World Group semifinals will feature an exhausted German, a refreshed Czech, a drama-prone Frenchwoman, and a cluster of sometimes mentally challenged Russians and Germans.

What's not to like?

Andrea Petkovic is one tired woman. She made it to the semifinals in both Miami and Charleston--and the doubles semifinals in Charleston. The German star (who was the defending champion in Charleston) said, after her loss to eventual Family Circle Cup champion Angelique Kerber, that "I had a very long season last year, and with the Fed Cup and Sofia, and everything was great, but I just had two weeks of vacation, and I never really, I think, recovered myself from the long season last year."

Angelique Kerber (photo by Daniel Ward)
Kerber might be a bit tired, too, having played five straight matches--most of them tense and long--in Charleston. She had some physical things going on in Charleston, but obviously, nothing that bothered her very much, and she seemed mentally fresh, despite the pressure she was under.

Neither Kerber nor Petkovic is lined up to play singles in this weekend's Fed Cup semifinal against Russia in Sochi. Rather, they are on the roster as doubles players, with Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki scheduled to play the singles rubbers. This makes sense, considering all the tennis that Petko and Kerber have played lately. But an argument could easily be made that it doesn't make sense: Lisicki is not going to perform at her highest standard on red clay, and then there's just the general unpredictability of Lisicki. She could win both rubbers or double-fault repeatedly, then leave on a stretcher.

As for Goerges--she has been known to have moments of brilliance on clay, and she would doubtless have more of them if she could only settle the mental part of her game.

So who do these two unpredictable German players get as opponents? Two unpredictable Russians! Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 French Open champion, is a superb tennis player who has a skill set that should be the envy of every young player on the tour. The Spanish-trained Russian can serve, volley, spin, lob, run, and endure. What she can't do is be consistently mentally present during matches. Her countrywoman, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, is also very talented, yet her career has continued to go up and down since she entered the tour.

In other words, anything can happen. Of course, one of the best things about Fed Cup is that anything can happen, regardless of who is playing.

Petkovic, of course, was probably the star of the quarterfinals. Showing Pennetta-like grit, the German star defeated Austraalia's Sam Stosur 6-4, 3-6, 12-10 in a match that lasted three hours and sixteen minutes, the second-longest in Fed Cup history. She returned the next day and beat Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 3-6, 8-6. It turned her entire 2015 season around; she would go on to win the Diamond Games in Antwerp the next week.

The other semifinal puts French captain Amelie Mauresmo to a test that seems futile, but then, so did the test of beating Italy on red clay after being down 0-2 after the first day. In one of the most brilliant Fed Cup comebacks ever staged, the French team did just that in the tie that took place in February. It was one of those things that was hard to believe, even while you were watching it, but it happened because Mauresmo knows how to strategically use her players, and she knows how to get the best out of them.

I talked with Caroline Garcia in Charleston about Mauresmo's coaching style, and she said that Mauresmo sometimes offered tactics, but more often, just acknowledged each player's game and was aware who had which strong points. She described Captain Mauresmo as "very quiet" except during play, "when she's on the chair, and...on almost every point, she's all the way stand up...."

And that brings us to France's opponent, the defending champtions, team Czech Republic. Petra Kvitova, returning from a break to heal from exhaustion, will once again lead a strong team that includes Lucie Safarova, Karolina Pliskova and Barbora Strycova. They'll be playing on an indoor court in Ostrava, which means that--if Kvitova has indeed recovered--she will be deadly.

And as great as Kvitova's Fed Career is, Safarova has also become very hard to defeat in Fed Cup play. Safarova, by the way, had to withdraw from Charleston because of a back injury, which presumably has healed. Pliskova and Strycova are lined up to play doubles, but either would be more than able to step in and play singles should that be needed. It's just a really strong team.

But the French team is no slouch. February tie stars Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic are scheduled to play singles, and Alize Cornet and Pauline Parmentier make up the doubles team. But if this semifinal should go to a tie and there is a deciding doubles rubber, you can bet that Mauresmo will go with the consistently successful team of Mladenovic and Anybody. In February, Garcia handled the "Anybody" role with great skill.

So it looks like any Cornet drama will have to come from a dead doubles rubber. On the other hand, the colorful Frenchwoman has more to offer than drama and may be asked by Captain Mauresmo to perform other duties. We just have to wait and see.

The Queen of Fed Cup returns to the roster

No one knows how to rise to the Fed Cup occasion like Flavia Pennetta. Always at her best in a Fed Cup match, Women Who Serve's long-designated Queen of Fed Cup has been placed on the roster to compete--perhaps--in this weekend's World Group Playoffs in her hometown of Brindisi, Italy. I say "perhaps" because Penneta is listed as half of the doubles team, and only as part of doubles.

Camilia Giorgi and Sara Errani are scheduled to play singles against Serena Williams and Lauren Davis. If that winds up 2-2, then Pennetta and Knapp will play doubles against Christina McHale and Alson Riske. On paper, anyway.

Rosters are frequently changed, and this one is likely to be no exception. Giorgi has been known to choke, and she has been known to double-fault repeatedly; she has also been known to pulverize the opposition. Catptain Barazzutti will have to wait and see which Giorgi shows up in Brindisi. (I think it will be the second one.) Errani should be comfortable in a red clay Fed Cup situation, too, even though best friend Roberta Vinci won't be there with her. At any rate, whatever happens, with Pennetta nearby, Italy is ready.

Lauren Davis, by the way, had a very good run in Charleston, upsetting top seed Genie Bouchard in the second round.

Also in the World Group Playoffs, Martina Hingis will play her first competitive singles match since 2007. The first rubber will feature Hingis against Aga Radwanska, and who doesn't want to see that? (Unfortunately, I won't--it's too early for me.) Also playing singles for Switzerland is Timea Bacsinszky, aka the Queen of Mexico. In fact, Hingis and Bacsinszky are the only two players listed on the roster for all Fed Cup events.

In the other two World Group Playoffs events, The Netherlands competes against Australia, and Canada goes against Romania. Genie Bouchard will be part of Canada's team. Red clay would have certainly suited the Romanian players, Irina-Camelia Begu and Alexandra Dulgheru, best, but the home team chose a medium-slow indoor hard court.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A long time coming--Kerber wins Charleston title

Photo by Daniel Ward

The Family Circle Cup is known for surprises, and this year's surprise was as sweet as they come for Angelique Kerber, whose last few months had been less than spectacular before she arrived in Charleston. The German player, seeded 5th, wasn't without challenges. In the second round--Kerber's opening match--she went down a set and a break to Evgeniya Rodina. Often, a near-miss like that in an early round can toughen a player considerably, and this seems to have been the case with Kerber.

The German star had to go three sets against Spaniard Lara Arruabarrena. In the quarterfinals, she defeated Irina-Camelia Begu 7-6, 7-6 in what were undoubtedly the two most aesthetically satisfying sets played at the tournament. Begu, in fact, was the woman who had upset Kerber in the first round of the Australian Open. Having passed the tough Begu test on clay, Kerber then had to play one of her closest friends, defending champion Andrea Petkovic. Petko had been on a path to meet close friend Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals, but when Jankovic had to withdraw from the tournament, the defending champion wound up facing Kerber, who is also her countrywoman.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Kerber beat Petko 6-4, 6-4 and advanced to the final, in which she faced Madison Keys, whose red-hot serve had not been broken throughout the tournament. Until she served the first game of the final, that is. In that game, Keys was broken at love, but it was also as though her Charleston spell had been broken. As the wind swirled around the court and the temperature dropped, both players had to deal with the conditions set forth by nature. In the end, Kerber was the steadier of the two, but the momentum shifted often enough to provide over two hours and fifteen minutes' worth of thrills and high quality tennis.

The first set was all about Kerber, who played rather conservatively but got the errors she needed from Keys. She won that set 6-2. As expected, Keys raised her level and won the second set 6-4.

Throughout the match, Kerber looked physically challenged from time to time. Her shoulder was heavily taped and seemed to bother her early on. Later in the match, she would tweak her thigh on two occasions, the second of which caused her to limp for few moments. But none of this turned out to be serious enough to trouble her game for very long. What did trouble her was her opponent. Keys went up an early break in the third set. By this time, the 20-year-old from the USA had grown accustomed to participating in the kind of long rallies that are Kerber's bread and butter, and she was winning her share of them.

Down 1-4 and with nothing to lose but a premier title, Kerber increased her aggression and added some strategically sound drop shots to the mix. She held her serve, then broke Keys. She held again for 5-all, and again, the errors began to come off of her opponent's racket. Kerber broke, and then served a dramatic love game to win her first title in a year and a half.

This is the second year in a row that a German player has won the Family Circle Cup; Petkovic won in 2014. Another German, Sabine Lisicki, won in 2009, and Steffi Graf won the tournament four times.

Photo by Daniel Ward

Hingis and Mirza win Charleston doubles title

Photo by Daniel Ward
Only five weeks ago, Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza (long known on this blog as the Forehand of Fire) decided to play doubles together. A couple of weeks later, they won Indian Wells. That was stunning, but it turned out to be just the beginning of an amazing story: The next week, Hingis and Mirza won Miami.

Winning Indian Wells and Miami back to back is quite a feat. But no worries--Hingis and Mirza could top even that. Today, they won the Charleston title, giving them three premier titles in a row. Not bad for a brand new team.

Hingis and the Forehand of Fire defeated Casey Dellacqua and Darija Jurak 6-0, 6-4 in today's final. This victory makes Mirza the number 1 doubles player in the world, and marks the first time that an Indian woman has reached a world number 1 ranking in tennis.

Enjoying some No. 1 cake (photo by Daniel Ward)
"For this to happen over three tournaments is pretty amazing," Mirza said. "For me to have Martina on my side, she helped me in some very tough moments and it helps when she's been there, done that so many times, and she's a great champion, and she helped me through those tough moments, and it's a very special feeling."

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Charleston to get first-time champion tomorrow

Photos by Daniel Ward

A brand new champion will be declared in Charleston tomorrow when 5th seed Angelique Kerber takes on 7th seed Madison Keys in the singles final. 2010 champion Sam Stosur went out in the second round, 2007 champion Jelena Jankovic had to withdraw after the third round because of injury, and defending champion Andrea Petkovic was defeated today by Kerber.

I think it's fair to say that most fans weren't surprised to see Keys make a big run in Charleston, but it was a bit surprising that Kerber did, also. The German star has had a hard time of it lately, yet she created a resurgence at the Family Circle Cup. So far, her run has included the exciting and very well-played double tiebreak quarterfinal she played against Irina-Camelia Begu, as well as her defeat today of close friend Petkovic.

Kerber has had to work a bit for her finalist spot; Keys, not so much. Neither player should be especially fatigued tomorrow, but Kerber will be more match-toughened. Throughout her career, Kerber has served well enough, and occasionally, she has managed to serve very well. Tomorrow, going against Keys, would be a really good time for the German to pick up the sting of her serve, however, because Keys will most likely serve up a storm.

The indefatigable Kerber is a virtual wall, as Petkovic re-discovered today. Keys loves the short points, but for Kerber--the longer a rally lasts, the better. Keys can dominate with her serve, so Kerber will have her work cut out for her.

Angelique Kerber has played in twelve WTA finals, yet has won only three of them. Keys, who is seven years younger, won the only final in which she has appeared--Eastbourne, 2014--and in that match, she defeated Kerber. Kerber leads Keys 2-1 in head-to-head competition; the two have never before played each other on clay.

Keys and Kerber set up clash for Charleston title

Photo by Daniel Ward
Hradecka hits the clay (photo by Daniel Ward)
20-year-old star-in-the-making Madison Keys, seeded 7th at the Family Circle Cup, booked a spot in the final today when she defeated qualifier Lucie Hradecka 6-1, 6-4 in the semifinals. Keys was relaxed, efficient and power-driven as she took advantage of a very tired opponent. Hradecka, because she had to go through quaifying, had already played six matches when she stepped onto Billie Jean King Stadium Court early this afternoon.

Keys' opponent will be Angelique Kerber, whose run this week was somewhat of a surprise, given that her season hasn't gone very well. The German came to life at this event, and today, her task was to beat long-time friend and defending champion Andrea Petkovic. Kerber was up to the task, retrieving balls that looked impossible to retrieve, and running Petkovic all over the court.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Photo by Daniel Ward
Serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, Kerber was broken by a suddenly more aggressive Petkovic, and there was every sign that the match might turn around and that the fans might get three sets. Petko held, but Kerber was able to end the match in her next game, with a 6-4, 6-4 victory. The two friends shared a long embrace at the net, and Kerber said later that it was hard to play a close friend, but "I think we both playing very well and we give everything we could today."

Kerber lost to Keys in the Eastbourne final last year. She defeated Keys at the 2013 Australian Open and in Sydney in 2014. Tomorrow
marks the first time the two players meet on clay.

Hingis and Mirza featured in today's Charleston semifinals

The action at the Family Circle Cup won't begin until 1 p.m. today; start time for play was pushed back because of rain forecast for this morning. First on the schedule is the semifinal to be played between 7th seed Madison Keys and qualifier Lucie Hradecka. That will be followed by the second singles semifinal, featuring friends and countrywomen Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber. Petkovic, the defending champion, is seeded third, and Kerber is seeded fifth.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Next are the doubles semifinals. Top seeds Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza will play Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Alla Kudryavtseva. Pavlyuchenkova won the title (with Lucie Safarova) in 2012; Hingis won it with Mary Joe Fernandez in 1997, when the event was held in Hilton Head.

Finally, Marina Erakovic and Andrea Petkovic will compete against Casey Dellacqua and Darija Jurak.

Last night, Hingis and Mirza defeated defending champions Anabel Medina Garrigues and Yaroslava Shvedova 7-5, 4-6, 13-11. Dellacqua and Jurak upset 2nd seeds Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears 6-3, 6-3.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Defending champion Petkovic survives Serbian upstart in Charleston quarterfinals

Danka Kovinic was supposed to play her countrywoman and idol and mentor, Jelena Jankovic, in today's Family Circle Cup quarterfinals. Instead, an injured Jankovic sat in Kovinic's box and applauded enthusiastically both for her protege, and for Jankovic's close friend, Andrea Petkovic, who became Kovinic's opponent when JJ withdrew.

JJ admires her hospital bracelet (photo by Daniel Ward)
Kovinic used her big serve to take an early lead in the match. About halfway through the first set, she began missing her first serve, but that didn't provide much relief for Petkovic; Kovinic immediately began strategically placing her second serve. The Serbian qualifier took the first set 6-2 from an increasingly frustrated Petkovic.

Petkovic, who likes to refer to herself as a "stiff German," is actually a very emotional player who has been known to toss and break a racket or two. She cracked one tonight, and that seemed to get her back on track. She won the match 2-6, 6-3, 6-1. As for Kovinic--she was tough to the end, hitting a 122 mph. ace to save a match point.

One of the more amusing scenes of the quarterfinals occurred this evening when Petkovic, seated on her sofa between games, looked up and saw Jankovic sitting directly opposite her. The defending champion will get an even closer eye-to-eye with a friend when she plays countrywoman Angelique Kerber in the semifinals tomorrow. Kerber won a double tiebreak match against 13th seed Irina-
 Camelia Begu in the last singles match of the day.

Angelique Kerber (photo by Daniel Ward)
And what a match it was. Begu is always good on clay, as are Romanians in general. The tall, slender Begu, whose facial expression and body language rarely change during a match, used her considerable clay court skills to run over Kerber for much of the first set. But you know Kerber: Down 1-5, she fought her way to 5-all, forced a tiebreak, and won it.

With the crowd solidly behind her, Kerber appeared to relax a bit in the second set. Begu acted as though the 5-1 lead had never existed. She continued to lob, spin, hit drop shots and paint lines. The pair reached 6-all again, and then Kerber put the match away.
Irina-Camelia Begu (photo by Daniel Ward)

This was a high-quality thriller, filled with cleverness and variety--the perfect night match.

Keys and Hradecka set up big-hitting Charleston semifinal contest

We don't have to wonder what it will be like when Madison Keys and Lucie Hradecka play each other in tomorrow's Family Circle Cup semifinals--we already know. Both 7th-seeded Keys and qualifier Hradecka are very big hitters, and they will go at each other tomorrow until one of them wears the other one down.
Lucie Hradecka (photo by Daniel Ward)

In today's first quarterfinal match, Keys efficiently handled countrywoman Lauren Davis, 6-2, 6-2, without appearing to even break a sweat. The young player from Illinois has developed steadily over the past couple of years, combining a big serve and even bigger groundstrokes with increased court sense and an ability to take command of a match.

Madison Keys (photo by Daniel Ward)
Hradecka's story is a bit different. The 29-year-old Czech player, who--with Andrea Hlavackova--has won both the French Open and the U.S. Open doubles titles, has concentrated on her fitness the last few years, and this has paid off for her in singles play. Recently, Hradecka made another change in her fitness regime--changing her diet. As a result, she said today, she experiences less inflammation,
her body recovers faster, and she has stopped having asthma attacks when the humidity is high.

Having already taken out 8th seed Caroline Garcia, Hradecka upset 4th seed Sara Errani in straight sets today, repeatedly dismissing the Italian's weak serves. The Czech player, who had to go through qualifying, has now played six matches in Charleston.

Hradecka after hitting match point (photo by Daniel Ward)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jankovic provides details about Charleston withdrawal

Photo by Daniel Ward
6th seed Jelena Jankovic, who withdrew from the Family Circle Cup earlier today, met with the media this evening to talk about her right foot injury. Jankovic said that she felt pain in her foot when she was on the court for her opening round, but was focused on what she was doing and didn't think much about it. However, the pain increased, and by the morning, her foot was swollen and she could not put any weight on it.

Jankovic was treated by the physio, but the pain and swelling persisted. The problem, which is located in the ball of her foot, will be diagnosed tomorrow when she gets an MRI. She has never before experienced any pain in the ball of either foot.

Obviously disappointed, Jankovic, a crowd favorite in Charleston, said that she had been looking forward to playing her young protege, Danka Kovinic, on Billie Jean King Stadium Court tonight.

Jankovic won the Family Circle Cup in 2007 (in post-tornado winds, naturally) and was the runner-up in 2012. This year, she was on course to meet friend and defending champion Andrea Petkovic in the quarterfinals.

Hradecka upsets Garcia in exciting Charleston match

Photo by Daniel Ward
For many years, Lucie Hradecka was a bit of an exotic item on the WTA tour. An elite doubles star in her own right, the Czech player brought a mighty serve (and a great number of aces) to almost all of her singles matches, yet her singles wins were few and far between. For someone in the WTA to have a really big serve and not win a lot is quite unusual, but such was the case with Hradecka.

Things began to change when Hradecka became much more fit; she began to compete more meaningfully in singles competition. In January of this year, playing as a qualifier, Hradecka upset 5th seed Ana Ivanovic in the first round of the Australian Open, and made it as far as the third round.

Photo by Daniel Ward
This morning in Charleston, the Czech qualifier (who upset 11th seed Zarina Diyas in the first round) upset 8th seed Caroline Garcia in a match that contained a lot of spark and thrilling action. Hradecka's serve was on, as usual, and she hit 12 aces. But something else was switched on, too--Hradecka's return game. Garcia is quick, deceptively strong, and generally, a good server. But so many times today, she wound up flummoxed by Hradecka's line-hugging returns.

Garcia, who may have been hampered by a heavily strapped thigh, put up a great fight in the third set, going from 1-4 down to 4-all. But then, after all that work, she was broken again, and Hradecka had no trouble serving for the match.

Hradecka's next opponent is 4th seed Sara Errani of Italy.

Kerber quietly moves through Charleston draw

Photo by Daniel Ward
Angelique Kerber, the 5th seed in Charleston, is practically the invisible woman. She came dangerously close to going out in her opening round, when she was down a set and a third-set break against Evgeniya Rodina. But the German star survived Rodina, and today, she made short work of Lara Arruabarrena, beating the Spaniard 6-3, 6-0. Arruabarrena caused a stir yesterday when she upset 9th seed and former Charleston champion Sam Stosur.

Kerber's profile has been low all week as names like Petkovic and Jankovic and Keys have swirled around the atmosphere. In the next round, Kerber will face Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu. Begu received a walkover in the second round when 2nd seed Ekaterina Makarova withdrew from the tournament because of illness. Begu upset Kerber in the first round of this year's Australian Open.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Kerber wasn't the only top player to go out in the first round of the 2015 Australian Open. Charleston defending champion Andrea Petkovic did, too, and today, she defeated the woman who upset her in Melbourne. The 3rd-seeded German beat Madison Brengle 6-4, 6-4. Petko was a bit out of sorts during part of the match and had trouble closing it. She said later that she was very tired and the humidity got to her, but that she's used to having one day, early on, in which "tiredness accumulates" in her body, and then she recovers by the next day.
Photo by Daniel Ward

There has been some illness at the Cup, starting with the withdrawal of Ekaterina Makarova because of a gastrointestinal illness. Jana Cepelova looked ill on court yesterday, and had to have her blood pressure checked; she also experienced some bad cramping. Earlier today, Mona Barthel retired because of illness.

And now for the really bad news: Jelena Jankovic just withdrew from the event because of a right foot injury. She was scheduled to play her protege, Danka Kovinic, tonight, and she was on a course to play friend and fellow former FCC champion Petkovic in the quarterfinals.

While all this was going on, Madison Keys efficiently removed Andreea Mitu from the tournament, beating her 6-2, 6-0 in just over an hour. Also victorious was 4th seed Sara Errani, who defeated qualifier Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Makarova withdraws from Charleston, others simply get pushed out

2nd seed Ekaterina Makarova, after she beat Zhang Shuai this morning in the second round of the Family Circle Cup, confirmed to the media that she had experienced some abdominal pain on the court. She said she had taken some medication and felt a bit better, but by this afternoon, she had withdrawn from the tournament. As a result, Irina-Camelia Begu received a walkover to the third round.

Makarova's exit, while surprising, was only the beginning of a day filled with upsets and (at least, to some fans) unexpected defeats. 9th seed Sam Stosur was upset by Lara Arruabarrena, and 12th seed Belinda Bencic was upset by qualifier Danka Kovinic. Mona Barthel beat Sloane Stephens in straight sets. Then the tournament's top seed, Genie Bouchard, went out to Lauren Davis, who beat her 6-3, 6-1.

Bouchard, who is 6-5 for the season, said that she isn't sure what has gone wrong, but that she plans to do an assessment of her game so that she can correct any errors she finds. The Canadian star hadn't planned to play in Charleston, but took a wild card at the last minute.

Last year's runner-up, Jana Cepelova, lost today to 4th seed Sara Errani. Both players appeared sluggish, but especially Cepelova, who had played a two-hour three-set match late yesterday. At one point in today's match, Cepelova had her blood pressure checked and was given ice. She continued to play, but later--sliding on the clay--she fell over in pain because of a cramp in her left leg. Again, she recovered and continued to play, but she obviously wasn't herself.

The second set tiebreak was the best part of the match, which had never really seemed to take off, probably because of Cepelova's physical weakness. Errani, known for her passionate yelling, developed an amusing pattern of shouting her usual "hey!" until she made a point, either with a winner or through her opponent's error. The Italian would then punctuate the exclamation so that a rally sounded like this: "Hey!...hey!....hey!....ha!"

Tomorrow, Errani will take on Sara Sorribes Tormo, who defeated Daniel Island native Shelby Rogers.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Madison Keys, seeded 7th, performed very well at the night match, in which she defeated qualifier Kateryna Bondarenko 6-2, 6-1. Then came the contest between the Rodionova sisters and Indian Wells and Miami champions Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza. Hingis and Mirza won, 6-7, 6-3, 10-5. Mirza had forehand-of-fire flashes of brilliance, but also made a lot of errors, while Hingis was generally stunning.

In honor of National Poetry Month

Written last year, but it still applies:

Photo by Daniel Ward

The Errani-Browning Riff

How do I drop thee? Let me count the ways.
I drop thee to the depth and breadth and height
My racket can reach, when feeling out of sorts
For the ends of lobbing and ideal grace.
I drop thee to the level of every game's
Most quiet slide, by sun and stadium-light.
I drop thee freely, as women strive for rights;
I drop thee purely, as they return my second serves.
I drop thee with the passion put to use
In my old beliefs, and with my Fed Cup's faith.
I drop thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost ranking. I drop thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my career; and, if God choose,
I shall but drop thee better after Charleston.

When your idol becomes your opponent

Photo by Daniel Ward
Danka Kovinic said today that she's been "practicing my whole life to play with Jelena." The young Serbian player has made it very clear that she idolizes Jankovic, who has also served as her mentor, and Jankovic has made it clear how much their relationship means to her. That relationship is about to take on a new twist, however: Kovinic and Jankovic will be opponents in the third round of the Family Circle Cup.

Today, Kovinic, who is a qualifier, defeated 12th seed Belinda Bencic 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. In the first round, she defeated Christina McHale. Kovinic, who has a huge serve, acknowledged that "maybe it will be kind of weird" to compete against her idol.

Kovinic isn't the only one who has to play against the player she most admires. Sara Errani is Sara Sorribes Tormo's favorite WTA player, and Sorribes Tormo will play Errani in the third round. The young Spaniard defeated local favorite Shelby Rogers in straight sets today, and Errani defeated 2014 runner-up Jana Cepelova.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Stosur makes favorable debut at 2015 Family Circle Cup

Photo by Daniel Ward

Andrea Petkovic, Jelena Jankovic and (especially) Angelique Kerber all struggled through three sets in their Charleston opening rounds today, but 2010 champion Samantha Stosur quietly and efficiently advanced to the second round with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Sesil Karatantcheva. The Australian star was relaxed and prepared, and looked fresh and crisp in soft yellow and white.

Karatantcheva did the right thing: She repeatedly directed balls at Stosur's backhand, only Stosur's  backhand, in this case, was working extremely well. The Stosur serve was on, too. The 9th seed recorded first and second serve win percentages of 68 and 65.

In the next round, Stosur will face Lara Arrubuabarrena. If she wins that match, she'll wind up in what could be an exciting contest against 5th seed Kerber, who will need all of her considerable defensive skills if Stosur turns the pressure on.

Petkovic overcomes challenge and advances in Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward
She tossed her racket into the air, gave it a few moderate cracks on the court, and even bounced up and down on it, so frustrated was Family Circle Cup defending champion Andrea Petkovic in her opening round match against Chanelle Scheepers. Scheepers was in a rare zone throughout the first set, and could practically do no wrong. Swinging freely with great force of body, the South African player, who shines brighter in Charleston than anywhere else, took the first set 6-1.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Later, after she had passed the Scheepers test 1-6, 6-1, 6-2, Petkovic would tell the media that the first set was difficult for her because her opponent was playing so well, but also because she (Petko) was playing hard court tennis on a clay court. The German star isn't a fan of on-court coaching, but she said she took advantage of it tonight, and that her coach had to remind her that Indian Wells and Miami were over, and she had to be patient and play clay court tennis. After that, she was able to make the necessary adjustnents.

Petkovic also said that it "never crossed my mind that I might lose." This champion's mindset is an important development for Petko, who said that as time has passed, she has come to realize more and more what last year's Family Circle Cup title means to her. She said she wanted to stay in Charleston as long as possible because she likes it here so much and because "I don't want to go to Russia.....for Fed Cup."

The German--who was so happy with her victory that she danced with fans--wasn't the only top player who was forced to play three sets. Earlier in the day, Jelena Jankovic met up with Miami Bouchard-slayer Tatjana Maria. Jankovic had a match point in the second set tiebreak, but double-faulted, and Maria went on to win the set. JJ's returns in the third set appeared to be fueled by anger, and she proceeded to deliver a 6-3, 6-7, 6-1 victory.
Photos by Daniel Ward
And then there was Angelique Kerber, who found herself down a set and down a break in the third set against Evgeniya Rodina, but then found a way to win. After she converted match point, Kerber let out a yell that must have released a 50-pound weight of frustration.

Sloane Stephens went three sets to win her first-ever Family Circle Cup opening round. Stephens defeated countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. Last year's runner-up, Jana Cepelova, defeated 2012 runner-up Elena Vesnina.

There was a major upset in doubles: Mattek-Sands and Ajla Tomljanovic defeated Chan Hao-Ching and Chan Yung-Jan 2-6, 6-0, 10-4.

Top seed Genie Bouchard, 2nd seed Ekaterina Makarova and 4th seed Sara Errani will be in action tomorrow, as well as Indian Wells and Miami doubles champions Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"As an athlete, you really have to be very naive"

Photo by Daniel Ward
Family Circle Cup defending champion Andrea Petkovic talked with the media in Charleston today about the fragile workings of mindset in professional tennis. "As strange as it sounds, as an athlete, you actually have to be very naive and believe that everything will be good in the end because the minute you don’t, it won’t," the German star explained.

Last year, when she won the tournament as part of a dramatic post-injury comeback, Petkovic described herself as "a doubter." She said today that she has incorporated meditation into her training regimen, and that she is better able to use perspective to manage her more negative cognitions.

Of course, Petko being Petko, she also comically explained how she has re-framed some of her losses. When asked about how having to defend titles had affected her, she replied: "To me, I never actually had to go through this because I always got injured the next year." As for not having points to defend: "So I have a few tournaments that I just really badly flopped last year that really helped me now, ironically."

Photo by Daniel Ward
Petkovic is seeded third at this year's event, and is headed toward a potential quarterfinal meeting with 2007 champion (and 2012 finalist) Jelena Jankovic. Also philosophical, Jankovic talked today about how stress prevents so many players from enjoying the tour. "It's a game," she pointed out, while acknowledging that it's also a job. "You don't have to prove anything to anyone except yourself."

JJ also revealed how much of her ability to compete at a high level comes from fan support. Recently, in Indian Wells, where she reached the final, she was tired and down a break in a match and thought she might soon be headed home. But then fans beginning yelling words of encouragement to her, and she looked up and saw familiar faces, and she said that made all the difference. Jankovic said that she knows where her fans sit in the stands in Charleston, too--that they've been sitting in the same seats for years.

Last year, Jankovic and Petkovic played doubles together in Charleston, and probably comprised the funniest team in doubles history. Jankovic isn't playing doubles at this year's Family Circle Cup.

Genie Bouchard (photo by Daniel Ward)
Top seed Genie Bouchard was on hand, too, and said that she was working on consistency and seeing every tournament as important. Bouchard said that she's also working on managing her perfectionism.

Ekaterina Makarova (photo by Daniel Ward)
Second seed Ekaterina Makarova returned to Charleston this year with the hope of easing her transition from hard court to clay. Asked about her obvious preference for very big stages, the Russian star acknowledged that "I have much more motivation on the matches when I'm playing there." Makarova said that it has taken her a long time to develop belief in herself. She reached the semifinals of both the 2014 U.S. Open and the 2015 Australian Open.

Fourth seed Sara Errani entertained the media by explaining her enthusiasm for studying the numbers in tennis. Errani said that she thoroughly enjoys keeping up with rankings and ranking points. The Italian star, discussing the recent dissolution of her world number 1 doubles partnership with Roberta Vinci, said that--for now--she wants to play singles only.

Eighth seed Caroline Garcia spoke frankly about her up-and-down results. She said that she needs to better learn how to win when she isn't playing especially well. Asked what her father (who is her coach) says to her, Garcia said that--in all these years--his words have never changed. By the end of the conversation, we were all able to yell "Keep focused, Caroline!"

Fifth seed Angelique Kerber and seventh seed Madison Keys were also on hand, but invariably, on these occasions, we don't get a chance to talk with everyone.

On this first day of main draw play, 16th seed Heather Watson was upset 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 by Donna Vekic, whose phenom status has been really endangered lately. Watson served at 4-all, 40-0 in the third set, and was broken.

Smile--you're in Charleston!

Clockwise from top left: Jelena Jankovic, Andrea Petkovic, Sara Errani, Ekaterina Makarova (photos by Daniel Ward)
The top eight Family Circle Cup seeds joined the media for All Access Hour today at the Daniel Island Club. A good time was had by all.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Queen of Miami continues her reign

Serena Williams won her eighth Miami title today, easily defeating Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2, 6-0 in the final. Williams won with her first serve 95% of the time, and she saved the one break point that was created in the match. She also hit seven aces, just for good measure. She was in very fine form.

The world number 1 has now won 21 consecutive matches. Williams' semifinal match against Simona Halep was an exciting one, with Halep keeping good on her promise not to give up in any way during the course of a big match. The semifinal was one of the best matches we've seen this season.

The doubles final will be played tomorrow. Contesting for the title will be top seeds Martina Hingis and Sana Mirza against 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. Hingis and Mirza won Indian Wells.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bouchard leads field in Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward

World number 7 Eugenie Bouchard leads the field in 2015 Family Circle Cup competition, which begins on Saturday, April 4, when qualifying starts. The Canadian wild card was a semifinalist last year, and a quarterfinalist in 2013.

Seeded second is Ekaterina Makarova, who has not played in Charleston in five years. Defending champion Andrea Petkovic is seeded third, and Sara Errani is seeded fourth.

The bad news is that Lucie Safarova (who would have been seeded third) withdrew today because of a back injury. Safarova was the runner-up in 2012 and won the doubles twice with two different partners.

The Family Circle Cup, the world's largest women's-only tennis tournament, is also the only tournament played on green clay. Historically, green clay was considered a surface that provides faster play than red clay. Last year, however, Jelena Jankovic--discussing the playing speeds of several venues--said she thought that some of the European red clay courts now play faster than the Charleston court.

One of my favorite things about Charleston is the crowd. They love women's tennis.  These are the fans who stood in the heat for two hours to watch Belinda Bencic and Elina Svitolina fight it out for a spot in last year's third round. These are fans who will stand in the heat for any length of time to watch a doubles match. And these are  the fans who went crazy cheering when Vera Zvonareva  brought forth the greatest racket destruction moment in the history of women's tennis in 2010.

This is also the crowd that gave rock star status to Patty Schnyder for many years. Schnyder never won the tournament, but was the runner-up twice. The first time, in 2002, the unseeded German mowed down all of the important players--Amelie Mauresmo, Mary Pierce, Serena Williams, and top seed Jennifer Capriati--but then lost to Iva Majoli in the final. In 2006, Schnyder took out defending champion Justine Henin in the semifinals, but lost to Nadia Petrova in the final.

It was a sad moment when Schnyder played her last Family Circle Cup match in 2011 and said goodbye in an emotional farewell ceremony. The beloved Swiss had played in Charleston for 15 consecutive years, and it was in Charleston that she ruled.

The 2015 draw will be held on Saturday, April 4 on the Grand Lawn. Four former champions will be competing: Andrea Petkovic (2014), Sam Stosur (2010), Sabine Lisicki (2009), and Jelena Jankovic (2007).