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.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I just wanna be a KareBear like you--the evolution of Angelique Kerber

Photo by Daniel Ward

I remember, years ago, standing on the sidewalk at the Family Circle Cup and watching Daniela Hantuchova--surrounded by empty courts because everyone else had finished playing--swatting away for hours at a pesky opponent who simply would not go away. The other player was like a wall, but she was more than a wall; she was reading Hantuchova's game and responding quickly. That opponent was Angelique Kerber. I had seen Kerber play before, but this match made it clear just how strong her defensive skills were.

Hantuchova won the match 6-7, 7-5, 6-3. She was exhausted, and also somewhat upset with tournament schedulers, who put her on the next morning to play her quarterfinal against Jelena Jankovic. (That quarterfinal turned out to be, in my opinion, the best match of the tournament, and Hantuchova won it, in spite of her fatigue.) By this time, the battle against Kerber was a forgotten matter, but those of us who watched it were very impressed.

It wasn't until 2011 that the left-handed Kerber gained some fame in the tennis world, for it was then that she surprised almost everyone by reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open while ranked number 92 in the world. The German took out the likes of Aga Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta to reach the semifinals, in which she lost to eventual champion Sam Stosur.

This "surprise semifinalist" phenomenon is, of course, somewhat of a staple of the WTA. Virtually unknown players reach the quarterfinals or semifinals of a major, and then are rarely heard from again. Not so with Kerber, however. In 2012, she won both Paris (indoor) and Copenhagen. She also reached the semifinals of Wimbledon, beating Ekaterina Makarova, Kim Clijsters and Sabine Lisicki along the way. Kerber finished 2012 in the top 5.

In 2013, Kerber began showing signs of what would become a chronic back injury. Her results were streaky, though she did make it to the round of 16 at both the Australian Open  and the French Open, and the semifinals in Indian Wells. She also won the tournament in Linz.

Kerber's progress was hampered by a variety of issues. Her back went out easily, which was not unexpected, given the extreme physicality with which she approaches her matches. She was criticized for playing too defensively (the same criticism that was frequently given to Caroline Wozniacki), her serve ranged from mediocre to outstanding from event to event, and she engaged in a very high level of negative self-talk during matches.

It was this last trait that looked to be Kerber's undoing. Players do become angry with themselves during matches, but Kerber took this characteristic to a new level, experiencing obvious emotional discomfort for long periods of time. In 2014, Kerber reached four finals on three different surfaces, and she lost all of them. It was, at once, a glimpse of just how good she could be, and just how affected she was by her demons.

Kerber played in one of the great matches of the year in 2014. In the Wimbledon round of 16, she defeated Maria Sharapova in a grueling three-set contest in which Sharapova hit 57 winners. Kerber needed seven match points to win, but win she did, in a brilliant display of toughness against the player who is known for toughness. The German star finished the year ranked number 10 in the world.

Angelique Kerber began the 2015 Australian season rather well, but then lost in the first round at the Australian Open. She then went on an uncharacteristic losing streak and dropped out of the top 10. Things were looking bad for her, and then suddenly, she turned around not only her season, but her entire career.

In Charleston, Kerber had to fight like mad to win matches. She went down a set and a break in her opening match against Evgeniya Rodina, she had to play three sets against Lara Arruabarrena, and won a double tiebreak match against a very creative Irina-Camelia Begu. After beating defending champion and friend/countrywoman Andrea Petkovic, Kerber was left to battle against Madison Keys on a cold windy Sunday on Daniel Island.

Kerber's shoulder was heavily taped during the match, and on two occasions, she would tweak her right thigh. She won the first set easily, lost the second, and went down 1-4 in the third. She then caught up with her opponent and eventually served a love game to win the tournament. It was a dramatic match, and a dramatic moment for Kerber.

It was also the beginning of a new era for the German. She left Charleston and went to Stuttgart, where, in her opening round, she issued Sharapova her first loss ever at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Kerber would go on to win Stuttgart, her second premier event title of the year. She won another premier title in Birmingham, this time on grass, and a fourth just recently--this one a hard court premier event--in Stanford.

For reasons unknown to me, Li Na's "gift" of Alex Stober to her dear friend Petra Kvitova resulted in a relationship that didn't last, and now Kerber is the recipient of Stober's considerable physio skills, which one hopes will help her resolve her lower back issues. Once somewhat of an emotional mess on court, Kerber is now simply a strong, very fast-moving fighter who can outlast her opponents. Her recent defeat of Aga Radwanska in their amazing Stanford quarterfinal demonstrated the maturity of her game, as well as her estimable athletic prowess.

Angelique Kerber is now 27 years old, and is the very definition of "steady progress." Her fans love her fighting spirit and her smile, and it would be hard not to like her outstanding retrieving ability. But there is more to Kerber than fight and retrieval. She is very fast, she can be powerful, she can be quite creative, and she can be dead-on precise at a moment's notice. Every season, she gets better, and every season, she becomes more interesting to watch.

Kerber is currently ranked number 11 in the world, and number 6 on the Road to Singapore. With her Stanford win, she's off to a great North American hard court season start, and she has already proven herself on all three surfaces this year. That's pretty special, by any standard.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The kids are still alright!

 Over the weekend, we saw something happen that doesn't happen very often. A young player who was suddenly noticed because she fought hard and put in a good performance against an elite player (in this case, Serena Williams) at a major, turned right around--figuratively speaking--and won her first tournament. Margarita Gasparyan not only won Baku, but in doing so, she also

The young Russian is the first player with a one-handed backhand to win a title this year. But there's more: She and runner-up Patricia Maria Tig, both unseeded (Tig was a qualifier) upset the two top seeds in the semifinals. And here's perhaps the best part: Prior to arriving in Baku, Gasparyan had never won a main draw match; she was 0-5.

Oh, and there's even more--Gasparyan and Alexandra Panova won the doubles title.

Who knew that the Baku Cup tournament was going to be so unusual and exciting? Gasparyan, at number 71, has moved into the top 100 for the first time in her career. Tig, who is Romanian, had won only one main draw match before coming to Baku, so she, too, made quite a leap in progress.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Teliana Pereira won her second tournament of the season. The 2015 Bogota champion won her home country's tournament, the Brasil Tennis Cup, in Florianopolis. Pereira defeated Annika Beck 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 in the final. Her victory marks the third time in the Open Era that a Brazilian woman has won a WTA tournament, and the second time a Brazilian player has won a WTA tournament in Brazil. The other champions were Neige Dias and the great Maria Bueno. Pereira has now moved into the top 50.

Beck and her partner, Laura Siegemund, won the doubles title.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The kids are alright--for now

Even in the WTA, which has become a proud standard bearer for the strength of veteran athletes, the power eventually shifts. Older players retire or experience the natural decline of their skills. Historically, super-stars have arrived in a flash--or at least it seemed like a flash--and begun their domination. But today, the "rising star" category isn't that easy to sort out.

Take, for example, Simona Halep. Some of us have watched her for several years and have known of her immense potential. But to the public, and--unfortunately--to the sports media, she was a virtual unknown. When she broke rank a couple of years ago, it was considered "surprising" news. But anyone who had watched Halep over the years wasn't surprised. Angelique Kerber made a similar "surprise" appearance among tennis elite, as did Dinara Safina before her. Timea Bacsinszky, whose comeback was extraordinary, also falls into this category. These players were always under the radar, and only serious fans understood that the breakthrough could happen at any moment.

Some very young players, like Chris Evert, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams, step into success at an early age and don't have to look back. But others, especially in the current generation, go forward and back with such rapidity that it's hard to keep up.

Sloane Stephens is a good example. Much was made of Stepehens' obvious skills during her 2013 breakthrough, despite the fact that she was peaking at major events only. Stephens, who is now ranked number 34 in the world, has yet to win a WTA title, or to even reach a final. She's young, and could just as likely have a second "breakthrough." Or not. It wasn't that many years ago when the names "Tamira Paszek" and "Michelle Larcher De Brito" were uttered as Next Big Thing phenomena.

Karolina Pliskova has a huge serve and a very good all-around game, and appears to be comfortable on different surfaces. She is, however, the anti-Sloane, in that she does not do well at the majors, despite doing quite well at other events. The talented young Czech player has played in ten WTA singles finals and has won four of them. However, she has yet to advance beyond the second round of a major, having done so only twice. On those two occasions, she was defeated in the third round.

Again, this doesn't necessarily "mean" anything. Whatever obstacles are in her way can be removed through appropriate coaching (physical and otherwise) or perhaps just maturity.

Belinda Bencic is only 18 and has already won Eastbourne; she has also played in two other finals, and she reached the third round of the 2015 French Open. It's too early to really know just what Bencic can do, though her tennis future appears very bright.

There are several young players who show signs of enjoying bright futures: Madison Keys, Elina Svitolina, Camila Giorgi, Kiki Mladenovic, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Heather Watson, Lesia Tsurenko, Elina Svitolina, Katerina Siniakova--this list could go on to include others. What's interesting is that we don't know who (if any) will rise to the very top, who will have an outstanding career, or who may fade away.

In the "rising star" category (and I don't count Halep as such--she's a star who is trying to glow brighter, and I actually think of her as a kind of veteran player), there are two names that deserve special attention. One is Garbine Muguruza, who just seems to have "I'm it!" written all over her. From her gutsy play to her comfortable-in-her-own-skin persona, the Spaniard--at this time--comes the closest to looking like a major star in the making. She was out for a long time because of injury, and when she returned, she had trouble closing matches. But these problems appear to be behind her, and it's hard not to expect some big things from her in the near future.

Finally, there is the matter of Genie Bouchard. I can't recall any player experiencing such a dramatic rise, to be immediately followed by such a dramatic fall. Bouchard is in something that is beyond "slump," and her current abdominal injury does little to give hope to fans that she will somehow sort out her career in the next few months.

The Canadian's woes began in 2014 after she was blown off the court by Petra Kvitova (someone who knows a thing or two about sudden soars followed by dramatic drops) during the 2014 Wimbledon final. Coincidence? No one knows except Bouchard, and she may not even know. 2014 was a very dramatic year for her; she reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, and the final of Wimbledon. She also reached the round of 16 of the U.S. Open, which isn't exactly shabby, but her decline had begun.

Bouchard has been kind of a walking injury for the past several months, and when a player gets injured frequently, I tend to look at the psychological aspect as well as the physical. All players are going to sustain injuries in this very demanding sport, but sustaining a lot of injuries (or experiencing a lot of illness) can be a sign of an individual whose overall balance may need to be restored (that goes for the rest of us, too).

There has been a media frenzy over Bouchard, who is a "marketable" blonde with her own army of supporters that travels around the world to cheer and sing for her. She is an official Big Deal. Once you are a Big Deal, you face unbelievable pressure, from within and without, to perform at a very high level. Bouchard is also quirky, though--as a Big Deal Blonde--she isn't presented that way. (Maria Sharapova is quirky, too, but has always appeared to have the self-containment to pull it off and still be a BDB.) The handshake quirk, the kimono, and the over-"candid" press conferences point to a complicated person.

This isn't a criticism, by the way. I like quirky, and I want every player to feel free to be exactly who she is. The wonderful blend of personalities is what makes the WTA irresistible. But even a mature 21-year-old can freeze when caught in a web of undeniable talent, chronic injury and international hype and expectations.

Genie Bouchard is currently ranked number 26 in the world. Her 2015 season has been miserable so far. She lost in the first round at both the French Open and Wimbledon, and has suffered repeated first and second round losses. She has continued to suffer with an abdominal injury. Bouchard lost both of her Fed Cup matches to Romania, and also received something of a personal beat-down from Alex Dulghuru, who mocked Bouchard following their match.

In short, Genie Bouchard's brief career already qualifies as a mystery, and who doesn't enjoy a good mystery?

It may take Bouchard and her team a while to figure out what went wrong and why, and then to fix it. Maybe a long while. Or she could storm back in 2016 and push even Muguruza into the background. In the meantime, the veterans are doing just fine, thank you. Kvitova remains the only player born in the 90s who has won a major (she has won two, and "should" have already won more, but that's another story, and one that has been covered here with frustrating frequency).