Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Australian Open top 10

This was an especially intense Australian Open, not just because of the upsets and the wonderful women's final, but also because of the off-court conversations surrounding the event. BuzzFeed and the BBC chose to make their vague and unsatisfying "announcement" about match-throwing just as the Open began, which moved the conversation away from court action. And then there was Margaret Court, who chose to explain to us that, in her day, it was easier to win majors.

The event is always intense for me, anyway, because it involves my losing much more sleep than I need to lose. So, having consumed innumerable cups of coffee--while I can still sort things out--here are my top 10 Australian Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Still in the mix: Though her successful efforts in women's doubles were put on hold because of the health of partner Ekaterina Makarova, Elena Vesnina found another way to win in doubles. She and partner Bruno Soares won the 2016 mixed doubles title.

9. From Russia, with love: It may not be 2004, but Russian players clearly aren't going anywhere.
2015 runner-up Maria Sharapova made it to the quarterfinals and Ekaterina Makarova made it as far as the round of 16. And while an argument can be made that both of them should have advanced farther, we can also look at the other side of the Russian coin: three up-and-coming players did quite well. Both Daria Kasatkina (who, like Sharapova, was stopped by Serena Williams) and Elizavita Kulichkova made it to the second round, and Margarita Gasparyan reached the round of 16, where she, too, was stopped by Williams.

8. Keep calm and rally on: In 2015, Johanna Konta showed us that she was not only talented, but that she was one cool customer. She confirmed that in Melbourne, where she reached the semifinals, and took out Venus Williams and Ekaterina Makarova on the way.

7. Si-mo-na: Simona Halep once again fizzled out with an early exit. A very early exit. 2nd seed Halep was knocked out in the first round by qualifier Zhang Shuai, leaving us--once again--wondering if and when the Romanian star will regain her confidence.

6. : So close--again: World number 1 Serena Williams had another chance to go for the Grand Slam, but that possibility no longer exists in 2016. Williams, a six-time champion in Melbourne, cut her 2015 season short and also missed Hopman Cup competition because of a leg injury. She showed up with no match warm-ups, yet looked incredibly good until she reached the final.

5. But I left the room for just a minute!: Early round upsets were a big part of this year's drama. 2nd seed Simona Halep lost in the first round, as did Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Sara Errani, Caroline Wozniacki, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens, Andrea Petkovic, Irina-Camelia Begu, Caroline Garcia, and Venus Williams. All seeded players. There was more carnage in the second round: Sydney champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Petra Kvitova, Jelena Jankovic, Timea Bacsinszky, Elina Svitolina, and Sabine Lisicki. And while they were not seeded, it's worth noting that both Eugenie Bouchard and Alize Cornet also got knocked out in the second round.

4. Zhang Shuai--see "perseverance": 27-year-old Zhang Shuai had tried fourteen times to win a main draw match at a major, and had failed fourteen times. She decided to give qualifying a try in Melbourne, with the possible plan of retiring from pro tennis if she couldn't improve on her record. She made it through qualifying and then pretty much went on a tear that will long be remembered. Not content to just quietly play her only successful major first round, Zhang dropped a bomb on 2nd seed Simona Halep, taking her out in straight sets. For her next act, she took out the talented French fighter, Alize Cornet. Now on a roll, Zhang defeated Varvara Lepchenko in the third round, and then beat 15th seed Madison Keys. Johanna Konta stopped Zhang in the quarterfinals, but oh, what a run it was!

3. Modern art: So many times, the matches we think are going to be wonderful turn out to be disappointing, but not the one played by upcoming stars Kiki Mladenovic, seeded 28, and new Aussie Daria Gavrilova. The spectacle featured the Frenchwoman's big serve and artistry, Gavrilova's fighting spirit, and an Australian crowd that was practically in a frenzy over their newest tennis citizen. It was as good a match as you could watch, and it was also that one match--it always happens--that looked like it was played out of sequence and belonged in the very latter part of the tournament. Gavrilova won, 6-4, 4-6, 11-9. The third set took and hour and 36 minutes to play. The pressure was too much for Gavrilova, though, and she would lose handily in the next round.

2. No stopping Santina: They did it again. Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza won the 2016 doubles championship, meaning that they are just one French Open championship away from attaining a "Santina Slam." The pair began playing at Indian Wells last year. They won that tournament, then Miami, then Charleston, consecutively. Since then, Santina has won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the WTA Finals, as well as five other tournaments. The team is on a 36-match win streak. Hingis and Mirza played each other in the Australian Open mixed doubles draw (Mirza's team won), but neither contended for that title, which was a bit surprising.

1. Raising the flag in Care-A-Lot: The Care Bears live in the land of Care-A-Lot, and tennis's own KareBear, Angelique Kerber, belongs there more than anyone I can think of. A marvelous defensive player with super-strong legs, Kerber has had plenty of ups and downs over the last few years. The "ups" occurred when her serve was on and she added aggression to her game. The "downs" occurred when her serve was off, she failed to be aggressive, and she became very frustrated during a match. 

Boosted by a return to her former coach and a series of hit-and-talk sessions with Steffi Graf, Kerber made a breakthrough last year, even after getting off to a poor start. She overcame considerable odds in terms of both injuries and opponents, to win in Charleston. She went straight to Stuttgart and won there, too, and--before the season was over--she had also won in Birmingham and Stanford, giving her an all-surface sweep. But her performance in majors continued to disappoint. She changed her training regimen in the off-season, and in Melbourne, she was able to put together the three elements she needed--the big serve, the aggression and, of course, her trademark killer defense. 

It wasn't exactly ein Stück Kuchen. In her very first match, Kerber saw her opponent, Misaki Doi, hold a match point. An argument can be made that, in the end, it was the best thing to fall into Kerber's range of vision. She saved that match point and went on to defeat Doi, and then to defeat Alexandra Dulgheru, Madison Brengle, countrywoman Annika Beck, two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, and upstart Johanna Konta. Oh--and Serena Williams.

Kerber played the match of her life against a somewhat shaky (but still, we know how that can turn out) Williams, making only 13 unforced errors in the match. Her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory made her the Australian Open champion, and it also made her the number 2 player in the world. Kerber has a lot of big points to defend in 2016, but she starts the year with a rather large, plushy cushion. This is Kerber's first major title, and she won it by approaching her career the same way she approaches her opponents--by going after everything, no matter how how difficult the job may look. It's the most basic of approaches--and it works.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Angelique Kerber, aka KareBear, aka 2016 Austalian Open champion

Nobody cares like a bear
From “Nobody Cares Like A Bear”

Just when the tennis world (myself excluded) was getting over its surprise that Angelique Kerber had reached the final of the Australian Open, the sturdy-legged German known affectionately by fans as KareBear, delivered an even bigger surprise: She defeated six-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams in the final. Kerber's 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory gives her her the first major of her already impressive career.

Was it Kerber's ability to sustain a strong first serve that sometimes eludes her? Was it Williams' obvious case of nerves? Was it Kerber's sometimes reality-defying retrieving skills that had her returning balls from what sometimes seemed like the next court? Was it Williams' loss of what many consider her greatest strength, her serve? Was it Kerber's dramatic transition game? Was it Williams' flubbed volleys? Was it Kerber's well-timed slices?

Ladies and gentlemen: It was all of that.

It happens so much in tennis: The favored player has a bad day and her opponent has one of the greatest days of her life. Except in doesn't happen to Serena Williams in finals. And even when it does, by the third set, the opponent has generally faded into a shadow cast by the overwhelming greatness of the world number 1.

Not this time. This time, the opponent stepped out of the shadow, found the light, and fulfilled the promise of years of hard work.

My name's Grumpy Bear
I'm always feeling blue
If it's not one thing it's another
Oh what am I to do? 
From “Flying My Colors

Commentators on ESPN in the U.S. told us over and over about Kerber's history of having a "horrendous" attitude on the court, and they were surprised to see her remain so calm in the final, even after Williams rebounded in the second set. Of course, those who actually follow women's tennis know that Kerber disposed of her on-court demons some time ago; this was nothing new. And of course, a moderate amount of grumpiness is to be expected from a player of Kerber's nature, and why not?

Cause when you care you’re not afraid to try
And when you put it all together
Then there is a power none can deny
From “Care Bear Calling”

From the start of the match, it was obvious that Serena Williams was off her game. Williams' only true "weakness" is her footwork, which can be a bit clumsy. When she gets tight, her own feet tend to get in her way, and Kerber exploited that factor, frequently hitting balls right at Williams and backing her up on the court. The errors from Williams were mounting, and the momentum was clearly with Kerber.

Howver, the sixth game of the first set was a test of both Kerber's mental strength and her creativity. The German faced three break points in a very long game ten with multiple deuce points. Finally, after failing to convert a couple of game points, Kerber hit a perfect drop shot. Holding another game point, what could she do to make this game end? Why, hit another perfect drop shot, of course!

Kerber won that set while making only three unforced errors; Williams made 23. Not surprisingly, the world number 1 staged a comeback in the second set, in which she significantly cleaned up the errors. When the match went to a third set, it did have the look of a typical "Enjoy your first set memories" Serena phenomenon. The problem with that scenario was that Kerber refused to go along with it.

 I'm flying my colors so that everyone can see
Isn't this the perfect place to introduce me
To say that I'm different
I'm special, it's true

From “Flying My Colors”

If you watched or followed the 2015 Charleston tournament, you'll recall that Kerber's path to the championship was a very difficult one. For one thing, she sustained two injuries. It was obvious that her heavily taped shoulder was giving her problems, and she hurt her thigh twice during the tournament. She went down a set and a break in the second round (her first match), and had to go three sets against Lara Arruabarrena.

Kerber squeaked past Irina-Camelia Begu (the woman who knocked her out of the first round of the 2015 Australian Open) 7-6, 7-6 in a match that was a pleasure to watch. In the final, Kerber had to deal with an on-fire Madison Keys, as well as cold temperatures and constantly swirling wind. And she held forth--close matches, injuries, wind, and all. This was the Angelique Kerber we've been waiting for--the astonishing defensive player who could also be quite aggressive, and who could keep her head about her, no matter what.

And that was the Kerber who stood (and sprinted, squatted, straddled, and crept) across from Williams in the third set of yesterday's final in Melbourne.  When she served for the match at 5-2, she was broken before she could even see a match point. This had to be disappointing, and it had to be even more disappointing when Williams pulled out of a 0-30 deficit on her serve in the next game. Could Kerber still take care of very big business in that game? Oh, could she. The 7th seed prevailed and became the 2016 Australian Open champion.

Kerber is the second German woman in the Open Era to win a major. Unfortunately, the commentators at ESPN chose to make the narrative all about Steffi Graf, who is long retired. During all of the carrying on about Graf, it was sometimes hard to know who had won the 2016 tournament, had you not been watching the entire time.

Rise and shine, get a glow
Cause you know you're gonna shine
Like the star you are, you are
From “Rise And Shine”

Angelique Kerber, who had never before reached the final of a major, is the first left-handed woman to win the Australian Open since Monica Seles did so 20 years ago. She is also the first woman in the Open Era to save a match point in the opening round of a major and go on to win the championship: Kerber saved that match point against Misaki Doi. During the trophy ceremony, when asked about this, the German star said she "had one leg in the plane to Germany."

Finally, it should be mentioned that prior to beating top seed Williams, new world number 2 Kerber defeated two-time Australian Open champion (and an often-predicted choice for 2016) Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. Our champion KareBear, strong of body and mind, couldn't have written a more dramatic script for this event if she'd tried. No one could have.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The KareBear countdown gains momentum in Melbourne

Photo by Daniel Ward, art from

Who's that comin' from somewhere in the sky?
Moving fast and bright as a firefly
"Care Bear Countdown 5-4-3-2-1"

Angelique Kerber, whose 2015 season was remarkable in regular tour competition and unremarkable in majors, has arrived at a major final for the first time in her career. The 7th-seeded German defeated British upstart Johanna Konta yesterday, and thus became one of the last two women standing at the Australian Open. Kerber wisely conserved her energy during her semifinal match, which she won in straight sets. One got the sense she was counting on some nerves from Konta, and that instinct turned out to be a wise one.

Konta, for her part, has made good on her 2015 promise. She is now the number 1 player in her country, and her Melbourne performance indicates that she has successfully challenged herself to keep improving. Konta's poise on the court is especially commendable. She's the straightforward kind of player who can hold focus as she enters a more challenging part of her career.

Kerber has her work cut out for her. Her opponent in the final is world number 1 Serena Williams, who has pretty much romped through this tournament after facing a first-round challenge from a Fighting Italian. Her defeat yesterday of 4th seed Aga Radwanska was made easier by Radwanska's now-classic failure to perform at the stunning level of which she's capable when she sees Williams on the other side of the net.

For much of the second set, we did get to see some true Radwanska style; it looked, in fact, like the match might go to three sets. But when she had a game point to go up 5-4, the Polish star let up, and that was pretty much that. Just about all she saw after that moment were balls passing her and landing in unreturnable places on the court. Williams closed the match in signature fashion with a series of aces, followed by one final successful volley.

I don't think Kerber is going to freeze at the sight of Williams, and the final could be an entertaining one. Kerber's finely tuned rhythm of alternating outstanding defense with fiery aggression has served her well in the past year. But, speaking of "serving," the German falls short. There was a time, several years ago, when she was serving rather well, but now, her serve is arguably the weakest part of her otherwise excellent game. She will have to get in as many first serves as possible against the tour's most lethal returner.

While everyone was busy talking about the upcoming women's singles final, the two-headed monster known as Santina had to fight itself in science fiction movie style. Top seeds Sania Mirza and Ivan Dodig defeated defending champions Martina Hingis and Leander Paes 7-6, 6-3 in mixed doubles quarterfinal competition. Hingis and Mirza, who are the top seeds in women's doubles, will play 7th seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in the final later today.

Also, in the upcoming women's wheelchair singles final, top seed and defending champion Jiske Griffioen will face countrywoman and doubles partner Aniek Van Koot in the final.

Williams and Kerber get to take a bit of a rest, since the women's final isn't played until Saturday. Here are their paths to the final:

round 1--def. Camilia Giorgi
round 2--def. Hsieh Su-Wei
round 3--def. Daria Kasatkina
round of 16--def. Margarita Gasparyan
quarterfinals--def. Maria Sharapova (5)
semifinals--def. Agnieszaka Radwanska (4)

round 1--def. Misaki Doi (saved a match point)
round 2--def. Alexandra Dulgheru
round 3--def. Madison Brengle
round of 16--def. Annika Beck
quarterfinals--def. Victoria Azarenka (14)
semifinals--def. Johanna Konta

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The characters may change, but the plot stays the same

It happens now, every time a major rolls around: Many seeded players, including top ones, are eliminated in the first two rounds of play, and their elimination becomes the "shock" news. But is it really so shocking at this point? Of course, there are always going to be some upsets, which is part of the drama of sports, but this many this soon? Something is wrong.

It's easy to blame the calendar for this problem, yet the ATP uses virtually the same calendar, and its early round upsets in majors are not as consistently overwhelming as the WTA's. Many of us question players' decisions to participate in a post-season league--I still see no reason for this league to even exist--but again, the ATP participates in it, too, so it isn't a self-imposed problem just for women.

Illness has played a significant role, lately, as well as injury. But even those factors don't provide the entire answer to the puzzle. Of course, it would be easy to say "The top echelon of the women's tour is filled with head cases," but even that theory defies the consistency of the problem.

In the meantime, some seeds are doing well, thank you very much. Defending (and six-time) champion Serena Williams has looked totally stunning on the courts, and so has two-time champion Vika Azarenka (if you don't count the dabbing). 2008 champion Maria Sharapova is easily into the round of 16, and 7th seed Angelique Kerber has also skillfully eased into that round. And while she may not be a top seed (she's number 21), much is expected (at non-clay majors, anyway) of Ekaterina Makarova, and she, too, has made it look easy.

12th seed Belinda Bencic hasn't been quite as steady as the others, but she has played her way into the round of 16. And of course, 4th seed Aga Radwanska has strealthily moved through her first three rounds.

A highlight of the first week--and I'm sure, when it's all over, a highlight of the tournament--was the third round match played between Kiki Mladenovic and Daria Gavrilova. I expected this to be high quality and drama-filled, and it was. Unfortunately, I had to watch it as a replay because it occurred in the middle of the night, my time--and my luck. The more I watch these two, the more impressed I am with them, though Mladenovic clearly needs to settle down (Calling Bartoli-tamer Mauresmo! Come to the locker room now, and bring playlists!) so that the errors can be reduced.

Gavrilova, though she may be a brand new Aussie, is the darling of this tournament, and really, who better to take on that role? Not since Jelena Dokic made her dramatic comeback at the Open in 2009 has the Australian crowd had a woman who was able to stir up so much excitement. Can Gavrilova do what Dokic did and reach the quarterfinals? To do so, she would have to defeat another remaining highly seeded (10) player, Carla Suarez Navarro.  That task could get tricky, and that match will certainly be one to watch.

One can't talk about the first six days of the tournament without mentioning Naomi Osaka. The young Japanese player lost to Azarenka yesterday, which was to be expected. She undoubtedly lost so easily, however, because she sustained an injury in her 2nd round match that clearly hampered her huge first serve. It would have been interesting to see what a non-injured Osaka would have done against Azarenka, but I'm sure we'll get that opportunity at a later date. Osaka's wins over Donna Vekic and Elina Svitolina were most impressive.

Also worth mentioning is Johanna Konta, Great Britain's number 1 player, and one cool head. Konta is now in the round of 16, having defeated Denisa Allertova in the third round. It's been almost 30 years since a British woman has performed this well in Melbourne.

The story of the tournament so far, however, has to be Zhang Shuai, who until now, had never gotten past a first round at a major, despite making fourteen tries. Her dismal record changed after the Australian Open first round, in which she beat none other than 2nd seed Simona Halep. And as if that weren't enough, Zhang then defeated Alize Cornet in the second round. That would have been impressive enough, but yesterday, the 27-year-old Chinese player defeated Varvara Lepchenko, and advanced to the round of 16. Her next opponent will be Madison Keys. Before play began in Melbourne, Zhang (a qualifier, who has now won six matches) was thinking of retiring from the sport.

Play begins today on Rod Laver Arena with 12th seed Belinda Bencic challenging 5th seed Maria Sharapova. And that brings me to what I consider to be the lowest moment of the past week: It's offensive enough when commentators discuss how "Russian" Sharapova is, or when interviewers ask her if she "feels" Russian. But commentator Doug Adler actually "accused" Sharapova of being "American" (a nomenclature I don't like, but I'm not the one using it); the tone was clear. Fortunately, Elise Bergin quickly explained, in so many words, that only Sharapova can determine what her nationality is. You think?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Aussie! Aussie! Aus--well, just "Aussie"

We are halfway through the second round of the Australian Open, and there's one Aussie standing in the women's draw. That would be brand new Aussie Daria Gavrilova, who upset 6th seed Petra Kvitova in straight sets last night. The upset won't surprise some because Kvitova has been so ill and has had no match practice. On the other hand, she looked stunning in her first round and served remarkably well. But this is Petra we're talking about, so anything can happen at any time.

It's also Gavrilova we're talking about, and this goofy (in a good way) Russian-born player is such a determined fighter, the Italian players probably wonder why she didn't switch over to their country. A player has to have talent, skill and fitness to succeed on the tour, but she also needs a winning attitude, and Gavrilova has that in abundance. She's also smart: 2015's Newcomer of the Year pulled some of Kvitova's own tricks on the 6th seed in their second round match.

Next for Gavrilova is Kiki Mladenovic, and that is an absolute must-watch contest. Provided Mladenovic holds her nerve and brings her sometimes-absent splendid serve, this could be a dramatic match. Both players know how to confound and confuse opponents. Gavrilova is the steadier of the two, but when the Frenchwoman is "on," she can be lethal.

The second round, so far, has produced a few revelations. Maria Sakkari, though she lost in three sets to 10th seed Carla Suarez Navarro, announced herself to the tennis world in an exciting way. She did some big serving and showed a lot of spirit against the Spaniard.

And then there was Kateryna Bondarenko, whose talent has never been in question, but whose career has been interrupted a lot. Bondarenko beat Sydney champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets, and while this is no great surprise to any WTA fan, it should still be noted that the Ukrainian player is in very good form.

Monica Puig continued her good start to the season by advancing to the third round with a win over Kristyna Pliskova, who hit 31 aces in the three-set match. And Margarita Gasparyan continued her own momentum with a victory over Kurumi Nara.

The young Russian (and Russian-born) are on fire so far. Elizavita Kulichkova defeated Monica Niculescu, and Daria Kasatkina defeated Ana Konjuh.

WTA Backspin advises us to Fear The Kasatkina, and I think it's pretty good advice. Give the 18-year-old a bit of time, and--if she continues on her current path--there will indeed be players who fear her. She has a rather large obstacle in that current path right now, however. Kasatkina's third round opponent is defending champion and top seed Serena Williams. I don't think the Russian is going to go to pieces against Serena, so the match will most likely be fun to watch.

In the meantime, my "must watch" match for the fourth day is Naomi Osaka vs. Elina Svitollina.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Doesn't matter how you start..."

Except when it does. And this Australian Open draw promises drama from the very first round. There are several noteworthy match-ups, including two I consider to be on the "must see" level (which probably means they'll be on in the middle of the night in my time zone--my luck).

First, a look at those two:

Darya Kasatkina vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova

When I saw this, my first thought was, "Oh, no! One of them will go out in the first round!" Now that I've had some time to digest the draw, my current thought is "Oh, no! One of them will go out in the first round!"

Let's be real. Schmiedy's season, so far, has been a bust. I don't know why. She beat Timea Bacsinszky (who's also having a poor start to the season) in the first round in Sydney, then lost to eventual finalist Monica Puig in the next round. She lost to Varvaro Lepchenko in the first round in Brisbane. Schmiedlova won a total of only four games in the two matches she lost during the 2016 Australian season.

Can she turn it around in Melbourne? Yes, but facing Kasatkina in the first round is a bit of a nightmare for any player. The impressive young Russian isn't likely to let nerves get the best of her, and the Schmiedlova backhand (and improved forehand) is going to have to do a lot of work if the 27th seed is going to advance to the second round. I do expect a very good match.

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Dominika Cibulkova

It's equally hard to fathom that one of these players will be gone by the second round. Cibulkova, the 2014 finalist, is unseeded, and Mladenovic is seeded 28th. Cibulkova is a hard hitter who can wear down almost anyone on a good day. Mladenovic is a very creative player whose serve ranges from outstanding to not-so-good, depending--I assume--on her confidence level. If she brings her best serve, she can make matters quite difficult for Cibulkova. We never know, however, which Kiki is going to make an appearance.

What about the other first round matches of interest?

Defending champion Serena Williams could have been luckier than to draw Camila Giorgi in the first round. Giorgi double-faults a lot and can go to piece. She might go to pieces. But the hard-hitting Italian might also decide to take it to Williams and turn this into a lively contest.
Genie Bouchard vs. Aleksandra Krunic: This is, I think, the kind of setting that really revs up The Bracelet, as Krunic has been named over at WTA Backspin (she is the Serbian Fed Cup team's lucky charm--when they remember to put her on the roster). Bouchard is, of course, a wonderful player, but her fortunes haven't been that good in a while, and she just lost in straight sets to Alize Cornet in the Hobart final. The Bracelet could make things difficult for her and maybe get into her head.

Sara Errani vs. Margarita Gasparyan: We may need a cautious upset alert here, though Errani will most likely handle Gasparyan.

Yulia Putintseva vs. Caroline Wozniacki: Bless the chair umpire.

Kristyna Pliskova vs. Sam Stosur: Always an upset alert at the Australian Open.

Tamira Paszek vs. Roberta Vinci: Paszek is looking really fit and has been on a roll lately. Vinci won't have an easy time of it.

Samantha Crawford vs. Danka Kovinic: I mention this only because Crawford has (rightfully) gained so much attention lately. But she'll have to be really calm and on her game to get past JJ's protege.

Caroline Garcia vs. Barbora Strycova: I think this match will be a lot of fun, that is, unless Garcia has a head cave-in. But I expect some stylish and creative tennis.

Venus Williams vs. Johanna Konta: If anyone can give Williams a good early challenge, it's Konta.

And now for a peek at some possible second round matches:

If Belinda Bencic wins her first round (against Alison Riske) and Heather Watson wins hers (against Timea Babos)--and both of the those scenarios are very likely--then we should get what could be one hell of a match between Bencic and Watson. The Brit tends to thrive when she has an underdog status (which is much of the time), and her game just keeps improving.

I expect Aga Radwanska to advance to the second round, and in that round, she'll get either Bouchard or Krunic. Fun.

I also expect Hopman Cup champion Daria Gavrilova to advance, and in the second round she should play Petra Kvitova. Gavrilova likes the scent of blood and won't hesitate to take advantage of whichever "off" Petra might show up--and here's hoping all of the "off" Petras have been banished from Melbourne!

It's very likely that Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (who plays Kirsten Flipkens in the first round) will advance to the second round to almost certainly meet Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza is dealing with a foot injury, and is quite vulnerable to going out early. Lucic-Baroni wouldn't hesitate to carry out the job.

2nd seed Simona Halep is likely to get Alize Cornet in the second round, unless Cornet turns out to be exhausted from her Hobart run and loses in the first round. But if the Frenchwoman should play the Romanian, Halep may have to keep her head about her. Cornet can be all over the place, but when she's hot, she's on fire, and she's the kind of player who can stoke Halep's temper.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What it means to be a fan

When we think of a professional tennis player's "team," we think of the player, of course, and then the coach, and--if the player is successful--a physio, hitting partner, marketing representative, sponsors, etc. In a broader sense, however, that team also includes perhaps the most important entity of all--fans. Without fans, there would be no professional tennis. Fans pay to watch players, of course, but they also provide an audience, both during tournaments and during the constant flow of talk, anticipation, critique, and excitement that make up a tennis season.

Players sign autographs, visit hospitals, play in exhibitions, provide interviews, and interact with the rest of us through social media. In fact, because of social media, fans have far greater access to players than ever before in the history of sports. Through social media, we have seen (and heard) everything from the impressive photographic skills of Maria Sharapova to the outrageous Turkish dancing skills of Andrea Petkovic.

Thankfully, the WTA is in possession of extreme riches in terms of personalities, which magnifies the fan experience. It's hard to imagine another sport whose players deliver such a wealth of wit, drama, fashion, intelligence, and total entertainment--both on and off the court.

If you're reading this, you're a fan. You arrange your own schedule, as best you can, around the pro tennis schedule. You lose sleep so that you can watch live matches. You can spell "Pavlyuchenkova" and "Bacsinszky" without having to think about it.

But what does it mean, other than the obvious--you like to watch (and maybe play--no one ever asks "How many times a week do you play football?" to a die-hard football fan) tennis. Some people think we become emotionally involved in professional (or collegiate) sports because we need "heroes." But a hero is someone who shows great courage at a time when it is almost impossible to do so. In my USA culture, physical heroics (or physical anything) are respected more than moral heroics, so it's no surprise that the word "hero" gets bandied about when people are discussing sports.

Commentators say "It took courage for her to make that shot." Actually, no. It took bravery, which is different. Or maybe it just took quick thinking. At any rate, I don't think we generally become emotionally involved with tennis pros because of their courage on a day-to-day, on-court basis.

There certainly are players, however, whose personal challenges have pushed them to go on even when it appeared that they could not; in many cases, they excelled because of their courageous responses to those challenges. I wrote about some of those players a couple of years ago, and I continue to admire--and to be inspired by--every one of them. The WTA's Power To Inspire theme (my favorite WTA theme since 2004's Get In Touch With Your Feminine Side) uses imagery to remind fans that they can be inspired by the WTA's greats.

And if the inspirational power of players like Serena Williams, Li Na, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Elena Baltacha, Flavia Pennetta, and Vika Azarenka were the only emotional connection we had with the WTA, it would be more than enough.

But it isn't. Tennis excites us because it is tactical, athletic, mentally challenging, and unpredictable. In some cases, it excites us because it is so very graceful. We feel pleasure and satisfaction when we see Serena hit a perfect serve, when Petra delivers bombs into the corners, when Aga dazzles us with trick shots, and when Simona kills with speed.

Sports stars, because they risk competing, represent our own struggles with fear, expectation, motivation, and self-assessment. Why are we so upset when our favorites lose? And why do we sometimes cry tears of joy when a favorite player wins? We shake our heads and go "Oh, Petra!" when she suddenly loses what was a "sure thing." We watch mesmerized when Alize Cornet displays theatrical agony on the court. We yell at our favorites (it doesn't help, but I do it, anyway, and especially at Petra) when they are just not doing what they should be doing during a match.

The missed volleys, double faults, chokes, and mid-match letdowns are projections of our own perceived failures. Pushed by our cultures and our brain hormones to "win," we suffer when we fail to meet standards that may or may not be legitimate. Maria Sharapova once said, "When you're going through tough moments, you never know when you're going to have good moments." How true. And how much safer it feels to manage the demons that surround each of us by feeling the pain of our favorite players.

On the other side of the equation--if we witness a victory, especially one that was not predicted, we tap into our usually-buried belief that anything is possible. When Amelie Mauresmo won Wimbledon in 2006, I bought a bottle of rather good champagne and invited my friends to drink it because Amelie had done this amazing thing. I had never stopped believing in Mauresmo, no matter what anyone said, just as I never stopped believing in Marion Bartoli.

And--just as it is easier to openly express our pain by displacing it onto the pain of our favorite players--it's often easier to believe in those players than to believe in ourselves.

Whether we're being inspired by players' responses to personal challenges, awestruck by the beauty of their performances, or just allowing ourselves to project our uncomfortable feelings onto them--being a fan is a very emotional, very special, privilege.