Sunday, April 24, 2016

How to Siegemund--a brief guide for dealing with life's more difficult stuff

original photo by Daniel Ward

1. Work hard and stay at it, no matter how slowly things are moving

2. When faced with a significant obstacle that forces you to stop, find something else to do that holds your interest, then

3. Work hard

4. Enjoy what you're doing and get the most out of it

5. Let go of all expectation and realize that whatever happens, you're going to be fine

6. Let the answers come to you instead of grasping for them

7. Should you return to your first pursuit, enjoy it without fear

8. Work hard

9. Don't buy into any nonsense about your age, your absence or any other belief that others project onto you

10. Love every minute of it!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Czech Republic and France to play Fed Cup final in November

It will be all red, white and blue in November when France meets defending champion Czech Republic to determine who will be the 2016 Fed Cup champion. And if this weekend's semifinals are any indication, both teams had better bring the very best they have to France.

Playing without Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, the Czech team pulled off the win against Switzerland (playing without Belinda Bencic), but needed five rubbers to do it. Going in 1-1 today, the Czech team got some relief when Karolina Pliskova handily defeated Timea Bacsinszky in straight sets. But then Victorija Golubic, now the official Swiss Slayer, took out Barbora Strycova. Golubic lost the first set, but won the second in a tiebreak, and then had a fairly easy time of it against a frustrated Strycova.

Then it was time for doubles, and this time, Pliskova's partner was former French Open champion Lucie Hradecka. They faced Golubic (again!) and Martina Hingis, and beat them 6-2, 6-2--just like that.

The woman we will remember from this semifinal weekend is Golubic, who appeared to come out of nowhere, knock out Czech team leader Pliskova and Strycova, then suddenly find herself paired with Hingis in a final rubber. So great was Golubic's performance this weekend, it seemed almost "right" that Switzerland should go to the final, but the Czechs were just too strong in doubles. One can't help but wonder how much it affects the outcome to have Hingis sitting on the bench for two days and then suddenly having to go in and "save" the team.

The other semifinal also went to five rubbers. Tied at 1-1 today, France and The Netherlands played reverse singles rubbers today, and once again--surprise!--Kiki Bertens won hers. Bertens, who is now 15-1 in Fed Cup singles matches, defeated the other Kiki (Mladenovic) 7-5, 6-4. When Caroline Garcia was victorious in her must-win match against Arantxa Rus, a doubles rubber ensued. And what a match it was.

Charleston champions Garcia and Mladenovic faced Bertens and Richel Hogenkamp. The Dutch team fought its way to a first set victory, the French won the second set, and then the real drama began. In the fourth game of the final set, Mladenovic faced six break points on her serve. The French team saved them all, and went on to win that set 6-3. By the middle of the third set, the French crowd was going simply mad, urged on by a highly animated Mladenovic, who squeezed every drop of crowd support that was available.

Of interest--Kiki vs. Kiki: 1-1

Of course, other matches were being played, too. Belarus moved into the World Group for the first time in Fed Cup history by defeating Russia. Yes, Russia, the one-time Fed Cup giant that has left the World Group, at least for now. Also leaving the World Group was one-time Fed Cup giant Italy, whose team didn't really have a chance against the Spaniards, especially with Sara Errani having to withdraw because of a knee injury.

Any time Andrea Petkovic plays in Fed Cup competition, there's drama, and this weekend was no exception. Petko played for two hours and 49 minutes against Simona Halep, who defeated her. She was back out there today, this time competing against the always-maddening Monica Niculescu, who did little for the German's spirit by taking the first set 6-0. Both women served well, and Niculescu ended the two-hour, 37-minute match with a much better winner-unforced error ratio than Petko. But Petko won, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3, putting Germany into the World Group. Petkovic was able to seal the win after Angelique Kerber knocked Halep out in straight sets.

The USA, of course, went back to the World Group with its stunning defeat of Australia. Sam Stosur lost both of her singles rubbers, thus eliminating any speculation that she has become "more comfortable" competing on home soil.

In World Group II playoffs:
Belgium def. Serbia
Slovakia def. Canada
Chinese Taipei def. Poland
Ukraine def. Argentina

In the Belgium vs. Serbia tie, Aleks Krunic beat Kirsten Flipkens, and then lost to Yanina Wickmayer, who won the final set 8-6. Krunic led 6-1, 3-0, then served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, but Wickmayer's comeback was just too strong, and she wore Krunic down.

I love Fed Cup. I like the team competition, the excitement, and the inevitable rise of a player who is not only not a WTA star, but who may be relatively obscure in the tennis world. Several years ago, I watched a Fed Cup tie and was mesmerized by a young player who I thought might some day be Somebody. Her name was Petra Kvitova, and--while she has yet to become the Somebody I was expecting her to be--she is nevertheless quite an elite player on the tour.

Whether it's a Kvitova who goes on to become a tennis great, or a Kiki Bertens who goes on to be a Fed Cup great--or a Krunic or Golubic who is suddenly indespensable, the evolution is always thrilling.

One hopes that a healthy Petra, a healthy Lucie (Safarova) and a healthy Karo all show up in France for the final. But even if they don't all make an appearance, the Czech Republic has demonstrated that--like the Russian team when it was at its peak--it has enough depth to have an A team and a B team. And the B team, as we saw in February and this weekend, isn't too shabby.

Coach Amelie Mauresmo has Garcia and Mladenovic, who have become really good at pulling double duty in Fed Cup ties. The irony is that the French fighter, Alize Cornet, just can't seem to translate that fight--and her considerable skills--to a Fed Cup rubber. Maybe some day. In the meantime, I'm reminded of the time that Mauresmo, when she was still playing in Fed Cup and was asked about the closeness of the French team, responded that they were very close, like the Russian team, and that, like the Russians, they would all go out to eat together at a restaurant. "But," she deadpanned, "it's a smaller restaurant."

Maybe not so much now. Czech Republic, watch your back: French Flair may be coming to get you.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Czech Republic and Switzerland tied at 1-1 in Fed Cup semifinal play

It didn't surprise me that Barbora Strycova won her initial Fed Cup rubber today against Timea Bacsinszky. Strycova hadn't dropped a set against Bacsinszky the other three times they played each other. And she didn't drop a set today, beating the Swiss team's leader 6-0, 6-2. It was Karolina Pliskova, however, who stumbled, and was defeated in three sets by Victorija Golubic, who is ranked number 129 in the world. That's how Fed Cup works--players we hear little of during the rest of the season suddenly rise to the occasion in team play and pull huge upsets. Here is the shot of the day, which gave Golubic the second set:

In the other semifinal, Fed Cup boss Kiki Bertens beat Caroline Garcia in straight sets, but Kiki Mladenovic evened the score for France when she defeated Richel Hogenkamp, also in straight sets. Poor Hogenkamp. A few words from Joan Jett will have to suffice:

Assuming the rosters don't change, Bacsinszky will get a shot at Pliskova tomorrow, which could get interesting, given both of their poor showings on day 1. Strycova will play Golubic, who will be hard pressed to repeat her success, but hey--this is Fed Cup! In the other pairing, Hogenkamp will get a crack at Garcia, and then this:

In the World Group playoffs, the USA dominated Australia in the opening rubbers, with Madison Keys easily defeating Dasha Gavrilova, and Christina McHale taking advantage of a (sadly typical) breakdown by Sam Stosur following the opening set. Stosur did rally in the third set, but by that time, McHale had a lot of confidence, and took the set 7-5. The Tennis Channel commentary by Lindsay Davenport was hilarious, only not in a good way. In the first set, she was practically a cheerleader for Stosur, and in the second and third, she was trash-talking her.

The Spanish team ran over the Italian team, and it will be interesting to see what happens when the reverse rubbers are played tomorrow. Both Errani (or whoever--perhaps Schiavone again) and Vinci have to win their singles matches; it doesn't look good for Italy. There's no putting in the capable (if shaky) Camila Giorgi--she refuses to compete in Fed Cup.

Angellique Kerber repeated her Charleston success over Irina-Camelia Begu, a player who has sometimes given the Australian Open champion trouble. That put Germany up 1-0 over Romania, but the main course was yet to come. Andrea Petkovic, who fights brutally in Fed Cup matches, brought that fight against Simona Halep for two hours and 49 minutes. It was a match worth watching, and Halep won it 6-4, 6-7, 6-4. This was always going to be a thrilling match-up, and now it's even more so.

In other (big) Fed Cup news--Schmiedy won a match! Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, whose promising career has taken a very deep dive this season, defeated Canada's Aleks Wozniak in the second rubber played between Slovakia and Canada in the World Group II playoffs. In the opening rubber, Dominika Cibulkova defeated Francoise Abanda, so Slovakia is up 2-0.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Czech Republic, minus Kvitova and Safarova, to play Switzerland in Fed Cup semifinals

Czech Fed Cup team leaders Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova won't be appearing on the indoor hard court in Lucerne tomorrow as the Czech Republic takes the next step toward defending their Fed Cup championship. Safarova is still in recovery mode from her two serious illnesses, and Kvitova--who didn't win any rubbers in the first tie of the season--has opted to focus on her clay season preparation.

Both players have performed extremely well in Fed Cup competition in the past. However, in the last two competitions--one, the 2015 final--it was Karolina Pliskova who took the lead, and saved the day, along with her trusty doubles partner, Barbora Strycova. And to make matters even less threatening for the Czech team, Switzerland's team just lost Belinda Bencic because of injury.

That means that Timea Bacsinszky has to do the heavy lifting for Switzerland and get wins against both Pliskova and Strycova in her singles rubbers. Victorija Golubic will also compete for the Swiss team, and--while anything can happen in Fed Cup play--beating the Czech players will be an uphill battle for her.

Bacsinszky and Martina Hingis are scheduled to play doubles against Denisa Allertova and Lucie Hradecka. Should it come down to fifth and deciding rubber, however, the Czech roster is likely to change, and Pliskova and Strycova could once again pull double duty. A doubles match between Pliskova and Strycova and Bacsinszky and Hingis would probably be a very exciting occasion.

Should anything unexpected happen, the Czech Republic could do worse than have Allertova step in to play singles. Ranked 61 in the world, Allertova has shown some recent promise.

In the other semifinal, France will compete against The Netherlands on indoor red clay. Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic are now Fed Cup-tested, and they have generally performed well for Coach Amelie Mauresmo. However, both players have noted weaknesses. Garcia can go away mentally, and Mladenovic's big serve can betray her because--as good as it is--she has trouble controlling it.

Alize Cornet (notoriously poor in Fed Cup singles play) is scheduled to play with Pauline Parmentier in doubles, but again--if the doubles rubber is the deciding contest, we can expect replacements. Garcia and Mladenovic just won the Charleston title, so that one is a no-brainer. The French team also famously defeated Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci in very exciting Fed Cup play last year.

Kiki Bertens is a Fed Cup beast. with a singles record of 13-1, and an overall Fed Cup record of 19-2. The Russian team apparently hadn't been playing attention to this fact when they played The Netherlands in the February tie, and Bertens beat both Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Richel Hogenkamp, who also defeated Kuznetsova, is once again on the team. Unless the Dutch players get stage fright, they are to be considered a real threat to the French team.

In the World Group playoffs, Russia's young star, Daria Kasatkina, will play a Belarusian team led by Vika Azarenka. Margarita Gasparyan, who isn't too shabby herself, will also play singles for Russia, and Elena Vesnina is on hand to play doubles. Of course, if a substitution has to be made in singles, Charleston runner-up Vesnina is an excellent choice. This play-off will take place on a red clay court, which gives Kasatkina a bit of an edge, and which takes some of the edge off of Azarenka's formidable game.

The Spain vs. Italy playoff also takes place on red clay (in Spain), and who doesn't want to see Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro go at it against Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci?!

Simona Halep and Irina-Camelia Begu, both excellent clay court players, will perform on an indoor clay court against Germany's Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic. Petkovic, despite her ups and downs on the tour, brings her best tennis to Fed Cup. Also on hand for Romania will be Alex Dulgheru and Monica Niculescu, and for Germany--Annika Beck and Julia Goerges. This is an interesting tie that could become long and drawn out. Also, Kerber just had to retire from the Charleston semifinals because of a viral illness, so that could be a factor.

Finally, the USA plays Australia in Brisbane. Madison Keys and Christina McHale are scheduled to play singles, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe are on the USA roster for doubles. Sam Stosur and new Aussie Daria Gavrilova will play singles for Australia and Casey Dellacqua and Stosur are scheduled to play doubles. The rubbers will be played on an outdoor clay court, which isn't at all unfriendly toward Stosur. Should it all come down to a deciding doubles rubber, it could go either way--these are both very strong teams. But it's hard to imagine that it will come to that unless Stosur goes into one of her "Oh no--I'm in Australia!" slumps.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Some final thoughts on Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward
If you want to see crowds of people who love women's tennis, all you have to do is go to Charleston in April. People all over the city are talking about it, and those who attend the matches tend to be pretty sophisticated in their understanding of the game. Charleston crowds also love to watch doubles, and they are quick to spot and support a lesser-known player.

Photo by Daniel Ward
The Charleston crowd also has a much-appreciated sense of humor. In 2010, when Vera Zvonareva performed the greatest racket break of all time, her actions were applauded and cheered by onlookers, some of whom then began to mimic the "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" cheer (Zvonareva was getting destroyed by Sam Stosur) on behalf of Vera. This year, when Yulia Putintseva took a little break to do some yelling (as she is prone to do), the crowd yelled along with her, then gave her some applause. I can't imagine these things happening anywhere but Charleston.

Every tournament has its ups and downs. This year, Jelena Jankovic, who is beloved by Charleston fans, had to withdraw before the tournament began, though she stayed on site for a few days to appear with her mother at a luncheon. Last year's champion, Angelique Kerber, had to retire during her semifinal because of illness, and the 2014 champion, Andrea Petkovic, went out in the second round.

Photo by Daniel Ward
But there were also plenty of "ups." Fans got an up-close chance to see exciting young stars like Daria Kasatkina, Monica Puig, Kiki Mladenovic, Caroline Garcia, and Daria Gavrilova. They witnessed a dramatic tour comeback from 2011 runner-up Elena Vesnina, and an enjoyable segment in the rise of Laura Siegemund, whose matches were all quite exciting to watch.

Volvo's first year as the title sponsor brought several new features to the event. The addition of music, on-court announcing and post-match interviews on Althea Gibson Club Court was a very nice touch, as was the additional jumbotron on Billie Jean King Stadium Court. But the biggest innovation was full-court streaming that allowed fans to simply scan their mobile devices with a code and stream action on courts all around the grounds, including practice courts.

Photo by Daniel Ward
The Volvo Car Open (formerly Family Circle Cup) is of great historic interest in the world of women's tennis, and it tends to be a star-launching event. Last year, for example, Angelique Kerber ended a slump by winning in Charleston, then going on to win three more tournaments--and then starting 2016 by winning her first major. Sloane Stephens just won her biggest title to date in Charleston, and is gaining the momentum that has eluded her for the last few years.

Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic, a "pre-Olympics" French team, reached two other finals this year, but their first win together was at the Volvo Car Open. And though she was stopped by Stephens in the semifinals, 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina continued her recent success, this time showing off her considerable skills on clay courts.

Venus Williams was back in Charleston this year, and that's always a special event. Even Martha Stewart was there, and spent some time in the ESPN booth.

Photo by Daniel Ward
There were some great matches. My favorite was the semifinal played between Elena Vesnina and Sara Errani; it was all beautiful tennis from start to finish. Another stand-out was the 28-point third-set tiebreak match contested by Kiki Mladenovic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Kasatkina held a match point against Stephens in their exciting quarterfinal, and of course, there was the final, which featured a thrilling first set. Elena Vesnina, by the way, is the first qualifier ever to reach the final in Charleston.

WTA players are especially fond of the Charleston event, too. They get to eat at wonderful restaurants, they attend a very popular players' party, they receive daily gifts, and they enjoy the relaxed familiarity of an event some of them have competed in for years. This year, the top eight seeds drove Volvos around town. Laura Siegemund, who struggled to find the right word to describe the players' experience at the Volvo Car Open--she didn't know if her knowledge of English was good enough--finally came up with "spice"--that something extra that other tournaments don't have. I think she got it just right.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sloane Stephens' persistence pays off in Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward
Sloane Stephens had played five times at the Volvo Car Open (formerly, the Family Circle Cup) and had won only one match. After she won the whole thing today, she told members of the press that she had told a friend in Charleston to come to the tournament to see her as early as possible, since she had a tendency to not stay very long.

Photo by Daniel Ward
On a chilly, windy afternoon, Stephens--seeded 7th--defeated qualifier Elena Vesnina 7-6, 6-2. The first set was a thrilling affair, with both women trading huge groundstrokes, and both firing on-the-line winners, most notably
from the forehand side. Vesnina, who came back from being down 2-5, held a set point when she served at 6-5, but she was broken, and would go on to lose the tiebreak.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Every final has a backstory, and the Russian's part of the backstory is that she had already played seven matches (plus one doubles match, with Daria Kasatkkina) because she had to go through qualifying to get into the main draw. Throughout the opening set, she did not look like a player experiencing her eighth match. Still, one had the feeling that the tiebreak was a must-win deal for Vesnina--that the fatigue, mental if not physical--would have to set in.

It did. Midway through the second set, Vesnina hit the first of two poorly executed drop shots. The Russian player is capable of hitting outstanding drop shots, but the two she hit in this set were easy pickings, especially for someone as fast as Stephens.

Stephens went up 5-1 in almost no time, and while Vesnina fought back, she was no longer in a position to make the kind of comeback she had made in the first set. "At one point, I was thinking, 'she's everywhere,'" Vesnina said later of her opponent.

Vesnina spent almost twelve hours on the court, and became the first qualifier to reach the tournament final in the long history of the event. A shoulder injury took the Russian off of the tour for a long time, and her run to the Charleston final as a qualifier will be very helpful to her cause, in terms of ranking points.

Vesnina was also the runner-up in 2011, when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. That year, however, she and Sania Mirza won the doubles title.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Stephens has now won four WTA singles titles. Three of them, she won this year. The Charleston victory included a special surprise: Volvo, the tournament's new title sponsor, gave the champion a new limited-edition Volvo. It turned out to be the same one that Stephens--as one of the top seeds--had been loaned for use during the tournament. "I just won a car!" the stunned champion shouted to the crowd. When she thanked all of the sponsors, Stephens added, "And especially Volvo--they just gave me a car."

Garcia and Mladenovic win Volvo Car Open

Kiki Mladenovic (left) and Caroline Garcia (photo by Daniel Ward)

Photo by Daniel Ward
Photo by Daniel Ward
Earlier today, 3rd seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic won the doubles title in Charleston, defeating top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova 6-2, 7-5. The French team had lost two finals this year (Sydney and Dubai), so it was a relief for them to get this win. After the match, Garcia told the media that she was especially grateful to the Charleston crowd because they came out so faithfully for doubles matches, even the late ones held at night.

Today's title is the first for Garcia and Mladenovic as a team. Mladenovic has a total of thirteen doubles titles; Garcia has a total of three. Mladenovic won the Charleston doubles championship in 2013 with Lucie Safarova, who was her opponent today.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Vesnina wins seven matches, and now goes for the title

Elena Vesnina (photo by Daniel Ward)

The wind swirled, flags fluttered, dust rose, the players yelled--sometimes very loudly--and the crowd went wild. The Elena and Sara Show was the highlight of today's action at the Volvo Car Open, and as far as I'm concerned, it would probably have been the highlight even if Angelique Kerber hadn't retired in the first semifinal.

Sara Errani (photo by Daniel Ward)
Qualifier Elena Vesnina and 5th seed Sara Errani presented a clay court tennis clinic in their three-set, two-hour, twenty-minute match. The slid, they lobbed, they changed pace, they dropped. Oh, did they drop. It was as much a mind game as it was a physical battle between two very fit athletes, and the only glitch in the entire operation was that one of them had to lose. That turned out to be Errani, as Vesnina became the first qualifier in the history of the tournament to reach the final.

The resurgent Russian's 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory books her a spot on the other side of the net from 7th seed Sloane Stephens, who won the semifinal played earlier in the day. In contrast to Vesnina, who has played seven matches, Stephens (who received a bye in the first round) has played three+ matches.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Vesnina was the runner-up in 2011; she lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. However, she and Sania Mirza won the doubles title that year.

There will also be a doubles final played tomorrow. Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova will play 3rd seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic.

Sloane Stephens advances to Charleston final

Photo by Daniel Ward
Sloane Stephens, seeded 7th at the Volvo Cup Open, advanced to the final today when her semifinal opponent, defending champion Angelique Kerber, retired with a viral illness when the score reached 6-1, 3-0. Kerber, who had her left thigh taped in Miami, took the tape off when she arrived on Daniel Island, and said that it felt good. However, Kerber was unable to push off or even bend during the first set of her match against Stephens. She also appeared quite sluggish. A viral illness, of course, would weaken any already-vulnerable part of her body, which is apparently what happened.

It didn't help Kerber's cause that Stephens performed beautifully, handling the wind with skill and not allowing her opponent's condition to disrupt her rhythm. This is Stephens' sixth trip to Charleston, where, previously, she had won only one match. She will play either 5th seed Sara Errani or qualifier 
(and 2011 runner-up) Elena Vesnina in the final tomorrow.

Photo by Daniel Ward

Prior to the singles match, the first doubles semifinal was played on Billie Jean King Stadium Court, and was won by 3rd seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic. The French pair defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Laura Siegemund 6-4, 6-3. In the final, Garcia and Mladenovic will play either top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova or Vania King and Alla Kudryavtseva.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Safarova adopts holistic, preventive plan to maintain her health

Photo by Daniel Ward

World number 15 Lucie Safarova was at the peak of her career last year when she had to be hospitalized for a serious bacterial infection. The Czech star won the 2015 Doha event, reached the final of the French Open, reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and played a leadership role in her Fed Cup team’s run to the championship. And that was just in singles. She and partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands won the Australian Open and the French Open doubles titles, and they also won in Stuttgart and Toronto.

Safarova then experienced the double curse that sometimes occurs with a bacterial infection; she developed reactive arthritis, also. Out for several months, the 29-year-old Czech is back on the tour and enjoying a good doubles run (with Mattek-Sands) in Charleston. I talked with her about the state of her health and the decisions she has made to manage her condition.

“There is a lot of work to do because there is not a precise cure,” Safarova explained. There are, of course, medical treatments which are the most effective in treating the pain, but, she added they “are not the  best option for your health.” For that reason, Safarova has chosen to utilize the least invasive treatments she can find to prevent and treat any recurring arthritic pain she may experience.

“I’ve been pretty good with my diet and everything my whole life, so I guess that’s helping me,” she said. She also noted that being an athlete made her more likely to maintain a higher level of health, and that her focus is to protect her immune system. She’s currently working with a dietician, and is open to the possibility of acupuncture treatment. Safarova, who has utilized yoga in the past, has recently begun practicing qigong.

“It’s kind of hard to decide because, obviously, you can try everything,” Safarova explained, “but it’s important, if you decide for treatment, that you trust, and if you’re in a state of trusting, it’s helping you a lot.”

Illness never comes at a good time, but Safarova’s came just as she was achieving milestones at the highest level of her career. “I felt like ‘everything is going great in my life’ and then suddenly, I’m stopped,” she recalled, noting the emotional challenge she faced.

“You just take it as it is,” the Czech star said. She is able to find some positive things about her time off—spending time with her family, reading and watching movies, and “sleeping in my own bed. It’s always nice because you never get to do it as a professional tennis player.”

Safarova said she never believed that she would do anything but recover. Her intent is to be patient and to maintain a positive attitude: “Negativity is not gonna move you forward.”

Angelique Kerber moves closer to 2016 Volvo Car Open final

Angelique Kerber (photo by Daniel Ward)

Angelique Kerber (photo by Daniel Ward)
Defending champion Angelique Kerber needed just over an hour and twelve minutes to defeat Irina-Camelia Begu in the first Volvo Car Open singles quarterfinal of the day. The pair met in
Sloane Stephens (photo by Daniel Ward)
last year's quarterfinals, too, and that was a somewhat different story. Kerber won, of course, but the score was 7-6, 7-6. Kerber said, after the match, that she had lost to Begu in Rome last year, so she was better prepared this time for the Romanian's game.

In the second match of the day, Sloane Stephens saved a match point and went on to defeat rapidly rising star Daria Kasatkina, 6-1, 5-7, 7-5. Both player struggled with the wind. Stephens served better, and--as the match went on--tended to win the longer points by making fewer errors.

The third quarterfinal match featured 2011 runner-up Elena Vesnina and Laura Siegemund. Vesnina entered the main draw this year as a qualifier, and so far, she has yet to drop a set. She defeated Siegemund 7-5, 6-4 in a match that featured a lot of aggression and some very good shot-making. Vesnina possesses a very good serve, but is not always able to access it (she served extremely well in 2011--until she played in the final). In the second set today, she went for her biggest serves, and the risk paid off repeatedly.

Siegemund, who is still in the doubles draw, reached a milestone by getting to her first premier-level quarterfinal.
Elena Vesnina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Sara Errani (photo by Daniel Ward)
The night match was a contest between Fighting Italian Sara Errani and Yulia Putintseva, who also knows how to bring the fight. The first set was very competitive. Putintseva held a set point, but Errani saved it, and went on to win the set in a tiebreak. The rest of the match was the Sara Errani Show, as the Italian quickly left Putintseva--who sustained a leg injury while moving on the court--behind, and won the set 6-1. Errani wound up with 21 winners and 18 unforced errors.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Lucie Safarova (photo by Daniel Ward)
There was also doubles action today. Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova advanced to the semifinals by defeating Gabriela Dabrowski and Darija Jurak 6-3, 7-6. A second quarterfinal match, featuring 4th seeds Raquel Atawo and Abigail Spears, and the team of Vania King and Alla Kudryavtseva, has just begun on Billie Jean King Stadium Court.

Another beautiful tennis day in Charleston

As I write this, an hour and a half before Volvo Car Open quarterfinal play begins, it's 59 degrees and sunny in Charleston. The forecast for today is 71 degrees, and skies are expected to be sunny or partly cloudy. However, around 2 p.m., wind speed is expected to increase to 17 mph and then continue to increase a bit for the next several hours.

Wind is always a factor in play on Daniel Island. Sometimes it's the expected wind that players learn how to manage according to the side of the net on which they're playing. But sometimes, like yesterday, the wind swirls in all directions, providing a particular challenge for competitors.

Singles play starts at 1p.m. today, when defending champion and top seed Angelique Kerber faces off against Irina-Cameia Begu. Last year, Kerber and Begu also played one another in the quarterfinals here, with Kerber winning 7-6, 7-6, after going down 1-5 in the first set. This was one of the best matches of the tournament, with the steady, creative Romanian throwing a clay court style book at the German. Begu may be a bit tired today: She spent almost two and a half hours last night, battling against Monica Puig, who held a match point in their third round encounter.

Doubles play begins at 10:30 a.m., with top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova going against Gabriela Dabrowski and Darija Jurak.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Kerber last former champion standing in Charleston

Defending champion Angelique Kerber, who defeated Kristina Kucova in straight sets today, is now the last former Charleston champion in the competition. 2009 champion Sabine Lisicki and 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic went out in the second round, and 2004 champion Venus Williams and 2010 champion Sam Stosur were defeated today in the third round. 2007 champion Jelena Jankovic entered the tournament but had to withdraw before the first round.

Yulia Putintseva (photo by Daniel Ward)
3rd seed Williams, who had difficulty with her second serve, went out in three sets to Yulia Putintseva. Stosur also went out in straight sets--to 5th seed Sara Errani, who has very quietly advanced through the Volvo Car Open draw, practically unnoticed. Stosur and Errani had to play in swirling winds, and it was the Italian who was better able to manage the conditions.

One former runner-up also remains in the draw. Qualifier Elena Vesnina, who was a finalist in 2011, defeated Lourdes Dominguez Lino today. Vesnina had a bit of luck in the second round when 2nd seed Belinda Bencic had a problem with her back, but the Russian's form has nevertheless been excellent all week.

Sloane Stephens, who had won only one match in several attempts in Charleston, advanced to the quarterfinals tonight with a straight-sets win over Daria Gavrilova. And Irina-Camelia Begu saved a match point against Monica Puig, then went on to defeat her 1-6, 6-2, 7-6.

Laura Siegemund (photo by Daniel Ward)
Laura Siegemund, whose serve was on fire yesterday, had to be more creative today because of the windy conditions. The German was able to utilize her many defensive skills to overcome Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 7-5, 6-2 on the Althea Gibson Club Court. Siegemund, who played doubles tonight, has now been on the court over ten hours. "...I feel pretty good," Siegmund said after her singles match. "I'm used to having long matches on clay. It's part of my game, also, I think, to do a lot of running...."

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)
And then there was Daria Kasatkina, who just keeps making it look easy. Today, Kasatkina beat Louisa Chirico 6-0, 6-4. Chirico, to her credit, made the second set quite competitive. Kasatkina, who has now reached her second premier quarterfinal since advancing to the round of 16 in Indian Wells, is likely to be seeded at the French Open. She was the junior champion there in 2011.

Kasatkina and her partner, Elena Vesnina, lost their quarterfinal doubles match to Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic. Siegmund, however--with partner Anna-Lena Groenefeld--won hers. The German team defeated Anabel Medina Garrigues (still playing!) and Arantxa Parra Santonja.

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:
Angelique Kerber (1) vs. Irina-Camelia Begu
Daria Kasatkina (14) vs. Sloane Stephens (7)
Laura Siegemund vs. Elena Vesnina (Q)
Sara Errani (5) vs. Yulia Putintseva

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No shortage of drama in Volvo Car Open second round

Clockwise: Laura Siegemund, Elena Vesnina, Venus Williams (photos by Daniel Ward)
Venus Williams and Samantha Stosur, 2004 and 2010 champions, respectively, advanced today in Charleston during
second round play. Williams defeated countrywoman Alison Riske 6-4, 6-2, and Stosur defeated 2014 runner-up Jana Cepelova 6-4, 7-5. Cepelova entered this year's main draw as a lucky loser.

2011 runner-up Elena Vesnina (who won the doubles title that year with Sania Mirza), advanced when she defeated 2nd seed Belinda Bencic. Bencic was troubled by the back problem she experienced when she played in Miami. Qualifier Vesnina, on the other hand, was in fine form, beating Bencic 6-1, 6-1.

Another former finalist who was defeated today was Lucie Safarova, who lost to wild card Louisa Chirico. Safarova, who was out for several months because of two serious illnesses, was the runner-up in 2012.

Laura Siegemund (photo by Daniel Ward)
Laura Siegemund, the 28-year-old German who is ranked number 75 in the world, has been showing us quite a bit of good tennis lately. Today in Charleston, on Billie Jean King Stadium Court, Siegemund outlasted 8th seed Madison Keys in a match that went on for over two hours and 48 minutes. The German player needed six match points to prevail, but she stayed as steady as anyone could have--even when she found out that what she thought was the winning fourth match point wasn't converted when the chair umpire overruled a call.

It was a good match and an entertaining match. Siegemund served extremely well, and she used a lot of variety in constructing points, slicing and lobbing to keep points going. Her drop shots were especially effective.

In the first round, Siegemund needed almost two hours and 44 minutes to claim victory.

On the other end of the spectrum, Daria Kasatkina has given up only five games in her two Volvo Car Open matches.

Sloane Stephens, looking for a victory in what she says is one of her favorite events, got just that. Stephens defeated Danka Kovinic in straight sets on Billie Jean King Stadium Court. 2009 champion Sabine Lisicki lost to Yulia Putintseva, and Irina-Camelia Begu defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands in a match that went on for almost two and a half hours.

One other qualifier, Kristina Kucova, advanced when she defeated Kateryna Bondarenko. Daria Gavrilova defeated Zhang Shuai 6-4, 6-0. And totally under-the-radar 5th seed Sara Errani beat Yaroslava Shvedova 6-0, 6-3.

Genie Bouchard, whose luck seems to go from bad to worse, had to retire after the first game of her third set against Lourdes Dominguez Lino. The back issue that bothered the Canadian star in Miami flared up, and--as much as she wanted to go on--Bouchard had to stop playing.

Monica Puig (photo by Daniel Ward)
In the night match, 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic was upended by Monica Puig, who won five games in a row when she was 2-5 down in the first set. Between sets, Petkovic was visibly upset with herself, and her demeanor carried over into the next set, which was more or less all about Puig. Toward the end, Petkovic rallied, saving two match points, but she was unable to stop her opponent, whose accuracy and tenacity gained her a 7-5, 6-2 victory.

In doubles, top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won their first-round match against Andreja Klepak and Katarina Srebotnik, and 4th seeds Raquel Atavo and Abigail Spears defeated Lara Arruabarrena and Raluca Olaru.

The night match featured Australians Casey Dellacqua and Samantha Stosur against the French team of Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic. Garcia and Mladenovic won 7-5, 6-4. Their next opponents will be composed of two Russians--Daria Kasatkina and Elena Vesnina.

Defending champion Angelique Kerber will face qualifier Kristina Kucova tomorrow in the third round. Venus Williams will play Yulia Putintseva, and Sara Errani will compete against Sam Stosur.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Defending champion Kerber prevails in Charleston

Angelique Kerber (photo by Daniel Ward
The night crowd couldn't have asked for a better match than the one they got tonight in Charleston at the Volvo Car Open. Defending champion Angelique Kerber faced off against Lara Arruabarrena, and the Spaniard showed off all of her clay court skills against Kerber. Between them, the players hit 95 winners (and made 84 unforced errors) in a three-set contest that lasted almost two hours and forty minutes. The players had to struggle not only against each other, but against chilly, windy conditions.

Kerber prevailed 6-2 in the opening set, but the set's scoreline doesn't adequately reflect the level of Arruabarrena's play. The Spaniard took the second set 7-5, and the third went to a tiebreak, which was taken control of early on by a flummoxed, not very pleased, Kerber. She won it 7-3. After the match, Kerber said what we so often here in Charleston: "The first match on clay is tough."

The Australian Open champion wasn't the only one who suffered. Kiki Mladenovic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni played a tense match which ended with the tiebreak from hell. Each woman took a set 6-4, then--in the final set--Lucic-Baroni held two match points when Mladenovic served at 5-6. The Frenchwoman saved the first one with a drop shot, and she saved the second one with a missile-like serve. Not surprisingly, a tiebreak ensued.

I lost track of how many match points were held by either woman in the tiebreak. It went on and on, and at 11-all, one double-faulted, and then the other one double-faulted. It seemed like it would never end, but end it did, with Lucic-Baroni winning 15-13.

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Genie Bouchard (photo by Daniel Ward)
Daria Kasatkina, who played in the day's first match, had it a lot easier. The young Russian defeated Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-1 in an efficient performance. 10th seed (and 2010 champion) Sam Stosur defeated a tough-playing Aleks Krunic in straight sets, and Genie Bouchard defeated Alex Dulgheru in straight sets. That was a well-played match, and Bouchard's drop shots were superb. There was a certain amount of anticipation about the handshake, but no worries--it was warm and sportswomanlike.

Other players who won in singles today were qualifier Kristina Kucova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Monica Puig, wild card Louisa Chirico, Zhang Shuai, Yarslava Shvedova, and Yulia Putintseva.

Kasatkina pulled double duty today and succeeded. She and partner Elena Vesnina defeated Kateryna Bondarenko and Olga Savchuk 6-7, 6-3, 10-6. Vesnina won the doubles title (with Sania Mirza) in 2011.

Sam Stosur (photo by Daniel Ward)
Tomorrow's night match features 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic, who will take on Monica Puig. 2004 champion Venus Williams plays Alison Riske, and 2nd seed Belinda Bencic plays Elena Vesnina. The night doubles match features Australians Casey Dellacqua and Sam Stosur competing against the third-seeded French team of Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Volvo Car Open begins with major doubles upset

The second-seeded doubles team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka went out in the first round of the Volvo Car Open in Charleston Today. The former French Open champions were defeated 6-4, 6-2 by Spaniards Anabel Medina Garrigues and Arantxa Parra Santonja in the only doubles match played on opening day of the event's main draw.

One lucky loser and one qualifier advanced today in singles play. 2014 runner-up Jana Cepelova, who got into the main draw as a lucky loser, defeated Anastasija Sevastova, and qualifier (and 2012 runner-up) Elena Vesnina defeated qualifier Cindy Burger.

One seed lost. 16th seed Misaki Doi was defeated 4-6,  6-3, 6-1 by Kateryna Bondarenko.

2009 champion Sabine Lisicki defeated Irina Falconi in straight sets. Caroline Garcia, who was seeded last year, lost in a third-set tiebreak to Irina Camilia Begu. Last year, Begu (who was also seeded in 2015) gave eventual champion Angelique Kerber one of her toughtest challenges when they competed in the quarterfinals.

Daniel Island local Shelby Rogers lost her first round match to Lourdes Dominguez Lino.

One of tomorrow's most interesting matches, I think, will be the one played by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Kiki Mladenovic. Mladenovic beat Tatjana Maria today, but not without a bit of racket tossing.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Another must-watch tomorrow will be played by 2010 champion Sam Stosur and Aleksandra Krunic. Krunic, who has performed extremely well for the Serbian Fed Cup team, can be a tough competitor, and could make things interesting if Stosur's serve is a bit off. Also of interest--Genie Bouchard will compete against Alexandra Dulgheru.

Tuesday's night match features defending champion Angelique Kerber, who will face off against Spain's Lara Arruabarrena.

Defending champion Kerber fit and ready for action in Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward
Charleston defending champion Angelique Kerber looked very fit and relaxed today as she chatted with the media during the Volvo Car Open All Access Hour. Kerber reported that she had taken a couple of days off, undergone treatment for her leg, and that she has been practicing without having the leg taped. She said she was happy to be in Charleston, and talked about her appreciation of the locals' friendliness and hospitality.

Kerber joined the other top seeds in emphasizing the need for equal prize money in professional tennis. Her countrywoman, Andrea Petkovic, the 2014 champion, said that she was angry about the way the equal prize money issue has been represented in the press--that news stories lead the public to believe that equal prize money exists in places that it doesn't. Petkovic said she had hoped that more progress would have been made in this area by now, and that it saddens her to realize the level of sexism that continues to exist.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Venus Williams, whose 2006 op-ed in The Times led to the establishment of equal prize money at Wimbledon, spoke at length about the issue. "It’s important," she said, "for men to get on board because these same men have daughters, they have wives, they have sisters, and they should want those same opportunities for those people in their family." Williams said that she thought things had progressed a bit more than they have. "It’s a wake-up call for me to not sit still, and it’s made me examine what else I can do, not just for women’s tennis, but for women everywhere."

Also attending All Access Hours were Sloane Stephens, Sara Errani, Belinda Bencic, and Madison Keys. Stephens, who has partnered with Soles4Souls and is collecting shoes while she is at the Volvo Car Open. (Donation of a pair of gently used shoes gets you a pair of tickets to one of her Charleston matches.) The 7th seed good-humoredly responded to a question about her memories of Charleston that "I must like it here--I've won only one match and I keep coming back."

Sara Errani talked a little about her health issue: The Italian star has iron deficiency, and is taking supplements to correct the problem. Iron deficiency is not uncommon among athletes; however, Errani says hers is an inherited health issue.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Belinda Bencic, when asked what it was like to have people recognize her on the street, said that no one recognizes her when she goes out, so there is no problem (I probably wasn't the only one who was thinking "yet"). The young Swiss star talked about how much she has learned from her coach, Melanie Molitor, and from Martina Hingis, about how to handle off- as well as on-court concerns on the tour. I asked her if she likes to read, and she became quite animated, saying she loves to read, but "no ebooks"--she likes to hold the books in her hands.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Kerber heads Charleston field

Photo by Daniel Ward

2015 Family Circle Cup (now the Volvo Car Open) champion Angelique Kerber will be on hand in Charleston next week to try to defend her title. Kerber's thigh was strapped this past week in Miami, where she lost to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals. The strapping was supposedly there as a preventive measure, but some wondered whether she was a bit hampered by pain.

Of course, the 2016 Australian Open champion won the Charleston title last year with a heavily strapped shoulder, and in the course of the tournament, she tweaked her thigh on two occasions, so any strapping we see may not be relevant.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Last year, Kerber--who is seeded number 1 in Charleston--had to play friend and countrywoman (and defending champion) Andrea Petkovic in the semifinals, an occurrence which added to the eventual champion's already-dramatic draw (dramatic because of injuries and close calls). This year, the two Germans could play each other in the quarterfinals. Also, Petkovic could play close friend Jelena Jankovic in the third round; Petko beat JJ in 2014 during her title run.

Last year's runner-up, Madison Keys, is in the same quarter as 2nd seed Belinda Bencic. Last year, Bencic was upset in the second round by Danka Kovinic. In 2014, the Swiss player lost in the semifinals to Jana Cepelova in one of the best matches I saw that year.

2004 champion Venus Williams is seeded third. Seeded fourth is Lucie Safarova, who--if she is match-tough enough--should be seen as a potential champion. The Czech player, whose career was interrupted for a lengthy period by illness, has won the doubles championship twice (once with Kiki Mladenovic, with whom she had never even practiced before). Playing in Safarova's quarter are Daria Kasatkina, Daria Gavrilova and Genie Bouchard, so the Czech has her work cut out for her. Safarova was the runner-up in singles in 2012.

Williams and Jankovic, like Petkovic and Kerber, are former Charleston champions, winning in 2004 and 2007, respectively. Other former champions in the draw are Sabine Lisicki (2009) and Sam Stosur (2010).

Commentators and writers make much of the green/red clay divide, and many tennis writers forget to include Charleston in the clay season altogether, preferring to reference the European clay season. Every year, for the past several years, the players have mentioned that green=slow and red=fast is, at this point, a myth. Jankovic remarked a couple of years ago, in fact, that the green clay in Charleston is slower than some of the European red clay.

The first annual Volvo Cup Open is introducing some new features. More seating has been built into the Althea Gibson Club Court, and AGCC matches will now feature an announcer and music, as well as post-match interviews.

Another innovation: The tournament has partnered with to broadcast live video from all outer tournament tennis courts, including practice courts. Five courts will be affixed with multiple cameras showcasing different angles of the court. Fans can tap into the URL (, which went live today, and get a live look at the action happening on various courts. This is the first time has provided a platform for its users to view multiple channels at one time.

Finally, an additional jumbotron has been added to Billie Jean King Stadium Court.  The 11' x 17' screens are located at the northeast and southwest ends of the stadium.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Tennis, a subject for poetry

As some of you know, I am a poet. To celebrate National Poetry Month, I'm presenting
the tennis poetry I've written over the past few years.

First, some blank verse originally published in 2013 in The Barnstormer:

The Lesson of Caroline

Up and down and side to side she sprints
without fatigue. The match can last for hours;
the Dane will scarcely shine a bead of sweat
or fail to stretch and meet the ball right on
the sweet spot. With those metronomic swings,
Wozniacki can wear down the stalwart grinders,
the spinners, steely veterans, braided upstarts.
But Wozniacki needs to take it from you.
She takes it, but she doesn't dish it out.
To run the risk, to grab control, feels wrong
somehow--no Sunshine in that raw aggression.
So Wozniacki never wins the big ones;
she doesn't get to lift the silver plate
or see her smile reflected in a statue.
To guard and to defend is something learned;
it propels you to the line, but never over.
Watching Wozniacki's hesitation,
I confront the Caroline who lives in me.

Also published in The Barnstormer:

Watching Them Play On Clay

This is not the tennis you learned in school
in New York, California or Wisconsin.
This is dirty. Socks turn red, feet slide
like sandpaper on the smoothest pine
surface. The thwack of clay knocked
out of shoe soles, the tiny bits of brick
that stick to sweaty thighs, quivering
ever so slightly as muscles twitch--
and then the wait. The long wait.
No first strike here, but rather, patience,
as minutes seem to swirl past while the yellow
departs the red, and spins toward the white.
There is art in the slice, grace in the grind.
Thinking is required. And stretching, bending,
beholding the big picture in fluid angles.
The rain can fall, the game goes on,
the court a wash of cinnabar.
This is not the tennis you learned in school;
this is dirty and beautiful.

An Elizabeth Barrett Browning satire from the 2014 Family Circle Cup, written after one of Errani's
inimitable net performances:

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.

Haiku written when Wozniacki ran the New York marathon:

Haiku For Wozniacki

Leaves of red-gold blur
past the Lady, past the past
Caroline, you run!

And Haiku written just before a Wimbledon tournament:

Haiku For Kvitova

White-clad women grace
perfect, verdant lawns in June
Petra, mow them down!