Saturday, May 28, 2016

Seven days in--one Kiki standing

Kiki Mladenovic and Alize Cornet took to Philippe-Chatrier Court today at the French Open, though it wasn't easy. A violent thunderstorm blew out power, and for a while, there was no view for those of us watching on television, followed by a simple one-camera view.

The view was far from scenic for defending champion Serena Williams, who watched break points whiz by the way a ball hit from her own racket might have shot through the cloudy sky in Paris. Her opponent, Mladenovic, had a great deal of trouble holding serve. Serving is an all-or-nothing affair for the Frenchwoman. When she's "on," she can do great damage with her serve. The rest of the time, it does damage to her.

But she certainly knows how to save break points, especially when she gets some help from the other side of the net, as she did today. Having lost the first set 4-6, Mladenovic French-flaired her way to a second set tiebreak, only to have the rain come. Two and a half hours later, the two women resumed play, with Mladenovic going up 3-0. But this was Serena on the other side of the net, and the world number 1 would have no more delays: She defeated Mladenovic 6-4, 7-6.

Meanwhile, on Suzanne-Lenglen Court, Venus Williams faced another Frenchwoman, Alize Cornet, and we wound up with another somewhat strange scoreline (though nothing that would threaten Shelby Rogers' hold on that category). Williams defeated Cornet 7-6, 1-6, 6-0 to advance to the round of 16.

18th seed Elina Svitolina defeated 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic. Timea Bacsinszky took out yet another Frenchwoman, Pauline Parmentier and Carla Suarez Navarro put an end to the resurgent run of Dominika Cibulkova. Madison Keys defeated Monica Puig, and Karin Knapp managed to get just two games off of Yulia Putintseva.

With no Tennis Channel Plus (NBC took over coverage in the late morning), those of us in the USA had to miss the entire match played between Kiki Bertens and Daria Katsatkina. Naturally, this was the match I had most wanted to see (like yesterday, the match I most wanted to see was the Radwanska vs. Strycova match, but I had to go give a talk and then keep a brief medical appointment--without bad luck, no luck at all). I don't know if it will be available on demand on TC+, but I surely hope so.

In what I assume was a thrilling affair, Bertens defeated Kasatkina 6-2, 3-6, 10-8.

Here is the round of 16 draw in singles

Serena Williams (1) vs. Elina Svitolina (18)
Carla Suarez Navarro (12) vs. Yulia Putintseva
Kiki Bertens vs. Madison Keys (15)
Venus Williams (9) vs. Timea Bacsinszky (8)
Irina-Camelia Begu (25) vs. Shelby Rogers
Svetlana Kuznetsova (13) vs. Garbine Muguruza (4)
Simona Halep (6) vs. Samantha Stosur (21)
Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (2)

Unseeded players make up one quarter of the draw at this point. The presence of both Bertens and Putintseva is not at all surprising to me. Shelby Rogers' impressive run is something I didn't see coming, and only a fool would make predictions about Pironkova at a major.

I think the round of 16 draw is potentially quite entertaining, given the cast of characters. The French drama has been shut down, but there's still Putintseva, whose occasional carrying on (thank goodness she's at least out of juniors) may make some forget just how well she's been playing lately. (This is, of course, a whole different scenario in Charleston.) And who knows which Sveta will show up?--or which Garbi? For that matter, both Halep and Stosur can run hot and cold, and they have to play each other.

The Chan sisters advanced to the third round in doubles today, and in mixed doubles, Martina Hingis and partner Leander Paes advanced.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Ninjapalooza, the Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery, peak Alize, and Oh P3tra!--and it's still week 1

Paris is a city of art, style and beauty, which makes it the perfect setting for the year's most important clay court tournament. But with all that emotional expression and red earth, there's bound to be drama. And while we can no longer be uplifted by Bartoli Theatre, the not-quite-finished first week of the French Open has given us an abundance of dramatic twists and turns (some of them literal).

There were a couple of out-and-out thrillers. When the tournament is over, the third round match played by Julia Goerges and Monica Puig will still stand as one of the high-quality segments of this French Open. Puig advanced with a 7-5, 6-7, 7-5 (which says it all) victory in a match that was beautifully played by both women.

The other drawn-out exciting contest featured Irina-Camelia Begu and CoCo Vandeweghe, who faced off in the second round. Begu got off to a slow start against the big-hitting Vandeweghe, but then worked her way back into the match, which went to three sets. After the second set, the players took bathroom breaks, and--while Begu wasn't exactly in a hurry to return to the court--her opponent appeared to have gone to the 6th arrondissement to freshen up. A lot of time went by.

Begu stayed active on the court, and upon Vandeweghe's return, the two resumed play in a very long and close set. Begu won the match 6-7, 7-6, 10-8. The "other" Romanian has had to play three sets in each of her matches. She defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the first round, and in the third round, she defeated Annika Beck, who got the crowd on her side when Begu did yet another long bathroom break routine.

But all this bathroom break controversy pales compared with the circus that was the second round match played between Alize Cornet and Tatjana Maria. I'll skip the (many) details, and get right to the crux of the matter. Cornet was cramping in one leg and sustained a hip injury in the other. There were a number of treatments and medical time-outs, all of which appear to have been legal, but they annoyed the hell out of Maria.

Here's where other factors come into play. The French crowd, of course, was solidly behind Cornet, cheering her on throughout the ordeal. And Cornet being Cornet did not help the situation at all. She zombie-walked across the court, wincing in pain, then suddenly moved with apparent ease during big points. A study in adrenalin, or a study in French opera?

Maria obviously went with the second option, and scolded Cornet at the net in lieu of shaking her hand. The best moment (from a purely theatrical standpoint) occurred next: Cornet shrugged it off and continued to play to the crowd, while wildly celebrating her victory. Only Alize Cornet could pull off this type of performance. And only in the WTA.

Maria is not amused, and has consulted an attorney about filing suit against the tournament, the ITF and/or the WTA, for what she believes was a blatant disregard of the rules. Victoria Chiesa provides a thorough narrative of everything that occurred:

A lot more happened! Venus Williams has reached the third round of the French Open for the first time in six years. She'll face Cornet in her next match.

Australian Open champion (and Stuttgart champion) Angie Kerber went out in the first round, as did her countrywoman Laura Siegemund, whose 2016 clay court experience has been revelatory. Kerber lost to Fed Cup beast (and Nurnberg champion) Kiki Bertens, and Siegemund went out to Genie Bouchard.

Sam Stosur beat Lucie Safarova (the 2015 runner-up), against whom she has a significant losing record. An injured Vika Azarenka retired, and world number 1 and defending champion Serena Williams easily played into the third round, in which she'll face crowd favorite (and crowd-stoker) Kiki Mladenovic. Also cruising is Garbine Muguruza, who will play 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the round of 16. This could be an outstanding match, that is, if Kuznetsova mentally shows up for it.

Simona Halep has already reached the round of 16, having defeated Nao Hibino, Zarina Diyas and Naomi Osaka. Next for Halep is 2010 runner-up Stosur.

Also of note: Defending champions Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova were upset in the first round of doubles by Kiki Bertens (there she is again) and Johanna Larsson.

The Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery, Tsvetana Pironkova--known for messing with the Wimbledon draw--is now creating havoc in Paris. Pironkova began her campaign by upsetting 16th seed (and 2012 runner-up) clay court veteran Sara Errani, and followed that with a win over Johanna Larsson. Today, in the third round, she effortlessly destroyed 19th seed and Charleston champion Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-1.

Pironkova is in a class all her own, and is a kind of a cult treasure in the WTA. Her career runs a bizarre and crooked line, and--in all the years I've followed her--I don't think I've ever seen either her facial expression or body language change on the court. With her slice forehand, ambling walk, and sometimes devastating serve, the BWOM is part of what makes the tour so wonderful.

And then there was Petra.

We've all come to expect the unusual--and sometimes the worst--from the two-time Wimbledon champion, but she may have outdone herself today. Daniel Island native Shelby Rogers defeated Petra Kvitova 6-0, 6-7, 6-0 in the third round. Even while watching it, I couldn't quite believe it. Kvitova's first round match against Danka Kovinic was harrowing enough, and led to this, my favorite Tweet of the week (Kvitova's Tweets are outstanding any time of the year), and probably of the tournament:

Rogers is on quite a tear. Ranked 108 in the world, she first took out 17th seed Karolina Pliskova (because someone had to), then eliminated Charleston runner-up Elena Vesnina. That would have been impressive enough, but now she has beaten Kvitova. Rogers' next opponent will be Begu.

Finally, there was this absolutely glorious moment, which, I hope, will be shown over and over for many years to come. The Ninja looks in the mirror and sees--The Ninja.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The two women who changed Serena's career

Imagine, many years ago,  a fortune teller looking into the eyes of Serena Williams and saying: "I'm picking up something about France--or is it Italy? Wait! It's both! I see two women. You will have a remarkable career, but a Frenchwoman and an Italian woman will force you to look at yourself in new ways. There will be drama. You may not like what you see, but Oh la la!....mamma mia!--you cannot escape their influence."

That might have sounded strange at the time, but our imaginary fortune teller's words now ring totally true.

In 2012, French wild card Virginie Razzano, ranked number 111 in the world, knocked Williams out of the French Open in the first round. Razzano defeated Williams, the number 5 seed, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 on her eighth match point. The last game took 23 minutes to play.

Razzano wasn't exactly a nobody. She'd won a couple of WTA tournaments, and in 2009, she had achieved a career high ranking of 19 in the world. But her defeat of Williams was as shocking as anything fans had seen in professional tennis. The occasion marked the first time that Williams had ever lost in the opening round of a major.

Williams' life had already been seriously changed when she was forced to miss most of 2011 because of an accident that resulted in two foot surgeries, followed by a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. She started 2012 with a fourth round loss at the Australian Open, but nothing could have prepared her for the early loss at Roland Garros.

Already a part-time resident of Paris, Williams stuck around after her shocking French Open loss, and sought the guidance of Patrick Mouratoglou, founder of the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy. Mouratoglou became her coach, and Williams launched into what was almost a second career, winning the French Open in both 2013 and 2015 (prior to these recent victories, she had won in Paris only once--in 2002), and then achieving a second Serena Slam in 2014 and 2015.

In 2015, with the Serena Slam behind her, Williams faced the possibility of of doing one of the few things she had never done before in her career--winning the Grand Slam. Now, holding current titles at the Australian, the French and Wimbledon, all she had to do was win the U.S. Open, something she had already done six times. She was the defending champion. With a victory in Flushing Meadows, Williams would not only have finally won the Grand Slam (it is not a "Calendar Year Slam"), she would also have tied Steffi Graf's career total of 22 singles majors. (These major tournament comparisons have no real meaning because of the multiple and significant variables involved, but fans and tennis media insist on creating them.)

Williams defeated Madison Keys in the round of 16 and Venus Williams in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Italy's Roberta Vinci was quietly moving through the draw, and wound up facing Williams in the semifinals. Williams won the first set 6-2, and then--probably to the surprise of some--Vinci won the second, 6-4. Then Vinci repeated that score in the final set, and it was over. She would go on to lose to her countrywoman, Flavia Pennetta, in the final (Pennetta had removed both Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, whom she had long dominated, in order to reach the final).

Williams ended her season early, citing season-long injury, and was scarcely seen for a while. This season, she lost the Australian Open final to Angelique Kerber, lost the Miami final to Victoria Azarenka, then lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the round of 16 in Miami, ending a Miami 20-match win streak. Williams then withdrew from Madrid.

Most of us speculated--and Mouratoglou confirmed--that not all of Williams' troubles were coming from having to deal with injuries; she has dealt with injuries--and worse--her entire career. How could she not have been crushed by getting just one match (supposedly, a "winnable" match) away from achieving what very few in the sport have ever achieved, and then losing?

Then came Rome. Williams got past Kuznetsova, Irina-Camelia Begu and Madison Keys to take the title, right before the start of the 2016 French Open. The world number 1 will play her first-round match in the next few days, thus starting a quest to win both a fourth French Open title and 22 major titles. Arguably, Kerber removed some of the pressure from Williams by making it impossible for Williams to try for the Grand Slam again this year. At any rate, win or lose in Paris, I don't think any of us doubts that Serena Williams will get to 22--and beyond.

The last time Williams won the U.S. Open, 2015, Katy Perry's "Roar" played every time a leopard-pattern-clad Williams won a match.

...You held me down but I got up
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, you hear that sound
Like thunder, gonna shake the ground

You held me down but I got up
Get ready 'cause I've had enough
I see it all, I see it now

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter
Dancing through the fire
'Cause I am a champion
And you're gonna hear me roar...

It was as though the song had been written for Serena. Now 34 years old, the world number 1 seeks more glory both on the tour and at the Olympic Games. It's hard to imagine that she won't achieve it.

But what of Razzano and Vinci? The former is enjoying an unexpected surge in her career, while Vinci is having some problems in hers. They are both 33 years old, and their careers are, no doubt, winding down; Vinci is ambivalent about whether she'll retire at the end of 2016. The Frenchwoman has had a good, solid career. The Italian has had a very good singles career, an outstanding Fed Cup career, and a stellar doubles career. She holds the Career Slam in doubles, and has won five majors (all with Sara Errani).

But no matter how we honor those careers when Razzano and Vinci decide to leave professional tennis, we will also hold the Frenchwoman and the Italian woman in our collective memories as the pair who played integral roles in changing the course of the career of Serena Williams. Had Razzano not done the unthinkable in 2012, would Williams have won more French Open titles? Maybe, but it surely seems that her two late-career titles were the fruits of labor she began when she made such a fast exit from the courts of Roland Garros. And of course, the winning didn't stop there.

Photo by Daniel Ward
We don't yet know what role Vinci might have played, other than contributing to Williams's scarcity at the end of 2015 and throughout most of 2016. But loss always changes a person. It knocks her down and destroys her, or it painfully provides her with a new--and often better--paradigm for living. Just like serious surgery and a consequent life-threatening condition makes one more vulnerable, so does losing in ways that dash expectations and alter one's image. The Serena Williams we see now is not the Serena Williams we saw before September 11, 2015.

And that makes watching her all the more interesting because we don't yet know what current Serena will bring to the tour. But whatever it is, Serena--like the rest of us--is the product of many influences, some of which we might call "fate." Fate brought Serena two painful gifts--Virginie and Roberta, and their names will always be inexorably connected to hers in the world we call professional tennis.

Friday, May 20, 2016

I'm not bad--I'm just drawn that way

Play at Roland Garros begins Sunday, and tough first round matches are everywhere in sight. Here are some to watch:

Francesca Schiavone vs. Kristina Mladenovic (26): I expect Streaky Kiki to be on fire again like she was last year against Genie Bouchard. If she is, she'll handle Schiavone. But the 2010 French Open champion, if she's having a good day, can still make everyone sit up and take notice. If she sees a weakness in Mladenovic's game, she'll go after it.

Elina Svitolina (18) vs. Sorana Cirstea
Svitolina beware--Cirstea, who just won three qualifying rounds, is more apt to be "on" these days, she likes clay, and unless Svitolina takes charge (something she has trouble doing), the Romanian will be into the second round.

Angelique Kerber vs. Kiki Bertens: This could be the first round draw from hell for Kerber.  Bertens is still alive in Nurnberg, and indeed, has a good chance to win the tournament tomorrow. This could deplete her energy, but she's Kiki Bertens, and her energy just doesn't get depleted that easily. If you're Angie Kerber, in the middle of an already up-and-down clay season, Bertens is not who you want to see on the other side of the net in the first round of the French Open.

Johanna Konta (20) vs. Julia Goerges: Konta is pretty much on a roll, regardless of the surface. But so is Goerges, who really likes clay. This could be a very good one.

Laura Siegemund vs. Genie Bouchard: Oh dear. Siegemund had to work very, very hard to get into the main draw of the French Open, and she's going to want to stick around a while. She has the clay game to do it, too. Which Bouchard will show up? Again, this could get quite interesting.

Samantha Stosur (21) vs. Misaki Doi: The 2010 runner-up might have her hands full with Doi.

Margarita Gasparyan vs. Sloane Stephens (19): If Stephens decides to mess around here, Gasparyan won't be afraid to provide some consequences.

Lesia Tsurenko vs. Caroline Garcia: On her own, without Kiki, Garcia is fragile, and perhaps even
more fragile in her home country. Lucky for her, the up-and-coming Tsurenko isn't overly fond of clay. Still, Garcia will have to pull herself together.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The French Open is truly "open"

Carousel, Jardin des Tuileries
As long-time readers of this blog know, the French Open is my favorite of the four majors. It's played on clay, and it's in Paris--what's not to love?! And while the French Open is always considered a bit more "open" than the other majors, this year, it feels more "open" than ever.

For one thing, two-time Roland Garros champion Maria Sharapova will not be there. Defending champion Serena Williams will be there, but--prior to her arrival in Rome--Williams has hardly been herself--or even in attendance--this season. Her Rome performance indicates that she's ready to compete at the top level, but the French Open has never been her strongest tournament, and she still hasn't had much match play.

However....Serena Williams has been known, more than once, to enter a big tournament with one or more challenges, and then proceed to win it. Having won two of her three French Open titles in the last few years may be her greatest asset because the red clay of Roland Garros is now "friendly" toward her, and her work with Coach Moratoglou has improved her clay court skills.

And while she may not like it, all eyes probably will be on Simona Halep. The 2014 runner-up was knocked out in the second round last year by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (who actually out-"Haleped" Halep), and her inconsistency and injury proneness have continued to impede her progress as an elite player. But Halep turned all that around in Madrid, where she beat Timea Bacsinszky, Irina-Camelia Begu, Sam Stosur, and Dominika Cibulkova.

Halep lost in the round of the Italian Open, to the increasingly dangerous Daria Gavrilova. But the Madrid performance stands out as one executed by the Halep who made it to the 2014 French Open final.

Is anyone else a serious contender? I'll pick Angelique Kerber as my third. She was knocked out in the first round of Madrid, but conditions in Madrid and the German star simply do not mix. The second round loss in Rome is something I consider more serious. However, Kerber defended her title in Stuttgart (she had to retire with illness in the semifinal portion of her Charleston title defense), and--having won the Australian Open in a spectacular fashion, the challenge of Roland Garros may turn out to agree with her.

In my opinion, all other clay court threats--including those who, on paper, could win the tournament, will probably turn out to be no more than nuisances and trouble-makers. The "works on paper, not in real life" players are Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova. Yes, they both absolutely have what it takes to win in Paris, but Muguruza is so moody and inconsistent, and we know too well the perils of being Petra. (Of course, you never really know, which is why the event is played.)

Much trouble can be caused (or not) by the likes of 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, clay court artist Carla Suarez Navarro, 2015 runner-up Lucie Safarova, Timea Bacsinszky, Madison Keys, and Dominika Cibulkova. Genie Buchard will be there, too, and--at any moment--could find the rest of her missing mojo pieces. Last year, Bouchard was taken out in the first round by an on-fire Kiki Mladenovic, and--as sloppy as the Frenchwoman's singles results can be--she could be quite fired up again at Roland Garros.

Other trouble-makers include Laura Siegemund (though her fortunes have waned since Stuttgart), Barbora Strycova and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Kiki Bertens, Irina Camelia-Begu has really come into her own lately, and could at least one big upset. And then there's Daria Kasatkina, who is now always one to watch, but I think she's especially one to watch on clay.

What's really going to be interesting is the doubles competition. Just in time, Santina regained its credibility, winning Rome. But Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza will have their hands full in Paris. For one thing, red-hot Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic will be in top form on home clay, and if they ride that Fed Cup spirit, they could be next to impossible to beat.

Former champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka will be part of the mix, too, as well as Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, and defending champions Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. Any of these teams could emerge the champions.