Sunday, July 31, 2016

Rio--will everything really be okay?

Hey, Rio, everything will be okay,
We're singing and winging our way to you
From "Flying Down To Rio"

I always have mixed feelings about the Olympic Games. Host countries sometimes to terrible things to their citizens (I include non-humans in that phrase) in preparation for the games, and of course, the IOC is neither a fair nor a trustworthy organization. It's hard for me to get very excited about anything involving the IOC, but I do appreciate the fact that there's a tennis competition that will take place, even though that means that some our best doubles teams have been shaken up in order for players to prepare to play for their countries.

Commentators and writers haven't exactly heaped criticism on the players who have withdrawn from the Games because of the Zika virus, but their tone has been critical. As far as I'm concerned--and especially now that the host country has demonstrated such a shocking lack of preparation in so many other ways--deciding to avoid a trip to Rio is a personal decision to be respected. I'm surprised more athletes haven't pulled out.

In the tennis world, there are, of course, other interesting, though sad, factors. Former torch-carrier and silver medal winner Maria Sharapova won't be there. Victoria Azarenka won't be there. Martina Hingis's long-awaited pairing with Roger Federer won't take place, either, since Federer has ended his season.

Matches will be played on the same kind of hard courts that players compete on in the U.S. Open Series and at the U.S. Open. Simona Halep, whose form has improved greatly in the last few weeks, just won the Rogers Cup, and has great momentum going into the Olympics--only she won't be there, either. Halep chose to avoid possible exposure to the Zika virus. The gold medal favorite--with or without the missing players--is Serena Williams. Williams won the gold in singles in 2012, and she also has three gold  medals (with sister Venus) in Olympic doubles. 

The Williams sisters will be competing in doubles, which may be the more interesting venue in Rio. Serena and Venus, up until this year's Wimbledon, were more vulnerable than they had ever been in their doubles careers. But with their Wimbledon victory, they once again go to the top part of the list of potential Rio winners.

The currently vulnerable top-ranked team of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza cannot, of course, compete at the Olympics. The Swiss team of Hingis and Belinda Bencic had a lot of potential, but Bencic has withdrawn because she needs more rest and rehab for her wrist injury. 

The French team of Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, formed in preparation for the Olympics (though Mladenovic says that was only one of the reasons for the team's creation), ranked second in the world, is poised for a gold medal run. Both players, and especially Mladenovic, thrive in a team atmosphere, and are able to summon immense fan participation when they play. 

And then there's the together-again Russian team of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, who won the Rogers Cup today, and whose next tournament will be the Olympic Games.

Williams/Williams, Garcia/Mladenovic, Makarova/Vesnina--that's a highly competitive list, but it doesn't inlude everyone. 2012 silver medal winners Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka will be there, as will the Chan sisters. And in addition to the Williams sisters, the USA will have Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe in doubles competition. Vandeweghe recently injured her ankle, but fortunately, the injury wasn't that bad, and she's set for Rio.

In the meantime, there's been one thing after another in Rio. Fire alarms were silenced while maintenance was being done, and an Olympic residential building caught fire. Those who silenced the alarms did not report what they were doing to anyone. Also, following the evacuation of the burning building, members of the Australian team returned to discover they had been burglarized. 
The Australian team originally refused to move into the Olympic Village because of blocked toilets, leaky pipes and exposed wires in the residences.  

Then there's the security issue. The Brazil Ministry of Justice just got rid of the firm that was supposed to provide security for the Games because of "incompetence and irresponsibility." One of the firm's jobs was to hire 3,400 security personnel, and they hired 500. In the meantime, there have been several recent police strikes in Rio de Janeiro.

So--problems with doping and the Zika virus aside--there remain even more unanswered questions about how prepared Rio is to host the Olympic Games, which begin in five days.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

My Wimbledon top 10

Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 Wimbledon happenings:

10. It took them long enough: Finally, AELTC added a wheelchair singles competition to Wimbledon. And the inaugural winner was Jiske Griffioen, who defeated countrywoman Aniek Van Koot 4-6, 6-0, 7-6. Griffioen now holds four major singles titles, and is a U.S. Open title away from having a Career Slam. Griffioen and Van Koot also competed in the wheelchair doubles final, but were defeated by Yui Kamiji and Brit Jordanne Whiley.

9. I won! Did not. Did too! Did not

8. Keep calm and rally on: Heather Watson, playing for the first time with Henri Kontinen, won the mixed doubles title, defeating Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah 7-6, 6-4. Brit Watson joins Jordanne Whiley and Andy Murray (her 2016 Hopman Cup partner) in leaving Wimbledon with championship trophies. Watson had a very dramatic Wimbledon last year, when she came within a hair of taking Serena Williams out of the competition in the third round. Watson made a first-round exit in singles this year, so winning the mixed doubles title had to feel especially gratifying.

7. Blue tarp blues: Rain appears on this list a lot. There was so much rain this time around that the tradition of not playing on middle Sunday had to be put aside for only the fourth time in Wimbledon history. But even for allowing for an extra day, schedules were jammed, matches were moved, and some matches had to be started over and over for hours on end.

6. The Rock continues to crumble: The Good Petra/Bad Petra show was a brief one, but a dramatic one, also. The two-time Wimbledon champion, if she was ever going to get it together, would have gotten it together on the grass in London, and for one round, it appeared she had done just that. Kvitova looked deadly in her first round match against Sorana Cirstea, but lost in the next round to Ekaterina Makarova. Much of the Barking Czech's second round play was brilliant, but she made too many unforced errors against a very dangerous opponent. This kind of thing is, unfortunately, what we've come to expect.

5. I'll show you "comeback": It was pretty impressive when Elena Vesnina, as a qualifier, reached the final in Charleston this year. But that was nothing compared with her next trick: Vesnina made it all the way to the semifinals at Wimbledon, and along the way, she defeated Andrea Petkovic, Ekaterina Makarova and the on-fire Eastbourne champion, Dominika Cibulkova. She was finally stopped by Serena Williams, but what a run it was! Next week, Vesnina will be ranked number  in the top 25; in January, she had fallen out of the top 120.

4. Audience with the queen: As much as people may have wanted to believe it could happen, it wasn't easy to predict that Venus Williams would reach the semifinals at Wimbledon. The five-time champion, who has had to deal with the challenge of chronic illness for the last several years, has steadily worked her way back up the rankings, and she thrilled spectators with her deep run. From her dramatic defeat of upstart Daria Kasatkina to her wins wins over Carla Suarez Navarro and Yaroslava Shvedova, Venus made it all seem like old times. Angelique Kerber stopped her run, but Venus--with sister Serena--would go on to win the doubles title.

3. Welcome back to Care-a-Lot: Angelique Kerber showed up in London in very fine form. The German with the strong legs romped through the draw without dropping a set--until she reached the final. Kerber--with her amazing defense and stunning transition game--got past both Simona Halep and Venus Williams to stage a repeat performance of the Australian Open final, that is, another last-day meeting with Serena Williams. She played very well against Williams, but lost her nerve at crucial times, and of course, was out-served (though she served quite well throughout). Kerber's career has been filled with inconsistency and injury, and yet she has managed to do what very few do--win a major and appear in a final in another one. Keep watching.

2. The Ninja + The Domi-nator = The Awesome: The finest match of the tournament was played in the round of 16, and it featured--but of course!--Agnieszka Radwanska. At the French Open, Radwanska played an unforgettable match against Barbora Strycova, in which the Czech player actually appeared as a mirror image of the magical Polish shot-maker. This time, Radwanska (seeded 3rd at Wimbledon) didn't get a twin Ninja, but she got all she could possibly handle from the hard-hitting Dominika Cibulkova. Never considered a grass court player, Cibulkova won Eastbourne right before coming to London.

Cibulkova had a very tough draw. To even get to the round of 16, she had to beat Miryana Lucic-Baroni, Daria Gavrilova and 2014 runner-up Genie Bouchard. She and Radwanska played for three hours, and it would be interesting to know how much total distance they covered during that time. There was a lot of running, there were some long and beautiful rallies, some deadly angles, and--of course--some jaw-dropping Radwanska moments. But in the end, it was Cibulkova who walked away the winner, 6-3, 5-7, 9-7.

But the Slovak was spent, and she went out easily in straight sets to Elena Vesnina in the quarterfinals. It made me think of that time in Melbourne when Radwanska played what some called "the best set of tennis ever played by a woman" and beat Vika Azarenka, only to be completely wiped out and lose easily in the next round. The winner of that match? Dominika Cibulkova.

Cibulkova, by the way, didn't really have time to feel bad about the loss; she had to attend her own wedding on Saturday.

1. This is what a champion looks like: Serena Williams came to Wimbledon to win--everything. And win she did. The world number 1 won the singles title--her seventh at Wimbledon--and then, with sister Venus, she won the doubles title (their sixth at Wimbedon). This was Williams' 22nd major singles title, and it came a bit later than the tennis world had expected. Williams failed to reach the final at the 2015 U.S. Open, she lost the Australian Open final to Angelique Kerber, and then lost the French Open final to Garbine Muguruza.

But if ever there were a venue where you figured "this is it," it's Wimbledon. Serena Williams is superb on every surface, but she especially shines on a grass court. She and her sister are Wimbledon institutions at this point.

Serena dropped just one set in the tournament, and that was in the second round, against Christina McHale. She defeated Kerber in straight sets in the final, though they were two extremely well played sets. Wearing an especially chic Nike dress, Serena held the Venus Rosewater Dish with such authority, it looked like it was designed as part of her outfit. Throughout the week, she was poised, philosophical and at ease. She now easily expresses opinions she used to avoid expressing--or perhaps even owning. The aura of a champion is hard to put into words, but you know it when you see it. When you look at Serena, you just know it.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

One! More! Time! Serena raises the Venus Rosewater dish


Today, on Centre Court, in a beautifully played final, Serena Williams won her seventh Wimbledon singles title. Williams defeated Angelique Kerber 7-5, 6-3. Kerber played very well, and served well, but there were a few factors that kept her from overcoming Williams the way she did in the Australian Open final. Williams was moving better, she served better than her opponent, and she kept Kerber pinned far back in the court, thwarting her forward movement.

And Kerber blinked, just when Williams knew she would.  Williams broke Kerber twice, both times toward the end of the set, and both times, she was aided by Kerber's sudden unforced errors. I was a bit surprised--I thought Kerber would be steelier than that. As for the German's break chances--well, she had only one the entire match, and Williams wiped that out immediately with one of 13 aces she hit today.

It was a high quality match, filled with palpable drama as the tennis world (and some of the rest of the world, too) waited to see whether, this time, Williams would get her 22nd major singles title. She missed that opportunity at the 2015 U.S. Open, the 2016 Australian Open and the 2016 French Open.

This is where I get off the train, however. I dislike all talk of GOATs and title counts. I don't think it's possible to determine who the greatest player in history is, and I have no desire to even think about it. As for the numbers--there's no way that comparisons can be made (and that goes for the before-and-after the Open era, too).

Many elite players skipped the Australian Open for a long time because it interfered with the Christmas holidays. Chris Evert skipped three French Opens (and arguably, would have won all three of them) because she was playing World Team Tennis. There was just a different (and in my opinion, superior) way of looking at things then. (Consider that the great Rod Laver wasn't even allowed to play in several majors.)

Someone Tweeted today that greatness in tennis can be measured (meaning, objectively). It cannot. But I don't think that greatness in anything can be measured objectively because there are just too many factors. And sports fans' insisting that "their" player is better than someone else's (elite) player is not about the players at all; rather, it's about the desperate need of many fans to project their own issues onto sports and sports performers.

Having said that, let me now say that winning 22 singles majors is an absolutely marvelous accomplishment, and that even if she didn't win 22, Serena Williams would be a sports icon for the ages. Serena is a world-class athlete, a superlative tennis player, a force of nature, and an inspiration to anyone--woman, man or child--who bothers to look past the hype and chatter and see the commitment, determination and courage she has displayed throughout her professional life. She's a true "larger than life" figure who probably could have made a big name for herself in a number of venues, but--lucky for us--she chose professional tennis.

I hope that Williams and Kerber play many more matches, since they seem to bring out the best in each other. And even though she lost today, Kerber gave the crowd a great show, and demonstrated again why she is such an extremely tough  opponent.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Angelique Kerber to face Serena Williams once again on championship day

Which is greater? To have the confidence that comes only with having already beaten Serena in a major final--or to know that, having beaten her in a major final, she's coming to get you. Perhaps the two somehow neutralize each other. At any rate, 4th seed Angelique Kerber will be balancing on the tip of that spinning coin tomorrow when she and defending champion Serena Williams face off to determine who will be the 2016 Wimbledon champion.

Kerber, who beat Williams to win the Australian Open in a thrilling final, has yet to drop a set in her Wimbledon campaign. For her part, top seed Williams has demonstrated why she is one of the greatest athletes in the world, putting on some tennis demonstrations in the final rounds that made her look unbeatable by anyone. Williams, in a pattern not unusual for her, has gradually "played her way into" the final, becoming more deadly as the stakes got higher.

In short, KareBear has her work cut out for her. But it will be competitive because Kerber is on fire in London the way she was in Melbourne. She'll have to bring one of her better serves (like many WTA players, Kerber's serve can change from match to match), which means getting as many first serves in as possible. The German is not a master of the second serve--few are--and she knows that her opponent will be on the ready to destroy any that are weak.

Back to the coin metaphor--the flip side is that Kerber is more likely than many handle the Williams serve (when it isn't an ace). Kerber's defensive play gets better all the time, and she can make successful recovery shots in long sequences, especially when they involve her forehand.

Williams has won 21 major single titles; Kerber has won only the 2016 Australian Open, but--as previously noted--she did it by beating Williams.

To get to the final, Kerber defeated Venus Williams in the semifinal, which gives her the unenviable task of not only having to beat both Williams sisters, but having to beat them back to back.

In the meantime, Venus and Serena reached the women's doubles final by defeating Julia Goerges and Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals. In the quarterfinals, the unseeded Williams sisters defeated 4th seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. On the same day, Serena defeated Vesnina in the singles quarterfinal, also. The other last team standing is that of Timea Babos and Yaroslava Shvedova. The 5th seeds defeated Raquel Atawo and Abigail Spears in the semifinals. In the quarterfinals, they took out top seeds and defending champions Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza.

Here are Williams' and Kerber's paths to the final:


round 1--def. Amra Sadikovic
round 2-- def. Christina McHale
round 3--def. Annika Beck
round of 16--def. Svetlana Kuznetsova (13)
quarterfinals--def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (21)
semifinals--def. Elena Vesnina 


round 1--def. Laura Robson (wc)
round 2--def. Varvara Lepchenko
round 3--def. Carina Witthoeft
round of 16--def. Misaki Doi
quarterfinals--def. Simona Halep (5)
semifinals--def. Venus Williams (8)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Venus, Serena, Angie, and Elena--the last four standing

Yesterday, my operating system obliterated my blog post on the round of 16 Wimbledon competition. I wrote about the magnificent match played by Dominika Cibulkova and Aga Radwanska, but that magnificence is best summed up here.

One of the things I said was that, at the end of the year, we'll be talking about this as one of--if not the--match of the year. Today, when Cibulkova went out in straight sets to Elena Vesnina, I was reminded of another Radwanska match (there are so many great ones), from the 2014 Australian Open. It was in that match that The Ninja played what some called the greatest set of tennis ever played by a woman (I don't go in for "greatest" anything, but that one makes sense to me). The next day, however, Radwanska came out flat and lost easily to Cibulkova. The Polish star had apparently given all she had in her defeat of Azarenka. It was a sad occasion, but I understood the defeat.

Today, the tennis shoe was on the other foot, as Cibulkova was outplayed by an on-fire Vesnina. The way the Russian was playing, she very well might have won the match under any circumstance, but-- within the context of Cibulkova's highly emotional and physical match the day before--it wasn't a shock that the Slovakian star lost.

We can say that the bride wore white--up to the last minute. Cibulkova is getting married on Saturday, the day the women's final takes place. She was prepared to postpone her wedding--and there was a very good chance that she would have to do just that--but now she can go forward with it. That's an awful lot of emotion for one woman to carry, however.

For the charming and entertaining Vesnina, the victory marks her first semifinal in a major (today was her first quarterfinal). It won't be an easy one--she plays defending champion and top seed Serena Williams.

Williams skillfully defeated a game Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-4 in today's quarterfinals. On another court, Venus Williams defeated Yaroslava Shvedova, marking the first time in seven years that the five-time Wimbledon champion has appeared in a Wimbledon semifinal. It's not at all reaching to say there could be another all-Williams Wimbledon final, a phenomenon that would bring down much more than the Wimbledon tennis house.

But then there's Angie Kerber. In my lost post, I said that Kerber was so under the radar, she could launch herself into the night sky over Centre Court and go undetected. The Australian Open champion has yet to drop a set. Her performance today against Simona Halep was, at times, breathtaking. Halep played really well, too, and came so close--Kerber won 7-5, 7-6.

Venus and Serena were busy today. After achieving victories in singles, they defeated Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in their third round doubles match. Vesnina was busy, too. She and partner Ekaterina Makarova (whom Vesnina beat to reach the quarterfinals in singles) won their second round doubles match. Vesnina is also playing mixed doubles, and is a member of the 2nd-seeded team.

Here is the semifinal singles draw:

Serena Williams (1) vs. Elena Vesnina
Angelique Kerber (4) vs. Venus Williams (8)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

USA and Russia dominate Wimbledon round of 16

If anyone really believed that Russian tennis stars had "gone away," that person should take a look at the draw for the Wimbledon round of 16. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ekaterina Makarova, and the resurgent Elena Vesnina are all there, and the only real surprise is Pavlyuchenkova--because she's playing on grass, because she's had some really tough opponents in her draw....and because she's Pavlyuchenkova.

Today, the unpredictable former junior number 1 defeated 11th seed Timea Bacsinszky. For all her popularity with fans, Bacsinszky can be pretty streaky, too, though she managed to defeat the confounding Monica Niculescu in the second round.

I didn't get to see all of the matches because I cannot get up early enough to do so, but it's hard to imagine that any of them was as good as the one played between Sloane Stephens and Kuznetsova. For Stephens fans, it had to be maddening: The Charleston champion made quick work of the Russian in the first set tiebreak, winning it 7-1, but the second set was a different story. Kuznetsova won that 6-2, but then found herself down 2-5 in the third. It appeared to be over for her, but--this is Sveta we're talking about, a woman who can take either near-victory or near-loss and turn it around like a magic trick.

She broke Stephens when Stephens served for the match, and then she just kept going, eventually winning the set 8-6. Now Kuznetsova has to face top seed and defending champion Serena Williams, who easily defeated Annika Beck today. Williams will be the fresher one, no doubt, but long, drawn-out contests are Kuznetsova's bread and butter, so both players should be ready for battle.

Ekaterina Makarova keeps a very "low profile" throughout most of the year, but then makes these second-week appearances in majors. It's a mystery, but Makarova may be the ultimate "big stage" competitor. Today, she beat Barbora Strycova, who--though she's been on fire lately--just wasn't having a good day.

In addition to Serena Williams, USA players who remain in the draw include CoCo Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and Venus Williams.

In doubles, top seeds Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza advanced to the third round. 3rd seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Chan Yung-Jan were upset by Jelena Jankovic and Aleksandra Krunic.  7th seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova were upset by Daria Gavrilova and Daria Kasatkina.

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Serena Williams (1) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (13)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (21) vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (27)
Agnieszka Radwanska (3) vs. Dominika Cibulkova (19)
Ekaterina Makarova vs. Elena Vesnina
Simona Halep (5) vs. Madison Keys (9)
Misaki Doi vs. Angelique Kerber (4)
Venus Williams (8) vs. Carla Suarez Navarro (12)
Yaroslava Shvedova vs. Lucie Safarova (28)

This list includes two former Wimbledon champions (Serena--six times, Venus--five times) and one former runner-up (Radwanska, 2012).

Simona Halep, whose career has been very shaky lately, next faces Madison Keys, whose career has climbed steadily upward in the past several months. It's hard to imagine Halep's getting past Keys at this point, though the Romanian is in better form in London than we've seen her in in a while.

There is much to expect in the round of 16 match between Radwanska and Eastbourne champion Cibulkova, who turned a comeback from surgery into a red hot grass run, surprising everyone (and maybe herself). The two have met twelve times, with Radwanska winning seven of those matches. Their recent Eastbourne quarterfinal marked the only time they have ever played one another on grass.