Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Trashy is as trashy does--USTA takes a cheap shot at Bouchard

Not that long ago, former WTA chair"man" Stacey Allaster was so enthusiastic about Genie Bouchard and her Army that she offered to pay the Genie Army's expenses as they traveled in support of the WTA's Golden Girl. It took people like us on the Internet to point out the obvious to Allaster (the same person who wanted to create a body-invasive grunt-o-meter to further abuse female athletes)--that such a move was unethical.

Oh, how times have changed. Last week, the USTA decided to comment--right before the U.S. Open began--on the lawsuit Bouchard filed against them following last year's Open. With no settlement in sight, the USTA's managing director of corporate communications, Chris Widmaier, issued this statement: "It is truly unfortunate that a year after her accident, Genie’s focus is on matters other than playing to her best ability."

How low can you go?

Bouchard's 2015 season was already at a low point. She was already dealing with injuries, and perhaps greatest of all, the injury inflicted on her in the 2014 Wimbledon final by the "Lethal Petra" version of Petra Kvitova. Following that final, the Canadian star went into a steep decline, but had begun to find herself again in the summer of 2015.

Then, one night during the U.S. Open, Bouchard stepped into the locker room, which had been mopped and not dried, and was left unattended with the lights off. She slipped and fell, causing her to sustain a concussion whose symptoms affected her for months. She filed a lawsuit against the USTA for negligence, and--in a ploy to assure everyone that the Canadian player would get "fair" treatment at the 2016 Open--the official statement contained Widmaier's blatant insult.

This brings me to the people posting on various parts of the Internet who are blaming Bouchard because she had a "bad" season, because she has been engaged in off-court activities, and because "no one else fell and slipped."

It doesn't matter whether you "like" (have you even met her?) Bouchard. It doesn't matter that Bouchard has more money than you do. It doesn't matter what her other activities are--when you can't play tennis, you'd better have some other activities, and anyway--the WTA loved it when Bouchard was doing interviews and photoshoots in her "stardom" days. And those activities are part of a professional tennis player's career, anyway. And no, no one else slipped and fell because no one else entered the locker room that night--duh.

Negligence is negligence. There are several things the USTA could have done. They could have posted signs warning players that the locker room floor was wet. They could have locked the door. They could have, at the very least, turned on the lights. But they did none of those things.

In the United States, we are pretty dedicated to blaming the victim, and this is a prime example of just that. All Bouchard was doing was her job. It's especially unfortunate that a player already dealing with so much disappointment and stress had to slip and fall and sustain a concussion because of someone else's negligence. And the USTA, eager to display its "fairness" toward her, still found a way to blame her for her misfortune.

Genie Bouchard lost in the first round today. That should give the USTA plenty of ammunition against her, should the organization choose to continue to blame her for its own negligence. The USTA's statement about youth says: "Players learn responsibility and sportsmanship from a young age." Want to teach kids about responsibility? Then take some.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Williams, Radwanska, Muguruza, Kerber--The Four Horsewomen of the Tennis Apocalypse

The end times are near.

Well that is, in terms of the 2016 season. The last major of the season, the U.S. Open, begins Monday, and the women's draw is anchored by four formidable--yet also vulnerable--"horsewomen."

1. Serena Williams ("Death"): Williams, despite her losses in the Australian Open and the French Open, can still be lethal, as she showed at Wimbledon; hence, she's still the player most likely to issue death to the hopes of others who would hold the trophy at the end of the two-week battle in Flushing Meadows.

But Williams remains vulnerable. She's been dealing with a shoulder injury that forced her to withdraw from the Cincinnati event. Of course, the world number 1 has shown up bandaged like a mummy at major events before, and gone on to win them. But she's older now, and even greatly-feared warriors have to deal with what advancing age does to them.

Williams' other problem is that the tennis gods have denied her the right to "play into" the tournament. Her first-round opponent is Ekaterina Makarova, a powerful Russian with a strange, "big stage" career who brings her best game to the majors. Makarova, who is currently ranked number 36 in the world, reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2014. She combines a very keen lefty serve with powerful groundstrokes on both sides and--on a good day--she can find Kvitova-like angles. Makarova is also an elite doubles player (she just won gold at the Olympics) who has elite doubles skills at her disposal. She's dangerous at every major but the French. The Williams-Makarova match is one of three (I'll get to the others later) "must watch" matches.

Also lurking in Williams' quarter of the draw are up-and-coming Russian Daria Kasatkina, sometime-upsetter Yarslava Shvedova, hard-hitting Camila Giorgi and 2011 U.S. Open conqueror Sam Stosur (Giorgi and Stosur play each other in the first round). Also, Carla Suarez Navarro, the increasingly dangerous Timea Babos, Daria Gavrilova, and the again-resurgent Kirsten Flipkens.

But--most significant of all--5th seed Simona Halep is positioned at the bottom end of that quarter. The way she's been playing, it seems odd that Halep isn't a Horsewoman, but there you are. She'll have her work cut out for her, what with playing Flipkens in the opening round, and then having to face either Gavrilova or Lucie Safarova, and then possibly Babos. If the draw proceeds as it "should" (fat chance), Halep and Williams will collide in the quarterfinals.

2. Agnieszka Radwanska ("Famine"): Radwanska must surely be hungry. Ever since her run to the 2012 Wimbledon final, the tour's greatest shot-maker (of all time, in my opinion) has failed to reach a major final. She's been playing very well lately, and yesterday, allowed Petra Kvitova to win only two games in their New Haven semifinal. Today, Radwanska won the New Haven tournament by beating Elina Svitolina in straight sets.

The running theory is that Radwanska is brilliant until she comes up against a "power player," but I don't totally buy into that, since I've seen her dismantle the games of power players. The other theory is that she runs out of physical (and perhaps mental) steam, partly because her own game is so physical, and that theory seems more solid to me. Nevertheless, the Polish star with the magic hands and legs is an elite player who has a chance in Flushing Meadows.

The Radwanska quarter presents its own challenges. Caroline Garcia is there, as well as Timea Bacsinszky and Kristina Mladenovic, but all of these players run hot and cold, and all have been running rather cold lately. However, two players in Radwanska's draw are real dangers--Karolina Pliskova and Venus Williams, and especially the latter.

Pliskova has two things going for her: She skipped the Olympics, and she just won her first big title, the Western & Southern Open. The Czech Fed Cup star doesn't have a very good record at majors--she's never gotten beyond a third round--but this time, her fortunes could be different. As for Williams, she's playing quite well this year, and can definitely be seen as a threat to anyone in the Radwanska quarter.

3. Garbine Muguruza ("Conquest"): Muguruza has done what few others have been able to do--beat Serena Williams in a major final. The Spaniard won the French Open by doing just that, and then--just a few weeks later--reached the final at Wimbledon, where Williams got the better of her. Obviously, court surface isn't an issue for her, but Muguruza appears to have other issues. She can be brilliant and make her brilliance look effortless, and then, suddenly, she can just go away. In the Cincinnati semifinals, Pliskova practically ran over Muguruza.

It may (or may not) help Muguruza that she has a pretty nice draw at the U.S. Open, though Stanford champion Johanna Konta is in Mugu's quarter and is no longer a "potential" threat. Madison Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe and Barbora Strycova are also in that quarter, and any of them could make a deep run. Add to that the presence of the perennially dangerous Svetlana Kuznetsova and the Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery, Tsvetana Pironkova, who loves to pull off a big upset at a major tournament. And--just to spice things up--Olympic gold medal winner Monica Puig just sneaked in as the 32nd seed, and is in the Muguruza quarter.

4. Angelique Kerber ("War"): Kerber could just as well have been "Conquest." She, too, has defeated Serena Williams in a major final (2016 Australian Open). And also lost to her in another (2016 Wimbledon). But at this point in the 2016 season, no one represents "War" better than our KareBear. After winning the Australian, she defended her Stuttgart title, got the runner-up trophy at Wimbledon, then won a silver medal in the Olympic Games.

Kerber, like Muguruza, isn't that fussy about which surface she plays on, and has added heavy offense to what used to be a mostly defensive game. There are some worthy opponents in her quarter--Dominika Cibulkova, Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina. Oh, and Alize Cornet, who--when she has a big moment--tends to have a very big one, and who thoroughly enjoys a big stage.

One is always at least slightly tempted to say that Kvitova herself is a title contender (as well she should be), but--to paraphrase Lucinda Wiliams:

If we lived in a world without tears...
...How would Petra flop again?

Any of those four able horsewomen could walk away with the trophy, but I tend to think that the most likely candidates are Williams, Kerber and Halep. Never an "easy" tournament for Williams on an emotional level, the U.S. Open this year brings it own dramatic backstory. Had she won it last year, Williams would have achieved the Grand Slam. But it was not to be, as she was defeated in the semifinals by Roberta Vinci. Vinci's countrywoman, Flavia Pennetta, would go on to win the title, and to create an endearing U.S. Open story for tennis history. It was the only time that two Italians played each other in the final, and Pennetta pretty much dropped by Flushing Meadows to win it on her way out the professional tennis door.

Kerber is on a hot streak and could win anything, at this point. And Rogers Cup champion Halep is back from wherever she was, and, despite her recent Cincinnati loss to Kerber, is in a better position to win something big than she's been in for a while. But of course. we can't t count Radwanska out, and the same can be said of Muguruza, Kvitova, and Pliskova. Some might add Madison Keys to that list.

First round matches to watch:

Serena Williams vs. Ekaterina Makarova: If ever there were a "dangerous floater," it's Makarova. Unless the occasion gets the best of her, Makarova will do her best to take it to Williams.

Camila Giorgi vs. Samantha Stosur: Giorgi, the hard-hitting Fighting Italian, fears no one--but herself. Stosur has won the U.S. Open, which should give her a bit of an edge, but this is Stosur we're talking about, and the outcome of this match is a mystery.

Lucie Safarova vs. Daria Gavrilova: Safarova still hasn't returned to the glory days she had before becoming very ill, but she's still Lucie, and she's still crafty and tough. Gavrilova is quite a fighter, but can go "off" pretty quickly. This match could be very good, or it could be over quickly.

Kirsten Flipkens vs. Simona Halep: Flipkens knows how to "pull a Halep," and is a player who can frustrate the Romanian with her own tricky volleys and angles. The Belgian is having yet another resurgence and could make this a very entertaining match.

Julia Goerges vs. Yanina Wickmayer: The Belgian is having her best season in ages. If the right Goerges happens to show up, this might be good.

Naomi Osaka vs. CoCo Vandeweghe: Boom boom!

Barbora Strycova vs. Monica Niculescu: Oh, the possibilities! This could well be the most watchable of all the first round matches, as the all-court, all-in Strycova faces off against trickster Niculescu. Strycova has a good service game on her side.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: At least there's a third set tiebreak at the U.S. Open, or spectators might have to bring survival supplies from home. In the third round of the 2011 Australian Open, the pair played an extremely high quality match for four hours and 44 minutes. In round of 2015 French Open, they played for three hours and 50 minutes. The first was the longest women's match ever played in a major; the second, the longest French Open match played in the Open Era. Schiavone won both of them. The sight of these two on opposite sides of the net is thrilling. Another "must watch."

Petra Kvitova vs. Jelena Ostapenko: This isn't the kind of easy start the Barking Czech would like to have, I don't imagine. Ostapenko can give headaches to her opponents, and especially to Kvitova, whom she has twice defeated. And Kvitova has enough issues without having to deal with another headache.

CiCi Bellis vs. Victoija Golubic: Two possibly rising stars could give us an entertaining match. 

Alize Cornet vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni: Lucic-Baroni hasn't been pulling her signature upsets of late, but these two could nevertheless provide us with a match worth watching.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some final thoughts on Cincinnati

Photo by Frank Oplanic
First, it was about time Karolina Pliskova won a big title. The rangy Czech has the talent, but so far, her victories have all been at less prestigious events than the one in Cincinnati. I can't help but wonder whether this victory will help her get past her "never beyond the third round of a major" obstacle when she competes at the U.S. Open.

Though Angelique Kerber was somewhat favored to win the tournament, so was Simona Halep. And both played really well--until they didn't. In their defense, they (and Aga Radwanska) went from Rio to Cincinnati, and it wasn't an easy journey. (For Radwanska, it was a bit of hell on Earth). Pliskova, on the other hand, didn't attend the Olympic Games and wasn't suffering from the physical and mental fatigue that the other three were.

But there was more to it than that. Pliskova played better and better in each round at the Western & Southern Open. By the time she reached the final, she was in high gear. (And just for the record--the champion hit 47 aces while she was in Cincinnati.) Anyone who was watching would have noticed that the Czech player was on her way to a possible breakthrough. Pliskova, by the way, is the first Czech player to win the Cincinnati title.

Much has been made of Kerber's lost chance to take over the number 1 ranking. As I wrote earlier, exhaustion appeared to play a more important role in the world number 2's loss than any pressure that she may have felt. Karolina Pliskova played an important role, too.

With both number 1 rankings on the line, it seemed only fitting that the two faces of Santina would survive until the final day of play. With their new partners, Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis faced each other in a match that contained much more drama than the singles final. Mirza, the first Indian woman to ever become world number 1 in doubles, has now returned to that spot. She and Barbora Strycova, playing together for the first time, are to be commended. And then there was this, from their press conference:

Strycova: "I think we have similar personality traits. She's calmer on the court.." 

Mirza: "That's not tough to do."

It rained every day of play in Cincinnati, and parking lots became lakes of mud that sucked cars down, making it necessary for tow trucks to pull out a number of vehicles. Mulch was added to the parking lots daily. Matches were postponed, and also constantly interrupted, sometimes more than once. Somehow, everyone got caught up, though some players had to play two matches in one day. Between the Olympics and the rain, this year's Cincinnati tournament was a special
challenge for many players.

Pliskova, Mirza and Strycova win in Cincinnati

.@KaPliskova captures @CincyTennis title!

From the Olympics to Cincinnati, Czech players have dominated WTA competition for the last few weeks. Today, world number 17 Karolina Pliskova won her biggest title to date when she upset world number 2 Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-1 in just over an hour at the Western & Southern Open. And while much has been made of the pressure that Kerber must have felt over playing for the world number 1 ranking, the reality is that the German star was more likely just exhausted. Also, Pliskova played a superb and fluid match against her.

'I just tried everything today," Kerber said in her post-match press conference. "I had great three weeks, with a lot of emotion." Kerber won the silver medal at the Olympic Games in Rio.

Pliskova had a lot of praise for Kerber's stamina, remarking that her opponent had played all the way to the final in Rio, then all the way to the final in Cincinnati, which was a testament to her fitness and endurance.

The tall Czech player took charge of the match immediately, getting to 4-0 before Kerber (or anyone) even had a chance to settle in. "I was still expecting during the match some complication as always it is in tennis...," the champion said later. She didn't get that complication, though. Pliskova hit seven aces and wound up with a first serve win percentage of 86. She also had an impressive winner-to-unforced error ratio of 24/16.

To get the trophy, Pliskova had to beat a two-time major champion (Svetlana Kuznetsova), the current French Open champion (Garbine Muguruza) and the current Australian Open champion (Kerber). She also beat Jelena Ostapenko and Misaki Doi.

Had Kerber won in Cincinnati, she would have taken over the world number 1 spot from Serena Williams.

Prior to the Kerber-Pliskova match, there was more Czech action on the doubles court. Santina, broken in half, nevertheless made an appearance, as Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza became opponents in the Cincinnati final. Hingis and her partner, CoCo Vandeweghe, had played just one match prior to the final: They had a bye in the first round, then were the recipients of two successive walkovers.

Mirza's teammate was Barbora Strycova, the Czech player who--with Lucie Safarova--won the bronze medal for doubles in Rio. Strycova, in fact, had played very well against Kerber during the third round of singles competition.

The pair fell behind quickly as Hingis and Vandeweghe rushed to a 5-1 lead in the first set. But Mirza Strycova and the Forehand of Fire got themselves back into the set and wound up winning it 7-5. They went up a break in the second set, but were broken when they served for the championship at 5-3. Their opponents then held, and a momentum change looked quite possible, but Strycova served it out for a 7-5, 6-4 victory.

In what may be a unique situation, the number 1 spot in doubles was also up for grabs, and Mirza has now claimed it; she and Hingis held it in tandem before. In another odd twist, the pair had to meet as opponents right after they split as a team. "It was going to happen eventually," Mirza said. "We had to play against each other at some point. I think it's better that it happened earlier, as soon as we came out, because next time it's obviously less difficult to play."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Kerber and Pliskova advance to Cincinnati final

Photo by Frank Oplanic
World number 2 Angelique Kerber, playing in yet another rain-delayed match at the Western & Southern Open, prevailed in straight sets this afternoon over Simona Halep, breaking Halep's 13-match win streak. The Rogers Cup champion, playing to shouts of "Si-mo-na!" from her very enthusiastic fans, played an error-strewn match that included eight breaks of serve, as the two line-loving players went at each other from the baseline.

Halep said afterwards that she just wasn't feeling the ball, and even in her practice session, she felt a need to change rackets on three different occasions. It "wasn't my day," the Romanian star said, and added, "I'm not going to make it a drama, this match...." Halep said she plans to get some sleep between now and traveling to New York for the U.S. Open.

Kerber, who defeated Halep 6-3, 6-4, said that she has tried to relax as much as possible this week, eating out in good restaurants, paying attention to hydration and "trying to make everything easy and not too complicated."

If the German star wins the final tomorrow against Karolina Pliskova, she will be number 1 in the world. She has, of course, been asked about this all week, and has repeatedly said that she has put herself under no particular pressure regarding this possibility.

Kerber talked about the significant improvement in her game over the past couple of seasons. She described three areas in which she has made strides: an increased level of physical fitness, learning to focus on every point, and being more relaxed on the court.

Kerber also had praise for Halep. "...she's never giving up any ball. Doesn't matter what's the score. It it's 3-0 or 4-0 or she's up and down, she's going for it." Halep defeated Kerber in Montreal recently on her way to the title.

About her next opponent, 17th seed Karolina Pliskova, Kerber said, "I played a lot against her and it was always close and tough battles. For me, there are no favorites. It's fifty-fifty always when you go out there."

In an highly unusual scenario, the number 1 doubles ranking is also on the line. The two components of the recently split Santina--Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis--will play against each other in the Cincinnati final. Mirza, playing with Barbora Strycova (who gave Kerber a very tough match during the singles competition) will face off against her former partner and CoCo Vandeweghe. Hingis and Vandeweghe have played only one match in Cincinnati: They had a bye in the first round, and received walkovers in the second round and the quarterfinals.

They did it with mirrors!

From the time I arrived at the Western & Southern Open on Monday, it has rained and rained. Two or three games played under cloudy--or even sunny--skies would suddenly have to be stopped because more rain fell. It's been the rainiest tournament I've ever heard of, yet all matches were played in a relatively timely manner. Sure, there have been a lot of delayed matches, and some players have had to play twice in one day, but it still seems like quite an accomplishment that the event stayed "on schedule."

A lot has been said about the great job the crew has been doing with the squeegees, and about how hard the ballkids have worked with the towels. But not mentioned are the many "sweepers" who are constantly clearing the puddles so that fans can walk around the grounds with minimal splashing. That has certainly helped me, since I appear to have a skill for stepping outside of the media building about 30 seconds before it starts raining.

I'm glad I didn't rent a car, since the storms have wreaked havoc on the parking lots. That problem, too, has been aggressively addressed each day, but there's only so much that can be done to hold back the forces of nature.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Muguruza and Pliskova advance in Cincinnati

.@KaPliskova is first through to @CincyTennis Semifinals!

Today, in the Cincinnati quarterfinals, 4th seed Garbine Muguruza defeated qualifier Timea Babos in straight sets. Later, talking with the press, Muguruza described her playing style: "I'm kind of a mix between the Spanish style and the east Euro girl style." Muguruza, when asked about her French Open win, said that she was highly motivated in the Roland Garros final by the way it felt to be a runner-up at Wimbledon in 2015.

She also spoke humorously and wisely about the times that she has appeared disgruntled on court, proclaiming that "everyone" (fans and media) like to use those occasions "to make noise." She also made it clear that the "noise" doesn't bother her.

Karolina Pliskova, who defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, talked about her formidable serve. "I can serve big in the important moments," she said, but added that she needs to improve her serve percentage in Cincinnati. Plikova acknowledged that she doesn't serve as fast as the other tall players, but added that "I can place the serve anywhere I want." The Czech star said that she concentrates on her offensive game because "I can't run fifty times from the baseline."

Asked about whether she can transfer her intimidating "Fed Cup zone" into competing at other events, Pliskova said that she wishes it were possible. "I can come close," she said, but explained that there was really nothing like having the Fed Cup crowd cheer for her.

The 15th seed also talked a little about her interest in fishing, but said that she catching big ones wasn't a goal: "I'm just fishing around the Czech, so there are not big fishes."

Sluggish Kerber finds a way to win

Photo by Leslie Billman/Tennisclix
Angelique Kerber, looking tired and a step behind throughout her first quarterfinal set in Cincinnati, nevertheless found a way to advance to the semifinals over Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard took the first set 6-4 after out-serving and out-hitting Kerber in rallies that mostly lacked Kerber's lethal low, cross-court blows. The German picked up her level in the second set, however--though it took her a few games to do it. The third was all about Kerber, who won the match 4-6, 6-3, 6-0. 

Afterwards, Kerber acknowledged being tired, and said that the days were kind of running together for her and she sometimes isn't even sure what day it is. But, she said, staying in the moment helped her to prevail against Suarez-Navarro. She talked about her serve being inconsistent--she hit three aces but double-faulted 10 times. And she emphasized again that she was putting herself under no pressure at all regarding her potential number 1 ranking.

The German star said she handled the time between the first and second sets by staying positive, and telling herself "to go for it when I get the chance," and to refrain from trying to do too much.

Immediately following the match, Suarez Navarro withdrew from doubles competition, citing an injured left thigh. Meanwhile, Martina Hingis and CoCo Vandeweghe have reached the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open without playing a match. Nice work if you can get it! They had a bye in the first round, and in the second round, they received a walkover from Kiki Bertens and Johanna Larsson. Now, they get a walkover from Sara Errani and Suarez Navarro.

In the semifinals, the well-rested Hingis and Vandeweghe will play either King/Niculescu or Georges/Pliskova. If I were those four players, I'd be doing anything I could think of to guard against what seems to be an unpleasant trend among the opponents of the 4th seeds.

This morning, 15th seed Karolina Pliskova defeated 7th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Pliskova will play the winner of the match now being played by Garbine Muguruza and Timea Babos.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Cibulkova's Cincinnati curse continues

Qualifier Babos ousts world No.11 Cibulkova 4-6 6-3 6-1 to claim her spot in the QFs. #CincyTennis pic.twitter.com/hjAeTRgj9N

Prior to this season, Dominika Cibulkova--a player known for her hard court success--had entered the Western & Southern Open six times, and five of those times, had she failed to get past the first round. The exception was 2012, when she defeated her first round opponent but had to retire during the second round.

Upon arriving here earlier in the week, the Slovakian star said she felt rested and was ready to put her poor Cincinnati history behind her. But that was not to be; tonight, Cibulkova lost a rain-interrupted match to the increasingly dangerous Timea Babos. Babos defeated Cibulkova 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.

Cibulkova had taken a week off in order to rest after sustaining a heel injury. She said that we didn't feel psychologically affected by her poor record in Cincinnati; rather she has problems at the Western & Southern Open because of the tournament's use of Penn balls. She always has to change her racket tension when she's in Cincinnati, she added. It probably didn't help her case that the courts were completely soaked after the second set, and that heavy conditions set in.

Sometimes, you know that a match is going to be superior in quality, and that was the case today when Angelique Kerber played Barbora Strycova. The match was everything I thought it would be, and was a lot of fun to watch. Strycova had to play a lot of catch-up, and the two women broke each other seven times in the course of the two-set match. Strycova's service level dropped a bit from her previous Cincinnati matches, but it was still respectable.

It took Kerber two hours to create a 7-6, 6-4 victory over a very tricky opponent. The German's signature passing shots were put into good use at the end of each set, while Strycova showed off some superb serve-and-volley technique. It was quite a workout for the 2nd seed, who will next face off against Carla Suarez Navarro, who, along with Babos, is into the quarterfinals in both singles and doubles. The Spaniard beat 6th seed Roberta Vinci today.

3rd seed Simona Halep had an easy time of it today, as her opponent, Daria Gavrilova, had all kinds of trouble serving, and could hardly keep the ball in the court. Gavrilova won only three games.

Karolina Pliskova defeted Misaki Doi, and Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Timea Bacsinszky. As I write this, Garbine Muguruza is a game away (5-0 in the second) from defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Of note in doubles competition: Top seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic were upset today in the second round of play by Vania King and Monica Niculescu. The French pair had a bye in the first round. Their fortunes have gone down considerably since they made their red-hot clay season run.

Kerber and Radwanska face tough conditions and opponents in Cincy round of 16

Always a warm handshake @ARadwanska & @andreapetkovic #CincyTennis (mrenzaero, flickr) pic.twitter.com/CJKzHB7taj
The humidity in Cincinnati is at 81% as Misaki Doi and Karolina Pliskova play their match on The Grandstand at the Western & Southern Open. With the extreme precipitation and high humidity that have prevailed in Mason this week, players who can handle heavy tennis balls will have an edge over those who cannot.

The first WTA match on Center Court will be played between Daria Gavrilova and 3rd seed Simona Halep. Gavrilova has already taken out Caroline Garcia and 18th seed Elina Svitolina, both in straight sets. Halep leads Gavrilova 2-1 in matches played, with the Australian's only victory coming on a clay court. The most recent of these matches took place at this year's Rogers Cup, and Halep won 6-2, 6-3.

Both Angelique Kerber and Aga Radwanska, who are understandably tired from their Rio adventure (the travel aspect alone would have done in almost anyone) both played opponents last night who had to be pretty tired themselves. They delivered bagel sets to Kiki Mladenovic and Andrea Petkovic, respectively. Both Mladenovic and Petkovic had already played their delayed first round matches earlier in the day.

Today's opponents will be more rested. 5th seed Radwanska gets 10th seed Johanna Konta. And this brings me back to the first paragraph: Radwanska is a player who can struggle with the conditions present in Cincinnati right now, so this match could be far from routine for her. Kerber, for her part, will play against a very in-form Barbora Strycova, who hasn't dropped a set in her defeats of qualifier Genie Bouchard and 14th seed Sam Stosur.

Strycova had first serve win percentages of 75 and 72 in her first- and second-round matches, and second serve win percentages of 63 and 55. If the Olympic bronze medal winner (in doubles) continues to serve at this level--given her variety in other areas--she can give Kerber some trouble.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Players forced by Cincinnati weather to double up on Wednesday


Today was all about catch-up at the Western & Southern Open. There was rain this morning, but this time, when the sky cleared, it stayed that way. Some players who played today will have to play tonight also because of all of the matches that were held over from yesterday.

Kristina Mladenovic, Andrea Petkovic, Johanna Larsson, and Kurumi Nara will make repeat appearances later, provided the dry (I use the term loosely--the humidity is brutal) weather holds up. Mladenovic, who defeated qualifier Kateryna Bondarenko earlier today, will play on center court against Olympic silver medal winner Angelique Kerber. The two have met only once before, on a hard court in Brisbane in 2014, and Kerber won that match in straight sets.

Petkovic was victorious in three sets over Lucie Safarova today, and tonight, she'll face off against Aga Radwanska. Both Kerber and Radwanska are tired from their ordeals regarding Rio, so that seems to add up to four weary players. Should be interesting.

Qualifier Alize Cornet retired in her match against Carla Suarez Navarro, qualifier Timea Babos upset 13th seed Belinda Bencic, and qualifier Daria Gavrilova upset 17th seed Elina Svitolina. Other second round winners today were Simona Halep, Misaki Doi, Johanna Konta, Roberta Vinci.

Of interest (it goes without saying) is Barbora Strycova, who has now defeated both Genie Bouchard and 14th seed Sam Stosur in straight sets. Strycova is serving quite well. In the next round, she'll get either 2nd (and top) seed Angie Kerber or Kiki Mladenovic, who are about to begin play on Center Court.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A lot of rain, and some tennis, in Cincinnati

When I left a flooding Louisiana, I knew I was going to see more rain, but maybe not this much. I've never seen so much court squeegee action before. Play has started and stopped so many times in Cincinnati, but--even with the delays--matches have been completed. Today, Alize Cornet defeated Kiki Bertens 7-6, 6-3, and Kristina Pliskova defeated Jelena Ostapenko 6-4, 6-1. Also winning were Timea Babos (def. Louisia Chirico), Annika Beck (def. Julia Putintseva) and Alison Riske (def. Varvara Flink).

And on Court 10, away from the conversation, lucky loser Tsvetana Pironkova quietly defeated Daria Kasatkina 6-1, 6-1 in just over an hour. The Russian won only 42% of points on her first serve (and 50% on her second serve). The Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery will next face 6th seed Roberta Vinci. The Italian leads 3-1 in their head-to-head.

Angelique Kerber will begin her Cincinnati campaign against either Kateryna Bondarenko or Kiki Mladenovic. Kerber met with the press this afternoon, and talked at length about her Rio experiences, citing "my fight" as the biggest challenge she faced. Now Cincinnati's top seed, the German star will become number 1 in the world if she wins this event.

Right now, we're waiting for (among other things) the first round contest between Barbora Strycova and Eugenie Bouchard, which sounds appealing. Also scheduled for later this evening--sometime comedy act/doubles team members Elina Svitolina and Daria Gavrilova are scheduled to play one another. But right now, it's all about towels and squeegees.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Kuznetsova talks chemistry, Radwanska relives Rio travel nightmare

Svetlana Kuznetsova spent some time with the media today in Cincinnati, and talked about what she has learned, over her long career, about building a player support team. She said that for the first six months of this season, she had no fitness coach, "so I did it myself, and I did it differently." The Russian star said that it's quite difficult to find a coach and a fitness coach with whom a player has just the right chemistry.

In the past, she noted, she has announced additions to her team, and then regretted that she hadn't held off on making the announcements. She went on to day that, at her age, there wasn't a lot she was going to change, even if a coach or a fitness coach asked her to, and she emphasized that these team relationships have to be collaborative in order to work.

The two-time major winner talked about her childhood as the daughter of two professional athletes. She trained in a facility that she described as being "like an army." Despite being very young, she trained twice a day just because she saw everyone else doing it.

Also chatting with the media was Aga Radwanska, who was able to look at her trip from hell to Rio with some humor. Radwanska had to go from Montreal to New York, from one New York airport to another, to Portugal, and then to Rio. This circuitous route also included multiple delays. She was unable to say how many miles she had traveled, but she did say that "They should give me gold status for every airline."

And as if that weren't enough, the Polish star just happened to board the bus that had its windows shattered by some sort of attack that was never fully explained. Radwanska said that when she arrived, no one could tell her how to get to her practice court, and that the food she was given left a good deal to be desired. And after all that, she went out in the first round of play. She added that she had no rest between her drawn-out journey and the commencement of play, and hasn't really had any rest since.

Halep talks about Puig, Romania and her gym routine

3rd seed Simona Halep, in Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open, talked in some depth today about the pressures she has felt as an elite player, and about her health and fitness.

Halep said that her stomach is still troubling her, and that she's also dealing with an occasional headache. The Romanian star said that eating different foods in all the various countries to which she travels is problematic for her.

Halep also said that she is much more motivated to practice on the court than she is to go to the gym, but that she has motivated herself, and now goes to the gym every day.

She also talked about the expectations of fans and media in her home country. "Every time, I play for Romania," she said, but that she can't play in every event, and people in Romania expect her not only to play at all times, but to win at all times. "No one can win every match," Halep said. She added that she had taken some of the pressure off of herself. She has said this before, however, and sometimes it's hard to know how much of the burden has really been removed from her shoulders.

She said she does not regret missing the Olympics, though she feels disappointed that she could not be there. But, she emphasized, she was quite comfortable with her decision to stay away from Rio. Halep had high praise for gold medal winner Monica Puig, remarking that Puig's level was high in every round. "She was there to win."

Ostapenko prevails in roller coaster match against Schmiedlova


Anna Karolina Schmiedlova got off to a roaring start today, taking the first set 6-1 against Jelena Ostapenko in less than 20 minutes in the opening round of the Western & Southern Open. Schmiedlova then went up two breaks in the second set, and appeared to be on the way to achieving a short, efficient victory.

But you know how tennis is. And lately, you know how Schmiedy is. Ostapenko saved two match points at 4-5 in the second set, and went on to win that set 7-6. But after falling behind 0-2, 0-40, Schmiedlova raced ahead to 5-2 in the third, and again--the match looked like it was about to end. But Schmiedova's level crashed when she served for the match, and she never saw another match point. Ostapenko broke her and went on to break her again. There was another tiebreak, which Ostapenko won with relative ease, though--for a short time--it looked like Schmiedlova was going to catch up and possibly prevail.

The momentum shifts in this match were extreme, and--given that Ostapenko's second round opponent is Karolina Pliskova--there could be another see-saw contest in the Latvian player's near future.

Also in round 1, qualifier Daria Gavrilova defeated Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-3. She'll play 17th seed Elina Svitolina next.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Russian team wins gold medal in doubles

The Russian team of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina won the Olympic gold medal today when they defeated the Swiss team of Martina Hingis and Timea Bacsinszky 6-4, 6-4. Makarova and Vesnina did not drop a set throughout the tournament. And credit to them for keeping their cool; they had a very hard time getting to Rio and were late for the opening ceremony. Makarova and Venina did not drop a set in the tournament. The Russian pair has already won the 2013 French Open and the 2014 U.S. Open.

Yesterday, the bronze medal was secured by the Czech team of Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova, who defeated their countrywomen, Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, 7-5, 6-1 in the bronze medal match.

Hlavackova sustained an injury during the team's semifinal match against Hingis and Bacsinszky. The Czech team held a match point against the Swiss in the second set, but a return from Hingis hit Hlavackova in the face, causing her to spin around and then fall onto the court. She was seen by both the trainer and the doctor, and continued to play, but the Czechs lost that set and then faded away in the third.

A diagnosis has now been made, and Hlavackova is suffering with a fractured orbital bone. She had to spend time in a hospital after the match, and both she and Hradecka got very little sleep in preparation for the bronze medal match. Hlavackova said she saw the video of the rally and believes that Hingis could have easily put the ball somewhere besides in her face.

The Swiss team's silver medal, surprisingly, is the first Olympic medal ever for Martina Hingis. Hingis was originally scheduled to play with Belinda Bencic, who had to withdraw fro  the Olympic Games because of injury.


In mixed doubles, the USA team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock took the gold, with silver going to their countrywoman and -man, Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram, a last-minute pairing in the competition. Mattek-Sands and Sock defeated Williams and Ram 6-7, 6-1, 10-7. This was Mattek-Sands' first appearance at the Olympic Games. Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek won the bronze medal, defeating Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna in the bronze medal match.

The silver in mixed doubles gives Williams a total of five Olympic medals. 

And while they didn't win any gold or silver, the women of the Czech Republic made the strongest showing of any country, leaving Rio with a bronze medal in doubles, a bronze medal in mixed doubles and a bronze medal (Petra Kvitova) in singles.

Pica Power to the People!

I remember, years ago, watching a very young Monica Puig swing a potent backhand on an outside court during Charleston qualifying. She played with a fiery attitude, and drew quite a few spectators.

Over the past few years, I wondered if and when Puig would make the sort of breakthrough that would cause the tennis world to take notice. It happened this year, when all the aspects of her game came together and she made a big climb up the rankings, all the way to number 34 in the world.

As of today, she's still number 34 in the world, but with an accessory rarely seen adorning a tennis kit: Monica Puig has an Olympic gold medal. And she earned it in dramatic fashion, slaying giants all the way on her journey to the Olympic podium.

The 22-year-old Puerto Rican with the very aggressive game ran over French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, and also took out two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. For her final flourish, Puig defeated Australian Open champion and Wimbledon runner-up Angelique Kerber. It was a stunning match, with both women covering every inch of territory available on the court. "Epic" would actually be an appropriate adjective, in this case.

It was also a case of The Mighty Backhand battling against The Mighty Forehand, and The Mighty Backhand emerged the victor, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1. Prior to the gold medal match, neither player had dropped a set. Undoubtedly heartbreaking for Kerber fans, the occasion was nevertheless a high point in the 2016 season of both players. Kerber's movement appeared to be a bit hampered throughout the match, but she managed to stage a dramatic comeback of sorts from 0-5 down in the third set. At 5-1, it looked as though the German star might even be able to reverse her fortunes, but Puig would have none of it.


Puig even looked special, in her bold (and very becoming) red, white and blue kit. All the confidence she has displayed throughout the season just kept growing--right before our eyes--as she whacked down victim after victim in Rio. Prior to entering the Olympic stadium, the world number 34 had never faced off with a top 5 opponent, yet she managed to defeat two of them during the Games. And prior to Puig's Rio victory, no one from Puerto Rico had ever won an Olympic gold medal. In fact, no Puerto Rican woman had ever won an Olympic medal of any color.

Petra Kvitova, who looked especially fierce in Rio, despite losing her semifinal match to Puig, won the bronze medal when she defeated Madison Keys in the bronze medal match. Kvitova had that "gold medal/Fed Cup" look throughout the tournament, but it wasn't to be. Still, a bronze medal is a nice piece of hardware to get, especially for a very gifted player who badly needed a boost in her very strange career. (Fashion note: Kvitova's podium outfit was beautiful.) It was fitting that Puig stood on the medal podium between the two top 3 players (and gold medal favorites) she vanquished during the tournament.

Kerber will be playing in Cincinnati this week. Kvitova has withdrawn because of a right leg injury. (Note: I'm going to be in Cincinnati for the first time and consider Petra's withdrawal from the event to be a direct consequence of my recent run of bad luck.) Puig has also withdrawn, and has cited a lower back injury as the cause.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Wild card Serena to defend title(s) in Cincinnati

Two-time defending champion Serena Williams has accepted a wild card into the main draw of the Western & Southern Open, and will face either Christina McHale or--of all people--Elina Svitolina in the second round. Williams is also the top seed. The top qualifying seed is Misaki Doi, replacing Laura Siegemund.

Jelena Jankovic had to withdraw from Cincinnati because of a shoulder injury.

The other wild cards are McHale and Louisa Chirico. Cirico's first round opponent is Monica Puig, who will play in the Olympic gold medal match tomorrow against Angelique Kerber.

If Williams, who has been dealing with a shoulder injury, reaches the quarterfinals in Cincinnati, she will keep her number 1 ranking. If she loses before the quarterfinals and Kerber wins the tournament, Kerber will be the new world number 1.

Should McHale lose her opening match, that would leave Svitolina--the player who took Williams out of the Olympics--to face the world number 1 again, which would be an interesting twist. Should Williams win her second round match, she could then play Karolina Pliskova. Or Jelena Ostapenko. Or maybe even Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who came back to life at the Olympic Games.  Coming up next would be Timea Bacsinszky, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lesia Tsurenko, or a qualifier.

"A qualifier" really means something here, too. The qualifying draw contains the likes of Eugenie Bouchard, the increasingly dangerous Timea Babos,  Daria Gavrilova, Alize Cornet, Kirsten Flipkens, Monica Niculescu, and Camila Giorgi. That's quite a tournament in itself.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Even Li Na couldn't have foreseen this much crazy

"Welcome to the crazy women's tennis tour," Li Na once said. She must be shaking her head right now, as the tennis portion of the 2016 Olympic Games unleashes a giant tennis ball can of crazy on the world.

First, consider who isn't even in Rio to compete. No Halep. No Sharapova. No Azarenka. That's strange enough, but the way things have unfolded in the first three rounds is even stranger.

Both Venus Williams and Aga Radwanska went out in the first round, the former to Kirsten Flipkens, and the latter to Zheng Saisai. The Williams-Flipkens match lasted three and a quarter hours, and kind of stands in a class all its own. Williams was dealing some some type of virus, too. Radwwanska--who had to travel all over the world to even get to Rio--was probably exhausted, yet it was still a shock to see her go out (again) in the first round.

Venus and Serena Williams went out in the first round of doubles. The Czech team of Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova defeated the 2012 Olympic champions. Safarova and Strycova, both formidable doubles competitors, had never before played together. Venus Williams, of course, was still dealing with the virus, and there had even been talk that she might have to withdraw.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, seeded 3rd at the Olympic Games, moved easily through the first two rounds, and then got wiped out in the third round by the ever-dangerous Monica Puig, who defeated her 6-1, 6-1. And yes, this is so "Mugu."

And then there was Serena Williams, who lost her third round match this evening to Elina Svitolina. Svitolina looked a bit like Angelique Kerber from time to time in this match; she kept the ball low and engaged in a sometimes-lethal transition game. Williams, on the other hand, double-faulted eight times, with five of the double faults clustered in one game toward the end of the match. The defending Olympic champion committed 37 unforced errors in two sets; she clearly was not herself.

All of this news is overwhelming, but there's more! P3tra Kvitova (aka Bad Petra) has made a few brief appearances on the court, but for the most part, Fed Cup Petra, aka Good Petra, has played her way to the quarterfinals. Kvitova defeated two strong opponents--Timea Babos and Caroline Wozniacki--to get to the third round. She got quite a fight, as expected, from Ekaterina Makarova, but came out victorious in three sets.

Of note: Anna Karolina Schmiedlova knocked Roberta Vinci out in the first round, and dragged Makarova to three sets in the second round. Schmiedy lives!!

Today, Santina announced that it is no more. The world number 1 doubles team of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza has called it quits. This isn't a complete surprise; their results haven't been that good lately. Hingis will team with CoCo Vandeweghe at the U.S. Open, and Mirza will play with Barbora Strycova. I like the Mirza/Strycova pairing and am eager to see what they do.

Is that enough crazy for now? I'm sure there's more to come. Here's the good part--even without Serena Williams, the singles quarterfinal draw is nothing short of delicious:

Elina Svitolina (15) vs. Petra Kvitova (11)
Monica Puig vs. Laura Siegemund
Madison Keys (7) vs. Daria Kasatkina
Johanna Konta (16) vs. Angelique Kerber (2)

The Puig-Siegemund match will undoubtedly be the least heralded of the four, yet it has the potential to be outstanding. But really, all four of these matches have such great potential.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Where are they now?, Where are they going?

The Next Big Thing in tennis is not always the Next Big Thing. Here are are a few players who were "anointed" way too early in their careers:

Michelle Larcher De Brito
The Portuguese teenager broke through at such an early age that she was immediately called a "prodigy." When she was 12, Larcher De Brito won the Eddie Herr tournament, and she won the Orange Bowl when she was 14. Sadly, she became better known for her on-court screaming than she did for her tennis, although--in 2013, playing as a qualifier, she beat Maria Sharapova in the second round at Wimbledon. This victory fueled a possible resurgence for Larcher De Brito, but it wasn't to be. She has yet to win a WTA tournament, and is currently ranked number 245 in the world.

Tamira Paszek
The Austrian player was also considered a tennis prodigy by many. She reached the round of 16 at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2007, but that remains the peak of her career. That career has, at times, been interrupted by injury and other issues. Paszek has won three titles, but none since 2012, when she defeated Angelique Kerber for the Eastbourne title. She is clearly talented, but has not been able to reach anything near the success that was frequently predicted for her. She is currently ranked number 105 in the world.

Nicole Vaidisova
Vaidisova is a bit of a different story. The Czeck player actually rose to a number 10 ranking in 2006. She won six WTA events, and reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, as well as the quarterfinals (twice) at Wimbledon. An undeniable talent, Vaidisova sometimes struggled to control her temper. She retired from professional tennis in 2010. I recall that someone who knew her well remarked that the Czech star simply had a dislike for competition. In 2014, however, Vaidisova came back to the tour, but retired again not long ago.

It's hard to imagine the tremendous pressure--both internal and external--that is placed on a young player who has been chosen as The Next Big Thing. In some cases, perhaps that player just couldn't handle the rigors of tennis life after junior competition. In other cases, the family or public pressure may get in the way.

Recall Andrea Jaeger, who had a top 10 career, reaching the finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon, and the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. Jaeger's career was cut very short by injury, but it also came out that she had little interest in competing; after retiring, she revealed that she had tanked some very big matches. Jaeger  (who had endured significant parental abuse), made it clear that her heart was just never in it--She would go on to become Sister Andrea, a member of the Anglican Order of Preachers, though she allegedly left the order several years ago.

And while tennis doesn't have a dramatic story of "failed prodigy shows them all," golf does. Michelle Wie was hailed as the ultimate gold prodigy, and had some very impressive sponsorships contracts, but when she didn't meet public expectations, she was treated very harshly by the sports media and by fans. But Wie hung on. She went to Stanford, made exceptional grades, and earned a degree. She also began painting, and--not surprisingly--experienced healing and a sense of focus from creating art.

In 2014, Wie won the U.S. Open, showing the world that she was indeed a very fine golfer, and doing it on her terms (she is still criticized for her putting style). So far, Wie has won four LPGA events, with the U.S. Open being the only major. She may never be a Lydia Ko or an Inbee Park, but one never knows--Wie is only 26, and the career of a professional golfer can last many years.

Every year, I wonder which of tennis's Next Big Things will "make the cut." Obviously, Garbine Muguruza has already done so, and time will tell about the likes of Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys and Belinda Bencic.