Saturday, November 19, 2016

2016--complicated and thrilling

Photo by Daniel Ward

Every year is complicated when it comes to summarizing the WTA, but this year sometimes seemed beyond complicated. And it's always difficult for me to narrow the season down to a top 10, but it seemed even harder this year.

I'll begin with some of the more unpleasant aspects. In February, Salah Tahlek, the director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, was angry because some top WTA players withdrew from the event, and who could blame him? But Tahlek had more on his mind that just the unfortunate withdrawals and his perceived lack of player commitment. Calling men's tennis "the real tennis," Tahlek went on to say that "Men's tennis has always been better than women's tennis."

The WTA immediately called out the sexist belief behind that statement. Just kidding! Of course they didn't.

Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore didn't fare as well as Tahlek. Moore said, "In my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky." Moore then suggested that WTA professionals "get down on their knees" and thank the elite ATP players.

So many people were outraged by Moore's disgusting comments, he wound up resigning. And I doubt seriously, if he has a next life, that Moore will be fortunate enough to return as a professional tennis player.

On to a better subject--Zhang Shuai. Zhang almost made my top 10 list, so amazing and heartwarming was her story. Upon entering the season, the Chinese player had made 14 attempts to win a main draw match at a major, and had failed 14 times. She was so discouraged that she thought about retiring from pro tennis before the season even began. But then she gave it one more try, at the Australian Open, and her career changed dramatically.

Zhang won her three qualifying matches, then stunned the tennis world by upsetting world number 2 Simona Halep in straight sets in the first round. She followed that with defeats of Alize Cornet, Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys. Keys was injured, but that doesn't ensure an upset. Zhang lost to Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals, but what a run it was! Zhang went on to have a very good season--her best ever, in fact. She began the year ranked number 133 in the world, and ended it ranked number 23.

Also impressive was Shelby Rogers' French Open run. The North Carolina native had what might be called the draw from hell, but that didn't stop her from reaching the quarterfinals. In the first round, she beat Karolina Pliskova, then went on to knock out Elena Vesnina, Petra Kvitova and Irina Camelia Begu. Rogers even handed two bagels to Kvitova (with a 6-7 tiebreak in the middle). She was finally stopped by eventual champion Garbine Muguruza.

Speaking of Vesnina, she returned from a long injury and rehab break and showed very impressive form. She was the runner-up in Charleston (for the second time), and made it all the way to the semifinals at Wimbledon, where she defeated the likes of Andrea Petkovic, doubles partner Ekaterina Makarova and Dominika Cibulkova. Vesnina was also defeated by the eventual champion; in this case, it was Serena Williams. This was quite a comeback, and of course, Vesnina's doubles record was superb. More about that later.

In 2016, the Family Circle Cup became the Volvo Car Open, and along with the name and sponsor change came some significant innovations. An extra Jumbotron was added to the Billie Jean King Court in the stadium, and emcees and player interviews were added to the Althea Gibson Club Court. Most interesting, however, was the addition that let fans view courts all over the complex--including practice courts--from their mobile devices.

Not so innovative were some ideas that WTA CEO Steve Simon shared with the world. Simon suggested the possibility of changing the singles format to emulate the doubles format--no-ad scoring and a deciding tiebreak set instead of a third set. Using this format, in my opinion, has pretty much destroyed the professional doubles game, but at least there was a (sort of) reasonable explanation for the change: get more players to participate in doubles (whether that worked, I'm not sure).  But Simon's reason for suggesting we destroy singles, also? People have short attention spans. Fortunately, reaction to this idea has been overwhelmingly negative.

In 2016, Johanna Konta and Elina Svitlina both showed why they are rising stars. Konta is now number 10 in the world, and Svitolina (obviously helped by getting some coaching from Justine Henin) is now number 14 in the world.

Victoria Azarenka was the spring star when she won the Sunshine Double. But--as is so often the case with Azarenka--there was a plot twist. This time, it was the announcement of her pregnancy. Azarenka says she doesn't know exactly when she'll return to the tour.

Then there was Kiki Bertens, who drove her Fed Cup brilliance (The Netherlands upset Russia this year) all the way to the French Open semifinals.

There were some notable comebacks (one of which I'll get to later). Vesnina I've already mentioned, but there was also Caroline Wozniacki, who--seemingly out of nowhere--reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open, which got her back into the top 30. The Dane ended the season ranked number 19 in the world.

Both Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova continued to confuse us. Halep had to deal with an achilles injury, and also suffered with a nose problem, for which she was supposed to have surgery, but didn't. She won Madrid, Bucharest and Montreal, which means she had a successful season, but she didn't make it past the quarterfinals of any of the majors. Halep is currently ranked number number 4 in the world.

Then there was Petra. The Barking Czech was all over the place in 2016. She ended her partnership with long-time coach David Kotyza, and--though she tried out a couple of coaches--has yet to settle on anyone new. Kvitova's clay season was unremarkable, and her grass season was a low mark. But things started looking up for her when she won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games.

She won her 18th career title in Wuhan, where she put on a stunning display of tennis. That display included a 3-hour-and-19 minute defeat of world number 1 Angelique Kerber, as well as wins over Konta, Halep and Dominika Cibulkova. Kvitova failed to qualify for the WTA Finals, but did qualify, of course, for the WTA Elite Trophy competition, which she won. Kvitova ended her season ranked number 11 in the world. The Petra we saw in Wuhan is the one whom we like to refer to as the "real" Petra, but the real Petra's appearances have been few and far between for a while.

Another major newsmaker was Serena Williams, though the news she generated wasn't what she and her fans were going for. Williams lost both the Australian Open and French Open finals, and was taken out of the Olympic round of 16 by Svitolina. She and Venus failed to win a medal in women's doubles, as they went out in the first round to Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic. Serena did win her seventh Wimbledon title, but she had to drop out of the WTA Finals because of a lingering shoulder injury. The biggest news was that--after 186 weeks (tied with Steffi Graf's record)--Williams lost her number 1 ranking.

Williams is now 35 years old and ranked number 2 in the world. She has had multiple injuries her entire career, but, as one gets older, the rehab takes longer and there is more vulnerability. The question now is: Has Serena Williams begun an organic move down the rankings, or does she have yet another surprise for us?

Williams is the definition of the term "elite athlete," displaying the highest levels of tennis acumen, athletic ability, strategic thinking, and mental strength. Stay tuned....

Every season, of course, there is this:

And then there's my favorite moment of 2016:

And now, my top 10 occurrences of 2016, in ascending order:

10. Twice the thrills: Doubles competition was fierce this year. Lucie Safarova, returning from a tough recovery from a bacterial infection and consequent reactive arthritis, teamed up again with partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and they went right back to their winnings ways, grabbing the U.S. Open title. Serena and Venus Williams won the Wimbledon title, and Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza won the Australian Open. For the first time in ages, a French team--Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic--won the French Open.

And now, here's the promised addition to the Vesnina segment: Vesnina and Bruno Soares won the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open, starting the Russian's comeback year in high style. And she and partner Ekaterina Makarova won the gold medal in doubles at the Olympic Games and also the WTA Finals championship. It should also be noted that in winning the French Open mixed doubles title (with Leander Paes), Hingis accomplished a Career Slam in mixed doubles.

9. Catching big fishes: During the Cincinnati tournament, Karolina Pliskova talked with the press about one of her favorite off-court activities--fishing. But, she said, she "just fishes in the Czech" and therefore doesn't catch any "big fishes." A few days after that press conference, she caught a very big fish--she won the event, beating Angelique Kerber in the final and thereby preventing the German from reaching the number 1 ranking. Pliskova would go on to reach the final of the U.S. Open, and this time, Kerber got the better of her.

Fans have been waiting for Pliskova to make a big breakthrough at a major, but she took her time about it. Now, though, it seems just about inevitable that the tall, cool-headed Czech will see a lot of week 2 action at majors.

8. Since u been gone: Last year, no one was hotter than Santina, and now, Santina is no more. Just like that, after winning five tournaments in 2016 (including the Australian Open), Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza called an end to their partnership. Last year, they won nine tournaments, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the WTA Finals. It looked as though no one could stop them, but things started to fall apart and they called it quits.

Mirza, however, chose a new partner whom anyone would be happy to have by her side--the irrepressible Barbora Strycova. They won Cincinnati and Tokyo, and Mirza played with Monica Niculescu in New Haven and won that, too. The upshot of all this is that Mirza remains the number 1 doubles player in the world, a position she first acquired while playing with Hingis.

7. Comeback Domi-nation: Dominika Cibulkova was named the WTA's Comeback Player of the Year for 2016, and oh, did she stage a comeback. After missing much of the 2015 season because of an achilles injury and subsequent surgery, Cibulkova came back strong. She reached the final in Acapulco, won the Katowice Open, won Eastbourne, then reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals. At Wimbledon, she also played one of the best--if not the best--matches of the year, when she defeated Radwanska in a three-hour, very high quality thriller. She then reached the final in Wuhan, and won in Linz. Those achievements would have been enough to make her the Comeback Player of the Year (perhaps competing with Vesnina), But Cibulkova was saving the best for the very end.

For the first time in her career, Cibulkova qualified for the WTA Finals, getting the last qualifying slot. She lost twice in round robin play, but--just like Agnieszka Radwanska the year before--she nevertheless managed to reach the semifinals, and then to win the whole thing. It was remarkable that this would happen two years in a row, but that takes nothing away from Cibulkova's tough mindset. She defeated world number 1 Angelique Kerber in the final. Cibulkova is now number 5 in the world.

6. Pojd!: They did it again. The Czech Fed Cup team won the title for the third time in a row, and for the fifth time in the last six years. It wasn't easy. Captain Mauresmo had her French team ready, and the event got off to a roaring start when Karolina Pliskova and Kiki Mladenovic went at it for three hours and 48 minutes. Mladenovic lost that one, but Caroline Garcia won both of her rubbers, and the final ended up going into a fifth rubber with two very sharp doubles teams competing. Pliskova and Barbora Strycova were just too good, even for the Frenchies, and the Czech team--led to victory by Strycova, who won her singles and doubles rubber on day 2--lifted another trophy.

The French team has been so good all year, one couldn't help but wonder if 2017 will be the year they win the whole thing. However, their first-rate captain, Amelie Mauresmo, just resigned because she is pregnant. Whoever steps in will have to be very special in order to measure up to Mauresmo's combination of tactical cleverness and emotional inspiration.

5. The grass is greener on Serena's side: Serena Williams won her 7th Wimbledon title and her 22nd title overall this year, defeating Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final. She and her sister, Venus, also won the doubles title. Williams dropped just one set the entire tournament.

4. Major feat of clay: The WTA has many mysteries, and one of them is Garbine Muguruza. Content to just "Mugu around" for much of the season, the Spaniard--who likes the big stage--was very focused in Paris. Having beaten Serena Williams in the second round in 2014, and having reached the Wimbledon final in 2015 (losing to Serena), Muguruza did what many have expected her to do--win a major. She defeated Williams in the final, hitting a memorable match point lob that sailed over Williams' head and landed right on the line.

3. Upsetting the gold standard: For the past couple of seasons, Monica Puig has shown the world just how much talent she has. And while we all enjoyed watching Puig make her way on the tour, I doubt if any of us understood exactly what that would mean in 2016. Seemingly out of nowhere, the fiery player from Puerto Rico shocked the world by winning Olympic gold in singles. The unseeded Puig went on a tear in Rio, defeating--among others--Garbine Mugaruza and Petra Kvitova. In the final, she faced off against Angelique Kerber, and defeated her 6-4, 4-6, 6-1.

There was more to come. The National Olympic Committees recently named Puig Best Female Athlete at the Olympic Games.

2. Pot-kettle/tempest-teapot: Everyone who reads this blog and follows me on Twitter knows where I have stood--and continue to stand--on the matter of Maria Sharapova's ban. Yes, some type of consequence was in order for the Russian, but hardly a two-year suspension, and I remain deeply skeptical of the context of the whole affair. Dozens of Eastern European athletes, mostly Russian, just happen to get banned shortly before the Olympics for using a substance I'm still not convinced is performance-enhancing (in the "doping" sense). Then there was an "oops" moment, and they were un-banned. Except for one. Because there had to be one, and that one turned out to be Maria.

Then there was the utter silence of the sports (and other) media when WADA head Craig Reedie said: "For me, the only satisfactory element in Madame Sharapova’s case was that in one year she can earn more money than the whole of WADA’s budget put together." In a sane world, those remarks would have merited some investigation, given the mass "forgiveness" of other athletes who used Meldonium. Finally, both WADA and the ITF have questionable histories and aren't known for exercising good or fair judgment.

Sharapova's ban was cut to 15 months by the Court for Arbitration of Sport, and she'll be back next spring.

1. Touched by an Angelique: Last year, I wrote about the thoughtful, steady rise of Angelique Kerber as a top player. The left-handed German, known for her stunning defensive play, knew she had to become threatening in other ways in order to reach elite status, and so she took on the task of enlarging her already very good game. All that work paid off this season, which she began by winning the Australian Open, defeating Serena Williams in the final.

Kerber would go on to defend her title in Stuttgart, and to reach the final of Wimbledon, where she was defeated by Williams. The German won a silver medal at the Olympics, then rounded out her year by winning the U.S. Open. She also finished the season as the number 1 player in the world.

Kerber's year was so big, her disappointments were also noteworthy. Losing the Wimbledon final was a big disappointment, of course, and--on two other occasions--as I wrote on Twitter--she was overcome by feisty. Both Puig and Cibulkova are relentless competitors who--in both the Olympic and Singapore finals--threw everything they had at Kerber and defended so well against her, they prevailed. And this must have made their victories all the sweeter.

Angelique Kerber, a superb athlete known for moving her opponents all over the court, is also a stunning shotmaker. The longer her career goes, the more enjoyable she is to watch. 2016 belonged to her, and she wore it well.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hat trick!

For the third year in a row, and for the fifth in six years, the Czech Republic has won Fed Cup. And what a final it was. You knew it was going to be epic when the first rubber lasted three hours and 48 minutes and included the longest set ever played in Fed Cup history. Karolina Pliskova defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-4, 3-6, 16-14 in what was a very high quality thriller.

Adding to the drama (always drama in Fed Cup), Mladenovic cramped badly in the final set, and saved a couple of match points to get to 9-all, even though she had use of only one leg. It ended a bit less dramatically, when the Frenchwoman was broken at love in the final game.

Not to worry--Caroline Garcia was up next, and she took care of Petra Kvitova, 7-6, 6-3, putting the former Fed Cup star into the zero column yet again. To make things worse, Kvitova had to withdraw from day 2 because of a stress fracture in her right foot.

Garcia, however, came back on day 2 and beat Pliskova, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in what was pretty much a clinic in how beat the tall Czech. This was the Garcia we first noticed a few years ago. She makes an appearance sometimes, but not often enough. Her serve has improved a lot, and her aggression is notable. She just won the Fed Cup Heart Award, and nobody could argue with that. Her performance in this final was outstanding.

With France leading 2-1, Barbora Strycova faced off against Alize Cornet. Cornet should be a great Fed Cup player; she's very talented, likes to pull upsets, and she loves the big stage--and she entered with a dominating record (5-1) against Garcia.  But the one stage she can't handle is the Fed Cup stage. Today, she handled herself better, but it wasn't enough to push back the aggressive and explosive phenomenon that is Strycova. She beat Cornet 6-2, 7-6,  and tied the two countries at 2-all.

It seemed fitting that this amazing final would have to go to a fifth rubber. And you really couldn't have asked for more than a huge doubles match played between Pliskova/Strycova and Garcia/Mladenovic. Playing in France with most of the crowd behind them, the French Open champions had a very good chance to win. But Pliskova and Strycova were just too good. Their 7-5, 7-5 victory sealed the 2016 championship for their country.

If the first half of the final was all about Garcia (with much credit to Mladenovic for her beautiful performance, even while cramping), the second was all about Strycova. Many words--"feisty," "firecracker," "emotional"--have been used to describe Strycova, but none of them is sufficient. Barbora Strycova is a complex combination of no nonsense and high drama. She entertains us with her facial expressions, her fist-pumping (right at Pliskova after Pliskova hit a winner) and her sometimes officious behavior. But that's just the wrapping. Inside is a mature player who has been through a lot, who is more talented now than she was five years ago, and who understands what it takes to win.

A shout-out has to go to France's captain, Amelie Mauresmo, who has had many jobs--including tournament director and coach--but none seems to suit her as well as being Fed Cup captain. Her keen decision-making and her ability to motivate players got France to the final, and almost to the championship. During the final, the camera was frequently on her, as she did everything from massaging Mladenovic's leg to practically breathing fire into Garcia.

2017 will be interesting.

Many fans have requested that the Fed Cup final be changed so that the doubles rubber is the third one, as it is in Davis Cup play. I originally agreed with this idea, but now I'm not so sure. I kind of like having the doubles be the deciding rubber, if needed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Cheers for the red, white and blue--and I don't mean the USA

I mean Strasbourg, where the Fed Cup World Group final will be played this weekend between France and defending champion Czech Republic. Why France chose an indoor hard court for this contest is a mystery, as it plays right to the strengths of Petra Kvitova. Captain Amelie Mauresmo is no fool, however, so one assumes there was a good reason.

The French team is a strong one, with both Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic always on call to do double duty, if needed. Alize Cornet should be part of the team's strength, but she has a history of poor Fed Cup performance. That's odd, too, because Fed Cup brings out the kind of big-crowd, spirited competition upon which Cornet generally thrives.

Joining Garcia, Mladenovic and Cornet on the team will be Pauline Parmentier. Garcia and Mladenovic, the 2016 French Open champions, recently won the WTA's Doubles Team of the Year award.

World number 6 Karolina Pliskova and world number 11 Petra Kvitova lead the Czech team, and are joined by Barbora Strycova and Lucie Hradecka. Pliskova has carried the team this year, with a lot of help from Strycova. And while Kvitova's recent Fed Cup exploits have been nothing like her former ones, the final is very likely to feature Scary Petra, fresh from a win in Zuhai, and apparently feeling pretty good about her game.

Do the French have a chance? Yes, but only if Kvitova has a collapse. And even then, Kvitova would have to lose both of her singles rubbers. Of course, Pliskova could lose a singles rubber. She's 1-1 against the tricky (and sometimes very good-serving) Mladenovic, and 1-1 against Garcia (one of those losses was on clay). Should the final somehow wind up in a doubles decider, it would be a thrilling one, pitting Garcia and Mladenovic against Pliskova and Strycova, most likely.

The Czech Republic won Fed Cup in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015.