Saturday, December 31, 2016

My hot 10 for 2017

original photo by Daniel Ward
Tennis season predictions, even the vague kind (which is the only kind I ever attempt) are always tricky, but for 2017, they appear especially so. Change is in the air, only it isn't always obvious change. There are a number of players with the potential to perform quite well in this new season, and I've selected ten who I believe have an edge. But before I list them, here are some "very warm" candidates who didn't make my cut, but who could also easily do great things in 2017. In no particular order:

Madison Keys
Why, you may ask, is she not in the top ten? And all I can tell you is that it's just my instinct. Keys is loaded with potential, but between her injuries and what appears to be lulls in playing momentum, she hasn't met it. She could meet it at any time, but to me, she just isn't "warm enough" at this time.

Caroline Wozniacki
I had no idea that the Dane would wind up on this list, but her performances at the end of the 2016 season placed her back in contention as a top player. Will she continue this streak? Who knows?

Kiki Mladenovic
Mladenovic has a lot going for her. She has a wicked serve, a love of big stages, a strategic mindset, and a nice variety of shots. But that serve can go off. And the Frenchwoman can also falter mentally. Her great successes in doubles, and in Fed Cup, have given her confidence, I think. I always feel that Mladenovic is "on the edge" in singles, and 2017 could see her step over it.

Daria Gavrilova
Gavrilova has a lot of strengths and a lot of skills. She appears to put her whole heart into playing, and she has worked hard. She appears to be fearless, which could serve her well in the future.

Daria Kasatkina
It has to happen some time. Look for the Russian to get noticed even more in the coming year.

Kiki Bertens
She finally got her big clay breakthrough in 2016. Will this Fed Cup beast do even better in 2017--and maybe not just on clay? Bertens "should" have made the breakthrough sooner. She has a big game and a steady attitude. Wait and see.

Caroline Garcia
Garcia has gotten in trouble in the past because of mental wavering. If all of her Fed Cup success has steadied her, she might surprise us in the new season.

Aan Konjuh
Something big may not happen for a while, but you never know.

Genie Bouchard
Right now, Bouchard is probably the least predictable player on the tour. I like her chances.

Belinda Bencic
She has almost everything going for her, but the young Swiss star is already so hampered by injury that she can't keep any momentum going. If she solves the health problem, she'll make her second breakout.

And now--again, in no particular order--my "hot 10" for 2017, based on their records, their progress, and my instinct (note: Vika Azarenka and Petra Kvitova would have been on this list, but circumstances, of course, intervened):

Angelique Kerber
The world number 1 had an amazing 2016 season, winning two majors and an Olympic silver medal, and rising to the top of the rankings. Kerber now displays the walk, talk and demeanor of a champion. It isn't easy being a champion, and yes, she's going to feel the pressure, but I like the way she has handled herself,  and I expect very good results from her in 2017.

Serena Williams
Serena seems to always "come back" when she has never really gone away. The "half full" description of her 2016 singles year is that she played in three major finals, while the "half empty" one is that she lost two of them, lost her number 1 ranking, and failed to win a medal at the Olympics. Logic dictates that Williams will be on a natural decline from this point on, given her age and her history of extreme physical and mental effort. But this is Serena we're talking about, so even a natural decline could contain very big things.

Simona Halep
I just don't feel that Halep has peaked. I hope I'm right, too. The Romanian star sometimes seems to make things more difficult for herself with her perfectionist mindset and her tendency to be overly philosophical (well, is that ever a nod to idol Justine Henin). I remember when Marion Bartoli had the good sense to bring Amelie Mauresmo along as her coach at the 2013 Wimbledon event, and every time Bartoli began ruminating, Mauresmo would make her dance. I think maybe somebody needs to get Simona to bust a move. At any rate, I believe she's going to have a good 2017 season.

Karolina Pliskova
Well, if anyone is on fire, it's Pliskova. She won Cincinnati, then she went to New York and obliterated her dismal record at majors (she'd never gotten past a third round) by reaching the final. And she did it all with her characteristic, long, tall, too-cool approach. The big-serving Czech, also a Fed Cup star, has nowhere to go but up, and I see her making a steady and delightful trip up the tennis elevator next year.

Dominika Cibulkova
I believe in Cibulkova, and I wasn't surprised that she pulled off of the Combeback of the Year in 2016, after undergoing surgery for her achilles. At the end of the season, after reaching the Wuhan final and winning Linz, Cibulkova sneaked into the WTA Finals and took home the trophy. Gone are the days of the chronic hip injury. A healthy Cibulkova is dangerous, and I like her chances in 2017.

Maria Sharapova
She won't be back until mid-season, but when she returns, look for her to shake things up. Will she be wildly successful? Probably not. But she'll make a statement, and--based on her history--she'll be more than ready.

Johanna Konta
Konta, in my view, has "it." We cannot ever define exactly what "it" is, but we know it when we see it. Currently number 10 in the world, the Brit appears ready to take on anybody, and I think 2017 will be her best season ever.

Aga Radwanska
The Ninja is permanently hot. It's just how she rolls. She may falter and she may slump, but she always pulls herself back together and does something spectacular. And she's always the Ninja. And until the day she puts her racket down, she'll be the greatest shot-maker in WTA history. (And I still give her a shot at winning Wimbledon.)

Garbine Muguruza
Muguruza brilliantly won the 2016 French Open and then faded away, relatively speaking. Who can figure out the mystery that is Muguruza? It doesn't matter, because I believe Muguruza will figure it out. Why do I believe this? Instinct again. She is a real talent, and she knows she is, and my gut feeling is that in 2017, she will get serious. (I could be wrong--I've also said this about Petra Kvitova, who has yet to get it together in a way that matches her extreme talent.)

Elina Svitolina
As someone who has had an eye on the expertly-moving Ukrainian player for some time, the 2016 season was gratifying for me. Many had written her off, but Svitolina sneaked up on the tour, quite obviously aided by Justine Henin. Among her 2016 feats was to upset Serena Williams in the third round of the Olympic Games. She was also a semifinalist in a number of big events.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Tennis Carol

Virginia was retired. There was no doubt whatever about that. Margaret and Virginia were partners long ago. They’d won the Australian, the French, and the U.S. Open—twice. Virginia had a very good serve, was a clever player, and had helped stock Margaret’s trophy case.

But that was another time, a time when the tennis season seemed to revolve around Margaret. Things had changed a lot since then. First there was Billie Jean and her gang and all their feminist nonsense. Then the lesbians started announcing themselves and getting interviews. Worst of all, it became so much easier to win majors—not like in Margaret’s day. In her day, there were heavy wooden rackets, no medical time-outs, and you were lucky if you could find some water during the changeovers.

Margaret rarely saw Virginia, but she heard her on the air, making all kinds of snide remarks about the game and its players, even Andy Murray.

Now the new season was about to begin, and Margaret dreaded it. She rarely left her house except to walk to the church, where the congregation counted on her to keep them informed about all the latest attempts to give—what do they call them now?—LGBT citizens legal rights.

Though she dreaded it, Margaret had to go run some errands. Once on the street, she was assailed by reminders that the season was upon them. Maria Sharapova and Monica Puig walked by arm in arm, eating candy from a small cellophane bag. Maria smiled at Margaret and offered her some gummy lips. “Bah! Humbug!” Margaret muttered, and kept walking, as she contemplated what on Earth Sharapova had to be happy about.

She turned a corner and saw a group of women gathered at an outdoor cafe. They were telling stories and laughing until they cried. It was a chilly day, but the women didn’t seem to mind. Gathered at the table were Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep, and—with a huge slice of cheesecake on her plate—Aga Radwanska. They looked up when they saw her pass, but continued to laugh.

“They’re probably laughing at me,” Margaret thought. As if she cared. She was eager to get away from all of this tennis season hoopla, but it was hard to avoid. She saw Venus and Serena, practicing on a court in the park. “Why,” wondered Margaret, “are those two still playing? They’re old and they’re rich. It makes no sense.”

She was so lost in thought that, a moment later, she almost collided with a strange figure, dressed head to toe in designer red and very high heels. Her hair was covered with glitter. She leapt and twirled, seemingly oblivious to everyone and everything else around her.

“What is that odd creature?” Margaret asked out loud. She jumped when a voice behind her said, “Don’t you know? That’s the Light—and the Joy!” Margaret turned around and saw Li Na, who grinned at her, then disappeared into the crowd.

“Bah! Humbug!” Margaret muttered to herself.

She had almost reached her house, when suddenly, someone tapped her on the back. She turned around and took in a shocking sight: A woman—a tennis player—covered in tattoos and wearing a leopard-pattern kit and black knee-high socks, smiled at her. How, thought Margaret, could this kind of getup ever be permitted on a tennis court? What had happened to her sport?

The woman spoke with authority. “Happy tennis season! Some of us are blessed, but some of us need help.”

“What do you mean?” Margaret asked, in spite of herself.

“Well, Simona and Petra could use some confidence, Petra and Lucie have health issues, Alize needs more consistency, the poor French Fed Cup team has lost Captain Mauresmo, Maria has had to endure the whims of WADA and the ITF, Sara and Andrea are sliding down the rankings. Oh, and poor Schmiedy is about to be declared an unnatural disaster.”

“Why should I care about any of them?” Margaret said sharply, then walked off.

“Wait!” the tattooed figure called to her. “If you don’t care about any of them, what about Little Genie?



You know—Little Genie. She was going to be the biggest star on the tour, but terrible things happened to her, and now her career is in grave danger.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was 2014, and Scary Petra destroyed Little Genie in the Wimbledon final, right after the press built her up as the sure champion. Scary Petra showed no mercy, and Little Genie hasn’t been the same since.”

“She’ll get over it. Or not.” Margaret had heard enough of this.

“But that’s not all! Little Genie sustained some injuries, but then she started playing better. But one night, at the U.S. Open, those who were supposed to protect Little Genie left her open to harm. She slipped and hit her head and wound up with a concussion. And a lawsuit. And the USTA acts likes it’s all Little Genie’s fault! Hasn’t she suffered enough?”

“Leave me alone!” Margaret yelled, and trudged home.

That night, while she was sipping her tea, Margaret heard the sound of chains rattling. She looked up and saw Virginia.

“How did you get in?”

“That isn’t for you to know,” Virginia said. “I’m here, Margaret, to tell you that you will be visited by many images, some much scarier than I could ever be as a cynical commentator. You will not like much of what you see and hear.”

Before Margaret could answer, there was again the rattling of chains, only much louder. Standing before her, suddenly, was a player whose face was swollen and covered with gashes.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Liezel. Maybe you don’t recognize me. My opponents always hit me in the face, and now I walk the Earth talking about how glorious U.S. citizenship is, and reminding people that I became a success even though I came from a third world country!”

The pathetic figure moved on, but right behind her was the scariest apparition of the three. Rattling a large number of chains, this wild-eyed figure shook her finger at Margaret and said to her: “Life is beautiful. Wait—life sucks. Whatever. It’s going to be a happy season, though, because we’re going to make American great again and kick some serious immigrant and liberal ass! Rejoice! Maybe there’ll be a war! Why are people so mean to me? Haters, begone!”

Jennifer, thankfully, disappeared into the mist.

Exhausted, Margaret went to sleep. But she had slept only a few hours when she was awakened by a presence. She sat up in bed and saw before her yet another apparition. But this one had no chains. She was chic and elegant, and had an air of mischief about her. She looked as though every muscle in her body was poised to move at any time. Dressed in Wimbledon white from her wrap headband to her skirt and stockings, the figure stood with a soft glow about her.

“Hello, Margaret,” she said quietly. “I am the Spirit of Tennis Past, come to visit you as we embark on a new season.”

Margaret finally cracked. She began to tremble, and the figure in white winked at her, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a flask, which she offered to Margaret.

“It will calm you down,” she said quietly.

“Nonsense. I don’t need calming down, and I certainly don’t want anything to do with whiskey.”

“I always found it very helpful,” the spirit said, then took a swig before putting the flask back in her pocket.

“What do you want with me?” Margaret asked, as she continued to tremble.

“I’m here to show you what it was like long ago, way, way before the Open Era.”

The spirit gestured, and Margaret felt compelled to follow her. She found herself in a field where women were wearing long skirts and hitting tennis balls.

“How could they play, dressed like that?”

“It wasn’t easy,” the spirit laughed. “That’s why I wore a shorter skirt and a sleeveless top. You may recall, I created a scandal.”

“But you had to be comfortable to play.”

“Of course. My point is, if we don’t change things, if we keep doing things the way women are ‘expected’ to do them, we can’t be successful.

“I was a celebrity, too, you know.”

“We did fine in my day without any of that,” Margaret muttered.

“Ah, but did you have as much fun?” the spirit laughed. My spirit lives on, in Amelie’s grace, in Alize’s leaping, in Kiki’s style. I wonder, Margaret, if you spirit will live on.”

And with that, the Spirit of Tennis Past took an elegant leap and was gone.

Margaret slept fitfully that night.

The next night, exhausted, she went to bed early. But again, she hadn’t been asleep long when she was awakened by another presence, this one even more intense than the first. She looked up and was stunned to see an angel standing at the foot of her bed. Margaret knew all about angels from her extensive reading of the Bible, and she sometimes mentioned them in her sermons, but she had never seen one before!

“Please tell me who you are and why you are here,” she begged the angel.

The angel gave her a crooked smile. “I am the Spirit of Tennis Present,” she said. "I train hard. I practice for hours. I look to consultants for help. People said I was limited because all I had was my brilliant defensive game, so I changed my ways. I have a transition game that would make your head spin, Margaret, and I can hit angles you could only dream about. I went from being the player no one knew about to number 1 in the world.”

“That’s impressive,” Margaret said quietly, “but what does any of it have to do with me?”

“You think we have it easy, and I’m here to tell you we don’t. Sure, we have lighter rackets and all kinds of trainers and doctors and time-outs. But we have grueling standards and non-stop travel. You, of all players, should understand—you were the first to put in time at the gym.”

“I was,” Margaret agreed, “though the credit always goes to Navratilova.”

The angel gave her that crooked smile again. “You were a great athlete, Margaret, and you worked hard and won an amazing number of titles. Now, come with me. We’re going to watch some tennis!”

Margaret didn’t dare say no to an angel, so she followed the spirit to a huge stadium, where several matches were taking place.

She had to smile when she saw Simona Halep’s speed and her ability to out-think her opponents, even the very tall ones. “Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na!” the crowd roared, and Margaret, in spite of herself, was briefly caught up in the Romanian enthusiasm.

A young blonde woman, clutching some stuffed creatures, walked by, smiled, and whispered in Margaret’s ear: “Tennis gods bless us, every one!”

“Who was that?” she asked her guide.

“Oh, that’s Little Genie,” the angel said. This sent a shiver up Margaret’s spine.

But there was more to see. Serena was serving aces with such ease, Margaret had to marvel at her. She saw Dominika Cibulkova hit the ball so hard, it startled her. Then she watched the Russians and the French playing doubles and she was very impressed. And over on a clay court, a somewhat sullen Spanish woman was putting on a show that would have impressed even Chris Evert.

“This is quite a spectacle,” Margaret remarked to the angel, and then felt foolish because surely, it must have looked as though she were talking to herself.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” the Spirit of Tennis Present replied. She then pointed to a court where a player was walking on her hands across the court, then twirling around and hitting winning volleys over her shoulder.

“You’re playing a trick on me,” Margaret said angrily.

The angel laughed. “No, that’s The Ninja. She’s powered by cheesecake.” Sure enough, it was that woman Margaret had seen at the cafe a few days ago.

“I hope you enjoyed the show, Margaret. I have to leave now—the new season begins very soon.”

And just like that, the angel was gone, and Margaret was back in her bed at home. She tried to sleep, but she was haunted by images of these players who performed with such power and finesse. She was very confused, and very tired.

Hoping that the recent madness was over, Margaret went to bed early again the next night. She was so exhausted that she fell asleep right away, but during the night, she was awakened by an intruder. This one looked different from the others. She was long and tall, her face without expression. There were tattoos on her arm. “What is it?” thought Margaret, “with the tattoos? We would never have allowed it in my day.”

Wearily, she asked; “So who are you?”

The figure, dressed in a simple tennis kit, spoke more quickly than the others: “I am the Spirit of Tennis Future. Come with me now.”

Margaret knew better than to resist someone that tall, so she did as she was told. But she didn’t recognize the place where the spirit took her. It was filled with pictures—most of them of the spirit herself—and there were messages written all over the wall.

“Where are we?”

“We’re on my Facebook page. See, there’s a picture of my sister.”

“There are two of you?”

“Here I am in a fashion shoot.”

“What does that have to do with tennis?”

“We do everything, Margaret. We’re athletes first, but we like fashion, we like travel, and we stay in touch with our fans all over the world."

“What do you want with me?”

The Spirit’s expression didn’t change: “I want you to like me on Facebook.”

“May I please go home now?”

And before the Spirit could answer, Margaret was back in her bed, thankful that the whole ordeal was over.

Except it wasn’t. The next night, Margaret awoke in terror as she heard the unmistakable sound of a horse galloping through her house. Her breathing became shallow as the horse—a most beautiful chestnut and white creature—arrived at the foot of her bed, whinnying and stomping. Sitting on top of the creature was a grinning woman, dressed in a tasteful riding habit.

“Please don’t hurt me!” Margaret screamed.

“Don’t worry, Margaret. I am your final visitor. I am Martina, Spirit of Tennis Past, Present and Future. And I have something for you to see.”

“Whatever you say,” was all Margaret could say in the face of this all-encompassing spirit.

“See these children?” the spirit asked, and before them appeared two pitiful, disabled, dirty, and starving children.

“This is terrible,” Margaret said, “and she began to cry.

“You have to look,” the spirit said sternly. I will tell you who they are: They are Sexism and Corporate Mindset, and they have already destroyed part of our beloved tennis. You ask Billie Jean—she knows. She always knew. If you care at all, Margaret, you will support all these talented and intelligent women who are Tennis Present and Tennis Future. They work as hard as you did, and they deserve a better world.

“Goodbye Margaret.” She grinned once more. “Have a happy 2017 season!” And then she and her horse galloped out of Margaret’s life.

The next day, a sleep-deprived Margaret looked at the calendar and realized the new season was just a day away. She felt somehow different, lighter, and she decided to go out for a while and get some fresh air. She passed a tennis court, and recognized Simona, Aga, Bethanie, and Domi. They waved at her and smiled, then Simona handed her a racket.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Margaret said. But the players began to shout “Margaret! Margaret!" and she joined in the game.

After a while, she told them, “I’m way too rusty for this,” but thank you so much.” They waved goodbye to her, and she realized how much fun she had had with them.

She walked a short way and saw a tall, attractive woman dancing in the street and making everyone around her laugh. Someone yelled “Petko!” and embraced the dancer, and Margaret turned to face the Light and the Joy—and she was struck by it.

She remembered something Virginia had once said: “I don’t make friends with the girls I’m playing against. It would be too painful to beat them.” What nonsense, thought Margaret, as she turned a corner and found herself face to face with Serena Williams.

“Happy season to you Margaret,” Serena greeted her. “Women still struggle to gain recognition as athletes, and I’m here to help them. Are you with me?”

“I am!” Margaret shouted, though she was surprised to hear herself say this. Serena high-fived her and moved on.

Margaret then came upon a huge park, filled with tennis players of all ages. Chris and Martina were there, as were Steffi and Monica. Marion Bartoli was selling art and jewelry from a kiosk, and several players gathered around Daniela Hantuchova, who was playing the piano for them. Flavia, Francesca, Sara, and Roberta were drinking wine and eating pasta. Amelie Mauresmo and Caroline Garcia were jumping up and down and yelling.

Sam Stosur saw her and waved. Two players called The Dashas posed for funny photographs. She saw Justine Henin and her protege, Elina, having a quiet chat. Everywhere around her were talented, athletic, interesting women who were ready for the new season.

Margaret felt something brush against her shoulder. She looked back and saw the world's number 1 player, who turned and gave Margaret the briefest look, and, Margaret thought, a slightly crooked smile.

As Margaret was pondering all of the startling events of the past week, she felt excited about the new season, and she, too, smiled. When she came out of her reverie, she saw Little Genie coming toward her, hand in hand with Scary Petra, who—off the court—was, after all, probably the least scary player on the tour. Little Genie looked happy and healthy, and as she passed Margaret, she said loudly: “Tennis gods bless us, every one!”

(original photo by Daniel Ward)