Tuesday, January 31, 2017

My Australian Open top 10

Here are my top 10 Australian Open events, in ascending order:

10. Never too late: The unseeded team of Abigail Spears and Juan Sebastian Cabal won the Australian Open mixed doubles title, and did it by beating the 2nd seeds. More impressive, they did it by beating a team of which Sania Mirza was a member. Spears and Cabal defeated Mirza and Ivan Dodig 6-2, 6-4. The 35-year-old Spears had been two two other major mixed doubles finals (both at the U.S. Open), but this is her first major mixed doubles title.

9. Never too soon: The talented Yui Kamiji won her third wheelchair singles major, knocking off top seed Jiske Griffioen 6-7, 6-3, 6-3. However, Kamiji and her partner, Diede De Groot, lost the doubles final to Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot. This is Kamiji's fourth major singles title; she holds eight major doubles titles. Griffioen also has four major singles titles (and 14 major doubles titles). With the extremely dominant Esther Vergeer out of the picture, women's wheelchair tennis has turned into a highly competitive event. It was very competitive before, of course, in terms of quality--but Vergeer was winning all the titles.

8. Si-Mohhh-Naaa!: After losing in the first round last year, 4th seed Simona Halep lost in the first round again. The Romanian apparently strayed too close to what The Backspinner aptly refers to as "The Cliffs Of Simona," and tumbled right over into the void. I expect her to do much better in Paris, but meanwhile, having the first major of the season as your nemesis is not a pleasant experience.

7. Conspicuous by their absence: Yes, it was a great Australian Open, but it was notable for those who did not attend. Two-time champion Vika Azarenka, former champion Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, and Madison Keys--all elite players--could not be there. One especially wonders what the combination of cooler temperatures and faster courts might have meant for Kvitova.

6. Age before everything: The four semifinalists had a combined age of 130, with CoCo Vandeweghe being the "baby," at age 25. Youth is most definitely not being served. A 35-year-old won the tournament (ATP, also), and a 36-year-old was the runner-up.

5. All CoCo, no puff: CoCo Vandeweghe did some very heavy lifting in this tournament, taking out the tricky former U.S. Open runner-up Roberta Vinci, former Wimbledon runner-up Genie Bouchard, defending champion (and U.S. Open champion) and world number 1 Angie Kerber, and French Open champion Garbine Muguruza. She fell to Venus Williams in the semifinal, but not without a fight. The occasion appeared to get to Vandeweghe at that point, but if she can overcome that sort of (expected) lapse, she has nowhere to go but up. The 25-year-old Californian has refined both her game and her athleticism a great deal, and her Australian Open performance was, for the most part, very impressive.

4. Venus still rising: We've focused so much on the "never count Serena out" storyline, but we also need to devote some attention to the "never count Venus out" part of the plot. In a surprising/not-surprising run, the older (by a year) Williams sister made it all the way to the final, her first (in the majors) in eight years. She lost to her sister in straight sets, but those sets included some vintage Venus play. And her joyful spirit dominated the event--a happy and grateful Venus is something I wish we could bottle and give to the world.

3. Just dance: Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won the doubles title, defeating Andrea Hlavackova and Peng Shuai in the final. And with all the inspirational/feel good stories floating about in Melbourne, this one somehow got left out. Between Safarova's steady recovery following a serious illness and subsequent reactive arthritis and Mattek-Sands' transcendence of an entire career's worth of setbacks, this was a victory worth dancing over.

2. A story for the ages: It wasn't a new story--we saw Jelena Dokic, whose career was severely inhibited by the abuse she suffered from her father, make a memorable and emotional comeback at the 2009 Australian Open. This time, it was Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who also suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her father, and who lost a major portion of her career. When the Croatian player returned in 2007, it was to function as a giant-killer. But at this year's Australian Open, she was something else--a giant.

Lucic-Baroni extended her run all the way to the semifinals, where she fell to eventual champion Serena Williams. However, her quarterfinal defeat of 5th seed Karolina Pliskova, whom many had picked to win the whole thing, was arguably the story of the tournament, on the women's side. Lucic-Baroni's last appearance in a major semifinal had occurred 18 years earlier at Wimbledon, when she was labeled a prodigy, having already won (with Martina Hingis) the Australian Open doubles title in 1998, at the age of 15.

But beating Pliskova wasn't Lucic-Baroni's only dramatic feat. In the second round, she took out 3rd seed Aga Radwanska in straight sets. Those who saw Lucic-Baroni's performance at this Australian Open will never forget it. As the Croation star herself said: "I can't believe this, this is crazy."

1. You can't "come back" when you never go away: Serena Williams lost the 2016 Australian Open final and the 2016 French Open final. A correction had to be made, and she made it emphatically in Melbourne. The "new" world number 1 took the title without dropping a set (though she had some game competition from Barbora Strycova in the round of 16), then defeated her sister in the final to win her sixth Australian Open title. Williams now has a total of 23 major singles titles, and one wold be well advised to not put the calculator away any time soon.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Serena beats Venus to win her 23rd major singles title

She's a rocker, she takes after me
And she's a roller, runs in the family
She's a rock and roll baby, a real gone twister
But...Don't you mess around with my little sister
Michelle Shocked

One of the best sports stories of recent times was told yesterday in Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, when Venus and Serena Williams, ages 36 and 35 respectively, faced off in the Australian Open final. It was the first time since 2009 that the pair had met in a major final, and it's doubtful that very many fans and tennis observers anticipated that they would ever meet this way again.

It had already been a dramatic two weeks, what with Venus's return to the "last women standing" part of a big-stage draw, the giant-killing accomplishments of unseeded CoCo Vandeweghe, and the heart-wrenching semi-final run of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. One could easily become exhausted without even lifting a racket--and for those of us who live in  my part of the world, exhaustion from lack of sleep is a given, anyway, during the season's first major.

The story was almost perfect, it's only flaw being that it was too short. Serena got off to a shaky start. She was obviously on edge, and sometimes--when she's on edge like that--she doesn't fully recover. Other times, she snaps herself back into place and does what Serena does. This was one of those "other times." 

The first set was close, with the opponents breaking each other five times. Serena won that set 6-4, and her record in major finals came to mind, as it always does: If she wins the first set, she winds up with the trophy. This match confirmed that remarkable statistic. Despite Venus significantly improving her first serve and even cutting down on errors in the second set--making it look, for a while, like the match would go the distance--she was unable to break Serena. At 3-all, Serena converted a third break point, and it turned out that that was all she needed to do. That set, also, went to Serena, 6-4. 

The match lasted an hour and 21 minutes, and featured some delicious rallies from two of the tour's greatest hitters. These two love to pull each other side to side, and force each other to come up with almost-impossible to execute shots. That happened several times during the match, as the two veterans put on the same show of athleticism and guile that they have for many, many years.

It was understandably hard to cheer for (or against) either of them. Had Venus won, she would have earned her eighth major title in a career that was rudely interrupted for a long time by the arrival of Sjogren's syndrome, which a bevy of doctors were too ignorant to diagnose (her symptoms were textbook), and then by Venus's learning appropriate management of the disease and playing her way back into the elite section of the tour. Venus won her last major title in 2008, when she picked up her fifth Venus Rosewater dish at Wimbldon.

For Serena, the win brings her major singles total to 23, which is one beyond the Open Era record set by Steffi Graf, and one behind the mixed era record set by Margaret Court. This is what fans, the media and the players focus on, but I mention it only in passing. Counting majors is really not relevant because so much has changed since professional tennis began, and since the Open Era began. 

Players often skipped the Australian Open because it was held during the holidays. Chris Evert, who pretty much owned the French Open, skipped it three times to play World Team Tennis. (And consider Rod Laver, who wasn't allowed to play in tournaments he likely would have won.) Also, counting major titles wasn't a "thing" until fairly recently. So, in a nod to the much missed Petra Kvitova, I'll say that "going by the numbers" is like comparing tennis balls with asparagus.

Having said that, I'll add that winning 23 majors--regardless of any other considerations--is indeed a a stunning reflection of how dominant Serena Williams has been for a very long time. When we consider that she and Venus first played each other at the Australian Open 19 years ago, we are able to glimpse the broad landscape of the effect that both sisters have had on the sport of tennis, and on sport in general.

It would have been quite enough for Serena and Venus to be the amazing and long-lasting force in tennis that they are. But they are so much more. They are, individually and together, a testament to belief, endurance and--perhaps most of all--survival. And to top it off, they are both entertaining, endearing and committed to causes that are more important than tennis.

"Your win has always been my win," Venus said to her sister in her beautiful runner-up acceptance. speech. And that's the way it will always be (and vice versa). 

With this victory, Serena has taken back her number 1 ranking, and woe to anyone who suggests that her time of greatness is over. She. Is. Serena. Williams. And Venus, another great champion, can certainly confirm for the rest of the tour: "Don't you mess around with my little sister."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Venus and Serena: together again, as you always wanted to see them

Who would have thought, when the season's first major began, that we would wind up with Venus and Serena Williams facing off in the final? I didn't. But down went defending champion Angie Kerber, down went favorite Karolina Pliskova, down went upstart Jo Konta.

To me, Kerber, Pliskova, Serena, and Konta (in no particular order) were the players comprising the field that would produce a champion. And in that group, only six-time champion Serena Williams is still standing. But in her way is, of all people, her sister.

And isn't that kind of cool?

Between them, they have lived on this Earth 71 years. In tennis years, that's some kind of old. In Williams sisters years (or Navratilova years, or Date-Krumm years, or Lucic-Baroni or Schiavone years), it's no big deal.

I disclose my bias straightaway: I am an "older" woman who, on a daily basis, rebukes all the ageist nonsense about these numbers: You are fit and ready, or you aren't. Is it different from when you were 20? Of course it is. But can you nevertheless be in better shape than many who are much younger? You bet your hours-in-the-gym/court/studio butt you can. And you can--and do--win very big matches on the WTA tour.

Okay, I got that out of my system. For now.

Venus and Serena are elite athletes and elite tennis players. They are also elite survivors of life, which makes them elite competitors. Saturday, they will meet for the ninth time in a major final. Serena leads their major final head-to-head 6-2. If she wins this one, she will have won 23 major singles titles. For Venus, it would bring the total to eight.

Amd now a few words about the other semifinalists. I think of Jo Konta as fearless, but when Great Britain's number 1 player faced Serena Williams, she caved. This is not to take anything away from Serena's spot-on performance, but in this match, Konta just didn't look like the player who stormed into the top 10 with a huge serve and a keen court intelligence. The serve went away, and Konta looked lost.

CoCo Vandeweghe also lost her way, though there were moments when she found it again. The big-hitting, big-serving Vandeweghe has added so much strategy and finesse to her game that she now appears quite threatening. There are plenty of big hitters, but it is those who developed a more varied game--Venus, Serena, Kvitova, Cibulkova--who have the big careers.

Vandeweghe was philosophical in her press conference, stating that she was disappointed, but she wasn't able to respond well enough when her opponent changed her strategy in the second set. She also acknowledged that, in the big moments, Venus was just too good. Vandeweghe, who was able to convert only one of 13 break points, said she wasn't satisfied with her performance, but that this was just the beginning of a long season, and that her team had already lifted her spirits.

CoCo Vandeweghe, it should be noted, had an extremely tough draw, and took out the likes of Roberta Vinci, Genie Bouchard, defending champion and world number 1 Angie Kerber, and world number 7 Garbine Muguruza.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1--Kateryna Kozlova
round 2--Stefanie Voegele
round 3--Duan Ying-Ying
round of 16--Mona Barthel (Q)
quarterfinals--Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (24)
semifinals-- CoCo Vandeweghe

round 1--Belinda Bencic
round 2--Lucie Safarova
round 3--Nicole Gibbs
round 4--Barbora Strycova (16)
quarterfinals--Johanna Konta (9)
semifinals--Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

Monday, January 23, 2017

8 women, 8 stories

There are eight women left in the Australian Open draw, and they represent a variety of interesting--and in some cases--inspiring, stories.

Serena Williams is there, competing to win her 23rd major. Williams got quite a fight from Barbora Strycova in the round of 16, but emerged the winner in straight sets. A six-time champion in Melbourne, the world number 2 will once again be the world number 1 if she wins the event. Just about everything in Serena's career is inspiring, and at 35 years old, her very realistic quest for number 23 is history-making in itself.

And then there's Venus, aged 36, who was more or less written off a few years ago because of the struggles she had to endure because of her illness (and its continual misdiagnosis, even though her symptoms were obvious). Now that she has a stable health management system, it certainly can't be easy to compete at the top  level, but here she is, in the quarterfinals. The last time she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open was in 2010, and she was defeated in that round by Li Na.

Perhaps the most inspiring story is that of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who described herself yesterday as a "tough little cookie, and very, very stubborn." Indeed. Lucic-Baroni, who is 34, was considered a tennis prodigy in the late 90s. At the age of 15, she (and Martina Hingis) won the Australian Open women's doubles championship. Two years later, Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals in singles at Wimbledon.

It looked as though nothing could stop the young Croatian star, but sadly, she was the victim of long-term abuse from her father, which caught up with her. She left the tour, but returned in 2007, and has played the role of giant-killer ever since. Now, 18 years after her Wimbledon run, she's in another major quarterfinal, and it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't be heartened by this turn of events.

The rest of the stories aren't as dramatic, but they have merit. Take, for example, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the next-gen Russian hope who just never quite met what many considered her great potential. Pavlyuchenkova, a world number 1 junior player, has had issues with fitness and consistency, and just, well, the Russian thing. But when she's good, she's very, very good, with superb court anticipation. And here she is, into the quarterfinals.

Karolna Pliskova went from scoring a disappointing finish in major after major until last year, when she reached the final of the U.S. Open. The Czech Fed Cup beast is now arguably the hottest player on the tour, and so far, she hasn't let anything stop her in Melbourne--not even being down 2-5 in the third set to Jelena Ostapenko. And it just might be that third round-of-16 set that gives Pliskova the super-confidence she needs to become an even bigger story.

Garbine Muguruza's Melbourne story is one that's buried on page nine, so to speak. The French Open champion has moved quietly and very efficiently through the draw and has barely been noticed by commentators and fans. Yes, Muguruza can be brilliant, and then suddenly, she can just "mugu around" and drop out of competition. So far, though, she's given us no reason to believe she isn't in Melbourne to win, and she also has the advantage of knowing what it feels like to be in a really big final and walk away with the trophy.

CoCo Vandeweghe's story is one I didn't think I'd be able to tell. The hard-hitting, big-serving U.S. player has had issues with fitness and issues with consistency and self-management. She would look as though she were getting it all together, but then self-destruct yet again. But lately, Vandeweghe has done a much better job of taking control of matches. It probably hasn't hurt that she's been hanging out on the doubles court with Martina Hingis.

Finally, Jo Konta's "meteoric rise" has been much discussed this past week. Observers are shaking their heads at the Brit's sudden ascent into the top 10, but really, if you were paying attention, you weren't shocked by Konta's rise up the rankings. It seemed practically inevitable. The British star has a big, effective serve and the attitude of a winner. She has superb court-management and self-management skills. What's not to like?

The quarterfinal include three players from the USA, two unseeded players and three players who hold at least one major championship title.

Soon, there will be only four stories. Here is the quarterfinal draw:

CoCo Vandewege vs. Garbine Muguruza (7)
Venus Williams (13) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (24)
Karolina Pliskova (5) vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Johanna Konta (9) vs. Serena Williams (2)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Defending champion Kerber has tough task ahead of her in Melbourne

World number 1 Angelique Kerber, winner of the 2016 Australian Open, will have her work cut out for her at this year's event. In the first round, she meets Lesia Tsurenko, a good but inconsistent player who may try to take advantage of an apparent recent Kerber slump-funk (I had to make up a word). Let's assume, however, that Kerber deals with Tsurenko (who is recovering from a viral illness). She has a potential round of 16 clash with Daria Kasatkina, who will most definitely go after the German.

But--assuming Kerber pulls herself together--I like the world number 1's chances against the talented young Russian. Draw "wisdom" dictates that Kerber would face off against Garbine Muguruza in the quarterfinals. And since Muguruza has begun her season with a fresh attitude, that quarterfinal is indeed likely to take place. And--should it occur--it has the potential to be very, very good. Muguruza is 4-3 against Kerber career-wise, but they have split their hard court meetings at two apiece.

Also lurking in that first quarter are Genie Bouchard and the unpredictable CoCo Vandeweghe. If Bouchard beats Kasatkina in the third round, then it would be she who would face Kerber in the round of 16.

Simona Halep anchors the next quarter. For the Romanian, the Australian Open is not the "Happy Slam"--she has a tendency to make a very quick exit in Melbourne. She starts with Shelby Rogers, and that could be (but probably won't be) an easy Halep win. All sorts of danger lurks in Halep's quarter, which contains the likes of Monica Puig, Kiki Bertens, Venus Williams, Elina Svitolina, Anastasia "You Never Know" Pavlyuchenkova, Katerina Siniakova, and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

If it comes down to Halep and Svitolina in the quarterfinals, that would prove to be a mighty test for the world number 4, but given her history, she may have already left Melbourne by then.

The third quarter features Karolina Pliskova, arguably the hottest player on the tour right now, and a favorite to win the Australian Open. The top anchor of this quarter, however, is Agnieszka Radwanska, who, as they say "owns" Pliskova. She does. In seven matches, the long, tall Czech has yet to win a set because she has not figured out the puzzle that is Radwanska. When Pliskova said her New Year's resolution was to "bend my knees more," she may have been anticipating yet another matchup with The Ninja.

There are dangers to get past in this quarter, though, before anyone reaches the business end of the tournament. Players who can deliver said danger are Daria Gavrilova, Kiki Mladenovic, Timea Bacsinszky, and Alize Cornet. Radwanska plays her first round against Tsvetana Pironkova, whose mysterious power in majors has waned somewhat, but who knows what the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery has in store? A few more potentially dangerous players in Radwanska's quarter are Monica Niculescu, Yulia Putintseva, Ana Konjuh, Camila Giorgi, Elena Vesnina, and Heather Watson.

A first round to watch is probably an unfortunate one for qualifier Anna Blinkova. The young Russian, playing in her first major, will go against Niculescu, and she probably isn't prepared for what she's going to get.

The last quarter's top player is world number 2 Serena Williams, who has won the event six times. This is one tasty quarter, which includes 2014 runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, Ekaterina Makarova, Caroline Wozniacki, Johanna Konta, Lucie Safarova, and Belinda Bencic. And if that isn't edgy enough, that quarter also features Barbora Strycova, Caroline Garcia and Timea Babos, troublemakers all. You could have a thrilling tournament with just this quarter.

Williams' first match will be played against Belinda Bencic, which is certainly not a prospect that pleases either of them. Both players have had a lot of injury issues in the past several months, but Williams, of course, has been known to win major events while injured, so she perhaps has an edge in the health department. If Bencic is healthy (and she appears to be), she'll do her best to flummox Williams; she's done it before. I think, though, that the real danger resides on the rackets of Cibulkova and Konta. Also, look for Strycova to shake things up in this quarter.