Sunday, February 26, 2017

It really IS a process

I'm a psychotherapist who goes out of my way to keep from saying "It's a process" to my clients. Because who wants to hear that? But really, it is. It's a process in tennis, too, which fans sometimes forget. But these past two weeks, we've seen two revelations of that truth.

There was never much doubt about Karolina Pliskova's innate talent. Tall, with a deadly serve and a calm demeanor, Pliskova appeared destined, from the start, to make a name for herself on the WTA tour. But at just the moments when the most was expected of her--during the majors--the Czech player disappointed. Getting no farther than the third round in any major while simultaneously winning some tournaments and performing consistently on the tour put Pliskova in an awkward position.

She just wasn't ready. Then, last year in Cincinnati, something clicked. Pliskova beat world number 2 Angie Kerber in the final, earning her first premier title, and also denying Kerber the number 1 ranking. Kerber corrected that slip by defeating Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. But, even with this loss, the Czech had finally "arrived." To reach the final, Pliskova defeated both Williams sisters, which put quite a flourish on her run.

Pliskova opened her 2017 season with a big message by winning the Brisbane title. She lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (a victim of the on-fire Mirjana Lucic-Baroni), in which many observes had her listed as the favorite. Pliskova put on another splendid Fed Cup show, then went on to win Doha, in which she defeated Dominika Cibulkova for the first time in her career. Currently ranked number 3 in the world, the long, tall Czech (whose only New Year's resolution was to "bend my knees more") is headed toward greater stardom. It just took her a while.

Meanwhile, Elina Svitolina, whom many (and I have never been among them) refused to think of as a potential WTA star, has skillfully worked her way to a number 10 ranking. Svitolina, who is now on a 12-match win streak, won the Dubai event this weekend, beating Angie Kerber (for the third time), then defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final. The Ukrainian player also won the Taipei Open earlier this year.

The Dubai match point was memorable:

Svitolina, who can be considered a defensive player, has always shown some expert court movement and anticipation, but in the past year, she has sharpened her groundstrokes. Perhaps most important, she has changed something in her head, and that change has to be related to the period she spent with Justine Henin, who joined her team for a while as a coaching consultant. When this consultation was first announced, I remember thinking "clever move, Elina." Because who knows more about how to win than Henin, who spent the early part of her career choking away matches, and then spent the rest of her career delivering misery to her opponents.

Henin understood that power could be flummoxed by movement and stroke precision (Simona Halep understands this, too, but appears to lack belief in herself). All one has to do is observe Svitolina's body language to understand that some psychological switch has been turned on. The Ukrainian star is also a good doubles player (her ad hoc winning run with Daria Gavrilova was hilarious), and that never hurts.

Both Svitolina and Pliskova will be fun to watch this season, and we can look to both of them to improve their games. It's a process.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Anything can happen in Fed Cup

Just ask team Germany.

One doesn't expect a sporting weekend on the island of Maui--land of waterfalls and bamboo forests-- to turn into a windy, rainy, physically and emotionally precarious curse for a visiting European country. But it did.

Things got off to a dreadful start in the World Group USA vs. Germany tie when a singer rendered the now-banned version of the German national anthem--the one that was popular in the 30s. The USTA profusely apologized for the error, but both Captain Barbara Rittner and Andrea Petkovic let their anger be known, in no uncertain terms. Rittner said, "This  is a real scandal and is inexcusable," while Petkovic called it "the epitome of ignorance." German Fed Cup team member Julia Goerges said she cried from anger while the song was being sung.

It's next to impossible for reasonable people to understand how something like this could ever have occurred, but there was actually a worse tennis situation involving Germany in 2005. The official program of the German Open, which used to be a premier event played in Berlin, contained an entire page of nostalgia for the country's "Golden Age," when Jews were run out of Germany. Tournament officials said they had no idea how the page got into the program.

Notable has been the (public--she is reported to have apologized to Rittner) silence and absence of USTA chairwoman (yes, USTA--she's a woman) and president Katrina Adams, who generally inserts herself into every photo, interview and trophy presentation known to pro tennis humanity.

Then there was a lot of rain and rain delay and a lot of fierce wind, making it difficult for the players to get any momentum going. Alison Riske defeated Petkovic in the opening rubber, which was followed by a match featuring CoCo Vandeweghe and Goerges. Goerges took a nasty spill, which resulted in a knee sprain. The match had to be stopped because of rain, but the German player was unable to continue today.

With the USA up 2-0, Vandeweghe took to the court again to play Petkovic. Andrea Petkovic has had plenty of ups and downs in her career, but Fed Cup has always been her saving grace. No matter what else has been going on during a given season, Petko has performed brilliantly in Fed Cup ties. But put her on Maui with some really bad weather and a hit tune from back in the day in Germany, and things may not go so well.

She did win the first set, and one had to wonder whether she was so fueled by anger that she would finish Vandeweghe off in straight sets. In the second set, Petkovic was five points from victory, when Vandeweghe took a medical timeout for heat illness. After being packed in ice and rubbed with ice, the Australian Open semifinalist returned to the court and won ten straight games. And that was that for Germany.

There was an attempt to play a dead doubles rubber, but the German team retired during the first set.

Defending champion Czech Republic also advanced, and will play the USA in the semifinals. Garbine Muguruza of Spain defeated Barbora Strycova with the odd scoreline of 6-0, 3-6, 6-1, then Karolina Pliskova beat both Lara Arruabarrena and Muguruza in straight sets, and Strycova beat Arruabarrena. Spain won the dead doubles rubber. The Czech team received a "good luck" message from Petra Kvitova via a video shown on the stadium's Jumbotron.

Playing without Vika Azarenka, Belarus defeated The Netherlands (because anything can happen in Fed Cup). Fed Cup beast Kiki Bertens, who almost doesn't know how to lose, won her first rubber, but then lost to Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who had already beaten Michaella Krajicek. Aryna Sabakenka also beat Krajicek, and Belarus advanced to the semifinals. (Belarus also won the dead doubles rubber.)

Finally, Switzerland advanced with a 4-1 score (counting the dead doubles rubber) over France, last year's runner-up. Missing both Captain Amelie Mauresmo and Caroline Garcia, the French team had a lot of work to do in order to stay in the competition. Alize Cornet was there, and though Fed Cup should be a magnificent activity for someone with as much talent and fighting spirit as Cornet, it's anything but. She lost to Timea Bacsinszky in the opening rubber, and that was the last we saw of her.

Kiki Mladenovic defeated Belinda Bencic, but lost to Bacsinszky. Bencic then defeated Pauline Parmentier. Once again, there was a dead doubles rubber, which Switzerland won.

Here are the World Group II scores:

Russia def. Chinese Taipei 4-1
Belgium def. Romania 3-1
Ukraine def. Australia 3-1
Slovakia def. Italy 3-2

Romania didn't have Simona Halep, but it had some very good players--Monica Niculescu, Sorana Cirstea and Irina-Camelia Begu. But they couldn't get past Kirsten Flipkens, Yanina Wickmayer and Elise Mertens.

Ellina Svitolina and Lesia Tsurenko brought the win home for Ukraine.

The Slovakia-Italy tie was a bit of an oddity. The Italian team included two veterans, Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani, part of the Fed Cup "Fighting Four, but neither of them won a rubber.

World number 119 Rebecca Sramkova beat both of them. And in a sentimental turn, Daniela Hantuchova played on the team and defeated Errani 6-2, 6-0. Missing from the Slovakian team was world number 5 Dominika Cibulkova. Present was Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, but Schiavone made quick work of her. Oh, Schmiedy.

The World Group semifinals will take place in April. The USA, under its new captain, Kathy Rinaldi, will play defending champion Czech Republic, and Belarus will play Switzerland. It's easy to imagine a Czech Republic-Switzerland final, but this is Fed Cup. Anything can happen.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Early World Group Fed Cup ties could be close

Fed Competition begins this weekend, and of the three World Group contests, only one looks like a "lock" for one of the opponents. However, this is Fed Cup, and it's never a good idea to assume anything. But, beginning with the one that does look predictable:

Czech Republic vs. Spain
The defending champions, who don't care if they're home or away, or whether they have their "A" team or their "B" team (this is because the entire squad is an "A" team), will take their first step in defending their title this weekend on an indoor hard court in Ostrava. Obviously, this court is a piece of heaven for Petra Kvitova, but Petra won't be there.

No worries. Karolina Pliskova, Barbora Strycova, Katerina Siniakova, and Lucie Safarova will be there. Pliskova, Strycova and Safarova are Fed Cup veterans who have aptly handled some very big matches at very intense moments. And Siniakova has shown herself to be a talent who is likely to fit in well with the mighty Czech Republic team.

Spain has Garbine Muguruza, Lara Arruabarrena, Sara Sorribes Tormo, and veteran Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. Arruabarrena can be dangerous on a clay court, but perhaps not so much on the faster indoor court. Martinez Sanchez, in her day, was a force in both singles and doubles, and in Fed Cup, anything can happen. However--again--MJMS was usually able to shine on a clay court. Muguruza is good on any court, but we're never sure which Garbine is going to show up. Spain could give the Czechs a real fight, but the defending champions should be able to get through to the semifinals.

USA vs. Germany
The USA has a strong team under the leadership of new Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi. CoCo Vandeweghe, Alison Riske, Shelby Rogers, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands will represent their country in Maui, where play will take place on an outdoor hard court. Vandeweghe's Australian Open run puts her into the position of leading her team, and we can expect strong, aggressive play from her.

Germany is represented by an equally strong team: Laura Siegemund, Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges, and Carina Witthoeft. The slower the court, the better for Siegemund, Petko and Goerges. Siegemund has been in a relative slump, and Fed Cup may offer her the opportunity to climb out of it. Petkovic is a proven Fed Cup threat, and the anticipated contest between her and Vandeweghe has the potential to be very tasty.

Belarus vs. Netherlands
The first two words that come to mind are "Kiki Bertens." The Dutchwoman is an authentic Fed Cup beast, and even though the rubbers will be played on an indoor hard court in Minsk, there's still every reason to believe that Bertens will dominate.

Belarus will be represented by Aliakandra Sasnovich, Aryna Sabalenka, Olga Govortsova, and Vera Lapko. Sasnovich, at number 128, is the highest ranked singles player. Joining Bertens will be Cindy Burger, Arantxa Rus and Michaella Krajicek.

Switzerland vs. France
This is the most interesting of the four World Group ties because of the major changes that have been made in the French team. Captain Amelie Mauresmo, who has brilliantly managed her charges for the last few years--taking them to the final in 2016--has resigned because she is pregnant with her second child. Also gone is Mauresmo's obvious protege, Caroline Garcia. Garcia has decided to skip Fed Cup this year in order to focus on her singles career.

I wrote last year that Mauresmo was practically breathing fire into Garcia at Fed Cup ties, so intense was her support and encouragement of the sometimes-fragile world number 25. It worked. Garcia's tennis persona has been finely drawn and amplified by Mauresmo's Fed Cup influence.

And then there's the matter of Mladenovic and Garcia, the world's second-ranked doubles team, and French Open champions. The bad news is that Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia could be counted on to win almost every Fed Cup doubles match they played (ask Pliskova and Strycova about he "almost" part). The good news is that Mladenovic and Anybody is probably still a very reliable team.

Alize Cornet, a talented and highly competitive player, should be a great asset for France, but the reality is that her Fed Cup record (3-13) is terrible. Cornet just cannot handle the pressure of the Fed Cup atmosphere. But maybe this time, she'll transcend the pattern. There are only three players listed for the French team--Mladenovic, Cornet and Pauline Parmentier. They will be coached by a former French Open champion (and also a good friend of Amelie Mauresmo), Yannick Noah.

In World Group II news--Ms. Halep if you're Nasty:

Ilie Nastasi, of all people, will coach the Romanian team in its challenge against Belgium. Nastasi has been publicly critical of Simona Halep for what he perceives as her lack of loyalty to Romania (hilarious if you follow the world number 4's ongoing obsession with pleasing her countrypeople). But--fortunately for both of them--the again-injured Halep won't be part of the team this weekend.

Romania vs. Belgium
Irina-Camelia Begu will lead the team on an indoor hard court in Bucharest, and she'll be joined by Monica Niculescu, Sorana Cirstea, and Patricia Maria Tig. That's a good team! But Belgium has a really good team, too: Yanina Wickmayer, Kirsten Flipkens, Elise Mertens, and Maryna Zanevska. This should be a really good tie.

Russia vs. Chinese Taipei
Knocked out of the World Group by Kiki Bertens and her sneaky band of Dutchwomen, Russia now has to fight its way back through the Chinese Taipei team. Ekaterina Makarova, Natalia Vikhlyantseva, Anna Blinkova, and Anna Kalinskaya will play for Russia. Look for Blinkova to attempt a Fed Cup breakthrough.

Playing for Chinese Taipei will be Chang Kai-Chen, Lee Ya-Hsuan, Hsu Ching-Wen, and Chan Chin-Wei.

Ukraine vs. Australia
This is an interesting tie. Ukraine will be led by Elina Svitolina, who will be joined by Lesia Tsurenko, Olga Savchuk, and Nadiia Kichenok.  Svitolina is the star, of course, but Tsurenko can rise to an occasion from time to time. The Ukrainian team will play in their own country on an indoor hard court.

Playing for Australia are Daria Gavrilova, Ash Barty, Arina Rodionova, and Casey Dellacqua--strength in both singles and doubles.

Italy vs. Slovakia
Two of the "big four" will play for Italy--Sara Errani and Francesca Schiavone. They will be joined by Jasmine Paolini and Martina Trevisan. And while both Errani and Schiavone have great Fed Cup records, Team Italy just isn't what it once was, and Errani and Schiavone--Fighting Italians if ever there were any--aren't what they once were.

On the other hand, the Slovakian team is just one big wild card. It's led by the talented but unfortunate Jana Cepelova, whose many injuries have stalled her career in a serious way. Also on the team is the once-great Daniela Hantuchova, who is now on the edge of the final part of her career. They are joined by Rebecca Sramkova, and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

If Cepelova is unlucky, then Schmiedlova is absolutely snake-bitten. After winning two titles in 2015 (and beating Italians in both finals; one of those Italians was Errani), Schmiedy dropped off the face of the tennis Earth in 2016. She is slowly, steadily improving her results, and one has to wonder whether the sight of those Italians might be just what she needs to have a breakthrough in Fed Cup play this weekend.

The tie will be played on a clay court in Italy.