Sunday, April 30, 2017

How to Siegemund: part 3

I've written before about how to Siegemund, and today, the German gave us a new chapter when--playing as a wild card--she won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in a final that, as I expected, was dramatic, thrilling and chock-full of high quality tennis. I could watch both Siegemund and Kiki Mladenovic play tennis all day because they have all the shots, all the style and all the cleverness that clay court play requires.

Both finalists had very difficult draws. Siegemund had to defeat Zhang Shuai, Svetalana Kuznetsova (8), Karolina Pliskova (2) and Simona Halep (4), while Mladenovic, who was unseeded, had to go through the always-tough Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, defending champion and top seed Angelique Kerber, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Maria Sharapova (and that match had its own dramatic backdrop). 

I have thought, for some time, that Kiki Mladenovic could be a pretty important figure on the tour if only she could get control of her nerves. She's done just that, and the difference in her performance has to be putting fear into many opponents. Mladenovic has the serve (consistent now that the nerves have calmed), the elite doubles skills, and the ability to read the court well.

Siegemund has speed, grit, variety, and a drop shot that would make even Patty Schnyder proud. One of the German's strength, however, is also sometimes her downfall. She's able to grind out a victory if it takes hours, but then that drawn-out grinding on clay can catch up with her, rendering her too exhausted to carry on. But that didn't happen in Stuttgart. Siegemund also had the added strength of having the crowd behind her, as well as the knowledge of what it feels like to be in the final--she was last year's runner-up.

The German wild card came out on fire, playing almost perfectly and not allowing Mladenovic to do much of anything; Siegemund took the first set 6-1. Not surprisingly, the Frenchwoman found a way to impose herself in the second set. She was more aggressive, and the set was hers, 6-2. The stage was set for a thriller of a third set, and the players gave us one.

Mladenovic was broken right away, but--unlike in the first set--Siegemund's early lead faded quickly. The set became a battle of nerves, with both players holding steady, despite setbacks. The most dramatic setback occurred when Siegemund was given a point penalty for a time violation after she broke Mladenovic and was serving for the match at 5-4. Already down 15-30, she then went down 15-40 and was broken.

But--after expressing her displeasure in no uncertain terms (while the crowd booed and whistled), the German player was able to carry on, and the set--quite appropriately--went to a tiebreak. Mladenovic took an early lead in that tiebreak, and before you could say "Tennis is such a cruel sport," it was 4-1. Siegemund, however, was having none of it, and brought the score to 5-all. She ended the whole thing with--what else?!--a drop shot--for a 7-5 tiebreak score, and collected a bouquet of flowers, a trophy and a red Porsche, which she (hesitantly) drove around the stadium.

And that is how you Siegemund.

It was a great match in every way, with both players playing the kind of tennis I love to watch. This is Siegemund's second WTA title, and her first premier title.

The doubles final was also interesting, in that two former (and long-time) partners faced off against each other. 3rd seeds Racquel Atawo and Jelena Ostapenko defeated top seeds Abigail Spears and Katarina Srebotnik 6-4, 6-4.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, top seed Elina Svitolina defeated 6th seed Elise Mertens 6-2, 6-4 in the singles final. The doubles event was won by the unseeded team of Dalila Jakupovic and Nadia Kichenok. They defeated 4th seeds Nicole Melichar and Elise Mertens 7-6, 6-2, making it kind of a tough day for Mertens.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The streak has ended: USA beats defending Fed Cup champions

Petra Kviotva--absent
Lucie Safarova--absent
Karolina Pliskova--absent
Barbora Strycova--absent

Each of those four women--all absent, for one reason or the other--from the 2017 Fed Cup World Group semifinals, has led her team to victory or has brought the victory in at the last moment. With none of them available this time, the outlook wasn't that good for the defending champions. And sure enough, they lost to team USA. Yet even the team that captain Petr Pala managed to scrape together was able to extend the semifinal to a fifth rubber. Such is the magic of Czech tennis.

In the end, though, the ad hoc doubles of team of Katerina Siniakova and Krisyna Pliskova was no match for the Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe, who beat them 6-2, 6-3. The Czech team, in fact, didn't have much of a chance against doubles world number 1 Mattek-Sands and the formidable Vandeweghe.

Vandeweghe won all three of her rubbers, showing again that she thrives in a Fed Cup atmosphere. In singles, she defeated both Siniakova and new teen star Marketa Vandrousova. Her teammates didn't do as well. Shelby Rogers, who reached the quarterfinals in Charleston, was expected to do well on the green clay in Florida, but she lost in straight sets to Siniakova. And Lauren Davis, subbed in on Sunday, lost in straight sets to Vondrousova.

The Czech team won the Fed Cup championship in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and also in 2011 and 2012.

The USA's opponent in the final will be Belarus. Team Belarus reached the Fed Cup final for the first time in history, and they did it without Vika Azarenka (such a wonderfully typical Fed Cup kind of story). Switzerland's Victorija Golubic, who--only a year ago--was a breakout star in Fed Cup, lost both of her singles rubbers. And Timea Bacsinszky won only one of her singles rubbers; she defeated Aryna Sabalenka.

Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who defeated Dutch Fed Cup Beast Kiki Bertens in the February tie, took it to Bacsinszky this time (and she also defeated Golubic). It was a 3-1 victory for Belarus.

In the World Group Play-Offs:

France def. Spain (that was Julia Goerges who won both her singles rubbers!)
Belgium def. Russia
Germany def. Ukraine
Netherlands def. Slovakia (and Kiki has her mojo back)

Here are the World Group II Play-Off results:

Italy def. Chinese Taipei
Australia def. Serbia
Romania def. Great Britain
Canada def. Kazakhstan

Once again, there was drama, and not the good kind. Romanian Fed Cup captain, Ilie Nastase, already known in Fed Cup circles for insulting his best player, Simona Halep, took it to a new level this week. For starters, he made a racist comment about Serena Williams, then insulted the journalist who reported the comment. Then he hit on (including an unwanted touch) Great Britain's Fed Cup captain, Anne Keeothavong.

That should have been enough, but left to his own judgment, Nastase had plenty of abuse left in him. During Romanian Sorana Cirstea's Fed Cup singles rubber against Great Britain's Jo Konta, the Romanian Fed Cup captain became extremely verbally abusive (in a misogynistic way, of course) to Konta, the chair umpire and--of course--Captain Keeothavong. Konta was reduced to tears, and Nastase was escorted off of the grounds by security. He is provisionally banned from ITF events, pending an investigation.

The final will be played in November in Belarus, and it is expected that Vika Azarenka will be a participant. Azarenka has announced that she intends to return to the tour this summer.

Monday, April 17, 2017

No wild card, nessun problema!

2010 French Open champion and all-around tennis legend Francesca Schiavone, playing her last year of professional tennis (we think), asked for a wild card into the main draw of the Italian Open. Sounds reasonable, given all that she has done for Italian tennis, but her request was denied. So she took one into the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota, and proceeded to win the event.

Just another "Schia moment" in the 36-year-old Italian's remarkable, if circuitous, career. Going into the Bogota event, Schiavone was ranked number 168 in the world. She's now number 104, which means she has a chance to qualify for the main draw at Roland Garros. If she can raise her ranking, it will help. But even if it stays where it is, or drops a bit, she still has a chance.

Schiavone's win in Columbia wasn't an easy one. She had to knock out three seeds, including top seed Kiki Bertens. The Italian star did have some luck in the final when her opponent Laura Arruabarrena, injured her leg during the second set. Schiavone's run in Bogota gave her her eighth WTA singles title and her 600th career match victory.

It took Schiavone a while to crack the code; she was the runner-up in eight events before she figured out how to go home with the big trophy. Her 2010 French Open victory was one of my very favorite big wins in my decades-long history of watching women's tennis, and her performance in that final was exquisite. She would also make a run to the 2011 French Open final, but would be stopped by Li Na, who claimed her first major on a surface no one could have predicted.

(The Italian Open, by the way, gave wild cards to Maria Sharapova and Sara Errani, and I have no problem at all with those choices. It's just unfortunate that Schiavone got left out.)

The tennis gods were very active over the weekend. Not only did Schiavone win Bogota, but 17-year-old qualifier Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic won the inaugural even in Biel, and her run was quite impressive. Vondrousova (who spent much of last year injured), took out the likes of Annika Beck, top seed Barbora Strycova, Kristyna Pliskova, and--in the final--Anett Kontaviet. Since she had to go through qualifying, Vondrousova played a total of eight matches in order to get her trophy.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Some final thoughts on Charleston

It was a long, tense week, filled with weather, excitement and great tennis; some things stand out for me and linger in my mind:

  • The disappointment of having JJ and Petko withdraw from doubles. For some of us, JJ and Petko playing doubles is enough reason to attend a tournament

Shelby Rogers (photo by Daniel Ward)
  • Watching Shelby Rogers shine at her hometown event

  • Struggling to open a giant plastic bag and wear it as protection as we were evacuated from the media tent during a thunderstorm/hail storm

  • The multiple thrills provided by Laura Siegemund, with her clever, physical, exciting, all-court game (her press conferences aren't too shabby, either)

Laura Siegemund (photo by Daniel Ward)
  • (As always) The wonderful media tent volunteers, who anticipate our every need

  • Socks! They're not just for Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Laura Siegemund and Anastasia Rodionova wore them, also

  • Fans yelling "Come on Daria!" when Daria Kasatkina played Daria Gavrilova
  • Listening to Elena Vesnina talk about the gift of having experience on the tour
  • The endearing grace of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (photo by Daniel Ward)

  • The marvelously expressive and hilarious faces of Jelena Ostapenko and Daria Kasatkina, which turned out to be "the faces" of the tournament

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)

Jelena Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The best of Kasatkina--speaking as a champion

photo by Daniel Ward
Daria Kasatkina's post-championship match press conference fulfilled all of the expectations that her championship performance filled. Here are some highlights: was your first final. You said yesterday you had no idea what it was going to be like, what it was going to feel like. So what did it feel like?
It was terrible....

Two wins over Kerber, now this. Do you feel like you're getting into a groove right now?
I know. Yeah, I beat Kerber twice, but it doesn't give me nothing, actually. 

It was quite comfortable for me today. I was playing just with my feelings. I go back, spin the ball, running, everything, and thank God she was missing.

What will you do tonight to celebrate?
I don't know. I need to pick up my bags. I'm leaving tomorrow, early morning. So yeah, I am coming home tomorrow, so I need to pick up my bags, pack my bags. And not so much celebration. But no, no, I will celebrate, for sure. What are you talking about?! Pack the bags. Come on, Daria. 

Were you like that when you were younger?
Because I didn't have so much power, I was running, trying to spin the ball, move the opponent, and that's it.  I didn't have so good fitness. So yeah, I was trying to beat the opponents only with the brain work.

The absolute highlight of the press conference occurred when Kasatkina was asked whether she realized that, next year, her face will be on a banner outside the stadium. It was quite obvious that she didn't realize it, and the look on her face was priceless.We should enjoy this press conference because there are going to be many others, and Kasatkina will quickly learn to manage them like a champion. There's nothing wrong with that, but--for now--I like seeing and hearing her manage them like a dazed teenager.

"Playing with the brain"--Kasatkina wins Volvo Car Open

photo by Daniel Ward
World number 42 Daria Kasatkina won her first WTA title today, and it was a big one. The 19-year-old unseeded Russian won the Volvo Car Open, the premier tournament played on green clay in Charleston. Kasatkina defeated another unseeded player, Jelena Ostapenko, 6-3, 6-1 in the final. Both players were major junior champions in 2014: Kasatkina
won the junior French Open title and Ostapenko won the junior Wimbledon title.

photo by Daniel Ward

All-teenage finals are rare these days, so both players made breakthroughs, of sorts, just by being the last two standing. Kasatkina entered the final with a couple of advantages: She has more of a clay court game than Ostapenko, and she has struggled a bit less than her opponent with nerves this past week.

Both players had to do some serious work to get to the final. Kasatkina took out Monica Puig, good friend Daria Gavrilova, clay court talent Irina-Camelia Begu, and the dangerous Laura Siegemund. Ostapenko, for her part, eliminated 2011 champion Caroline Wozniacki and the formidable
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.

Ostapenko got off to a very good start with the big-hitting, line-painting game that had done so much damage to Wozniacki. But Kasatkina, whose bag of tricks is large and varied, had already made a decision not to engage in a hitting contest against the Latvian player. Instead, she changed the pace of the ball, most notably using slice, to throw Ostapenko off of her rhythm. Throughout the tournament, Kasatkina had used the drop shot to great advantage; today, her drop shots were poorly executed, but she hit so few of them, she wound up not paying a big price.

After she won the first set, Kasatkina was able to take advantage of an opponent who became drastically error-prone and unable to keep the ball in the court. The second set went by quickly.

The new champion got a trophy and a check, of course, but she also got a Volvo to drive for a year, and was permitted to choose her vehicle among three that were driven onto the court.

photo by Daniel Ward
Later, chatting with the press, the new champion talked about her junior days:

"...I had to really think on my own, and I was just playing with the brain. Because I didn't have so much power, I was running, trying to spin the ball, move the opponent, and that's it. I didn't have so good fitness. So yeah, I was trying to beat the opponents only with the brain work."

Today, Kasatkina is fit, but she's still "playing with the brain," formulating strategy against her opponents and doing her best to flummox them with her varied repertoire of shots. The Russian's dramatic rise through the rankings thrust her onto a path that was surely going to lead to a tour title, and it's only fitting that that title should come to her in Charleston, where big careers have been launched for decades.
photo by Daniel Ward

Mattek-Sands and Safarova win doubles title in Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward
Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won the doubles title at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston today, defeating Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova 6-1, 4-6, 10-7. Things became a bit tense toward the end when the pair failed to serve out the match at 9-7 in the super-tiebreak. However, they then won the tenth point on their opponents' serve.

The is Mattek-Sands' second time to win the title in Charleston. For Safarova, it's the third time to lift the trophy. The Czech star also won in 2012 (with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova) and in 2013 (with Kiki Mladenovic).

Mattek-Sands is ranked number 1 in the world in doubles; Safarova is ranked number 4. They now have ten titles as a team. These include the 2017 Australian Open, the 2016 Australian Open and the 2016 U.S. Open.
Katerina Siniakova (l) and Lucie Hradecka (photo by Daniel Ward)
The champions (photo by Daniel Ward)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Here we are now, entertain us!

Jelena Ostapenko (l) and Daria Kasatkina (photos by Daniel Ward)
There was plenty of teen spirit at the Volvo Car Open today. Two teens, Daria Kasatkina and Jelena Ostapenko, pushed the veterans aside--something that's been very hard to do lately--and will contest for the title tomorrow.

The last time two teenagers played for the title was 2009, when 19-year-old Sabine Lisicki defeated 18-year-old Caroline Wozniacki in the final.

At the top of today's schedule was a stylistic contest between 19-year-old Kasatkina and Laura Siegemund. Siegemund took the first set, but an increasingly aggressive and fluid Kasatkina took over after that. Siegemund's ability to choose the right shot at any giving time, generally a big strength for her, went away in the third set. She said, after the match, that she was simply very tired and could no longer move. "You know what, it's frustrating if you know what you want to do and you know you need six shots for it and you only have energy for four."

Siegemund took a medical timeout at 0-4 down in the third set, right when Kasatkina was about to serve, a move which surprised her opponent, whose comment was "Usually it shouldn't happen." Following Siegemund's MTO, Kasatkina went down 0-40, but she recovered and went on to win the match, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.

In the second semifinal, 19-year-old Jelena Ostapenko took on the veteran of veterans, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Ostapenko's performance against 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki on Thursday night was near-perfect, and there was little chance she was going to replicate it, especially against the hard-hitting Lucic-Baroni. And yet, during the first set, the spirited young Latvian was able to overcome her opponent 6-3, with one extra break of serve.

It was no surprise that Lucic-Baroni came back strong in the second set, which was very competitive, and which the Croation star won after breaking Ostapenko when she served for the match. Ostapenko broke right away in the final set, and was soon up 3-0. But again, Lucic-Baroni came back. Yet despite her best attempt, it was Ostapenko who emerged the winner, at 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.

This match, like the one before it, met my expectations, in terms of quality. The two semifinal matches were a dramatic contrast in styles. Kasatkina and Siegemund utilized every clay court trick in the book, slowly constructing points, and using equal forward and lateral movement. Ostapenko and Lucic-Baroni, as expected, were engaged in more of a hitting contest.

Ostapenko is a very hard ball-striker who can play aggressively. Kasatkina is savvy and fluid, but also aggressive. Both women have good serves, though good serves have been known to disappear in finals, especially among less experienced players.

Not only are both finalists teenagers; they are both unseeded. The last time that two unseeded players contested for the title was 2002, when Iva Majoli defeated Patty Schnyder in the final. Schnyder had done a lot of very heavy lifting in that draw, taking out 6th seed Amelie Mauresmo, Mary Pierce, 3rd seed Serena Williams, and top seed and defending champion Jennifer Capriati. But Majoli got the best of her, 7-6, 6-4.

It should be noted that Jelena Ostapenko had the potential to sweep the 2017 titles, but that potential disappeared this evening when she and Raquel Atawo lost their semifinal against 4th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova. Hradecka and Siniakova will face top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova in the final. Mattek-Sands and Safarova defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke in the semifinals. If the top seeds win tomorrow, it will be the third Charleston doubles title for Safarova.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Doubles semifinals set for Saturday in Charleston

Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, the Volvo Car Open 2016 runners-up, will compete on Saturday for another chance at winning the title. The two friends also had to play each other in the second round of singles (Safarova won). Today, they defeated Jennifer Brady and Alison Riske. Safarova has won the doubles title twice with other partners. In 2012, she won it with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and in 2013, she won it with Kiki Mladenovic.

That second win was unexpected. The pair signed up to compete at the last minute, and they had never so much as had a practice hit together. I asked Safarova what she thought her chances were, and she just rolled her eyes. The joke was on her. She and Mladenovic (half of the winning pair I like to call "Mladenovic and Anybody") stormed through the draw, and then defeated top seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Liezel Huber to win the title.

On Saturday, Mattek-Sands and Safarova will compete against Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke, who defeated Abigail Spears and Katarina Srebotnik in the quarterfinals.

In the other semifinal, 4th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova will play against Raquel Atawo and Jelena Ostapenko. In the quarterfinals, Hradecka and Siniakova defeated Darija Jurak and Anastasia Rodionova. Atawo and Ostapenko upset 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Sania Mirza.

Four women standing on the green clay of Charleston

clockwise, from left: Laura Siegemund, Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
(all photos by Daniel Ward)

Quarterfinals are tense affairs, regardless of the circumstances, but when the wind is stopping, starting and swirling, they can be very tense, and especially for players who hit the ball with little or no spin. All eight of today's competitors reported that the conditions were especially tough. Nevertheless, three of the four winners came through in straight sets, and they were undoubtedly relieved to do so.

The first winner of the day was Russia's Daria Kasatkina, who upset 10th seed Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4, 6-1. The first set was quite competitive, then Begu faded away. Kasatkina, when she talked with the press, said that she had made a decision to become more aggressive in her play in order to progress on the tour. 

Her upcoming opponent, Laura Siegemund, has noticed. The German player had this to say about Kasatkina:

She's very solid. You know, it's dangerous if people are very solid and very aggressive at the same time, like they're aggressive but they don't miss. So that's a bad combination. For her it's a good combination. For the opponent it's tough. You know, you sometimes have these very aggressive players that also make a lot of errors, and then you have these solid players that don't hurt too much, but they just don't miss. She's kind of a little bit of both. She can step it up any time and that makes her really dangerous. 

In her quarterfinal, Siegemund took the first set off of 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova 6-2, but Sevastova began the second set in a dominating fashion, handling the wind well, and going up 3-0. Siegemund edged up to 2-4, then won four straight games to win the match. Both today and yesterday, the German player had relatively short matches ("Surprise!" she said, when this was pointed out today in her press conference), which she needed after the marathons she had against both Lesia Tsurenko and Venus Williams.

Later in the day, the crowd was thrilled when their hometown player, Shelby Rogers, took the first set off of 11th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in a tense tiebreak set. Lucic-Baroni hits the ball really flat, which is a real obstacle in the wind. But she turned the match around and won it 6-7, 6-1, 6-1. The Croation star, who made a dramatic run to the 2016 Australian Open semifinals, said that because she hits the ball so flat, she had exceptional trouble with the wind. Lucic-Baroni also said that she "never was on the ball and was hitting the ball clean." 

But with all the difficulty Lucic-Baroni experienced, she was able to win nine straight games and totally dominate Rogers in the last two sets.

The night match featured 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki (the 2011 Charleston champion) and Jelena Ostapenko. But from start to finish, it was really the Ostapenko Show. The 19-year-old from Latvia hit 40 winners and made 26 unforced errors, which is a beautiful statistic. She beat Wozniacki 6-2, 6-4, and while it took her several deuces and a few match points to reach her goal, she was solid throughout the match. 

So dominant was Ostapenko that her opponent commented, after the match: "Everything was going in. She was hitting the lines. Everything that could go her way today was going her way." From Ostapenko: "...I just tried and I think it was not bad."

Ostapenko, who has never played in Charleston before, is a busy woman: She is also still part of the doubles draw.

Here is the semifinal draw:

Laura Siegemund vs. Daria Kasatkina
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (11) vs. Jelena Ostapenko

The Volvo Car Open will have a first-time champion on Sunday, and it's anyone's guess as to who that champion will be. Each woman has played aggressively and has made her mark on the tournament, and each is playing extremely well. I'm expecting two high-quality semifinals on Saturday--perhaps even more exciting than we've seen in a while at this event. I can't stress enough how very competitive these four players have been.

"It's kind of a micro life out there"

We like watching tennis because it's exciting and entertaining, but--as I've written before--we also become emotionally involved in the fate of the players because they are, to some extent, presenting little dramas about our own lives. Professional sports competitions, in general, allow us to project our own fears, insecurities, hopes, and triumphs onto the players.

This subject of "sports as micro" was presented today, in a different context, by Laura Siegemund, during a Volvo Car Open press conference, after Siegemund won her quarterfinal match against Anastasija Sevastova.

Siegemund, like so many players on the tour, has been through hard times, including having to take an extended forced break because of torn ligaments. At the press conference, she was asked: "At what point did you kind of learn how to win again?" Her reply got my attention:

"It's not that easy, yeah. People like to always draw like black and white lines. It's not like that at all.  It's a process you're going through, and you get certain opportunities, I would say, throughout a career as well as throughout a match.  It's kind of a micro life out there sometimes, these matches. So you keep getting opportunities, and then you either take them or you don't.

"Different reasons why you don't take them sometimes. Maybe it's lack of courage. Maybe it's too much courage, you know. You can want something too much. That's also what happens to a lot of people, what happened to me."

Well, there you are. Laura Siegemund explains attachment anxiety, just like that. And a tennis match, whether you're playing it or watching it, truly is a kind of micro life. You have a chance to be in charge, and you can take it--and maybe crash, or you can hang around and hope your opponent makes an error all on her own.

Too much fear freezes you; too much confidence causes you to take foolish chances. Excessive attachment to outcome will get you in trouble, one way or the other, which is why we always hear professional players say "I just play it point by point." They are, to return to the Buddhist metaphor--attending to the present. The previous point is a thing of the past, and who knows what's to come in the next point (or game, or set)?

And what does this have to do with the rest of us? Everything. We get opportunities, and we don't take them, but then we get new opportunities. We dwell on the lost opportunities, or we don't. We act with courage and let go of the outcome, or we cling to the outcome and lose the moment.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Latvia in the spotlight as Volvo Car Open singles quarterfinals are set

Jelena Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)
There are only eight players remaining in the singles draw in Charleston, and two of them represent Latvia, a country that has not, historically, been dominant in professional tennis.

One of those players is Jelena Ostapenko, who turned pro five years ago, and who is ranked number 66 in the world. Ostapenko reached the Doha final last year, taking out Svetlana Kuznetsova and Petra Kvitova along the way.

Also representing Latvia in Charleston is Anastaija Sevastova, who is enjoying a very good second tennis career. Sevastova retired from the sport in 2013 because she had to deal with so many injuries. In 2015, she returned, and proceeded to play her best tennis. She is currently ranked number 26 in the world, and reached her highest ranking (23) last month.

Here in the quarterfinal draw:

Anastasija Sevastova (photo by Daniel Ward)
Irina-Camelia Begu (10) vs. Daria Kasatkina
Anastasija Sevastova (8) vs. Laura Siegemund
Shelby Rogers vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (11)
Jelena Ostapenko vs. Caroline Wozniacki (5)

Wozniacki is the only former champion (2011) left in the draw. Other former champions who competed this year were Venus Williams (2004), Jelena Jankovic (2007), Sam Stosur (2010), and Andrea Petkovic (2014).

Wozniacki advances twice in Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward
5th seed Caroline Wozniacki, whose Wednesday night match was washed out by a rain and hail storm, had to play twice today at the Volvo Car Open, and she won both her second and third round matches in straight sets. The postponed match, against Annika Beck, ended with a 7-5, 6-1 victory for the Dane, and this evening, she defeated Anastasia Rodionova 6-3, 6-3. Wozniacki won the tournament in 2011, and was the runner-up in 2009.

The major player today, however, was the wind.  The flags in the stadium were fluttering and flapping, debris fell onto the court, we felt some shaking in the media tent, and during a morning match, one of these signs was pushed forward by the wind onto the court, stopping play.

2010 champion Sam Stosur, seeded 6th, was upset in a battle of the forehand against the backhand. The backhand belonged to Irina-Camelia Begu, who used it to expertly handle the wind and defeat Stosur in straight sets. This is the third year in a row that the Romanian has reached the quarterfinals. In both 2015 and 2016, she lost in the quarterfinals to Angelique Kerber (who went on to become the champion in 2015).

Irina-Camelia Begu (photo by Daniel Ward)
Hometown fan favorite Shelby Rogers faced off against Naomi Osaka in the night match, and advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 6-2 victory. Rogers, who was once a ballgirl in Charleston, will play Lucic-Baroni in the quarterfinals.

Close friends Daria Kasatkina and Daria Gavrilova (The Dashas) faced each other today in the 3rd round, with Kasatkina emerging the winner, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0. 

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Laura Siegemund, who upset Venus Williams yesterday, upset 15th seed Lucie Safarova today in straight sets. 7th seed Kiki Bertens went out to Mijana Lucic-Baroni, and 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova quietly advanced with a win over lucky loser Ons Jabeur. Also advancing was Jelena Ostapenko, who opponent, qualifier Fanny Stollar, had to retire due to injury.

In doubles, top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova advanced to the third round, but 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Sania Mirza were upset by Raquel Otawo and Jelena Ostapenko.


all photos by Daniel Ward

What they said at the Volvo Car Open

"This shirt is from my good friend, Ms. Bethanie Mattek-Sands: 'hashtag Ms. Rogers' Neighborhood.' I thought it was appropriate to wear today."
Shelby Rogers

"You can always come back on clay." 
Laura Siegemund

"...there were some errors I made in the beginning, but when push came to shove, I feel like I did the right things, but somehow inexplicably came up empty."
Venus Williams

Daria Gavrilova (photo by Daniel Ward)
"It's a bit difficult to recover, but you know how to work with this." 
Elena Vesnina, on being a 30-something player

"I think I played a lot smarter in the first set. I think I was hitting a lot heavier. I think I was getting her back and off the court, and I think I kept her off the offense a lot better."
Madison Keys

"When she won Wimbledon, it was very big in Russia [pause] Not really in Russia--nothing's big in Russia."
Daria Gavrilova, speaking of Sharapova 

"I basically won the match but still lost."
Venus Williams

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Shelby Rogers keeps up the good work--takes top seed out of tournament

photo by Daniel Ward
Hometown favorite Shelby Rogers upset top seed Madison Keys today at the Volvo Car Open. Rogers defeated Keys 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 to advance to the third round. Her victory occurred not too long after the tournament's 3rd seed, Venus Williams, was upset by Laura Siegemund.

The featured night match was supposed to have been played between Caroline Wozniacki and Annika Beck, but it had to be canceled because of a familiar Charleston-in-April occurrence:

There was a bad thunderstorm and hail, and this, even after Jelena Jankovic was out of the tournament!

2016 runner-up and 4th seed Elena Vesnina also departed today, upset by qualifier Fanny Stollar in two tiebreak sets. Stollar, incidentally, hit thirteen aces.

Kasatkina & Puig (photo by Daniel Ward)
Close friends and very successful doubles partners Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands had to play each other day. Safarova won in straight sets, and will next face Laura Siegemund. Two other very good friends--the Dashas--Daria Gavrilova and Daria Kasatkina, must play each other tomorrow. This morning, Kasatkina defeated Monica Puig 6-0, 6-7, 6-2.

Gavrilova and Kasatkina played their first round of doubles today, too, and lost to 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Sania Mirza.

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward

How to Siegemund: Part 2

photo by Daniel Ward
Last year in Charleston, I wrote about How to Siegemund. Now, that guide gets an update. Laura Siegemund, who reached the Volvo Car Open quarterfinals in 2016, played for over three hours today, saw a match point come and go at the end of the second set, but stuck with her clever and relentless game. The German player eventually upset 3rd seed Venus Williams 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 in the Volvo Car Open second round, and the entertainment value of the match cannot be overstated.

The backstory is pretty good, too. On Monday, Siegemund played a three-hour and 19-minute match against Lesia Tsurenko on the Althea Gibson Club Court, and that, too, was very tense and entertaining.

Backing the story up a year: On the third day of the Volvo Car Open main draw in 2016, Siegemund had already spent nine hours on the court (singles and doubles). This is a player who used to worry about getting tired, but that concern was definitely put to rest.

The longer backstory is even better: In 2012, Siegemund had to leave the tour because of torn ligaments. She used her time off to get a degree in psychology and also to get her trainer's certificate. At that time, she didn't anticipate returning to full-time athlete status. But, of course, she was able to do so, and she does her best work on clay courts.

On Monday, I said that if the Siegemend vs. Tsurenko match were made into a movie, we might give it the working title of "Drop Shot Me to Hell." Today's match would be a sequel, perhaps, "Drop Shot Me to Hell: Feel the Burn." Williams, unlike the ailing Tsurenko, didn't try to beat Siegemund at her own game, though--being Venus Williams--she got to many of the German's drop shots, only to see them fly past her after she dropped them back over the net.

photo by Daniel Ward
Williams took a 4-2 lead in the opening set, but Siegemund then won four games in a row to take that set 6-4. The German held a match point at 5-3, but Williams would have none of it, and the set went to a tiebreak, which Williams won convincingly.

By the time they had finished the first two sets, the opponents had already lived through eleven breaks of serve, but there were more to come in a crowd-thrilling, momentum-swinging final set that--at times--had the crowd mesmerized. At 3-all, the tension was palpable, and Siegemund was on a roll with a series of drop shots (her signature, obviously) that--while not always successful--were successful most of the time. (I couldn't help, at this point, but think of Charleston rock star Patty Schnyder, who used to thrill spectators with her spinning drop shots, lengthy slides and expert lobs.)

On several occasions, Siegemund was forced to use the backhand slice, and every time this happened, she was able to flummox Williams; however, I don't recall seeing her use the backhand slice intentionally. Williams made Siegemund work harder and harder, the longer the match went on, and finally, the 3rd seed served for the whole thing, at 5-4. The end appeared near--well, maybe not, because at times, it seemed that there would be no end. Sure enough, Williams was broken, after holding two match points.

So many breaks had been traded at this point, it was reasonable to expect another tiebreak when Siegemund held at 6-5. But then the German player held again, and the long drama was finally over, with Siegemund victorious at 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. Between them, the players hit 97 winners and made 80 unforced errors, each ending with a positive differential.

Later, in the press room, Williams described Siegemund's performance as what "could be the best match she'll ever play in her life."

photo by Daniel Ward
Siegemund, however, was more measured in her assessment: "I know, in my aggressive game, I can do better than this. But I did a really good job today in defending, and I was covering the court really well. And I got a lot of sneaky points where she thought she had won the point already, and I got it back. But other things were solid, and some things I feel like, okay, I need to get this fixed to keep being in the competition...."

The many faces of Kasatkina

all photos by Daniel Ward

In the battle of the former champions, Stosur prevails

Sam Stosur (photo by Daniel Ward)
 There was a time when Jelena Jankovic's rubber body and her ability to appear to be everywhere on the court at the same time created major problems for Sam Stosur. But times have changed. While Jankovic is still a fine defensive player, she just isn't as quick as she was back then, and her signature backhand down the line is now an occasional tactic, rather than a constant threat.

Jelena Jankovic (photo by Daniel Ward)
In last night's feature Volvo Car Open match, Stosur brought the serve for which she is known, and easily grabbed the first set 6-1 from Jankovic. The Serbian star rallied in the second set, going up a break right away, and even keeping the lead for a while. But the errors came back, and Stosur remained steady, eventually winning the set 6-3.

The tournament's first major upset occurred last night, too, as the 3rd-seeded Chan sisters were defeated in the first round of doubles by Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke. The veteran team won the match 1-6, 7-6, 10-6.

And yesterday featured another long, tense contest--this time, between 2011 runner-up Lucie Safarova and Varvara Lepchenko. Safarova defeated Lepchenko 7-5, 6-7, 6-3.

For Jankovic's many fans, there's good news: She and partner Andrea Petkovic will play doubles together today against the Czech team of Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova. This alone is worth the price of admission to the grounds.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Shelby Rogers thrills the home crowd

photo by Daniel Ward
Shelby Rogers, who used to be a ballgirl for the Family Circle Cup (now the Volvo Car Open) won her opening round in Charleston today on Billie Jean King Court in the tournament's stadium. Rogers defeated qualifer Veronica Cepede Royg 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 in a match that lasted over two hour and 42 minutes. Rogers' next opponent will be Naomi Osaka, who also had to endure a three-setter in her victory over Johanna Larsson.

Maria Sakkari (photo by Daniel Ward)

14th Lauren Davis didn't fare as well as Rogers. Davis fell, 7-5, 6-4, to Maria Sakkari, whose second serve gave her a distinct advantage; Davis's second serve, on the other hand, was part of her downfall.

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Also among today's winners was Daria Kasatkina, who reached the quarterfinals last year before losing to eventual champion Sloane Stephens. Today, Kasatkina (who is unseeded this year), defeated Danka Kovinic 6-1, 6-2.

Spectators at the Althea Gibson Club Court had a treat today when 11th seed
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (photo by Daniel Ward)
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni faced off against Aleksandra Krunic. Lucic-Baroni, who has a Kuznetsova-like tendency to wind up in long, grinding matches, defeated her friend Krunic 6-1, 4-6, 6-3. It was a well-played match by both women. Now, Lucic-Baroni--whose run to the Australian Open semifinals was the most dramatic story on the women's side--will face Mona Barthel, who knows her way around a clay court.

Monday, April 3, 2017

JJ steps onto the court, tornado warnings follow

photo by Daniel Ward
Those of us who have gone to the Charleston tournament for many years know that tornadoes and media tent-rattling storms are always possible. I've been through several of them. Our theory is that Jelena Jankovic, by her very presence, sets them off. That theory was confirmed in 2015 and 2016 when JJ had to withdraw at the beginning of the tournament, and all we had were calm, sunny days.

The Serb played her first round match today, and--like clockwork--a tornado warning appeared on our phones and computers. While JJ was in the stadium hitting and sliding, the rest of us were trying to figure out a safe exit strategy.

There was a lot of rain, but it didn't last a long time. However, as long as Queen Chaos (Todd Spiker's perfect nickname for Jankovic) is in the draw, I'm not letting my guard down.

2007 champion Jankovic won her match, as did 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic. And the tornado warning, as tense as it was, wasn't the most exciting thing that happened today: That would be the three-hour and 19-minute battle fought between Lesia Tsurenko and 2016 quarterfinalist Laura Siegemund on the Althea Gibson Club Court.

Laura Siegemund (photo by Daniel Ward)
I anticipated that this would be a very good match, and it was. If it were made into a movie, it might be given the working title, "Drop Shot Me to Hell." There was a lot of drama, too, and the spectators were exhausted from watching. Tsurenko won an 87-minute first set in a tiebreak, then sustained a thigh injury that put her in obvious pain. Siegemund won the second set 6-2.

The third set was about as tense as they come. Tsurenko was grimacing in pain, sometimes stopping to bend and stretch her thigh. Her opponent's drop shots were often lethal, but Tsurenko returned the favor on several occasions, giving the German a bitter dose of her own medicine. Siegemund served for the match twice, and both times, she got tight and double-faulted her chances away.

In the meantime, Tsurenko, sensing her chances, loosened up; she was obviously now running on adrenalin and able to ignore the pain. But in the third set tiebreak, the Ukrainian player still came up short, and a very animated Siegemund was able to hit an emphatic match point and advance to the second round.

This match reminded me of a match played last year, also on Althea Gibson, between Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Kiki Mladenovic. The atmosphere was similar, and it appeared that neither player could grab a victory until finally, Lucic-Baroni sealed it in a 15-13 third set tiebreak.

Monday in Charleston: top seeds meet the press

Madison Keys (photo by Daniel Ward)
All Access Hour happened today in Charleston, and it was comprised of an exceptional set of interviews. Caroline Wozniacki wasn't able to make it (she's doing hers separately), and, unfortunately,  I didn't get to speak with Johanna Konta. Konta, though she has withdrawn from the event, was there for the media. Last year's champion, Sloane Stephens, was there, too, walking around with an unusual leg brace. Stephens is collecting shoes for Soles4Souls.

Top seed Madison Keys started things off with a firm declaration that she's not comfortable on clay, but she's working on getting more comfortable. Something clicked for her last year, she said, and I realized that " can't hit a winner from ten feet behind the baseline on this surface; I just got a lot better at building points and not panicking if the point isn't over in three balls."

She said that recently, she had an opportunity, for the first time, to spend over a month just working on fitness, and that her fitness level has increased. (As a committed sled pusher/puller, I talked with her about the recent addition to her regimen of sled exercises; she doesn't seem to like the activity as much as I do--yet; it's a love-hate thing, and it takes time.)

Venus Williams (photo by Daniel Ward)

2004 champion Venus Williams talked about how much she loves Charleston. When asked what keeps her going, she said, without hesitation, "I love winning titles." She said she has no regrets, that she's lived exactly how she has wanted to live.

Asked about Serena's Snapchat habit of asking Venus why she isn't wearing any pants: "I don't like pants--what can I say?"

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
Kiki Bertens talked about how wonderful it is for her to be back on a clay court. The Dutch star said that her success at last year's French Open (and the entire clay court season) gave her a lot of confidence, but she explained that her run in Paris is also part of a double-edge sword because "you also have some expectations now, and also the other people have some expectations, and that makes it a little bit tough."

Bertens credited a heavy forehand with bringing her clay court success. She said her overwhelming success in Fed Cup play comes from loving team sports. Years ago, she had to choose between playing tennis and playing on a handball team.

2010 champion Sam Stosur, who has become a Charleston dining specialist, entertained us with a list of all of her restaurant reservations. Stosur spends her birthday here, and is a devoted participant in the tournament. We all reminisced about her stunning performance (and Vera Zvonareva's incredible racket breaking) in the 2010 final. The Australian star said she thought it was the best match she had ever played, and no one was going to argue with that.

Daria Gavrilova said that she practiced on some green clay courts in Key Biscayne before she left Miami. She said she's been working hard and feels very motivated, and she described herself as a positive person. Gavrilova, who is Russian by birth, talked about how she was influrnced by Maria Sharapova. "When she won Wimbledon, it was very big in Russia [pause] Not really in Russia--nothing's big in Russia."

Elena Vesnina (photo by Daniel Ward)
Indian Wells champion Elena Vesnina described the high she's been on since winning that even. She said that so many players were congratulating her--they were even stopping her to congratulate her when she was on her way to play a match in Miami.

Vesnina said that studying sports psychology (she has a degree in the subject) has helped her a lot in terms of setting goals and managing a long-term sports career. "It's the same thing in the life," she added.

The Russian star talked about the fact that tennis provides more opportunities than other sports to "start over" and make up for losses. But, she added, the constant travel and changes in climate are especially difficult for the professional tennis player. She said that some players eat, sleep and breathe tennis, but that she cannot be that way, and that she needs to have emotional connections with other players.

Vesnina said it has helped her to observe how other veteran players take care of themselves. "It's a bit difficult to recover, but you know how to work with this." She said it was important to "listen to your body."

I asked her if--at any time during the Indian Wells final--she was aware that she was a participant in a major thriller, and she said "no, not at all." The first thing that came to her mind after match point, she said, was "it's over."

"I was down the whole match....At one point, I felt like 'everything is against me in this final.'" But she kept fighting, and she said that when she served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, she felt totally confident.

Konta shines brightly, but will miss the green clay

Who has a (sometimes) very good serve, an awkward service motion, a wicked return game, and a  sassy inside-the-baseline return stance?

That would be Marion Bartoli, who is now designing jewelry and shoes and enjoying all the time she has to paint landscapes. But take out the parenthetical "sometimes" in the above question, and you have: Jo Konta!

And while I may be the only one comparing Konta with the former Wimbledon champion, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Sure, Bartoli swung her racket with both hands and was also, by my own assessment, incomparable. Still, the depth of the British star's aggression, paired with that robotic (Bartoli sometimes looked like a French windmill) service motion makes me think of Marion.

In my estimation, Konta was a "happy accident" waiting to happen. She's just too focused on winning points to not do well, and her serve has turned into quite the "weapon," as the commentators like to say. This combination of aggression and big serve can be lethal. And the British star, who announced she really did mean business early in the season, just won the Miami Open, her first premier mandatory title. Now she's in Charleston to compete on a surface that probably isn't as comfortable for her as the hard courts in Miami were.

Konta, unfortunately, had to withdraw from the Volvo Car Open because of a right shoulder injury. It will be interesting to see how she adapts to clay courts as the season goes on. In the meantime, her Miami victory has propelled her to a ranking of number 7 in the world.