Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Fighting Italians out, one Kiki standing

Today, former French Open runner-up Sara Eranni joined Roberta Vinci, Francesca Schiacone and Camila Giorgi in saying au revoir to Paris. Petra Kvitova said goodbye, too, after she lost two tiebreak sets to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. It was sad to see Petra go, but that sadness is really minimal compared with the joy of seeing her compete so well after all that she has been through.

Yesterday, I was really surprised to see Mona Barthel lose, but I was more surprised today to see Kiki Bertens go out in straight sets. Bertens, a semifinalist in 2016, lost to CiCi Bellis.

The other Kiki--Kiki Mladenovic--was the one who knocked out Sara Errani. Mladenovic said that her back is still stiff, but she is not in pain at this time. That's a good thing, since the Frenchwoman has a serious shot at winning the whole thing.

The two "shaky" contenders both lived up to their reputations. Defending champion Garbine Muguruza and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova both had to go three sets to secure their places in the third round--Muguruza against the increasingly dangerous Anett Kontaveit, and Muguruza against Frenchwoman Oceane Dodin.

Oh, and while all this was going on, Ons Jabeur upset 6th seed Dominika Cibulkova.

Kuznetsova's next opponent will be Zhang Shuai, and next up for Muguruza is Yulia Putintseva, and who doesn't want to see that? (I probably won't, because I'll be in workshops all day Friday, or the schedulers will put the match on 11:00, which is 4:00 where I live.) If Garbine mugus around and Julia yells and carries on, the match will be--well, about as expected.

Next up for Mladenovic is Shelby Rogers, who has once again inserted herself in an interesting way into a big draw. There's a very good chance that Mladenovic will meet Muguruza in the round of 16, and--assuming both are feeling healthy enough--that could be an extraordinary occasion (sure to be broadcast at 11:00 because that's the kind of luck I have--and I would consider getting up to watch it). The crowd will respect its defending champion, of course, but will most likely go into a frenzy over Kiki.

One of the other big contenders, Simona Halep, plays her second round tomorrow, against Tatjana Maria. Elina Svitolina, also a contender, plays her second round tomorrow, too. The Rome champion will face off against the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, Tsvetana Pironkova.

In the past, Pironkova made a kind of niche hobby of knocking off huge stars on grass and hard courts--especially at Wimbledon, and she had a particular gift for upsetting Venus Williams. In the past few years, however, the gifted but wildly inconsistent Bulgarian has left everyone alone. Now, the last place we would expect to see her pop up again would be on a clay court, but she reached the quarterfinals last year, and it was she who defeated clay specialist Barthel in the first round this yesr--with a 6-0, 6-4 scoreline.

We may still be in the second round, but at the French Open, it's never too early to advise everyone to expect nothing but the totally unexpected.

Monday, May 29, 2017

So how do you like it so far?

We knew going into this French Open (actually, we know going into every French Open) to expect just about anything, and though we're still in the first round, it looks like it was a good idea that we were so prepared.

That Angie Kerber was upset in the opening round was hardly a surprise, but that doesn't make it any less sad. I saw that someone on Twitter asked (not an exact quote) "how could someone with Kerber's 2016 season have this kind of 2017?" Easy--there is a lack of psychological preparedness. This happens not only in sports, but in every endeavor, in both the short- and long-term. We just notice it more in sports because of the drama of competition.

The sad part is that it doesn't really take that much to turn a negative mindset around. We now have several methods of doing this, from hypnosis to mindfulness to visualization to cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. But apparently, these very effective methods aren't being employed.

A struggle that shouldn't have been a surprise, but apparently was, involved Kiki Mladenovic. Mladenovic recently sustained a back injury, yet none of the talk about injured contenders included her; I have no idea why. Mladenovic, obviously hampered by pain, squeaked past Jennifer Brady, but only because Brady's nerves got the best of her toward the end of the match. Unless she has a sudden resolution of her problem (and she might), the Frenchwoman's Roland Garros future doesn't look too good. That's a shame, because she was (and may still be) definitely a contender to win the title.

We saw 2012 runner-up Lucie Safarova go out, and we saw CoCo Vandeweghe go out--rather easily. And also sadly, we also saw an ill Julia Goerges go out in the first round. Daria Gavrilova is out, once-a-contender Jelena Jankovic is out, and 2010 champion (and 2011 runner-up) Francesca Schiavone had the bad fortune to draw defending champion (and once again, contender) Garbine Muguruza in the opening round. Irina-Camelia Begu is out, too.

But all of that--even Kerber's exit--pales next to the very, very good news:

There won't be better news this season.

Tomorrow, two condenders take to the Parisian red clay--3rd seed Simona Halep, who faces Jana Cepelova, and 5th seed Elina Svitolina, who will play Yaroslava Shvedova. Also of interest is Caroline Garcia, who will compete against Nao Hibino, and the also recently injured Daria Kasatkina, whose opponent is Yanina Wickmayer.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Svitolina: why not?

Last week, I named four French Open champion contenders--Simona Halep, Kiki Mladenovic, Maria Sharapova, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. I held back on Elina Svitolina, and then she won Rome, so I'm putting her on the list. I'm doing this not so much because she won Rome, per se (we all know how the warmup victories can go), but because she's having a season filled with confidence and I think she's ready to be considered a contender. (And I'm pleased to have promoted Svitolina's great potential a long time ago.)

It now seems clear that defending champion Garbine Muguruza belongs on the list, too.

Sharapova is off of the list, and no one sums up my feelings about that better than The Backspinner. A pig to slop, indeed.

Now, just days away from the start of the French Open, both Halep and defending champion Garbine Muguruza have sustained injuries. Muguruza injured her neck and Halep rolled her ankle--both in Rome. Assuming, for now, that both of them will be okay for the upcoming competition, the competitive mix looks pretty interesting.

An argument can be made that Halep is under even more pressure than Muguruza, and, of course, the Spaniard's unpredictability is an entity in itself. She could Mugu around and go out in the first or second round, or she could defend her title.

Of the five of them, Mladenovic and Svitolina are the most consistent. Each will have to be beaten; they won't beat themselves. Mladenovic will also have tremendous crowd support, which she will use to great advantage. Halep does seems more stable than last year, Muguruza I already covered, and Kuznetsova is--well, Kuznetsova.

It's my favorite major, and I can't wait for it to begin.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Who will win the French Open? Your guess is as good as mine

This year's French Open championship is being described as "totally open" by commentators and tennis writers, and while it isn't that "open," there isn't a clear favorite. Historically, the French has been the hardest to call because players who do really well on hard courts and grass often find their skills neutralized by clay courts--and by experienced clay court players.

Serena Williams won't be at Roland Garros. The defending champion, Garbine Muguruza, doesn't appear to be in the form that took her to to the championship last year. She could grab some last-minute mojo, but I have serious doubts about that.

On paper, Angie Kerber is a contender, but--sadly--she doesn't seem up to it right now.

Who does? In no particular order:

Simona Halep
Who will show up in Paris? Right now, it looks like 2014 Halep will make the trip. It was that year that the Romanian star went all the way to the final and gave Maria Sharapova an extremely tough, three-hour battle. Sharapova said afterwards that it was the most difficult final she had ever played. Halep certainly has what it takes to win the French Open, and this could very well be the year she wins her first major.

Halep just defended her 2016 title in Madrid* (and drama does seem to follow her these day, doesn't it?), something that is hard to do. That's the "up" side. The "down" side is: She won Madrid last year, but failed to get past the round of 16 in Paris. Nevertheless, given the way she's been playing, it's impossible not to consider her a major contender to take the 2017 title.

*The Madrid final played between Halep and Kiki Mladenovic was a beautiful thing to watch. Mladenovic sustained an injury in the semifinals, and was hampered by it in the final. She skillfully played through it, and appeared to overcome it, but in the last part of the third set, it looked as if all the stress had finally taken her down a notch. But that isn't to take anything away from the brilliant performance that Halep put on, defeating Mladenovic 7-5, 6-7, 6-2.

As for Mladenovic, this makes two clay runner-up finishes in a row for her, which has to be disappointing, but which also demonstrates what a threat she has become.

Maria Sharapova
The three-time champion is definitely a contender. Her comeback has been impressive so far, and her vast experience at the business end of Roland Garros should serve her well. We'll know in a few days whether Sharapova gets a wild card into the main draw or into qualifying; it's expected that she'll get one into the qualifying draw. That, of course, means she would have to play an extra three matches, and playing ten matches is a lot to ask of anyone. I hope she gets a wild card into the main draw, but even if she doesn't, I make her a contender. (Also, her unseeded appearance in the draw could spell the end for other contenders.)

Kiki Mladenovic
Mladenovic has been a French Open contender in my head for a few years, though I knew that she wasn't ready--until now. The French star did something to change her mental strength status, and that something--whatever it was--did several things for her. It gave her a huge boost of confidence, more fluidity in working the court, and much more consistency in her already very good serving. She's now a major threat; also, she's excellent at creating crowd frenzy.

Svetlana Kuznetsova
I know--we say it because we want it to be true. But Kuznetsova's season is quite promising, she's a former champion (2009), and when she's "on," she owns a clay court.

The usual suspects--and a few new ones--will be around to spoil things for the main contenders. No one would be fond of stepping into an early round and having to face the likes of Kiki Bertens (who I hope will some day be a serious contender), Charleston champion Daria Kasatkina, Charleston runner-up Jelena Ostapenko, Stuttgart champion Laura Siegemund, Rabat champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the resurgent Anastasija Sevastova, Caroline Garcia, Elina Svitolina, Prague Open champion Mona Barthel, and former French Open finalist Lucie Safarova.

Francesca Schiavone could also be on hand to sweeten the draw. And despite the fact that I don't think they're going to win the championship, Kerber and Muguruza could make it difficult for others to win it.

Could any of these women wind up winning the tournament? Of course, but they don't have the advantages of the four contenders listed above.

The French Open is my favorite of the four majors. It's also the least predictable, and perhaps, this year, it's even less predictable than usual.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Scientists discover genetic flaw in Blonde Female Contrition Deficiency

Scientists working in the field of genetics have discovered what they describe as a weak propensity toward contrition among blonde females. The study, funded by multiple scientific communities, is especially relevant at this time because of what some have described as "a startling lack of contrition" from U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova.

Clinton, who won the popular vote by more than 3 million votes, was denied the presidency because of a decades-long media campaign to demean and disparage her, massive voter suppression, the last-minute interference of FBI director James Comey, and a sophisticated campaign in Russia that used bots to plant continuous false "news" stories about her.

Clinton's campaign also made strategic errors for which Clinton has assumed responsibility. However, her detractors believe strongly that these errors comprise the only relevant factor in Clinton's failure to win sufficient electoral college votes, and that the candidate is therefore "without contrition."

Sharapova was found guilty of taking a substance that has not been scientifically proven to enhance performance, and that was suddenly banned under very suspicious circumstances, and--in a move that was draconian even for the International Tennis Federation--a ban of four years was suggested as her punishment. The ban (the only one given to the dozens of athletes who used the substance) was changed to two years, after which WADA (the anti-doping organization)'s president made a shockingly prejudicial statement about the Russian athlete.

The Court for Arbitration of Sport reduced Sharapova's ban to 15 months, and stated that she "bore no Significant Fault or Negligence." It is true that Sharapova was careless in failing to take responsibility for knowing that meldonium, the substance in question, was banned. She took full responsibility for her negligence. She has also (correctly) pointed out the questionable way in which the WADA/ITF procedure was handled, and has therefore been accused of both "playing the victim" and not demonstrating that she is contrite.

The genetic scientists who conducted the study were quick to point out that Clinton and Sharapova are only the two most recent cases of Blonde Female Contrition Deficiency. They cited the case of Madonna, who refused to express any contrite feelings for appearing in cutting-edge music videos, despite the demands of the Catholic Church, among other institutions. And they pointed out that Clinton has a long history of BFCD, which includes not feeling bad enough over her disdain for baking cookies, and not feeling guilty enough for staying with her sexually misbehaving husband.

The panel also found worthy of further study the phenomenon they called Projective BFCD, citing the case of Genie Bouchard. The blonde Canadian tennis star, who has stated her belief that Sharapova should receive a lifetime ban, is currently under attack by the United States Tennis Association for failure to show contrition for sustaining a concussion because of the USTA's blatant negligence at the 2015 U.S. Open.

There is no word yet as to whether BFCD will be classified as a genetic medical vulnerability or be put forth for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Monday, May 1, 2017

For Sharapova, the condemnation continues--for WADA and the ITF, it doesn't exist

I want to be clear from the start: What I am about to say does not in any way promote the idea that Maria Sharapova did nothing wrong.

Now, let me say it loud to the outrageously large number of people who:

  • "see" and "hear" what's already in their emotionally driven heads
  • like to skip the process of rational thinking
  • skipped the classes in which logical fallacies were taught
  • have no interest in learning facts
  •  do not grasp the idea of context
  • definitely skipped the logical fallacy and psychology classes in which black-and-white thinking was taught

What I am about to say does not in any way promote the idea that Maria Sharapova did nothing wrong.

We can all agree that Sharapova did something wrong. There are consequences for making mistakes. But, just as our (I'm speaking of the U.S. since that's the country with which I'm familiar) system of justice is deeply flawed and too frequently based on prejudice, weak evidence and hidden (or, these days, not so hidden) agendas, so are other systems. Like the one involving WADA and the ITF.

Whether one thinks that Sharapova is a shameful and dishonest person (and please bear in mind that the Court for Arbitration of Sport does not agree with you), a careless and irresponsible person, or something in between--what she did or did not do is like everything else anyone does or not do: It took place within a context.

When I saw Sharapova's news conference and then heard about the large number of athletes who had been taking the newly banned meldonium, the first thing that struck me was that they were all from eastern European countries and most were from Russia. The second thing that struck me, almost immediately, was that the Olympic Games were forthcoming.

What a coincidence.

I set about to learn about meldonium and discovered that there were no human studies done on the substance, and therefore, there was nothing known scientifically about its effects on athletes. Other studies did indicate that it could possibly boost energy and speed recovery. So, apparently using Trumpian science, WADA banned it.

How unprofessional.

I consulted some physicians and pharmacists, who said they thought the ban was unjustified.

And then, suddenly, dozens and dozens of meldonium-using athletes were told to proceed to Rio--no problem. But not Sharapova. The ITF wanted to give the Russian star a four-year ban, which has to be interpreted as "your career is over." It wound up being a two-year ban.

By this time, my head was spinning. But not just because I didn't understand what was going on. What was really troubling me was the failure of the media--both the sports media and the news media--to investigate this chain of highly questionable events.

In his excellent October, 2016 article in the New York Times, Christopher Clarey quotes now-ITF president David Haggerty, discussing the ITF's refusal of his idea to skip the ITF hearing and take the case directly to the CAS: "The ITF wouldn’t do it because they wanted to have this sham tribunal of three handpicked people go and blast Maria to give the appearance that they are being tough on doping. But this wasn’t a doping case at its heart, so they really did a disservice to Maria, but also a disservice to the system."

There you are.

But that wasn't the end of it. Following the announcement of the ban, WADA president Craig Reedie announced to the world that "For me, the only satisfactory element in Madame Sharapova’s case was that in one year she can earn more money than the whole of WADA’s budget put together."

And the media was again silent, despite the fact that Reedie was displaying a blatantly prejudicial attitude toward Sharapova because she is wealthy.

The CAS, you may recall, declared that Sharapova "bore No Significant Fault or Negligence for her anti-doping rule violation and therefore her ban should be reduced from two years to 'time served.'" In effect, this reduced Sharapova's ban to a period of 15 months.

Having been declared innocent of "doping" in the strict sense that WADA and the ITF intended, Sharapova was free to resume playing on the tour this month. Now, the granting of wild cards to her is the latest "outrage" surrounding the issue. And while I understand the objection to the wild cards in a legitimate doping case (and I might not even agree with them then, but I understand them), Sharapova's record, while not expunged, is not unclean, either.

There has also been a huge call for Sharapova to stop "playing the victim." Most of her comments have had nothing to do with being a victim, but she has indeed made a few comments about being victimized, and I have no problem with them at all.

There is much more that I could say, but the salient factors here are: Sharapova, not known for being a cheater in her sport, failed to follow the rules. The ban, which affected eastern European athletes, was suspiciously called--with no reliable scientific evidence to support it--right before the Olympics. Everyone but Sharapova got to go on with her or his life. The ITF intended to end Sharapova's career, but couldn't. The president of WADA has a problem with Sharapova's wealth.

No matter what you think about Sharapova, what she did or didn't do, and how guilty you think she is, there's no getting around the reality that the entire WADA/ITF process failed to pass the smell test. Even the worst of crimes cannot be handled by a "justice" system this flawed.