Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Rock rocks Birmingham, and gives new meaning to "comeback"

Winning her opening round at the French Open was a very emotional victory for Petra Kvitova. Barely losing her second round wasn't too shabby, either. Then she stepped onto the grass and did what Petra does best--slay. In Birmingham, Kvitova beat lucky loser Tereza Smitkova, wild card Naomi Broady, 5th seed Kiki Mladenovic, her friend, Lucie Safarova (by retirement), and a red hot Ash Barty, who did some very heavy lifting to get to the final.

Oh--and The Barking Czech won the Birmingham title with incomplete feeling in her left hand. You know--that hand.

Barty took Kvitova to three sets, and you know how that can sometimes work out for the Czech star. But no worries--Kvitova won the final with a 35/25 winner-unforced error result, and that included hitting thirteen aces. She also had long stretches of being Scary Petra, and--considering all that she's been through--there couldn't have been a more beautiful thing for us to watch.

From her performances in Paris and Birmingham, there is reason to postulate that experiencing a near-end to her career (and perhaps her life) may have caused Kvitova to give up her self-destructive on-court meltdowns that have kept her from winning the many major titles she "should" have won. Her priorities have been rearranged; she could be a lot looser from now on.

I should note that it would be just as likely--if not more so--that the trauma would have made the Czech star even more anxious and less self-confident. Every time we suffer a trauma, we are re-visited by any former traumas we have expeienced. If those former traumas (and we've all suffered some) were not resolved, their subsequent visits are especially intense.

Also, immediate, appropriate treatment of a trauma provides a dramatically better outcome than postponed, non-existent and/or incompetent treatment. We know that Kvitova received immediate, expert treatment for her hand injury, and I hope she received the same for the emotional/cognitive injury.

Other factors also come into play, including a trauma victim's general outlook, her level of social and healthcare support, and her ability to transcend obstacles. 

So far, the outlook for Petra appears to be excellent. She is already an inspiration to those who saw her play in Paris and Birmingham. She won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014: do the math, and bring on the pineapples!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

My French Open top 10

original photo by Daniel Ward
Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 French Open occurrences:

10. Canada finally in the mix: Gabriela Dabrowski became the first Canadian woman to win a major title when she and partner Rohan Bopanna won the mixed doubles event in Paris. In the final, Dabrowski and Bopanna fought off two match points to defeat Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah, 2-6, 6-2, 12-10.

9. Conspicuous by their absence: Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova and three-time French Open champion Serena Williams did not compete in this year's event for reasons that were ridiculous and delightful, respectively. Also missing was Vika Azarenka, who--though not known for her clay court play--is nevertheless a top player. And, sadly, among the missing was Laura Siegemund, who has been setting the clay courts on fire lately, but suffered a serious injury right before the event began.

8. This Court is closed (no repairs anticipated): Margaret Court just won't shut up. And while she has a right to practice her religion and express her beliefs--when those beliefs are contrary to masses of actual evidence, then their expression becomes harmful, and there is going to be backlash. I find Court's obsession with everything gay/evil quite interesting.

7. 1 really is the loneliest number: Angelique Kerber, the world's number 1 player, went out in the first round, a victim of Ekaterina Makarova. There's no shame in getting beaten by Makarova (though, on a clay court, that was pretty strange). And sometimes top players get upset in the first round. But Kerber's career has been on such a downward slide that she wasn't even considered a favorite going into the French Open, and she should have been.

6. They love Paris in the springtime: The French players were true stars in this year's French Open. One of them, Kiki Mladenovic, seeded 13th, was a favorite to win the whole thing. She took out former finalist Sara Errani, and she took out defending champion Garbine Muguruza, who was also a favorite to win the whole thing. Mladenovic was on a roll, but fell to Timea Bacsinszky in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet had the misfortune of having to play one another in the round of 16. Garcia won that match, but she, too, fell in the quarterfinals, beaten by Karolina Pliskova. But it was a spectacular run by the French stars.

5. More to come: They didn't win the French Open, but both Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova solidified their roles as important players on the tour. Svitolina, of course, is probably still quaking from the hurt put on her by Simona Halep just as it appeared obvious that the Ukrainian star was about to advance to the semifinals. Pliskova did advance to the semifinals, and Halep got her, too. But who thought the Long Tall One was going to do so well on clay?

4. They can't stop winning!: Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova did it again. They won their second French Open doubles title and their third major doubles title in a row. Mattek-Sands and Safarova have now won five majors together, and a Wmbledon win would give them a Career Slam.

3. The bittersweet times of Simona Halep: I've written so much about Simona Halep in the last several days, and I don't want to re-hash what I've written. My final take is this: She really has made a turnaround in attitude: Her miraculous defeat of Svitolina in the quarterfinals is all the proof I need. But brain-wiring is a tricky thing, and sometimes, nerves kick in even when you think you may have conquered them. Also, sometimes you find yourself face to face with a grinning, grimacing, "Isn't Roland Garros a blast?" hitting machine. Halep isn't the only top player who, on a given day, would have been overwhelmed by Ostapenko. Here's hoping Halep keeps the faith because many of us would love to see her lift that (or any big) trophy.

2. The Rock returns: This event has been so thrilling and so full of surprises that it's easy to "forget" some of the earlier big moments. But surely nothing could have touched our hearts more than seeing Petra Kvitova enter Court Philippe-Chatrier. Well, except maybe seeing her play--and win her first match. She lost her second match, but by the very close score of 7-6, 7-6. And it didn't matter at all. Petra had returned, and a month earlier than what had been projected as her earliest possible return time. Kvitova won't get all the feeling back in her fingers for a while, but she's able to play, and that is, as far as I'm concerned, the best thing that will happen all season.

1. They say it's your birthday: Those of us who have watched Jelena Ostapenko for a while were aware of her somewhat scary tennis skills. But there was so much more to be done--the taming of her emotions, learning some discretion in shot selection, finding a better serve. And there is still plenty of work for the young Latvian to do (I can only imagine, if she fixes her problems areas, what she might become). But that didn't stop her from pulling off one of the greatest upsets in tennis history.

The first Latvian player to win a major, the first unseeded woman to win a major since 1933 (and the first one in the Open Era), the first woman to win a major as her first WTA victory since
1979--Ostapenko crashed the record books the same way she crashed the dreams of Simona Halep and Timea Bacsinszky. It's just how she does things.

Ostapenko turned 20 the day she beat Bacsinszky (who was also observing her birthday) in the semifinals. So why not just party through the weekend and, on your way out, pick up the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen?

The ballroom dancer turned tennis pro started her campaign with a defeat of Louisa Chirico, went on to take out Olympic gold medal winner Monica Puig, the talented Lesia Tsurenko, former French Open finalist Sam Stosur, former world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki, and friend Bacsinszky, before she got to the highly favored 3rd seed (and former finalist) Simona Halep. Ostapenko entered Roland Garros (only her eighth appearance at a  major) as a teenager, and--299 winners later--left as a member of the tennis elite.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jelena Ostapenko: an expert dancer who prefers to lead

It "shouldn't" have happened. Kind of like the hummingbird "shouldn't" be able to fly. But it did happen: Jelena Ostapenko, who had never before won a WTA tournament, defeated obvious favorite Simona Halep today and became the 2017 French Open champion.

Ostapenko is the first unseeded player in 74 years to win the event. She entered the tournament ranked number 47 in the world, and on Monday, she'll be ranked number 12--with a bullet.

The young, very expressive, ballroom-dancing Latvian appears to have swirled around in a ring of magic throughout her two weeks at Roland Garros. She won her semifinal match on her birthday (oddly, played against a friend and former doubles partner who was observing her birthday, also). And we know how some people like to extend their birthday celebrations into the weekend--well, no one can do that better than Ostapenko just did.

But that coincidence pales compared with this one: The last player to win the French Open as his first tournament was Gustavo Kuerten, and he did it on June 8, 1997--the day Ostapenko was born.

You can't make this stuff up.

Halep was the runner-up in 2014, after playing a very hard-fought final against Maria Sharapova. In the next couple of years, the Romanian player--who had her break-out year in 2013--found the pressure to win get to her in ways that impeded her progress. Halep is clever, graceful (every generation has a player of notable grace, and Halep is that player), strategically superior, and extraordinarily athletic. But her self-punishing ways, tied to her perfectionism, have held her back.

Halep came into this French Open, however, with a new attitude, and that attitude was made dramatically manifest when she pulled off a miracle in the quarterfinals, beating Elina Svitolina after being down a set and 1-5. It looked, for all the world, like the Romanian had conquered her demons and would finally collect her Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Halep won the first set 6-4, against risk-taker Ostapenko, who plays all-out on every shot, with the hope that all those errors, in the end, will be neutralized by all those winners (I call it "Kvitova-style"). At that point, the match looked like my expectation--that Ostapenko would hardly fade, but that the occasion would cause her to create more errors than winners. I was almost right: She hit 54 of each.

One of the most appealing things about Ostapenko is how quickly she gets over disappointment. She misses a shot, makes a face, then moves on to the next shot. She uses a poor strategy, waves her arms at her box, then moves on to the next strategy. So today, she lost a set, shrugged it off, and moved on to the next set. No big deal. She went down 0-3 in that set, and shrugged that off, too. Down 1-3 in the third? No problem. Is it the resilience of youth, or is it just the way Ostapenko is? Regardless, she cleaned her game up in the middle of the second set, dramatically changing her winner-error ratio, and won it 6-4.

The third set was just as tense as one would have expected it to be. In that set, Halep saw only two break opportunities, and she converted one. Ostapenko converted three out of seven. And as the set progressed, Ostapenko--who "should" have been falling apart mentally--entered the zone we've seen her enter throughout the last two weeks. She entered it, and she stayed in it, finding angles that are generally known only to players like Kvitova, Kerber--and Halep. She kept the ball in the court more frequently. She had grasped the idea that she could win the French Open, and this knowledge, rather than causing her to collapse mentally, only made her more deadly. She defeated Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Halep had candidly stated, before the match, that she felt pressure, and she confirmed this after the match. Well, who wouldn't? We could analyze this for days: Did Halep cave mentally again, or was she just outplayed? I prefer to leave that analysis alone because I think the match was more complex than that, and because any seasoned player would have felt a bit squeamish going against the almost cartoon-like winner-smacking of the sometimes cartoon-like Latvian.

Ostapenko hit 299 winners in her French Open run. She is the first Latvian player to win a major title, and undoubtedly the first player to give up a professional ballroom dancing career in order to play professional tennis.

When she spoke with the press in Charleston, Ostapenko said that her favorite ballroom dance was the cha-cha-cha. In Paris, she said it was the samba. I'm wondering how she feels about the tango--the most fiery of dances, filled with emotion and gliding steps. The tango permits dancers to focus on individual steps, and to coordinate those steps, moment by moment, with the music and the mood of the occasion. Something tells me that Ostapenko can do a mean tango. In the meantime, we were lucky enough to watch her glide her way to a championship (my favorite championship) that most players will never achieve.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Can the final possibly top what we saw today?

I think not. Ostapenko, Bacsinszky, Halep, and Pliskova were so inspired in today's semifinals, it's hard to imagine that we'll see greater, more exciting tennis on Saturday. It was a joy to watch both matches, in which the players displayed remarkable athleticism, amazing speed and stunning shot-making. Unfortunately, two of them had to lose.

Those two would be Timea Bacsinszky and Karolina Pliskova, each of whom had great Paris runs, and who would have made equally great finalists. But it wasn't to be. What we will get is pretty great, too: 3rd seed and former French Open runner-up Simona Halep and the unseeded, never-won-a-WTA- tournament Jelena Ostapenko.

Though none of us can know how the finalists feel (it's easier to figure out how Bacsinszky and Pliskova probably feel), it's not making much of a stretch to conclude that most of the pressure is on Halep. A win would make her the world number 1, but I doubt that her ranking is a major source of pressure.

When Halep broke through in 2013 (going from number 47 in the world to number11), she set her own bar very high. Since then, she has struggled with many things--injuries (especially to her feet and ankles), coaching changes, players who know her game and form strategies to defeat her, and--most significant of all--her own piercing self-judgment. Cursed with perfectionism, Halep has often responded to her own mistakes by just giving up, which has served as her form of self-punishment.

That she has changed her ways was dramatically evident when she won her semifinal match against Elina Svitolina, who was dominating Halep, and who was on the brink of upsetting her.

Today's challenge was different. Karolina Pliskova, who sort of sneaked into the semifinals when no one was paying attention, didn't know what to do about Halep during the first set. Clay isn't exactly where the Czech star feels at home; her huge serve and big, flat groundstrokes are her bread and butter on hard and grass courts. But by the middle of the second set, Pliskova found a rhythm against Halep, and forced a deciding set. Each woman played some beautiful tennis, but in the end, Halep's extraordinary clay court athleticism--and her opponent's less than her usual high standard-serve--led her to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory.

The other match also went to three sets. Bacsinszky and Ostapenko broke each other 16 times, Ostapenko hit 50 winners, it was Bacsinszky's birthday, it was Ostapenko's birthday, and a good time was had by all. It was really a very entertaining match, with the Swiss player's speed and cleverness on display throughout; she wound up winning just one less point than her opponent. Had there been an évier de cuisine handy, I'm sure Bacsinszky would have thrown it at Ostapenko--she threw everything else.

But it wasn't quite enough. Ostapenko (somewhat like the young Kvitova) gives new meaning to "swinging freely." The average speed of her explosive forehand was 76 mph. Ostapenko is a grinning, grimacing, bending, missile-tossing phenomenon who--when she can keep the errors in check--is kind of scary. (On the court--otherwise, she's quite charming.) And as if that weren't enough, all that ballroom dancing has undoubtedly given her a superb sense of her own body, as well as a keen sense of balance.

The young (20 today) Latvian defeated Bacsinszky 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. She is the first Latvian player to ever reach the final of a major, and she's the first unseeded player in 34 years to reach the final of the French Open. Ostapenko is also the lowest-ranked player (47) to reach the French Open final since the advent of computerized rankings in 1975. This blasting through the numbers and the expectations is pure Ostapenko.

The Latvina's coach for the clay season, at least, is former WTA player Anabel Medina-Garrigues, who won the French Open doubles title twice.

However, as free and hard-hitting as Ostapenko may be, she's never been in a huge final before. She has been in three regular WTA finals, and she lost all of them. The most recent loss occurred in Charleston, when she was defeated in straight sets by Daria Kasatkina.

Halep, on the other hand, has been here before. In 2014, she took Maria Sharapova to the brink, prompting Sharapova--after she defeated Halep and won her second French Open title--to say that the match against the Romanian was the toughest final she had ever played.

But today's action wasn't all about the aforementioned players. Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner, Rohan Bopanna, won the mixed doubles title when they defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah 2-6, 6-2, 12-10. Dabrowski is the first Canadian woman to win any kind of major title.

The women's wheelchair competition began today, with top seed Jiske Griffioen getting knocked out by Aniek Van Koot. 2nd seed Yui Kamiji survived and advanced to the semifinals.

Here are the singles finalists paths to the final:


round 1--def. Louisa Chirico
round 2--def. Monica Puig
round 3--def. Lesia Tsurenko
round of 16--def. Sam Stosur (23)
quarterfinals--def. Caroline Wozniacki (11)
semifinals--def. Timea Bacsinszky (30)

round 1--def. Jana Cepelova
round 2--def. Tatijana Maria
round 3--def. Daria Kasatkina (26)
round of 16--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (21)
quarterfinals--def. Elina Svitolina (5)
semifinals--def. Karolina Pliskova (2)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Simona Halep: She's got a new attitude

Running hot
Running cold
I was running into overload...

Somehow that wire's uncrossed
The tables were turned
Never knew I had such a lesson to learn...

I've tidied up my point of view
I've got a new attitude

from "New Attitude," Hull, Gilutin, Robinson 

I wasn't sure that a "new" Simona Halep had emerged from the rubble of Miami, but today, the Romanian star did a dramatic reversal of much of her old, self-defeating behavior. Very dramatic. 

Up against Elina Svitolina (and no, this wasn't even a final, but a quarterfinal), Halep needed all the athleticism, strategy and mental strength she could muster. The hot Ukrainian player entered Suzanne Lenglen Court containing an inner fire that would almost burn Halep to a crisp. This didn't have to do with a poor performance from Halep, but rather, with Svitolina's entering a kind of scary zone in which she hit everything as though she were some kind of tennis super-hero sent to rain misery on Romania. 

Svitolina totally dominated Halep, and before you could say "bow down to Elina of the Golden Forehand," Halep found herself down 0-5. It was at that point that the 3rd seed figured out how to interrupt Svitolina's transition game, cutting her off at the pass, as it were, and taking over the offensive role. That left Halep with a 3-6 set, which must have felt a lot better than a 0-6 set.

But then the second set commenced, and Svitolina came swooping down again, not allowing Halep to get any momentum or construct any points. The 5th seed went up 5-1, and it was easy--and natural--to start wondering about how she would fare in her semifinal match. But something was different, and that something was Simona Halep. Instead of muguing (it's a handy verb) around and getting a head start on the grief process, she played tennis. She played as though she were trying to win the match. She displayed a new attitude.

In tennis, you have your forehand, your backhand, your footwork, your speed--and, as a friend of mine used to say--your head part. Simona held onto her head part, and couldn't help but notice that Elina was letting hers slip away. Svitolina served for the match at 5-2 and was broken. She served again at 5-4, and was broken. Halep was now in full flight, though her opponent was able to save three set points and send the set to a tiebreak, in which Svitolina held her only match point. But again, Halep stopped her, and though it took Halep several set points to take the set, she eventually did it. 

And that was that. Halep won the final set 6-0. The opponents took turns demoralizing each other, but it was Halep's turn that counted. What a match. 

Meanwhile, France's last hope, Caroline Garcia, had to contest against Karolina Pliskova. As the 2nd seed, Pliskova was hardly playing with house money, but she seemed to think she was. The non- clay-favoring Long Tall (Cool) One has quietly gone about her business in Paris, taking out opponents while fans and commentators talked about everyone from Kiki Mladenovic to Caroline Wozniacki, as well as players who aren't even there. 

This match lacked the drama of the first match (most matches would), but it was well-played, and Pliskova won it 7-6, 6-4. And while she made an exit today, Caroline Garcia has a lot to be proud of.

Pliskova, it turns out, wasn't the only Czech player sneaking up on potential glory. The doubles team of Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova upset 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-1, 6-4. 

In other doubles play, top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova prevailed, as did 3rd seeds Chan Yung-Jan and Martina Hingis, and Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua. 

Tomorrow's first semifinal features the unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia and 30th seed Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland. The second features 3rd seed Halep and 2nd seed Pliskova.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Mother Nature teams with Timea, and the last Kiki has left the building

It was tennis's sweetheart pitted against tennis's--shall we say, not-sweetheart. Timea Bacsinszky--the player who decided to drop out of tennis in favor of having a career in the hotel industry, but was lured back in when she gave it a whirl at the French Open four years ago--has become a beloved figure on the tour. She still has to deal with injuries, and has seen her ranking slip during the past year, but her thankful attitude has made her a special kind of star. She can also play some kickass tennis.

Today, with hours of waiting for continuing thunderstorms to come and go, and with swirling wind wreaking havoc on the court, it was Bacsinszky who literally weathered the storm to take out France's great hope (and rightly so), Kiki Mladenovic. The incredibly speedy Bacsinszky looked, at times, to be a cartoon figure, dashing across the court to get back balls that other players would have missed. When she play with the wind, she took care; when she played against it, she hit with might.

Mladenovic did not play badly, though eventually, a lot of errors did appear. She just wasn't up to managing the brutal conditions on Philippe-Chatrier Court. The Frenchwoman had to do some fancy escaping throughout the first week's matches, and there may have been some mental fatigue, especially since an entire country was counting on her to win the event. I certainly considered her a contender, and thought that she would defeat Bacsinszky, but it wasn't to be. The Swiss star took the match 6-4, 6-4.

I was reminded of 2010, when the rain was relentless. What Mladenovic and Bacsinszky had to go through was a bit tame compared to what Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin had to go through seven years ago. They played in the rain--in red mud--in the dark. Officials would not stop play, so they swatted at what they thought was the ball while they sank into the muck that was once a tennis court. It was riveting. Henin won in three sets. In that same event, Nadia Petrova and Aravane Rezai were also forced to play in the rain and in the dark until officials finally stopped play. Petrova won the very close and thrilling match the next morning.

While Mladenovic and Bacsinszky were playing, waiting, playing, waiting, there was another pair also forced to deal with the continuous delays. Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko, meeting on clay for the third time, went to three sets. Wozniacki dominated the first set, and led 5-1, but Ostapenko made a comeback, winning three straight games. It wasn't enough, though, and Wozniacki took the set, 6-4.

That was all Ostapenko was going to stand for. She went up 5-2 in the second set, but then the rain forced the players to leave the court. Upon their return, Ostapenko completed the job and took the set 6-2. This was the Ostapenko we saw play against Wozniacki in Charleston--mugging, muttering, smiling, and smacking winners like she'd been hired to put on a hitting clinic. The Latvian player somehow manages to be businesslike and silly at the same time, and this combination seems to keep her at an even mental keel. All that ballroom dance experience probably helps, too. If you're nimble and rhythmic and have good balance, you can take a lot of physical risks.

Ostapenko won the match, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Playing "Kvitova style," she made 50 unforced errors, but also hit 38 winners. Wozniacki, by contrast, made 25 unforced errors and hit six winners.

Now it gets strange. Bacsinszky and Ostapenko--who have never played one another before--will face off in the semifinals on June 8. Bacsinszky has been to the French Open semifinals before; Ostapenko has never even won a WTA title. Also, June 8 is Bacsinszky's birthday. It is also Ostapenko's birthday. I don't know what the deejay will be up to, but no one is going to want to hear "Too Bad on Your Birthday."

Tomorrow, Simona Halep will play Elina Svitolina, a match that feels like it should be a final. I expect it to go to three sets. Also, Caroline Garcia, the last Frenchwoman standing (taking a moment here to spare a thought for Kiki, who may have melted from the heat in her head by now), will play Karolina "what's she still doing here?" Pliskova. The crowd is going to go crazy without having to be orchestrated by anyone on the court. This is Garcia's opportunity to let the Amelie Mauresmo in her head take over.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Garcia takes flight into French Open quarterfinals

I don't take much interest in tennis handshakes (that is, unless Professor Strycova is demonstrating); I think way too much is read into them by fans. But the handshake, and everything that went with it, after today's all-French round of 16 match did make me smile. I know she's a controversial figure (not with me--I could watch her every day), but I've always felt that Alize Cornet had a good heart, and at the end of today's match, she displayed it. Caroline Garcia, for her part, was warmly receptive.

Both Cornet and Parmentier, I imagine, momentarily got caught up in the "bash Caroline" campaign that occurred right before Fed Cup competition. The new head of the French Federation turned a routine Fed Cup disappointment (it happens all the time, with every team) into a chance to redefine patriotism (the current White House has a lot of vacancies--maybe he should apply) and go all judgmental and authoritarian. Garcia was the victim, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out who the instigator was.

Anyway, Garcia won in straight sets, and her "airplane" may have flown a bit lighter today after that post-match meeting at the net. This is the first time the French Fed Cup star has reached the singles quarterfinals of a major.

The Frenchwoman's opponent in the quarterfinals will be Karolina Pliskova, the reluctant clay court winner. Now that Pliskova has gotten the hang of this winning thing, she just keeps doing it. But Veronica Cepede Royg didn't make it easy for the Long Tall One. She took the first set 6-2, but then Pliskova was able to adapt better, and to take control of the match, winning it 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Simona Halep, looking very much like The Boss, dismantled clay court notable Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-1, 6-1. Halep has yet to drop a set. She next meets Elina Svitolina, who rose from the dead in her round of 16 match against qualifier Petra Martic. Martic--just returning to the tour after a long injury layoff--went up 6-4, 3-6, 5-2 against the Ukrainian star, and then saw Svitolina go down 0-30.

Svitolina held, and that was all it took to bring Martic down to clay Earth. She lost her nerve, Svitolina smelled it--you know how it goes. Svitolina prevailed, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. A more experienced player, say, someone like Simona Halep, would not have caved. This makes Svitolina--depending on your perspective--either a gifted, mentally tough escape artist or a (insert creature of choice) on thin ice. Stay tuned.

And since it wouldn't be a French Open blog post without Kiki Mladenovic, here's the latest news: She's out of doubles. Mladenovic and Kuznetsova were defeated in straight sets in the third round  today by top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova.

Tomorrow, Mladenovic faces off against Timea Bacsinszky, and Jelena Ostapenko challenges Caroline Wozniacki.

The final seven nations represented:

France: Mladenovic and Garcia
Latvia: Ostapenko
Denmark: Wozniacki
Switzerland: Bacsinszky
Ukraine: Svitolina
Romania: Halep
Czech Republic: Pliskova

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ostapenko glides into French Open quarterfinals

I got what I got from ballroom dancing
Paul McCartney

Jelena Ostapenko, of the extremely expressive face and body, almost became a professional ballroom dancer, and she credits ballroom dancing for helping her with her footwork. Her favorite dance is the cha-cha-cha, which involves an excessive shuffling of the feet. Ballroom dancing also helps one develop poise and confidence, two things that come in mighty handy for a tennis player. 

Today, the young Latvian star defeated former French Open runner-up Sam Stosur 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the round of 16 in just under two hours. Ostapenko hit 46 winners and made 34 unforced errors, which is a very nice stat. Now, the plot thickens: In the quarterfinals, Ostapenko will face Caroline Wozniacki, whom she defeated in the Charleston quarterfinals in April. 

In that match, Ostapenko beat the Dane in straight sets, hitting 40 winners and 26 unforced errors. And except for some shakiness at the end when it took her a few match points to close, the 19-year-old was in charge throughout.

For her part, Wozniacki defeated 2009 champion Svetlana (Oh, Sveta) Kuznetsova 6-1, 4-6, 6-2. 

Venus Williams, the last holder of a major singles championship standing, was sent home by Timea Bacsinszky, the same woman who sent her home last year, also in the round of 16.

And then there was that other match--the one contested by defending champion Garbine Muguruza and home favorite Kiki Mladenovic. You could say that it had everything, I suppose. There was a bit of muguing around by the Spaniard, and Mladenovic (after I wrote that she now had control of her nerves) double-faulted 16 times. 

They played for just under two hours, though it seemed longer to me. It probably seemed longer to Muguruza, too. There is no ruder crowd than the French, and there is no greater crowd agitator than Mladenovic. Though she certainly didn't go full Bartoli (an impossibility), the Frenchwoman was quite animated throughout the match, and the atmosphere eventually carried its own drug-like energy. 

Muguruza should have been able to handle that, and perhaps she could have. But Mladenovic herself was yelling in response to some of Muguruza's errors, and that seemed to be the last straw for the defending champion. The scene, in its totality, clearly rattled her somewhat. Had I been in charge of Muguruza's preparation, I would have taken her through a "rehearsal" of yelling, booing, shouting, fist-pumping, etc. Once you've practiced keeping your cool in the middle of something like that, it's much easier for you to ignore the real thing.

Mladenovic won, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. As Muguruza left the stadium, she gave the French crowd a finger wag, which--of course--resulted in her getting booed. I appreciated the gesture because I think Muguruza tends to hold too much in at times. In her press conference, she had a tearful moment and had to retreat, but she returned as her usual articulate and gracious self.

I was okay with either of them winning (though Mladenovic, strictly because of the quality of her tennis), but no matter what, I didn't like seeing it end the way it did. I've long suspected that Muguruza is a lot more complex and vulnerable than she lets on, and this was just a very unfortunate way for the champion to have to make an exit. 

So today, we lost the defending French Open champion (Muguruza), a former U.S. Open champion (Stosur), a former U.S. Open and French Open champion (Kuznetsova), and a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion (Williams).

There was also third round catch-up today. Karolina Pliskova defeated last-German-standing Carina Witthoeft, and Elina Svitlina defeated Magda Linette in a very respectable scoreline of 6-4, 7-5. In the all-South American battle, Veronica Cepede Royg defeated Mariana Duque-Marino in a very competitive three-set match.

The surprise of the day, also a third round contest, was Petra Martic's easy defeat of 17th seed Anastaija Sevastova. Sevastova has been on kind of a hot streak since she came back from retirement, playing the best tennis of her career. Martic is just coming back from a lengthy injury recovery. Nevertheless, she prevailed, 6-1, 6-1. 

We don't know what tomorrow's highlight will be, but a good guess would be the quarterfinal match to be played between Frenchwomen Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet. Not only are they both French, but--you know, it's Alize!

But there's more. Cornet recently served as one of Mladenovic's minions when the French Federation determined that Garcia wasn't injured enough to justify skipping Fed Cup. Forcing players to play Fed Cup is draconian. And, in such a system, some will identify with the aggressor. In this case, "some" were Mladenovic, Pauline Parmentier and Cornet, all of whom mocked Garcia for declaring she was too disabled from a back injury to participate in Fed Cup rubbers. 

I think it's a must-watch.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The last time I saw Paris

Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
Martha: Amen.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees
Much has been made lately of how "open" the women's draw is at Roland Garros. This is because neither three-time champion Serena Williams nor two-time champion Maria Sharapova is there, and also because three major contenders--Simona Halep, Kiki Mladenovic and Garbine Muguruza--sustained injuries shortly before the event began.

And while these facts do add interest to the competition, it's my opinion that at least one of them belongs more in the "illusion" column than in the realm of reality. If Serena and Maria were there, would one of them win the French Open?

I say "probably not." 'Pova would have done well (and yes, she would have been a contender; I had her listed as one before the French Federation declined to "invite" her). But could she have done well enough to go seven matches? My best guess is no--but she would certainly have wreaked havoc on the draw. 

How about Serena? She, too, would have been a contender (she always is), and she, too, would have done a lot of damage to the draw. Yet, as Serena (slowly) winds down, others have found their mojo, and some of those "others" are especially adept at clay court tennis. My gut feeling is that someone not named Maria or Serena was going to win, anyway. 

As for the injuries: So far, that problem seems to have worked itself out. Halep, Mladenovic and Muguruza are making their way through the draw. I say "so far" because, as the grind gets tougher, any (or all) of these women could have problems with their injuries.

Muguruza may be at the safer end of the spectrum, in that a neck injury is probably harder to tweak than other injuries. Halep has a good chance of staying healthy because there is so much preventive attention that can be given an ankle. Of course, she does have a torn tendon, so she's still vulnerable. I think Mladenovic is a bit more vulnerable, though, because her problem is with her back, and if her back goes out, there goes her serve.

If you were to rise in one of those beautiful French hot air balloons, you would be be able to see the big picture: that the French Open is always less predictable than the other majors because the "power" players get their serves, and even their groundstrokes, neutralized by the heavy clay and the considerable spin and lob skills of very experienced clay court players.

Rise a little higher to get a really breathtaking view of Paris, and you would see both a new and a not-quite-new (talking to you, Simona) generation put on quite a show at Roland Garros. This is not to count the veterans out--Sam Stosur, Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova are having very good runs n Paris right now. It's just to point out that there is a lot of competition right now, as the younger stars pull together the mental strength to match their tennis skills.

We all have a tendency to miss what came before. I miss Chris and Martina, Yvonne Goolagong, and Hana Mandlikova. I miss wooden rackets. I wish that Amelie Mauresmo, Patty Schnyder, Marion Bartoli, Li Na, and Flavia Pennetta were still on the tour. But everything changes all the time, and even the greatest players (well, except Martina Hingis) eventually leave us. Some go abruptly, others just let nature take its course and slowly roll down the rankings until one day, they say "enough." Some even come back, but they, too, finally leave us.

The revered veterans on the tour are certainly not through. Serena, Venus and Sveta are still elite players, and Serena, in particular, is very dominant. We can also expect Vika Azarenka to make a nice ascent when she returns to the tour. But the landscape is changing, and things that once seemed clear are now a bit faded--unless you choose to look through the lens of illusion. That change is expected and organic, and one of the highlights of the current WTA tour is the competitive energy that has been established between the veterans and the new (and somewhat-new) guard.

Bon voyage!