Sunday, July 30, 2017

Five is the loneliest number

Today, Caroline Wozniacki lost her fifth final of the season to 2016 runner-up Katerina Siniakova at the Swedish Open in Bastad. The top-seeded Dane has reached five finals in 2017 and has lost all of them. The champion, yet another Czech player on the rise, will now move back into the top 40, but what of former world number 1 Wozniacki? As time goes by, the Dane's career becomes stranger and stranger. She has fought her way back into the top 10, yes, but what does it mean?

I'm reminded of when Jelena Jankovic stunned almost everyone by getting herself back into the top 10 in 2013, but then was unable to capitalize much on this achievement. My gut feeling is that Wozniacki's career is on the same path. I should add that I don't think this casts a bad light on either of them; they have both been number 1 in the world and they have both had great careers.

But the WTA landscape is shifting toward a younger group of players.

Well, sort of. The winner of the Nanchang event was none other than 31-year-old Peng Shuai, whose comeback from a back injury has been quite impressive. But in general, the younger generation of players is finally making its mark on the tour.

Will the North American hard court swing make a difference? I'm looking at Jo Konta to do well, but I'm also looking at Angie Kerber to make a late-season statement. Will Muguruza make a big hard court statement? And what about Ostapenko? Both of them feel like true wild cards in that they can now be expected to do just about anything.

If there's any pressure, though, it's on world number 1 Karolina Pliskova, who has yet to win a major, and who was last year's U.S. Open runner-up. An argument can be made that Pliskova "needs" to win the 2017 U.S. Open, and--while it would be a nice touch, and take the pressure off of her--I think she'll be fine if she doesn't win it. Having said that, I should add that I do consider her a major contender for the title.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

When champions are snubbed

A very long time ago, Janis Joplin was in her car, trying to find the entrance to a venue for a big Janis Joplin concert. She was stopped by security and told that she was not authorized to drive in the area where she had her car. The security official made it very clear to her that only the star, her band and her official entourage could approach the stage parking lot. Joplin protested, but the security man would have none of it. Finally, exasperating with the driver's disobedience and practically yelling at her, he said, "Listen, I wouldn't let you in here if you were Janis Joplin!"

That's a favorite story of mine, and I thought about it in 2005 when security wouldn't allow Svetlana Kuznetsova into a restricted area of the U.S. Open. The 2004 champion tried to explain who she was, but again, security would have none of it. Finally, Kuznetsova caught a break: She saw a life-size poster of herself as the defending champion, pointed at it, then pointed to herself. She was admitted.

I thought of it again in 2011, when Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon and was barred from entering the All England Club reception area, which leads to the balcony where champions hold the trophy and greet throngs of admirers. Finally, a staff member explained to security personnel that they needed to let Kvitova through because she had just won Wimbledon.

And we can laugh about the "cheekiness" of Jelena Ostapenko's "I'm a grand slam champion!"'s complaints about having her match placed on an out-of-the-way court (one that required a loan of Jelena Jankovic's famous Wimbledon helicopter), but it isn't really funny. The newly crowned French Open champion deserved at least a little special treatment. I have to wonder if the schedulers even knew who she was. In the recent past, Wimbledon officials have not known the names of important female players and have published and spoken them incorrectly.

Also, Wimbledon has a "tradition" of snubbing important female players when it comes to scheduling, including their past champions, like five-time champion Venus Williams.

In 2013, The Times bitterly opined that the ladies' quarterfinals were going to be played by "the women you've never heard of." Those women included 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli (who would go on to win the tournament), French Open champion Li Na, the previous year's runner-up, Agnieszka Radwanska, and 2011 Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova. This was an outrageous statement, but The Times was given a pass.

The problem of snubbing female champions, especially at Wimbledon, is one that needs to be addressed. But then, there are endless problems related to sexism toward the WTA that need to be addressed, and they almost never are.

My Wimbledon top 10

Here are my top 10 Wimbledon occurrences, in ascending order:

10: Every day is a winding road: We've never had huge expectations of Simona Halep at Wimbledon, but it was interesting to see how well she'd do after having struggled for a while, and then having just missed becoming the French Open champion. She did well, getting to the quarterfinals, in which she lost a very tough match to Jo Konta. Keep watching.

9. Welcome to the club: Diede De Groot, the 20-year-old from The Netherlands, won her first singles major by defeating Sabine Ellerbrock 6-0, 6-4 in the wheelchair final. De Groot tried to do a sweep, but she and Marjolein Buis, the second seeds, lost the doubles championship to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

8. Every step is progress: Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova has never mixed well with heat or humidity. She won her first round, but in the second, she became ill, even getting her blood pressure checked toward the end of the match. The combination of the heat and perhaps exhaustion (she won Birminham) were too much for her, and she fell to Madison Brengle. But the important thing is that she was there.

7. Brits mix it up: Martina Hingis and her British partner, Jamie Murray, won the mixed doubles championship, defeating defending champions Heather Watson--also British--and Henri Kontinen. This is Hingis's second Wimbledon mixed doubles title, and her sixth major mixed doubles title. And while we may sometimes joke about a player needing an entire room for her trophies, Hingis may need an entire apartment for hers. She now has earned a total of 110 trophies, including singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and Hopman Cup.

6. Just when you thought it was safe to step back onto the grass: Bethanie Mattek-Sands' career has been hampered by injury probably more than the career of any other woman on the tour. She and her doubles partner, Lucie Safarova, were seeking a Career Slam at this event, but had to withdraw when Mattek-Sands--playing the second round of singles--sustained an injury so horrible, even veteran players were shocked. The doubles star fell, dislocating her kneecap and injuring her patella tendon. Screaming in pain, Mattek-Sands insisted that she be anesthetized before having her kneecap reset. She has undergone surgery, and the prognosis is guarded, with one expert saying that she might return in six months, but that it will more likely be a year.

5. Simply the best: The best matches at majors are often (usually) played early in the tournament, and this Wimbledon was no exception. There were two outstanding contests, both played in the second round. Jo Konta and Donna Vekic starred in a three-set thriller that ended with Konta's winning 7-6, 4-6, 10-8. Both players had better second serves than first serves. They hit 23 aces between them (12 and 11), and 97 winners.

The other stand-out match was played between Karolina Pliskova and Magda Rybarikova. Pliskova was a favorite to win the tournament, but Rybarikova had other ideas. Making a comeback from two different injuries, the Slovakian player was in a rare zone (for anyone) throughout the match, combining stunning shot selection with stunning court speed. Here is, in my opinion, the point of the tournament:

4. Once a queen, always a queen: It wasn't enough that Venus Williams got all the way to the final at the Australian Open; she had to do it again at Wimbledon. Looking like the grass queen of old, Williams swatted away the likes of the 2017 French Open champion and Jo Konta. Things didn't work out for her when she faced off with Garbine Muguruza, but it was still a remarkable run.

3. You say you want a revelation: Petra Martic and the above-mentioned Magda Rybarikova were as much the stars of this Wimbledon as anyone. Martic, a qualifier who missed a lot of time because of a back injury, made it all the way to the quarterfinals (having won three qualifying matches), taking out 20th seed Daria Gavrilova in the first round. In the quarterfinals, as fate would have it, she faced off against Rybarikova, who beat her in straight sets.

Rybarikova went on to defeat dark horse favorite CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets in the quarterfinals, but was finally stopped by Muguruza in the semifinals. What a run!

2. Are we there yet?!: 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina had to wait--and wait and wait for the very long (4 hours and 39 minutes) men's doubles final to end before they could take to the court. They also knew, when they stepped onto the court at 9:30 p.m., that all play had to end by 11 p.m. Their opponents were 9th seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Monica Niculescu, and the Russians played like they had a flight to catch, or at least an important dinner reservation that they didn't want to miss. In 54 minutes, it was over, and Makarova and Vesnina had won, 6-0, 6-0. This was the first double bagel to to delivered in a major women's double final since 1971 (Australian Open), and the first one to be scored at Wimbledon since 1953.

Makarova and Vesnina are one championship shy of having a Career Slam; they just need to win the Australian Open.

1. The strike of The Elegant Assassin: I wish I knew who the (British) commentator was who gave Garbine Muguruza the name "The Elegant Assassin" so that I could give him credit for doing so (if anyone knows, please tell me). It's as good a tennis nickname as I've ever heard. And yes, there are times when Muguruza's game isn't exactly elegant, but when she finds her zone, she's both stylish and scary at the same time. Such was the state of all things Mugu throughout the Spaniard's two-week stay in London.

She made it look so easy. The only player to take a set off of her was world number 1 Angie Kerber, and their round of 16 match was a great one. Muguruza barely broke a sweat through her other matches. When she stepped onto Centre Court with her bouquet on Saturday, she was the picture of composure. Her first set against five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams was a very tough one, but after she saved two set points, she went into assassin mode and stayed in it.

Muguruza defeated Williams 7-5, 6-0. She hit 14 winners and made 11 unforced errors. This is her second major championship--she won the French Open last year. In fact, she has won only two other tournaments in her career, one international and one mandatory premier. Muguruza was coached by former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez during this event since her regular coach could not be present, and the combination obviously worked very well.

The pressure of winning the French Open really got to Muguruza, and it didn't help when the French crowd turned against her this year when she competed against (and lost to) Kiki Mladenovic in the fourth round. Martinez is credited with getting Muguruza calm, and a calm Mugu is a deadly Mugu.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Muguruza feels a "bomb of emotions"--and drops a bomb of her own

Garbine Muguruza topped off her brilliant 2017 Wimbledon run today by defeating Venus Williams in straight sets and lifting the Venus Rosewater dish for the first time. Muguruza, the 2016 French Open champion, came close in 2015, but was defeated in that final by Serena Williams.

The first set was highly competitive and featured some stunning, very hard-hitting rallies, as one would expect from Muguruza and Williams. Muguruza had won the toss and elected to receive, but did not break her opponent in the first game, so she spent the rest of that set as the one "playing behind." And, serving at 4-5, she faced two break points--set points for Williams.

What ensued was a rally of 20 strokes, creating what was probably the most tense period in the entire match. It ended when Williams struck a forehand into the net. On the next point, Williams struck the ball long, and the set continued. And that 5-all moment changed the tone of the entire final. Neither player was the same after that. Williams' level declined, and Muguruza got control of her errant forehand, winning nine straight games. The Spaniard's 7-5, 6-0 victory backed up her very strong tendency to win a match when she wins the first set.

The match ended in a somewhat unusual way, though we've seen it before. Williams hit a ball that was called in, Muguruza challenged the call, and sure enough--the ball was out, which meant that Muguruza was the 2017 Wimbledon champion.

"It's such a bomb of emotions," the 15th seed said in her on-court interview, about what it felt like to realize that she was the champion.

Muguruza's coach, Sam Sumyk, could not be there, so she was coached during the event by the only other Spanish woman to win Wimbledon, Conchita Martinez. Muguruza dropped 44 games throughout the seven matches, and she dropped only one set--to Angelique Kerber.

The most interesting statistic, however, involves Muguruza's WTA career wins. She has won only four events, and two of them are majors. Of the others, one (Hobart) is an international tournament, and the other (Beijing) is a premier mandatory event. We sometimes talk about "big stage" players, but Muguruza has taken the meaning of this term to a whole new level.

The last two winners of majors were coached by Spanish women. Note to players: If you want to win the U.S. Open--better call Arantxa.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Williams and Muguruza in Wimbledon final: Expect thrills

Venus Williams, this generation's original Queen of Grass, is into her second major final of the year. A five-time winner of the Wimbledon singles title, Williams last lifted the Venus Rosewater dish in the summer of 2008, when she was a mere 28 years old. Tomorrow, she a chance to win her sixth Wimbledon championship, and to also put an exclamation point on the results of her inspiring determination to refuse to let her career be ruined by chronic illness.

But Williams has her work cut out for her because, on the other side of the net, awaits 2015 Wimbledon runner-up Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza's appearance in the final is more of a surprise than Williams' is. For as deeply talented as the Spaniard is, she can go way off (a la Kvitova) in a game, a set, a match, or a tournament. Muguruza hasn't been "herself" in a while, though we saw a strong hint of her return at the French Open, where she failed to defend her 2016 title.

Something about the sight of the Wimbledon lawns, however, inspired the world number 15, who--like her opponent--has been virtually flawless in her performance throughout the last two weeks. These two are on fire, and you can expect the final to be five-alarm, because neither of them is going to have a bad day.

There's some interesting backstory about these two. Muguruza lost the 2015 Wimbledon final to Serena Williams, and defeated Serena to win the 2016 French Open. Now here she is again in a major final, and up pops another Williams sister. Another tidbit of trivia: The last time a 37-year woman played in the Wimbledon final, it was Martina Navratilova, who was going for her tenth Wimbledon title. Navratilova was stopped by Conchita Martinez, who just happens to be the Wimbledon coach of--Garbine Muguruza.

Ah, the synchronicity of professional tennis.

The doubles final will also be played tomorrow. 9th seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Monica Niculescu will compete against 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. Top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Samds and Lucie Safarova were hoping to achieve a Career Slam at this tournament, but they had to withdraw when Mattek-Sands sustained a dreadful knee injury while playing singles.

Vesnina, by the way, made it to the semifinals of the mixed doubles competition, but she and her partner lost today.

The women's wheelchair singles final will also be played tomorrow. Diede De Groot will play Sabine Ellerbrock for the title.

Playing tomorrow for the girls' singles title will be the unseeded Ann Li and 3rd seed Claire Liu, both from the USA.

Here are the singles finalists' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Ekaterina Alexandrova
round 2--def. Yanina Wickmayer
round 3--def. def. Sorana Cirstea
round of 16--def. Angelique Kerber (1)
quarterfinals--def. Svetlana Kuznetsova (7)
semifinals--def. Magdalena Rybarikova

round 1--def. Elise Mertens
round 2--Wang Qiang
round 3--Naomi Osaka
round of 16--Ana Konjuh (27)
quarterfinals--Jelena Ostapenko (13)
semifinals--def. Johanna Konta (6)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Only four women left, and none is named Simona

Sometimes I just want to buy Simona Halep a drink. This is one of those times. I had my doubts about how she would do at Wimbledon, and I was pleasantly surprised when she performed beautifully. She's gone now, but even in the process of making her exit, she played beautifully. And the "haven't I had this nightmare before?" factor has to have done a number on her head.

And yes, she has had this nightmare before--just a few weeks ago, in Paris. We all watched as a cheeky Latvian upstart took the world number 2's victory out from under her, once again denying her the French Open title. Today, it was a brilliantly serving, tough-as-nails daughter of Brittanica who seemed to be adhering to a motto that read something like, Keep Calm and Crush Simona's Dream.

It was a great match, and both women served very well. The first set established the high level of intensity, and Halep won it, 7-6. The second set was just as intense, and it, too went to a tiebreak. And there was Simona, up 5-4 with two serves to get the two points that would take her into the semifinals. Only Jo Konta had other ideas, and a combination of Halep's errors and Konta's opportunistic hitting gave the set to the Brit.

The third set was even more intense, as the British crowd realized that it might actually happen--that a British woman might reach the Wimbledon semifinals, something that hadn't been done since Virginia Wade did it in 1978. Konta went up 4-2 and never looked back. It was the only break point she saw. Halep also had only one chance to break, but she failed to convert it. Konta took the set 6-4, and will meet Venus Williams in the semifinals.

As for Simona--coming so close to something big (especially in Paris) in consecutive majors has to be a major heartbreak.

Venus Williams had little trouble dominating French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, and--as well as Williams played--it would be easy to say "well, there wasn't much Ostapenko could have done." But that would be wrong. There was plenty she could have done--like have a better second serve. And keep the ball inside the court. Ostapenko had some good moments, to be sure, but generally speaking, she played too carelessly to have any hope of extinguishing a very in-form Williams, who won, 6-3, 7-5.

But not to worry. Ostapenko will bounce back faster than a new service ball, and--one assumes--will focus on cleaning up her game and improving her second serve. Just a tweak here and there, and Ostapenko will be ready to come after everybody.

There was a long rain delay in the match that was played between CoCo Vandeweghe and Magda Rybarikova. Eventually, hours later, the match was moved to Centre Court so that it could be completed. But the rain delay did nothing for Vandeweghe, who had already lost the first set. Rybarikova served quite well and played a very clean match--Vandeweghe, not so much. In just over an hour and a half of play, the Slovakian player defeated Vandeweghe 6-3, 6-3.

In her press conference, Rybarikova said that this was the first time in a long time that she could play and practice without worrying about her knee or her wrist. She was obviously joyful, not just about getting to the semifinals, but about finally being able to move freely and without fear.

She has her work cut out for her, though, for her next opponent is Garbine Muguruza, who locked her Evil Twin in a closet and glided into Wimbledon with winning on her mind. When she isn't muguing around in a sullen state, the Spaniard is an overwhelming combination of fluidity, strategy and power. A commentator recently called her the Elegant Assassin, and the name fits her perfectly. Today, Muguruza (who was the Wimbledon runner-up in 2015), defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-4. This is the best Mugu has looked in a long time, and when she looks this good, she can be lethal.

My must-watch match for tomorrow is the doubles quarterfinal featuring 8th seeds Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua against 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Manic Monday leaves eight women standing, and leaves me as grumpy as always

This morning, yet again, I was painfully reminded of why I hate Manic Monday. It's bad enough when I have to try to keep up with two matches, but trying to keep up with four matches is an exercise in futility. I kept my eyes on the Kerber vs. Muguruza match as much as I could, but I was constantly sidetracked by the Ostapenko-Svitolina match and the Rybarikova-Martic contest. Then there was CoCo Vandeweghe and Caroline Wozniacki, and--already exhausted from getting practically no sleep--I felt more frustration than anything else. Because I could never really settle in and enjoy any match.

For the first time in my memory, all eight of my round of 16 picks were correct. The only one with which I even struggled (other than the ambivalence I normally feel about any pick I make) was the Ostapenko-Svitolina match, but in the end, I went with Ostapenko. So there was that.

Both Angie Kerber and Garbine Muguruza really rose to the occasion. I may have to watch that on replay in order to catch every moment of it. This was the best I've seen both of them play in a while, and it was especially nice to see Kerber back in form.

I don't think anyone one surprised that Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Aga Radwanska, given Radwanska's struggles of late (but yes, I know--it is Sveta). I wish I could have watched the entire match between Magda Rybarikova and Petra Martic; it was so special that they were both playing in the second week of Wimbledon. Rybarikova is in crazy-good form, and doesn't seem to be troubled by the occasion.

Probably my easiest pick was Vandeweghe over Wozniacki. CoCo would have had to have had a major struggle with her nerves for that to go another way. Today, she cut the figure of a classic grass court competitor, hitting big serves and then coming in to hit clean volleys.

Jelena Ostapenko played against a somewhat subdued Elina Svitolina, whose serve left something to be desired. Ostapenko got tight when she tried to close the match, however, but Svitolina couldn't quite capitalize on her opponent's hesitancy, and Ostapenko finally ended the match on her eighth match point. These days, we're not used to seeing a first-time major winner follow her victory with a deep run in the next major, but--coming from Ostapenko--it doesn't surprise me.

Five--time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams handled Ana Konjuh rather easily, and 2nd seed Simona Halep didn't have too much trouble with Vika Azarenka. Azarenka is only just returning to the tour, but nevertheless, Halep has been in excellent form in London. If she wins her next match, she'll take over the number 1 ranking spot. If she loses, Karolina Pliskova will become number 1.

Finally, the crowd got what they so badly wanted: Jo Konta is into the quarterfinals with her win over Caroline Garcia. I saw quite a bit of this match and rather enjoyed it. One expects Konta's service stats to be superior, and they were. But so were Garcia's; this is an area in which she has really improved. In all, there was little between the opponents in this lively three-set match, but Konta--perhaps using the strength of the crowd--was able to conjure the win.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Garbine Muguruza (14) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (7)
Magda Rybarikova vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (24)
Venus Williams (10) vs. Jelena Ostapenko (13)
Jo Konta (6) vs. Simona Halep (2)

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Only 16 remaining, and what a group it is!

The final sixteen women in the Wimbledon draw represent fourteen countries. The group includes one qualifier, two other unseeded players, one former Wimbledon champion, three former Wimbledon runners-up, and the reigning French Open champion. And there's also a player who holds two major championships, neither of which is Wimbledon.

Two nations have the distinction of having two players each left in the draw--the USA (CoCo Vandeweghe and Venus Williams) and Croatia (Petra Martic and Ana Konjuh).

Three of the remaining sixteen players are in the midst of making comebacks from injury and pregnancy leave, and their appearance in the round of 16 is perhaps the most dramatic story to be found in this draw. Vika Azarenka has recently returned to the tour after giving birth to a son, and she's performing at a high level so far. Azarenka has never done her best work on grass, so it's especially impressive to see her in week two of the tournament.

Petra Martic, who--several years ago--was close to joining the top 40, was off of the tour for ten months because of a back injury. In April of this year, her ranking was 662, but then she entered French Open qualifying, won all three qualifying matches and proceeded to reach the round of 16. During that run, she defeated Kateryna Bondarenko, 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova (also on a comeback tear). She fell to Elina Svitolina, but it was quite a run.

Then Martic did it again at Wimbledon. She entered qualifying, won all of her matches and has again reached the round of 16. This makes her the first player to ever go from qualifying to the round of 16 in consecutive majors. So far, she has beaten 20th seed Daria Gavrilova, Denisa Allertova and Zarina Diyas. Her current ranking is number 88 in the world. This is head-spinning stuff.

Martic's next opponent will be Magda Rybarikova, whose story is just as dramatic as the Croatian's. Rybarikova's ranking in mid-March was 453 (her career-high ranking was 31) and has shot up to 77. Rybarikova was out for several months because of two surgeries--one for her wrist and another for her knee.

Her performance at the 2017 Wimbledon event stands out because in the second round, she won what--at the conclusion of the tournament--will still probably be the best match played in its two-week duration. Rybarikova came out the winner of a three-hour battle involving stunning grass court skills by both players. It ended with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 upset of 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova, who was the top pick by most observers to win the tournament.

When Rybarikova takes her elegant game to the court to play Martic, the only unfortunate factor is that one of them has to lose.

For me, Martic and Rybarikova are the stories of the round of 16, but there are other stories. Azarenka's showing is, of course, one of them. And then there's the sudden resurgence (for now) of the two Wimbledon finalists who looked for all the world like they might not last long. Both world number 1 (and 2016 finalist) Angie Kerber and Garbine Muguruza (2015 finalist) have looked far less than themselves so far in 2017. And of course, the tennis gods being who they are, Kerber and Muguruza will face each other in the round of 16. So one is fated to make an exit, and the other is guaranteed to get to the quarterfinals.

Another good story belongs to Ana Konjuh. You'll recall that Konjuh had a most unfortunate incident occur at last year's Wimbledon in the second round when she was playing Aga Radwanska at a crucial moment in the final set. Radwanska won the first set 6-2, and Konjuh won the second, 6-4. The pair were at 7-all in the third when Konjuh, chasing a drop shot, stepped on the ball and turned her ankle. She received some treatment, but her ability to move was destroyed. Konjuh continued to play but her appearance on the court for the final two games was merely symbolic.

So it's nice to see Konjuh in the round of 16.

Another round of 16 story I like is that of Jelena Ostapenko, who--like those flying ants that invaded the courts last week--just won't go away. The pesky French Open champion (whom Todd Spiker has named Latvian Thunder) tends to do it the hard way, getting behind in sets and then pulling Safina-like comebacks (oh, how I miss Thrill Ride). The scary part is that she's been showing a little more finesse on grass than we saw on clay. Also, her serve has been cleaner and harder, and has earned her a lot of points. Win your first major then fall apart mentally? Not Ostapenko. She just keeps dancing.

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Angie Kerber (1) vs. Garbine Muguruza (14)
Aga Radwanska (9) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (7)
Magda Rybarikova vs. Petra Martic (Q)
CoCo Vandeweghe (24) vs. Caroline Wozniacki (5)
Ana Konjuh (27) vs. Venus Williams (10)
Jelena Ostapenko (13) vs. Elina Svitolina (4)
Jo Konta (6) vs. Caroline Garcia (26)
Vika Azarenka vs. Simona Halep (2)

Friday, July 7, 2017

The grass is still green, but the landscape has changed

Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, respective winners of Birmingham and Eastbourne, and the two top favorites to win Wimbledon, are gone. Kvitova was bested by illness, probably brought on by the sudden heat, reminding us--yet again--how fragile her body is. And there's the other (major) factor: She's still just getting used to being on the tour again and probably used up most of her energy in Eastbourne.

For those of us who thought Petra might defy realistic odds and go deep into this tournament: We were operating more from our hearts than our heads.

As for Pliskova--that was more of a true upset. Magdalena Rybariikova--who is in the middle of an extremely impressive comeback from two injuries--performed brilliantly against the 3rd seed, providing us with a match we'll remember after the tournament has ended.

Also gone are Kiki Mladenovic and Tsvetana Pironkova, who were expected to perhaps cause some trouble in the draw. Mladenovic, in particular, made an exit (second round) that  strikes me as surprisingly early.

All of the Czech players are out after the second round, which is, to me, the most shocking stat so far in this Wimbledon. The last one to go was former semifinalist Lucie Safarova. There can be little doubt that part of Safarova's misfortune was related to her having just seen her close friend and doubles partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, sustain a horrific knee injury. Mattek-Sands and Safarova were going for a Career Slam in London, but that dream has been shattered.

Jo Konta--who was in my top three favorites to win the event--is still around, however. Konta won her third round against Maria Sakkari, after winning her second against Donna Vekic in what may turn out to be the match of the tournament.

Angie Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, both former runners-up at Wimbledon, are also still in the draw, though they have yet to play their third round matches.

Simona Halep, however, has played her third round match, and she's into the round of 16. Halep, playing significantly under the radar, defeated an in-form Peng Shuai in the third round, and will next face Vika Azarenka. Azarenka had to fight Heather Watson with all her might, but she came through.

Apparently, Jelena Ostapenko didn't get the memo about falling apart mentally after one wins her first major. She's mugging, grinning and happily whacking the ball, relishing playing while behind on the scoreboard, and is into the round of 16. Her next opponent is Elina Svitolina, and that's a don't-miss event. Svitolina could give Ostapenko a lot of trouble by running down a lot of balls and keeping her errors in check, but this could easily go either way.

CoCo Vandeweghe has yet to play her third round, and it's likely to be a tough one. Vandeweghe plays Alison Riske, a player who almost always rises to the occasion on grass. If grumpy, careless CoCo shows up, it will be the end of her Wimbledon run because Riske will take advantage. If disceiplined CoCo shows up, things could still get dicey.

And then there's five-time champion Venus Williams, who is also into the round of 16 (and credit to Naomi Osaka for giving Williams a very tough third round match). Williams will play Ana Konjuh in the next round.

In doubles, the exit of top seeds Mattek-Sands and Safarova opens the way for a somewhat more open competition. 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina and 3rd seeds Chan Jung-jan and Martina Hingis are still around, as are 8th seeds Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua, and the unseeded--and potentially very dangerous--team of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Kiki Mladenovic.

In addition to the aforementioned Riske-Vandeweghe third round match, another upcoming third round contest to keep an eye on is the one featuring Anett Kontaveit and Caroline Wozniacki. Kontaveit's chances are pretty good, in my opinion. Perhaps, if she wins, Pam Shriver will figure out who she is.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hantuchova ends her distinguished career

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
Daniela Hantuchova has retired from professional tennis. The tall, intelligent, articulate Slovakian star leaves the tour as the holder of seven singles titles and nine doubles titles. She also has the rare distinction of holding a Career Slam in mixed doubles. Hantuchova was ranked as high as number 5 in the world in both singles and doubles.

Throughout her 18-year career, Hantuchova has been known for her clean, elegant ball-striking. On a different note, she has also been known for chronic choking in matches, especially big ones. Nerves cost the Slovak some titles, but at times, she was able to overcome them. A very mannered player, Hantuchova popularized the habit of turning her back to the net to collect herself before she served.

Hantuchova's big breakthrough came in 2002 when she not only won Indian Wells, but did so as the lowest-ranked player in history, and did it by beating Martina Hingis in the final. She would go on to win Indian Wells again in 2007. Hantuchova was part of the Slovakian Fed Cup team and half of the 2005 Hopman Cup championship team. She was also voted 2014's Most Valuable Female Player in World Team Tennis.

Daniela Hantuchova was also part of the most intense rivalry in recent tour history, though tennis commentators and writers have routinely ignored it. Hantuchova and Patty Schnyder played each other 19 times. Hantuchova once said she would rather play anyone on the tour than play Schnyder, but she played her over and over, and holds a 10-9 record against her. The opponents' contrasting styles always made for great viewing.

Hantuchova was trained as a classical pianist, and was also offered a university scholarship, which she turned down in order to play professional tennis. She has a gift for learning languages, and speaks several.

The tennis media sometimes had trouble "figuring out" Hantuchova because she didn't fit into any of the convenient "female tennis player" slots. A lover of fashion, she always wore simple utilitarian tennis kits. She enjoyed doing fashion shoots, but objected to the media's obsession with female players' bodies. For Hantuchova, what she did off the court was unrelated to what she did on the court, a concept that really isn't that difficult to comprehend.

My favorite memory of Hantuchova is of her performance, with Ai Sugiyama, in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Australian Open. They played top seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber in a three-hour thriller that had me on the edge of my seat. Black and Huber won the first set in a tiebreak, scoring all seven tiebreak points. Hantuchova and Sugiyama won the second set, 6-3.

The third set contained some entertaining rallies, but it was mostly about Black and Huber, who went up 5-2 and appeared to be headed for the semifinals. Then suddenly, almost out of nowhere, Hantuchova and Sugiyama went crazy on them, putting themselves in total sync with one another. It was instinctual, and it worked. Hantuchova set up volleys for Sugiyama, who delivered on all of them. This storm of synchronicity had an unsettling effect on Black, which gave Daniela and Ai some room to hit shots between their opponents.

The set went to a tiebreak, and Black and Huber went up 6-2. And as they were once again on the cusp of victory, it happened again--Hantuchova and Sugiyama stormed their opponents and saved four match points. They then proceeded to win the tiebreak 12-10, and advanced to the semifinals.

After Sugiyama retired from pro tennis, Hantuchova decided to take a bit of a break from doubles. But she eventually resumed doubles competition. She was the runner-up at the Australian Open twice--once with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2002) and once with Sugiyama (2006). She and Sugiyama were the runners-up at the French Open in 2009. Hantuchova won her four mixed doubles majors with four different partners.

Photo by Daniel Ward

The thoughtful, composed Hantuchova always cut an elegant figure, both on and off the court. And while she often struggled with inconsistency and nerves, she also clearly loved what she was doing. When she was tuned in, she was a joy to watch.

In retiring, the 34-year-old Hantuchova said about all her trophies and victories: "I won't remember that as much as all the people I got to meet, thanks to tennis." She also said that her strongest emotion was linked to being part of her country's Fed Cup team.

In her retirement statement, Hantuchova talked about joining the tour in 1999 and not knowing what to expect. "I've closed one door," she said, "and now many more are opening up, and the fact of not knowing is what really excites me."

Hantuchova was one of a kind on the WTA tour, and will no doubt bring that distinction to anything she does in the future.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


When Petra Kvitova performed the amazing feat of winning Birmingham last week, it turned out to be just half of a Czech Republic bookended accomplishment. Today, Karolina Pliskova won Eastbourne, defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final. And while it is extremely rare for a Wimbledon warmup event champion to win in London, this could turn out to be one of those rare years.

There is an argument to be made for Kvitova's standing to win Wimbledon, and an argument to be made against it. As someone on Wimbledon Radio said earlier this week--winning seven matches over a stretch of two weeks is different from competing in Birmingham. True. Kvitova hasn't competed in a significant way (she lost in the second round of the French Open) since the U.S. Open. She doesn't have complete feeling in her left hand. She has been through a very significant trauma.

On the other hand, she's back in slay mode. And then there's what I like to call the Squared Hat Trick variable: Kvitova won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014; do the math.

As for Pliskova, she's been on everyone's hot list for a while. It's coming--whatever "it" is. And "it" might be Wimbledon. The Long Tall One has to be a favorite to hold the Venus Rosewater Dish.

Serena Williams won't be there, of course, and--unlike some others--I don't see Venus winning the tournament (nor would it shock me if she did). Vika Azarenka is back, but it's going to take her a while to get her court and tour rhythm back, and anyway, Wimbledon has never been an event at which she could be favored to win.

Now it gets interesting. World number 1 Angelique Kerber, who was the runner-up in 2016, is not the same player she was a year ago. She "should" be on the very short list, but--alas--she isn't. Still, one never knows when the German is going to make another turnaround in her career, and it's possible she could go deeper in this tournament than we expect.

Garbine Muguruza was the runner-up in 2015, but her inconsistency makes her a tenuous short list pick. Nevertheless, Muguruza could cause a lot of trouble if she has her head on straight in London.

Pending a final assessment of her Eastbourne injury, I'm putting Jo Konta near the top of the list. Yes, there's the pressure of playing in one's home country, but Konta, I think, can handle that. Her serve alone is a confidence-builder on the worst of tennis days. Here's hoping the Eastbourne damage was minimal.

What of Jelena Ostapenko? Television commentators appear to have forgotten (did they ever know?) that she was a junior Wimbledon champion--they keep asking if she can do well on grass. Well, yes, she can. But first-time major champions don't repeat these days; rather, they go into a crisis over the pressure of being famous. Ostapenko could make a deep run, though, because she seems a bit removed from some of the external circumstances that bother some players. While others are trying to sort out their priorities, Ostapenko is in a large room doing the cha-cha-cha.

Top seed Kerber anchors the first quarter of the draw, which also contains Lucie Safarova, Muguruza, 2012 runner-up Aga Radwanska, Timea Bacsinszky, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Just as important, it contains Ekaterina Makarova. Kerber is 3-2 against the Russian on grass, but Makarova--when she's of a mind to do it--can be quite destructive on a grass court and has ruined many top players' dreams.

The second quarter is anchored by 3rd seed Pliskova, and danger does lurk in that quarter. It lurks in the form of 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki, Daria Gavrilova and Daria Kasatkina--and Alison Riske, by the way--is no slouch on grass. But it looms large in Kiki Mladenovic and CoCo Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe, though seeded 24th, could tear through this draw if her mindset is right. Of note: Tsvetana Pironkova, The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, is in that quarter, and can never be counted out as someone who wreaks havoc at Wimbledon. It's possible she would face Wozniacki in the second round.

In the third quarter, anchored by 4th seed Elina Svitolina, there could be a lot of drama. Dominika Cibulkova is there, but she doesn't appear to pose much threat. Venus Williams and Jelena Ostapenko are there, as are Barbora Strycova, Ana Konjuh and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Madison Keys is in that part of the draw, too, but she's just returning from a second wrist surgery. Of note is Ash Barty, whom Svitolina plays in the first round: Danger.

The final quarter, whose anchor is 2nd seed Simona Halep, is also where Jo Konta and Petra Kvitova reside. So, in the words of Azarenka: Good luck with that. Halep made it to the quarterfinals last year, when she was taken out by eventual runner-up Kerber. Also of note in that quarter are Kristyna Pliskova, Elena Vesnina, Heather Watson, and Genie Bouchard.

Most eyes appear to be on Pliskova and Kvitova. I agree, and--assuming she'll be healthy enough following her recent injury--I'll put Konta in as a third.

As readers of this blog know, Wimbledon is my least favorite major (I wish they would move it to the Czech Republic), but even I look forward to Monday.