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)

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