Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Kimiko Date leaves professional tennis, and leaves an indelible mark on the sport

Kimiko Date retired from professional tennis for the second time today. A former top 10 player with a great deal of guile and athleticism, Date retired the first time in 1995, not long after gaining the top 4 position. She said that all the traveling had just become too much for her, and she wanted to be in one place and have a new life.

She got one, too. Date married (she has since divorced), and her husband--having never seen her play tennis--encouraged her to return to the tour. She started playing in Asian ITF events in 2003 and won all of them. That was enough to convince her to stick around. In her second career, Date made a new name for herself by becoming the second oldest woman in tour history to win a title (Seoul, 2009), and the oldest player to beat a top 10 opponent. The latter feat she executed twice: She beat both Dinara Safina and Sam Stosur in 2010.

A natural left-hander who played right-handed, Date entered the top 50 in her second career, making it as high as number 46 in the world. In 2004, she ran the London Marathon.

During the first half of her career, the Japanese star reached three major semifinals. In the second half of her career, she played quite well, and served as an inspiration to many people, including me. Her many injuries finally caught up with her, though. At the beginning of this season, she had a knee cartilage transplant, and has not been able to move adequately since.

Date won a total of eight WTA titles, including the prestigious Pan Pacific event in Tokyo (1995). She decided to retire in Tokyo, at the Japan Women's Open. She was defeated by Aleks Krunic today in the first round, and that marked the end of her career. A few years ago, Date observed that some of the players on the tour had mothers younger than she. Now, at age 46, she can look back on what has to be one of the most fascinating careers in sports. She was a joy to watch and will be missed by many.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

My U.S. Open top 10

Here are my top 10 U.S. Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. I see you waving from up there!: While we were watching the action at the U.S. Open, something else happened--Garbine Muguruza became the world's number 1 player, succeeding Karolina Pliskova. Pliskova, last year's U.S. Open runner-up, went out in the quarterfinals, leading to an opening of that number 1 slot. There were several women with the potential to become number 1, but once the numbers were crunched, it turned out to be the two-time major champion from Spain who got the job, and it does "feel right" to have her there.

9. Saving the drama for the last act: So much attention has been lavished on the final four women all being USA players, it's easy to forget what happened in junior competition. Both finalists, CoCo Gauff and Amanda Anisimova, are also from the United States. Anisimova won the title in a match in which she cruised until it came time to close--it took her twelve match points to do it.

8. And Sveta wasn't even there: Shelby Rogers and Dasha Gavrilova played the longest women's match in the history of the U.S. Open. The second round match went on for three hours and 33 minutes (ten minutes longer than the one played by Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza in 2015), and the victory went to Rogers--7-6, 4-6, 7-6. Rogers is no stranger to big stage upsets, so the outcome wasn't really a surprise

7. A winning combination: Top seeds Martina Hingis and Jamie Murray won their second mixed doubles major title together; they also won Wimbledon this year. Hingis holds a total of seven mixed doubles titles.

6. Now that's more like it: Five-time major champion Maria Sharapova, who has had a terrible time with injuries since her return from a 15-month suspension, finally looked like herself at the U.S. Open, and it was a relief to see that. In one of those strange twists brought about the draw, the 2006 U.S. Open champion and 2nd seed Simona Halep met in the first round. Sharapova won the beautifully played match in three sets. She would go on to lose to the clever and on-fire Anastaija Sevastova in the round of 16, but with some more match play, who knows what the Russian star can do?

5. Many shelves required: Martina Hingis won her 24th and 25th major titles at this U.S. Open. She won the mixed doubles title with Jamie Murray, and the women's doubles title with Chan Yung-Jan. Counting her one Hopman Cup title, Hingis now has 119 professional tennis trophies, which is an amazing feat. It is especially amazing when we consider that it was hardly a smooth path she had to take to reach this level of achievement.

4. The miracle that keeps on giving: Petra is back. Not only is she back, Scary Petra played in Flushing Meadows, and she was a sight to behold. (And, given the cooler and drier conditions at this year's U.S. Open--her asthma didn't get triggered.) If we hadn't known better, we'd have thought we were watching Wimbledon. Having expertly knocked off Jelena Jankovic, Alize Cornet, Caroline Garcia, and world number 1 Muguruza, the Barking Czech's run ended when she was defeated in the quarterfinals by Venus Williams. It was a great match, and Kvitova had a great run. I wish it had gone on longer, but given the circumstances, it was amazing that it happened at all. And let's not forget that Kvitova still doesn't have all the feeling back in her left hand. Just imagine, when she does.

3. The natural order of things: Martina Hingis and Chan Yung-Jan had won six titles this year before they entered the doubles competition in Flushing Meadows as the second seeds. They have now won their first major together, and they made it look so easy. Top seeds Ekaterina Makarova were upset in the third round, which was a surprise, and which made it that much easier for Hingis and Chan to advance to the final and win the tournament.

2. Red, white and blue all over: It's been 36 years since the finalists in both women's singles and junior singles were all from the United States, but this year, that phenomenon was repeated. There were also five U.S. women in the round of 16, and four in the semifinals. And all this occurred even in the absence of Serena Williams. Fed Cup should be interesting in 2018.

1. Flashing that trophy smile: Sloane Stephens began the year ranked number 957 in the world. She'd been out for eleven months, rehabbing from foot surgery, doing commentary for Tennis Channel, collecting shoes for those in need, and conducting a personal restaurant tour of the country. When she returned to the tour, she didn't waste too much time. Stephens made it to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati. She entered the U.S. Open ranked number 83 in the world; that alone was quite an accomplishment.

Despite her considerable talent, Stephens, in her earlier days on the tour, developed a reputation as somewhat of a slacker. But little by little, she grew into that talent, winning the Washington tournament in 2015, and then, in 2016, elevating her status by winning Charleston (she also won Auckland and Acapulco that year). For those who are historically inclined, that should have been a clue, since Charleston has always tended to be a star-maker tournament.

Now, Stephens is the holder of one of the four most beloved trophies in the sport. Like Garbine Muguruza, the 24-year-old Floridian possesses a fluidity that can make winning look easier than it is. In the final, she defeated close friend Madison Keys, whose formidable forehand got her to the last round, and will undoubtedly take her to more very big stages. It will be interesting to see how the unguarded--and sometimes goofy--Stephens takes to celebrity; she may be too unaffected to let it bother her. One can hope.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sloane throws a party in the USA

So I toss the ball up
They're playin' my song, the butterflies fly away
I'm hittin' my serve like "yeah"
I'm crushin' returns like "yeah"
I got my score up, they're playin' my song
I know I'm gonna be okay
 It's a party in the USA!
Today's final began with all the promise that was heralded when the draw came down to two rising stars from the United States--Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. Both players made it to the final after undergoing serious injury rehab. Stephens was out for almost a year following foot surgery, and Keys had to have two wrist surgeries (and then injured her shoulder). 

Both players held easily to start the match, but Stephens grabbed the first break to go up 4-2. From the start, it was clear that Stephens understood that it wasn't wise to try to outhit Keys, but that she could flummox her by changing the ball pace and direction. She also did it without making any unforced errors. At 3-5, Stephens held a set point, but was unable to convert it. On her second set point on Keys' serve, Stephens was victorious when Keys hit a return long.

Stephens held for the first game of the second set, then broke Keys with a passing forehand. An immediate break from the player who won the first set is a psychological weapon of considerable power, and Stephens' aim was true as she held for 3-0, then broke again when Keys double-faulted in the next game. Stephens remained fluid and graceful, as though she played in these kinds of matches every day, when--in fact--it was her first major final appearance.

Stephens then went down 0-40 (the first break points she had provided Keys) on her next serve, but skillfully got herself out of trouble. Within moments, it was 5-0 and Stephens had a championship point. She wasn't able to convert it, and she also wasn't able to convert the next one, which Keys saved in the only dramatic rally of the match, up to that point.

Keys held a break point, but couldn't convert that. The two went after each other with some extremely wide angles, and Stephens wound up with a third championship point. This time, she was the recipient of a Keys ball that went into the net, and it was over, 6-3, 6-0. Then, after what may have been the longest hug in the history of net hugs, Stephens broke into a tearful grin and greeted an admiring crowd. 

Stephens began the year ranked barely in the top thousand, and she was ranked number 83 when she entered the U.S. Open. Keys was somewhat of a favorite to win, but in this match, she never really found an opportunity to display her admirable skills. Maybe her leg bothered her, maybe the occasion got to her, maybe she was just flat. Stephens easy accuracy and strategic acumen definitely bothered Keys. Stephens hit ten winners and made only six unforced errors.

It was a very emotional ceremony, party because the two women are such close friends; Stepehens even said that she wished it could have been a draw. It's probably just a matter of time, though, before Keys catches up with her friend.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Madison and Sloane--together again as you always wanted to see them

Madison and Sloane. It sounds very New Yorkish--like the name of an advertising agency. And really, what better advertising for U.S. tennis than the upcoming final between two young players who are not only coming into their own, but are doing so after sustaining serious injuries?

Madison Keys, having been put through the wringer of multiple late-night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium, was nevertheless able to find her mojo--in a big way--in the semifinals. Keys' destruction of CoCo Vandeweghe was stunning, and I certainly didn't expect it. I thought she would probably win, but not with a 6-1, 6-2 scoreline. Vandeweghe, clearly devastated by the loss, and the nature of the loss, said afterwards that  "I didn't really have much to do with anything out there." That was quite a shock to the usually dominating Vandeweghe.

The other semifinal was just odd, but in a different way. Every once in a while, we get a truly strange scoreline, and Sloane Stephens left her semifinal against Venus Williams with one of those: 6-1, 0-6. 7-5. Stephens, who has looked great ever since she returned to the tour after a long injury layoff, has suddenly burst out of whatever restriction had held her in before, has looked her potential in the eye, and has walked right into it.

Keys had to deal with two wrist surgeries and a shoulder injury; Stephens was out for a year with foot surgery and rehab. More and more, we see that extended breaks benefit players for both physical and psychological reasons. Their bodies get some needed rest, they get to relax and do things they like to do, and they realize how much they want to play tennis.

All four semifinalists were from the United States. Now the U.S. is guaranteed a U.S. Open singles champion, and the "will they ever?" questions have already floated into the clouds over Arthur Ashe Stadium. They have.

Here are the competitors' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Elise Mertens
round 2--def. Tatjana Maria
round 3--def. Elena Vesnina (17)
round of 16--def. Elina Svitolina (4)
quarterfinals--def. Kaia Kanepi (Q)
semifinals--def. CoCo Vandeweghe (20)

round 1--def. Roberta Vinci
round 2--def. Dominika Cibulkova (11)
round 3--def. Ashleigh Barty
round of 16--def. Julia Goerges (30)
quarterfinals--def. Anastasija Sevastova (16)
semifinals--def. Venus Williams (9)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Who is "that Yankee Doodle girl"?

Yankee Doodle came to Flushing
Just to win the trophy
I am that Yankee Doodle girl

What an extraordinary U.S. Open this is. First, I'll point out that five of the eight quarterfinalists are engaged in rather amazing comebacks:

Madison Keys was out for the first part of the season because of a wrist injury which required two surgical procedures. Upon her return in the spring, she injured her shoulder. It's taken her a while to return to form, but her marathon late-night matches in New York have revealed to is what a tough customer she has become.

Kaia Kanepi was out for two years with various injuries, including problems with both of her feet. During that period, she decided it was better for her to just stay off of the tour, but she changed her mind when she realized she really missed tennis. A return to a major quarterfinal is a remarkable achievement for the Estonian.

Sloane Stephens was out for about a year because of a foot injury. She returned this summer and reached the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati.

Anastasija Sevastova came back from retirement in 2015, but I'm going to sneak her into the "comeback" category  because she had to start her career all over again from the bottom and work her way up. The extremely talented Latvian spent most of her "first" career unnoticed, partly because she experienced so much injury and illness that it was hard for her to gain much momentum.

Sevastova retired from the tour in 2013, having suffered enough. But a good long rest was just the recuperation she needed. Last year, she reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and she repeated that feat again this year, taking out Maria Sharapova in the round of 16.

As impressive as these comebacks are, however, it would be hard to top Petra Kvitova, whose left hand (that hand) was  severely sliced in multiple places when she was attacked during a house invasion in December of 2016. No one was certain that the Barking Czech would be able to play again, but she wound up returning to the tour more than a month earlier than her doctors had predicted. She also won the title in Birmingham.

Kvitova, who has played breathtaking tennis in New York, lost her U.S. Open quarterfinal in an outstanding match against Venus Williams. And while she didn't make it to the semifinals, the Czech star looked more like herself than she has in a long time. And she still doesn't have all the feeling back in her left hand.

The other three quarterfinalists, of course, were world number 1 (for a few more days) and 2016 runner-up Karolina Pliskova, steadily rising star CoCo Vandeweghe and Venus Williams, who--in her "second career"--is an athletic wonder.

Half the quarterfinal draw was composed of women from the USA, and now, in a stunning plot twist, all four semifinalists are from the USA. So much for U.S. tennis being dead. However, it's worth noting that it's been 32 years since all four semifinalists in a major were from the USA; in 1985, all four Wimbledon semifinalists were from the U.S.

Venus Williams, who has won the U.S. Open twice (2000 and 2001) will play against Sloane Stephens, who defeated Sevastova in the quarterfinals. CoCo Vandeweghe, who took out Pliskova in the quarterfinals, will play Keys, who defeated Kanepi.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

USA dominates U.S. Open quarterfinals

Of the eight women left in the U.S. Open singles draw, for are from the United States. Venus Williams, still riding her wave of success after playing in the Wimbledon final, is there, as are CoCo Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, the comeback wonder.

I didn't expect Keys to make it to the quarterfinals, partly because of the grueling night schedule she's been forced to keep in Flushing Meadows, but also because I expected Elina Svitolina to get the best of her. But Keys--playing in yet another night match and down a break in the third set of her round of 16 match, overcame the Ukrainian star 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. Keys and her mighty forehand are due some rest!

CoCo Vandeweghe has never before gotten past the second round in New York, so this is a big occasion for her. As for Stephens, I have to keep reminding myself that she was out for about a year with an injury. She returned to the tour in such a seamless fashion, it's easy to forget she was ever away. Her comeback performance has been superb, and now here she is in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

But there are other stories. Anastasija Sevastova, who retired from tennis because of chronic injuries, then came back like a whirlwind and made it to the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year, is right back there this year. Sevastova, whose game, in my opinion, is one of the most pleasurable to watch on the entire tour, took out Maria Sharapova in the round of 16. The match went to three sets, which was pretty much the end of the line for the not yet match-toughened Sharapova. Sevastova (who is sort of a Radwanska without the mirrors) put on a magnificent show for the crowd.

Then there's Kaia Kanepi, who used to lurk around majors and upset big players, while reaching major quarterfinals. Unfortunately, she also suffered with shakiness in the consistency department. Kanepi, once ranked as high as 15 in the world, was off of the tour for a couple of years because of injury and illness issues. She's currently ranked number 418, and her quarterfinal appearance is probably something no one saw coming.


However, as far as surprises go, you really can't beat this one: Petra Kvitova has reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. She's done it before, yes. But she generally struggles in New York because the humid atmosphere triggers her asthma. Oh, and her left hand was almost destroyed when she was attacked last December.

The Barking Czech didn't know if she'd ever play again, yet she wound up returning to the tour a couple of months before anyone expected her to. That in itself was amazing, but then she went one better and won Birmingham. And now she's in the final eight in Flushing Meadows. To get there, she defeated Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, the main favorite to win the U.S. Open.

Oh, and did I mention that Kvitova still doesn't have all the feeling back in her left hand?

So far, Kvitova has shown us Scary Petra in every round. If the weather stays cool next week, she could get even scarier. Fingers crossed.

And speaking of Czechs, the last of the eight is world number 1 Karolina Pliskova, who has looked uncomfortable since the tournament began--until today, that is. Today, she put Jennifer Brady out of her misery in just 46 minutes. The Long Tall Cool One is back.

Thee was a big upset today in doubles. Top seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina were defeated 6-4, 6-4 by 14th seeds Andrja Klepac and veteran trickster Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th seeds are still in the draw, as the 5th, 7th and 9th seeds, and one unseeded team.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Karolina Pliskova (1) vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (20)
Madison Keys (15) vs. Kaia Kanepi (Q)
Venus Williams (9) vs. Petra Kvitova (13)
Sloane Stephens vs. Anastasija Sevastova (16)

Williams is the only remaining player who has won the U.S. Open. She won it in 2000 and 2001. Pliskova was the runner-up in 2016.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

All about the handshake

Reach out and touch a hand
Make a friend if you can
from Touch a Hand, Make a Friend
Hampton, Banks & Jackson

Not long ago, I had a brief professional encounter with a woman I'd never before met. When it was over, I put my hand out to shake hers, and there was just the slightest blip of hesitation before contact was made. I think that's because women are not acculturated to shake hands. After all, we've been omitted from most of the deal-making that shapes the world; our job is to hug and make others feel good, not to seal an agreement.

Maybe that's one of the reasons that the handshake is such an odd, unreliable gesture on the WTA tour. Of course, some of the post-match handshaking reflects "real life": There are people (these are men, in my experience) who grip your hand too tightly, and people whose handshakes are so limp, you don't know why you even made the effort.

Hand-shaking also involves looking the other person in the eye, and this is a difficult task for some people, if they are self-conscious or lack social skills. 

The whole handshake controversy was put into the atmosphere again today when Alona Ostapenko barely looked at opponent Dasha Kasatkina and barely touched her hand after their match. 

Also tonight, CoCo Vandeweghe left her opponent, Aga Radwanska, standing at the net while she celebrated her win, then she returned to the net and shook Radwanska's hand. 

Through the years, there have been players who refused to shake the umpire's hand, and players who refused to shake, or barely shook, their opponents' hands. The most famous of these incidents, I suppose, took place several years ago in Charleston, when Patty Schnyder refused to shake Conchita Martinez's hand. But there was more to it than that. Schnyder walked up to the net as if she were going to shake hands, but instead, said something to Martinez. And, to be fair, Martinez's behavior during the match was maddening; Schnyder was furious with her.

Radwanska herself was criticized when she lost her 2013 Wimbledon semifinal (she had reached the final the year before) and barely shook her opponent's hand. It seemed obvious to me that the stoic Polish star didn't want to burst into tears in public and was in a big hurry to get off the court while holding in her emotions. 

Marion Bartoli refused to shake Virginie Razzano's hand in Eastbourne in 2009 when Razzano accused her of gameswomanship. And speaking of Frenchwomen, Alize Cornet got much more than the silent treatment from Tatjana Maria after their 2016 French Open match. Maria walked over to Cornet, shook her finger at her, and proceeded to lecture her, also about gameswomanship. She later threatened legal action against tournament officials, though nothing ever came of that.

The strangest case in the WTA handshake collection didn't even occur on a tennis court. In 2015, when Canada drew Slovakia in a Fed Cup tie, Genie Bouchard refused to shake Kristina Kucova's hand at the draw ceremony. The Canadian called the tradition "lame," then went on, the next year, to refuse to shake Aleksandra Dulgheru's hand when Canada drew Romania in a Fed Cup tie.

What wasn't lame was how Dulgheru responded. She defeated Bouchard 6-4, 6-4 on the first day of the tie, then celebrated with her team by "refusing" to shake hands with them in a routine they had rehearsed.

I've attended matches at which the handshake felt to me like an insult to reality. And I recall a final in Charleston when I wouldn't have really blamed the loser for barely shaking the hand of either her opponent or the umpire, though she shook both hands heartily.

Yes, opponents should shake hands; it's a proper gesture. But so much attention has been paid to the non-handshakes in women's tennis (and some in men's tennis) that what is often totally ignored is the behavior, in some cases, that drove the player to not want to shake hands. When an opponent's or umpire's behavior creates that much disturbance, it isn't fair to focus only on the social breach of the non-handshaker.

The no smile/no eye contact handshake is actually fairly common on the WTA tour. It may seem more obvious when Ostapenko does it because Ostapenko is a piece of living theatre, with facial expressions, gestures and body language that are hard to ignore. Fortunately, Ostapenko Theatre is usually very good-humored.

And, should the occasion call for it, Professor Strycova is always available to provide instruction. Just ask Elina Svitolina.

Isn't she back in....Denmark?

This week, I was gratified and thrilled to see Maria Sharapova back on her game. Well, games--both of them--her tennis game and her geography game. The perennially dissatisfied Caroline Wozniacki, unhappy with losing her second round U.S. Open match, took a swipe at Sharapova on her way out, and it was all worth it for this:

Sharapova's remarks are, of course, reminiscent of a similar press moment that she had regarding Aga Radwanska at the 2012 Australian Open. When told that the Polish star--who had just lost her quarterfinal match to Victoria Azarenka--described the Russian's on-court vocalizations as "pretty annoying and just too loud," Sharapova immediately responded "Isn't she back in Poland already?"

Welcome back, Pova.

Sharapova, whose return to the tour has been riddled with injuries, is wearing an arm sleeve on her right arm to keep it warm, and there's a bandage on her left arm. It appears, however, that she is in no pain, which is a wonderful thing. The 2006 champion is into the round of 16, having defeated 2nd seed Simona Halep (in an outstanding match), Timea Babos and Sofia Kenin. Next, she will face Anastaija Sevastova, whose return to the tour has been dramatically successful, but relatively ignored by the media.

Ekaterina Makarova, who has had a great summer, couldn't survive Carla Suarez-Navarro, and the formidable Aleks Krunic fell to the even more (lately) formidable Julia Goerges. Aga Radwanska, of all people, took CoCo Vandeweghe to the edge in three very well-played sets, but the 20th seed prevailed. And top seed Karolina Pliskova had to fight off a very in-form Zhang Shuai, who held a match point against the Long Tall One. Pliskova is looking rather "Czech" at this point, and seems quite vulnerable.

Daria Kasatkina reached her first major round of 16 with a win over French Open champion Alona Ostapenko, who has been dealing with an illness which began as a sore throat several days ago. Kasatkina also beat Ostapenko in this year's Charleston final. The Russian's next challenge comes in the form of a blast from the past, Kaia Kanepi, who defeated rising star Naomi Osaka in the third round.

On the other hand, Petra Kvitova looks like she's at Wimbledon. But Scary Petra, as much as she has suddenly adapted to Flushing Meadows, next faces an immense threat in the form of Garbine Muguruza. If Kvitova continues to play at the level she's shown in the first week, this could be one hell of a match. But if her level drops, she could get swept off the court by the force that is Mugu.

Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Halep (even though she's out of the tournament) are still in the running for the world number 1 ranking. Pliskova's next opponent is the USA's Jennifer Brady, who appears to have a fondness for big stage tennis. Next up for Svitolina is the winner of tonight's very late match to be played between Elena Vesnina and Madison Keys. If Keys wins, there will be five players from the USA in the round of 16, for she will join Jennifer Brady, CoCo Vandeweghe, Venus Williams, and Sloane Stephens.