Thursday, October 26, 2017

The lesson of Martina Hingis

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
I began following the WTA when I was a very young woman, and after many years—having lived through Chris and Martina, and Steffi and Monica, I felt burned out. I left the WTA behind, but I was lured back by Martina Hingis. Who was this other Martina that I heard about all the time? I had to find out.

It turned out that she was exactly what I wanted to see—a prodigy who could read the court like a complex story, and who relied on her way-beyond-her-years instincts. “Plays like Hingis” is now part of the tennis vernacular, and it refers to those players who see the tennis court as a kind of board game and can provide ongoing strategy to advance their games. Anna Chakvetadze was such a player, as is Dasha Kasatkina.

The young Hingis, however, had her problems. Her emotional maturity wasn’t as advanced as her tennis maturity, she had chronic foot issues (which she said were caused by her shoes), and then she had the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena, and several who followed them, used power to get around Hingis’s cleverness, thus rendering her less effective. I would rather watch a Martina Hingis (or a Patty Schnyder or a Simona Halep) over a power player any day, but tennis equipment changed, as did tennis culture.

Having undergone two foot surgeries, Hingis retired from pro tennis in 2003, at the age of 22. It was a surprising turn of events, despite what we knew about her struggles. But two years later, she made a crack at returning. It didn’t go well, so she confirmed her retirement. But then, in 2006, she made a very dramatic return by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australain Open, an event she had won three times. She also won her first-ever major mixed doubles title in Melbourne.

Hingis did so well in her comeback that she qualified for the WTA Finals. In 2007, Hingis again reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and for the second year in a row, she was eliminated by Kim Clijsters. Later that year, she would have to deal with injuries again, but she would also have to deal with something much worse: A cocaine metabolite had been discovered in a drug test she had taken that summer. The amount of metabolyte was so small, Hingis insisted that contamination was the cause.

The ITF responded by giving the Swiss star a two-year suspension (the “Katy Perry defense” was unknown at the time). Hingis responded by retiring from the sport. It was a sad, nasty occurrence, but one couldn’t blame her for just saying to hell with the whole thing.

Hingis returned to exhibition play and to World Team Tennis in 2010, and in 2013, she returned to the WTA tour as a doubles-only player, and she also did a bit of coaching. her third career has been a resounding success. She is currently ranked number 1 in the world in doubles, just as she was 20 years ago. And in closing that circle, this week, the great Martina Hingis retired from professional tennis. Again. And, we can assume, for the final time.

In her very lengthy career, Martina Hingis won five singles majors, and was seven times a runnerup. She won 13 doubles majors and was a runnerup on three occasions. Hingis also won seven majors in mixed doubles. She won 43 singles titles in her career, and has won 64 doubles titles; however, by the end of the week, that number is likely to jump to 65, as she and partner Chan Yung-Jan are very likely to win the WTA Finals in Singapore. The Swiss master reached the number 1 ranking in both singles and doubles, and she has won so many awards and broken so many records, I don't have the space to list them.

The 37-year-old Hingis, who is also an accomplished horsewoman, says that she knows she will continue to be involved in tennis. I wouldn't be surprised if she returned to coaching.

Many of us watched Martina Hingis grow up, and some of what we saw wasn't pretty. But she persevered--through emotional immaturity, to serious injuries, to a major change in the game that threatened to leave her behind, to a highly questionable drug ban, to the rigors of making two comebacks. She persevered. She accepted what she could do well and what she could no longer do quite as well as she once had. And though I don't usually use this metaphor, in Hingis's case, it's appropriate to say that she kept getting back on the horse.

Quick and clever on and off the court, Martina Hingis never really gave up--she just took breaks. Whether she was a teen phenom, a Spice Girl, a comeback wonder, or an enduring legend enjoying a late career zenith, she adjusted to the times, and believed in her talent. There is much to learn from Hingis's unusual career arc, and for that, we can be grateful. But we can be even more grateful that for two decades, we watched the Swiss Miss light up the tour with the brilliance of her tennis.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Never mind the stats--it's the WTA Finals!

Some fans are looking at the red and white groups in Singapore and seeing the White Group as "loaded" since it is made up of Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Venus Williams, and Alona Ostapenko. They have a point. Among them, the group members have won ten majors, and three of them have held the number 1 spot.

Meanwhile, the Red Group features Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki, and Caroline Garcia. Halep is the current world number 1, and Wozniacki is a former number 1. None of them has won a major, though there are four runner-up spots represented in the group (two each for Halep and Wozniacki).

So yes, "on paper," the White Group appears dominant. But this is the WTA Finals, and odd things happen. Two years ago, a very odd thing happened: A player who had won only one of her three round robin matches got to the final and won it. That was Aga Radwanska. We didn't think we'd see something like that again, but we did--the very next year. In 2016, Dominika Cibulkova went 1-2 in round robin play, reached the final, and won the whole thing.

I like to look at the WTA Finals as a blank slate, regardless of the draw. The one factor that I do think is relevant is fatigue. It's the end of the season, and players are tired and vulnerable to injury. Who knew we wouldn't see Jo Konta in Singapore? And who thought we would see Caroline Garcia? The former is dealing with a foot injury, the latter went crazy on everyone and won Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. This kind of twist is part of what makes the WTA so endlessly fascinating.

The matches will be played on indoor carpet, so all concerns about the elements have been removed. However, unlike most indoor carpet courts, this one has been deemed by the players to be especially slow.

Who has the pressure? Well, they all do, in one form or another, but--as usual--Halep may have the most. The new world number 1 could make a grand exit from the 2017 season if she wins in Singapore. Last year, she went 1-3 in round robin play. Halep, Pliskova and Muguruza, by the way, are the only repeats from 2016. And Ostapenko, Svitolina and Garcia are all making their WTA Finals debuts.

White Group lopsided record: Pliskova leads Muguruza 6-2
Red Group lopsided record: Svitolina leads Wozniacki 3-0

Friday, October 13, 2017

Battle of the Sexes--a bad idea, but an entertaining film

It took a while for Battle of the Sexes to reach my community, so I only just saw it. I wasn't really sure I wanted to see it, since I was very turned off by the event when it occurred. The film brought back all of my distaste for the event, too, though it has quite a bit of entertainment value.

Not long ago, John McEnroe offended anyone with a brain by suggesting that Serena Williams would be ranked in the 700s on the ATP tour. Not too many years ago, Tim Henman wandered among ATP players, asking what the top women's rankings would be in the ATP, and every single player he approached took the bait. Because ATP players are no different from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world believes that stronger and faster (i.e., male) are "superior," therefore, men are the "real" athletes.

Comparing women's tennis with men's tennis is ridiculous, but any time women come into their own in sport or any other enterprise, there is a rush to "prove" that they are "inferior" to men. When Billie Jean King and her cohorts first demanded to be paid as real professionals, they were met with hostility by the ATP. In the film, Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman, tells them that if they start their own tour, they will be tossed out of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA). That is an accurate retelling of history; the women who founded the WTA risked everything.

Kramer persists as the enemy throughout the film, but the reality was that most the ATP players were disgusted by the idea that female players thought they should be paid as real athletes. One of their leaders, in fact, was Arthur Ashe, though historians have conveniently omitted this aspect of Ashe's activism from his biography.

When the Battle of the Sexes took place in 1973, I was dismayed. Part of my disapproval was that the event promoted the idea that men's and women's tennis are comparable. But that wasn't the only thing that bothered me. There was also the fact that bigotry toward women was considered "funny." Bobby Riggs, though he almost certainly didn't believe that women were really inferior, was willing to do anything--even exploit the nation's "ha-ha--those crazy women's libbers" attitude toward bigotry--to make money.

In Battle of the Sexes, I'm A Male Chauvinist is seen on signs and on t-shirts worn by some of the men. Try to imagine those same men wearing shirts that said I Am A Racist or I Hate Gays. They may well have hated non-whites and gays, but they were forbidden by the constraints of the society to say so in public. The really horrible part of this phenomenon is that nothing has changed: Bigotry against women is still something people make jokes about, including within the world of professional tennis.

The strength of Battle of the Sexes is its casting. The wonderful Emma Stone gives a thoughtful performance as King, capturing both the great champion's insecurities and her cheekiness. Steve Carrel is perfect as the one-of-a-kind Riggs, a gifted, retired athlete who turned hustler to support his gambling habit. When the actual battle finally occurs, toward the end of the film, the tennis match is quite exciting, and turns Battle of the Sexes into a high quality sports film.

Alan Cumming is a believable Ted Tinling, though the film omits Tinling's obsession with dressing Rosie Casals. A more serious omission is the role that Larry King, Billie Jean's husband, played in the founding of the WTA. The forgotten feminist, King is again forgotten in Battle of the Sexes, in which Austin Stowell portrays him as the supportive and ultimately betrayed husband, but he was much more. He was upset by the unfair way in which women were treated, and he introduced his wife to feminism and encouraged her to believe that she could do anything she aspired to do. Larry King was an integral part of the founding of the WTA.

Sarah Silverman is quite entertaining as Gladys Heldman, the woman who collected $1 from each of the Original 9 in order to found the WTA. And one of my favorite little touches in the film was the casting of Elisabeth Shue--an avid tennis player and fan--as Priscilla Riggs, Bobby Riggs' wife.

I was especially taken with Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser with whom King became romantically involved. Riseborough plays Barnett as a manipulative seducer masquerading as an admiring free spirit, which made nice foreshadowing for what eventually occurred: In 1981, Barnett filed a palimony suit against King, resulting in King's losing millions of dollars in endorsements.

Tennis fans will undoubtedly appreciate Jessica McNamee's portrayal of Margaret Court as smug and judgmental. And while the screenplay implies that King accepted Riggs' offer to play the Battle of the Sexes because Court had lost a less-publicized match to him and because he offered a $100,000 purse, King once said that what really made her feel compelled to accept the offer was the fact that Court had curtsied to Riggs when he presented her with a bouquet before their match. The curtsy is shown in the film, but is never mentioned.

My hope is that when people see Battle of the Sexes, they leave, not angry over the way women were treated in the 70s, but furious over the fact that things haven't really changed that much. And I hope that those who view the film develop an understanding for just how brave Billie Jean King and the Original 9 were.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Caroline Garcia and the flight from Wuhan to Beijing

When we first saw Caroline Garcia six years ago, we sat up and took notice as she led Maria Sharapova 6-3, 4-1 at the French Open. Garcia, who was playing as a wild card, was experiencing her first main draws on the tour. She lost that match, but she was quite impressive. So many times, though, we see young qualifiers and wild cards who stun us with what they can do, then fade into the top 100, or find a good home in the top 50.

Garcia appeared to be going in one of those directions, and her main problem, as far as I could tell, was the one that plagues most young players who have trouble reaching their potential--she lacked belief and confidence. The Frenchwoman, like others before her, was so anxious about playing before her home crowd that she asked not to be put on a show court at the French Open.

Then some things happened that changed the course of Garcia's career. One of those things was her wildly successful pairing with Kiki Mladenovic in doubles. They won four titles, including the French Open, and they were the runners-up four times, including at the U.S. Open. Garcia ended the doubles relationship this year because she wanted to focus on her singles career. Unfortunately, that decision triggered the ire of the extremely touchy Mladenovic, who proceeded to trash Garcia publicly.

Winning a major in doubles put Garcia into the elite winners’ circle, and getting a taste of that must have agreed with her.

Along those same lines, the Frenchwoman emerged as a major force in Fed Cup, both with Mladenovic, and as a singles competitor. I’ve written before that it seemed to me that former Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo practically breathed fire into Garcia during Fed Cup ties, turning her young charge into a warrior. One could do much worse than having Mauresmo directing your fate: At the 2013 Wimbledon event, she pulled out some tricks to get Marion Bartoli to calm down; in Fed Cup play, she knew what to do to get Garcia pumped up.

And then there was the back injury. Garcia had to miss part of the 2017 clay court season because of this injury (prompting more phony outrage from Mladenovic). She had a tough rehab, and later said that going through that made her more determined than ever to take her game to a higher level.

Since returning, the Frenchwoman has reached at least the quarterfinals in all but two of the events she has entered. A week ago, she won Wuhan, a Premier 5 event. Along the way, the unseeded Frenchwoman, ranked number 20 in the world, knocked out former world number 1 Angie Kerber, Dominika Cibulkova, and Ekaterina Makarova. Garcia defeated an on-fire Ash Barty in the final.

That was quite an accomplishment, but Garcia wasn’t quite finished. She went straight to Beijing, a Premier Mandatory event, and today, she won that, too. This time, Garcia knocked out the formidable Alize Cornet, 3rd seed Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, and—in the final—2nd seed Simona Halep. Halep, in fact, had just become number 1 in the world, so Garcia has that to add to her resume.

Garcia is the first player to win Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. In a season in which we have seen Alona Ostapenko amaze us, Garbine Muguruza mightily impress us, Svitolina get closer and closer to something big, and both Halep and Kvitova return to form, here comes Caroline Garcia in a late-flight perfect landing, right into the top 10. The Flying Frenchwoman, whose post-match celebrations are charming in their animated originality, is really taking off.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Watch your language! How commentators demean tennis

A couple of years ago, an article about the French Open carried this headline: The Top Five Players Who Stepped Up to the Plate at Roland Garros, But Struck Out. The use of a baseball metaphor to talk about just about anything is ridiculously common in the United States. Football metaphors are also very common, and other sports metaphors are also frequently used.

I dislike the idea of constantly using sports metaphors to describe everything from political processes to the weather. Such overuse mirrors an obsessive preoccupation with sports, a misconception that the entire population can relate to sports, and an obvious lack of language skills.

But what I especially dislike is the use of sports metaphors to describe tennis. I have two main objections. First, it’s very poor metaphor construction, though what can you expect form a culture that likes to say “you’re comparing apples with oranges”? Comparing apples with (remember, we compare “with,” not “to”) oranges is really lazy metaphor construction, since they’re both edible fruits, and even approximately the same size.

I’m reminded of the hilarious book Titters, which contains the fake endorsement: Makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte! Only that, of course, was an example of making fun of stupid metaphors.

My other objection is more important: Constantly using other sports to describe tennis turns tennis into the stepchild that tennis fans know so well. If you watch a match on television, you’ll hear “near the finish line” (running), “off the tee” (golf), “counter-puncher” (boxing), “swing and a miss” (baseball), “and de-fense” (football, where it exists, unfortunately, because of cheering considerations). If you’re watching the ATP, you’ll hear commentators begin sentences with “If he were a batter” or “If he were a boxer”

If you tune into a football, basketball or baseball game, you’re not going to hear commentators use metaphors involving volleying, serving, slicing, or playing a love game. No one will say “Game, set match.”

Language reflects culture, but it also directs it. Just as commentators calling female players “women” and not “girls” will eventually get people to actually see them as women, leaving other sports out of tennis language will direct people to see tennis as a “legitimate” athletic entity, and not the stepchild of sports.