Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017--the year of "Who would have thought...?"

I’m sure that there’s been another year when almost everything on the WTA tour got turned on its head, but I can’t recall when it was. This past year, however, will be a hard one to forget, as every imaginable “order of things” was overturned, with other surprises popping up all over the place. But it wasn’t about chaos—well, most of the time, it wasn’t. Rather, it was about turns of events that frustrated us, puzzled us, surprised us, delighted us, and sometimes made our heads spin.

Let’s start with the number 1 ranking. Angie Kerber did start with it, in the early spring, but her 2017 turned out to be as dismal as her 2016 was glorious. In 2016, the German star won two majors, reached the final of a third major, and won a silver medal at the Olympics. In 2017, she not only won no majors—she won no titles. And in two majors (one in which she was the defending champion), she went out in the first round. Kerber ends the season as number 21 in the world, which is the biggest drop in ranking for a number 1 player in the history of the rankings.

Karolina Pliskova was number 1 for a while, but lost the ranking to Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza, who won Wimbledon this year, felt more like a “real” number 1, but that didn’t last, either, because along came Simona Halep, who grabbed the end-of-year high ranking.

But what about Serena Williams? Well, she did what she has done from time to time throughout her career—she dropped out for a while. Her reason this time was a very nice one, too—she had a baby.

With Serena out for three-quarters of the season, a lot of titles were up for grabs. And like some kind of cellular phenomenon, who should step into the spotlight but Venus Williams? Venus was in two major finals, though she won neither of them. Nevertheless, her return to this level of professional tennis was one of the standout happenings of the season.

2017 marked a big change in how—or if—we watch tennis. It brought us two significant returns to the tour, two new major champions, and the end (at least for now) of a Fed Cup dynasty.

Here are my top 10 happenings of 2017 (and a bonus), in ascending order:

10. I waited months for this?: A year ago, the WTA announced that it was about to launch a wonderful, all-inclusive streaming platform that would be the best thing since Tatiana Golovin’s red drawers. In two weeks, we would learn more. Only we didn’t. Weeks went by, and we still heard nothing. Finally, CEO Steve Simon told us it was coming soon—be patient, it will be worth the wait. Only it didn’t come soon. It didn’t arrive until more than half of the season was over.

In the meantime, people were told to watch beIN Sports (the WTA had severed its contract with the first-rate Tennis TV, and Tennis Channel and ESPN retained few women’s events). For some of us, getting beIN Sports was next to impossible (if I had pages and pages, I would write about my own crazy-making beIN experience and how much money it cost me to get nothing). But even those who had beIN in their television packages made the unpleasant discovery that beIN didn’t care at all about showing women’s tennis, which was frequently preempted or cut off by football.

Finally, WTA TV arrived. Now, one would think, after all that time, it would have arrived in really good shape. But no. WTA TV arrived without an app. More important, it arrived with no platform for viewing it on a television screen via Apple TV, Roku, etc. It arrived as a really great, cutting-edge streaming platform—for 1997.

9. Kathy + CoCo = a great big trophy:
Kathy Rinaldi, working in her first year as USA Fed Cup captain, went all out: Her team won the 2017 championship! After former Captain Mary Joe Fernandez struggled for years to make relevant player selections, Rinaldi stepped in and made it look easy, a la Amelie Mauresmo. The USA got some help from defending champion Czech Republic, but Fed Cup competition is always difficult, no matter who plays. Take, for example, Team Belarus—minus Vika Azareanka—forcing the USA into a fifth rubber in the final.

For her part, CoCo Vandeweghe not only won all of her matches in the final—a rare feat—she is also the only player in Fed Cup history to go 8-0 for the entire season.

8. Saving the awesome for last:
Who would have thought that both Caroline Garcia and Julia Goerges would charge into the very end of the season and do amazing things? But pro tennis is like that: just when you think nothing much is going to happen, something huge happens right in front of you. Of course, it wasn’t as if the Frenchwoman and the German hadn’t given us some hints. They had both performed solidly all year. Goerges, in fact, had reached three finals. The problem was that she hadn’t won any of them.

But then, in October, Goerges won the Kremlin Cup, giving her her first victory in six years. In the meantime, Garcia did something extraordinary: She won Beijing and Wuhan back to back. She even went to the WTA Finals, and made it all the way to the semifinal round. The German with the lethal forehand, for her part, won the WTA Elite Trophy in Zuhai, defeating CoCo Vandeweghe in the final. 2017 was Goerges’ best year ever, and she ended it ranked number 14 in the world.

But that wasn’t all. Caroline Wozniacki, who had a great season and is back in the top 5, went to Singapore and won the WTA Finals.

Three to watch in 2018.

7. What a way to go!: Near the end of the season, Martina Hingis, for the third time in her career, retired from professional tennis. There is every reason to believe that this is also the last time. Hingis left as the number 1-ranked doubles player in the world, just as she was twenty years ago. She and her partner, Chan Jung-Jan, who, in October joined Hingis as co-number 1, were expected to win the WTA Finals, but were knocked out in the semifinals.

Hingis and Chan, who became a team in February, won nine titles, including the U.S. Open, and they were named Doubles Team of the Year. Hingis’s career is one of the most outstanding careers in WTA history.

6. It takes both feet and a lot of heart: Sloane Stephens began 2017 as number 957 in the world. That’s because she’d been rehabbing for eleven months from foot surgery. Stephens returned to the tour in July, and by the time the U.S. Open rolled around, she had bumped her ranking up to 87, and was looking really good. She looked so good, in fact, that she established herself as a threat at the event, taking out a number of very talented players with very different game styles. She defeated countrywoman Madison Keys in the final, and suddenly—having schlepped around for months in a cast—she was the U.S. Open champion.

5. Prenatal exercise is important: Serena Williams was pregnant in January of 2017, but before dropping out of the tour for a while, she stopped by Melbourne and won the Australian Open. Because she’s Serena Williams. The former world number 1, who was married in New Orleans a week ago, will be back in 2018.

4. It’s called Unstoppable for a reason:
Maria Sharapova, who was away from the tour for over a year because of a drug ban (or, as some of us contend, a cruel and out-of-control circus of prejudice and inconsistency), returned to the tour in April as a wild card in Stuttgart. Unfortunately, despite training intensely during her absence, she was physically vulnerable, and spent much of her return in an injured state. Nevertheless, she was back, and playing quite well--in some cases, better than she has played in a while. Assuming she gets past the injuries, she could add quite a note of interest to competition in 2018.

3. The Elegant Assassin mows the lawns: It was going to happen sooner or later, and Mugu chose “sooner.” Garbine Muguruza won the French Open in 2016 by defeating Serena Williams, and was stopped at the Wimbledon final that year by Serena Williams. In 2017, Serena wasn’t around, but Venus certainly was, and it was the older Williams—a five-time Wimbledon champion—who faced off against the Spaniard in the final. Muguruza defeated Williams 7-5, 6-0, and in doing so, became the first woman to defeat both Venus and Serena in major finals.

2. Who needs a seed when you have rhythm?: No one saw it coming, but when it came, it was a force of nature. Alona Ostapenko, the rubber-bodied, ballroom-dancing, perpetually mugging hitting machine from Latvia, had herself a high old time in Paris in the spring. Unseeded, and without one tournament win in her career, Ostapenko slam-banged her way through the field at Roland Garros, hit 299 winners, and won the French Open.
Photo by Daniel Ward

Ostapenko was fearless, and when she made an error, she made one of her expressive (read: hilarious) faces, shrugged it off, and kept going. Even during the latter stages of the tournament, when other relatively inexperienced players would have caved, Ostapenko remained fearless. And even against clear favorite and former finalist Simona Halep in the final, the Latvian just kept "dancing." Her game is raw; when it becomes more consistent and nuanced (and I assume it will), she might become truly frightening. A testament to her fearlessness—not to mention her all-surface acumen—is that she made it to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon a few weeks later.

Of course, it isn’t unusual for a young and gifted player to become less dangerous as others figure out her game and the pressure mounts. I suspect, though, that the Latvian (whose image now graces a postage stamp) may be immune to that sort of thing: Planet Ostapenko occupies its own place in the universe.

1. The Rock returns: In December of 2016, the unspeakable occurred. Petra Kvitova was viciously attacked by a knife-wielding criminal in a home invasion. The good news was that Kvitova fought off her attacker, whose intention was to slit her throat. The bad news was that she used her dominant hand to do it, and  wound up with multiple sliced tendons, ligaments and nerves. Every finger of her “money” hand was severely damaged, and it was unknown whether she would be able to play tennis again.

Kvitova underwent extensive surgery, and was told that it would be about three months before she could start rehab, and at least six months before she could play again. But five months after she had her surgery, the Barking Czech stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier, to the joy of the French crowd, her peers, and tennis fans all over the world. She even won her opening match, though she did not have full feeling in her left hand. In June, she did the seemingly impossible—she won Birmingham, still without full feeling in her hand. “I was still thinking it was not really normal what happened," the Czech star said in a WTA interview. “I couldn’t still believe it.”

I submitted a nomination essay for Kvitova for the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. Here is an excerpt:

I have thought a lot about what it must have felt like: knowing you could have died, knowing that your career hand has been sliced to the bone, knowing that you may never again stand on one side of a net screaming “Pojd!” and rendering other talented players helpless.

But Petra knew more than that: She knew that she had the strength—both within herself, and through the power of the spirit of those who admire and respect her—to transcend a truly horrific experience. That she did it so quickly makes the story even more glorious.

Yes, 2017 was an amazingly unpredictable year for the WTA, and many stunning things occurred. But none was as profound as the sight of Petra Kvitova holding a tennis racket and playing her beloved game.

And now for the bonus (what we call “lagniappe” in Louisiana)—They blinded me with science:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On a cool fall evening in Minsk, hot CoCo hits the spot

Today, CoCo Vandeweghe pulled off the rare Fed Cup hat trick: She walked away from the 2017 Fed Cup final with three wins--two in singles and one in doubles. Vandeweghe is a natural Fed Cup team leader. During the 2017 season, she went 5-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles. Today, she led Team USA to its first Fed Cup championship in 17 years.

In a year when the unexpected became the expected--over and over--it's not really that much of a surprise that rookie Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi, Vandeweghe and the entire USA team won it all. They had some help--defending champions and overwhelming Fed Cup giants Czech Republic showed up in the semifinals with neither its A or "other A" teams, making it much easier for the USA to advance to the final.

The USA has now won Fed Cup 18 times. The team did it today without Serena Williams, Venus Wiliams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, or Madison Keys. They did it without U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens winning a rubber. Vandeweghe and Shelby Rogers (who played in the deciding doubles rubber) took the team over the final hurdle.

But the USA story wasn't the only unlikely one. Also playing in the final was Belarus, a team that had never before reached a Fed Cup final, and a team which was missing its only star, Victoria Azarenka. It was hard to imagine Belarus getting to the final, especially since, in the semifinals, they had to play Switzerland. The Swiss team included its star, Timea Bacsinszky, and also recent Fed Cup wonder, Victorija Golubic. But Team Belarus got past the Swiss in five rubbers.

This weekend, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Aryna Sabalenka played their hearts out (Sasnovich, as a matter of fact, won a Fed Cup Heart Award for her exploits in the semifinals). Vandeweghe beat both of them, but each of them beat Stephens. The doubles rubber seemed a given, since Sabalenka, in particular, has limited doubles experience (and it showed), but it was actually more competitive than one would have thought. The second set was about as thrilling as a set could be, and the USA won it in a tiebreak, though Belarus held multiple set points.

The USA's opening 2018 tie will be against Netherlands, and if they win it, they will face either France or Belgium.