Saturday, November 17, 2018

2918--just another head-spinning WTA season

It was quite a year for the WTA. Serena Williams returned, there was a Serena Williams controversy, a top player finally reached one of her long-held and elusive goals, and we lost two of the greats. It was an excellent year for veterans, but a new star was born, also. Our world number 1 provided the consistency we've come to expect from her, along with a nice bonus. And  the Czechs, as always, put everyone in her place.

Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 occurrences of the year:

10.: You won’t like me when I’m angry
: Li Na once said, “Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing.” Sometimes anger is fuel. It certainly was for Elina Svitolina. One of the most successful players on the tour, the Ukrainian star picks up titles—and even defends them—but tends to fold in majors. At the start of every major, fans and members of the media tend to say, “Okay, this is the time when she’ll do it.” But then, it doesn’t happen.

This year, Svitolina lost a lost of weight in order to have a different frame, and there was a lot of buzz about that. Clearly annoyed, Svitolina arrived at the WTA Finals ready to rumble. She went undefeated in round robin play, then won the whole thing. I think there’s a good chance that she may “pull a Mauresmo” and take home a very big trophy in 2019.

9. Resiliance defined: Serena Williams sometimes goes away for a while, and sometimes for very serious reasons. But she always comes back. This time, she went away for a joyful reason: she gave birth to her daughter. Williams began her maternity leave in April of 2017, after having won the Australian Open while she was two months pregnant. She returned to the tour in the spring of 2018, and made it to the fourth round of the French Open, but then had to withdraw because of an injury. Her emphatic “I’m back!” statement came at Wimbledon, when she made it to the final, as she so often does. In this case, she lost the title to Angelique Kerber.

Williams also made a run to the final at the U.S. Open, where she lost the title to Naomi Osaka in a match that was fraught with tension and whose drama wound up overshadowing Osaka’s victory. 2018 was not an especially easy year for the former world number 1, yet she managed to play in two major finals. Resiliant indeed.

8. Pojd!: They did it again! The Czech Republic won Fed Cup for the sixth time in eight years, defeating defending champion Team USA. And they did it without Petra Kvitova, without Karolina Pliskova, and without Lucie Safarova. Because that’s the kind of team they have. Barbora Strycova, a veteran of Fed Cup battles, made a big contribution, but it was Katerina Siniakova who won both her singles rubbers and brought the team over the line.

7. Patience is a virtue: No one has more stamina than Caroline Wozniacki. She has enormous physical stamina, but she also has enormous mental stamina. She has been number 1 in the world, and she reached the final at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2014. A threat in almost every tournament, Wozniacki just wasn’t able to grab one of those really huge prizes. But she began 2018 in the best way possible: Wozniacki won the Australian Open. The 28-year-old marathon-running Dane could have a very nice 2019.

6. Czechs go with everything: In 2013, after they won the junior U.S. Open doubles title, Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova entertained the crowd with a spirited, wonderful dance. Now, five years later, they have a lot to dance about—they are the number 1 doubles team in the world. The Czech duo won both the French Open and Wimbledon. The only problem is that—with all the reasons they have to celebrate, they haven’t danced again! Come on, ladies—entertain us!

5. Grazie—for so much
: Francesca Schiavone—one of the four legendary Fighting Italians who once dominated Fed Cup, and who constantly did amazing things on the tour—retired this year. Schiavone, who won the French Open in 2010 and was the runner-up in 2011, was a master stylist, especially on a clay court (though she could hold her own on every surface). The essence of what we call “heart” in sports, the Italian star put everything she had into every shot she made. Her positive attitude and fighting spirit were infectious,

4. The kids are still alright—and they’re coming to get you: In 2017, it was Alona Ostapenko who broke through in a big way and surprised many by winning the French Open. This year, it was Naomi Osaka. The young Japanese star has shown a lot of promise for the past couple of years, and—while she struggled to handle the sudden fame of winning Indian Wells—Osaka showed the world that she could handle just about everything by the time she got to Flushing Meadows.

At the U.S. Open, Osaka had to get past such formidable opponents as Arnya Sabalenka and 2017 finalist Madison Keys before she could face the player who is generally considered the ultimate test—six-time champion Serena Williams. Osaka beat Williams, her idol, in straight sets. With two big wins in 2018, there’s every reason to believe that Naomi Osaka is a force with which the tour will have to reckon.

3. Slump? What slump?: Angie Kerber had a dream 2016, winning the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, getting to the final at Wimbledon, and bringing home a silver medal from the Olympic Games. 2017, however, was mostly a year of trouble for the German player. But 2018 saw her come back strong, and in the summer, she won Wimbledon, defeating Serena Williams in the final. Kerber is now one French Open shy of achieving a Career Slam.

2. The magic is gone: Some call her The Ninja. Some call her The Magician. Some just call her Aga. Agnieszka Radwanska, the greatest shot-maker I’ve ever seen, retired from professional tennis at the end of this season. Unable to get past a long-term injury, the Polish wonder, at age 29, has left the tour, but the mark she made is unforgettable. Highlight reels come and go, but what Radwanska was able to do on a tennis court will entertain and produce awe for as long as tennis is a reality. Consistent winner of both the Shot of the Year designation and the Fan Favorite award, Radwanska was in a class of her own, as an athlete and a stylist.

1. Romanian rhapsody: World number 1 Simona Halep began her year in a big way—by reaching the final of the Australian Open. That didn’t turn out how she wanted it to—she lost to Caroline Wozniacki. But it was the farthest she had ever gone in the Australian Open draw, and a nice preamble to what was next: Halep (finally) won the French Open, defeating Sloane Stephens in the final. Halep lost the Roland Garros final in 2012 to Maria Sharapova, and she lost it again in 2017 to the force of nature known as Alona Ostapenko.

But this time, she did it. This was Halep’s first major victory, and she ended the year as the world number 1 for the second  year in a row; the Romanian’s indefatigible resolve paid off for her. Her coach, Darren Cahill, is taking a year off in 2019, and Halep is also dealing with a back injury (she had to withdraw from the WTA Finals) so her progress may slow down for a while, but her resolve won’t.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Aga Radwanska retires, and tennis will never be the same

I began watching women’s professional tennis when I was a very young woman, and—except for taking some occasional breaks from viewing—I’ve followed women’s tennis my entire life. I’ve seen some splendid shot-makers, too, but none with as much style, variety, cleverness, and jaw-dropping athletic trickery as the great Agnieszka Radwanska.

I would rather watch Radwanska than any other player, past or present. It is therefore with a distinct sadness that I acknowledge that The Ninja, as she was so aptly nicknamed by the WTA’s Courtney Nguyen, has retired from professional tennis.

There will never, ever be another Ninja. Radwanska’s remarkable ability to not only run down balls that other players would not be able to reach, was only part of her genius. Once she got to those balls—despite often being in an awkward position on the court—she could then hit shots that left fans gasping and opponents either applauding or standing with stunned looks on their faces. And she frequently found angles and hit drop shots that drove her opponents crazy.

Fans and commentators often called Radwanska The Magician, and the name was well deserved. Following are some prime examples of how Aga did what she did.

2015 Singapore hot shots:

The Ninja flummoxes Kirsten Flipkens in Miami:

She does this to Dominika Cibulkova:

She plays Barbora Strycova and gazes into a spooky mirror:

And then there was the 2014 Australian Open, in which Radwanska defeated two-time champion Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 5-7, 6-0. Someone, I forget who, called the final set "the best set of tennis ever played by a woman," and it may well have been just that. In the third set of their quarterfinal match, the Polish star tossed every trick she knew--and some new ones--at Azarenka. I recall gasping with wonder throughout the set:

Of course, no collection of Radwanska videos would be complete without this:

Aga Radwanska was an intelligent, very funny, and highly creative member of the WTA Tour. For five years straight, she was the Fan Favorite of the Year--no surprise, for she was consistently entertaining and athletically stunning. Not surprisingly, she also won every WTA Shot of the Year award.

In 2012, I was in Charleston, at Family Circle Cup qualifying. I went to the bar to watch the Miami final on television; Radwanska was playing Maria Sharapova. Radwanska, doing all the things she does best, beat Sharapova 7-5, 6-4.

It was really something. Later, I went back to my hotel room to blog and relax, looked at one of my very favorite sites, WTA Backspin, and discovered that Todd Spiker (The Backspinner) had already written about the match. His post remains the most hilarious piece of tennis writing I've ever seen.

For some of us, Radwanska's name took on yet another meaning. The Radwanska became the official evil entity whose presence wreaked havoc on both tours. There was even a Radwanskian Threat Level Chart that helped us negotiate the scarier parts of majors, and--of course--there was the Radwanskian Massacre that occurred at Wimbledon in 2013. Sometimes, when there's chaos in my own life, I look over my shoulder and wonder if I'll see The Rad, as we came to call "it."

Agnieszka Radwanska won 20 WTA singles titles, including the 2015 WTA Finals. She also won two doubles titles. Radwanska's highest singles ranking was number 2 in the world, which she achieved in 2009. Twice, she reached the Australian Open semifinals, and in 2012, she was the Wimbledon runner-up (defeated in the final by Sharapova). Though she had periods when her first serve was quite reliable, her second serve remained a weakness throughout her career, and undoubtedly cost her some success.

But Radwanska's success cannot be measured solely by her tennis resume, though that is quite impressive. What made her stand out was her athleticism, her creativity (the "Radwanska squat shot" is now part of the tennis repertoire for those who dare to use it), and her ability to think (and run) fast on any court. For those of us who prefer to focus on the art of tennis rather than some of the other factors, Aga was--on her own--a reason to watch the sport. But she was also a reason to watch for those who cared about watching someone stretch the boundaries of athleticism.

When the body and the brain come together in perfect symmetry, the result is a thing of wonder. On a tennis court, for thirteen years, that thing of wonder was called Aga Radwanska.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

They're....back! Czech Republic wins 2018 Fed Cup championship

What do you do when you have no Petra Kvitova? No Lucie Safarova? No Karolina Pliskova? If you're Captain Petr Pala, you realize how lucky you are to still have Barbora Stycova, then you realize that you have the world's number 1 doubles team, and then you just let the Czech nature take its course. For the Czech nature (different from, but related to, the nature of the Fighting Italian) is such that whoever makes up the team can usually find a way to win.

And while this particular Fed Cup final will likely be remembered for Katerina Siniakova's having discovered a leadership role, credit must also be given to Strycova, who had to fight hard against the USA's Sonya Kenin in the opening rubber. That rubber, which took over two and a half hours to play, marked the first time that Strycova had ever come back from a first set loss to win a singles rubber in Fed Cup competition. It was also Strycova's last Fed Cup, so she went out--as she does everything--in style.

Kenin, playing for defending champion Team USA, was making her Fed Cup debut, and though she lost both of her rubbers, she performed as well as I expected her to, which was quite well. Kenin was there to win, and once she'd finished giving Strycova headaches, she moved on to Siniakova. The opening rubber (and, as it turned out, the only rubber) on Sunday lasted three hours and 44 minutes, the longest match of 2018. (We could say that they were playing on Schiavone-Kuznetsova time.) During that match, Kenin had to deal with a hamstring injury. Having lost the first set and down 4-5 in the second, the 19-year-old found a way to drag the rubber to a third set.

In the third set, which featured more treatment for Kenin's leg, Siniakova took control and went up 4-1. But Kenin, who just refused to give up, took advantage of her opponent's nerves, turned on the aggression, and won five games in a row. At 5-4, 30-0, she was two points from winning the rubber. She double-faulted, then went up 40-15. But Siniakova, who--just a few moments before, looked as though she were mentally exhausted--saved both match points. Something clicked for the Czech player (maybe something about being a Czech player?), and she suddenly polished her strategy, while her opponent, obviously hurting, began to fade away.

Siniakova broke, then went down 0-40--and somehow held for 6-5. That game, in fact, was a microcosm of "Siniakova plays Fed Cup." She just kept going to pieces, then pulling herself back together. Kenin, meanwhile, had a game point to force a tiebreak, but that went away when she slammed a backhand into the net. Then she hit one long, and it was match point for the Czech Republic. Siniakova wasn't able to convert that one, but she did convert on her second one, defeating Kenin 7-5, 5-7, 7-5.

Kenin's service stats were significantly better than Siniakova's, as was her net play. Had she not been injured, there might have been a fourth rubber. As it was, playing that long with an injury only served to intensify what was going on between Kenin and her Czech opponent. In the winners-unforced errors (and bless Fed Cup for being the only venue that provides a tally of forced errors) ratio for the match, Siniakova went 24/43, and Kenin had 42/76. Throughout the weekend, Kenin spent 6 hours and 27 minutes playing two rubbers, which could be a Fed Cup record.

Siniakova is already number 1 in the world in doubles. She's also a respectable 31 in the world in singles, and what she did this weekend could very well give her the kind of confidence boost that could make her ranking number rise in 2019. Fed Cup success isn't always the boost a player needs on the tour, but often, it's just that (see Kiki Bertens).

This is the Czech Republic's sixth Fed Cup championship in eight years. Also, Czechoslovakia won Fed Cup five times.

Sitting in the stands throughout the final were Petra Kvitova, who was too ill to play, and Lucie Safarova, who has just announced that she will retire in January. Both of them had much to do do with the many championships won by their country (as did the absent, and injured, Karolina Pliskova). And let's not forget Captain Pala, a champion among coaches, who has been there for all of the Czech Republic's victories.

Prior to Sunday's play, the Fed Cup Commitment Award was presented to both Safarova and Helena Sukova. Between them, they played in 75 Fed Cup ties, and won seven titles. Sukova, who was recently (and finally) inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, holds the record for most Fed Cup wins by a Czech player--57.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

No Petra, no Karo, no problem

Petra Kvitova is ill, Karolina Pliskova is injured, and Lucie Safarova--once a stalwart of the Czech Republic's Fed Cup team--is soon retiring from the sport. But, as I wrote on Wednesday, the Czech team has so much depth, it doesn't usually matter if their top players are not on the court.

Today, the defending champions of Team USA learned that the hard way. In a well-played and dramatic (as only Fed Cup matches can be) match played between the USA's Sonya Kenin and the Czech Republic's Barbora Strycova, Strycova prevailed, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4. It was Kenin's Fed Cup debut, and Strycova's final Fed Cup competition. To add to the drama, this was the first time that Strycova had ever come from a set down to win a Fed Cup singles rubber. It took her two hours and 43 minutes.

That's a lot of drama!

It's sad to realize that this is Strycova's last Fed Cup event, not only because she has been such a star for the team (especially in doubles), but because she's one of the most enjoyable players to watch on the entire tour. (And of course, there's the whole matter of her glorious persona.) It's good news, however, that Kenin has entered the Fed Cup world, a place where--in my opinion--she belongs. The 19-year-old has a game that combines both grinding and aggression, and it's hard to imagine her career going any way but up.

In today's second rubber, a member of the world number 1 doubles team showed her skills in singles. Katerina Siniakova defeated the USA's Alison Riske 6-3, 7-6, to put the Czech team up 2-0. Riske played a cleaner game than Siniakova, but the Czech played the big points when she needed to, and she rolled over her opponent in the tiebreak.

If Kvitova is feeling better, she'll play in one of tomorrow's singles rubbers. The Czech Republic is now one rubber away from winning its sixth Fed Cup championship (eleventh, if we count the wins of Czechoslovakia).

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Defending champion USA takes on Czech Republic in Fed Cup final

Many of us have noted, over the past several years, that the Czech Republic has so many great Fed Cup players, it doesn't really have an "A" and a "B" team. It's more like an "A+" team and maybe an "A" team and then a "B+" team. That theory will be put to the test this weekend when the Czech team takes on defending champion USA on an indoor hard court in Prague.

The five-time champions (actually, ten-time--the team also won as Czechoslovakia) will be missing two of its top players--Lucie Safarova and Karolina Pliskova. The good news is that Petra Kvitova will lead the team, but--the Barking Czech has been off her game lately, and there's a question as to whether she can bring Scary Petra to Prague. On the other hand, Kvitova won all four of her Fed Cup rubbers this year, and dropped only one set, so there's that.

But that doesn't mean that the Czech Republic will show up with a weak team--the Czech Republic doesn't have a weak team. Joining Kvitova will be Barbora Strycova, Katerina Sinaiakova and Barbora Krejcikova.

That's a pretty impressive group. Kvitova, of course, can be lethal, and an indoor court is perfect for her. Strycova has put in some outstanding Fed Cup performances in the last couple of years, and Siniakova and Krejikova make up the number 1 ranked doubles team in the world. (And just in case something should go wrong in that department, Strycova is outstanding in doubles play.)

The USA's team consists of Danielle Collins, Sonya Kenin, Alison Riske, and Nicole Melichar.

Melichar, who is making her Fed Cup debut, was born in the Czech Republic. She is a quickly rising star in doubles, having won the 2018 Wimbledon mixed doubles (with Alexander Peya) title, and emerged (with Kveta Peschke) as the 2018 Wimbledon runner-up. Melichar is currently ranked number 15 in the world in doubles.

Kenin entered the top 100 this year, and has already knocked off a couple of elite players (Daria Kasatkina and Caroline Garcia). The aggressive Moscow native is a lot of fun to watch, and it will interesting to watch her in her Fed Cup debut.

To get to the final, the Czech Republic defeated both Switzerland and Germany. Team USA defeated Netherlands and France.

The Czech team is coached by Petr Pala, and Team USA is coached by Kathy Rinaldi-Stunkel.

In other Fed Cup news, Petra Kvitova just won the latest Fed Cup Heart Award.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Elina Svitolina finishes her Singapore tear appropriately--with a trophy


It was the "perfect" final: Both players had gone undefeated in round robin play in their respective groups--Sloane Stephens in the red group, and Elina Svitolina in the white group. This is a rare scenario for the WTA Finals. Stephens had defeated top seed Angie Kerber, Naomi Osaka and Kiki Bertens, while Svitolina had wins over defending champion Carolina Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova.

In the semifinals, Stephens staged a stunning come-from-behind (she lost the first set 0-6) victory over Pliskova, and Svitolina (who also needed three sets) defeated Bertens.

It was only fitting that the final went three sets. Stephens, with her consistent spin and sometimes-lethal forehand, dominated the first set, winning it 6-3. But a determined Svitolina took charge in the second set, taking more risks, and earning a 6-2 victory.

The third set was a continuation of Svitolina's momentum. She went up 3-0, but then Stephens held at love, announcing another potential comeback. That announcement got louder when Stephens turned right around and broke Svitolina at 15. But the momentum swung again, as the Ukrainian moved to 5-2, then broke Stephens to win the WTA Finals.

Elina Svitolina has a deadly record in finals, having now won 13 out of 15. She has, however, underperformed repeatedly at majors, creating one of the more unusual player scenarios in recent history. But today's victory made me think of Amelie Mauresmo's 2005 title run at the WTA Finals. The following year, the talented but "not quite there" Frenchwoman won two majors.

Svitolina's amazing speed and shot-making got her into the top 10. This week, we saw the champion bring something new--an excellent serve. With those three factors--and the grit we often see from her--the Ukrainian star has nowhere to go but up.

2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the doubles title, defeating top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova 6-4, 7-5. Babos was the defending champion; she and Andrea Sestini Hlavackova won the title in 2017. Krejcikova and Siniakova, who won both the French Open and Wimbledon this year, had played Babos and Mladenovic only once before, and lost that match, also.

Babos and Mladenovic, who won three titles (including Singapore) this year, bring an unusual strength to their team--both members have very good serves (on a good day, they have outstanding serves).

Krejcikova and Siniakoa finish 2018 as the top-ranked doubles team in the world.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A funny thing happened on the way to this post

Photo by Daniel Ward
Last year, I showed a friend the now-famous New Haven "astronomy" video done by Petra Kvitova, Kiki Mladenovic, Aga Radwanska, and Domi Cibulkova, and he howled with laughter. This year, I texted him the New Haven serve clock video, and the next time I saw him, he told me, "Those women are funny! I mean, they're genuinely funny--they could do a comedy act!"

And I told him, yes--this is one of the many reasons I love the WTA--there is so much personality on the tour, and so much silliness.

The Backspinner calls it "the most interesting tour in the world," and it is (though props to the LPGA, which is pretty interesting, too). And one of the many things that makes it interesting is the vast store of humor that resides within it. From the sometimes-caustic and always clever wit of Maria Sharapova to the unfiltered hilarity of Jelena Jankovic to the self-deprecating, yet intelligent, humor of Andrea Petkovic--any WTA event is a funny venue.

Yes, we watch primarily for the beautiful tennis and the competitive excitement. But we also watch--not just the matches, but the press conferences and the videos--because members of the tour are entertaining in every way. I think back at all the players who have made me laugh--Kvitova, Radwanska, Jankovic, Sharapova, Serena Williams, Petko, Sveta Kuznetsova, Julia Goerges, the Dashas, Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Laura Robson, Martina Hingis, the eternally droll Dinara Safina, and the master herself, Li Na--and I realize just how much I have laughed.

It's important to laugh. I can't think of a more empty state than having no sense of humor. Research shows us that laughter reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. It can also get us through hard times. And--considering how some sports fans take things (unfortunately, even some of the humor) so seriously--the comedy tour that is the WTA provides a lot of relief.

The aforementioned Safina, one of the tour's great philosophers (along with Kuznetsova, Jankovic, Petkovic and Francesca Schiavone), once said, "There are some moments when you want to break all the racquets and send everything to hell." That's true, at least metaphorically, for all of us. Thank goodness we have the comedy act of the WTA Tour to give us some relief.

The new Singapore sling

Of all the famous cocktails, perhaps none has been tampered with more than the Singapore sling. The original recipe was complicated enough, but bartenders have changed it numerous times, making it even more complicated. Originally considered a "woman's" drink, the Singapore sling is therefore pink. Here is the Women Who Serve version:

1 1/2 oz. potent Petra
1/2 oz. Sloane syrup
1/2 oz. Osaka fan club soda
4 oz. rapidly stirred Svitolina
dash of Wozniacki bitters
shake with icy Kerber resolve
garnish with deadly slice of Kiki

Serve in a long, tall, frosted Pliskova glass.

Drink more than one at your own risk!

The WTA Finals begin Monday. Kiki Bertens was added after top seed, world number 1, and winner of the Porsche Race to Singapore Simona Halep withdrew because of injury. Caroline Wozniacki is the defending champion. Here are the two round robin groups:

Angie Kerber (1)
Naomi Osaka (3)
Sloane Stephens (5)
Kiki Bertens (8)


Caroline Wozniacki (2)
Petra Kvitova (4)
Elina Svitolina (6)
Karolina Pliskova (7)

Stephens and Kvitova have winning records over the players in their respective groups. Theoretically, this should give them an advantage--and it does--but the WTA Finals can be unpredictable. I should add, however, that since the courts are playing fast, Kvitova's White Group advantage is somewhat augmented.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

What is it about the Asian swing?

Perhaps some players are exhausted and others are ready for a new start. That's one theory. At any rate, the Asian swing tends to bring about--if not surprises--at least, new takes on the state of the tour in a given season. Take 2011, when Aga Radwanska won both Tokyo and Beijing (there was no Wuhan tournament then). Or last year, when Caroline Garcia won both Wuhan and Beijing and launched herself into the WTA Finals.

This year, Karolina Pliskova suddenly re-emerged as a major force and won Tokyo, a premier event. Any victory is impressive, but this one may have been especially sweet because the Long Tall One defeated U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka in the final. Pliskova, in 2016, was considered the Next Big Thing. She reached the final of the U.S. Open. But her results after that were mixed. The 2018 Asian Swing, however, has put her back into the spotlight.

Wuhan, a premier 5 event, was just as interesting. And before I get to Aryna Sabalenka's victory, I want to highlight Anett Kontaveit's run to the final. Kontaveit has risen steadily, and so quietly, she has gone almost unnoticed. In Wuhan, the Estonian player defeated Sloane Stephens, Donna Vekic (another player who is finally reaching her potential), Zhang Shuai, Katerina Siniakova, and Wang Qiang. That's quite a run.

Sabalenka's Wuhan victory came as no surprise to me. The Belarusian has a complete game, and--just as important--a calm confidence. An opponent really does have to beat Sabalenka; she won't give anything away. Her 2019 season should be worth watching.

Finally (of the big ones), there was the China Open, won by Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, who won in Beijing without dropping a set. The victory was her 30th title. Wozniacki and Naomi Osaka are the only two players to win both a major and a premier mandatory in the 2018 season.

The China Open was interesting for another reason: Wang Qiang gave us another outstanding performance, going all the way to the semifinals. In Wuhan, the Chinese player defeated the often-formidable Maria Sakkari, 8th seed and Tokyo champion Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova, and Monica Puig, before she retired against Anett Kontaveit.

In Beijing--playing as a wild card-Wang defeated 12th seed Alona Ostapenko and then she defeated Karolina Pliskova (this time the 7th seed) again. She followed that with a 7-5, 7-5 defeat of Wuhan champion Aryna Sabalenka, and then was stopped by Wozniacki.

The doubles results have also been notable. The Japanese team of Miyu Kato and Makoto Ninomiya won the Tokyo doubles title, defeating top seeds Andrea Sestini Hlavackova and Barbora Strycova in the final. Demi Schuurs and Elise Mertens won the Wuhan title, and Sestini Hlavackova and Strycova made to the Beijing final, too, and this time--they won.

Of course, there's more to the Asian swing than the premier events. The swing began in Guangzhou, and who won that? Altogether now: Wang Qiang! The Asian swing has put a well-deserved spotlight on Wang Qiang, and she's now one of the players I'm most interested in watching in 2019. Wang has a compelling court presence, a good all-around game and a very good serve.

Back to the other Asian swing events: Charleston and Cincinnati champion Kiki Bertens won the Korea Open, and Margarita Gasparyan won in Tashkent. Gasparyan's victory was one of the sweetest of the 2018 season; the Russian player was out for a long time after enduring three knee surgeries and considering retirement from the tour. She is currently ranked number 138 in the world.

The last two Asian swing tournaments, Hong Kong and Tianjin, will be played this week. The top seeds are Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova (also a wild card). Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from Hong Kong because of a back injury. Also withdrawing were Ekaterina Makarova and Lesia Tsurenko.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

My U.S. Open top 10

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

10. Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head: The heat at this U.S. Open made me wonder, at times, whether I was actually watching reruns of Australian Open matches. The heat rule was often in effect, and a men’s heat rule had to be instituted. The weekend brought mild temperatures, but then it went right back to being almost unbearably hot. Some junior matches were postponed, and players suffered in ways that were sometimes hard to watch.

9. Speaking of the intense heat: Lesia Tsurenko—who reached the round of 16 by taking out, among others, 2nd seed Caroline Wozniacki—cramped and staggered her way through her third round match against Marketa Vondrousova. Vondrousova did her share of staggering, too; they were both almost overcome by the heat. Tsurenko’s issues were serious enough that I thought she would retire from the match, but instead, she won it, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2. It was fascinating (and a bit scary) to watch, but what was worse was to watch Vondrousova accuse her opponent of “acting.”

8. I don’t want what they’re having:
ESPN and Tennis Channel commentators go into some kind of delusional trance when they call matches in which U.S. players participate. You wouldn’t have known, for example, that Sloane Stephens was losing her quarterfinal match to Anastaija Sevastova. And when it was over, a prominent Tennis Channel commentator declared Sevastova’s victory was due to her “consistency.” That truth was, it was due to her dismantling Stephens’ game with her variety and cleverness.

You also wouldn’t have known—at least during part of the match—that Naomi Osaka was handily defeating Serena Williams. To say that the ESPN and Tennis Channel commentators “have blinders on” is an understatement. They repeatedly refuse to see what’s right in front of them.

7. Working the graveyard shift: The newly renovated Louis Armstrong Stadium proved to be the undoing of several top players. World number 1 Simona Halep, Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, Wimbledon champion (and former U.S. Open champion) Angie Kerber, Petra Kvitova, and Garbine Muguruza all fell in early rounds—inside Louis Armstrong stadium.

6. Showing us why she’s Diede de Great:
Diede de Groot won both the women’s wheelchair singles championship and the doubles championship. She won the doubles title with Yui Kamiji, whom she beat in the singles final. Currently ranked number 1 in the world in both singles and doubles, de Groot has now won four singles majors and four doubles majors, in addition to sevefal other major events.

5. Can’t keep her down: After sustaining a horrible injury at Wimbledon last year, Bethanie Mattek-Sands spent much of the following months in surgery, in pain, and on crutches. But at this year’s U.S. Open, she teamed with defending champion Jamie Murray (whose 2017 partner, Martina Hingis, had retired) and won the mixed doubles championship. The unseeded Mattek-Sands and Murray defeated the unseeded Alicja Rosolska and Nikola Mektic 2-6, 6-3, 11-9. This was Mattek-Sands’  third major mixed doubles victory; she also won an Olympic gold medal (with Jack Sock).

4. What’s wrong with this picture?:
As the U.S. Open approached, there was much speculation about whether Elina Svitolina could finally overcome her peculiar pattern of winning huge titles on the regular tour, even defending titles, but crashing out too early in majors. Well, she did a little better in Flushing Meadows. The Ukrainian star went out in the round of 16, a victim of Anastajia Sevastova (who played a bagel third set). There’s no shame in losing in the fourth round, and certainly no shame in losing to someone as clever as Sevastova. But, looking at the big picture, Svitolina should be doing better at majors. She has let go of her coach, which is something she does from time to time; we’ll all have to stay tuned.

On a similar note, Alona Ostapenko set a very good precedent (for these times) when she reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon right after she won the French Open last year. But since then, the Latvian star has managed to both stun and disappoint at the same time. Her undisciplined game neutralizes her rather amazing power and aggression. If not her current coach, then some coach needs to help Ostapenko play a somewhat lower-risk game. She’s too talented to be this sloppy.

3. One is the loneliest number:
Simona Halep is the first number 1 player in the Open Era to go out in the first round of the U.S. Open. She lost in straight sets to big-hitting Kaia Kanepi, who has made somewhat of a career of being a ginat-killer at majors. It’s unforttunate that this occurred, but it wasn’t like she wasn’t facing a dangerous opponent. On the other hand, it’s probably inaccurate to assume that winning a major has somehow transformed Halep into a less mercurial player. I think she is less fragile, but she’s still Simona. (And that’s okay.)

2. The real final: Everything a fan could have wanted in a major final took place—on Sunday. Ash Barty and CoCo Vandeweghe defeated Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic 3-6, 7-6, 7-6. The rallies were thrilling, the tension never let up, both teams held championship points, and it was just non-stop excitement. Mladenovic was the stand-out player, which made it all the more bitter (also because she’s such a good server) that the match ended on her double fault. All in all, though, this was an outstanding match. Also, it's the first major title for both Barty and Vandeweghe.

1. A championship performance:
Big, poweful hitters often need to learn to control their aggression and develop more shot variety, though it’s tempting for them to avoid this part of their tennis education. Petra Kvitova learned. Alona Ostapenko is still (we hope) taking classes. Naomi Osaka took a crash course. She blazed her way through the draw with power, precison, and a much-improved serve, dropping only one set along the way.

Serena Williams is Osaka’s idol. No problem. The shy, soft-spoken Japanese player, once she stepped onto the stage that is Arthur Ashe Stadium, was in control, much like an introverted actor who switches into a totally different gear once the play starts. It was unfortunate that the drama which came to define the match robbed Osaka of the glory she deserved, but she handled that well, too. It was a very strange way to win a first major, but I believe she’ll be holding more big trophies—under better circumstances. Osaka is the first Japanese woman to win a singles major.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Naomi Osaka defeats her idol and wins U.S. Open


Now I'm back
Sidewalk and pigeon
You look like a city
But you feel like a religion
To me
Laura Nyro, "New York Tendaberry

The U.S. Open has always been a mixed bag for Serena Williams. Unpleasant things have happened to her at the Open. I won't review these because fans know what they are, and also, because recorded accounts of them are filled with inadequate or incorrect information, which would take me pages to amplify and explain. But the result is that New York hasn't been a walk in Central Park for the six-time champion.

There was plenty of drama before the match even began. Williams was entering her second major final after giving birth to her daughter. Her opponent, Naomi Osaka, had burned through the draw, playing only one three-set match. Williams had long been Osaka's idol. It was as dramatic a setup for a major final as we could imagine.
And that would have been enough drama, thank you very much. But of course, it was only the beginning of what turned into a most unfortunate parade of incidents. What happened, in fact, was so unfortunate and so controversial, that I find myself unable to say too much about it.

And the past is a blue note
Inside me

Williams was cited for a coaching violation. Her coach, Patrick Mourataglou, was clearly coaching her from her box. This, of course, wasn't Williams' fault, but the rule is that a player gets a penalty warning for illegal coaching. Williams later broke her racket, and received a point penalty for that. Any additional infraction would result in a game penalty, and umpire Carlos Ramos gave her just that when she called him "a thief." Technically speaking, Ramos was within his rights to exact the penalty. What has many people so angry, though, is that umpire abuse--mainly practiced by ATP players--is routinely ignored by chair umpires.

It became a matter of context.

Both John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors had a history of saying very abusive things to chair umpires, and fans called their behavior "colorful" and "great theatre." Andre Agassi was very abusive to a lineswoman. More recently, David Ferrer was abusive to a chair umpire; in fact, he managed to insult all females, and he got away with it (and was hailed a sporting hero during this U.S. Open). Only Fabio Fognini was penalized for his atrocious behavior toward a chair umpire, and that penalty was significantly watered down.

During all of this horror, Naomi Osaka--a somewhat shy, sensitive young player--managed her emotions like a boss, not letting it affect her game. It's important to note that--even if none of the drama with the umpire had occurred--Osaka was controlling the match and very well would have won it, anyway.

New York tendaberry
True berry
I lost my eyes
In east wind skies
Here where I've cried
Where I've tried
Where God and the tendaberry rise

So Naomi Osaka, who hit sixteen winners and made fourteen unforced errors, prevailed as impressively in the final as she had in her previous six matches. Osaka is the real thing, and her improvement under the tutelage of coach Sascha Bajin has been dramatic. She played fearlessly, with great precision. She defeated her idol 6-2, 6-4, to claim her first major victory, and only her second tour victory.

The look on Osaka's face when she won, and during the trophy presentation, was not a look we want to see in a first-time (or any-time) champion. To her credit, Williams was very protective toward her opponent, beseeching the crowd to stop booing. I don't want to do any judging; I have respect for both the champion and the runner-up. I just wish this final had never happened. It was a strange trial by fire for Osaka, and she will have to sort it out as best she can.

In the meantime, Osaka is the first Japanese person in history to win a singles major. Next week, she enters the top 10 as number 7 in the world. We'll have to see if she continues to be a big stage player (a popular WTA trend) or whether she starts to make a dent in the regular WTA calendar.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Naomi Osaka to face her idol in U.S. Open championship match

Playing in your first major final has to be one of the most exciting, most stressful things imaginable for a professional tennis player. Having to play an opponent  in that final who is considered the best in the sport increases the tension. And if that opponent also happens to be your professional idol? Your head could (metaphorically) blow up.

Sascha Bajin (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
But that's just what Naomi Osaka will have to do tomorrow when she faces off against Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. Osaka, who announced herself to the sports world when she won the BNP Paribas Open earlier this year, has transformed from a big-hitting power player to a big-hitting power player with court sense and a good serve.

This transformation is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to her decision to hire Sascha Bajin to be her coach. Bajin, who spent many years as Williams' hitting partner, has taken the raw talent of the young Japanese star and helped her to refine it. Theoretically, such refinement could turn Osaka into an especially dangerous player on the WTA tour.

But in the meantime, she has to deal with Serena Williams. Osaka and Williams have played each other only once before, in Miami this year, in the first round. Osaka won that match in straight sets, but that was when Williams was just returning from her pregnancy break. Osaka, who says she started playing tennis mainly because of Williams, told the media after the Miami match that her goal had been to avoid a double bagel.

That Serena Williams won't be the one on the other side of the net tomorrow. A very much back-on-track Williams will be seeking her 24th major singles championship, and it will take a mighty effort to deny her that.

Osaka does have a few things (besides her game) going for her: She has played Williams before (the victory part may not count that much), she has won a final on a very big stage, and she has a coach who probably knows more about the intricacies of Williams' game than anyone. Fans will cheer for Williams, but will also show a lot of appreciation for Osaka. who has won hearts and minds with her mature game and her goofy, unguarded charm.

When I sat down to write this, I thought of that popular cartoon image of a domestic cat looking in the mirror and seeing a lion. It may be like that for Osaka: She will look across the net and see what she may be able to become. And at the end of the day, one of them will roar.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Francesca Schiavone, Italian warrior and stylist, retires from professional tennis

"I give you Capricciosa, different kind of ingredient."

Francesca Schiavone, one of the four great Fighting Italians of the WTA tour, retired from professional tennis this week. Schiavone combined style, athleticism and heart with such vitality and originality that it was hard to watch her and not feel some of the joy that radiated from her entire being when she was on a tennis court.

Schiavone's path to greatness was impeded by a not uncommon obstacle: For years, she fought her way to finals, and then lost them. Losing eight finals was enough for the Italian, and she engaged a "mental coach" to help her. It worked. In 2007, she won Bad Gastein; in 2009, she won Moscow.

And then, in 2010, Schiavone won the French Open, taking out Li Na, Maria Kirilenko, Caroline Wozniacki, and Elena Dementieva. In the final, she played the highly favored (but not by this writer) Sam Stosur, the player who defeated Schiavone in the first round of the 2009 French Open. Stosur had done a lot of heavy lifting in the tournament. The Australian had beaten the likes of Simona Halep, four-time champion Justine Henin, former champion Serena Williams, and Jelena Jankovic.

Schiavone's straight-set win over Stosur was inspired. She had brought along Italian Fed Cup captain Carrado Barazzutti to help her (this decision was later echoed by Marion Bartoli when she chose French Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo to accompany her to Wimbledon in 2013, when she won the title), and this proved to be a wise choice.

During the French Open, Schiavone compared herself with Capricciosa pizza. "I don't give you margherita," she said. "I give you Capricciosa, different kind of ingredient."

In the final, Schiavone--who was not troubled at all by Stosur's kick serve--continually rushed the net, gave Stosur back as much topspin as she recieved, and served extremely well (against one of the tour's best servers). Just shy of 30 years old, Schiavone became the first Italian woman to win a major. Her superb performance and her unbridled joy in winning turned her into an unforgettable champion (despite some cynical writers bemoaning the fact that she wasn't "marketable”). Her prone court-kissing photo is iconic.

In 2011, Schiavone came very close to repeating her 2010 achievement. She defeated Jankovic, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Marion Bartoli, only to be undone by Li Na in the final.

Schiavone's excellence was also present in her participation on the Italian Fed Cup team, along with the other three Fighting Italians--Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. That team won Fed cup in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2013, defeating Belgium, the USA (twice) and Russia. Their fighting spirit and team cohesion was one of the wonders of Fed Cup competition.

"We had success because we were different," Schiavone said of her Fed Cup team. "It’s not just forehand and backhand; it’s touch, it’s tactics, and strategy. You have to find the solution when there is a problem. It’s always about going through something where sometimes you understand what’s going on, and sometimes not. It’s a mix of talent, and big work."

With her spins, lobs, slices, and leaps, Schiavone was a bigger-than-life model of the mix of talent and big work. She sometimes appeared to be indefatigable, and never did this quality appear more prominently than when she competed against another athlete's athlete--Svetlana Kuznetsova.

In fact, no profile of Schiavone would be complete without mention of the great Russian competitor. In 2011, Schiavone and Kuznetsova competed in an Australian Open round of 16 match that totally deserves the description "instant classic." Schiavone had very recently injured her groin and would experience groin pain throughout the match; Kuznetsova's feet were covered with blisters. They played for four hours and 44 minutes, which is a feat in itself, but--more important--every moment was an exhibition of high quality, sometimes stunning, tennis.

At one point, when Schiavone served for match, she had to stop and call for the trainer. Both players, in fact, had to call for the trainer during the match. The third set lasted exactly three hours.

Schiavone won that match, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14. It was the longest ever played in the Open Era (althoug hthe second-longest match in the Open Era had been played the previous year--also at the Australian Open). And while--for some reason--it's rarely mentioned, the pair did another version of this match in 2015, this time at the French Open. In the second round, they played for "only" three hours and 49 minutes. Schiavone won this one, too, 6-7, 7-5, 10-8. And once again, the quality of the tennis was stunning.
 "Everyone loves me, and I didn’t know this."

Francesca Schiavone won a total of eight singles titles and seven doubles titles. She reached the doubles final of the French Open (with Casey Dellacqua) in 2008. Her highest singles ranking, number 4 in the world, came in 2011; her highest doubles ranking, number 8, was achieved in 2012.

Statistics, however don't define players. And they certainly don't define Francesca Schiavone, whose beautiful one-handed backhand wreaked havoc on many opponents throughout her career, and whose athleticism, combined with her ability to construct points, made her a joy to watch.

In announcing her retirement, the Italian star said: "For me, it's a very important moment of my life. I arrived at this decision, to say goodbye to tennis, with my heart. Because my head, when I arrived here, said 'Please go to the court, to fight.' But my heart says that I am in peace like this. I am very happy about my career, my life, and everything."

"When I was 18 years old, I had two dreams," Schiavone explained. "The first one was to win Roland Garros, and the second one was to become Top 10 in the world. And I completed them, so I'm very, very happy, and lucky."

"Everyone loves me, and I didn’t know this," the great Italian player said at her final tour press conference. I'm glad she knows it now. Count me as one of the people who will miss her.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Lesia Tsurenko lurches into the U.S. Open quarterfinals

"Are they slow-moving, chief?"
"Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up."
Night of the Living Dead 

I seem to be stuck on a ghoulish theme. But, watching Lesia Tsurenko and Marketa Vondrousova in their round of 16 match today, I couldn't help but think of the slow, lurching walk of zombies. First it was Tsurenko, who was so overcome by the heat that she frequently looked one bend-over from retiring from the match. Then her opponent started doing the same thing, and it was a really strange thing to watch--two women bending over in pain, walking like zombie movie characters, and--oh yes--competing rather gamely in the middle of their suffering.

Tsurenko got off to a quick start, going up 3-0, but before the set was over, she was showing signs of cramping and heat illness. She hung in, but lost the set in a tiebreak. And although it looked like the Ukrainian player might not have much left to give, she won the second set 7-5. The third set was pretty much about Tsurenko, who won it 6-2. They played for two and a half hours (and made 130 unforced errors), but for them, it must have seemed like half a lifetime.

After the match, Tsurenko said that--at her worst moment--she asked "nature, the god..." to send some shade over. Once she had it, she was able to go on.

In fact, Tsurenko wound up getting a lot more shade than she bargained for. In her press conference, Vondrousova (who appears to have taken the Tatjana Maria course on post-match graciousness) accused the Ukrainian of faking it. "I don't think she was struggling so much. She was just acting. She played normally; it was just acting."
Well, if it was acting, it was worthy of one of those statues that are distributed in New York City in June.

One can only wonder what kind of shape Tsurenko will be in for her quarterfinal match against Naomi Osaka. But, no matter what happens, both she and Vondrousova will be remembered for showing an immense amount of heart in their match.

Osaka played another big hitter, Aryna Sabalenka, but Sabalenka--like so many players with her style of play--made a lot of unforced errors and committed a rash of double faults. It was a disappointing performance from the Belarusian player, but ultimately, it doesn't take away from her immense potential.

In the other matches, Madison Keys handled Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets, and Carla Suarez Navarro did likewise with 2006 champion Maria Sharapova.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Serena Williams (17) vs. Karolina Pliskova (8)
Sloane Stephens (3) vs. Anastasija Sevastova (19)
Carla Suarez Navarro (30) vs. Madison Keys (14)
Naomi Osaka (20) vs. Lesia Tsurenko
There are still three USA players in the draw. Defending champion Sloane Stephens is the highest remaining seed, and Lesia Tsurenko is the lone unseeded player. 
In doubles, the top seeds--Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova--have reached the quarterfinals, in which they will play a very good team, 7th seeds Elise Mertens and Demi Schuurs. That could be an outstanding match. The second seeds, Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, will face Cincinnati champions and 6th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Ekaterina Makarova.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

"She hits like a ghoul"--new Louis Armstrong Stadium = new graveyard court

Kaia Kanepi. Lesia Tsurenko. Karolina Muchova. Marketa Vondrousova. Dominika Cibulkova. Aryna Sabalenka. They all played in the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, and they all upset major opponents.

We're just three rounds in at the U.S. Open, but the carnage in the new stadium has already earned it the "graveyard court" distinction. The above players' victims, repectively, were: number 1 seed Simona Halep, number 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki, 12th seed and two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, 13th seed and red-hot player Kiki Bertens, 2016 champion (and 2018 Wimbledon champion) and 4th seed Angie Kerber, and 5th seed Petra Kvitova.

Both Kanepi and Tsurenko accomplished their big feats early in the tournament, and they're both still around. Kanepi went on to defeat qalifier Jill Teichmann and up-and-coming player Rebecca Peterson, and Tsurenko went on to defeat Katerina Siniakova.

Today, 6th seed Caroline Garcia was shown the exit by 30th seed Carla Suarez Navarro, a less-shaky Maria Sharapova took out a (still) wildly undisciplined Alona Ostapenko, Naomi Osaka double-bageled Aliaksandra Sasnovich, and Madison Keys needed three sets to vanquish Aleks Krunic. Bertens, Kerber and Kvitova all went out today, also.

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Kaia Kanepi vs. Serena Williams (17)
Ash Barty (18) vs. Karolina Pliskova (8)
Sloane Stephens (3) vs. Elise Mertens (15)
Anastasija Sevastova (19) vs. Elina Svitolina (7)
Carla Suarez Navarro (30) vs. Maria Sharapova (22)
Madison Keys (14) vs. Dominika Cibulkova (29)
Aryna Sabalenka (26) vs. Naomi Osaka (20)
Marketa Vondrousova vs. Lesia Tsurenko

There are three former champions left in the draw, as well as two former runners-up.  The draw includes three players from the USA, two from the Czech Republic and two from Ukraine.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Crazy from the heat--week 1 of the U.S. Open not yet over

It's been quite a week at the U.S. Open, what with the extreme heat and humidity, the exit of the top two seeds in the first two rounds, and the 30th meeting on court of the Williams sisters. There was plenty of the usual uninformed bashing of Maria Sharapova, and a sudden onslaught of nastiness directed at Chris Evert, whose "sin" has been to make sense all week (except for tonight's assertion about Patrick Mouratoglou's having "introduced strategy" to Serena). All the while, people were tearfully lamenting the U.S. Open exit of a man who considers all females stupid, and defending a "nice" umpire who violated any reasonable definition of umpire boundaries.

In other words, everything was normal.

What wasn't "normal" was--as The Backspinner has pointed out--Katerina Siniakova's digging in to an odd groove if ever there were one. At both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Siniakova won her first two rounds against opponents who had served for the match against her. I don't know if something like that has ever happened before.

With not only world number 1 Simona Halep and world number 2 Caroline Wozniacki out, but also two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, the draw has, as they say, opened. Still with us, at this writing, are Wimbledon champion Angie Kerber, Alona Ostapenko, Madison Keys, defending champion Sloane Stephens (who is looking very much like a champion), Elina Svitolina, Caroline Garcia, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova--and yes, Kiki Bertens and Elise Mertens.

Svitolina has reached the round of 16 at the U.S. before--last year, in fact. The Ukrainian star has begun to lift her performance at majors, and such a move couldn't come too soon for her, given the remarkable success she's had in other events. Next for her is Anastasija Sevastova, who defeated Ekaterina Makatova today. Sevastova can be tricky; the match could be interesting.

Also still around is Kaia Kanepi, who began her campaign by upsetting the world's number 1 player, and has survived to reach the round of 16. Her reward? She plays six-time champion Serena Williams, who defeated Venus Williams in straight sets tonight.

Coming up tomorrow (and being played at approximately the same time!) are two don't-miss matches. Two French Open champions, Alona Ostapenko and Maria Sharapova, will face off to see who goes to the quarterfinals.

Neither of them is playing her best tennis. Ostapenko is still the untamed big hitter who hasn't yet learned, as Petra Kvitova did, to try a few safer tactics. On the other hand, her "unsafe" tactics can be deadly. Sharapova looked terrible in her second round match against Sorna Cirstea. The 2006 champion double-faulted ten times (back to that) and made 33 unforced errors in two sets. She also looked really uncomfortable out there--and yet, she wound up keeping her perfect record in playing U.S. Open night matches.

The other match will feature 5th seed Petra Kvitova and upstart Arnya Sabalenka. Lucky for Kvitova, the weather is expected to stay mild all weekend, which--combined with the fast court--could make Sabalenka's life miserable. But, one way or the other, there is going to be some big geometrical hitting!

Another match of great interest should be the one played by Angie Kerber and Dominika Cibulkova. Kerber is 7-5 against Cibulkova, and is 6-3 against her on hard courts. These two have had some knock-down-drag-out contests, and--if fans are lucky--they'll have another one tomorrow. I always enjoy watching them play each other. Kerber will have to move into her best offensive mode against Cibulkova, who can be just as much of a wall as Kerber.

If Karolina Muchova were a more mature player, the match she played tonight against Ash Barty would have been a beautiful thing. Even as it was--with Muchova just not ready to go toe-to-toe with someone like Barty (and their games are quite similar)--it was a thing of interest and much beauty. (Also, Muchova's going from 1-5 to 4-5 in the second set wasn't too trashy). This is the kind of tennis I like to watch, with both players bringing a great variety of guile and a lot of different shots. It was interesting that the commentators were comparing the players with such stylistic and strategic greats as Rosie Casals (Barty) and--one of my all-time favorites--Hana Mandlikova (Muchova).

A shout-out here to Johanna Larsson, who gave Angie Kerber a real run in their second round match. It was a beautifully played thriller.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Seems like old times--Schnyder and Sharapova meet again

Just like old times, staying up for hours
Making dreams come true, doing things we used to do
Seems like old times being here with you
"Seems Like Old Times"--Carmen Lombardo & John Jacob Loeb

photo by Diane Elayne Dees
The sight of Patty Schnyder, one of my favorite players of all time, whipping that loopy forehand on the Louis Armstrong Stadium Court tonight would have been an emotional occasion for me under any circumstance. But to see Maria Sharapova on the other side of the net really made me think that I was back in 2008, the last time Schnyder and Sharapova played each other.

There was a sadness for me, seeing these two, neither of whom is the player she used to be. But it also made me happy to see them together.

Schnyder let a sub-par Sharapova run away with the first set and a half of their first-round U.S. Open match. Then the former Swiss star woke up and started taking advantage of Sharapova's error-filled game. She took that set all the way to a tiebreak, but then her own errors did her in. Sharapova won, 6-2, 7-6, and advanced to the second round.

But the 2006  champion will have to clean up her game considerably if she expects to keep advancing. Her next opponent is the mercurial Sorana Cirstea, who--from time to time--has served as a giant-killer in majors. It's been a while since Cirstea has done that, however, and Sharapova isn't looking like a giant. Still, the Russian has been known to turn the switch on when we least expect it.

The very entertaining match of the day was played between Andrea Petkovic and 10th seed Alona Ostapenko. It was a bit of a roller coaster affair, with Petkovic coming back and coming back, just when Ostapenko appeared to have the match clinched. In the end, after two hours and 18 minutes, Ostapenko won, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. She hit 38 winners and made 60 unforced errors, but that isn't an unusual statistic for the "swing like there's no tomorrow" Latvian.

Not surprisingly, Timea Babos gave Daria Kasatkina a hard time. After playing three sets, Kasatkina advanced, as did Petra Kvitova, Madison Keys, Angie Kerber, Kiki Bertens, Caroline Wozniacki--and 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva.

Also taken out today were Jo Konta, 24th seed CoCo Vandeweghe, and 28th seed Anett Kontaveit. Seeds and other notables who made an exit yesterday were 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Aga Radwanska, 27th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 31st seed Magdalena Rybarikova--and, of course, top seed Simona Halep.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

U.S. Open first rounds to watch

Patty Schnyder (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
I'm always intrigued by some of the first rounds the draws provide us at majors (and anxious about whether I'll get to see the more interesting ones). Here the ones I hope to watch this week:

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Venus Williams
The 2004 champion meets the 2000 and 2001 champion, and it's anyone's guess who will prevail. It isn't that often that two champions face off, and it's really unusual for it to happen in the first round.

Caroline Garcia vs. Jo Konta
Both the 6th seed and the British number 1 have had a lot of ups and downs lately, so I don't have a clear sense of who will prevail. Konta may have a bit of an edge on a hard court, but I don't really think that will matter.

Maria Sharapova vs. Patty Schnyder
Who would have thought? At 39, Schnyder is the oldest player to successfully go through qualifying at a major in the Open Era. I remember their round of 16 match at the 2007 French Open, in which Schnyder came so very close to taking Sharapova out (Sharapova won the 3rd set tiebreak 9-7). It was a thrilling match. Sharapova has a 7-1 record against Schnyder.

Andrea Petkovic vs. Alona Ostapenko
We occasionally see flashes of a former Petko, and if Ostapenko goes on an unforced error spree, we might see get one of those flashes. Ostapenko should be a contender for the title, but her game is still too undisciplined for us to have those expectations. I wonder how long we'll have to wait.

Sam Stosur vs. Caroline Wozniacki
This first-round meeting between the 2010 champion and the two-time finalist is a veterans' special. Wozniacki, who launched somewhat of a "new" career when she won the Australian Open this year and temporarily regained her number 1 ranking, is the clear favorite. However, the Dane had to retire in the first round because of a left knee injury (just weeks before, she had sustained a right leg injury). If she's healthy, she should advance.

Friday, August 24, 2018

What we can learn from Kiki Bertens

all photos by Daniel Ward
I recently wrote about Kiki Bertens' simple, but often difficult to accomplish, strategy for turning her career around. While we were in Cincinnati, the world number 13 (and Cincinnati champion) talked about what she had to do to even want to keep playing professional tennis after her 2017 season.

"I really needed a break," she said, "needed the holiday, to determine how I wanted to continue. I think, if I were feeling the same now as I was feeling last year, it was better for me to stop.

"I had some great results, but still I could not really enjoy it. So it always like, if I won, okay, it was more like kind of a relief, and not like, happiness. And like, already, it seemed like 'but tomorrow, I have to go again.' And everything was more like 'okay, I have to do this,' and not like, 'okay, it’s another opportunity to play some great tennis.

"From then on, I...just made some rules for myself: 'Okay, how do you want to play, how do you want to feel on court?'

Bertens also talked about the importance of just relaxing, which she does by watching movies, doing yoga, reading, or just "going to get a coffee."
photo by Daniel Ward

Bertens wasn't exactly a slouch before this season. A ferocious Fed Cup competitor, she led her team to victory over and over, and she was highly respected for her clay court skills. But this year, Bertens showed us what she can really do, winning her first premier tournament in Charleston, reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and winning her first hard court tournament--which just happened to be a premier 5 event--in Cincinnati.

Add to that the Dutch star's recent defeat of ten top 10 players, including world number 1 Simona Halep in the Cincinnati final.

What Kiki Bertens did was to realize that she no longer liked her job, and that she had to decide whether to quit that job or find a way to like it. Sometimes, when we reach such a crossroad, we're in the best position to make a difficult decision.

For Bertens, the decision was to find a way to like her job, and she did that by making a conscious decision to enjoy and appreciate her victories instead of dreading what came next. She decided to keep herself in the present and clear her head of distractions. How easy it sounds--but how difficult it can be to accomplish, especially when one's job involves always having to be the best; after all, only one player or one team emerges as the winner of a tennis tournament.

Was Bertens' mental shift a key to her 2018 success? Absolutely. She also trained hard and practiced a lot. But it was quieting the noise in her head and letting herself appreciate her success that gave her the freedom to believe she could do even more.

See other posts about players from whom we can learn:

How to Siegemund--a brief guide for dealing with life's more difficult stuff

The lesson of Martina Hingis

Schmiedlova plays winning tennis and teaches a worthwhile lesson