Sunday, January 28, 2018

My Australian Open top 10

Here are my top 10 Australian Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. We are experiencing technical difficulties: The event takes place once a year, yet those in power were unable to give us a phone app (there was no tablet app at all) that worked during the first week. And when it did work, it tended to be intrusive. That meant we had to rely on the website, only that didn't work, either. Scores were unavailable for days. Toward the end of the event, the draws were missing. Really?

9. Power to the petite!: Lauren Davis is small--for a tennis player, she's very small--but you wouldn't have known that her size was supposed to be a disadvantage when she took Simona Halep to the edge in the second round. Davis hung in with Halep through every twist and turn in the match, and had a chance to defeat the world number 1.

8. De Groot does it again: Diede De Groot, who won the wheelchair singles title at Wimbledon last year, won the championship at this year's Australian Open, defeating Yui Kamiji in the final. She and partner Aniek Van Koot lost the doubles final to Marjolein Buis and Kamiji.

7. Dabrowski does it again, too: Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner, Mate Pavic, won the mixed doubles title, defeating Timea Babos and Rohan Bopanna in the final. Last year, Dabrowski and Bopanna won the French Open title.

6. Another veteran rises to the occasion: Known for her doubles acumen, Hsieh Su-wei reminded us all that she can also play some spellbinding singles. One of the stand-out matches of the tournament was her round of 16 match against Angie Kerber. Kerber entered the Australian Open as her old, warrior self, and swept through the first three rounds like a woman on a mission. Then along came Hsieh, with her angles, unpredictable strategies and nonchalantly (but perfectly) hit lobs. She dragged Kerber to three sets, and while the German won, no one is likely to forget her opponent's performance.

5. Remember my name: Elise Mertens won Hobart in 2016, then returned this year and won it again. She brought confidence and a very high-quality serve to Melbourne, and played some excellent tennis. Her quarterfinal match against Petra Martic was especially good, given how well Martic was playing. The "first semifinal of a major" nerves were very much on display, however, when the Belgian played Caroline Wozniacki. Nevertheless, it was an impressive run, and we're likely to see more of those runs from her.

4. Si-mo-na!: She said she had changed her attitude and had become more aggressive, and she wasn't kidding. The new Simona exudes calm and confidence, and her game, as lovely as ever, is deadlier. Rolling her ankle in the first round and then playing some long, grueling matches left her running on reserves by the time she reached the final, but even her "reserves" were very impressive. Stay tuned.

3. I'll be there for you: Timea Babos and Kiki Mladevnovic have been friends for a very long time. After Mladenovic played (and won with) several different partners, she settled into a partnership with Babos, but then--in preparation for the Olympics--she formed a partnership with Caroline Garcia. They won the French Open, but then things went sour. Mladenovic, whose singles career went from very promising to very disastrous this season, turned up in Melbourne with Babos as her doubles partner, and they proceeded to knock out all their opponents. Their final challenge was a formidable one, but 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina--looking for a career slam--also fell to the long-term friends. The Australian Open championship is their first major championship as a team.

2. Nerves of steel, legs to match: It was dramatic. It was intense. It was was stunning in every way. Simona Halep and Angie Kerber played an "instant classic" quarterfinal that outshone all the other matches of the tournament. That's saying something, because this tournament featured some amazing matches. The two took it to each other with such intensity that they both wound up staggering around the court, but they just kept fighting. Each woman would go on to save two match points, and after two hours and 20 minutes (it seemed much longer), Halep emerged the somewhat battered victor of this match, which won't be forgotten by anyone who saw it.

1. A really great Dane: Caroline Wozniacki, a model of endurance on the court, has also proven to be a model of endurance in every other way. It took her a long time, but this week, in Melbourne, she won her first major. Wozniacki defeated Simona Halep in the women's singles final, an event that was loaded with backstory and drama.

The Danish star almost went out in the second round. Down 1-5, 0-40 in the third set, she pulled off the seemingly impossible and won the match. After that, it was a smooth journey to the final, where she was tested by an injured, exhausted, but determined Simona Halep. It was a great match, and Wozniacki's 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 victory gives her not only her first major win, but also a return to the number 1 ranking. This is the new and improved Wozniacki, a player with a consistently good serve and a desire to do more than just run down every ball she sees (which, by the way, took her to the number 1 ranking years ago, and is a notable ability). The new Wozniacki is a player to watch!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Good times never seemed so good

It was a spectacular Australian Open, filled with drama and high quality tennis, and now we have a champion. World number 2 (and that's about to change) Caroline Wozniacki--aka the Great Dane, the Golden Retriever, Sunshine--has finally won her (first?) major.

It's been a long haul for the superbly athletic Wozniacki, who spent 67 weeks, between 2010 and 2012, as the world number 1. During that period, she was not able, or perhaps not willing, to expand her defensive game and become more aggressive, and she paid dearly for that. This writer even wrote some blank verse, "The Lesson of Caroline," about the Dane's lack of aggression and subsequent fate (the publication folded, so there is no link).

Coached by her father, Piotr Wozniacki, for many years, the world number 2 frequently brought in new coaches, but they never lasted long, presumably because Piotr was always there in the background (or perhaps not so much in the background). Finally, Wozniacki gave that project up and returned to having her father as her only coach.

However, during some of these "new coach" periods, Wozniacki did become more aggressive, only to fall back into her old patterns. Last year, seemingly out of nowhere, the 27-year-old Dane did change her game, improving her serve, adding a nice dose of aggression, and winning the WTA Finals. She showed up in Melbourne in excellent form, and--despite a very big blip in the 2nd round, against world number 19 Jana Fett--she moved deftly through the draw. That second round match, however, was a magic trick: Down 1-5 and two match points, Wozniacki found a way to win.

That's a pretty dramatic story, but it pales next to what Wozniacki's last opponent, Simona Halep, went through. The world number 1 rolled her ankle in the first round, and was severely tested by Lauren Davis in the second round. Then she played a match for the ages against 2016 champion Angie Kerber in the semifinals. After playing hours and hours (sometimes in extreme heat) in sometimes very tense atmospheres--and holding an injury--Halep wasn't exactly in the condition she would have hoped for to compete in a final.

I quote myself here: "The last player you want to face after everything but your blood has been drained is Caroline Wozniacki, and that's whom Halep plays in the final.

"Wozniacki, even after all these years, could probably play consecutive five-hour matches without breaking too much of a sweat, so extreme is her athletic endurance. She has said in the past that it doesn't matter to her how long she has to stay on the court."

There was other drama. Each woman was seeking to either retain the number 1 ranking or to earn it. Each woman had saved match points on the way to the final, a first at the Australian Open. And each woman had failed twice in attempts to win majors--Wozniacki at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2014, and Halep at the French Open in 2014 and 2017.

Also, Wozniacki wasn't the only player who had changed. Halep, also known for outstanding defensive play, has recently made her game much more aggressive. She has also cleaned up her attitude problem: the Romanian player would sometimes get so down on herself during a match that her game would go to pieces. The Halep we saw at the Australian Open played like a champion, taking everything in stride, and finding ways to turn misfortune into victory.

What a backdrop!

Halep got off to a slow start in the final, dropping behind quickly, but she also caught up quickly, though Wozniacki won the first set. Halep had to fight hard in the second set, but she was able to win it. At that point, I thought that--unless Wozniacki wilted (hardly likely), Halep would have to blast through the third set quickly or her body (though maybe not her mind) would give out.

Both players had medical issues. Halep developed a blister on her foot, almost certainly from overcompensating for her other, injured foot. She also grew weak and had to have her blood pressure checked. Wozniacki had to have her knee bandaged.

The third set was a good one--better than I thought it might be--but as time went on, Halep's body wound down. Frequently bending over and grabbing her leg, the Romanian star kept finding just one more surge of energy, then another, then another--but not quite enough. When it came down to an excruciating test of nerves at the end, it was Wozniacki who came through, 7-6, 3-6, 6-4. The match lasted two hours and 49 minutes, and--while it couldn't compete with Halep and Kerbers's semifinal in terms of extreme quality and drama--it was nevertheless an outstanding final.

Caroline Wozniacki took a very long time to prove to the tennis world that she could win a major, but that's her style: She doesn't mind how long she has to wait, so great is her endurance. She did it her way, and--given her newfound serve and aggression and her high fitness level--she's likely to do it again.

As for Halep, it must be heartbreaking to have played really well in three major finals and to have lost them all. I don't believe that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but perhaps Halep does. The French Open is just a few months away, and the Romanian tends to shine there. My gut feeling is that Halep's game will get even better, and that she will eventually (maybe very soon) prevail.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Two finals completed, more to come

Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic have won the Australian Open doubles title, their first title as a team. They recently reunited, and it was a great move. Their opponents were formidable--2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. The Russian team was going for a career slam (actually, a golden career slam), but now they'll have to wait until next year to achieve it. Babos and Mladenovic defeated Makarova and Vesnina 6-4, 6-3.

Also winning a doubles trophy were top seeds Marjolein Buis and Yui Kamiji, who defeated 2nd seeds Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot in the women's wheelchair doubles final.

Still to come are the women's wheelchair singles final (to be contested between Kamiji and De Groot), and the junior singles and doubles finals.

And one more: The women's singles final will feature world number 1 Simona Halep and world number 2 Caroline Wozniacki. Here are their paths to the final:

round 1--def. Destanee Aiava (wc)
round 2--def. Genie Bouchard
round 3--def. Lauren Davis
round of 16--def. Naomi Osaka
quarterfinals--def. Karolina Pliskova (6)

round 1--def. Mihaela Burzarnescu
round 2--def. Joan Fett
round 3-def. Kiki Bertens (30)
round of 16--def. Magdalena Rybarikova (19)
quarterfinals--def. Carla Suarez Navarro
semifinals--def. Elise Mertens

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Halep and Kerber's semifinal: so many stories, it could be a novel

Every match has a backstory, and some backstories are more interesting or entertaining than others. Yesterday, in Melbourne, Simona Halep and Angie Kerber arrived on the court with dramatically intersecting stories that were soon acted out in some of the most dramatic and thrilling theatre that any sports fan (or, for that matter, any person with a heartbeat) could hope to experience.

One of Halep's stories was about her tenuous hold on the number 1 ranking. If she lost the semifinal, she would also lose the top ranking. Another story was that she was going for a third try at winning a major; she failed twice at the French Open, despite playing extremely well in both of those finals against Maria Sharapova and Alona Ostapenko. The Romanian's reputation as a gifted player whose attitude tends to lower her playing level and cause her to lose matches she "should" win was yet another story. Then there was the somewhat tiresome story about talented players who have little hope against "power" players.

That would be enough to fill a book, but there were more immediate stories surrounding Halep. During the first round, she rolled her ankle, and there was talk that she might have to withdraw. And then there was that third round match against Lauren Davis, an event that tested both the mental and physical faculties of both players, and that went on for three hours and 44 minutes. Halep faced three consecutive match points against Davis, and saved them all.

Meanwhile, former world number 1 Kerber brought stories of her own. In 2016, the German stunned the tennis world by winning the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, reaching the final at Wimbledon, and winning a silver medal at the Olympic Games. But in 2017, her performance was so lackluster that she dropped out of the top 20--the biggest next-season fall not due to injury of any number 1 player in rankings history.

But Kerber came back strong in 2018, reaching the Hopman Cup final and winning Sydney. She entered the Australian Open with a 14-0 record (counting her four Hopman Cup) wins) in 2018. And she appeared to be on track to win another Australian trophy--until she ran into Hsieh Su-wei in the round of 16. Hsieh took Kerber to the brink with her clever and unpredictable game, but Kerber prevailed, making her appear to be in an even better position to win the title.

Halep also entered the tournament with ten WTA match wins. The Romanian had won the Shenzhen tournament in both singles and doubles (her first doubles title), and appeared more relaxed that she had in the past.

Both players had potentially tough tests in the quarterfinals, but those matches turned out to be tiny chapters in The Book of Angie and Simona. Kerber knocked off Madison Keys easily, and Halep defeated Karolina Pliskova just as easily. It's a great pity that the pair wound up on the same side of the draw because--if any match should have been a final--it was their instant classic semifinal.

The details of this match have already been extensively recorded and discussed, so I'll just mention the most dramatic ones: Halep led 5-0 in the first set. Each player saved two match points. In the third set, each player was, at times, staggering on the court, resembling prize fighters in tennis kits. Many of the rallies were breathtaking, as one might expect from two of the greatest defensive players ever to grace the WTA.

For viewers (and probably for the players), time passed in Schiavone-Kuznetsova style. It was a surprise to learn that the match lasted only two hours and 20 minutes; it seemed like it went on all night (or day, if you were in Australia). Halep prevailed, 6-3, 4-6, 9-7, and here's the bad news for the Romanian: The last player you want to face after everything but your blood has been drained is Caroline Wozniacki, and that's whom Halep plays in the final.

Wozniacki, even after all these years, could probably play consecutive five-hour matches without breaking too much of a sweat, so extreme is her athletic endurance. She has said in the past that it doesn't matter to her how long she has to stay on the court.

To make matters even worse for Halep, Wozniacki had a fairly easy time of it in her own semifinal. Elise Mertens, one of the great stories of this tournament, finally caved in to a case of nerves, though--in the second set--we saw glimpses of the Elise who had thrilled crowds throughout the tournament. The Belgian's serve, a deadly weapon through the quarterfinals, became a much weaker element in her game, and she made repeated anxiety-triggered errors. Wozniacki, very much on her game, beat her 6-3, 7-6.

The Dane also had to make a narrow escape in this tournament. Down 1-5 in the third set of her second round match against Joan Fett, Wozniacki saved two match points. Also, like Halep, Wozniacki (also a former world number 1, and currently world number 2) has had two chances to win a major, but has failed to do so. Both of Wozniacki's finals were played at the U.S. Open. If Wozniacki wins the Australian Open, she will become the new world number 1.

It's very hard to imagine that the final could be better--or even as good as--the match played by Kerber and Halep. And while we don't know how the 2018 Australian Open story ends--and it will end with someone finally winning her first major--the stories that came together in the Kerber-Halep semifinal created enough wonder and amazement, they could have filled Scheherazade's 1,001 nights.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Kiki. Mojo. Melbourne.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to return to doing something you do very well, proceed to do it, and then wait for the confidence to enfold you. For Kiki Mladenovic (half of the winning team I call “Mladenovic and Anybody”), the right thing to do was not only to pour some fierce energy into doubles, but also, to do it alongside former partner Timea Babos. Babos’s baseline strength perfectly complements the Frenchwoman’s deft work at the net. Together, they’ve become a force with which to be reckoned in Melbourne.

Babos, by the way, is still alive in mixed doubles, also. She and partner Rohan Bopanna have reached the semifinals.

So far, Babos and Mladenovic have taken out Dzalamidze and Knoll, Arruabarrena, Golubic and Stojanovic, top seeds Chan and Sestini Hlavackova, and 8th seeds Hsieh and Peng. That got them to the final, where they will be seriously tested by 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. The Russian team has more on the line than winning the Australian Open—if they emerge the victors, it will give them a career slam.They will be very, very pumped up for a victory. It should be a great match.

That's not the bush-birds you hear

It's the victorious yelling of German warrior Angelique Kerber. Or, conversely, it could be the cries of anguish coming from her opponents. Hsieh Su-wei gave the 2016 champion all kinds of trouble, but everything else has been fairly easy for Kerber. That includes today's quarterfinal, in which she defeated Madison Keys 6-1, 6-2 in 51 minutes. Keys was flat and uncertain, so it didn't take a lot of effort for Kerber to defeat her.

The former world number 1 has now won 14 straight matches, and--after a very disappointing 2017--she has now put herself back into the Australian Open semifinals, and she's done it in style. It's as though she suddenly remembered who she was, and then went on a rampage.

That rampage will have to remain strong in the semifinals, in which Kerber will face world number 1 Simona Halep, who played a clean, efficient quarterfinal against Karolina Pliskova. The Tall Cool One led 3-0 in the opening set, then proceeded to lose nine games in a row. She then won her first game of the second set, but continued to be bossed around the court by Halep, who routinely changed the direction of the ball, leaving Pliskova a step behind. The Romanian won in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2.

The usually tense Halep has looked unusually relaxed and self-confident at this tournament. She often says that she's feeling relaxed, but her body language betrays her. This time, though, it feels real. There is every reason to excitedly anticipate the upcoming match between Halep and Kerber. On the one hand, I'm looking forward to it, but on the other, I confess that I find it hard to bear the thought of either of them losing. I really want both of them to win the Australian Open!

Of course, whoever wins that match still hasn't won the open, but will have to face either Elise Mertens or Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Wozniacki is the clear favorite in that match, but if Mertens continues to keep her nerves in check (perhaps doubtful in a semifinal) and brings her best service game (which is outstanding), she has a chance to upset the world number 2.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Kerber survives brilliant Hsieh

The glory of Hsieh Su-wei's 2018 Australian Open continued yesterday, even though she lost her round of 16 match to 2016 champion Angie Kerber. Hsieh's mistake was not winning the match in straight sets. By the time the two players reached the third set of this extremely physical match, Hsieh was running on reserve energy, and that energy gave out. But in the first two sets, the veteran from Chinese Taipei, known for her doubles skills, put on a show that had Kerber running, stretching, tumbling, falling, and generally throwing herself into a constant scramble to keep up with her opponent's almost casual dominance.

Hsieh, using two hands on both sides, took the ball very quickly and cracked angled groundstrokes that left Kerber bewildered. She hit the gentlest drop shots, outwitting even the very speedy German. And she hit overheads that were delivered in what appeared to be the height of nonchalance. Hsieh made it look so easy. And of course, all of her doubles experience was reflected in the way she judged the court and handled the  net.

Finally, in the latter half of the second set, Kerber was able to assert herself. And the third could have been a toss-up if Hsieh hadn't finally wound down. Often, in these types of matches, the higher ranked player takes the third set because the opponent has finally caved in mentally, but in this case, Hsieh's demise was obviously physical. At the end of the 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 match, Hsieh--who had already taken Garbine Muguruza and Aga Radwanska out of the tournament--received a hugh crowd ovation as she left the stadium. Kerber, for her part, passed an important test. Now, she has to face another one, in the form of Madison Keys.

Keys handled Caroline Garcia with amazing ease, hitting 32 winners, including 9 aces, and allowing the talented Frenchwoman to win only five games in a match that lasted only an hour and eight minutes. World number 1 Simona Halep also got the job easily, defeating upstart Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-2. And, playing into the middle of the night, Karolina Pliskova defeated countrywoman Barbora Strycova 6-7, 6-3, 6-2.

In doubles, 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina won their third round match, as did  5th seeds (and reunion team) Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic.

Today, quarterfinal play begins, and--lucky me--the match I really want to see is the day match, featuring Elise Mertens and 4th seed Elina Svitolina. Mertens has become a serving machine, and throughout this tournament, her serving has been consistently excellent, which partly explains why she's in the quarterfinals (though, in the round of 16, she played someone else with a very good serve--Petra Martic). I'm expecting a very good match.

The night session features Carla Suarez Navarro and 2nd seed Caroline Wozniacki.

Here is the complete singles quarterfinal lineup:

Simona Halep (1) vs. Karolina Pliskova (6)
Angelique Kerber (21) vs. Madison Keys (17)
Elise Mertens vs. Elina Svitolina (4)
Carla Suarez Navarro vs. Carolina Wozniacki (2)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Refusing to drag their injured feet, Halep and Davis put on a show we won't forget

Coach? Check. Physio? Check. Podiatrist??

Tennis players probably have the most beaten up feet of any athletes. They pound their feet for hours, often on hard courts. They slide, they run forward, they run sideways. Their ankles are always vulnerable, and blisters are always just a sock thread away. Yesterday, world number 1 Simona Halep and world number 76 Lauren Davis played for three hours and 44 minutes ( the third set lasted two hours and 22 minutes) in the Australian heat, and both had to deal with foot issues. Halep was victorious--4-6, 6-4, 15-13.

Halep had injured her ankle in her first round match against Destanee Aiava, and there had been talk that she might have to withdraw from the tournament. But she went on to defeat Genie Bouchard in the second round, and then--still dealing with a compromised ankle--had to face Davis. Don't let the ranking fool you--Davis, when she's really on her game, is capable of going into hitting machine mode, and she was very much on her game yesterday.

Doing everything Halep did--and often better--the five-foot-two Davis was relentless, both physically and mentally. As the third set dragged on, one couldn't help but think of the Australian Open masterpiece that Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova created in 2011. Schiavone showed up with a groin injury that had kept her out of Hopman Cup play, and Kuznetsova's feet were covered with blisters. They played--marvelously--for four hours and 44 minutes, and Schiavone won it, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14. The pair would go on to more or less repeat this performance at the French Open four years later, when they played for "only" three hours and 49 minutes. Again, Schiavone won--6-7, 7-5, 10-8.

Halep and Davis created plenty of their own drama. It was enough that an injured world number 1 was playing in the heat against a player who just would not let up. In the third set, it was obvious that both women were suffering, but they kept going. At one point, it appeared that Davis might be cramping, but she wasn't--she was having trouble moving because her toenail had fallen off. More foot issues. She would take a couple of medical timeouts for both feet during this very long set.

Halep had other third set issues. She served for the match three times and was broken three times. In the 22nd game, Davis held three match points on Halep's serve, but was unable to convert them. Would it ever end?

It did, as Davis's energy and resolve finally wore down. And when it was over, Halep said she felt that her muscles were gone, and--when asked about her ankle, said that she didn't know how her ankle was because "I don't feel it anymore."

Next for Halep will be big-hitting Naomi Osaka, who defeated Australian hope Ash Barty.

In third round news, 2016 champoion Angie Kerber soundly defeated Maria Sharapova in straight sets. I expected Kerber to win, but was sad to learn that she had pretty much blown Sharapova off the court. But the season is young, and the Russian has time to pull her game together.

Also, Hsieh Su-wei did it again. After taking out 3rd seed Garbine Muguruza in the second round, she defeated 26th seed Aga Radwanska yesterday. Lucky loser Bernarda Pera's run came to an end at the hands of Barbora Strycova, Karolina Pliskova--playing under the radar, the way she likes it--defeated Lucie Safarova, Madison Keys defeated Ana Bogdan, and Caroline Garcia defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

My pick for the next match to watch is the quarterfinal contest featuring Petra Martic and Elise Mertens. Both women are playing extremely well, and this has the potential to be an exceptional match.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Call it what it is--the norm

Every time a major rolls around, the dialogue surrounding its early days is similar: "Seeds out early!," "Top seeds shocked!," "Early round upsets!" Well, it's no longer a shock--it's just the way things are. Why? My best guess is that the majors are much bigger deals than they used to be (they were always important, but now they've become measuring sticks for all kinds of ridiculous stats), and the pressure on top players is greater than it was several years ago.

There are other factors. The physical intensity of the game has created more injuries, making top players vulnerable, sometimes before they even step onto the court. Also, there's a devil-may-care attitude among many of the younger (or even veteran) players. These players tend to go all-out at majors, knowing they can go out early, but also knowing they can pull off upsets. Yesterday's upset of Garbine Muguruza combined both theories: The 3rd seed has been quite physically fragile lately, and her opponent, Hsieh Su-wei, brought her best game.

One could say that the ultimate manifestation of this shift was Alona Ostapenko's French Open victory. Ostapenko was not only unseeded--she had never won a WTA tournament. A lot of factors went into Ostapenko's breakthrough, but one of the major ones was the Latvian player's attitude. It was though she was wearing Melanie Oudin's Believe shoes while also sporting a serial amnesia approach to each match. It worked.

What can be done to stop so many early upsets (and is it really that bad that we have them?)? Many have called for shortening the season even more in order to decrease injury.

 I wonder whether a strong emphasis on mental strength is part of the answer. Players who have worked with sports psychologists have usually seen significant benefits. Unfortunately, there are still players (Aga Radwanska, CoCo Vandeweghe) who disdain the idea of working with a sports psychologist. An increase in mind-body activities such as yoga and tai chi would also be helpful. Playing sports does make a person (especially a woman) psychologically stronger, but sometimes a psychological boost is needed to improve sports performance.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Bye bye, Miss American Pie

5th seed and 2017 runner-up Venus Williams, 10th seed CoCo Vandeweghe, 13th seed Sloane Stephens, Irina Falconi, Sofia Kenin, Jennifer Brady, Alison Riske, Taylor Townsend, CiCi Bellis--these women are all out of the Australian Open, defeated in the first round. Of the ten women from the USA who competed yesterday, only one--Nicole Gibbs--advanced to the second round.

The early departure of so many women from the USA was dramatic, especially considering that three of them were seeded rather high, and two of them were considered by some to be contenders for the title. Williams had the bad luck to draw Belinda Bencic, who has obviously fully recovered from surgery and rehab.

Bencic, the spiritual little sister of Martina Hingis (and formerly coached by Hingis's coach and real-life mother, Melanie Molitor) looked just wonderful as she neutralized much of Williams's estimable game. Bencic looks physically stronger now, which is going to come in handy as she navigates her way back through the rankings.

As for Vandeweghe and Stephens--they didn't really need opponents; they were fully skilled in defeating themselves. Vandeweghe, who apparently does not learn from experience, was passive aggressive, argumentative and inappropriate. But not to take anything away from her opponent, Timea Babos. Babos, unfortunately, is an inconsistent player, but she's "on," she's a threat to almost anyone. She was on yesterday, and might have won, regardless of Vandeweghe's antics.

Sloane Stephens is just back to "being Sloane." The U.S. Open champion hasn't won a match since she left Flushing Meadows. With Stephens, who knows how long this will last?

The next group of U.S. women to compete in the first round includes Lauren Davis, Madison Brengle, Kristie Ahn, Varvara Lepchenko, Madison Keys, and Shelby Rogers. 17th seed Madison Keys, the U.S. Open runner-up, faces Wang Qiang. Rogers, a big stage player who likes to pull off upsets, will play Mijana Lucic-Baroni. If Lucic-Baroni brings her best (always a question these days), this could be a really good match.

In other Australian Open news: Long-time Aussie star Sam Stosur was defeated in the opening round by Monica Puig, former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova was defeated by Irina-Camelia Begu, and former runner-up Dominika Cibulkova lost to Kaia Kanepi.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Defending champion absent, but there are plenty of contenders in Melbourne

It's always sad when a defending champion cannot be at a major, but such is this case with the Australian Open and the unfortunate absence of Serena Williams. It's also quite sad that two-time champion Vika Azarenka cannot be there. However, there are still a lot of stories to be played out in the Australian heat.

World number 1 Simona Halep has undergone a kind of Melbourne curse the last couple of years, so all eyes will be on her from the moment she steps onto a court for first round competition. Halep was defeated in straight sets in the opening round last year by Shelby Rogers, and in 2016, she was taken out in the first round, also in straight sets, by Zhang Shuai. That turned out to be a career-defining moment for Zhang, but it must have been a real drag for Halep.

In this year's first round, Halep plays young Australian wild card Destanee Aiava. Aiava is talented, and she'll have the crowd behind her, so it won't be a walk in the park for Halep. However, at this point, probably no Melbourne first round would be a walk in the park for the Romanian. If she sticks around, she could be headed toward a quarterfinal clash with Karolina Pliskova, who can also be considered a contender for the title, despite the fact that she has yet to win a major.

Speaking of first rounds--the one that's getting all the buzz is the one that will be played by Venus Williams and Belinda Bencic. Bencic is back and looking like her "old" self, and Williams couldn't have asked for much worse in a first round draw.

The first round that's also a "must watch" (meaning--if it isn't in the middle of the night) for me is the one that features Aleks Krunic and Anett Kontaveit I'm also very interested in the contest between Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka. The crowd will, of course, go crazy for Barty--as well they should--but if anyone won't make it easy for her, it's the young Belarusian.

But I digress. Who else besides Halep and Pliskova will try to put together a big story at the Australian Open? How about 2016 champion Angie Kerber, who--since the beginning of this season--has looked more like herself than she did throughout 2017? Or Garbine Muguruza, who has already retired from two events in 2018?

Those retirements (one was a walkover, to be accurate), in my opinion, don't fare well for Muguruza's success in the brutal conditions that generally accompany the Australian Open, especially considering that cramping was a reason for one of them. Also, she's likely to meet Kerber in the round of 16, and that could be the end of her run. On the other hand, no one is more apt to smoothly crush a series of opponents when we least expect her to than the Spaniard.

Caroline Wozniacki could have a deep run, and could meet Alona Ostapenko in the quarterfinals. Ostapenko's game has been filled with errors and double faults so far, but far be it from me to predict the fate of the player Todd Spiker has so aptly named Latvian Thunder. She could go out in the first round, she could win the Australian Open. So far, though, she isn't looking that sharp.

These days, Venus Williams is always a potential quarterfinalist or beyond, but again, she has that tricky first round against Bencic. Jo Konta is again a contender, and Caroline Garcia--if she's healthy after her bout with the heat a couple of weeks ago--could go very deep into the tournament. The same can be said of Julia Goerges (who knew I'd be saying that?--but it sounds really good).

And then there's the question: Is this Elina Svitolina's time? I wouldn't be surprised to see the Ukrainian reach the final. I also wouldn't be surprised to see CoCo Vandeweghe reach the final. Vandeweghe's fitness (there was a time when I would never, ever say that), combined with her newly finessed game and big hitting set her up to be a genuine threat in Melbourne.

The ability to withstand the heat and all that it entails is a major factor in determining who can get through seven matches at the Australian Open. Before the tournament directors replaced the rebound ace surface, it was anyone's guess who would be taken out with an ankle injury, but that worry is behind us now.

Other players to watch: Madison Keys, Anastasija Sevastova, 2006 champion Maria Sharapova, former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, Shelby Rogers, Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The lure--and the mystery--of the big stage

I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause
Lady GaGa et al

The "big stage player," as far as I can tell, is a relatively new phenomenon. Let me be clear about what a "big stage" player is, in this context: It's not an elite player like Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, who loves playing in the biggest events; rather, it's a player who could be called "good" or "very good" who performs at her best at majors. Big stage players, for the most part, create an air of mystery that is usually never solved by fans or observers.

The queen of big stage players is Russia's Ekaterina Makarova. There was a time when one scarcely heard about Makarova unless she was participating in the Australian Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Gradually, she began to focus more on her performance in other events (consequently--or coincidentally, I have no idea which--her performances in majors decreased in intensity). 

Makarova, an outstanding doubles player who has won three majors in doubles one and one in mixed doubles (and has been a finalist an equal number of times), has also won the WTA Championships, and she owns an Olympic gold medal. Makarova is also a very fine, but inconsistent, singles player. She has reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and the fourth round of the French Open (twice). The Russian has been ranked as high as number 8 in the world, yet she has won only three WTA singles titles.

The quirkiest big stage player is Tsvetana Pironkova, though her big stage days appear to be over. The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, as she is known on this blog, had a bit of a specialty, for a while, and that specialty was going after Venus Williams at majors. In 2006, she defeated Williams in the first round of the Australian Open. That victory earned a "fluke" label which later had to be peeled off. 

In 2010, Pironkova, with her tricky serves and forehand slices, defeated five-time Wimbledon champion and 2nd seed Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. The next year, she again defeated Williams at Wimbledon, this time in the round of 16, and--once again--with a score of 6-2, 6-3. Surely, the saga of Pironkova and Williams is one of the strangest in all of WTA history. (One final note: Guess who beat the Bulgarian in the semifinals of her very first WTA tournament? Uh huh.)

Petra Martic also holds membership in this group. Last year, returning from a serious back injury layoff, Martic reached the round of 16 at both the French Open and Wimbledon. She also reached the French Open round of 16 in 2012 and she reached the 3rd round at Wimbledon the next year. Martic, however, has yet to win a WTA title.

A recent entry into the big stage club is Charleston native Shelby Rogers. Rogers began playing in major main draws in 2015. She has reached the third round of the U.S. Open twice, the third round of Wimbledon, and the quarterfinals of the French Open. That French Open run was dramatic; Rogers defeated clay expert Irina-Camelia Begu, Petra Kvitova (with a second set bagel), Elena Vesnina, and Karolina Pliskova. 

Rogers also got off to a roaring start last year when she took current world number 1 Simona Halep out of the Australian Open in the first round. She has yet to win a tour title, so Rogers is clearly in the "big stage" group--for now.

But that doesn't mean she has to stay there. Just ask Sloane Stephens, who spent the first part of her WTA career as a big stage performer who frustrated fans at every turn in regular tour events. Stephens stunned the tennis world in 2013 when she defeated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, a tournament Williams had won five times. Stephens would go on to reach the fourth round of the French Open four times and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon (2013).

Meanwhile, Stephens would go one step forward and two steps back, sometimes appearing that she wasn't even that interested in the game. She did win some titles, though, most notably in Charleston in 2016. In August of that year, she ended her season early because of a right foot stress fracture. She had surgery in January 0f 2017, and did not return to the tour until grass season. 

It was the North American hard court season that served as the scene of Sloane Stephens' stunning comeback from injury. Unseeded, she advanced to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati. She then re-entered the top 100, and--to commemorate the occasion--won the U.S. Open. Stephens performed poorly after that, even losing both of her singles rubbers in the Fed Cup final. Only time will tell how consistent Sloane Stephens will be as a player, but for now, she's lost her membership in the big stage club.