Sunday, May 27, 2018

What do Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Alona Ostapenko have in common?

photo by Daniel Ward
Alona Ostapenko's first-round loss at the French Open was, quite obviously, connected to her poor serving performance. Also, in her press conference, she revealed that she'd experienced very negative feelings from the moment she woke up on Sunday.

Recently, in a New York Times article, Christopher Clarey reported that Ostapenko's mother said that, at one time, serving was one of her daughter's strengths. At age 15, Ostapenko had to have shoulder surgery, which caused her to change her service motion. Her serve then deteriorated.

But that's just part of the story. Jelena Jakovleva went on to say that “It’s something mental probably now. The pain is gone, but she cannot find the right motion.”

And it's not a new story. Elena Dementieva, who--sadly--became known for her terrible serve, once had a good serve, too, but after shoulder surgery, it never returned. It was painful to watch the very talented Russian struggle so much when serving.

And then there's Maria Sharapova. Sharapova played for months with a torn rotator cuff because her doctors were somehow incapable of reading an X-ray or MRI. When she finally had surgery, the tear was really bad. Rehab failed, and had to be repeated. 

That's a lot of trauma, even for someone as tough as Sharapova. Once the holder of one of the best second serves on the tour, post-surgery, the Russian couldn't find a second serve. She double-faulted a great deal, and when her first serve went in, it frequently wasn't the first serve of the pre-surgery Sharapova. And while the situation has improved, Sharapova is still struggling with her serve.

What are the factors behind this phenomenom? There are two. One has to do with belief. It's possible that Ostapenko and Sharapova no longer believe that they can serve well. It's also possible that they consciously believe that they can serve well, but their unconscious belief is that they will fail.

The second factor is the fact that serving is an action, not a reaction. When we react to something, our instincts take over, and they take over quickly. But serving has nothing to do with reacting; it's a conscious, deliberate action totally within the control of the server. When the reaction "switch" isn't turned on by a stimulus, the player is left with too much time on her hands, and too much temptation to think (or, in the case of an unconscious belief, to fulfill that belief).

What is the solution? I would suggest hypnosis, so that the conscious mind can be bypassed. But there are other interventions that would work, too--structured visualization, relaxation exercises, training in basic meditation techniques, and of course--any possible simplifying of the service motion, in order to hasten the striking of the ball.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

French Open first rounds to watch

clockwise from top: Errani, Begu, Goerges, Siegemund, Cornet (photos by Daniel Ward)

The thing about a major is that the tension begins with the first ball hit. When the first round of the French Open commences on Sunday, there will be several first rounds that could be especially tense:

Angelique Kerber (6) vs. Mona Barthel: Kerber has had a tough time of it since she had her glory year in 2016, when she was number 1 in the world and won two majors plus an Olympic silver medal. Back then, she certainly seemed in place to win at Roland Garros, given her clay court skills. Recently, she has elevated her game again, but it can't be too thrilling for her to learn that her very first opponent will be countrywoman Barthel. It's not that Barthel has done anything in particular lately, but when she's "on," she can be dangerous on a clay court. And you never know when Barthel's "on" switch will be tripped.

Irina-Camelia Begu vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova: Schmiedlova recently, dramatically, resurrected her career. The last thing she needs to face someone like Begu in the first round in Paris. The Romanian player can be quite tricky on clay, and this has the potential to be a really good match.

Garbine Muguruza (3) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: There's nothing like having two former French Open champions meet in the first round. Muguruza won in in 2016, Kuznetsova in 2009. Both are prone toward "going off," and both are outstanding clay court performers. This is the first round match I most want to watch.

Laura Siegemund vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (15): If it weren't for her accident and lengthy rehab, I'd look for the German to go deep into the tournament. She hasn't returned to her deadly form on clay, however, and Vandeweghe has suddenly begun to perform well on it. One way or the other, it will be worth watching.

Julia Goerges (11) vs. Dominika Cibulkova: The German's outstanding form has dropped a bit lately, though I still consider her someone who could do very well in Paris. And while Cibulkova tends to shine on hard courts, she could prove to be a problem if Goerges doesn't arrive in top form.

Alize Cornet (32) vs. Sara Errani: Errani is 4-3 against Cornet in general, but Cornet is 2-1 against the Italian on clay. The outcome of this match probably depends on which Cornet shows up. The Cornet who took out top seed Caroline Garcia in Charleston last month could beat any number of players. The problem is that the Frenchwoman's nerves often don't permit that Cornet to play her game.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A prediction: Someone will win the French Open

carousel in Montmartre

We are now a few days away from my favorite major, and I'm as confused as ever. Last year, the title of my French Open preview post was Who will win the French Open? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps this year's should have been Who will win the French Open? Your guess still means as little as mine does.

Yes, it's always up in the air, last year it was really up in the air, and this year it's floated off into space. As little as two weeks ago, someone asked me which players I thought stood the best chance of winning in Paris, and yesterday--while having this same discussion--I realized that my picks had changed. And they may change again before the week is over.

For one thing, I didn't see this Sharapova coming. Pova's time in Rome has blown the life back into her and we're seeing the fierce fighter of long ago. And then there's Kvitova. I know it's a "fool me once" thing to have a lot of hope for Petra in Paris, but she really is on fire in this clay court season. I cannot count her out.

Also, who knew that Karolina Pliskova was going to take such a liking to clay? I didn't. The first major for the Czech has to come some time, and it's not unreasonable to think it could come at Roland Garros.

I also like Kiki Bertens' chances. Bertens can beat anyone on clay, and her confidence has obviously risen to an all-time high, with her win in Charleston and her runner-up status in Madrid. 

Garbine Muguruza is in a class of her own. The 2015 champion could win it again; she tends to show up at majors as the very best version of herself. I should add, however, that she could also go out in the first or second round. That's our Mugu.

Two players I think will make deep runs but aren't likely to win are defending champion Alona Ostapenko and Serena Williams. Ostapenko still isn't consistent enough, and Williams is really just coming back.

And now I come to the subject of world number 1 Simona Halep, and what a complicated subject that always is. Twice a French Open runner-up, Halep has more to prove than anyone else in the field. On paper, this should be Halep's championship. But this is tennis, and even more significant--this is the French Open.

And of course, this is Simona Halep. Her loss to Elina Svitolina in Rome today wouldn't be such a terrible thing (Svitolina kills in finals) if it weren't for the way she lost. It all happened so fast, and these 0-6, 1-6 sets have become rather common.

Halep is the anti-Ostapenko. Whereas the Latvian player is in the moment--without any regard to what may have just happened--Halep sometimes seems to carry the weight of the entire stadium on her shoulders. Tremendously gifted, the Romanian star can sometimes get in her own way and step out of the flow, allowing an opponent to take over the momentum of the match. Nevetheless, she's a contender to win the 2018 title.

There are several other dangerous players who could, at the least, upset contenders, and who could also wind up at the extreme business end of the tournament. These include Julia Goerges, Daria Kasatkina, Naomi Osaka, Anastasija Sevastova, Elina Svitolina, Angie Kerber, and the two Frenchwomen--Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic.

Goerges and Svitolina, in particular, are to be feared. Goerges is playing the best tennis of her career, and is in highly competitive mode. Svitolina appears to be allergic to majors, but--the tide has to turn some time, and the time may be just a few weeks from now. Her performance in Rome was smooth and confident, and she just doesn't go "off the road," as many other top players are prone to do.

Some of the shine has come off of Kasatkina as of late, and--as for the Frenchies--neither is at her best right now, but Mladenovic uses the crowd the way she uses her racket, and she's a potential threat at any time.

We're very likely to get another first-time French Open champion, and--for that matter--first-time major winner. I love the French Open, no matter what, but it's even more exciting when we have no idea who's going to win it.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Arrivederci, Roberta

Knowing that a player is about to retire doesn’t make it any easier for us to say goodbye. Such is the case with Roberta Vinci, the second of the Four Fighting Italians to leave the tour. Vinci’s farewell took place in Rome today, when she was defeated in the first round by Alex Krunic. But she had been warning us about it for some time.

A spirited purveyor of stylish (my favorite kind) tennis, and a stand-out in both singles and doubles, Vinci knew how to turn her racket into a magic wand. At the very least, she was always entertaining, and at her best—especially in doubles competition—she was lethal.

Vinci’s WTA record is impressive. She won 10 singles titles and 25 doubles titles, five of which were majors, and all of which she won with Sara Errani. Vinci also holds a career Grand Slam in doubles. Her highest singles ranking was number 7 in the world, and she held the number 1 spot in doubles for  a total of 110 weeks.

Vinci also holds the distinction of being the oldest woman on the tour to make her debut in the top 10. The tour’s trend toward success among veterans was reflected nicely by the Italian when she won her biggest singles trophy at the premier tournament in St. Petersburg in 2016.

The five-foot, four-inch Italian made world headlines in 2015 when she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, ending Williams’ quest for the Grand Slam. Vinci was the oldest player to ever reach a major semifinal (and final). She lost the title to fellow Fighting Italian Flavia Pennetta, and ended the year ranked number 15 in the world.

As impressive as all of these achievements are, however, Vinci’s greatest contribution to tennis (in this writer’s opinion) was her absolutely sterling performance in Fed Cup competition. Vinci, Errani, Pennetta, and Francesca Schiavone took Italy to the Fed Cup title in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2013.

For a very long time, Vinci held an astounding record: She won all 18 of her Fed Cup doubles rubbers (playing with nine different partners). She almost retired with a perfect record, too, but in 2015, Errani and Vinci were defeated by Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in the 2015 Fed Cup opening tie. It was a sad moment, but Vinci nevertheless leaves with the longest undefeated streak in the history of Fed Cup.

The Italian's old-school "slice and dice" tennis put the hurt on a lot of players. It was always a joy to watch her play, and especially on a clay court. In every tournament she played, Vinci embodied the "Fighting Italian" spirit.

"I'm really proud of my tennis, myself and my career," Vinci said as she departed the tour. As well she should be. She will be missed.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Helpful advice, or just another version of "Smile!"?

Sometimes, during an ATP match, a commentator will occasionally say something like "He needs to get himself more pumped up." However, during WTA matches, commentators are known to often launch into lengthy monologues about the players' affects. Just recently, in one match, I heard (not all exact quotes) "She needs to show us something," "She never smiles," "She needs to have some expression on her face."

Really? While we do know, from neurological research, that smiling improves one's mood, commentators never suggest that male players do it. Also, during the tense framework of a tennis match, a player may have other needs that have a higher priority than mood improvement. And then there's the subject of individual differences. Some competitors do better if they show some anger and get it out, but some are better off if they simply calm themselves.

Of course, when female players do show emotion, they can easily become targets because they show too much emotion, or because they show the wrong emotion. ATP players can get away with almost any amount of whining and disgruntlement, but WTA players are held to ridiculous "feminine" standards that, of course, reflect the standards of the culture at large.

It's understandable that players who get very down on themselves during a match are going to create talk about their being too negative because they're showing us that they lack belief. That's one thing. But suggesting that a player isn't showing us enough emotion (or showing us "bad" emotion) is presuming that the observer knows what's going on inside a player's mind, or--worse--has some decidedly sexist views.

Many commentators are former players, and may be projecting their own expressive styles onto the players.

Professional tennis is composed of many different types of personalities and emotional styles, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

Aside from their observations of self-punishing behvaviors (and even some of those appear to be less than harmful), those who insist on knowing how players should express themselves on court may have a point. After all, imagine what a fabulous career Chris Evert could have had if only she'd shown some emotion.