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.