Sunday, August 18, 2019

Final thoughts on Cincinnati

Several unexpected things happened this year at the Western and Southern Open, but then--it's the WTA, and it's generally best to expect the unexpected. We weren't expecting Naomi Osaka to retire, though she was wise to do so (Osaka said that she has a high pain tolerance and sometimes plays on when it would be best for her to stop). We also weren't expecting the retirement of Belinda Bencic, which occurred in the first round.

Ever the optimist when it comes to the Spaniard, I didn't think 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza would go out in the first round, but given that she lost to our champion, Madison Keys, the loss doesn't seem as stunning as it might have. Keys played great tennis from the moment she arrived at the tournament.

The bigger surprise was the elimination of defending champion Kiki Bertens, who lost to Venus Williams in the second round. Williams was in especially good form in Cincinnati.

The best surprise was the stunning run of wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova, who made it all the way to the final, and took out four seeded players--three in the top 10--and one up-and-coming young player on her way there. Given Kuznetsova's long injury layoff, no one--including Kuznetsova--was expecting this to happen. The 34-year-old veteran put on quite a show the entire time she was here, and was, of course, her usual entertainingly philosophical self.

It was blazing hot and humid the entire week. Last year, through some weather fluke, it was mild and comfortable, but this year, it was back to normal, but with only one rain delay. The weather prevented me from seeing a few matches I wanted to see (well, I watched them on the monitor), and it frequently caused me to watch only part of a match while I was outside.

Of all the matches I saw--"live" or otherwise--the one that sticks out for me was the third round contest between 9th seed Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari. It was full of twists and turns, with both players going at it as though they were fighting for their very careers. I think everyone who saw it was mesmerized by it. Sakkari won--and though she would go out in the next round against top seed Ash Barty--the Greek player continued to establish herself as someone to watch.

Other players who impressed this week were Sonya Kenin (who continues to impress), Anett Kontaveit, Donna Vekic and, of course, the inimitable Hsieh Su-Wei, who played a memorable match against Naomi Osaka.

Finally, this may have been the "turn the corner" event for Madison Keys, who said that she felt that she had finally put all the elements of her game together this week. She also said that she felt calm, and not putting so much pressure on herself. Her serve was mostly strong, and her movement was superb. She goes into the U.S. Open with a lot of momentum.

The Cincinnati experience is an exciting and fan-friendly one, with almost all of the top WTA and ATP players competing. The grounds are filled with flowers, parking is free, and fans have a wide variety of food and vendor choices. 2019 did not disappoint,

Madison Keys wins Cincinnati title

 

Down 3-5 in both sets, 16th seed Madison Keys overcame wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova to defeat her 7-5, 7-6 and win the Western and Southern Open title this afternoon in Cincinnati. In her previous matches, it was Kuznetsova who came back from a 3-5 deficit, but today, she was unable to stop Keys, who aggression and outstanding service game took her to victory.

 

Keys is now 4-0 against Kuznetsova, who said, after the match: "I think Madison served well, served much better than I did. But still, I had all the chances. Sometimes it goes this way, you know. The game is like this."

"I'm totally Dory on this."  
 
About the upcoming U.S. Open, the Russian veteran said: "I can draw any player in the first round, so wish me luck in the draw."

When asked about her game plan, considering her losing record against Keys, Kuznetsova replied: "Oh, I don't--when I saw I lost to her three times, I won't even remember. Like, this is good about me. I don't remember anything like good or bad...my memory is like Dory from Looking for Nemo. I'm totally Dory on this."

Keys acknowledged that "It was a tough draw from the very start. I really think I’ve played some of my best tennis ever this week." She went on to say, "I think Iwas just really calm…and I kind of dropped dropped the expectations of myself a little bit."     

This is Keys' fifth WTA title, and her first Premier 5 title. She's now back in the top 10 and is definitely a contender for the U.S. Open title. In 2017, she was the runner-up, losing the final to Sloane Stephens.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Keys and Kuznetsova to contest for Cincinnati title


 

It's doubtful that anyone who wasn't throwing darts at a draw sheet picked Madison Keys and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the Cincinnati singles finalists. Well, maybe Keys, though her side of the draw also included world number 1 Naomi Osaka, defending champion and 5th seed Kiki Bertens, 2018 runner-up and 7th seed Simona Halep, and 7th seed Elina Svitolina.

Kuznetsova, on the other hand, got a wild card into the tournament and has been off of the tour quite a bit because of injuries. She is currently ranked number 153 in the world; on paper, she is an unlikely candidate to be one of the last two women standing. In reality, however, she has looked stunning throughout the tournamnent, and has taken out three top 10 players.

This morning, Kuznetsova handily defeated top seed Ash Barty, 6-2, 6-4, after which she presided over a very entertaining press conference in which she talked about the Russian way vs. the Spanish way: Kuznetsova did her early training in Spain, where she learned how to deliver her heavy topspin. "...why Russian people go so well with Spanish tennis," she said, is "because we are, like, really crazy and really go 100% and risk it. Spanish, they put us calmer." She went on to say that, despite that, sometimes she had to play "Russian."

"Everyone has a different mess in their head" 

 

This cultural combination served her well today. Earlier in the week, Kuznetsova said that she likes to think a lot--"sometimes too much." But, she said today, "I learn so much to trust what I feel....Everyone has a different mess in their head." When asked about the possibility of playing Russian-born Sonya Kenin in the final, Kuznetsova said she knew that Kenin was playing really well, and that she "probably has less mess in her head."

Barty referred to Kuznetsova as "a legend in the sport," and said that the Russian "was in control from the get-go." The top seed went on to describe her opponent: "She's not a one-trick pony, and she's better at problem-solving than most."




Kuznetsova will need to do some problem-solving tomorrow because she'll be competing against a woman who has beaten her all three times that they've played. 16th seed Madison Keys, moving superbly around the court all week, defeated Kenin 7-5, 6-4 in a stunning display of shot-making and court coverage.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA
round 1--Anastasija Sevastova (11)
round 2--Dayana Yastremska
round 3--Sloane Stephens (8)
quarterfinals--Karolina Pliskova (3) [2016 champion]
semifinals--Ash Barty (1)

MADISON KEYS
round 1--Garbine Muguruza [2017 champion]
round 2--Daria Kasatkina
round 3--Simona Halep (4)
quarterfinals--Venus Williams
semifinals--Sonya Kenin

Friday, August 16, 2019

Kuznetsova gets past Pliskova to advance to Cincinnati semifinals


 

Probably no one saw it coming, but Svetlana Kuznetsova advanced to the Cincinnati semifinals today with a three-set victory (3-6, 7-6, 6-3) over 3rd seed and 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova. Kuznetsova, who was unable to defend her Citi Open title because of a visa problem, was able to go to Toronto, where she made it to the third round. In Cincinnati, she has defeated 11th seed Anastasija Sevastova, impressive newcomer Dayana Yastremska, 8th seed Sloane Stephens, and Pliskova.

The Russian veteran has had to deal with both a wrist injury and a knee injury this season. She's also had issues with coaching changes, and says that "nothing has been easy." The two-time major champion (U.S. Open, 2004, French Open, 2009) is known for many things--her heavy topspin, strong legs, fair-mindedness and candor, and her tendency to lose matches she "should" win. Today, she looked dominant throughout much of her quarterfinal match, in which she beat one of the best hard court players on the tour.

Kuznetsova, currently ranked number 153 in the world, will next face top seed Ashleigh Barty. Barty defeated Maria Sakkari 5-7, 6-2, 6-0 in today's first quarterfinal. The two have never before played one another.

Another surprise came this afternoon when world number 1 Naomi Osaka retired in the third set of her match against Sonya Kenin. Osaka experienced pain in her knee, but--as of a couple of hours ago--had no idea what was wrong. She said in her press conference that she has a high pain tolerance and so she sometimes keeps playing when she should stop. Today, she stopped right away. Obviously, as the U.S. Open defending champion, Osaka is even more concerned than a player would normally be about an injury. She said she wasn't troubled by the thought of not winning the U.S. Open; rather, she was troubled by the thought of perhaps not playing in it.

Today's last quarterfinal featured Venus Williams and 16th seed Madison Keys. Keys, continuing her excellent form, hit 32 winners and made only 17 unforced errors. She defeated Williams 6-2, 6-3, and will play Kenin in the semifinals.

In doubles, 8th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Andreja Klepac wild cards defeated Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova 7-6, 7-5, and  5th seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Demi Schuurs defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe 7-6, 7-6.

Fascinating quarterfinal lineup in Cincinnati today

 

World number 1 Naomi Osaka takes on Sonya Kenin in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open today. Osaka was put to the test in the third round by the inimitable Hsieh Su-Wei, and Kenin--with only a slight wobble--dominated 7th seed Elina Svitolina in the second night match.

Serving for the match at 4-5 in the second set, Kenin double-faulted, then double-faulted again to get broken. But in what we have now come to see as "the Kenin way," she made a rapid mental recovery and just went on with her business on the court and won the match in a tiebreak. Kenin was in command of the baseline, at times hurling shots into the corner in a Kvitova-like fashion, and she also executed a number of deadly drop shots. Kenin's timing on drop shots is excellent; she knows exactly when to use them.

Simona Halep, struggling with a left foot problem that hampered her signature movement, lost in three sets to Madison Keys, who has been playing exceptionally well in Cincinnati.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Maria Sakkari
Karolina Pliskova (3) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova
Venus Williams vs. Madison Keys (16)
Sonya Kenin vs. Naomi Osaka (2)

 

In doubles, top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova gave a walkover to their quarterfinal opponents, 8th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Andrja Klepac. They will play Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova in the semifinals. The Pliskova sisters, playing with a wild card, upset 3rd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova in the quarterfinals.

In the other semifinal, 5th seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Demi Schuurs will compete against Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Look who's back!

 

It took Svetlana Kuznetsova only 52 minutes to overcome 8th seed Sloane Stephens at the Western & Southern Open today. The Russian veteran totally dominated Stephens, whose first and second serve win percentages for the match were 41 and 30. Kuznetsova is into the quarterfinals of a premiere event for the first time in two years. To get to the third round, Kuznetsova defeated 11th seed Anastasija Sevastova and rising star Dayana Yastremska.

Also winning today were Maria Sakkari and top seed Ash Barty, who was taken to three sets by Anett Kontaveit, who led 5-3 in the third set. 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova defeated qualifier Rebecca Peterson 7-5, 6-4, and Venus Williams defeated Donna Vekic, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Hsieh Su-Wei, known for her creativity, did not disappoint in her match against world number 1 Naomi Osaka. Osaka prevailed, 7-6, 5-7, 6-2, but not until she had been forced through several hoops by her tricky opponent. The stands were packed, the sidewalk was packed, and the adjoining court was occupied by people standing on top of the highest seats so that they could see the action. In my opinion, the best thing to come out of this crowd gathering was that more people got to see the amazing Hsieh cast her spell.

Sakkari wins thrilling battle of intensity and nerves

 

It took her two hours and 43 minutes, and she had to come from a set and 1-4 down. Yet Maria Sakkari emerged the victor in a gritty, intense, sometimes frustrating battle against 9th seed Aryna Sabalenka in the third round of the Western & Southern Open. At times, it seemed that each player was looking into a mirror and fighting herself. Sabalenka saved 20 of 23 break points and double-faulted 17 times. Those stats alone should tell you how "unusual" this match was.

Sabalenka won the first set in a tiebreak, during which Sakkari became somewhat undone by an argument she had with the chair umpire. The Greek player went on to win the second set, and the third set was an drama unto itself. The seventh game of that set, in fact, was as good a microcosm of the match as one could have hoped for. Sabalenka served at 3-4, and--after multiple deuces--Sakkari broke on her sixth break point.

After that break, the Greek player went down 0-40 on her own serve, then saved four break points. She then broke Sabalenka again, and successfully served for the match.



It was exhausting to watch this highly entertaining match; I can only imagine what it was like to play it. Sakkari told us, after, "I never thought I was gonna lose this match." She said she was aware, during the match, that there were a lot of break points being contested, but she didn't know how many until after the match, when she saw the stats.

Sakkari and Sabalenka have played doubles together, but they had never before played each other in singles. 


Sakkari's plan for this evening is to do a lot of physical recovery, then to do something (perhaps a TV show) "that is nothing to do with tennis." Her next opponent is Ash Barty.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Osaka, Barty and Pliskova advance in Cincinnati



The contest for the top ranking in the world is still on. The three women who could leave Cincinnati as number 1--Naomi Osaka (the current number 1), Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova all advanced today at the Western & Southern Open. Barty and Pliskova both won in straight sets; Osaka was taken to a third set by Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who had to get treatment for her left knee during the match.

Top seed Barty defeated Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-1. The first set was competitive, but in the second, Sharapova became too error-prone to give Barty much trouble. In her press conference, the Russian star appeared world-weary, and was obviously troubled by what had occurred. She said that she couldn't account for the lapse, but guessed that part of the problem may have been that this was her first daytime match.

Sharapova committed six double faults, a phenomenon that has rarely let up since her last shoulder surgery. She did report, however, that she felt very good physically. She also said that she was not looking for a coach at this time.

Someone commented that Sharapova's many injuries and episodes of starting over "seems like four lifetimes." "It feels," Sharapova responded, "like twenty."

Last year's runner-up, Simona Halep, started today's center court play with a three-set victory over Ekaterina Alexandrova. Halep is still dealing with the foot injury that took her out of the Rogers Cup last week. Her next opponent will be Madison Keys, who has now beaten both 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza and a somewhat resurgent Daria Kasatkina. 



Anett Kontaveit won a very entertaining match against Iga Swiatek, and her reward will be to play Ash Barty. Aryna Sabalenka is back on the upswing (she looked really good here last year, too), and in the third round, she'll face Maria Sakkari, who defeated Petra Kvitova last night. Venus Williams may have her hands full with Donna Vekic, who defeated Vika Azarenka in straight sets. And Karolina Pliskova will play Rebecca Peterson.

Other winners today were Elina Svitolina, Hsieh Su-Wei, Sonya Kenin, and Sveta Kuznetsova. The Russian has defeated both Anastasija Sevastova and Dayana Yastremska. Kenin will play Elina Svitolina, whom she defeated in Toronto, in the third round.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Defending champion Bertens out of Cincinnati

Kiki Bertens, the 2018 Western & Southern Open champion, lost to Venus Williams today in the 2nd round of play in Cincinnati. Williams defeated 5th seed Bertens 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. Not long after that match ended, 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza was defeated, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, by Madison Keys.

There are still a few former champions left in the draw. 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova, seeded 3rd, has yet to play her second round match. Also yet to play is Serena Williams, who won the event in 2014 and 2015. 2011 champion Maria Sharapova won her opening round match against Alison Riske last night.

2016 runner-up Angie Kerber was also defeated today--by Anett Kontaveit. Belinda Bencic retired in the second set of her match against Vika Azarenka; Bencic sustained a left foot injury.

In doubles, the 6th-seeded Chan sisters went out to the comeback team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe. The Chans aren't the only sisters on the doubles court in Cincinnati: The Pliskova sisters are here, too, and they won their opening match yesterday.

The weather today was very warm and humid (yesterday was mild and pleasant), with the sun coming out every now and then. Rain was expected today, but--with the exception of a light, brief sprinkle--there was none.

Monday, August 12, 2019

"It was not a secret"--top players meet the media in Cincinnati

Defending champion Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
The top seeds at the Western & Southern Open met with the tennis media today to talk about their prospects in Cincinnati, their health, their mental strategies, their training, their time off--and Bianca Andreescu.

Simona Halep started the proceedings, not surprisingly, by answering questions about her Wimbledon victory. In discussing what led to her triumph, she said: "I think the relaxation after winning the French Open" was a factor in her feeling less pressure, and "I felt the grass, and I never did before." Halep said that it wasn't really any one ingredient that took her to the Wimbledon title, but rather, it was a process: "It was not a secret."

Halep was the runner-up last year; she lost to Kiki Bertens in the final. In 2017, she lost in the final to Garbine Muguruza, and in 2015, she lost to Serena Williams in the final.

Sloane Stephens talked a bit about her "bumpy" season, and told us that "Being in North America is easier than being in Europe and struggling." She also discussed how she has learned to block out (and in some cases, literally block) a lot of negative social media material.

Next was world number 1 Naomi Osaka, who talked about the fact that she has never done well in Cincinnati. When asked why, she deadpanned: "The draw." She added, however, that she didn't really understand why she hasn't done well because "the conditions are perfect for me." And then she also added: "I'm just here for a good time."

Osaka talked quite a bit about her tendency to overthink just about everything on the tennis court, and how that overthinking prevents her from playing instinctively. The world number 1 is working on this issue, she says, by going out of her way to develop interests outside of tennis. "I want to broaden my mind."

Ash Barty (former world number 1) said that she took a couple of weeks off after winning the French Open ("which no one expected") and just hung out with her family and her dogs.

She also talked about her doubles partnership with Vika Azarenka. Last year, they practiced together, and at that time, Azarenka told her that if she ever needed a doubles partner, to let her know. At the time, Barty was playing with Coco Vandeweghe, and intended to keep doing so, but when Vandeweghe sustained a serious injury, Barty contacted Azarenka, who was free.

Asked about how she developed her extraordinarily good attitude about tennis (and everything else), Barty said that she felt fortunate, in that everyone in her family modeled positive attitude for her, and that she has always been surrounded by people with good attitudes.

Elina Svitolina addressed questions about her active social media life, and said that she genuinely enjoys interacting with fans, especially since most of them cannot attend tournaments. Like Stephens, she has learned to block and ignore negative social media content.

Svitolina also talked about how she has had to change her training regimen in order to allow more time for recovery, especially for her knee and her back. If one of them goes out, it's likely like that the other will give her trouble, also.

Petra Kvitova is still dealing with her injury. Her left forearm continues to swell at times, and she isn't sure why, though one of the current theories is that scar tissue is causing the inflammation. But, she acknowledged, the swelling could also be related in some way to her hand, which has never completely healed. "I'm fine," she noted. "Nothing can be as bad as my hand injury. I'm okay; it will heal."

Defending champion Kiki Bertens, who played the season's longest match (3 hours and 28 minutes) in Toronto against eventual champion Bianca Andreescu, was philosophical about that match, saying that she had played well, and praising Andreescu's game.

There was a discussion of Bertens' adaptation to having become an elite player, and not just a clay specialist. "I think I'm handling it different," she said, "but I can still handle it better. She said it was still a bit difficult to visit The Netherlands because now, she's famous, but it helps that her countrywomen and -men are "kind of quiet," and they allow her to just live her life when she's home.

The dry wit of Karolina Pliskova never disappoints. When the 2016 champion was asked how she felt about being in Cincinnati, she said she felt good, and, "Of course, there's no Andreescu in the first round."

Pliskova said that she felt confident; after all, this is her favorite part of the tennis season. When asked about her ability to always remain calm on the court, she said that remaining calm was part of her personality, that she likes to enjoy what she does, and "I just do my job--game, set, match, do the Cabbage Patch!"

Sunday, July 14, 2019

My Wimbledon top 10




Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 Wimbledon happenings:

10. Ukraine rising: For only the second time, a Ukrainian girl won the junior singles championship (Kateryna Bondarenko won it in 2004). Unseeded Daria Snigur, playing in her last junior match, defeated 10th seed Alexa Noel 6-4, 6-4. The 17-year-old is coached by Larisa Savchenko, who reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1994.

9. Dutch treat: Aniek Van Koot, unseeded, pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament, defeating doubles partner, defending champion and top seed Diede De Groot in the women's wheelchair singles final. It took her almost two hours, but Van Koot beat her countrywoman 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, earning her first Wimbledon singles title. She and De Groot also won the doubles title. De Groot was the defending champion; she won the title last year with Yui Kamiji.

8. Didn't you win this once?: Defending champion Angie Kerber was upset in the second round by unseeded Lauren Davis, a player who sometimes tends to do well on the big stage. 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza was upset in straight sets in the first round by qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia. 

7. Cracking heads and taking names: Though she lost the magic when the final rolled around, Alona Ostapenko--the real Alona Ostapenko--made an appearance at this event in mixed doubles. Ostapenko lost in the first round in both singles and doubles, but with partner Robert Lindstedt, she lit up the court, showing all the brilliance she displayed in her 2017 French Open run. The biggest shock? Her serve was on fire! There was, of course, plenty of drama; on two occasions, the Latvian star's fiery serves hit Lindstedt in the head. It was a groin injury that did him in, however. Hampered in the semifinals, his condition became worse in the final. As for Ostapenko, in the final, she went right back to serving double faults and sticking volleys into the net. But for a while, we got to see the Ostapenko who dazzles. (Please come back soon.)

6. Don't look now, but there's a Czech behind you: Isn't there always? Unseeded Karolina Muchova took out the likes of Alex Krunic, 20th seed Anett Kontaviet and 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova and reached the quarterfinals. Her run was ended by Elina Svitolina, but she played some of the most inspired tennis I saw during the event. And this came on the heels of countrywoman Marketa Vondrousova's brilliant run to the French Open final. The depth of Czech tennis just continues to impress.

5. Mixed double: Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig won the French Open mixed doubles title, so why not win Wimbledon, too? The pair skillfully ran through the field in London, defeating Alona Ostapenko and Robert Lindstedt in the final.

4. There's a reason they're called "legends": This isn't the shot of the tournament--there are too many amazing shots here to single just one out.




3. Forget the Pimm's--we want Coco: There was plenty of buzz about Coco Gauff before the tournament, but during the first week of Wimbledon, people got to see what that buzz was about. 15-year-old Gauff began her campaign by knocking out the top qualifying seed--the talented Aliona Bolsova. Gauff won her next two qualifying matches, and then began her main draw campaign by beating her idol, Venus Williams, in straight sets. She then beat Magda Rybarikova and a very tough Polona Hercog. Gauff, not surprisingly, lost in straight sets to Simona Halep in the round of 16, but she left London with plenty of which to be proud.

2. Better together: First, see number 6. The inimitable Barbora Strycova reached the semifinals in singles, a first for the Czech veteran, by taking out--among others---Lesia Tsurenko, 4th seed Kiki Bertens, Elise Mertens, and Jo Konta. She was stopped by Serena Williams, but it was an amazing run, surpassed only by her run to the doubles final.

Strycova and Hsieh Su-Wei--two of the WTA's most beloved cult figures--are even better as a team. In the semifinals, the 3rd seeds beat the top-seeded team of Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, then went on to beat 4th seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Xu Yifan (the team that took out defending champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova) in the final. Strycova and Hsieh did not drop a single set throughout the tournament. Strycova is now ranked number 1 in the world in doubles.

This is Strycova's first major doubles title. Hsieh won Wimbledon, with Peng Shuai, in 2013. She and Peng also hold a French Open title.

1. My brilliant career: Simona Halep likes to play on clay. She has time to set up her points, and she can slide with the best of them. Too smart to take on the complications of learning to be a grass court player, Halep--instead--made a decision to improve her serve, and to use her considerable talents to her advantage on grass. It was a good decision. During her stay in London, she took out the likes of Vika Azarenka, teen sensation Coco Gauff and 8th seed Elina Svitolina.

But the real test came in the final, when Halep faced seven-time champion Serena Williams, who held a 10-1 record against the Romanian star. This was Halep's fifth major final; of the previous four, she had won only one--the 2018 French Open. To say there was pressure is to understate the importance of the occasion. But if ever anyone were up to the pressure, that person would be Simona Halep. The picture of controlled aggression, Halep used her mighty legs to pull Williams back and forth across the court like in those long rallies that the Romanian loves.

Both her forehand and her backhand were on fire, and Halep's serve was the best it has ever been. The only unforced errors she made occurred in the first set, and there were only three of them. It was a clean, inspired, utterly dominant performance, and it was all over in under an hour. Halep, much like the defense-loving Angie Kerber before her, saw what needed fixing and set about fixing it.

As for Serena, she hasn't won a major since she took home the trophy in Australia in 2017, but she's been to three major finals since then, despite having to deal with injury. There's every reason to believe she'll continue to be in a position to attain what, so far, has been an elusive 24th major singles title. Her next opportunity, of course, will be in Flushing Meadows, where she hasn't won the title since 2014.  

In the meantime, Simona Halep--who has now triumphed on both clay and grass, and whose hard court skills are well known--takes home more than a replica of the Venus Rosewater dish. She also leaves with a confidence that is probably not like any she has ever had before.   

Saturday, July 13, 2019

London calling: Si-mo-na!


photo by Diane Elayne Dees

Speed has never been accepted as a "legitimate" tennis "weapon," but perhaps, after today, there will be some re-thinking on that subject. World number 7 Simona Halep, throughout her Wimbledon final today, looked like the subject of one of those multiple-exposure photos we so enjoy seeing. Wherever she needed to be, she was there. And she was there with some absolutely wicked cross-court shots and passing shots.

Her opponent, seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, was undoubtedly prepared for Halep's speed and her outstanding defensive skills. After all, she had played the Romanian star many times--and beaten her in all but one of their ten matches.

What she may not have been prepared for was Halep's laser-like accuracy. Finding lines and angles like a Geometry Superhero (or Petra Kvitova when she won her Wimbledon championships), Halep simultaneously put on a show of athleticism and a clinic of baseline tennis. She allowed her opponent only one break opportunity, and Williams failed to break her.

After she won the first set 6-2, commentator John McEnroe remarked, "You can't keep this up, sorry." But Simona could keep it up. And she did. In fact, in the second set (in which she made no unforced errors), she looked positively dangerous at every move. Halep won that set 6-2, also.

Halep finished the 56-minute match with a first serve win percentage of 83 and a total of three unforced errors, the lowest number of unforced errors ever made by a woman in a singles final. She broke Williams four times (out of five opportunities), and hit only thirteen winners, but they were beauties, both forehand and backhand.

“I’m very sure it was the best match of my life.”

There are, to this day, no grass courts in Romania, where Halep still trains. The Romanian grew up playing on clay courts; she likes to take her time and she likes to slide. But she was determined to learn--not how to play "grass court tennis"--but rather, how to interpret her game on the grass, and she accomplished that goal. She made Serena repeatedly run side to side, forcing her into the kind of longer rallies that are Halep's bread and butter.

When Simona Halep walked out to the balcony of the All England Club and held up the Venus Rosewater dish, she was greeted by cheers of "Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na!' as Romanians (and, I bet, some others) chanted the words that have distinguished Halep as a rare female athlete with a rock star presence in her native land. Halep is the first Romanian to win Wimbledon.

Whether you are a tennis player, a musician, a poet, or anyone creating anything, there is indeed a "zone" available to you, and when you're in it, time stops, and you are one with the beloved activity. Simona Halep, on one of the most important days of her tennis career, found the zone, and the zone embraced her.

Friday, July 12, 2019

She's (drumroll, please) back!




It was the forehands. The backhands. The volleys. And--wait for it--the serves. Alona Ostapenko, who has shone throughout her mixed doubles competition at Wimbledon, reached 2017 French Open levels today, playing brilliantly with partner Robert Lindstedt to defeat Yang Zhaoxuan and Matwe Middlekoop to advance to the mixed doubles final.

Where has this Alona been? Ostapenko has been quite open about her struggle to find "2017 Alona" again, and who knew that she was hanging out with Robert Lindstedt, ready to receive her wayward half and kick some ass in mixed doubles.

Maybe it was the security of having a partner. Maybe it was the charm of the venue where Ostapenko reached the semifinals in singles right after she won the French Open. Maybe it was sight of the green lawns. Or maybe it was just time.

The consistently double-faulting singles player known as Alona Ostapenko changed her persona into a big-serving threat for the mixed doubles competition. Today, she served for both sets and ended both sets by hitting an ace (and serving out the final game at love). She was on fire with both her forehand and backhand, and excellent at the net.

Twice during mixed doubles competition, Ostapenko has hit her fiery serves right into the head of her partner, yet it is Ostapenko herself who appears to have had her brain scrambled--in the very best way.

Lindstedt sustained a groin injury during today's match, so here's hoping that a day of rest will take care of that.

Also advancing to the mixed doubles final were 8th seeds Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig. They defeated 5th seeds Kveta Peschke and Wesley Koolhof.

There were two big upsets in women's doubles today. Top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic went out in straight sets to 3rd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova, and defending champions and 2nd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova lost to 4th seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Xu Yifan.

Of the four finalists, only Hsieh has won a major.

In wheelchair singles, top seed and defending champion Diede De Groot advanced to the final with a straight set win over Kgothatso Montjane. And Aniek Van Koot upset 2nd seed Yui Kamiji in straight sets. De Groot and Van Koot, the top seeds, also advanced to the doubles final, in which they will play 2nd seeds Marjolein Buis and Giulia Capocci.

In juniors, top seed Emma Navarro of the USA was upset in the quarterfinals by 6th seed Natsumi Kawaguchi.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Down to two: It's the seven-time champion against Si-mo-na!




A not-so-casual observer probably expected today's first Wimbledon semifinal to go three sets, or least last a fairly long time. But Simona Halep, like a certain New England Senator, had a plan for that.

Halep, not surprisingly, had been doing some thinking (she's known for that), and she figured out that--with her strong legs, "I can open the court....The court works for me if I play the right tactic." And play it she did, over and over. She sliced and she dropped, going for classic grass court strategies. She also served very well, and with 26 winners and only 15 unforced errors, she defeated Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-3 in just 72 minutes.

Today's match marked the first time that Svitolina had ever reached a major semifinal, so she does have some progress to enjoy. But Halep was at her best, and the talented Ukrainian just couldn't make any headway against her.

The second semifinal went more as one might have predicted. Barbora Strycova, for all her cleverness and agility, couldn't compete against a very in-form Serena Williams. Williams won with 89% of her first serves, and she won 81% of her net approaches. She also hit 28 winners and made only ten unforced errors.

On Saturday, Williams will play her eleventh Wimbledon singles final. So far, she has lost only three, to Maria Sharapova (2004), to Venus Williams (2008) and to Angie Kerber (2018). It will be Halep's first Wimbledon final.

Paths to the final:

SERENA WILLIAMS (11)

round 1--def.  Giulia Gotto-Monticone (Q)
round 2--def. Kaja Juvan
round 3--def. Julia Goerges (18)
round of 16--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (30)
quarterfinals--def. Alison Riske
semifinals--def. Barbora Strycova

SIMONA HALEP (7)

round 1--def. Aliaksandra Sasnovich
round 2--def. Mihaela Buzarnescu
round 3--def. Victoria Azarenka
round of 16--def. Coco Gauff (Q)
quarterfinals--def. Zhang Shuai
semifinals--def. Elina Svitolina (8)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Melichar continues her Wimbledon streak




Mixed doubles defending champion Nicole Melichar, a very good doubles player from the USA who gets zero media attention, advanced--with partner Bruno Soares--to the third round of mixed doubles at Wimbledon today. She and Soares did it by defeating Serena Williams and Andy Murray 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Melichar was outstanding today in her third round match; she and Soares, the top seeds, will play Yang Zhaoxuan and Matwe Middlekoop in the quarterfinals.

Last year, Melichar won the championship with Alexander Peya.




Meanwhile, the unseeded team of Alona Ostapenko and Robert Lindstedt upset 4th seeds Zhang Shuai and John Peers to advance to the quarterfinals. And for the second time, Ostapenko hit Lindstedt in the head with one of her serves. Someone in the stands probably needs to hold up a sign that says DUCK!, or Lindstedt needs to switch to a more protective piece of headgear.

Also today, Barbora Strycova became the only player to remain in two draws, as she and Hsieh Su-Wei defeated Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets to advance to the semifinals. 2nd seeds and defending champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova also advanced to the semifinals

And then there was this:


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

It's just not tennis without Czechs







Great Britain's hope, Jo Konta, looked for all the world like she was on a solid path to the Wimbledon semifinals, and maybe the final, but then--in today's quarterfinals--she crossed paths with the esteemed professor of all things tennis, from volleying to net etiquette: Barbora Strycova.

The first set was tight, with Strycova winning in a tiebreak. The second set, however, could just as well have been called The Barbora Strycova Tennis Clinic and Variety Show. The Czech veteran appeared to be all over the court at any given time--scooping, volleying, hitting overheads, falling down, getting up, and generally being a full-on nuisance.

The show took its toll on Konta, who won only one game in the set. The only seeded (19) player to be tossed out of the quarterfinals, Konta just simply couldn't deal with Strycova's clean (just nine unforced errors), highly strategic game.




Meanwhile, another very fine grass court player, Alison Riske, was savvy enough to drag seven-time champion Serena Williams to three sets, but ultimately, she couldn't overtake Williams, who hit 19 aces, including an ace at match point ("You know how I like to do it"). It was a fine performance by both players.

Simona Halep had to seriously battle Zhang Shuai in their first set. The Romanian star won that set in a tiebreak, and then overcame her opponent 6-1 in the second set.

Finally, Elina Svitolina defeated a somewhat hampered (with a heavily wrapped thigh, after her three-hour and 17-minute quarterfinal) Karolina Muchova. Had she not been tired and injured, would Muchova have advanced to the semifinals? It's hard to know. Svitolina has been playing extremely well in London. And now, finally, she has reached a major semifinal. It's been a long time coming.

The very talented Muchova has been a breath of fresh air at Wimbledon, and some of us can't wait to see her play again.

In doubles, top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic advanced to the semifinals with a victory over 7th seeds Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke. 6th seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka advanced to the quarterfinals with a win over the Chan sisters, and 3rds seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbara Strycova (there she is again!) also advanced to the quarterfinals.

And in mixed doubles, Serena Williams and Andy Murray advanced to the third round, in which they will face off against top seeds Bruno Soares and Nicole Melichar. Melichar is also the defending champion.

Strycova is not the only Czech player left in the draw. Defending doubles champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are still alive in the doubles draw.

Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Serena Williams (11) vs. Barbara Strycova
Elina Svitolina (8) vs. Simona Halep (7)

With apologies to the Bee Gees--some Czechs are Stayin' Alive!

Well, you can tell by the way I shake your hand
I’m the boss out here, do you understand?
Lob you now, drop you then
Cut you off when you come in

And now it’s alright, it’s okay
Petra will be back to play
Lucie’s gone, Plisko’s out
But Muchova has made us proud

Whether you’re a Barbora or a Katerina
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Konta's not breakin' and everybody's shakin'
We’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

Well now, I get low and I hit high
Can't return my volleys, though you try
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes
I’m a flyin’ Czech and I’ll make you lose

And now it’s alright, it’s okay
Petra will be back to play
Lucie’s gone, Plisko’s out
But Muchova has made us proud

Whether you’re a Barbora or a Katerina
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Konta's not breakin' and everybody's shakin'
We’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin alive

Ain’t goin’ nowhere, Su-Wei please help me
Su-Wei please help me, yeah
Ain't goin' nowhere, Su-Wei please help me, yeah
I'm stayin' alive!



Monday, July 8, 2019

Riske and Muchova pull major upsets at Wimbledon




Unseeded Alison Riske upset world number 1 Ash Barty today at Wimbledon in the round of 16. Riske's tidy, efficient grass court game, executed with poise, was good enough to overcome Barty and to send Riske into the quarterfinals. Riske's 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory included 30 winners and only 15 unforced errors. It shouldn't have come as a complete surprise to anyone: Riske had already taken out 22nd seed Donna Vekic and 13th seed Belinda Bencic.

Riske's run gets really interesting tomorrow when she faces off against seven-time champion Serena Williams. Williams defeated Carla Suarez Navarro today and is going after a 24th major singles title.

Not surprisingly, Simona Halep put a straight-set end to Coco Gauff's dream run. The 7th seed's court geometry skills were too much for the 15-year-old, who was not able to use her serve against Halep the way she did against her other opponents. Gauff also hit twice as many unforced errors as winners.

8th seed Elina Svitloina reached the quarterfinals for the first time. Last year, she went out to Tatjana Maria in the first round. In 2017, she was defeated in the round of 16 by Alona Ostapenko, and in 2016, Svitolina lost to Yaroslava Shvedova in the second round.

Today, the Ukrainian star overcame 24th seed Petra Martic in straight sets.

Also having a great run is Barbora Strycova, who upset 21st seed Elise Mertens today. And having a really good run is Zhang Shuai, who beat talented teenager Dayana Yastremska.

Two-time champion Petra Kvitova hasn't looked as though her injured forearm has been troubling her, but something (besides her opponent) was troubling her today, as she sweat profusely (and didn't wear her headband!) and just kind of went away after her first set against Jo Konta. Down 1-5 in the third set, the Czech star made a comeback, creating some tension, but it wasn't quite enough for her to stop the inevitable. Konta's 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory reflects her re-make of her game, and especially her serve.




And then there were the Karolinas.

I don't know whether we'll see such a show again for the remainder of the week. 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova played unseeded countrywoman Karolina Muchova, and the entire three-hour and 17-minute affair was a combination tennis clinic and high quality piece of entertainment. And even though there was a whole lot going on on other courts, I found it hard to take my eyes off of this match.

Between them, they hit 105 winners, and they both wound up with positive winner-to-unforced error ratios. There just wasn't much between them, and it was only at the last minute that we knew who would advance to the quarterfinals. The match was thrilling and very well-played, and Muchova showed nerves of steel.

In doubles, defending chamnpions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova advanced to the quarterfinals. Last year's runners-up, Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke, also advanced.

Here is the singles draw for the quarterfinals, which includes four unseeded players:

Alison Riske vs. Serena Williams (11)
Barbora Strycova vs. Jo Konta (19)
Elina Svitolina (8) vs. Karolina Muchova
Simona Halep (7) vs. Zhang Shuai

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The almost-annual "I hate middle Sunday" commentary

I hate Wimbledon's middle Sunday. I do recognize that for members of the media, it's a very good thing--a day of rest, doing laundry, etc., and I'm glad for that. But for those of viewing the event on television, it's a drag. Sunday is a day when most people don't have to go to work; they can actually stay home and watch tennis. But there is no tennis.

Also, if there's a day of rain, the tournament is then not one, but two, days behind. And then there's the matter of Manic Monday. Because of the blank middle Sunday, we're stuck with Manic Monday, when viewers have to watch matches that should be played consecutively, but instead, are--to some extent--played at the same time.

I've never understood middle Sunday from a tournament planning viewpoint. But then, there's little about Wimbledon that appeals to me, so just add that to the list.

At least on this middle Sunday, we were able to take a break to watch the USA win the World Cup. (Now can we please name the other one the Men's World Cup?) And for those so inclined, it's also the final day of play at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic.

And on the positive side, it was watching Wimbledon that got me involved with women's professional tennis. I was a very young woman, staying at my uncle's house in London in the summer. The television was on and the tournament was in progress. No one else in the house was watching, but I was captivated by Evonne Goolagong, and was thrilled when she won the championship. 

I have never bought into the myth that Wimbledon is the "greatest" major. First, I don't believe in the "greatest" anything. But if forced to rate the majors, I certainly wouldn't put Wimbledon--with its long history (oh, pardon me--tradition) of sexism and its tendency to get so many things (including the champions' names) wrong. Getting ridiculously dressed up in very hot weather, serving strawberries and cream, and having a royal box does not a great tournament make.

There may be no play today in London, but you can watch these highlights from 1971, when Goolagong won her first Wimbledon title:

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Bertens and Stephens both out of Wimbledon in third round




4th seed Kiki Bertens, whom some picked to go very deep (and even win) in the tournament, failed to get past the third round today when she was outsmarted and outplayed by Barbora Strycova. Strycova out-served noted big server Bertens, and--as if her serving woes weren't enough of a problem--Bertens made repeated errors on her backhand side. Strycova's 7-5, 6-1 victory books her a date with 21st seed Elise Mertens in the round of 16. Mertens defeated Wang Qiang in the third round.




After putting in a lackluster performance in the first half of her match against Sloane Stephens, Jo Konta suddenly appeared to have connected with the thought, "Hey, this is someone I know how to beat!" Indeed, the British star and seed had already defeated the 9th seed three times this year--twice on clay and once on a hard court. In the fifth game of the second set--a game that went on and on--Konta dramatically saved three break points, and that was the beginning of her all-out campaign to win her third round match.


Konta was dominant from then on, winning the match 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Serena Williams defeated Julia Goerges, a semifinalist last year, and Alison Riske continued her superb run by upsetting 13th seed Belinda Bencic.  Also victorious today were Petra Kviotva (def. Magda Linette), Ash Barty (def. Harriet Dart) and Carla Suarez Navarro (def. Lauren Davis).

In doubles, there was an upset today: Danielle Collins and Bethanie Mattek-Sands defeated 5th seeds Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai.

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Alison Riske
Serena Williams (11) vs. Carla Suarez Navarro (30)
Barbora Strycova vs. Elise Mertens (21)
Jo Konta (19) vs. Petra Kvitova (6)
Elina Svitolina (8) vs. Petra Martic (24)
Karolina Muchova vs. Karolina Pliskova (3)
Simona Halep (7) vs. Coco Gauff (Q)
Zhang Shuai vs. Dayana Yastremska

Friday, July 5, 2019

The weather may be warm, but Coco is still the thing




Today's third round Wimbledon match played by qualifier Coco Gauff and the unseeded Polona Hercog was easily turned into a story about 15-year-old prodigy Gauff, but in fact, there was a story on both sides of the net. Two years ago, Polona Hercog missed half a season because of a scapula stress fracture, a left knee injury and a right wrist injury. She's healthy now, but in a career that has spanned thirteen years, she has never reached the fourth round of a major.

She could have erased that stat today, but she played it way too safe. Slicing the ball is a great way to confound an opponent with a change of pace, or to get an opponent to hit a ball into the net, but it isn't a very good way to carry on rallies in which one has multiple opportunities to hit winners. Again and again, Hercog had clear winners on her racket but chose to slice the ball instead. Sometimes her patience paid off and Gauff made an error, but more often, her tactic resulted in missed opportunities.

For her part, Gauff did take risks, especially with some tricky overheads and volleys, and she remained calm and tactical throughout the two-hour and 47-minute match.

Hercog, who served really well for about a set and half and who was controlling the match with the ease of a veteran, held three match points in the second set. Gauff saved two of them, and Hercog double-faulted on the third. From that time on, Hercog was inconsistent, sometimes controlling rallies, and other times, not seeming to know what to do.

It was an error-filled affair. Hercog made 45 unforced errors, and Gauff made 43. Hercog hit ten more winners (34) than Gauff, but she had chances to hit so many more.

Gauff's next opponent is Simona Halep, who isn't going to fall victim to nerves (at least not for too long) the way Hercog did. The 7th seed defeated Vika Azarenka in straight sets.

The clever Hsieh Su-Wei dragged Karolina Pliskova to three sets, but the Tall Cool One prevailed. Elina Svitolina won a three-set match against Maria Sakkari, Karolina Muchova upset Anett Kontaveit, Zhang Shuai upset 14th seed Caroline Wozniacki, and Dayana Yastremska defeated Viktoria Golubic in a match I wish I could have seen.

A match I did see--and very much enjoyed--was the one played by Petra Martic and the unseeded Danielle Collins. Both players served really well, and the match was generally a high-energy affair. Martic was not always high-energy, though, and by the third set, she looked as though she might give out (I wasn't sure if this was mental, physical, or both).

The 24th seed played a cleaner match, though, hitting 20 winners and 26 unforced errors, while her opponent hit 33 winners and 42 unforced errors. It was a high quality match with a lot of momentum changes, and--until the last moment--I couldn't tell who was going to win.

Martic is on a roll. In January, she won her first WTA title (Istanbul), and she recently reached the quarterfinals of the French Open (she lost a very close match to Marketa Vondrousova). Her next Wmbledon opponent will be 8th seed Elina Svitolina.

In doubles, there was one upset today. 12th seeds Kirsten Flipkens and Johanna Larsson were defeated in the second round by Nadiia Kichenok and Abigail Spears.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Another former champion out of Wimbledon

vintage London taxi (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)



Today, defending champion (and 5th seed) Angie Kerber joined Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Garbine Muguruza--all former Wimbledon champions--in making an exit from the tournament. Kerber, looking lost much of the time, and making multiple errors, was defeated by the unseeded Lauren Davis. Davis is a big stage player whom we often don't even notice until a major pops up on the calendar.

The German star can be unpredictable, but today's performance was something I just didn't see coming.

There are still two former champions standing---Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova. Williams had a tough time of it against Slovenian qualifier Kaja Juvan, who played with confidence, and who did her best to take advantage of a sometimes foot-frozen Williams. In the end, it was the champion who came through--2-6, 6-2, 6-4--but Juvan's poise and grit will be remembered.

Davis's win was today's only upset, but what looked, for a while, like an upset in the making was Taylor Townsend's assault on 4th seed Kiki Bertens. Bertens eventually took control of the match and walked away with a 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 victory, showing yet again what a difference it makes to be a champion and to know how champions win.

There were a couple of upsets in doubles today. Maria Sakkari and Ajla Tomljanovic defeated 11th seeds Lucie Hradecka and Andreja Klepack, and Alize Cornet and Petra Martic defeated 14th seeds Veronika Kudermetova and Alona Ostapenko. This also means that Ostapenko was eliminated from competition in the first round of both events.

The singles draw is now getting quite interesting, and some potentially fascinating--perhaps thrilling--matches are scheduled for tomorrow. There are several, but my top picks to watch are: Simona Halep vs. Vika Azarenka,  Elina Svitolina vs. Maria Sakkari, Dayana Yastremska vs. Viktorija Golubic and Petra Martic vs. Danielle Collins.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Sevastova upset by Collins in Wimbledon second round




12th seed Anastasija Sevastova lost her second round Wimbledon match to the unseeded Danielle Collins today. Collins was down a set and 0-3 before staging her comeback. Her 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory gives her 24th seed Petra Martic in the third round.

Meanwhile, the rest of the second round has yet to be played. Tomorrow's agenda includes competition from top seed Ash Barty, champion Serena Williams, two-time champion Petra Kvitova, defending champion Angie Kerber, 18th seed Julia Goerges, 4th seed Kiki Bertens, and 25th seed Amanda Anisimova.

Matches I hope I get to watch include: Elise Mertens vs. Monica Niculescu, Katerina Siniakova vs. Jo Konta and Kiki Mladenovic vs. Petra Kvitova.

So far, three former champions have been beaten, and three (Williams, Kvitova, Kerber) remain in the draw. And so far, nine seeds have been eliminated from competition. Today's seeded casualties, in addition to Sevastova, were 17th seed Madison Keys and 27th seed Sonya Kenin. Keys was defeated in straight sets by Polona Hercog, and Kenin lost to Dayana Yastremska.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Three former champions out of Wimbledon




First it was five-time champion Venus Williams, who lost her first-round Wimbledon match to qualifier Coco Gauff, and now--on day two--two more former champions made their exits.

Both of these stories are sad. 2004 champion Maria Sharapova had to retire in the third set of her match against Pauline Parmentier because of an injury to her left wrist tendon. This marks the first time that the five-time major winner has ever retired during a major. Sharapova came close to reprising her Wimbledon glory in 2011, but was beaten in the final by Petra Kvitova. Now, after major issues with a shoulder injury (and truly terrible doctors), the Russian star just can't seem to catch a break.

Sad in a different way is the first-round defeat of 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza by qualifier Beatriz Haddad-Maia. It was the Brazilian player's second main draw match win on grass, and it was clinched when Muguruza double-faulted on match point. Last year, Muguruza was eliminated in the second round by Alison Van Uytvanck.

I often use the word "mercurial" to describe players like Muguruza, Alona Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens. Ostapenko, in my opinion, needs direction regarding both her wayward serve and her tendency to go for winners too frequently. Stephens, I can't figure out at all. The Spaniard, however, may be the biggest mystery of all. She is a superb athlete, the most fluid of ball-strikers, and--when she's "switched on," a very poised figure on court. But much of the time, Muguruza is just a mess.

Two-time champion Petra Kvitova didn't decide to enter the tournament until the last minute because of a forearm injury. Her arm was heavily taped today, but she was in good form when she defeated Ons Jabeur in straight sets.

22nd seed Donna Vekic lost in a tight three sets to 's-Hertogenbosch champion Alison Riske, and 32nd seed Lesia Tsurenko fell to Barbora Strycova.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Afternoon tea with Wimbledon on my mind

One queen is already gone, but this one was on hand in the tea room
I'm rarely in the part of town where the (very authentic) English Tea Room is located, but today, I had to be in that neighborhood, so I decided to visit a whimsical jewelry store I kind of like. The jewelry store was gone, but the tea room was as busy as ever. And on the first day of Wimbledon, it seemed only right that I stop and have a cup or two. I am the daughter of an Englishwoman and I do like good tea.

While I sipped my Abbey Blend (chocolate, cherry, maple, caramel, and vanilla flavors), I finally had an opportunity to relax and think about everything that happened today at Wimbledon. 

Where to start? Obviously, the big news of the day is that 15-year-old Coco Gauff upset one of her idols, five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams--in the first round.

Gauff had already won three qualifying rounds, and sometimes--at least in the early stages of an event--that momentum can be quite helpful. Gauff may have been somewhat anxious, but it didn't show. Venus congratulated her after her straight set win, and Gauff thanked her for paving the way for the moment that resulted in the great champion's exit from Wimbledon. 





Next for Gauff is Magdalena Rybarikova, a skilled grass court player who (not surprisingly) upset 10th seed Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets today.

Sabalenka wasn't the only seed to fall. 23rd seed Caroline Garcia also lost in straight sets (one a bagel set) to Zhang Shuai, 29th seed Dasha Kasatkina lost (again, not a surprise) to Ajla Tomljanovic. and 16th seed and French Open breakout star Marketa Vondrousova was defeated by Madison Brengle. 

And though she was unseeded (which actually says everything), Alona Ostapenko--who, lately, has shown signs of a comeback--was taken out in straight sets by Hsieh Su-Wei.

But the big upset of the day (again, not totally surprising) was Yulia Putintseva's defeat of 2nd seed Naomi Osaka. This is the third time that they have played one another, and the third time that Putintseva has walked away the winner. Fond of slicing her opponents as though she were julienning carrots, Putintseva just kept at it, as she always does, with Osaka, and Osaka very much appeared to not have a plan. It was over in straight sets.

Recently, in Birmingham, when Osaka lost in straight sets to Putintseva in the second round, the world number 2 failed to show up for her press conference, and was fined $4,000. Today, after her loss to the Kazahk, she showed up in the press room, but after about four minutes of looking very downcast and talking in a flat voice with the media, she left the room because she felt tears coming on.

Osaka is 21 years old, which is pretty young, but she often comes across as considerably younger, and she often speaks in a flat voice and displays little to no affect. Being on the tour is brutal; being a world renowned sports star is even more brutal, especially for a woman. Whether she keeps winning or continues to lose, Osaka will need to have the skills necessary to express herself and protect herself.

Putintseva, for her part, will next play Switzerland's Victorija Golubic.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Several players look like potential Wimbledon champions




It's almost time for those two weeks in which I tolerate Wimbledon because I love tennis. Defending champion Angie Kerber, this week's runner-up in Eastbourne, is rounding nicely into form, and will be joined by five other former Wimbledon champions: Serena Williams (7 championships), Venus Williams (5), Petra Kvitova (2), Maria Sharapova, and Garbine Muguruza.

And while anyone who is paying attention will have her eyes on the KareBear, there's also the obvious fact that we'll all have our eyes on Ash Barty, the new world number 1 player and current Birmingham champion. We sometimes feel a bit nervous about elite players who have just won a major--how will their new role affect them  (see "Kviotva," "Ostapenko," "Osaka")? But no such anxiety seems to accompany Barty, who appears to just take it all in stride. And with her big serve and grass skills, there is every reason to expect her to show up at the business end of the tournament, in week 2.

Kvitova injured her left forearm during the French Open. Her name appears in the draw, but there's still a chance that she'll withdraw, if she isn't fully convinced that she's healthy. A fully healthy Petra can win Wimbledon, but it would be disheartening (perhaps more so than having her withdraw) to see her have to retire from a match, or to watch her struggle and lose because she can't serve or hit the ball.

It's been five years since Kvitova last won in London. It would be glorious to see her do it again, but this may not be the year.

Then there's the matter of the mercurial Muguruza, who won the event in 2017, defeating Venus Williams in the final. In 2018, she was defeated in the second round by Alison Van Uytvanck. Such is the Law of Mugu that the Spanish star could crash out in the early rounds again--or win the championship again. We have no way of knowing.

Last year's runner-up was Serena Williams. Wimbledon is where she shines, and plenty of eyes will be on her, too.

Also, this could finally be the time when Karolina Pliskova breaks through in a big way. She just won Eastbourne, without dropping a set, and by defeating the Wimbledon defending champion in the final. She's looking quite comfortable on grass. Pliskova's partnership with Conchita Martinez could lead her to the final match in London.

As for the draw--the first quarter has already been named the "group of death," and with good reason. That's Ash Barty's quarter, and sharing it with her are Muguruza, Julia Goerges, Serena Williams, and Kerber. Goerges healthy again and a real threat on grass (she was the runner-up in Birmingham), and the three former champions are definite threats. But that isn't all: Barty's quarter also contains Belinda Bencic, Donna Vekic (assuming she survives Alison Riske), former champion Maria Sharapova, and former junior Wimbledon champion Kristyna Pliskova, who recently defeated her celebrated twin.

Some first round matches of interest:
 
Donna Vekic vs. Alison Riske: On paper, this belongs to Vekic, but Riske is the rare U.S.A. player who shines on grass, and she could easily pull an upset

Hsieh Su-Wei vs. Alona Ostapenko: Ostapenko has recently begun to turn her slumpy ways around, but--wouldn't you know it?--she has also sustained a left hip injury. At this point, I'm just hoping Alona doesn't have to withdraw from the tournament.

Venus Williams vs. Coco Gauff: The five-time champion will face off against her 15-year-old qualifying countrywoman--the youngest qualifier in the Open Era--so the hype will be on overdrive.

Magdalena Rybarikova vs. Aryna Savalenka: Again, on paper, this is Sabalenka's match to lose, but Rybarikova, in her peak days, could be dangerous on grass, and you just never know.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Ostapenko, Stephens and Muguruza--they "come and go"

Ostapenko and Stephens photos by Daniel Ward, Muguruza photo by Leslie Billman

Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma chameleon
You come and go, you come and go 
From "Karma Chamleon"
Boy George, Moss, Mikey, Craig, Hay, Pickett
Color By Numbers, Virgin, 1983

Today, two of the WTA's most colorful chameleons played each other in Eastbourne, and the scoreline perfectly reflected the players' mercurial personae. Alona Ostapenko defeated Sloane Stephens 1-6, 6-0, 6-3--and would you have it any other way?

Ostapenko and Stephens are two parts of a trio of elite players who can enter a tournament--especially a major--and either crash in the opening round or win the whole thing. The third member--and perhaps the most frustratingly unpredictable of all--is, of course, Garbine Muguruza. 

Among them they own four majors: Muguruza--the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon, Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open, and Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open. 

Ostapenko is the least polished of the three. She struggles, sometimes terribly, with her serve, and her hard-hitting rampages can get out of control. Watching her, one can't help but think that--with the right guidance--she could become consistently dangerous. 

The Latvian star has been very open about her inability to regain the free-swinging, instinctive ball-striking that allowed her to win the French Open two years ago. She says that she can't stop thinking, and thinking, of course, is the enemy of instinct. Also, she said in Charleston that she has had to become more process-oriented, which is against her nature.

Stephens is a little harder to figure out. When she goes into a relative slump, she just tells fans and the media not to worry. And then she wins something big. Ostapenko's woes are easier to deconstruct--she wants to hit the ball very hard into the corners and overwhelm her opponent, and she needs to (sometimes) slow it all down and play more strategically (in fact, it's easy to compare her with a very young Petra Kvitova).

But with Stephens, there aren't any obvious clues. The 2017 U.S. Open champion is affable and even loquacious, but she doesn't say much that would help us understand why her somewhat relaxed approach to playing matches sometimes results in what appears to be an almost effortless win, and other times, results in what looks like a lack of sufficient effort.

Muguruza is another story altogether. The Spaniard's game--when it's on--is so fluid, it sometimes seems that she does it with mirrors. But then the "other" Mugu shows up, and that one makes a lot of errors and isn't fluid at all. There can be a lot of unpleasant emotion during on-court coaching sessions, and the charming Spaniard can suddenly appear sullen.

Ostapenko, Stephens and Muguruza are all big-stage players. The French Open was the first WTA event Ostapenko had ever won, and she has won only one other event since she prevailed in Paris. She is currently ranked number 35 in the world. Stepens, ranked number 9, has a bit more "normal" tennis biography; she has won six tournaments, including Miami and Charleston. Muguruza has won seven titles, including Cincinnati and Beijing; however, she is currently ranked number 27 in the world.

These statistics don't make "sense" in the context of professional tennis as we know it. We expect consistency within a certain tier of players, but Ostapenko, Stephens (who is at least in the top 10) and Muguruza have turned that expectation on its head. We may never know what has caused this phenomenon, at least in the case of Stephens and Muguruza--Ostapenko is considerably more open about the issue. 

I should add that there isn't anything "wrong" with these inconsistencies; perhaps it is we who need to make an adjustment. But for now, an awkward sense of mystery hangs over three players who have achieved the very highest awards offered in their sport.