Sunday, September 22, 2019

The G.O.A.T. in the living room

There are a lot of tennis discussions that turn me off, but perhaps none tires me as much as the one entitled "Who is the greatest player of all time?"

There are a couple of reasons I thoroughly dislike this discussion:

1. There is no way to measure such a thing.

Who decides what factors come together to determine who is the "greatest"? Does it involve winning majors (more on that in a moment)? Or does it involve the totality of a player's career--winning majors in different categories, remaining in the top 10 over a period of time, winning Fed Cup titles, etc.? There is no objective method of measuring such greatness.

Many people, however, believe that the number of singles majors won is an objective measurement. It is not. First, it doesn't take into account other achievements, such as those mentioned above. And perhaps even more significant, it isn't valid. Back when such outstanding players as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were playing, winning majors was not the be-all and end-all as it is now.

Consider, for example, that many top players skipped the Australian Open because it was held during the Christmas holidays. Consider that Chris Evert skipped three French Opens (and she would surely have won at least one of them, and probably all three) to play World Team Tennis. (Consider that Rod Laver was not even permitted to play in several majors.)

Players of different eras simply cannot be compared, yet people insist on comparing them. I recall someone on Twitter once saying "Could have, would have' doesn't count." She missed the point entirely. The values were different, the rules were different, the schedules were different. More recently, someone on Twitter told me that "there has to be a gold standard for a sport." No there does not, and that brings me to:

2. Why does it matter? 

The obsession with choosing the "best" anything is something I don't understand. Not only is it objectively impossible, it reflects an obsessive desire to idealize something or someone to the detriment of appreciating so many similar things or people. I have no desire to determine whether a particular player is (or was) the greatest player of all time; it means nothing to me. I also have no desire to determine whether a player was the greatest of her era, even if there were objective criteria.

I much prefer to appreciate players for their outstanding contributions--as champions, as shot-makers, as surface specialists, as Fed Cup stars, as leaders. Too many discussions revolve around the G.O.A.T., a mythical creature whose existence serves to create pressure on players, to rely on the use of unreliable statistics, and to bring out the worst kind of fan over-identification.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

My U.S. Open top 10

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

10. Higher and higher depths: Having ESPN Plus is a great thing--first, because one can choose among all of the matches being played, but also because the commentary, though certainly not perfect (too many mispronunciations), is way better than the mess that is on ESPN. But as the tournament winds down, the ESPN commentary team is all that's left for the big matches (besides wheelchair and juniors), so we're stuck with it.

We were subject to the exceedingly annoying fake dramatics of Tom Rinaldi. Then there was the rush to turn interviews with Elina Svitolina into discussions of Gael Monfils (Chris McEndry, to her credit, tried to put a stop to this). Of course, there was the usual list of mispronunciations (and hey--U.S. Open, maybe your match announcer could learn how to pronounce the players' names?), and who knows how many minutes' worth of useless comments.

During the final, Chris Fowler kept repeating that Andreescu's victory was "unbelievable." This stuck me as odd since I had picked her as the most likely player to win the tournament. Do these people even watch tennis? Best of all, though, was Chris Evert's assertion that a player had reached "higher and higher depths"--and that is exactly how I would describe ESPN.

9. Still hot: Coco Gauff made it to the third round, defeating Anastasia Potapova and Timea Babos. She was done in by Naomi Osaka, who allowed her only three games, but Coco, at 15, is still quite impressive.

8. Tennis in the age of You-Know-What: I used to think of the U.S. Open crowd as an example that should be followed by, say, the French crowd, which can be really rude--or the British and Australian crowds, which can be really sexist. But the crowd at this year's Open was a disgrace. People sauntered in and forced the players to wait before serving. They yelled both during points and just as a player was serving. They applauded faults. They were horrible.

7. You'll remember me this time: Taylor Townsend has game, and serious tennis fans know it. The 23-year-old U.S. player was a standout in juniors, but--as is so often the case--her junior accomplishments did not translate to the tour (the USTA did her no favors, either). But Townsend had a memorable U.S. Open experience, taking out Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in the second round, then giving eventual champion Bianca Andreescu a head-turning fight when she continued her habit of rushing the net--over and over. She took a set off of Andreescu, too, but was unable to stop her in her pursuit of the title.

6. Patience is a virtue:  27-year-old Kristie Ahn, ranked 141 in the world, got a wild card into the U.S. Open main draw this year. Eleven years ago, she got in through qualifying, but lost in the first round. That was the last time she was able to get through qualifying. Ahn, realizing the importance of the occasion, gave that wild card a workout. In the first round, she took out 2004 U.S. Open champion and 2019 Cincinnati runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova. In round 2, she defeated the talented Anna Kalinskaya, and in the third round, Ahn defeated 2017 French Open champion Alona Ostapenko. She kost to eventual semifinalist Elise Mertens in the next round, but the drama of the Stanford graduate's U.S. Open run was one of the best stories of the event.

5. Diede de Great just got greater: Top wheelchair singles seed Diede de Groot got quite a fight from 2nd seed Yui Kamiji in the final, but she prevailed, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, and in doing so, defended her 2018 title. de Groot has now won seven singles majors (last year, she just missed attaining a Grand Slam), and has completed a Career Slam in both singles and doubles.

de Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, the top doubles seeds, also won the doubles title, defeating Sabine Ellerbrock and Kgothatso Montjane in straight sets in the final. This is de Groot's third consecutive U.S. Open doubles victory.

4. Miss USA with knee socks: We like to talk about the inspiring qualities of tennis players who overcome great obstacles, yet often missing from that conversation is perhaps the queen of overcoming obstacles--Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Mattek-Sands has fallen down (sometimes literally) and gotten up so many times, yet she always returns to the court to play her old-school brand of tennis. At the U.S. Open--where she wore a pop Americana kit, one of my favorite BMS outfits of all time--she and partner Jamie Murray defended their mixed doubles title. And they did it by upsetting top seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Michael Venus in straight sets.

3. So close: Serena Williams, after returning from giving birth to her daughter, made a run to the 2018 Wimbledon final and was defeated by Angie Kerber (she said that one didn't count because of the state of her body). She then lost the 2018 U.S. Open final to Naomi Osaka, and the 2019 Wimbledon final to Simona Halep. This time around, she lost the U.S. Open final to Bianca Andreescu.

Clearly, there is pressure on Williams that has never existed before, and that pressure has to do with her advancing age and her quest to achieve a statistic that has many fans in a frenzy. There's no doubt that Williams is playing extremely well (though it's also unfair to assume that she would win every final if she were in a calmer state of mind). The Serena Watch will be intense in 2020, as the great champion seeks to win more majors.

2. Fire and ice: Elise Mertens had success with her former doubles partner and long-time friend, Demi Schuurs, but the they split because the Belgian star wanted to concentrate on her singles career and didn't want to commit to playing doubles at every event (Schuurs plays doubles only). So Mertens teamed with Aryna Sabalenka and this year, they won the Sunshine Double. Now, they've won the U.S. Open, defeating Ash Barty and Vika Azarenka in the final. The calm, low-key personality of Mertens combines well with the intense, sometimes goofy, persona of Sabalenka.

1. She the North/She the Boss: I don't know why anyone is surprised (certainly some commentators were) that Bianca Andreescu won the U.S. Open. Her victory certainly didn't seem inevitable to me, but it did seem very highly likely. The 19-year-old Canadian deserves the title "phenom" more than anyone I can recall in a long time. It's hard to describe Andreescu because she is so many things--a good server, hard-hitting, dramatic, inventive, instinctive, and mentally tough (while not always seeming to be so).

As I noted earlier in the week, I was concerned that Andreescu's perhaps unconscious need to have problems to solve would get her into trouble. But as the tournament progressed, she became more proficient at solving those problems. Also, after watching her for a while, it becomes clear that what may appear to be Andreescu's "frustration" face is more like her 'I have to figure this out" face.

A year ago, most people had never heard of the Canadian star; she wasn't even in the top 200. At the beginning of this season, she held a ranking of 153. Then she won Indian Wells. And then, in Miami, she sustained a shoulder injury which kept her off of the tour for a few months. Andreescu's junior career was plagued with injuries, and one hopes that she'll figure out a way to keep them at a minimum.

When she did return to the tour, it wasn't long before Andreescu won the Rogers Cup, defeating Serena Williams in the final when Williams had to retire. So there was a certain poetic satisfaction in having the two of them meet in the U.S. Open final. Now, Andreescu is the first Canadian in history to win a singles major

By now, most fans have heard that, when she was a kid, Andreescu wrote herself a U.S. Open prize money check (she didn't cash it, of course; rather, she added to the amount every year, to match the annual increase). This is akin to a young Roger Federer's having practiced falling to his knees in anticipation of one day winning Wimbledon. It is a mindset which few have. Andreescu credits her mother, Maria, with helping her to develop it. Such a skill is supposedly available to all of us, but few are able to live it. So far, Bibi Andreescu has shown quite a mastery of it.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

"TRICKS ARE FOR...KIDS": Bianca Andreescu turns her U.S. Open debut into a championship victory


"You look ready"
19-year-old Bianca (Bibi) Andreescu, making her debut at the U.S. Open, today defeated Serena Williams in a major final, as she took out the six-time champion 6-3, 7-5. Playing in only her fourth major main draw, the young Canadian woman--for a set and a half--looked as though she were going to break her come-from-behind, do-it-the-hard-way habits. But, as it turned out, they were exactly what she had to produce to overcome Williams.

"You and I have unfinished business"

Andreescu and Williams were involved in a big final earlier this summer in Toronto at the Rogers Cup, but it was not really played because Williams had to retire in the middle of the first set. We didn't get to see what could transpire between them during a match until today.

 "Do you believe you are my match?"

Andreescu, who easily vacillates between looking really chill and looking like a bundle of nerves, came out in chill form and immediately broke Williams. The seventh game of the first set was intense, lasting ten minutes, with a double break on the line. Williams saved five break points to keep the score close, but Andreescu wound up winning the set 6-3.

"You have every right to want to get even"

The second set was when it got crazy. Andreescu came out for it exactly as she did in the first set, totally dominating her opponent. Williams's serve, usually the best in the business, was off, and even when it was "on," she was getting explosive returns, the likes of which she doesn't see that much. Andreescu went up 5-1.

"You didn't think it was gonna be that easy, did you?"

The Canadian star served for the match and held a match point, and that's when Williams blew the whole thing up, winning four straight games, and looking for all the world like the Serena who has won 23 majors by doing whatever she had to do. Suddenly, it was 5-all, and it looked like a third set was probably in Andreescu's future (as it so often is). Meanwhile, while Williams was undergoing a total change in accuracy, confidence and body language, her opponent began to wilt. We saw the "bundle of nerves" version of Andreescu.

But, much as she had done against Belinda Bencic, the Canadian upstart prevented the agony of a third set by winning the next two games and defeating Williams 6-3, 7-5. In doing so, she became the first Canadian to win a major.

"'re a killer, a natural born killer"

Everything about Bibi Andreescu's tennis is jaw-dropping. She began the year as number 152 in the world, and next week, she'll be number 5. Pretty much out of nowhere, she won Indian Wells in March, then had to retire in Miami and was out for several months because of a shoulder injury. She missed both the French Open and Wimbledon. Then she popped back up and won the Rogers Cup, looking as though she had never gone away.

Any time a player, young or "old," reaches a major final for the first time, we expect her to have to confront nerves. And nerves often do a first-time major finalist in. When Andreescu got tight in the second set, I thought, "Well, we'll go to a third, and she'll overcome it, just like she always does." But she overcame it sooner, just as she did in her semifinal match. In other words, during the U.S. Open, the Canadian star seems to have become even scarier in terms of her mentality.

Holding this kind of nerve and mindset--even when you feel shaky--is a special gift. Chris Evert had it. Justine Henin had it. Serena Williams has it. And Bibi Andreescu certainly has it. I think that her main concern will be to stay healthy; she has quite a tendency to get injured. She's now traveling with a physio, however, which is a good decision on her part. 


In the meantime, the great Serena Williams doesn't look to be going anywhere, and we should continue to see her in big matches. Powerful new blood is pulsing through the tour, though, with Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, Bianca Andreescu, and a few others who are fighting to get their turn.

With her very good serve, powerful groundstrokes, mental toughness, amazing improvisational skills, and vast shot variety, Bibi Andreescu stands out as a force with which to be reckoned. Yes, #ShetheNorth, but I think she's so much more.


Friday, September 6, 2019

A look at the draw on day 12 of the U.S. Open

Though it's hard to keep one's mind off of the singles drama, there are other matches being played at the U.S. Open. Here's a breakdown of where everything is, as of today:


4th seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka just defeated Caroline Dolehide (a day after her 21st birthday) and Vania King 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a highly entertaining match. It was great to see King on the court again, and to see her go all the way to the semifinals. In the final, Mertens and Sabalenka will face 8th seeds Vika Azarenka and Ash Barty. Mertens also made it to the quarterfinals in singles. Barty is the defending champion; she and CoCo Vandeweghe won the event last year.

Mixed Doubles

Top seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Michael Venus will play Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Murray in the final. To reach the final, Chan had to defeat her sister, Chan Yung-Jan, and her partner, Ivan Dodig.

Wheelchair Singles

Play begins later today. Diede De Groot is the top seed, and her quarterfinal opponent will be Sabine Ellerbrock. De Groot is the defending champion.

Wheelchair Doubles

Top seeds Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot have reached the final, in which they will play Sabine Ellerbrock and Kgothatso Monjane. Van Koot is the defending champion, and she also won the event in 2017. Van Koot won the event in 2013 and 2015.

Junior Singles

Third round play has concluded. The highest seed remaining is Zheng Qinwen, who is seeded 5th.

Junior Doubles

Quarterfinal play has concluded.

I have already covered women's singles here. 15th seed Bianca Andreescu, playing in her first U.S. Open, will face off against six-time champion Serena Williams in the final.

The Upstart vs. The Queen--and would you want it any other way?

Back in 1999, an amazing upstart named Serena Williams won the first of her six U.S. Open titles. She was 17 years old. Bianca Andreescu, on the other hand, was yet to be born (that would happen around nine months later). And if Williams was an upstart, Andreescu--who will face Serena in the 2019 U.S. Open women's singles final on Saturday--is something beyond an upstart.


It doesn't surprise me at all that these are the last two women standing in Flushing Meadows; in fact, I expected it. After all, Serena is Serena, and Bianca, or "Bibi," is a peculiar force of nature who--so far--defies classification. This is her U.S. Open debut, and I suppose she wanted to make it last as long as possible because here she is, in the final. That alone, is a head-turning fact. But there's more: Since undertaking her pro career, Andreescu is 7-0 against top 10 players. Consider also that, when the season began, the 19-year-old Canadian was ranked 152 in the world. Next week, she'll be in the top 10.

But back to Serena. Last night, she dismantled the game of Elina Svitolina with a kind of surgical skill. She had plenty of help from the Ukrainian star, who--after getting a quick taste of her opponent's resolve in the opening two games--faded (literally) into the background. Svitolina, who is as fast of foot as anyone on the tour, and clever, to boot, was simply not able to combine her skills to put together a fight plan against Williams. It didn't help her cause that Serena was serving in top form.

It wasn't that she didn't have opportunities, but Svitolina failed to convert any of the six break points given to her throughout the match. Williams got the job done in a little over an hour, and walked away with a 6-3, 6-1 victory.

Much more dramatic was the second semifinal, which featured former phenom Belinda Bencic and current phenom (to say the least) Andreescu. Both were playing in their first major semifinal, and their straight sets match had just about everything for which fans could hope. (Unfortunately, it had too much, as  the U.S. Open crowd continued to provide an alarming display of rudeness.)

This was one of those matches about which one needs to say "You had to be there" (literally, or watching on television). Because what transpired was a kind of trickery that even the great Aga Radwanska would find impressive. It didn't involve trick shots (thought there were a few of those), but rather, it involved what we might call a "trick mindset" on the part of the Canadian star. Belinda Bencic clearly led the first set. She was aggressive, she was consistent, and--most important--she was ahead. But if you're Bibi Andreescu, you consider that a minor detail that can be brushed away at the right time.

Andreescu saved all of the six break points that she faced in the first set, and, for good measure, she saved a set point. That put the set--which was on the Swiss player's racket--to a tiebreak, and before you could say Abracadabra, Alakazam, I'm Bibi the Beast, I am! Andreescu was up 5-0. She won the tiebreak 7-3.

Bencic, though, would have none of it. Rather than retreat into the corner, she came out fighting in the second set, and with her shot variety and her keen anticipatory ability, was able to flummox her opponent and take a 5-2 lead.

I suppose, at this point, we might say "Andreescu had her opponent right where she wanted her," for--as I wrote a couple of days ago--the Canadian woman thrives on problem-solving, and even participates in creating some of her problems. In her press conference, Andreescu said that when she was one game short of losing the second set, she knew she didn't want the match to extend to three sets. And so, just like that, she won five straight games, taking the set (and the match) at 7-5. Because that's the Andreescu way.

And as entertaining as that method may be for fans, it could be Andreescu's undoing against Serena Williams in a major final. When you're playing Serena, there's little time for performing side shows. Serena's serve is too good, and her returns are too good.

Andreescu says that she utilizes meditation and visualization to enhance her game. Today would be a good day for her to do a quick scan of her unconscious mind and perhaps focus on ways to win that don't involve making a dramatic comeback from a down position. She has skills galore, but against Williams, she'll need the ones that put her in the lead and keep her there.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Katie Volynets
round 2--def. Kirsten Flipkens
round 3--def. Caroline Wozniacki (15)
round of 16--def. Taylor Townsend (Q)
quarterfinals--def. Elise Mertens (25)
semifinals--def. Belinda Bencic (13)

round 1--def. Maria Sharapova
round 2--def. Caty McNally (W)
round 3--def. Karolina Muchova
round of 16--def. Petra Martic (22)
quarterfinals--def. Wang Qiang (18)
semifinals--def. Elina Svitolina (5)

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Andreescu and Bencic advance to U.S. Open semifinals

A very long time ago, when I was in the public relations profession, I had a very gifted boss who would often round us up at the last minute to work on projects, and there was usually a lot of pressure. I kind of thrived on the pressure for a while, but I didn't care for the direction my career was taking, so I left and started my own shop. Not long after I made this move, one of our clients called me and asked me to take over the account.

I protested that I didn't think I could because it was so chaotic and there was so much pressure involved. No, the client told me, it's really pretty easy--she made it that way. I accepted the invitation, and yes, it turned out to be pretty easy. That was when I realized that my former boss thrived on chaos, and wasn't happy unless she and everyone around her were working under intense pressure.

Watching Bianca Andreescu has made me think of this lesson from long ago. Andreescu is many things, and one of them is that she is a very impressive problem-solver. But I'm getting suspicious that she may need a problem in order to come alive and play her best tennis. She may even need to participate in creating a problem.

We know that she's injury-prone, which isn't a good sign. She also has quite an on-court temper, but that could (and probably will) subside as she gets older. For someone with as much talent and intuition as Andreescu possesses, she certainly brings with her a lot of complications.

Tonight, in her quarterfinal, she appeared flat in the first set, as her opponent, Elise Mertens masterfully took it, 6-3. It seemed almost inevitable, though, that the "problem" of losing the first set would ignite the young Canadian--and it did. She went on to win the match 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. Earning a spot in the semifinals is pretty good for someone playing in her first U.S. Open.

I was thinking and talking about Dinara Safina today, so she is on my mind. On Women Who Serve, the Russian star was known by the nickname, "Thrill Ride" because she couldn't seem to win a match unless she had taken herself (and the rest of us) to the edge. Andreescu is hardly the bundle of nerves that Safina was, but she does have a touch of Thrill Ride in her, which I don't think it will serve her very well in the long run.

Earlier in the day, two close friends who are also former phenoms faced each other for a spot in the U.S. Open semifinals. Belinda  Bencic and Donna Vekic--who both had to take the long way around in order to begin to meet their often-touted potentials--did not disappoint. It was a well-played match, with both women serving well. Bencic won, 7-6, 6-3, but Vekic performed well.

Bencic is another one with a temper problem. I haven't seen much of her during the U.S. Open, but when I have seen her, I haven't noticed any episodes of anger. It isn't that episodes of anger are bad--but common sense informs us that they can be harmful if chronic because of the energy they drain from a player.

Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Belina Bencic (13) vs. Bianca Andreescu (15)
Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Serena Williams (8)

In doubles, Kuzmova and Sasnovich upset 3rd seeds Dabrowski and Xu. Also upset were 14th seeds Kichenok and Ostapenko, who were defeated by Dolehide and King.

Still alive in doubles is Elise Mertens, who--with partner Aryna Sabalenka--has advanced to the semifinals. Mertens and Sabalenka are seeded 4th.

In mixed doubles, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Murray have advanced to the final (def. Stosur/Ram), in which they will play either top seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Michael Venus or 4th seeds Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The mighty Serena logs 100 U.S. Open match wins

It took Serena Williams just 44 minutes to defeat Wang Qiang 6-1, 6-0 in tomight's U.S. Open quarterfinal match. Wang is a very good player, but there was nothing she could do about Williams. The 8th seed hit 25 winners (Wang hit zero winners), and had a first serve win percentage of 90. Case closed.

Williams' next opponent will be 5th seed Elina Svitolina, who defeated Jo Konta 6-4, 6-4 earlier today. Williams is 4-1 against Svitolina, and 2-1 against her on hard courts. Until this year, Svitolina had never gotten beyond the quarterfinals of a major, despite her very winning ways on the tour. But she made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon (she was defeated by eventual champion Simona Halep), and now she has made it to the semifinals in New York.

Svitolina will have her work cut out for her with Williams, who is playing at peak form, and who thrives at majors. However, the Ukrainian player is highly unlikely to be intimidated by either the opponent or the occasion, and she could give Williams a fight.

Today, when Pam Shriver interviewed Svitolina, she twice referred to "the Ukraine." This is an ongoing problem with both Tennis Channel and ESPN commentators and interviewers. A couple of years ago some of us corrected Leif Shiras, who then Tweeted a lame, self-serving "apology," then went on to repeatedly refer to the country as "the Ukraine."

They are not alone. Both guest Rep. Maxine Waters and host Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC have recently insulted the country in this way. The Soviet Union fell a long time ago, but I should lower my expectations (after all, people are still calling flight attendants "stewardesses").

Words matter!

Tomorrow's seminfals will feature Belina Bencic (13) vs. Donna Vekic (23) and Bianca Anreescu (15) vs. Elise Mertens (25).

 In doubles, top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic were upset by 8th seeds Vika Azarenka and Ash Barty.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

2nd and 3rd seeds out of U.S. Open


Ash Barty, seeded number 2 at the U.S. Open, was knocked out of the event today by Wang Qiang, whose game has steadily gotten better and better this year, allowing the 18h seeded Chinese player's game to reach a crescendo in Flushing Meadows. Barty was a mass of errors, while Wang was efficient and mentally tough, defeating Barty 6-2, 6-4.

Karolina Pliskova, the 3rd seed, hasn't looked quite right throughout this tournament (and even in Cincinnati). She got off to a slow start against 16th seed Jo Konta, who had a healthy lead throughout most of the first set. Somehow, Pliskova caught up, the set went to a tiebreak, and then--almost out of nowhere--the Czech star stormed through, allowing her opponent only one point. It was as if she did it with mirrors.

That must have been discouraging for the Brit, but Konta won the second set 6-3, and went on to win the third 7-5.

8th seed Serena Williams, serving up a storm, defeated Petra Martic 6-3, 6-4. It's a nice trend, however, to see Martic making these second week appearances in majors.

Finally, speedy Elina Svitolina turned into big-serving speedy Elina Svitolina tonight, and defeated Madison Keys 7-5, 6-4. It was a masterful performance from the 5th seed, who has long needed a good serve to go with the rest of her game. Tonight, a first serve win percentage of 92 spoke volumes. Of course, we have seen WTA players suddenly serve really well and then not replicate that skill in the next match. Here's hoping that Svitolina has actually developed a reliable good serve.

In doubles, the 7th-seeded Chan sisters were upset by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Anastasija Sevastova. The big news in doubles, however, was that Coco Gauff and Caty McNally upset 9th seeds Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Round of 16 set at U.S. Open

Third round play in singles was completed today at the U.S. Open, leaving us with several interesting and/or emotional stories, and a few stories that weren't so pretty.

Anett Kontaveit, suffering with an acute viral illness, gave a walkover to Belinda Bencic, Julia Goerges defeated close friend, Kiki Bertens, in straight sets (it was the first time they had ever competed against each other on a hard court), and Alona Ostapenko made 45 unforced errors in her straight-set defeat by Kristie Ahn.

Ostapenko hit eight aces and twelve double faults. Her insistence on hitting big, flat and into the corners almost every single time has become the undoing of her. As I've said before, Ostapenko sometimes reminds me of a young Petra Kvitova, only Kvitova's serve was better, and she was able to learn how to construct points so that she didn't have to rely on constant wild swinging of her racket. Ostapenko appears to be near implosion, and that is a real shame. She is too talented to let this happen to her.

Donna Vekic defeated Yulia Putintseva in straight sets, Elise Mertens defeated Andrea Petkovic, and Taylor Townsend continued her run with a defeat of Sorana Cirstea.

And then there was Bianca Andreescu, who defeated Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-4 in a match that was fun to watch. The Canadian star had a dip in the second set, and it looked like we were going to be treated to a third set, but Andreescu would have none of it. The variety of her shot-making--some of which she appears to make up on the fly--is stunning. Even when she's in an awkward court position, she figures out a way to get the ball back, often as a winner (remember the overhead drop shot at the Rogers Cup).

The night match featured defending champion and top seed Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff. I canceled my roller derby plans (last home bout of the season) to stay home and watch this match, and--while I didn't expect it to be a thriller--I was hoping for a little more than I got. Osaka won, 6-3, 6-0, and what followed had fans and the media expressing some strong, even tearful, emotions. Osaka asked Gauff to stay on the court and participate in the post-match interview.

The problem is that Gauff didn't want to stay on court. She wanted to go to the locker room and cry, and I think she should have been permitted to do so. I understand Osaka's gesture, though, which was coming from a place of generosity. But what really troubles me was ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez telling Gauff to "wipe those tears away," which is a terrible thing to tell a person who is crying. The whole thing made me really uncomfortable, but I am obviously in the minority.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Naomi Osaka (1) vs. Belinda Bencic (13)
Donna Vekic (23) vs. Julia Goerges (26)
Taylor Townsend (Q) vs. Bianca Andreescu (15)
Kristie Ahn (W) vs. Elise Mertens (25)
Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Madison Keys (10)
Jo Konta (16) vs. Karolina Pliskova (3)
Serena Williams (8) vs. Petra Martic (22)
Wang Qiang (18) vs. Ash Barty (2)

In doubles, top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic advanced to the third round, as did Vika Azarenka and Ash Barty.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Things are getting interesting


Where to start?! I suppose with the news that Wimbledon champion and 4th seed Simona Halep is out of the U.S. Open in the second round, defeated by Taylor Townsend, who went into a serve-and-volley frenzy and overcame Halep 2-6, 6-3, 7-6. This was Townsend's first top-10 win, and she was understandably delighted over it.

That was the big news of the day, but there was other news: 15-year-old Coco Gauff defeated a very in-form Timea Babos, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in a really thrilling night match. That means that Gauff goes to the third round, in which she will face off against top seed Naomi Osaka. This is beyond popcorn, if I can coin a phrase. Fans of either player (or both players) may need something stronger.

Also news: Alona Ostapenko has advanced to the third round! She defeated Alison Riske in straight sets, and will next face off against either 25th seed Elise Mertens or Andrea Petkovic. Petkovic upset 6th seed Petra Kvitova, which was not really a surprise. (It would have been nice if one of the commentators had mentioned the Czech star's forearm injury, which continues to plague her, instead of just talking about how badly she was playing.)

9th seed Aryna Sabalenka was upset by Yulia Putintseva, and 29th seed Hsieh Su-Wei was upset by Karolina Muchova.

15th seed Bianca Andreescu, playing with a seriously taped thigh, won her second round match against Kirsten Flipkens in straight sets, and she looked pretty impressive doing it. Also advancing were Jo Konta, Donna Vekic, Kiki Bertens, Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sakkari, and Anett Kontaveit.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Muguruza and Stephens out of U.S. Open, and is anyone really surprised?

Two of the three WTA "chameleons" have been eliminated in the first round of the U.S. Open, leaving only Alona Ostapenko, who won a very well-played match (by both opponents) against Aleks Krunic in her opening round. Garbine Muguruza went out to Alison Riske, who has been a picture of confidence lately. 2017 champion Sloane Stephens lost in straight sets to Russian qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, who played with such efficiency and fluidity that it was a pleasure to watch her. This was Kalinskaya's first time to play a match in a major, and she certainly made the most of it.

Kalinskaya, who is ranked number 127 in the world, defeated Viktorija Tomova, Katrina Scott and Asia Muhammad in the qualifying draw. She will face Kristie Ahn in the second round. Ahn won her fisrt-ever victory in a major, and won it against 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova (who was having some medical issues in the match).

Coco Gauff got past a very tough Anastasia Potopova in an entertaining match, and defending champion Naomi Osaka had to go three sets against Anna Blinkova. Belarus's finest--Vika Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka--went at each other with force for over two hours, with Sabalenka emerging as the winner.

The oddest first-round scoreline was Julia Goerges' 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 victory against Natalia Vikhlyantseva. Jo Konta defeated Dasha Kasatkina, Ons Jabeur defeated Caroline Garcia, whose fortunes continue to slide, and Kiki Mladenovic (who is closing in on the Chameleon Club) beat 2016 champion Angie Kerber in straight sets.

Second round play has not been completed, and a rain delay has pushed play back farther than expectxed, but notable so far is that Elina Svitlina has defeated Venus Williams, and that Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys are through to the third round. Other second round matches of interest include:

Aryna Sabalenka (9) vs. Yulia Putintseva
Caroline Wozniacki (19) vs. Danielle Collins
Alona Ostapenko vs. Alison Riske
Rebecca Peterson vs. Dayana Yastremska (32) (thriller alert!)
Serena Williams (8) vs. Caty McNally

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Major singles titles and other standings--how it breaks down

I'm not usually one to get into a lot of numbers, but I've been thinking lately about the question: How many major singles titles can the WTA hold at one time? The answer, it turns out, is 55. Here's how it breaks down:

Serena Williams--23
Venus Wiliams--7
Maria Sharapova--5 (Wimbledon, AO, USO, 2 FO)
Angie Kerber--3 (AO, USO, Wimbledon)
Svetlana Kuznetsova--2 (USO, FO)
Vika Azarenka--2 (Australian)
Petra Kvitova--2 (Wimbledon)
Garbine Muguruza--2 (FO, Wimbledon)
Simona Halep--2 (FO, WImbledon)
Naomi Osaka--2 (USO, AO)
Sam Stosur--1 (USO)
Caroline Wozniacki--1 (AO)
Sloane Stephens--1 (USO)
Alona Ostapenko--1 (FO)
Ash Barty--1 (FO)

Soon there will be 56. Who will hold that 56th title?

Here is a list of women on the tour who have been singles runners-up at majors but have yet to win one:

Vera Zvonareva (Wimbledon)
Sara Errani (FO)
Sabine Lisicki (Wimbledon)
Genie Bouchard (Wimbledon)
Madison Keys (USO)
Karolina Pliskova (USO)
Marketa Vondrousova (FO)

Finally, here are the women on the tour who have won Olympic medals in singles:

Venus Williams (gold)
Vera Zvonareva (bronze)
Serena Williams (gold)
Maria Sharapova (silver)
Vika Azarenka (bronze)
Monica Puig (gold)
Angie Kerber (silver)
Petra Kvitova (bronze)

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Injury (and other) questions loom over U.S. Open draw

Morningside Park (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

I enjoy the U.S. Open. Too much. Because so many matches are available for me to watch, I sometimes resent that I have to do things like go to work and go to the gym because I am watching the U.S. Open, thank you very much.

The upcoming Open is going to be as interesting, I think, as the other majors were this year. Defending champion Naomi Osaka enters in questionable shape; she retired from her quarterfinal match in Cincinnati because of a leg injury. Simona Halep does enter as a big favorite, but there's a lingering question about her foot. If it has totally healed, her chances are excellent to claim the title.

And, speaking of health, as far as I'm concerned, if she's not injured or doesn't get injured, Bianca Andreescu has as good a chance as anyone of claiming the trophy. The other player who enters as a top contender is French Open champion Ash Barty.

Some players whom we expected to be favorites are not. Kiki Bertens isn't on fire the way she was last year, and Karolina Pliskova--though I still consider her a favorite--has lost some currency. There's quite a bit of talk about former runner-up Madison Keys, who just brilliantly won Cincinnati. With Keys, though, you just never know. Elina Svitolina has yet to win a major, and she's best on hard courts, but her performances are inconsistent, and--at this time--she can't be considered a top contender.

Petra Kvitova has always struggled at the U.S. Open because of her asthma (which is now under better control, but which still makes her vulnerable), but this year, she also has to contend with an injured forearm. In Cincinnati, she said that she was still dealing with occasional swelling, and she wasn't sure whether it was caused by scar tissue, or perhaps an issue involving her wounded hand. She then withdrew from the Bronx tournament. I wouldn't be surprised if Kvitova withdraws from the Open.

And then there's Serena Williams, who has historically had a hard time at the Open--not playing it, but staying within a circle of calm. We know never to count her out, but how much should we count her in? Unfortunately, before she even steps onto a court, there's drama surrounding her. First, there's the matter of last year's final and the fact that the media continues to deconstruct it. Granted, it was an unfortunate and complex event, but the continuing preoccupation with it is tiresome.

And as if that weren't enough, Williams' first opponent is Maria Sharapova, and the dynamics between them have been projected into overblown 21st Century sociological myth. In the age of reality television and gossip-as-news, both fans and the media will have a field day with this match.

The Osaka quarter includes Anett Kontaveit, Aryna Sabalenka, Donna Vekic, Julia Goerges (whose level has dropped, but she can still be dangerous), and Bertens.

The Halep quarter includes Andreescu, 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, Cincinnati runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova, Alona Ostapenko (you never know), Garbine Muguruza (you really never know), and Kvitova.

In the Pliskova quarter are Svitolina, Venus Williams, Sonya Kenin, and 2017 runner-up and Cincinnati champion Madison Keys.

The Barty quarter includes Serena Williams, Anastasija Sevastova, 2016 champion Angie Kerber, and Maria Sakkari.

First rounds of interest:

Aryna Sabalenka (9) vs. Vika Azarenka

Aleks Krunic vs. Alona Ostapenko

Alison Riske vs. Garbine Muguruza (24)

Jo Konta (16) vs. Daria Kasatkina

Serena Williams (8) vs Maria Sharapova

Angie Kerber (14) vs. Kiki Mladenovic

Maria Sakkari (30) vs. Camila Giorgi

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 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:

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

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.