Monday, March 18, 2019

Bianca--a stunning desert bloom

In the last several years, Indian Wells has produced some champions that have excited me. Flavia Pennetta's 2014 victory was very satisfying, as was Elena Vesnina's 2017 triumph. And now, seemingly "out of nowhere," we have Bianca Andreescu (though, to be fair, some people may have found a Kerber victory somewhat "out of nowhere," too).

As with all "out of nowhere" winners, Andreescu was actually coming from somewhere. Serious tennis fans have had their eyes on the Canadian teenager for a while. But--as she said in her press conference--last year was a rough one for her, so to win an event like the BNP Paribas Open was just "crazy."

Watching Andreescu--who took out the likes of Dominika Cibulkova, Wang Qiang and Garbine Muguruza on her way to the semifinals--challenges us to describe her as a player because she does so much so well. Imagine concocting a desert hybrid that contains the laser-like hitting of Kvitova, the fluidity of Muguruza, the volleying savvy of Vinci, the geometric intelligence of Halep and Radwanska, and the grit of Pennetta. Toss it in the sand and wait--and the result is a Canadian-Romanian flower that is both beautiful and hardy.

When Andreescu reached the semifinals, she had her hands full with world number 6 Elina Svitolina, who often outruns and out-thinks the best of them. It didn't help the Canadian's cause that, for much of the match, she was cramping rather badly. Yet, somehow, she contained the pain just enough to defeat Svitolina 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

In the final, Andreescu faced someone else who is as tough as she is--Angie "Never Count Her Out" Kerber. The German star had made quick work of Belinda Bencic in the semifinals (breaking her 12-match win streak), though many assumed that Bencic was on her way to the final.

Andreescu took the first set off Kerber, 6-4.

But the mighty German, doing what she does best, figured out quite a bit about her opponent's game, then came on strong in the next set, taking it 6-3. The final set was simply stunning. Andreescu began cramping again, only worse than she had in the semifinals. But even with that ("I want it so bad," she told her coach during an on-court coaching session in which she was in obvious physical pain), she kept at it.

At 5-4, Andreescu had match points, and Kerber saved them. It seemed logical (though logic wasn't really very useful, at this point) to assume that--if Kerber held--her opponent wouldn't be able to withstand the demands of a 5-all score. And sure enough, suddenly, the Canadian had a match point on Kerber's serve. And then Kerber hit one of the best serves she'd hit in the entire set, setting her up for a deuce score, but--following Andreescu's return--she hit a forehand into the net, and it was over.

The tennis press is already all over Andreescu's report that she meditates and uses visualization. That's a shame, because I'm sure that the vast majority of the tennis press doesn't really know what that means. In time, (I hope) Andreescu will learn how to manage questions and remarks about her mind-body practices. Her mature approach to tennis and her articulate presentation notwithstanding--she's only 18, and it will be interesting to see how she matures as a tennis celebrity, if indeed, that is what she is becoming.

It is an absolute pleasure to watch her play. Sometimes, players who have a huge variety of shots and strategies available to them get confused about what to do when, but there is also something very instinctive about Andreescu's tennis.

This is one complex desert flower.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Notes on slump

It's rare for even an elite player to not have a slump now and then, and it's not at all uncommon for slumps to visit other members of the top 20 (or beyond). But what causes an otherwise winning (and uninjured) athlete to suddenly enter a period of poor play--at worst--or--at best--a period of playing well but not being able to close?

There are many reasons.

An obvious one involves returning from an injury layoff. The body may be repaired, but the player has lost her momentum, and may also have a tendency to guard the injured part of her body. Both Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova had service problems after they had their shoulders repaired. In fairness, "repaired" shoulders often force players to change their service motions, which creates a whole new learning situation, complete with the anxiety that accompanies such situations.

Another common issue on the WTA Tour is a player's response to sudden success and fame. Petra Kvitova struggled to adjust to being suddenly famous, and the struggle manifested itself in her performance (granted, the Czech isn't the most consistent player, under any circumstance). We don't know, but we might make an educated guess that--to some extent--this kind of pressure also affected Alona Ostapenko. And while we'll never know for sure, we can also speculate about Ana Ivanovic, who just never seemed to quite pull herself together after she won the French Open.

A reason less talked about is mental health vulnerability. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress from trauma all plague athletes, just as they plague everyone else. Having a psychological problem can be devastating, and can cause physical pain, fatigue, increased irritability, an inability to focus, and a loss of interest in one's career.

Closely related is personal stress, caused by such factors as family problems, other relationship problems, or financial problems. In the case of tour athletes, the perception of stress may be magnified because they are traveling and cannot be with their families or significant others (or attorneys), and they may therefore feel powerless and/or excluded.

Also, as we know, the online of abuse of players--primarily, but not entirely--by members of the sports betting community, is a potent source of stress, especially for younger players who lack experience in dealing with really ugly situations.

Then there is the issue of youth, in and of itself. There are some very young players on the tour, and some of them may be even younger in developmental terms, i.e., they may not yet have a level of maturity that matches their age. Given that they probably didn't have "normal" childhoods or adolescent experiences, this isn't a surprise. Some of them may exhibit pseudo-maturity, and are advanced in some ways, but developmentally lagging in others.

Some players take slumps in stride and just go about the business of working their way out of them. A coach should be able to address the slump with the player and help her with problem-solving. But in order to do that, the coach needs to understand what is really going on. That means s/he has to be someone whom the player trusts.

Some players seek the services of sports psychologists or other sports psychology clinicians, which is a good thing, but I wonder whether they may also need to see regular psychotherapists. And that brings up another problem: How can you engage in psychotherapy when you're always traveling? I'm not a fan of tele-psychotherapy, but in this case, it would certainly be better than nothing.

Of course, there's always the possibility that a slump isn't caused by any of these things--that it just appears, like spot of bad weather, and then passes. My guess is that this type of slump is most likely caused by mental fatigue, or a bad match that erodes confidence.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Remembering the Virginia Slims tour

From 1984 through 1987, New Orleans hosted a Virginia Slims tournament. The first four years, the event was played on indoor carpet at the Lakefront Arena; the final year, it was played on hard courts in City Park, an atmosphere I found inferior to the indoor one.

New Orleans wasn't one of the original Virginia Slims venues, but got the event when Detroit was forced to give it up (that venue lost its main sponsor, the Junior League of Detroit).

Of the five tournaments that were played in the Crescent City, Chris Evert won three and Martina Navratilova won two. Navratilova and Evert were also on the championship doubles teams (with Pam Shriver and Wendy Turnbull, respectively) the first two years of the event.

I loved attending the Virginia Slims matches. They were the first professional matches I'd ever seen that weren't on my television. The atmosphere was very relaxed. I recall, one year, no one had bothered to tell one of the top players about the city's unpredictable, thrill ride of a public transportation system, and play was delayed because she had taken the bus to the stadium. Rather than being upset, fans just shook their heads knowingly and crossed their fingers.

Some really good players came to New Orleans over the years. In addition to Evert, Navratilova, Shriver, and Turnbull, we had Anne Smith, Lori McNeil, Zina Garrison, Sylvia Hanika, Kathy Rinaldi, Bettina Bunge, Elise Burgin, Gigi Fernandez, and Monica Seles.

The purse was generally around $150,000.

The Virginia Slims Circuit was founded in 1970 by the Original 9, when they broke off from the USLTA because of the extreme pay inequality between male and female players. The Virginia Slims Circuit was a creation of the heart, and while some people were not pleased that a sports organization was taking money from a tobacco company, it wasn't like the founders had a choice. "You've come a long way, baby," the company's female empowerment advertising slogan, took on a whole new meaning when it funded what would eventually become the WTA.