Friday, May 31, 2019

Everyhing feels crazy, and yes--it's the French Open

I love the French Open. It's in Paris, and it's played on clay courts. What's not to like, other than the official app? The French Open is my favorite major because I like to watch players compete on clay, which is somewhat of a neutralizer and therefore encourages more creative players to shine.

I always expect the unexpected at Roland Garros, and I always get it. Unfortunately, this year, some of the unexpected involves injury and illness, and that's never a good thing. I'm especially sad that Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova had to withdraw, and that Kiki Bertens had to retire because of what sounds like a wicked viral illness (or food poisoning). I picked Bertens as the most likely player to win the event.

So we lost Maria, Petra and Kiki, and we also lost Caroline Wozniacki, Bianca Andreescu, 2017 champion Alona Ostapenko, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Angie Kerber, recently injured, went out in the first round.


But even with the injuries and Bertens' illness (still the biggest shock, for me), there's already a lot of shaking up of the draw. Today, 2nd seed and Rome champion Karolina Pliskova was upset in the third round by Petra Martic. Martic, back from her own injury woes and better than ever, can beat almost anyone on clay on a given day, and she eliminated Pliskova in straight sets.

Both of the French hopes--a back-on-track Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia--are gone. 

Hsieh Su-Wei is gone, as are Maria Sakkari, Dasha Kasatkina, Aryna Sabalenka, Elise Mertens, Belinda Bencic, and Elina Svitolina. Still standing are defending champion Simona Halep, world number 1 Naomi Osaka, 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza (def. Svitolina), 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens, Anastasija Sevastova, Madison Keys, Ash Barty, and Serena Williams.

Tomorrow, the third round will be completed. Halep will face Lesia Tsurenko, who had to fight for over three hours in a two-day span to defeat Aleks Krunic 5-7, 7-5, 11-9. Williams will face countrywoman Sonya Kenin, and Osaka will compete against Katerina Siniakova, who upset Sakkari.

And speaking of Siniakova--she and partner Barbora Krejcikova, the top doubles seeds, were upset in the first round, making their 2019 season even more miserable than it already was. At this point, I'll be surprised if this team holds together much longer.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lucie Safarova retires, and tennis will be a little less delightful for it

Lucie Safarova--former stalwart of the mighty Czech Fed Cup team, former French Open finalist, and elite doubles competitor--was supposed to retire from professional tennis after the Australian Open. Unfortunately, tendonitis in her wrist forced the Czech veteran to withdraw from the season's first major, and so she wrapped up her career by playing in one last Fed Cup tie, then competing in Prague, where she was given a lovely send-off.

She still wasn’t quite finished, though, but neither was her bad luck. Safarova entered the 2019 French Open in doubles, but her long-time doubles partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, had to withdraw. Safarova teamed with Dominika Cibulkova, and they lost in the first round, ending the Czech’s celebrated career.

Safarova, whose laidback “Coffee with Lucie” persona made her a fan favorite, was at her best when she took her lefty game to the clay courts. She reached her first major semifinal, however, at Wimbledon in 2014. She was defeated in that match by eventual champion and countrywoman Petra Kvitova.

The next year, Safarova reached the final of the French Open. On her way, she took out notable clay player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza (who would win the event in 2016), and 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic. Safarova then lost to Serena Williams in the three-set final.

Also in 2015, the Czech star entered the singles top 5 for the first time in her career. Unfortunately—just as her singles career was peaking—Safarova contracted a serious bacterial infection which kept her off the court for a long time. Even more unfortunate, Safarova developed reactive arthritis as a result of having the infection. Her illness and its complications kept her out of the 2016 Australian season.

As notable a singles player as Safarova was, she was a superstar in doubles. During a period between 2015 and 2017, she and Bethanie Mattek-Sands won five majors—two Australian Opens, two French Opens and one U.S. Open.

Safarova won seven singles titles and 15 doubles titles. She was a stand-out member of the six-time champion Czech Fed Cup team for a total of 13 years, and she was on the Czech Olympic team in 2008, 2012 and 2016. In 2016, she and Barbora Strycova won an Olympic bronze medal in doubles.

Safarova’s 17-year career would probably have gone on were it not for health and injury concerns. It was, nevertheless, a long and very fruitful career. Both Safarova and her friend and doubles partner, Mattek-Sands, have struggled mightily with physical setbacks, yet they still managed to win five majors and six other titles.

Safarova made her mark not only as a dangerous lefty and an elite doubles champion, but also as a personable and good-humored sportswoman. The chemistry between her and Mattek-Sands made them an especially dynamic team, and fans will miss them. I imagine just about everyone will miss Lucie, who leaves behind a legacy of hard work, impressive results, and graceful strength.

Friday, May 24, 2019

French Open first round has my attention

A first glance at the French Open draw got my attention; a lot could happen in that opening round. Here are some of the more interesting matches:

Naomi Osaka (1) vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova--Poor Schmiedy, she just can't catch a break. Just over a year ago, Schmiedlova redeemed her flagging career by winning Bogota, but since then, she's gone back into slump mode, which surprises me. Clay is her best surface, so she'll need to bring the very best version of that lovely backhand.

Alona Ostapenko vs. Vika Azarenka: The 2017 champion hasn't exactly faded away, but she isn't playing anywhere near her considerable potential. Azarenka, on the other hand, is looking very good.

Caroline Garcia (24) vs. Mona Barthel: This can't be whom Garcia wants to see on the other side of the net in the first round. The Frenchwoman has picked her game up recently, and she has the potential to go deep at this event. But Barthel, when she's on, can be a real problem on a clay court.

Simona Halep (3) vs. Ajla Tomljanovic: The defending champion could also have drawn an easier opponent than Tomljanovic. The good news is that she may get just the workout she needs to put her on the right path.

Aryna Sabalenka (11) vs. Dominika Cibulkova: Cibulkova isn't the threat that she used to be, but these days, Sabalenka isn't the threat she's purported to be. This will be a hard-hitting, possibly interesting, match.

Polona Hercog vs. Aliaksandra Sasnovich: This is practically guaranteed to be a match worth watching. Hercog is back on track, and Sasnovich is a player to watch.

Venus Williams vs. Elina Svitolina (9): Clay has never been Williams' best surface. Svitolina is the one with the pressure, though (I assume): She has yet to get past the quarterfinals at a major. I still think that the breakthrough is coming; however, given Svitolina's recent knee injury, the chances aren't that good that it will occur in Paris.

Kaia Kanepi vs. Julia Goerges (18): The German star's fortunes have suffered lately because of a wrist injury. She's vulnerable (otherwise, I would expect her to go rather deep into the tournament). If her wrist is working, she should be okay. If not, giant-killer Kanepi is always happy to make some seed's life miserable.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Lightning in a bottle is still lightning

Some fans like to say that a particular upset or a particular victory is a "fluke," but to call an achievement a fluke is to make something negative of it, and--unless cheating is involved--a victory isn't a negative thing. By the same token, so many commentators, fans and even players say of a player: "She deserved to win." Who, I ask--unless there is cheating involved--doesn't "deserve" to win? But the implication is clear: If one deserves to win at a given time, then sometimes one does not. That is simply incorrect.

Sometimes a player has an especially good season, and then the next season comes around, and she's in a slump. Fans and the tennis media tend to focus on the slump, and not the achievements. Given the human brain's anthropological need to focus on negative factors, there is little doubt that the player, also, focuses on the slump. And to some degree, this is necessary, if she is to overcome it. But it can also prevent the very outcome the player seeks.

This is a tricky balancing act for all of us--working to overcome our deficiencies while not becoming so focused on them that they dictate our future. For a professional athlete, learning to work that balance is crucial. If it doesn't come natural to a player to do that (or if she doesn't have the kind of epiphany that Kiki Bertens did), a coach can help. And if a coach cannot help, then a sports psychologist or other mental health clinician can.

Sometimes, however, try as she might, a player cannot get back the magic, or she gets it back, then loses it again. This is when belief and positive memory can make a difference.

Regardless, a player's accomplishments--whether transient or consistent--are still accomplishments, and should be celebrated. Kiki Bertens overcame some major demons by realizing that she didn't enjoy her victories--she saw them as merely finished products that paved the way to the next hard grind. This realization caused her to start relishing her accomplishments, which led to increased enjoyment, which led to--well, we all know where it led.

"But she never won a major" is a phrase we sometimes hear. And that is indeed disappointing to fans and, undoubtedly, to the player, but it does not invalidate her career. And that brings to mind a phrase I especially dislike: "one-slam wonder." (First of all, I dislike it because a major is not a "slam" or a "grand slam"--it's a major.) Calling someone a one-major wonder immediately invalidates both the player and her amazing accomplishment.

Gabriela Sabatini, Iva Majoli, Conchita Martinez, Ana Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone, Marion Bartoli, and Flavia Pennetta each did something that very few athletes will ever do: They reached a pinnacle of achievement in their sport. To not give them full credit for their victories because they reached this pinnacle only once is both inaccurate and mean-spirited.

Professional tennis is a brutal career, filled with grueling court and gym training, successive injuries, jet lag, separation from the home environment, psychological stress, long hours, and chronic--sometimes obscene--attacks from so-called fans. One player's personal best will never be another player's.

And that brings me to another phrase I don't like--"over-achieve." To say that a player over-achieves is to automatically place a limit on her potential. One day she might be a reliable German journeywoman, and the next day, she might become Angie Kerber. But even if she doesn't become a major champion (and very, very few players will), every match and every tournament she wins is a thing to be celebrated, not a thing to be minimized, dismissed, or compared with the achievements of another player.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Fighting Italian, a hard-hitting Frenchwoman, and--in Rome--a very clever Spaniard

The 2010 clay season will always be remembered (as well it should be) for the emergence of Francesca Schiavone as the French Open champion, but--so dramatic was that emergence--it may be easy to forget some of the other drama that occurred.

Aravane Rezai surprised the tennis world by winning Madrid. The very hard-hitting Frenchwoman, known for her metallic-colored dresses, began delivering her surprises in the very first round. The unseeded Rezai upset five-time French Open champion Justine Henin, and that defeat included a 6-0 third set.

A Tennis Channel commentator remarked that Rezai "cruised through the rest of the tournament," but he was obviously watching a different event. Rezai had to fight hard to get to the final. She beat Klara Zakapalova in the second round, but had to play the thriller of the tournament (and probably one of the best matches of the season) in the next round against a very in-form Andrea Petkovic. Petkovic, though she saved six match points, was finally overcome by the Frenchwoman, who defeated her 6-4, 7-6 (8).

Next came Jelena Jankovic, and Rezai had to fight like mad to win that one, too especially in the first set (do you think that, at Tennis Channel, they don't even watch the matches?). She got a break in the semifinals, when Lucie Safarova had to retire after the first set. Then, in the final, Rezai faced Venus Williams. The unseeded Frenchwoman began the match by holding a first serve win percentage of 100; needless to say, she won that set.

Rezai then went down 2-5 in the second set, but she rallied, saved six set points, and suddenly, held three match points. She won the championship on her first one, defeating Williams 6-2, 7-5, and becoming the second unseeded player to win a premier WTA event.

That was a lot of drama, but there was also quite a bit of drama in Rome that year when another unseeded player, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, took that title. Her draw was impressive. After beating Alla Kudryavtseva in the opening round, she then defeated soon-to-be French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, Caroline Wozniacki, Lucie Safarova, and 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic.

Martinez Sanchez's opponent in the final was two-time (2007, 2008) Rome champion Jelena Jankovic, who had knocked out Serena Williams in the semifinals. Jankovic was highly favored to win her third Italian Open title, but the tricky Spaniard with the tricky serve had other ideas.

Making Jankovic run generally doesn't have the effect of making some other players run. The Serbian star, in her day, loved to run. But this was the final, both players had to be a bit tired, and Martinez Sanchez made sure that Jankovic ran plenty--both vertically and horizontally. With her sharp lefty serve and her slices, spins and volleys, the Spaniard had a lot to throw at Jankovic. She also had a cunning drop shot, which--in the end--worked for her even when Jankovic got to it, because going for it only increased the Serbian player's fatigue.

But Martinez Sanchez wasn't just hitting a lot of drop shots--she was using the drop shot as a return of serve. This very clever strategy enraged some fans, who said the Spaniard wasn't playing "real" tennis. Really? I thought the object was to win the match.

It was quite a spectacle, what with Jankovic running all over the court and falling down multiple times until her lime kit was caked in red clay. Toward the end of the second set, the pair engaged in rapid-fire volleying right at the net, which thrilled spectators.

Martinez Sanchez, who hit 44 winners, defeated Jankovic 7-6, 7-5, in a truly stunning championship match. "You were killing me with those drop shots," Jankovic said to her at the trophy ceremony.

What made Martinez Sanchez's victory even more dramatic was that she was known as a talented player whose nerves tended to betray her when she faced top players. But for some reason, that year in Rome, the Spaniard kept her nerves intact and completed what was possibly the most entertaining run of the season.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The French Open--always a beautiful mystery

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
The French Open, my favorite major, will begin soon, and--as always--it's a bit of a mystery as to who will win it. That makes the already-thrilling event even more interesting!

Who can win the French Open?

Defending champion Simona Halep: There is no doubt (at least in my mind) that if anyone can defend a French Open title, it's the Romanian star. Halep is looking better than ever, and her confidence--sometimes a wavering factor--appears stable. But there are others who could take the title away from her, and key among them is Dutch star......

Kiki Bertens: Madrid champion Bertens is being widely touted as a potential 2019 French Open champion. I join those who think that her chances are very good, but then, I said several years ago that I thought Bertens (this was before she became a "thing") could win at Roland Garros. Is this her year? I would pick her over anyone in the field, including Halep. Her confidence is high, and she has richly enhanced her game, especially her serve. Always excellent on clay, Bertens is now truly dangerous.

Caroline Garcia: The Frenchwoman used to hate playing on any center court, and especially in Paris, but she has matured a lot, her clay game is solid, and she will have the crowd solidly behind her whenever she's on the court. She's definitely a contender.

Garbine Muguruza: Yes, I know that Muguruza's game is kind of a mess, and that she is one of the most (if not the most) inconsistent champions ever, but there's a switch in the Spaniard that sometimes gets turned on at majors. When that switch is turned on, Muguruza becomes the most fluid ball-striker to be found anywhere. She has won the French Open already, which is always an advantage.

Elina Svitolina: Yes, I also know that waiting for Svitolina to win a major is like waiting for Tennis Channel commentators to pronounce players' names correctly. But I still believe that it's going to happen, and who konws? Unfortunately, she's been struggling with a knee injury, but if she recovers in time for Paris, she's on the list (albeit at the very edge).

Petra Kvitova: I heard a commentator say yesterday that Kvitova now has belief in her clay court skills, and I don't know where she got that information, because--no matter how many clay court tournaments she wins--the Barking Czech has always had trouble believing in her clay court skills. Also, the clay titles that she has won have involved faster-playing courts than those used at the French Open. But I'm still naming her a contender because she is playing quite well and it doesn't seem right to omit her from the list.

Angelique Kerber: Yes, she's currently dealing with an ankle injury, and she recently had to deal with a viral illness. Yes, she has always shied away from stating a belief that she could win at Roland Garros. But Kerber, like Muguruza, can pop up and win anything at the least expected time. (I put her on the list with the caveat that she fully recovers from the ankle injury.)

Then there are the players who perhaps should be on a contender list, but they are not:

Alona Ostapenko: The 2017 French Open champion has not made the changes to her game that are needed for her to be an elite player. If anyone on the tour needs a coach who is able to force those changes, it's Ostapenko, and I hope she finds one because she is too talented (and far too entertaining) to slip down the rankings they way she has.

Julia Goerges: As recently as a year ago, I considered Goerges a dark horse to win the title, but she has been dealing with a neck injury and has a way to go before she can get back to her previous level.

Sloane Stephens: The 2018 runner-up could surprise me, but I just can't go with her because of her inconsistency. I know that Muguruza is inconsistent, too, but for me, the Spaniard is in a different--albeit strange--category.

Daria Kasatkina: This should be the year that Kasatkina makes the contender list, but the Russian player is somewhat of a mess right now. I hope that she (and her beautiful game) can make the contender list next year.

Obviously, I have omitted Naomi Osaka from the contender list. Others, I'm sure, will disagree. But I just don't see Osaka winning in Paris this year.