Saturday, June 29, 2019

Several players look like potential Wimbledon champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 9, 2019

My French Open top 10

all photos by Diane Elayne Dees

Here are my top 10 French Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Is it clay or mud, and is it in my eye?: The weather was a very big factor in this year's French Open--not just the rain, but the wind, which sometimes gusted at high levels. Not only was scheduling (already a disaster) made worse, but players sometimes had to compete in very difficult conditions.

9. Scheduling by Paris, consulting by Wimbledon: This was the worst scheduling most of us can recall at a major, and while Wimbledon does a much better job of scheduling in general, the trashing of the women's tour was a reflection of what has gone in London for years.

8. Keep calm and serve like crazy: Jo Konta, for several years the great British hope, hasn't had a very good season, and her record at Roland Garros has been abysmal. But this year, after making four consecutive first-round exits, Konta reached the semifinals, stunning the tennis world. She has definitely worked on clay skills, but--most significantly--she has developed a killer serve, which is a huge help on any surface. She took out the talented Donna Vekic, and she also defeated 7th seed and 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens. She was stopped by an inspired Marketa Vondrousova in the semifinals, but what a run it was!

7. Edge of Seventeen: Granted, Amanda Anisimova is on the far edge of 17 (she'll be 18 on August 31), but she was nevertheless the youngest semifinalist at Roland Garros since Martina Hingis reached the final four in 1997. She defeated  11th seed Aryna Sabalenka (just as she did at the Australian Open, where she reached the round of 16) in the first round, she defeated Irina-Camelia Begu, and--in the quarterfinals--she took out defending champion and 3rd seed Simona Halep. Anisimova fell to eventual champion Ash Barty, but--again--what a run!

6. Don't look now, but here comes another Czech!: Petra Kvitova had to withdraw from the tournament, Karolina Pliskova was upset in the second round, but no worries--there are plenty of really good Czechs to go around. First, Katerina Siniakova upset world number 1 Naomi Osaka in the third round. But, more significantly, up-and-comer Marketa Vondrousova made it all the way to the final, and she did it without dropping a set. Vondrousova, like other top Czech players, can hit laser-like groundstrokes. But she can also find a way to mysteriously appear on almost every part of the court, as needed. Vondrousova finally dropped a set--two sets, in fact--and lost the final, in which she appeared to be a mere shadow of herself.

5. Best remix of the year: Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig defended their 2018 title, defeating 2nd seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Mate Pavic in straight sets in the final. Dabrowski and Pavic were the winning team's opponents in 2018, also. Chan and Dodig are the first team to win consecutive championships in the history of the French Open.

4. The Paris art scene: It was a third round match, and not one that received any particular attention, but the match played between 20th seed Elise Mertens and 12th seed Anastasija Sevastova was a thing of great beauty. Of all the matches I watched, it was easily the best. It went on for three hours and 18 minutes, and had the flavor of those two Schiavone vs. Kuznetsova matches that captivated our attention several years ago. The match were not as long, but it contained one crucial feature: At no time was there a drop in quality. Mertens and Sevastova played their hearts out, went at each other with serving, slicing, dop shots, overheads, long baseline rallies, and just plain artistry. Sevastova won, 6-7, 6-4, 11-9 (after saving five match points) and--not altogether surprisingly--was easily upset in the next round.

3. Diede De Great is now Diede De Greater: Top wheelchair seed Diede De Groot won both the singles title and the doubles title (with Aniek Van Koot). In singles, De Groot defeated two-time defending champion (and 2nd seed) Yui Kamiji. The French Open champion is now the only player of any kind to ever hold a double career slam: She completed her career slam in doubles earlier this year in Australia.

2. Old friends, new title: Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the 2019 doubles title, defeating Duan Yingying and Zheng Saisai in straight sets in the final. They also won the Australian Open in 2018, and Mladenovic won the French Open with Caroline Garcia in 2016. As of tomorrow, Mladenovic is the number 1 doubles player in the world.

1. Barty breaks through: It was only a matter of time before Ash Barty won a major, but not many expected her to make her breakthrough in Paris. But the Australian star is not exactly conventional insofar as her career route is concerned, so maybe we shouldn't have been too surprised to see her lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Her performance throughout the tournament was smooth and steady, and she kept her cool through the many long, rainy, windy hours. The final should have been very exciting--Marketa Vondrousova was on fire in Paris--but the Czech player just wasn't up to the occasion (she says it wasn't nerves, but I just can't bring myself to believe that). Barty, however, was more than up to it, and defeated Vondrousova 6-1, 6-3 in the final. An outstanding player in both singles and doubles, Barty is now on threat on every surface.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Aussie Aussie Aussie!--Oui Oui Oui!

Today, Ash Barty played an almost flawless match to win the 2019 French Open. The Australian star--long known as a standout in doubles--has been on the cusp of winning a huge singles trophy for a while. In fact, it appeared inevitable, though most observers would not have guessed that she would start by winning in Paris. I didn't think she would win today, but I wasn't expecting her opponent to go to pieces mentally, either.

What I was expecting was a thrilling, three-set match from which Marketa Vondrousova would emerge the winner. What we got was a very sub-par Vondrousova and a next-to-perfect Barty.

When Barty easily won the first set, I thought about Vondrousova's "Comeback Queen" title that she had earned during her two weeks in Paris. She had to come from behind over and over, and I wondered if she would do it again today. During the second set, she pulled herself together and picked up her game, seeming to go into Comeback Queen mode.

But Barty was having none of it, and Vondrousova never fully transformed herself into the player who had confounded opponents by seemingly being everywhere on the court at once and hitting laser-like shots into corners.


Ash Barty is an athlete's athlete. Her movement appears effortless, her focus is always steady, and she remains calm at all times. Also, her considerable doubles skills serve her quite well in singles competition.

Barty broke Vondrousova five times and was broken only once. She had rather interesting first and second serve win percentages of 62 and 76, and she was successful at the net in 15 of her 20 attempts. She got the 6-1, 6-3 victory in an hour and ten minutes.

As for the very talented Vondrousova--it's a shame that she (quite obviously) let the occasion get to her. (On the other hand, she is a lefty Czech, so we may have to exercise some patience.)

Barty was always going to be a threat at Wimbledon, and now that she has won a major--with all the confidence that that brings--she's more of a threat than ever.

Friday, June 7, 2019

An Aussie and a Czech--one of them will be the 2019 French Open champion

I wasn't exactly awake, so it was easy for me to imagine that the Anisimova-Barty semifinal match was a confusing dream. But no, Ash Barty really did go up 5-0 in the first set. And she really did lose the set. And after losing that set 6-7, the Australian star turned on a switch that caught fire while--on the other side of the net--Anisimova's own motor wound down.

The 17-year-old, who had played so brilliantly throughout the French Open--not dropping a set through the quarterfinals--was visibly struggling, though some of that may have been mental. Barty won the match 6-7, 6-3, 6-3. She was especially dominant in the third set, when Asinimova was making the kind of errors that almost cost her the opening set.


Meanwhile, the teenage contingent scored a big one when Marketa Vondrousova defeated Jo Konta 7-5, 7-6 in the other semifinal. Konta, whose serve has been an outstanding feature of the French Open this year, served well, but could not find the serving brilliance that had taken her to the semifinals. That made it a bit easier for Vondrousova to challenge the British star, and challenge her she did.


Vondrousova has operated under the radar throughout the tournament. Even her teen credentials (she's 19) were outshone by Anisimova's youth. For that matter, Vondrousova has operated under the radar throughout the season, and it appears to have served her well. The young Czech lefty (those two words go together so well!) owns an arsenal of shots that can wreak havoc on any opponent. Her performance during today's second set tiebreak was, at times, breathtaking, and culminated with a drop shot on match point.

I should add that Vondrousova has had successive come-from-behind moments at this French Open, and she has remained calm and steady through all of them, finding ways to win either a set or a match, even though she was behind in the score. The Czech player has yet to drop a set.

This is, I think, going to be a delicious final. Both players are keen shot-makers, both are good strategists, and both are mentally strong. Barty has never considered herself a clay court player, but she probably does now. The truth is, Ash Barty is brilliant on every surface.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Jessica Pegula
round 2--def. Danielle Collins
round 3--def. Andrea Petkovic
round of 16--def. Sonya Kenin
quarterfinals--def. Madison Keys (14)
semifinals--def. Amanda Anisimova

round 1--def. Wang Yafan
round 2--def. Anastasia Potapova
round 3--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (28)
round of 16--def. Anastasia Sevastova (12)
quarterfinals--def. Petra Martic (31)
semifinals--def. Jo Konta (26)

Meanwhile, for the second year in a row, Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig have won the mixed doubles title. In the final, they defeated Gabriela Dabrowski and Mate Pavic 6-1, 7-6.

And in doubles, the final is set: 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic will face off against Duan Yingying and Zheng Saisai. In the semifinals, Babos and Mladenovic defeated 6th seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka 6-2, 6-1. Duan and Zheng defeated 15th seeds Kirsten Flipkens and Johanna Larsson.

In wheelchair singles competition, it's 2018 all over again: 2nd seed and defending champion Yui Kamiji will compete against top seed and 2018 runner-up Diede DeGroot in the final. In the semifinals, Kamiji defeated Marjolein Buis, and DeGroot defeated Aniek Van Koot.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The fascinating final four

Many years ago, a cute teenager with pigtails came on the scene and, for a while, made the great Chris Evert's tennis life miserable. Evert would later say of Tracy Austin: "I looked across the net, and I saw myself."

I thought of that this morning when I watched Amanda Anisimova work her geometrics on the court, all the while hitting laser-like shots into the corners--against Simona Halep. The 17-year-old, inspired by the 2018 French Open champion's backhand, has developed a backhand worthy of that inspiration, and today, she used it to take Halep out of the tournament. For a while in the second set, Halep appeared to be taking the contest into her own hands, and one couldn't help but suspect that the correlating activity--the inexperienced opponent would fade just as Halep staged her comeback--would occur.

But it didn't. Anisimova, faced with a resurgent Halep, brushed herself off and went at Halep again, this time sealing the match at 6-2, 6-4. As impressive as Anisimova's game was, even more impressive was that she stood on Court Philippe Chatrier....against the defending the quarterfinals--and she closed the match.

The teen's opponent in the semifinals will be Ash Barty, who won her quarterfinal against Madison Keys, also in straight sets. Anisimova will have her hands full as she goes against both Barty's athleticism and her impressive adaptability on the court. It is now clear that the Australian is a threat on all surfaces.


The other semifinal will feature Marketa Vondrousova and Jo Konta. Vondrousova's quarterfinal against Petra Martic was a splendid match to watch. Martic entered that match with a 4-0 record against the young Czech, but her history wasn't quite enough to take her over the line; Vondrousova defeated her 7-6, 7-5. This had to be a heartbreaker for Martic fans, and those who so wanted the best for her, after the injury woes she's had. (I was cheering for her, myself; she's a sentimental favorite of mine, and I've always enjoyed her game.) Vondrousova's rise has been dramatic, and will undoubtedly continue.

And then there is Konta, who--since her slump--has turned herself into a serving machine. Why more players don't do this is beyond me. Konta has always had the skills to play high-level tennis, but now she can exert so much more control. She thumped Sloane Stephens (last year's runner-up) off the court, 6-1, 6-4 in an hour and eleven minutes. Konta had first and second serve win percentages of 86 and 50, she hit 25 winners, and made thirteen unforced errors. It doesn't get much better than that.

Of the four semifinalists, only Barty, the eighth seed, is in the top 10. Konta is seeded number 26, and both Anisimova and Vondrousova are unseeded. It was only two years ago that an unseeded player, Alona Ostapenko, won the French Open.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The ones who almost won the French Open

Many times, a player is a finalist at a major one year, and then, in a year or two (or more), she becomes the champion. But not all runners-up ever get to hold the bigger trophy. Here are some French Open finalists from the last 25 years who had to be content with their runner-up trophies:

Martina Hingis
Most fans assumed that Hingis would win at Roland Garros at some point, and in 1997, having already won the Australian Open, she was the top seed in Paris. Hingis knocked off Aranxta Sanchez Vicario and Monica Seles, but was stopped in the final by Iva Majoli. She would go on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but Majoli stopped her from winning the Grand Slam. Two years later, Hingis beat defending champion Sanchez Vicario in the semifinals, but lost the final to Steffi Graf.

Conchita Martinez
Also expected by many to win the French Open, Martinez reached the final in 2000, only to lose to Mary Pierce. Martinez won only one major, Wimbledon (1994), the last one she was ever expected to win.

Kim Clijsters

Clijsters lost a heartbreaking final to Jennifer Capriati in 2001. Capriati defeated her 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. The Belgian star would get another shot at the title in 2003, but she lost again, this time to countrywoman and rival Justine Henin, who won the first set 6-0.

Venus Williams
Venus was a French Open finalist only once, in 2002, and she lost the final to her sister, Serena.

Elena Demetieva
In 2004, Anastasia Myskina won her only major, defeating countrywoman Dementieva 6-1, 6-2 in the final. This was the breakthrough year for Russia; Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon and Svetlana Kuznetsova won the U.S. Open.

Dinara Safina
This Russian had two chances, but couldn't capitalize on either. In 2008, she lost to Ana Ivanovic, and in 2009, she lost to countrywoman Kuznetsova.

Samantha Stosur
Stosur did a lot of heavy lifting in the 2010 event: She took out Simona Halep, Justine Henin, Serena Williams, and Jelena Jankovic. It was a brilliant run--until the Australian met the deeply inspired Francesca Schiavone in the final. Schiavone, in one of the most riveting French Open finals ever played, defeated Stosur 6-4, 7-6.

Sara Errani
One of the four Fighting Italians of her era, Errani lost to Maria Sharapova in the 2012 final.

Lucie Safarova
Safarova made it to the final in 2015 by going crazy on all kinds of opponents. She took out Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, two-time champion Maria Sharapova, soon-to-be champion Garbine Muguruza, and former champion Ivanovic. But she couldn't keep her amazing run going all the way; she lost to Serena Williams in the three-set final.

Of all of the above "almost won" French Open finalists, four--Dementieva, Safina, Errani, and Safarova--did not win any majors. The 2018 runner-up, Sloane Stephens, is still standing at the 2019 French Open.

Two former French Open champions still standing as 3rd round is completed

Five former champions entered the 2019 French Open, but--as of today--only two remain. Those two are 2018 champion (and 2017 runner-up) Simona Halep, and 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza.

Before today, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2017 champion Alona Ostapenko had already been eliminated from competition. Today, it was Serena Williams, who won the event in 2002, 2013 and 2015. Williams was defeated in straight sets by countrywoman Sonya Kenin, who--though unpolished--clearly has the ability to pull off this kind of upset.

But three-time champion Williams wasn't the only one to make an exit today. Katerina Siniakova took out world number 1 Naomi Osaka in straight sets. Siniakova's doubles career isn't going too well this season (despite the fact that she's part of the world number 1 team), but her singles career got a big pick-me-up today in Paris.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Katerina Siniakova vs. Madison Keys (14): Keys had to fight to get past her third round opponent, and she'll have to fight to get past Siniakova. Skills-wise, Keys has everything it takes to advance to the quarterfinals, but if she gets into one of her inconsistent patches, Siniakova won't be shy about exploiting it.

Sonya Kenin vs. Ash Barty (8): Can Kenin pull off another huge upset? Barty, who has turned out to be somewhat of a revelation on clay (is there anything the Australian can't do?) will be a very tough customer for her.

Simona Halep (3) vs. Iga Swiatek: The defending champion probably never thought that Swiatek would be her opponent during the business end of the tournament. However, the young (she became 18 yesterday) Polish player won the girls' singles title last year at Wimbledon and the girls' doubles title at the French Open, also last year.  She's played in seven ITF finals and has won all of them. She is, in other words, quite the competitor. My best guess is that she won't be too rattled by having to play Halep in the fourth round, and that she'll make an impression on fans.

Amanda Anisimova vs. Aliona Bolsova (Q): This should be good. Bolsova has already knocked out the likes of Timea Babos, Sorana Cirstea andVera Zvonareva. 17-year-old Anisimova, for her part, has defeated 11th seed Arnya Sabalenka and Irina-Camelia Begu. If there's a "popcorn match," this may be it.

Sloane Stephens (7) vs. Garbine Muguruza (19): This is the match to watch--the former champion vs. last year's runner-up. One never knows what to expect from Stephens, but--so far--her casual elegance on the tennis court has paid off in Paris. They are both such smooth hitters, and when they're at their best, they both make it look so easy. They have played each other only twice, both times were on hard courts, and they are 1-1 against each other. Muguruza is even more mercurial than Stephens, so--in my opinion--it doesn't do much good to try to figure out what will happen.

Donna Vekic (23) vs. Jo Konta (26): Konta has been a total surprise on clay this season; Vekic, not so much. Vekic--who has finally begun to lean into her considerable potential--has already defeated 15th seed Belinda Bencic.

Marketa Vondrousova vs. Anastaija Sevastova (12): When Sevastova has her head about her, she's tough to beat on clay. Assuming she continues to have her head about her, it will be hard for the young Czech to get past her. Vondrousova, however, is pretty clever in her own right.

Kaia Kanepi vs. Petra Martic (31): Kanepi can into a zone and use her big hitting to upset a lot of higher-ranked players, but Martic is very much at home on a clay court and is likely to be too much for Kanepi to handle.