Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Sharapova, the wounded warrior, retires from professional tennis


 

Maria Sharapova--having sustained the wounds of a chronic shoulder injury, incompetent medical care, and a "scandal" in which facts were easily exchanged for sensationalism and mob rule--announced her retirement from professional tennis today. The 32-year-old five-time major champion and Career Slam holder said to Vanity Fair:

"Looking back now, I realize that tennis has been my mountain. My path has been filled with valleys and detours, but the views from its peak were incredible. After 28 years and five Grand Slam titles, though, I’m ready to scale another mountain—to compete on a different type of terrain."

The Russian star shot to fame in 2004 when, at age 17, she defeated Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final, and went on to defeat her again in the WTA Finals that year. Maria and her father had left Russia for the United States when she was a little girl so that she could fulfill her tennis potential. She didn't know the language or the culture, and she had to live without her mother while her father scrapped a living for them and helped her find coaches and facilities. There is no doubt that this difficult situation helped to toughen her.

And tough she was. Known for her serve (that would falter following a shoulder injury and a botched treatment that very likely led to her continued vulnerability) and her blazing groundstrokes, Sharapova was equally known for her mental toughness and fighting spirit. She was able to pull herself together when things went wrong on the court, and she possessed the kind of steely determination that defines truly elite athletes.

In 2006, Sharapova won the U.S. Open, defeating Justine Henin in the final (and wearing a fabulous “little black dress” that sparkled), and then having the trophy lid fall off and almost hit her in the head during the awards ceremony. Then, in 2008, she won the Australian Open, defeating world number 1 Lindsay Davenport in the second round, and Ana Ivanovic in the final.

In April of 2008, Sharapova tore her right rotator cuff, yet her doctors failed to detect the tear. (How doctors could fail to detect a rotator cuff tear remains a mystery.) She continued playing for three more months, not realizing what the problem was. During this time, of course, her injury became much worsse. To make matters worse, this was the second shoulder injury of her career. She finally went to a doctor who diagnosed her correctly, and she underwent surgery. But her problems continued. Sharapova went to Arizona to do her rehab, but it was unsuccessful, so—after playing some more with an injured shoulder—she had to undergo rehab a second time.

Sharapova was never the same after that. Her serve, once the foundation of her game, turned into a shower of double faults. Even the mentally strong Maria struggled mightily with her toss and with her service motion (something similar happened to her countrywoman, Elena Dementieva, who had a good enough serve until she had to have shoulder surgery). But she forged on—did she ever. In 2011, she returned to the top10, but she still had a problem to solve.

Sharapova’s problem was to find a way to win big with a modified skill set that included better movement and footwork, and she solved it in a way that surprised just about everyone—she solved in on clay, where everything was slowed down somewhat. No one, least of all Maria, ever expected her to win the French Open, but in 2012, she did just that, defeating Sara Errani in the final, and thus becoming only the tenth woman to hold a Career Slam. My post about the final is probably my all-time favorite of the many tennis blog posts I’ve written. The occasion had a kind of magic about it, even more so—in my opinion—than the 2004 Wimbledon victory or the glamorous 2006 U.S. Open achievement.

That year, Sharapova also won a silver medal at the Olympic Games.

In 2013, Sharapova launched Sugarpova, a candy company featuring whimsically designed gummy candies. The company has since expanded to include chocolate confections. Sharapova would go on to win the French Open again in 2014, this time, defeating Simona Halep in what the Russian star described as the toughest major final she had ever played.

The injuries continued, and the shoulder became more vulnerable as the years went on, although Sharapova continued to play at a very high level. Then, in 2016, the five-time major champion announced that she had been suspended by WADA for doping. I’m not going to go into the Meldonium affair here, other than to say that I stand today where I stood when it happened:

Having read the full report and the results of all the not-very-scientific-at-all studies, having consulted medical and pharmaceutical specialists, and having looked at the suspicious timing and heard the atrocious words of Craig Reeedie, my conclusion remains—that Sharapova was in error, but not nearly so much as her accusers and her punishers (not to mention some of her peers and numerous members of the sports media and the public). Both WADA and the ITF were, in my opinion, much more at fault than Sharapova.

And as of this writing, there are still no valid scientific studies that indicate that Meldonium is a performance-enhancing substance.




Sharapova, having had her suspension shortened from 24 months to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (who found no significant fault on her part), returned to the tour in 2017 and won her first title in two years in Tianjin. She continued to struggle with injuries, especially those involving her right shoulder.

In 2017, Sharapova’s autobiograpny, Unstoppable: My Life So Far was published. In it, she reveals that she had postponed her retirement because of the ITF ban. The book is personal and entertaining, and reflects a lot of the “edge” that is a highlight of the Russian’s personality.

That edge includes a sharp wit. “Isn’t she back in Poland already?” and “Check her blood pressure” remain my two favorite Sharapova verbal shots.

No review of Sharaapova’s career would be complete without discussing her professional relationship with Serena Williams. Though sometimes called a “rivalry,” it was anything but—Sharapova never defeated Williams again after the 2004 Wimbledon and WTA Finals. The other 19 times they played each other, Williams won. Among those losses to Williams were the 2007 Australian Open final, the 2012 Olympic Games, the 2012 WTA Finals, the 2013 French Open final, and the 2015 Australian Open final.

In addition to her losses to Williams at the above-listed majors, Sharapova also lost the 2011 Wimbledon final to Petra Kvitova, and the 2012 Australian Open final to Victoria Azarenka. She lost the WTA Finals in 2007 to Justine Henin.

Sharapova also had a hard-luck run in Miami, never winning the tournament, but making it to the final five times. The most memorable of those, for me, was the 2012 final. I was on Daniel Island at the time, covering the Family Circle Cup, and several of us headed to the on-site bar to watch the match. I was a fan of Aga Radwanska, and I watched with rapt attention as the tricky Polish player known as The Ninja dismantled Sharapova’s game and defeated her 7-5, 6-4. But nothing I can say about that match could ever come anywhere close to Todd Spiker’s unforgettable take, which you can read here.

Maria Sharapova won 36 singles titles and spent 21 weeks as the world number 1. She played on the Russian Fed Cup team in both 2008 (when Russia won the championship) and 2011, and in the 2011 final, she defeated both Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, though the Czech Republic went on to win the championship. In 2014, Maria was the first of a succession of torch-bearers at the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Sharapova founded the Maria Sharapova Foundation to help children throughout the world achieve their goals, and to fund Chernobyl-related projects.

Like so many elite athletes, Maria Sharapova’s career presents us with some significant “what if?”s. What if she hadn’t sustained a shoulder injury? What if, when she had her second shoulder injury, she hadn’t been under the care of incompetent professionals? What if she hadn’t experienced the ITF ban?

We cannot answer these questions, of course, and even if we could, it would be nothing more than an intellectual exercise. What we do know is how the arc of Sharapova’s long career played out, both on and off the court. Maria brought excitement and a fierce intensity to the tour, and she became an international celebrity, which—in turn—brought attention to the tour and to the sport of tennis. Also, owning a Career Slam, five major singles titles, 36 total singles titles, a Fed Cup championship, and an Olympic silver medal isn’t too shabby, by any standard.

When I saw Sharapova at a press conference in Cincinnati last year, she appeared so world-weary, and I suspected a retirement announcement would come soon. When it did come, today, she said: “Tennis showed me the world—and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth.”

Maria Sharapova will undoubtedly continue to thrive as an entrepreneur and as an activist in her foundation. I suspect there are also other paths that she’ll take, and I look forward to learning what they are. I’ll miss her fighting spirit, her wit, and her one-of-a-kind persona. People are overly fond of saying that a retirement is the “end of an era,” but in Maria’s case, I think that it truly is the end of an era—and what an era it was.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Kenin, Ostapenko, Sevastova--a recipe for Fed Cup thrills

 

Toward the end of last year, Alona Ostapenko began to look like herself again. Now, teamed with coach Marion Bartoli, the 2017 French Open champion is looking more herself than ever (that includes the parts that need work, but I'll maintain hope about those), and she was in full flight this weekend in Everett, Washington when Latvia faced off against the USA in Fed Cup World Group competition.

Ostapenko lost her singles rubber against Serena Williams, but the scoreline--7-6, 7-6--says a lot. The Latvian star's other single rubber was against Australian Open champion and world number 7 Sofia Kenin. I had been looking forward to this. Just last week, I wrote that Kenin reminded me of Ostapenko in that they both have an automatic reset button when things go wrong on court. This is a mental gift that many players just can't seem to attain.

 

Ostapenko won that rubber, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2. The talented Anastasija Sevastova lost to Kenin in straight sets, but came back the next day to defeat Serena Williams (her first-ever Fed Cup singles loss) 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 in a real thriller. But in the deciding doubles rubber, the USA--represented by Kenin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands--handily defeated Ostapenko and Savastova 6-4, 6-0.

Here are the results of the other World Group ties:

Belarus def. Netherlands, 3-2
Russia def. Romania, 3-2
Germany def. Brazil, 3-0 (4-0 with dead rubber)
Spain def. Japan, 3-0 (3-1 with dead rubber)
Switzerland def. Canada, 3-1
Belgium def. Kazakhstan, 3-1
Slovakia def. Great Britain, 3-1

There were some notable upsets. Sara Sorribes Tormo defeated world number 10 Naomi Osaka 6-0, 6-3. Afterwards, Osaka remarked that “For me, I’m kind of dealing with some stuff and I couldn’t mentally get into the match. It’s sort of… my fault.” Also upset was world number 5 Belinda Bencic, who lost in straight sets to 17-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez.

Those of us who live in the USA were out of luck--all ties outside the U.S. were blocked on Fed Cup TV (which we didn't need to watch the USA tie). I'm still waiting to hear back on whether the April ties will be blocked, so I don't know whether to cancel my subscription (which was useless this weekend).

I'm also not at all thrilled with the new format, and doubt that I ever will be.

Finally, there was this!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

My Australian Open top 10




Here are my top 10 Australian Open happenings and phenomena, in ascending order:

10. Australia on fire: The horrible bush fires preceded the Australian Open, and there was talk of postponing the tournament. The atmosphere received the second-worst rating that can be given, and Victoria’s chief health officer called the overnight air quality in Melbourne “the worst in the world.” Nevertheless, after a brief delay, qualifying began, and—sure enough—three of the players sustained significant problems with coughing and weakness.

The atmosphere cleared in time for the main draw to begin, and players contributed to the cause by pledging money for every ace and/or double fault they hit. Simona Halep did something different; not a big producer of aces, the Romanian instead agreed to chip in money every time she gave coach Darren Cahill the evil eye. Halep made it all the way to the semifinals, and the relief fund thereby gained an extra $20,000.

9. The second time is harder: Defending champion and 3rd seed Naomi Osaka lasted until the third round, when she was upset by Coco Gauff in straight sets.

8. The party ends too soon: World number 1 Ash Barty, playing before her home crowd (which isn’t an easy thing to do) looked for all the world like she might just grab the trophy on the final weekend. She knocked out the likes of Polona Hercog, Elena Rybakina, and an in-form (until the second set) 2019 runner-up Petra Kvitova. But then Barty ran into one Sofia Kenin, and—though they were both beset by what appeared to be a case of nerves—it was Kenin who figured out how to make the best of a bad situation, defeating Barty 7-6, 7-5 in the semifianls.

7. It’s so dark, I can’t see the women:
No big women’s matches were played at night. On a personal, self-serving level, I benefited from this because I was able to watch all of the big WTA matches. But there was absolutely no excuse for this kind of scheduling.

6. New partner, same trophy:
Barbora Krejcikova defended her mixed doubles title, this time with partner Nikola Mektic. Last year, the Czech doubles star won the trophy while playing with Rajeev Ram.

5. As good as it gets:
4th seed Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza put on the best show of the tournament in their semifinal. Someone had to lose, and that was Halep, but the quality of play by both opponents was exceedingly high.

4. The upset of the tournament:
Most fans probably didn’t see it; most fans proably didn’t even think about it. But Zhenzhen Zhu, playing in her first major, upset top seed and all-around major wheelchair tennis threat Diede De Groot in the quarterfinals. De Groot’s defense was stunning—she saved eight match points—but toward the end of the match, her serve let her down. Then De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, the top doubles seeds, lost the doubles final to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

Kamiji swept the tournament, also winning the singles championship by defeating Van Koot in the final.

3. It was so much fun, we did it again: 2018 champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the Australian Open doubles championship again, this time by defeating top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova in the final. This is the team’s third major championship; they also won the 2019 French Open.

2. Do do that Mugu that you do so well:
She’s……back! Two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, who has been wandering around in who-knows-what shadow world for a couple of years, entered this year’s Australian Open in a not very auspicious way—she had the flu. Indeed, it looked as though she would have to retire after the first set of her opening round. But Muguruza, back from a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season, found a way to carry on, and carry on she did. In fact, she almost won the tournament. And though her loss in the final has to hurt deeply, the good news is that Mugu has returned to the top of the WTA mountain, where she belongs.

1.“What? Like, it’s hard?”: During the tournament, U.S. commentators barely acknowledged that Sofia Kenin existed. They just carried on with their Coco mantra, even after the teen phenom was out of the tournament (courtesy of Kenin). Then, when Kenin upset world number 1 Ash Barty, everyone had to take notice. A top junior who faded once she entered the tour, Kenin was determined to find her way, and find her way she did. The 21-year-old came to Melbourne with a good serve, a great drop shot, a very poor memory regarding errors and misfortune, and a tenacity and self-belief that should be the envy of all of us.

Kenin lost the first set of the final, and while that would serve as the kiss of death to almost any other first-time finalist, to Kenin, it was no big deal. She faced down Garbine Muguruza and took advantage of a letdown in the Spaniard’s energy, something many first-time finalists are not able to do, simply because they are overcome by the occasion. Kenin won the final 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. When the rankings are published tomorrow, Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin will be the world number 7. Take notice.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Babos and Mladenovic win Australian Open




Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, seeded 2nd at the Australian Open, defeated top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova 6-2, 6-1 yesterday to win the championship. Babos and Mladenovic, who are long-time close friends, won the Open in 2018, and they won the French Open in 2019. The pair also won the WTA Finals last year. The 2020 champions did not drop a set throughout the tournament.


 

Barbora Krejcikova defended her Australian Open mixed doubles title, playing with partner Nikola Mektic. They defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Murray5-7, 6-4, 10-1. Last year, the Czech doubles star won the event with Rajeev Ram.

The junior singles trophy went to 9th seed Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva of Andorra. Jimenez Kasintseva defeated Polish player Weronika Baszak. In junior doubles, 4th seeds Alexandra Eala and Priska Madelyn Nugroho won the championship when they defeated Ziva Falkner and Matilda Mutavdzic in the final.

The wheelchair doubles team of Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley (back from maternity leave) upset top seeds Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot in straight sets.

The wheelchair singles champion is also Yui Kamiji. Kamiji defeated Van Koot 6-2, 6-2 in the final. The singles draw was shaken up when top seed De Groot went out in the quarterfinals to Zhenzhen Zhu, who was playing in her first major. De Groot is the winner of seven singles majors.

In other wheelchair tennis news, Sabine Ellerbrock has announced her retirement from the sport, and Marjolein Buis has announced her forced retirement from the sport. Buis has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which has been taken off the list of eligible handicaps by the ITF and the International Paralympic Committee. The ITF and the IPC  state that the tennis eligible handicaps list must conform with that of other Paralympic sports, or tennis players will be cut out of Paralympic competition.

"They are taking away my job and my passion," Buis commented. "I am happy that I am already 31 years old and have had a wonderful career...."

EDS is a connective tissue disorder that weakens the ligaments and tendons that hold muscles together. And while I understand why this change came about, I can only imagine how it must feel to be told that you aren't "disabled enough" to compete in a wheelchair.

Zone, meet Sofia




For those fond of understatement, "under the radar" would be one way to describe Sofia Kenin's Australian Open run. Her career--post-juniors--has been largely ignored, even though she drew attention for her spirited Fed Cup play when she brought home the victory for the USA in the fourth rubber of last year's tie against Switzerland.

In Cincinnati last year, Kenin defeated both Julia Goerges and 7th seed Elina Svitlina, both in straight sets. She got a third set retirement from Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals, and was finally stopped by eventual champion Madison Keys. Anyone who was paying attention saw a very clever and formidable competitor in the 21-year-old Floridian.

Like Alona Ostapenko, Kenin has an automatic reset button in her mentality. Something goes wrong, she makes a face (though she will never outclass Ostapenko in that department!), then moves on to the next point. This vital mental skill served Kenin well throughout her run in Melbourne, and was ultimately a major factor in her winning the championship.

The final pair competing in Melbourne may not have been what fans were expecting (though it's never really wise to rule out Garbine Muguruza at a big event), and the Muguruza-Halep semifinal was a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Kenin and Muguruza gave fans an exciting match, whose scoreline doesn't really reflect the ins and outs of the competition.

For her part, the unseeded Garbine Mugurza's appearance in the final, no matter what ultimately happened, was in itself an announcement, and that announcement screamed "I'm back!" More of a lost, wandering soul than an elite tennis player in the last couple of years, the Spaniard used her Melbourne run to remind us all of how superior her game is, with its sometimes breathtaking fluidity, big serving, power, and variety. And it was no surprise that she did this while under the guidance of Conchita Martinez.


 

During the off-season, Muguruza took a page from the Amelie Mauresmo playbook and climbed a mountain--Mount Kilimanjaro, to be exact. We have no way of knowing (though I hope that, some day, she tells us) the effect this adventure had on the Spaniard's mentality, but it's a safe bet to guess that it had a major one.


There was, however, some question as to whether the Spanish star would even play in the tournament. She arrived in Melbourne with a case of flu, and became ill in her opening match. After losing the first set 0-6, she had her blood pressure checked. Given the go-ahead, Muguruza returned to the court and won the match.


The two-time major champion's ability to control the situation was apparent in the first set of the final, when she broke Kenin twice to win the set 6-4. Muguruza was broken once, and--it should be noted--she had a lot more opportunities to break Kenin, but Kenin was able to save seven break points. At this point, it would have been easy (and I did flirt with the idea) that Muguruza was about to pick up her third major trophy. After all, Sofia Kenin--for all her mental toughness--had never won a major (she had never won anything beyond an international tournament title), and she had just lost the first set of her only major final to a two-time major champion.

Kenin's response to this reality was to totally ignore it. She began the second set as though it were the first, using her mind's giant eraser to blot out the fact that she was a set away from holding the runner-up plate. She also got a gift from Muguruza when errors started creeping into the Spanish star's game and her serving dominance decreased. Kenin took that set 6-2. Muguruza looked a bit tired, and--while commentators speculated that this was related to her tough semifinal against Simona Halep--I was more inclined to note that she entered the tournament with a case of influenza.

The third set became increasingly dramatic as it wore on, and reached its peak in the fifth game, when Kenin, down 0-40, hit four winners--three of them shot down the line--and a wickedly high ace into the deuce court to save five break points. I immediately flashed on an image of Flavia Pennetta, possibly the all-time Queen of Grit, in the fourth round of the 2009 U.S. Open. In that match, the Italian star hit six winners to save six match points.

After the 14th seed saved all those break points, the match was pretty much about her. Muguruza's serve became less and less effective. She double-faulted four times, including on match point, and Kenin emerged the champion with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory. Muguruza was subdued and sad at the trophy ceremony, which was understandable. She had lost, but also, she had fought so hard, especially against Halep--to get to the final, and she had given away match point in a way that no one, let alone a champion, wants to give it away.

Someone in the crowd held up a sign that said Mugu Is Back!, and that, too, is true. It is also a very good thing.




Russian-born Kenin (commentators were confused about Kenin's age, but none more so than Chris Evert, who informed us that Kenin had "come over from the Soviet Union") and her Russian-born father/coach rate about a 9 on the Sharapova/Sharapov Intensity Scale, which is fitting, since Sharapova is Kenin's tennis idol. She'll be someone to watch at the French Open, where she reached the round of 16 last year, knocking out Serena Williams in the third round, and losing to eventual champion Ash Barty.

About playing Muguruza, Kenin said: "I knew I had to take my chance. I had to be brave by playing a two-time Grand Slam champion. All respect to her. She played a really tough match. Every point, it was such a battle...."

And Sofia Kenin is nothing, if not brave. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Kenin and Muguruza to compete for Australian Open title




So it turns out Sofia Kenin can have a case of nerves, and why wouldn’t she? She was playing in her first major semifinal against the world number 1—at the world number 1’s home tournament, where the crowd was overwhelming cheering for the home player. Being “frozen” by the moment was to be expected.



But Kenin had a bit of luck: Ash Barty was also struck by a case of nerves, or—as some might call it—Stosuritis. In singles competition, Sam Stosur was always overcome by the occasion when she played in Australia. 

Of course, it’s also possible that Barty was just having a bad day and came out flat. Whatever the reason, the top seed was not herself yesterday in Rod Laver Arena, when she attempted to reach the final of the Australian Open. 


As both players struggled to find their best games, they nevertheless both remained pretty consistent with their serves. Kenin, surprisingly, outplayed Barty at the net. Barty hit twice as many winners as Kenin, but she also made more errors (36 to Kenin's 25). The first set was decided by a tiebreak, in which Barty held two set points. But Kenin took advantage of the Australian's shakiness, and wound up winning the tiebreak 8-6.

Barty jumped to a quick break in the second set. She served for the set at 5-4, and again held two set points, but again, she came up short. Kenin broke her, then held at love, giving her even more momentum as the match wound to what appeared to be its final turn. Barty then saved a match point on her own serve, but it wasn't enough. A wayward forehand gave her opponent a 7-6, 7-5 victory.




In other news, Garbine Muguruza's soul was returned to her body yesterday when she defeated an in-form Simona Halep 7-6, 7-5 (the scoreline of the day!) to advance to her first Australian Open final. There really aren't enough superlative adjectives to describe this match. Playing in horrific heat (though the heat meter stayed at 4.9, one-tenth of a point shy of what is required to put the roof over Rod Laver Arena), both Muguruza and Halep engaged in some of the most outstanding play--both aggressive and defensive--that anyone could ever wish to see.

Muguruza, unseeded (as strange as that sounds) at the tournament, looked as though she might have to retire in her first round. After losing a set 0-6 to Shelby Rogers, the two-time major champion showed obvious signs of illness, and had to have her blood pressure checked. She was able to rally, however--and just kept going, all the way through the semifinals. Fans have waited so long for the "real Mugu" to return to the tour, and return she has. Coached once again by Conchita Martinez, the Spaniard looks as dangerous as she ever did.

The momentum rocked back and forth between Halep and Muguruza, who broke each other's serve a total of seven times. For her part, Halep did most of her work from the baseline, but Muguruza was all over the place, a factor which helped her win the match. Both players wound up with negative winner-to-unforced error ratios, but that doesn't take away from the blistering quality of their shot-making, their running, and their strategy.

Kenin and Muguruza have played each other only once, in Beijing last year in the first round, and Kenin won 6-0, 6-2. (That was, of course, the other Muguruza.)

Here are the players' paths to the final:

SOFIA KENIN (14)
round 1--def. Martina Trevisan (Q)
round 2--def. Ann Li (Q)
round 3--def. Zhang Shuai
round 4--def. Coco Gauff
quarterfinals--def. Ons Jabeur
semifinals--def. Ash Barty (1)

GARBINE MUGURUZA
round 1--def. Shelby Rogers (Q)
round 2--def. Ajla Tomljanovic
round 3--def. Elina Svitolina (5)
round 4--def. Kiki Bertens (9)
quarterfinals--def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (3)
semifinals--def. Simona Halep (3)

Also yesterday, Zhenzhen Zhu, the newcomer (to majors) who upset Diede De Groot, was defeated in the wheelchair semifinals by 2019 Wimbledon champion (and DeGroot's doubles partner) Aniek Van Koot. It was a rather odd score, too--1-6, 6-0, 6-4. Van Koot will face 2nd seed Yui Kamiji in the final. Also, top seeds De Groot and Van Koot will play Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley in the doubles final.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The final four, the final two, and a huge upset




They represent Australia, the USA, Romania, and Spain. Three of them have won majors, though none of them has ever won the Australian Open. None, in fact, has ever won a hard court major. Ash Barty, Sofia Kenin, Simona Halep, and Garbine Muguruza (who is unseeded) will compete tomorrow to determine who goes to the finals in Melbourne.

Barty, backed by thousands of adoring Australians, defeated 2019 runner-up Petra Kvitova in straight sets in the first day of quarterfinal play. The first set was extremely competitive, with both players in top form. But in the second set, Kvitova began to fade. It could have been mental, physical, or both, but it was most likely physical. It was kind of sad to watch, though those of us who follow the Czech star are aware that this kind of thing can happen at any time, and especially in a hot climate.

Barty, for her part, was steady and--even in the first set--able to keep up with a barrage of "Peak Petra" groundstrokes. In the semifinals, she'll play Kenin, who defeated Ons Jabeur, also won in straight sets.

In yesterday's first quarterfinal, Halep handily defeated Anett Kontaveit 6-1, 6-1 in just 53 minutes. In the second match, Muguruza defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5, 6-3. It's notable that Muguruza was quite ill during her first match. She lost the first set 0-6 and had to have her blood pressure checked. It would have been a real shame if she had not overcome the illness.

Muguruza will play Halep for a spot in the final, and this may be as good as it gets in terms of tennis excitement.  The two have played each other six times. One of the matches resulted in a walkover, and, of the remaining, Muguruza is 3-2 against Halep. All three of the Spanish star's victories were on hard courts (Cincinnati, Fed Cup, Wuhan).

In doubles, seeds 1 and 2 are the last two teams standing. Top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova defeated 4th seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova 6-2, 6-3, and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Moadenovic defeated 7th seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Latisha Chan 7-5, 6-2. Babos and Mladenovic won the Australian Open in 2018 and were the runners-up last year.




One of the biggest upsets of this year's Australian Open occurred yesterday in the quarterfinals of wheelchair singles when Zhenzhen Zhu, the first woman from China to compete in a wheelchair major, defeated defending champion Diede De Groot. De Groot saved eight match points, but even that wasn't enough; Zhu prevailed, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5. It was an enthralling match. De Groot's defense was outstanding, but in the final set, her usually reliable serve failed her at times.

The Dutch wheelchair star won the tournament in both 2018 and 2019. Diede De Great, as she is known, was one tournament shy of winning the Grand Slam last year. She has won seven majors in singles and eight in doubles.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Down to eight in Melbourne



The round of 16 is my favorite round of any major. There are plenty of matches to watch, and all of the players are interesting to watch. The 2020 Australian Open round of 16 is now over, an--though I didn't get to see every match--I saw most of them, and I enjoyed them.

Of all the fourth round matches I saw, the one I found the most riveting was the contest between Anett Kontaveit and Iga Swiatek. Also, this did not surprise me; both are great movers and can deliver laser-like groundstrokes.

Unfortunately, Swiatek sustained a leg injury and her movement became hampered. Like all leg- and thigh-injured players, she tried to compensate by keeping the points short. This tactic can work if you're Serena Williams or Petra Kvitova (on a good day), but, in the end, it failed the young Polish player.

I say "in the end" because Kontaveit, up 5-1 in the third said, served twice for the match and was broken both times. Swiatek was the perfect embodiment of the legendary "dangerous injured player," and just wouldn't give up. In the end, Kontaveit (who has had her own physical problems) prevailed, 6-7, 7-5, 7-5. It was a thrilling match, and both women performed beautifully. It may have been my favorite of all the Melbourne matches I've seen.


There are four players remaining who have won majors: Ash Barty (French Open), Petra Kvitova (Wimbledon), Simona Halep (French Open, Wimbledon), and Garbine Muguruza (French Open, Wimbledon). The last former Australian Open champion standing was 2016 winner Angie Kerber, and she was eliminated in the round of 16 by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.



There are two unseeded players in the quarterfinals--Muguruza (I know--that sounds crazy, but such are the twists and turns of Muguology) and Ons Jabeur, who is the first Arab woman to reach a major quarterfinal. Jabeur is a joy to watch, with her superb shot-making skills. She defeated Wang Qiang, another player who is fun to watch, in the fourth round.

Here is the singles quarterfinals draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Petra Kvitova (7)* 

Sofia Kenin (14) vs. Ons Jabeur
Anett Kontaveit (28) vs. Simona Halep (4)
Garbine Muguruza vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (30)

*In 2019, eventual runner-up Kvitova defeated Barty in straight sets in the quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, in doubles, there has been quite a bit of consistency. The first, second, third, and fourth seeds are still around and will compete in the quarterfinals.

Here is the doubles quarterfinal draw:

Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova (1) vs. Jennifer Brady/Caroline Dolehide

Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (4) vs. Gabriela Dabrowski/Alona Ostapenko (6)

Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan (7) vs. Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka (3)

Coco Gauff/Caty McNally vs. Timea Babos/Kiki Mladenovic (2) 


Saturday, January 25, 2020

Australian Open round of 16 has intrigue and potential excitement

 

Defending champion (and 3rd seed) Naomi Osaka is out. 2nd seed Karolina Pliskova is out. 5th seed Elina Svitolina is out. 6th seed Belinda Bencic is out. Seven-time champion (and 6th seed) Serena Williams is out. 10th seed Madison Keys is out. 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka is out.

This is how it goes in majors, yet each time seeds are knocked out in the early rounds, fans and media seem oh, so surprised. So let's get past that and look at a few of the players who are still in:

World number 1 Ash Barty: When Barty's on, she makes it look so easy. Being human, she isn't always on (at least, in full flare), but she is a lot of the time, this is her home major, and--unlike some other players--she doesn't seem to be bothered by that fact.

Defending finalist Petra Kvitova: Those of us who are Kvitova-watchers always knew that she could win the Australian Open, and last year's final was a heart-breaker for Petra fans--and for Petra. On top of that, a smoke-filled Melbourne sounded like the key to a quick exit for the respiratory system-challenged Kvitova, but--so far--she's okay. The atmosphere has cleared some; also, the Czech star's asthma is under better control than it used to be.

Coco Gauff: Sometimes the hype is actually deserved. The teenager from the USA just keeps showing up on big stages. And on her next big stage, she'll face...

Sofia Kenin: Kenin's rise (she's the 14th seed) has been relatively quiet and workwoman-like. One day she was someone we noticed a bit; the next, she was going deep into big tournaments.

Simona Halep: The 2018 finalist's presence in the second week of majors is so expected, sometimes we just take it for granted. Halep, the 4th seed, is as likely as anyone--and more likely than most--to emerge the champion.

Angie Kerber: The 2016 champion has good (as in, really good) years and bad years. For me, Angie is a constant reminder of everyone's struggles, including my own. Things can go really well, and they can also fall apart. And when we use the KareBear model, we just. keep. going. Never count her out.

Garbine Muguruza: Hello! Look who's here, in the round of 16. The two-time major champion and Mystery Woman of Spain just made dramatically short work of 5th seed Elina Svitolina, and could just as easily win the Australian Open as she could go out in the next round. (But if she's back--really back--watch out.)

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Alison Riske (22)--Suddenly, Ali Riske is a thing--and that is, by the way, a good thing! Known for some time for her skills on grass courts, the former USA journeywoman is now in a whole different tour stratosphere. She'll have her work cut out for her with the world number 1, and this could be an entertaining match.

Maria Sakkari  (22) vs. Petra Kvitova (7)--The Greek star upset 10th seed Madison Keys in the third round, and should give Kvitova a lively match.

Coco Gauff vs. Sofia Kenin (14)--The hot new star faces off against her countrywoman, the understated new star.

Ons Jabeur vs. Wang Qiang (27)--In Shenzhen, Wang defeated Jabeur 6-0, 6-3, but that doesn't necessarily predict anything. Both are playing really clever tennis, and this has the makings of a very entertaining conest. Also, both players come into the round of 16 with huge third round victories: Jabeur ended 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki's career, and Wang beat Serena Williams. Maybe some gourmet popcorn for this one?

Anett Kontaveit (28) vs. Iga Swiatek--Keep some of that popcorn because this could also be really good. Kontaveit obliterated 6th seed Belinda Bencic in the third round, serving brilliantly in the first set and "nerving" brilliantly int the second. I've waited a while to see this kind of match from Kontaveit, who has had her share of struggles on the tour. For her part, Swiatek, who upset Donna Vekic in the third round, is definitely one to watch this year.

Elise Mertens (16) vs. Simona Halep (4)--Look for angles and elegance.

Garbine Muguruza vs. Kiki Bertens (9)--Two all-surface players will have a go at each other. Each of them is subject to going "off," so it may be a question of which one stays "on." Or it may be a tightly contested match.

Angie Kerber (17) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (30)--It seems as though the Russian has been around forever. A former junior number 1 and junior Australian Open champion (2006), Pavlyuchenkova was expected to be the "next big Russian," but it didn't pan out. She has nevertheless enjoyed a good career, and her skills are exceptional. Kerber, who went from journeywoman to major star when no one was looking, has long been the real thing in a tennis world where the term "work ethic" is bandied around to the point of nausea. This is a rather unpredictable contest.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone--Wozniacki retires from professional tennis



She’s often called the Great Dane, and she has occasionally been called the Golden Retriever. But for the most part, Caroline Wozniacki is known in the tennis world as “Sunshine.” The Danish star, a former world number 1, had previously announced that the 2020 Australian Open would be her final tournament, and on Friday (Australian time), her exit—facilitated by Ons Jabeur in the third round—marked the end of a colorful, excellent career.

Wozniacki will be remembered for many things, but perhaps more than anything else, she will be remembered as one of the best defensive players to ever grace the WTA. The Dane once remarked that she was willing and able to remain on the court for hours, and she wasn’t exaggerating. She frequently wore opponents down with her indefatigable running and fetching, and there appeared to be no limitation to her endurance. Her backhand, which she often hit on the run, was a mighty weapon.

Wozniacki was at her best on hard courts. She reached the final of the U.S. Open in both 2009 and 2014, but lost both finals to Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, respectively. In 2018, when some observers thought that Wozniacki’s major victory potential window had closed, she won the Australian Open, defeating top seed Simona Halep in the final.

The Australian victory was somewhat of a vindication for the Dane, who had come under criticism for holding the world number 1 ranking without having won a major. This is not an unusual phenomenon, giving the way the rankings system works, but it nevertheless causes discomfort among some tennis fans and members of the tennis media. Wozniacki held the number 1 spot for a total of 71 weeks, starting in 2010.

The Dane was also often criticized for relying too much on her defensive skills, and—later in her career—she would remedy this problem by becoming more aggressive. Several years ago (before she finally won a major), I wrote some blank verse about her, which was published in a literary sports journal called The Barnstormer. It ceased publishing a few years ago and did not leave any archives on the Internet, so I can’t link to it (it was accompanied by a nice black and white illustration), but here is the poem:

The Lesson of Caroline
By Diane Elayne Dees

Up and down and side to side she sprints
without fatigue. The match can last for hours;
the Dane will scarcely shine a bead of sweat
or fail to stretch and meet the ball right on
the sweet spot. With those metronomic swings,
Wozniacki can wear down the stalwart grinders,
the spinners, steely veterans, braided upstarts.
But Wozniacki needs to take it from you.
She takes it, but she doesn't dish it out.
To run the risk, to grab control, feels wrong
somehow--no Sunshine in that raw aggression.
So Wozniacki never wins the big ones;
she doesn't get to lift the silver plate
or see her smile reflected in a statue.
To guard and to defend is something learned;
it propels you to the line, but never over.
Watching Wozniacki's hesitation,
I confront the Caroline who lives in me.

No discussion of Caroline Wozniacki is complete without a mention of her father, Piotr Wozniacki, who was her coach throughout most of her career. Their on-court coaching sit-downs were often dramatic, with Piotr gesturing frantically and talking loudly to his daughter. And no matter how many other big names were brought on to either coach or consult—they were all eventually sent packing. For Wozniacki, there was simply no coach like her father.

Wozniacki reached 55 singles finals and won 30 of them. One of those titles was the 2017 WTA Finals, and six of them were Premier Mandatory and Premiere 5 events. She won the New Haven tournament four times, leading fans and tennis media to refer to it as the “Wozniacki Open.”





Though she was known as “Sunshine,” the Danish star had a bit of an edge about her, often going out of her way to call attention to herself, and engaging—throughout her career—in highly theatrical putdowns of chair umpires. For the most part, she got a pass for these behaviors.

In 2014, after having undergone a painful personal loss, Wozniacki ran the New York Marathon with a very impressive finish time of three hours and 26 mintues. The moment she crossed the finish line, met by her close friend Serena Williams, was filled with emotion and inspiration.

In 2017, Wozniacki married former NBA star David Lee. Toward the end of 2018, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It seemed logical that the 29-year-old WTA stalwart might retire soon, yet now that it has actually happened, it feels a bit unreal.

The Australian Open draw had Wozniacki and her friend Serena Williams on a track to meet one another in the round of 16. That would have been a dramatic affair, but it wasn’t meant to be. Not only did Wozniacki lose, but Williams also went out in the third round—to Wang Qiang.

After her loss to Jabeur in Melbourne, Wozniacki, in fine form, remarked that "I think it was only fitting that my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder, and that I would finish my career with a forehand error." And as she did her walk around Melbourne Arena, the crowd sang her signature song, “Sweet Caroline.”  It was a fitting send-off for a WTA icon.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Defending runner-up Kvitova may have extra challenge in Melbourne

 

Petra Kvitova begins her 2020 Australian Open campaign against countrywoman Katerina Siniakova, and--if she wins that--she will face either Paula Badosa or qualifier Johanna Larsson. The Kvitova quarter features such potentially dangerous opponents as Madison Keys, Julia Goerges, Petra Martic, Maria Sakkari, and--most notable--world number 1 Ash Barty.

There is plenty of work to be done for the 7th seed. But beyond the challenge of knocking out really good opponents, Kvitova--who has asthma and who, in the past, was vulnerable to getting respiratory infections--will also have to deal with a Melbourne whose air quality has recently been rated as "hazardous" because of the Australian bush fires. This is, of course, a potential danger for all players, but especially for those, like Kvitova, who are already vulnerable.

The Czech star said a couple of years ago that her asthma is now under much better management, a fact which appears obvious to observers. But the air in Melbourne could still be a special danger for her. Kvitova has also been bothered by a sore arm for several months, but that issue appeared to have been resolved when she played in Brisbane.

Meanwhile, there are some very interesting first rounds coming up:

Naomi Osaka (1) vs. Marie Bouzkova

Venus Williams vs. Coco Gauff

Donna Vekic (19) vs. Maria Sharapova (WC)

Alize Cornet vs. Monica Niculescu (Q)

Yulia Putintseva vs. Hsieh Su-wei

Garbine Muguruza vs. Shelby Rogers (Q)

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Karolina Pliskova (2)

Friday, January 3, 2020

The 20s won't all be about youth



If 2019 is any indication--and surely it is--the new decade will firmly plant the new WTA generation as the leaders of the tour. Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu are in line to be the super-stars, and following them (as of now) are Amanda Anisimova, Elena Rybakina, Marie Bouzkova, Karolina Muchova, Dayana Yastremska, Marketa Vondrousova (who has been off of the tour for a while), Sofia Kenin, and Coco Gauff.

But what about the old and "not quite as old" guard? Who are the stars from this past decade who will continue to claim some form of dominance in the next decade?

My vote for the most likely of those players to step deftly into a new decade is Simona Halep. Sometimes it feels as though Halep is just getting warmed up, so I expect her to fight her way to more big titles.

I also still have hope that Elina Svitolina will do something really big. Svitolina is not unlike Halep in that her path is slow and (for the most part) steady. Ukrainian is certainly a star of the tour, but not yet the bright star we associate with winning a major. 2020 is likely to be the year she does that.

And then there's Petra Kvitova. Her ascendance to the 2019 Australian Open final (I'm still upset that she lost the final) was quite a breakthrough, considering everything that she has been through. Kvitova's health is always a significant factor, so if she can stay relatively free from illness and her arm is fully healed, she can have a new "breakthrough" season.

Karolina Pliskova has yet to win a major, but is almost always on the cusp of winning one. I believe that she will, sooner than later. Madison Keys has also fallen short, though her 2019 victories in Charleston and Cincinnati may be hopeful signposts.

Finally, there is--drumroll!........Serena Williams. Williams is still quite good at reaching big finals, but she hasn't won one for a while. There is every reason to believe that she will make another big surge in 2020, with her best shot--in my opinion--being the acquisition of another Wimbledon title. But this is Serena Williams, and she could conceivably wind up with any title. But there is also the possibility that the undisputed queen of women's tennis will have another "almost" year like 2019. Players are not afraid of Williams the way they used to be, and the fear factor in tennis is a significant one.

2020 has a kind of "anything goes" feeling for me. In addition to the solid stars and up-and-coming stars already mentioned, there are other players who could make major strides. Those would include Aryna Sabalenka, Anett Kontveit, the somewhat unpredictable Kiki Bertens, the very unpredictable Kiki Mladenovic, Donna Vekic, the mercurial Daria Kasatkina, and EliseMertens.

 But as unpredictable as some of the above-mentioned players are, they are joined by stars of much greater stature. Sloane Stephens runs hot and cold, and there's no reason to believe that that pattern will change. Alona Ostapenko, as of the latter half of 2019, appeared to be getting her mojo back, and if she does, she could make the tour very interesting.

And then, of course, there's the ultimate mystery character in that trio--Garbine Muguruza. On paper, the Spaniard should be winning just about everything, but it hasn't worked out that way. However, having released herself from what seemed to be a less-than-effective (a nod to understatement) coaching situation, Muguruza could be back on track. When she won the French Open and Wimbledon, the victories appeared almost effortless, so fluid is the Spanish star's game; that makes her slump all the more shocking.

So my second pick among "younger veterans" to glide nicely into the new season is Muguruza. Maybe. She's just too hard to predict.