Sunday, December 13, 2020

U.S. tennis--alive and (very) well

I don't usually write much about USA tennis because my interest in women's tennis is global, but the U.S. situation is quite interesting at this point, and is worth discussing. Over the years, many fans and onlookers have asked "What will happen when the Williams sisters retire?," "Who will 'succeed' Serena Williams (as if)?," and "Why doesn't the USA have more top players?"

Then along came Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, and--while the landscape didn't shift--it did become more spacious. Keys has yet to win a major, but her back-to-back Charleston-Cincinnati victory run in 2019 was quite impressive. Stephens, of course, won the U.S. Open in 2017 (Keys, of course, was the runner-up). An unpredictable player, Stephens could make another big run very soon--or not.

With Serena Williams still in the mix, and Keys and Stephens climbing up the rankings, the USA scene looked solid. But here's the thing about tennis--just when fans and the media assume they know who's going to do what, when--someone sneaks in and takes a place at the front of the line. This time around, that someone is Sofia Kenin. 

Fans saw Kenin in Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) play, and got a taste of her superior brand of mental strength. In Cincinnati in 2019, she made it to the semifinals. Kenin lost to Keys in the third round of the U.S. Open, but came back in 2020 and won the Australian Open, defeating Ash Barty in the semifinals and Garbine Muguruza in the final. She went on another big run at the French Open (not a tournament at which she was expecting to excel), but lost in the final to Polish force of nature Iga Swiatek (also, having an injured leg certainly didn't help).

While Sofia Kenin is undeniably the top U.S. star (and also WTA Player of the Year) at this time, she wasn't the only one insisting on becoming a force. Jennifer Brady started 2020 with a bang, getting victories over Maria Sharapova, Ash Barty, Elina Svitolina, and Garbine Muguruza. She was the only undefeated player at the exhibition even that was played in Charleston, and she went on to win in Lexington. Brady made it all the way to the semifinals at the U.S. Open, where she lost to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.

The 25-year-old, believing that she needed to do something different in order to meet her potential, spent the 2019 off-season training in Germany, and it paid off. 

Finally, there's Coco Gauff, who turned pro only two years ago and is only sixteen years old, but she has clearly announced herself on the tour. The former junior world number 1 won the 2019 Linz tournament, and--with Caty McNally--has won two doubles tournaments. As a qualifier (the youngest in history) she reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2019, taking out both Venus Williams and Palona Hercog. Her defeat was at the hands of eventual champion Simona Halep.

Those are the current stars, but there are other very good stories. Late in her career, Alison Riske has experienced a resurgence. And--while things may not have gone that well for her in 2020--Amanda Anisimova is definitely a player with great potential, and I believe that she will impress us even more in the next year or so. Then there's Danielle Collins, who reached the quarterfinals of the French Open this year, taking out 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza.

The USA won Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) in 2017, and should be quite competitive when play resumes.

Here are the current WTA rankings for the top U.S. players:

Sofia Kenin (4)
Serena Williams (11)
Madison Keys (16)
Alison Riske (26)
Amanda Anisimova (30)
Sloane Stephens (39)
Danielle Collins (45)
Coco Gauff (48)

Monday, November 2, 2020

Looking back on a bizarre 2020--my top 10

Perhaps there was a stranger tennis year than 2020, but I don’t recall it, and I’ve been paying attention for a long time. We had no Wimbledon (not a great loss, from my standpoint, though very bad for the sport), we had bubbles, bubbles in bubbles, spontaneously produced exhibition matches, an absent defending champion, and some heartbreaking retirements. The talented Ons Jabeur became the first Arab player to reach a major quarterfinal (Australian Open). Petra Kvitova defied her own long-held expectations and reached the semifinals of the French Open, and Garbine Muguruza reached the final of the Australian Open. Oh—and, of course, Tsvetana Pironkova popped up (with an improved game) after a three-year absence from the tour, and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.

Here is my list of the top 2020 occurrences and phenomena, in ascending order:

10. The Original 9—Women with Spine
: 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the act that would change tennis forever. Nine determined women each gave promoter Gladys Heldman one dollar to seal a contract to compete in a women’s-only tournament in Houston. This simple transaction led to the eventual formation of the Women’s Tennis Association, arguably the most successful women’s sports organization in the world.

But it wasn’t an easy decision. When the Original 9 made it clear that getting 1/8 of the prize money given to men was unacceptable, and that they would have to break away, they were threatened with being banned from majors and from all meaningful tournaments. Male players who the women thought were their friends turned against them (no one ever mentions it, but Arthur Ashe was a leader of the charge against women earning any kind of reasonable prize money). So, knowing that they would probably have no career to which they could return, these nine brave women changed the sports world for women.

To celebrate the Original 9, the WTA put together a very fine series of articles, tributes and media about the women and the history that they made. The International Tennis Hall of Fame presented an Original 9 exhibit, and there were a number of charity events and panel discussions dedicated to the recognition of the Original 9.

9. Diede De Very Good: We call Diede De Groot “Diede De Great,” but this year, she had what, for her, was a slump. The defending champion at both the Australian Open and the French Open, she won neither of them. In Australia, De Groot was upset in the opening round by China’s Zhenzhen Zhu, playing in the first major of her career. At the French Open, the Dutch star was upset in the semifinals by Momoko Ohtani of Japan. Yui Kamiji of Japan won both titles.

De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, were the defending champions at all four majors (Wimbledon, of course, was not played, nor were the Paralympic Games). They won the French Open, but lost the Australian Open to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley. De Groot teamed with Marjolein Buis (Van Koot did not play) for the U.S. Open, and they made it to the final, but were defeated by Kamiji and Whiley.

One obvious problem with De Groot’s 2020 tennis was the disintegration of her serve. She double-faulted repeatedly, which cost her a lot of games. One hopes that the serving issue (often caused by nerves) will be resolved by 2021.

8 Look who’s back!: During many periods throughout her career, it seemed like Victoria Azarenka just couldn’t catch a break. Injuries (a few of them out of the ordinary), ongoing sexism, a vicious child custody battle—so many things kept getting in her way. It hasn’t looked that good for the Belarusian star in the last few years, but—after a shaky start—2020 was a different story. Azarenka withdrew from the Australian Open for personal reasons. She won the Western & Southern Open, and then reached the final of the U.S. Open.

7. We’re here!: Are they ever. Elena Rybakina, Coco Gauff, Dayana Yastremska, Karaolina Muchova, Leylah Fernandez, Iga Swiatek, Anett Kontaveit—we’ve been watching them for a while. This year, there were even more upstarts with which established players had to contend.

Jennifer Brady began 2020 by beating both Maria Sharapova and Ash Barty in Brisbane, where she was a qualifier. She upset Elina Svitolina in Dubai, and reached the semifinals, a first for her at a Premier event. She was also the only player to go undefeated at the Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston. Brady won her first WTA title in Lexington, then reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. In the 2019 off-season, the U.S. player, determined, she said, to maximize her potential, trained in Germany, and emerged with increased fitness. She’s definitely someone to watch in 2021.

A couple of dramatic introductions occurred at the French Open, when Italian player Martina Trevisan and Nadia Podoroska of Argentina blazed through the first week of the event, and then reached the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.

Trevisan wasn’t fooling around. She took out Coco Gauff, Maria Sakkari and Kiki Bertens. Podoroska’s story was even more dramatic: She was a qualifier, so she had to win three matches before the tournament even began. In the main draw, she upset the likes of an on-fire Yulia Putintseva and 3rd seed Elina Svitolina. Both of these amazing players were eventually defeated by someone on that “watch” list (more on that later).

6. It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons: Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, one of the two hottest doubles teams on the tour, had a rather dramatic season. They won both the Australian Open and the French Open. Unfortunately, though they were the top seeds, they were forced to withdraw from the U.S. Open when the county government stepped in and declared that their “bubble within a bubble” status disqualified them (an ATP player who had also been double-bubbled because of a Covid contact had been allowed to play the day before).

And now, a brief interlude to present my metaphor for 2020:


5. It hurts to say goodbye: The great Maria Sharapova retired this year, and that would have been enough for me, in terms of sadness, but so many other players also chose 2020 to say goodbye. Caroline Wozniacki retired from the sport, as did Julia Goerges. But these stars weren’t the only ones to leave: We also lost Ekaterina Makarova, Magdalena Rybarikova, Johanna Larsson, Pauline Parmentier, Teliana Pereira, Jamie Hampton, Vania King, Silvia Soler-Espinosa, Jessica Moore, Rika Fujiwara, and Anna Tatishvili.

4. The strength behind the mask: Naomi Osaka won her second U.S. Open title this year, further establishing herself as the player to beat at a major. She also further established herself as a force for equality and justice, which was a breath of fresh air. Not that long ago, Osaka was an awkward young woman who was afraid to speak in front of a crowd, but then she found her voice, and what a voice it is. Tennis history will long remember the U.S. Open champion’s array of face masks; each represented an individual who was murdered by the police. Osaka brought seven masks to New York, and she was able to wear every one of them.

3. The value of attitude
: Perhaps no one on the tour is a better “forgetter” than Sofia Kenin. She makes a mistake, she moves on. She loses a big point, she moves on. She loses a tournament, she moves on. This mindset has enabled the U.S. star to scrap her way to the top five (she is currently number 4 in the world). It also helped her to win the 2020 Australian Open and to reach the final of the French Open. Kenin possesses a wide variety of skills and an aggressive style that do a lot to create a champion. But her other “weapon,” mental toughness, is just as significant.

2. Time violation: Covid-19, and the accompanying denial and mismanagement of it, wreaked havoc on everything this year, including professional tennis. Several elite players opted not to play at the U.S. Open, including world number 1 Ash Barty, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens, and defending champion Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu, who seems perpetually injured, missed the entire 2020 season (a source of great disappointment for me). Barty, after reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, also opted out of the remainder of the season because of the pandemic.

The Wimbledon event was canceled, and the French Open was rescheduled so that it began shortly after the U.S. Open ended. On the up side, some exhibition events popped up, including the entertaining Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston (from which Andreescu also withdrew). For the most part, the U.S. Open was credited with having handled health and safety issues well; the French Open, not so much. There was no Fed Cup (now the Billie Jean King Cup) and no Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The pandemic is still raging, so it remains to be seen what type of damage it will do to the 2021 season.

1. The Wonder Woman sequel arrives early
: We knew that Iga Swiatek was very talented. What we didn’t know was that she would go to Paris and mow down the anticipated champion, Simona Halep. And we didn’t know that she would play seven matches without dropping a set, losing only 28 games—and make it all look effortless. But that’s what happened, and it was stunning. Moreover, the Polish teen (not unlike that other young wonder, Andreescu) appeared to have such a good time doing it. Swiatek is now number 17 in the world—keep an eye on that number.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Julia Goerges, tennis's own wonder of German engineering, retires from the sport

Photo by Daniel Ward
Julia Goerges retired from professional tennis yesterday, after spending fifteen years on the tour. Goerges--though an accomplished player by any standard--will be most remembered for her sportswomanlike approach to every aspect of the game, an inspiring reconstruction of her career, and an unforgettable forehand.

The German star came on the scene in 2005, and during the course of her career, won seven singles titles-- including the 2017 WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai, plus back-to-back titles in Auckland--and five doubles titles. She made 48 consecutive runs in majors, which included seven second-week performances.

In 2018, Goerges reached the Wimbledon semifinals, after knocking out Barbora Strycova, Donna Vekic and Kiki Bertens (in a match between close friends). Goerges and Nenad Zemojic were the runners-up in mixed doubles at the 2014 French Open, and Goerges reached three major semifinals--the 2015 Australian Open (with Anna-Lena Groenefeld), the 2016 Australian Open (with Karolina Pliskova) and the 2016 Wimbledon tournament (with Pliskova). 

Goerges was a regular member the German Fed Cup (now the Billie Jean King Cup) team for years. In 2017, she won the Fed Cup Heart Award.

Photos by Daniel Ward
In 2018, the German star replaced her doubles partner, Karolina Pliskova, as the WTA Ace Queen, hitting a stunning 492 aces. During that season, she also led the tour in both first serve points won ((73.8%) and break points saved (63.5%). (In the era of match stats (since 2008), Goerges holds the number 3 ranking in hitting aces--2,931).

Photo by Daniel Ward

Pretty impressive. But it wasn't a lucky streak. By 2014, Goerges' game had suffered so much that she fell out of the top 100. She decided she had to change everything, so she hired a new coach and a new physio, and she even moved to a different part of Germany. The German player is very organized in every aspect of her life, and says that she likes to take as much responsibility for her life as possible (which includes doing her own taxes--she also really likes numbers).

I remember, a couple of years ago in Charleston, Goerges said: “...the match starts with yourself, and that’s what I can control.” 

After Goerges did her famous "restart" of her game, she rose to prominence. One thing she didn't have to restart was her heavy-spinning forehand, which has been her shot of choice throughout her career. In 2018, Goerges reached a career-high singles ranking of number 9 in the world. 

In announcing her retirement, the 31-year-old Georges wrote: 

"When I started playing tennis at the age of five, I would never have thought that we would go such a long way together.

"You have given me so many different types of emotions throughout our journey and I am very thankful for everything you have shown and taught me. I learnt how to deal with the toughest losses but also enjoy the most amazing wins of my career, to fight back many times when I was struggling with you and through it all we never lost sight of our dreams.

"I always knew how I would feel when it is time to say goodbye to you, and that moment has arrived. I am ready to close the tennis chapter of my life and open a new one, which I am really excited about.

"Thank you for everything you have given me. You will stay forever in my heart."

Saying goodbye to beloved players is something that all tennis fans have a lot of experience doing, but it never gets easier. It is especially difficult to say goodbye to someone who brought us so many thrills, gave us such elegant performances, showed us how to start over, and set such a notable example of how to relate to others.

(And finally...."Nein!")

Sunday, October 11, 2020

My French Open top 10

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

10. How quickly a bubble bursts: Though a good example was set in New York, players in Paris complained that the so-called bubble really wasn’t a bubble at all. The player hotel housekeeping staff was described as cleaning players’ rooms while not wearing masks, and there were reports that people who had nothing to do with the tournament were allowed to enter the building. Then there was the ATP player who failed to tell the tournament that he was very ill, and played his match, anyway. Clearly, those in charge failed to take their responsibilities seriously.

9. Look who’s back!: Anna Karolina Schmiedlova has had a hard time catching a break, but—back from having knee surgery and playing with a protected ranking—she made herself known again in Paris. Schmiedlova began her campaign by defeating Venus Williams (for the third consecutive time), and then she upset U.S. Open finalist Vika Azarenka in the next round. She lost in the third round when she came up against Nadia Podoroska, but it was a very good—though sadly, too brief—run.

8. Numéro Quatre!: There were a couple of big stories in wheelchair singles competition. The biggest one belongs to 2nd seed Yui Kamiji, who won her fourth French Open title when she defeated Momoto Ohtani 6-2, 6-1 in the final. But Ohtani had a story too: Playing in only her second major, she reached the final by upsetting top seed and defending champion Diede De Groot.

7. Carrying the flag: There were undoubtedly high French hopes for Kiki Mladenovic (who would go on to make her country very proud), Alize Cornet and Caroline Garcia. Cornet went out in the second round, Mladenovic in the first. Caroline Garcia, whose fortunes have gone up and down in recent years, was unseeded. She did well, making it to the round of 16, in which she lost to 3rd seed Elina Svitolina. Prior to that, she had a couple of excellent wins, beating Anett Kontaveit in the first round, and coming back from a 1-6 first set to defeat Elise Mertens.

In the meantime, world number 49 Fiona Ferro beat young sensation Elena Rybakina, and then—in the round of 16—took 4th seed and eventual finalist Sofia Kenin to three sets before falling to her. Another bonus: 17-year-old Elsa Jacquemot of France, seeded 3rd, won the junior singles championship. (And wild card Clara Burel made it to the third round.)

6. She loves Paris in the fall: No true tennis fan will ever forget Petra Kvitova’s triumphant (and earlier than expected) return to the tour in 2017, after having had her racket hand brutally slashed in a home invasion. Her first match was the opening round of the French Open, which she won, despite having limited sensation in her hand. The crowd went crazy.

Roland Garros has never been the Czech star’s idea of fun, but this year, she showed up with more variety in her game, and—for a while—even looked like a contender. She beat talented newcomer Leylah Fernandez, and then she beat clay specialist Laura Siegemund. Kvitova made it all the way to the semifinals, and then—apparently nervous—she rushed her shots, made several unforced errors, and lost to Sofia Kenin. It was a match that 2020 French Open Kvitova should have won. At any rate, it was a stellar run, and one hopes that it will give her confidence.

5. French toast: Top seed Simona Halep was the heavy favorite to win the tournament. She allowed Amanda Anisimova, who upset Halep at the 2019 French Open, only one game. She looked, for all the world, like she was soon going to hold another Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Then, in the round of 16, the 2018 champion ran into Iga Swiatek, and she might as well have run into a buzz saw. It was one of those matches that—even while you were watching it—you weren’t quite sure you were really seeing what you were seeing.

Last year, in the same round, Halep had obliterated Swiatek, 6-1, 6-0. The young Polish player obviously made a note of that, and she returned the favor by upsetting Halep 6-1, 6-2 in just over an hour. The top seed did not play badly at all—she was simply outclassed by a big-serving, ball-spinning, winner-smacking teen phenom.

4. Please refrain from using the “f” word: There are certain words that fans use that I don’t like. One of them is “over-achiever.” Another is “fluke.” Winning seven matches in a row on a huge stage—even if a player does it only once—is a huge achievement. Sofia Kenin did it this year in Australia. And while she’s had some stumbles since then, she made it all the way to the final in Paris. Like so many others, she lost to Swiatek, but clearly, she’s someone who should be taken quite seriously.

3. You know their names now: The names Martina Trevisan and Nadia Podoroska were not very well known before the French Open began. Trevisan got everyone’s attention in the second round, however, when she defeated Coco Gauff. The Italian then proceeded to take out 20th seed Maria Sakkari, and—in the round of 16—she upset 5th seed, and clay court star, Kiki Bertens. In the quarterfinals, Trevisan lost in straight sets to—all together now: Iga Swiatek.

Podoroska, the 131st-ranked player from Argentina, was a qualifier, which means that she won three matches before the main draw even began. It’s unusual for qualifiers to get very far in a major draw—not only because they are often outplayed, but also because they are exhausted. Not so Podoroska, who took out the likes of 23rd seed Yulia Putintseva, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, and—in the quarterfinals—3rd seed Elina Svitolina. Her glorious run ended in the semifinals when she lost in straight sets to you-know-who.

2. Better together: Kiki Mladenovic has a lovely, but maddeningly inconsistent, singles game. One hopes that, some day, she will meet her considerable potential. In the meantime, she continues to shine in doubles, as does her partner, Timea Babos. The French Open defending champions did it again this year. Babos and Mladenovic defeated 14h seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk 6-4, 7-5 in the final. Guarachi and Krawczyk had upset top seeds Hsieh Su Wei and Barbora Strycova. This is the Frenchwoman’s third Roland Garros doubles title—she and Caroline Garcia won the title in 2016.

1. I came in like a wrecking ball
: We all knew that Iga Swiatek was talented and that she had a lot of potential. What we didn’t know was that all that potential would explode during a two-week siege in Paris, where the Polish teen would lose only 28 games and not drop a set. (Though I consider them both to be wildly talented—in one interesting way, Swiatek is the anti-Andreescu. The Canadian star thrives on using her creativity to solve problems, whereas Swiatek appears to thrive on preventing problems from occurring. It’s great fun to watch both styles of approaching the game, and I can’t wait to see them compete against each other.)

Swiatek’s demolition of Simona Halep stunned tennis fans around the world, but the first hint of what was to come occurred in the opening round when she defeated last year’s finalist, Marketa Vondrousova. Swiatek never looked nervous, never looked tight, never looked like anything less than a star athlete with a firm grasp of what she needed to do tactically. Her on-court poise was notable as she swatted away one opponent after the other, and left two of the top five seeds with no answers. 

Iga has arrived--and what a debut it was.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

No seed? No problem: Iga Swiatek blows the competition away in Paris

Today, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek made tennis history by becoming the first Polish person to win a major. That alone would have been enough, but she did it without dropping a set, and she gave up only 28 games on her way to holding the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Swiatek's dramatic French Open run also occurred in cold, damp conditions--the sort that send many big-name players to the exit gates. 

Like her very talented peer, Bianca Andreescu, Swiatek entered the tournament filled with carefully developed confidence, and that confidence didn't melt away as the potential for a very big ending closed in. One of the reasons it didn't melt away was that the new champion travels with Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist.

"She just made me smarter," Swiatek says of Abramowicz. "I know more about sports and I know more about psychology and I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud." The Polish teenager has always worked with a sports psychologist, but settled with Abramowicz two years ago. And, unlike other sports psychologists, Abramowicz incorporates psychotherapy into her work with athletes (As a former mental health professional, I applaud this tactic with enthusiasm.)

Again, not unlike Andreescu (who was playing in her very first U.S. Open when she won it), Swiatek was playing in only her second Roland Garros main draw. And like Alona Ostapenko in 2017, she did it without being seeded, and without ever having won a tour tournament.

Having buzzed through the competition with apparent--and utterly stunning--ease, she had to face Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the final. Kenin's greatest strength may be her mental toughness; she has an uncanny ability to forget bad points and letdowns, and just go right on to the next point or shot.

It should have been a tense, probably three-set match. The first set was competitive, with Swiatek taking a quick 3-0 lead, and then seeing it wiped out by Kenin. However, Swiatek was able to grab a late break and finish the set 6-4. In the second set, Kenin's movement wasn't the same as it had been, and--deep into the set--she took a medical timeout for her leg. She won only one game in that set, as the relentless young Polish star--after an hour and 24 minutes--put an end to Kenin's run. 

Swiatek did everything better than her opponent. Her serving, her net play, and her ability to convert break opportunities were superior, and her athleticism was on grand display as she slid expertly across the clay to reach balls.

Swiatek hit 25 winners and made 17 unforced errors in the final. Her consistency throughout seven matches, her brutal upset of top seed Simona Halep, and the efficiency of her monster forehand sent a scary message to the entire field. 

Tennis world--meet Iga. (Consider yourselves warned.)

In wheelchair tennis news, newcomer Momoko Ohtani's run was stopped by 2nd seed Yui Kamiji, who defeated Ohtani 6-2, 6-1 in the final. Kamiji and her partner, Jordanne Whiley (seeded 2nd) were defeated in a doubles final thriller by top seeds and defending champions Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot (7-6, 3-6, 10-8). 

17-year-old Elsa Jacquemot of France, seeded 3rd, won the junior singles championship by defeating Alina Charaeva of Russia 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. The Italian team of Eleonora Alvisi and Lisa Pigato won the junior doubles title when they defeated the Russian team of Maria Bondarenko and Diana Shnaider 7-6, 6-4 in the final.

Tomorrow, 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic will compete for the championship against 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk. Babos and Mladenovic are the defending champions.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

No one saw it coming....

....But maybe someone should have. Sofia Kenin hasn't exactly had a promising post-shutdown experience, but--not unlike Bianca Andreescu--she thrives on solving problems, and she brought that under-rated skill to the clay courts in Paris. As for Iga Swiatek--we've all been watching her for a while, so why not now? (Ask Alona Ostapenko!) 

The Polish teen, who--today--make quick work of impressive qualifier Nadia Podoroska, Swiatek has yet to drop a set, and she's dropped only 23 games on her way to the French Open final. Will the occasion finally get to her on Saturday, when she plays Kenin in the final? It might. Or she could just Ostapenko her way through.

As for Kenin, she theoretically had her hands full with an on-fire Petra Kvitova, but Kvitova's nerves got the best of her, she rushed way too many shots, and made too many errors. In contrast, the Australian Open champion took advantage of four out of five break opportunities, saved ten out of twelve break points against her, brushed off her own errors, and emerged the victor, 6-4, 7-5, marking her first defeat of Kvitova.

This should be an exceptional final. Swiatek has never won a tournament, and--though the tennis world has been aware of her talent for some time--she has never before put on a performance like she has put on in Paris (few have). The 19-year-old has a complete game, plus power, precision, and--so far--confidence to spare. On Saturday, she will face a tactician and problem-solver supreme. 

Kenin and Swiatek played each other at the 2016 French Open as juniors; Swiatek won that match, 6-4, 7-5. “I was not as comfortable on clay as I am now, as I started to feel last year,” Kenin said. “Of course, we’re both different players now.”

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Marketa Vondrousa (2019 finalist)
round 2--def. Hsieh Su-Wei
round 3--def. Genie Bouchard
round of 16--def. Simona Halep (1)
quarterfinals--def. Martina Trevisan
semifinals--def. Nadia Podoroska (Q)

round 1--def. Liudmila Samsonova
round 2--def. Ana Bogdan
round 3--def. Irina Bara
round of 16--Fiona Ferro
quarterfinals--def. Danielle Collins
semifinals--def. Petra Kvitova (7)

There was another big upset today in Paris. Top seed and defending wheelchair champion Diede De Groot was defeated in the semifinals by Monoko Ohtani of Japan. Playing in just her second major, Ohtani defeated De Groot 7-5, 6-4. The top seed's serve has been considerably off lately, and that was a major factor in her loss. 

Ohtani's oopponent in the final will be countrywoman and 2nd seed Yui Kamiji, who has won the French Open three times (and three times in doubles). In the semifinals, Kamiji defeated Aniek Van Koot, who has been struggling with an injury which she described as "a kind of carpal tunnel syndrome combined with a tendon sheath inflammation in my left wrist."

NOTE: Content on this blog from here on out is likely to be delayed because Hurricane Delta is coming my way and I expect to lose power. If I'm lucky, the cellular towers will withstand the storm and I'll be able to watch the final on my phone. If I'm really lucky,  power will be restored quickly--a possibility since I'm on the same grid as the local hospital.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Maybe not the semifinals we were expecting, but they're the semifinals we want!

Today, Australian Open champion and 4th seed Sofia Kenin defeated countrywoman Danielle Collins 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 to book a spot in the French Open semifinals, a situation many would not have predicted for her. The red clay, complete with rather harsh conditions, can bring a lot of good players down to earth. But Kenin is a problem-solver; problem-solving, is, in fact, a "weapon" for her (though the tennis world would never call it such). She just figures things out.

But will she figure out Petra Kvitova? The beloved Czech star defeated clay specialist Laura Siegemund today and now awaits Kenin in the semifinals. This "I like red clay!" Petra has been slicing, happily moving forward to the net, and even executing serve-and-volley since she has been in Paris. Kvitova, in short, looks fierce, and has yet to drop a set. (This morning, a commentator said that Kvitova's success here could get people to think about her as someone other than a grass specialist. Hello! She was the 2019 runner-up at the Australian Open, and has won several premier hard court events, but how quickly commentators forget.)

Yesterday, qualifier Nadia Podoroska defeated 3rd seed Elina Svitolina in straight sets, putting Svitolina's performance in majors under a rather huge lens. The Ukrainian star wins other tournaments with ease, and has an impressive record in finals, but when she gets to the majors, she turns into a different player--one who loses when she "should" win. Of course, the more something like this happens, the harder it is for Svitolina to change the course of her performance in majors. Something needs to change.

Podoroska, incidentally, is the first qualifier ever to advance to the semifinals of Roland Garros.

Finally, Iga Swiatek just keeps on rolling. Yesterday, she defeated qualifier Martina Trevisan 6-3, 6-1. She's also still a major factor in the doubles draw: She and partner Nicole Melichar (the USA's most ignored tennis star) have advanced to the semifinals. 

Melichar and Swiatek, who are unseeded, will face 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Disirae Krawczyk. In the other semifinal, 4th seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katarina Siniakova will compete against 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic. Babos and Mladenovic are the defending champions.

In the meantime, wheelchair competition has begun. Top seed and defending champion Diede De Groot won her quarterfinal against Jordanne Whiley, with the unusual score of 6-3, 0-6, 6-1. 2nd seed Yui Kamiji (last year's runner-up) defeated Marjolein Buis, and Aniek Van Koot defeated French wild card Charkotte Famin. In the remaining quarterfinal, Kgothatso Montjane defeated Momoko Ohtani. 

The French Open website could certainly do better by wheelchair players in terms of publishing the draws.

Women's singles semifinals will be played tomorrow, and here is the draw:

Iga Swiatek vs. Nadia Podoroska (Q)
Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Petra Kvitova (7)

It will be the first meeting between Swiatek and Podoroska. Kenin and Kvitova have played each other twice (once on clay), and Kvitova won both of those matches.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Another big upset--this one overlooked

With all the surprises going on in the singles draw, I suppose it makes an unfortunate kind of sense that a huge third round upset in doubles has been all but ignored. Yesterday, top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova were defeated in straight sets (6-4, 7-5) by 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk. 

2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic not only won their third round match--as of today, they have advanced to the semifinals with a victory over Marta Kostyuk and Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Babos and Mladenovic are the defending champions.


What a pleasure it is to use that hashtag again, and to have it infused with so much meaning. Yesterday, Petra Kvivova reached the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time since 2012. And when she won her match against Zhang Shuai, there on Court Philippe Chatrier--where she made her triumphant (and earlier than expected) return in 2017--she was clearly overcome with emotion. 

After that return (in which she won her opening round match), I nominated Kvitova for the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. She didn't win, which disappointed me (though the winners, I should add, were quite worthy, in my opinion), but she was recognized by her peers, and by the tennis world, for her courage.

Also advancing to the quarterfinals today was Laura Siegemund, whose career has been riddled with serious injury. The German is an outstanding clay competitor, and it's nice to see her finally reach the quarterfinals. She defeated Paula Badosa 7-5, 6-2.

Sofia Kenin stuck to her own playbook in her round of 16 match against France's Fiona Ferro (what a great name!). Ferro easily won the first set, 6-2, and the crowd--of course--was ecstatic. But in true Kenin form, the Australian Open champion approached the second set as if nothing amiss had occurred, and won it 6-2. Totally in control, she then won the third set 6-1. 

The unfortunate occurrence was that Kenin's coach (who is her father) was constantly gesturing and speaking in Russian, and the chair umpire gave Kenin several warnings about illegal coaching. This is not the first time that Kenin's father has inappropriately interfered with his daughter's performance, and it needs to stop; Kenin needs to put a stop to it. Possessed of a steely nature and an enviable ability to forget the last point, the U.S. star doesn't need this kind of distraction, and it reflects poorly on her.

Ons Jabeur and Danielle Collins tried to play their match, but rain interfered, so they played it today. Collins dominated for a set and a half, going up 6-4, 3-0, but Jabeur staged a comeback and won the second set. The third set was tense, and Jabeur--serving at 4-5, committed her first double fault at 30-all. Collins took advantage, broke her, and emerged the winner, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. There was probably little expectation for the U.S. player to do this well on clay; perhaps her brand new coaching partnership with Nico Almagro is already paying off.

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Iga Swiatek vs. Martina Trevisan
Elina Svitolina (3) vs. def. Nadia Podoroska
Danielle Collins vs. Sofia Kenin (4)
Petra Kvitova (7) vs. Laura Siegemund

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Revenge is a dish that is best served at 81/69 in just over an hour

Last year at the French Open, 2018 champion Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek met in the round of 16. Halep, who was seeded third, defeated the young Polish player 6-1, 6-0. Today, they met again at the French Open, again in the round of 16, and the results were similar--but with a huge twist. Swiatek--in a stunning display of Andresscu-style show-offy tennis--upset top seed Halep 6-1, 6-2 in just over an hour.

This wasn't about Halep; she played well. Swiatek was simply on a mission, hitting 30 winners (with 20 unforced errors) and delivering impressive 81/69 first and second serve winning percentages. Swiatek looked completely in control throughout the match. She aimed at her targets with maximum spin on the ball, used the lob/drop shot combination, and generally flummoxed her clever, athletic opponent--which isn't that easy to do.

In 2017, Halep lost the final to the upstart of upstarts--Alona Ostapenko, who had celebrated her 20th birthday two days earlier. Last year, she lost in the quarterfinals to 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova. Today, it was an 18-year-old rising star who is currently ranked number 54 in the world. Clearly, the kids are alright--and they like to beat up on Halep.

It was odd to watch this dramatic match and not hear "Si-mo-na!" chanted from the stands. Anyone who has been paying attention would have known that Swiatek wasn't going to go away quickly this time, but I doubt if anyone was expecting the blow-out that was this match.

Meanwhile, 5th seed Kiki Bertens--who has seen plenty of drama during this tournament--also met an unfortunate fate in the form of Italian upstart (and world number 159) Martina Trevisan, who upset her 6-4, 6-4. 

3rd seed Elina Svitolina defeated Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia 6-1, 6-3, and Nadia Podoroska defeated Barbora Krejcikova 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.

There was another big upset today: In doubles, 14th seeds Alexa Guarachi and Disirae Crawczyk defeated top seeds defeated top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova 6-4, 7-5 in the third round. Meanwhile, 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic advanced to the quarterfinals when they defeated Andreea Mitu and Patricia Maria Tig.

Saturday, October 3, 2020


The third round of the French Open saw the exit of a number of seeded players, plus the exit of two of my quirkier favorites, Tsvetana Pironkova and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. 

Todaym, 30th seed Ons Jabeur, a shot-maker of considerable estimation, defeated 8th seed Aryna Sabalenka. Jabeur, the junior champion in 2011, is the first Arab woman to reach the round of 16 of a major. Joining Jabeur in pulling an upset was Laura Siegemund, who defeated 13th seed Petra Martic. And while neither of them was seeded, it was notable that Paula Badosa defeated 2017 champion (and resurgent) Alona Ostapenko.

But--as long as we're speaking of resurgent players--the big news was that 11th seed and 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza was upset by Danielle Collins in a two-and-a-half-hour match that looked---until almost the end--like it was Muguruza's match. That match began on Court Suzanne Lenglen but was later moved to Court Philippe Chatrier, under the roof. 

Down two breaks in the third set, Collins fought back against a suddenly error-prone Muguruza. And then she fought back some more. The Spanish star had begun each set with a break, and she looked like the old/new Muguruza until she was almost at the point of victory. Collins saw an opening and took it, defeating Muguruza 7-5, 2-6, 6-4.

"I felt she couldn't have been serving any better in that second set and in the beginning of the third set, and I needed to do something different," Collins said after the match. "So I needed to put some more pressure on her. That's exactly what I did the rest of the way through."

This is Collins' first time to reach the second week of the French Open.

Earlier in the day on Philippe Chatrier, Fiona Ferro and Patricia Maria Tig played their hearts out, though you might not perceive it from the final score, a 7-6 (7), 4-6, 6-0 victory for the Frenchwoman. It was a spirited affair, and--though there were only a thousand of you--now you know, French crowd, what it feels like to be booed and heckled. Job done.

7th seed Petra Kvitova defeated Leylah Fernandez 7-5, 6-3, and reached the second week of the French Open for the first time in five years. Fernandez, for her part, continues to impress with her athleticism and court poise.

Also, Zhang Shuai (remember when she almost retired from pro tennis?) defeated France's Clara Burel 7-6 (2), 7-5. And quietly and efficiently, 4th seed Sofia Kenin defeated Irina Bara 6-2, 6-0.

Yesterday, both 13th seed Elise Mertens and 20th seed Maria Sakkari were upset, by Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia and Martina Trevisan, respectively.

Things went more to form in doubles, as top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won their 2nd round match, as did 2nd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova and 3rd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka (which had to be a relief, since both of them were upset in singles play). Also winning were 4th seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katarina Siniakova.

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Simona Halep (1) vs. Iga Swiatek*
Martina Trevisan vs. Kiki Bertens (5)
Elina Svitolina (3) vs. Carolina Garcia
Nadia Podoroska vs. Barbora Krejcikova
Ons Jabeur (30) vs. Danielle Collins
Fiona Ferro vs. Sofia Kenin (4)
Petra Kvitova (7) vs. Zhang Shuai
Laura Siegemund vs. Paula Badosa

*They met in the round of 16 last year, and Swiatek won only one game.

Friday, October 2, 2020

"I experienced beautiful emotions and I met fabulous people"


It's easy to overlook a player's retirement from the sport when it occurs during a major, but I don't want to overlook Pauline Parmentier's. The Frenchwoman played her last match this week, losing in the first round to Veronika Kudermetova, and then going out in the first round of doubles when she and partner Alize Cornet lost to 12th seeds and U.S. Open champions Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareava.

Parmentier won four WTA singles titles and was a seven-time member of the French Fed Cup team, as well as being a member of the 2008 French Olympic team. Parmentier's highest singles ranking, number 40 in the world, occurred in 2008. 

The 34-year-old Parmentier, who said, in retiring, that she was "at the end of my tennis adventure," cited her 2019 Fed Cup team participation as the highlight of her career. France won the Fed Cup championship in 2019, defeating Australia in the finals. In the fourth rubber of the 2019 semifinals against Romania--with France down 1-2--Parmentier defeated Irina-Camelia Begu, giving her country a chance to stay in the competition.

Parmentier said that the tour's shutdown because of Covid-19 helped her to make her decision about retiring because she realized that she could have a life outside of tennis. The Frenchwoman says of her years on the tour: "I experienced beautiful emotions and I met fabulous people.

"There were difficult times, moments of doubt, but I only remember that happiness and positive memories from all these years.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Four days in, and there's already enough drama for a novelle

The French Open is known for its conditions, in which the balls are heavy, and sliding is a big advantage. Now, change the balls and hold the tournament in the fall, in a damp, cool climate, then add the fact that the U.S. Open ended only two weeks ago. And now you have Roland Garros 2020.

We have already lost Serena Williams, who withdrew today because of a lingering Achilles issue. She was scheduled to play the resurgent Tsvitana Pironkova, a fact which--on its own--contained potential drama. Now the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, who made a huge statement at the U.S. Open--after a three-year absence from the tour--will face off against Barbora Krejcikova.

If Pironkova had the resurgence factor in New York, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova has it in Paris. The Slovakian player, a clay court specialist, took out Venus Williams in the first round (she took her out of the French Open in 2014, too, and has a 3-0 head-to-head against her). Today, in the second round, she upset U.S. Open runner-up Vika Azarenka in straight sets. 

Drama. But not enough to compare with what happened to Kiki Bertens today. Last year, Bertens was my number 1 pick to win the French Open, but she had to withdraw during the tournament because of illness. This year, she isn't a top contender, but--she's still Kiki Bertens, and is competitive. Today, in the second round, she played Sara Errani, the last of the Four Fighting Italians, and there was enough drama to last for the duration of the event, which included 24 breaks of serve.

Bertens was either cramping or having an issue with her thigh--I'm not sure which. She received medical treatment, and was in obvious, intense pain. But she kept going for three hours and eleven minutes. Errani served for the match three, and was broken three times. She also held a match point. Bertens won, 7-6, 3-6, 9-7, then collapsed onto the court in tears. She was hauled away in a wheelchair, and treated to a mockery performance from Errani, who apparently couldn't believe that anyone in that much pain could defeat her. The entire "Fighting Italian" construct was turned on its head by a Dutchwoman, who emerged as the warrior supreme. 

In the meantime, 24th seed and rising star Dayana Yastremska is out, 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova is out, 9th seed Jo Konta is out, and 17th seed Anett Kontaveit is out. Also out are 27th seed Karolina Muchova, 26th seed Donna Vekic, 18th seed Angie Kerber, 12th seed Madison Keys, 21st seed Jennifer Brady, and 19th seed Alison Riske. And they went out in the first round.

The second round saw the demise of  Hsieh Su-Wei, Coco Gauff, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Yulia Putintseva, and  32nd seed Barbora Strycova.

In the meantime, top seed Simona Halep won her second round match against countrywoman Irina-Camelia Begu, and 3rd seed Elina Svitolina defeated Renata Zarazua 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.

Schmiedlova: The woman, the bun, the backhand

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova has been through a lot in her career. In 2015, she impressed on clay courts when she won two out of three tournaments in which she competed against Italians (members of the Four Fighting Italians squad). Her glorious backhand was on display for everyone to see, and she entered the top 30.

The next year, however, Schmiedlova lost 16 consecutive matches and her ranking plunged to 227. 2017 saw her entering and winning challengers, and in 2018, she won the Bogota tournament, which must have been a huge personal victory for her.  But Schmiedy's problems would continue: Last year, she sustained a knee injury and had to have surgery.

Schmiedlova entered the French Open with a protected ranking, and--in case anyone and forgotten what that backhand is all about--we've had ample opportunity to witness it, as well as a chance to see her solid forehand. On a 13-match losing streak in majors, the Slovakian player has turned things around dramatically in Paris this year.

In the opening round, Schmiedlova defeated Venus Williams for the third consecutive time (the 2014 victory was also at the French Open) in her career. Today, the Slovakian player defeated U.S. Open runner-up Vika Azarenka, 6-2, 6-2, and advanced to the third round. This was the first time the two players had ever competed against one another.

"I think she's great player," Schmiedlova said of Azarenka. "She played really well in U.S. Open. I was little bit scared before the match. But I started well, and I'm really happy how I managed to play all match."

Saturday, September 26, 2020

I love Paris in the fall

Chrysanthemums in Paris (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

I don't have the perspective that Cole Porter had; the only time I was ever in Paris was in the fall. And I loved it. And my favorite major is the French Open (and for those who are constantly complaining that the French Open exists--what is wrong with you?). But this year, my love for the French Open has been dampened somewhat by the Covid crisis. 

First, the defending champion, Ash Barty--who is also world number 1--won't be there. Also, U.S. Open champion and world number 3 Naomi Osaka won't be there. Those absences are Covid-related. Barty hasn't had adequate training because of the pandemic, and she is also cautious about participating in an event during a pandemic (and for that--as they say in her part of the world--good on her).

The absence of these two top players is unfortunate, not to mention the absence of 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, whose injury-ridden career continues to be injury-ridden. I want to see Andreescu play in every major, and I worry that she hasn't solved the problem of her fragile body. The Canadian star's potential is huge, and she's a joy to watch. Fortunately, she's remarkably resilient, but resilience will take you only so far if you can't get your body to cooperate.

Belinda Bencic, Wang Qiang and Sam Stosur will also be absent from the red courts of Roland Garros. Bencic and Wang are injured, and Stosur has opted to stay home with her three-month-old baby.

As unfortunate as it is to have a French Open without Barty, Osaka and Andreescu, it could be much more unfortunate if some of the comments made by players and their team members are true (and there is no reason to believe they wouldn't be). There are reports that hotel housekeepers do not wear masks, and that dining tables are not adequately cleaned and disinfected. 

Also, one thousand fans per day will be permitted in the stands. It still isn't clear whether these spectators (who must wear masks, and who is going to monitor that?) will be allowed in more than one court, or whether they will be permitted to wander the grounds.

In the meantime, here are some first round matches that should be interesting:

Iga Swiatek vs. Marketa Vondrousova
Johanna Konta (9) vs. Coco Gauff
Svetlana Kuznetsova (28) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Anett Kontaveit (17) vs. Caroline Garcia
Laura Siegemund vs. Kristina Mladenovic

Sunday, September 13, 2020

My U.S. Open top 10

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

10. Piling insult onto injury: A lot of people were upset by Kiki Mladenovic's complaints of being a "prisoner" in her hotel room because of the "bubble within the bubble" rules imposed on those who had contact with a player who tested positive for Covid-19. Of course, it's nothing new for the French player to open her mouth when a bit of thinking would have resulted in her wisely keeping it shut. But then Mladenovic's situation did become a wretched one when the county ordered her and her partner, Timea Babos, to withdraw from the event. 

Babos and Mladenovic were the top seeds, which made the withdrawal even worse. Of course, an argument can be made that (a masked) Mladenovic should never have been participating in a card game during a pandemic. But all the same, changing the rules (an ATP player who was at the same card game was allowed to play the day before) suddenly--even if by government decree--was most unfortunate, and not a good look.

9. All about my mother: Remember that time when Roger Federer was introduced as "Rose and Charlene and Lenny and Leo's dad"? Of course you don't.

8.  Revenge is a dish that is best served into the deuce court: On Saturday, world number 1 Diede De Groot won her third consecutive U.S. Open women's wheelchair singles title by defeating world number 2 Yui Kamiji. On Sunday, Kamiji and her partner, Jordanne Whiley, the 2nd seeds, defeated De Groot and Majolein Buis to claim the championship. Kamiji and Whiley also won the Australian Open, defeating De Groot and Aniek Van Koot. 

De Groot, who is only 23 years old, has now won eight major singles titles and eight major doubles titles, which is why we call her Diede De Great.

7. Comebacks galore!: Vika Azarenka, Vera Zvonareva, Tsvetana Pironkova--three veteran players who endured both hardships and major life changes all soared to glory at this year's U.S. Open. I can't recall anything like that ever happening before.

6. Once a champion, always a champion: Look who won the women's doubles title! A member of the original Russian Squad--which included the likes of Myskina, Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Petrova, and Dementieva--Vera Zvonareva was an accomplished singles and doubles player for many years, but left the tour because of injury. She also impressively continued her education, got married and had a baby. After two years, she returned, won a couple of doubles titles, and now, she and Laura Siegemund have won the 2020 U.S. Open.

5. Breakout star of the year: Jennifer Brady began the year in fine form, making it to the quarterfinals in Brisbane and the semifinals in Dubai, and taking out some big names on the way. She was hands-down the MVP in the Charleston exhibition event, and then she won Lexington. At the U.S. Open, she took out Anna Blinkova, CiCi Bellis, Caroline Garcia, 2016 champion Angie Kerber, and Yulia Putintseva. Brady was finally stopped, in the semifinals, by eventual champion Naomi Osaka, but Osaka needed three sets to get the job done. It was a hell of a run.

4. Doing it with mirrors: Tsvetana Pironkova, the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, has always occupied a peculiar niche on the tour. A very talented player (great serve, wicked forehand slice) has--for some reason--won only one title. But her presence at grass and hard court major events can be formidable (as Venus Williams knows only too well). Pironkova left the tour because of injuries, and she also had a baby, and--after three years--it looked like we might not ever get to see her again. But then, suddenly, she popped up in Flushing Meadows and made it all the way to the quarterfinals

Of course, this was a totally Pironkova kind of move, like "I'm rested, guess I'll go to New York and check things out." Her game was better, too--the serve, signature forehand slice, and lob were all there, but there was also an increase in steadiness, which resulted in much more consistency in her groundstrokes. 

Pironkova began by defeating Liudmila Samsonova, then took proceded to take out two-time major champion and 10th seed Garbine Muguruza, 18th seed Donna Vekic, and an on-fire Alize Cornet. It was amazing display of tennis, but there was a down side: Pironkova's thigh was wrapped, and as the tournament wore on, it became harder for her to serve, and she was sometimes limping. Had she not been hurt, who knows?--she may have had a better shot against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. As it was, she took Williams to three sets, but she wasn't able to prevail. All the same, it was a head-spinning piece of Pironkova magic. 

3. Perseverance (see Azarenka): Victoria Azarenka is probably the most snake-bitten top player in the history of the tour. So many different things have derailed her, and the last thing--a nasty, extended custody battle which kept her away from tennis for an extended period--would likely have destroyed the motivation of a lot of strong individuals. Azarenka, once she had her legal issues settled, came back, but she was so discouraged that, in January, she considered retiring. 

Fortunately, the Belarusian star had a change of heart. At the 2020 U.S. Open, she performed like the Vika of years ago, swatting away opponents in grand style. Her victims included 5th seed Aryna Sabalenka, up-and-coming player Iga Swiatek, an in-form Karolina Muchova, 16th seed Elise Mertens, and 3rd seed and six-time champion Serena Williams. She was stopped in the three-set final by Naomi Osaka, but her performance throughout the tournament left no doubt that Azarenka is back at the top.

2. Spontaneity--a winning strategy: Laura Sigemund and Vera Zvonareva had never played doubles together, but, at the last minute, they found each other and signed up to play in the U.S. Open. It turned out to be a magic combination, as the pair took out 2nd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in the quarterfinals, then--in the final--they defeated 3rd seeds Nicole Melichar and Xu Yifan. This is Siegemund's first women's doubles major championship, and  Zvonareva's third.

1. A champion for the times: Winning the 2020 U.S. Open wasn't a walk in Central Park for Naomi Osaka. She had to play three sets against Misaki Doi, Marta Kostyuk, Jennifer Brady, and Vika Azarenka. She also had to endure stupid and offensive comments from members of the media (not that that's anything new). But the now three-time major champion has learned a lot about how to navigate the choppy waters of media spectacles and cultural expectations, and she handled everything that came at her with aplomb.

Osaka also found a way to let her Covid-19 protection speak for her. She entered every match wearing a mask that bore the name of a black U.S. citizen killed by the police. She packed seven masks, and got to wear every one of them. The sight of Osaka entering the stadium in her black masks will be, for me and for many, an enduring image. I expect that the champion will provide us with more enduring images in the future, as she continues to draw attention both as a superb sportswoman and a representative for those whose voices are either lost or unheard.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Naomi Osaka wins her second U.S. Open title

When Naomi Osaka lost the first set of her U.S. Open final against Victoria Azarenka, the televison and the Internet lit up with the fact that no woman had come back to win the title after losing the first set since 1994. What didn't light up the television and the Internet is the fact that that is a really sad statistic. 

Apparently, Osaka thought it was sad, too, because--after dropping that first set 1-6 to an almost perfect Azarenka, the world number 4 went about the task of putting her game back together--the way real champions do. She won the second set 6-3, and then the match became really interesting.

Osaka's precision became more deadly, and Azarenka's waned, as more and more errors crept in. Down 1-4, 15-40, the two-time Australian Open champion and two-time U.S. Open finalist was hanging on by a thread. But she worked her way out of that hole in dramatic fashion, saving three break points. At 2-4, Azarenka again looked competitive. When she broke Osaka to go up 3-4, it appeared that the plot was taking a strong twist.

But that was as far as it went for Azarenka. Osaka broke back, then served successfully for the match, which she claimed, at 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Naomi Osaka is the first player since Jennifer Capriati to win the first three major finals she contested. She talks a lot about her attitude.In fact, she credited her second set comeback with having adjusted her attitude.

The quality of this final was a wonderful continuation of the quality we saw in both of the semifinals. All four players gave everything they had--Osaka and Azarenka did it twice. The only thing that brought the occasion down was the quality of the commentating, which--though it's hard to believe--was even worse than the usual ESPN commentating. I don't care for most of the commentary on either ESPN or Tennis Channel (there are notable exceptions), but today felt like a new low. 

Osaka is now a three-time major champion, and two of those championships--both at the U.S. Open--were won under unusual conditions. None of that seems to especially affect her; in the long run, it could fortify her ability to focus on the task at hand. 

And while playing expert tennis was the task at hand during the last two weeks, the champion also used her persona to keep in front of the public the names of black U.S. citizens killed by the police. For every one of her matches, she wore a mask with the name of a victim. Osaka packed seven masks and was able to wear every one of them. The image of her entering the court wearing a black mask with a victim's name printed on it will endure as an expression of a champion bringing her very best, not only to the court, but to the fragile, broken cultural landscape in which we are all currently forced to live.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Siegemund and Zvonareva win U.S. Open women's doubles title

Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva had never played doubles together before. They got together at the last minute and signed up to play, and today, they won the U.S. Open. 

Both women have been through a lot. Siegemund has had multiple injuries, some of them serious, that kept her off of the tour for a long time. Her last injury was sustained in 2017, when she hurt her knee and was out for eleven months. For her part, Zvonareva--who has also sustained some significant injuries-- took two years off in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, she announced her marriage, and later that year, she gave birth to a daughter. 

Today, Siegemund and Zvonareva defeated 3rd seeds Nicole Melichar and Xu Yifan in a very entertaining final. It was hard to believe that the pair had never played together before, so finely tuned was their rhythm

Here is an interesting fact about the new champions: They both took advantage of their tour layoffs by pursuing their education. In 2012, when Siegemund was out with a torn ligament, she earned a degree in psychology, and she also earned a trainer's certificate. At the time, she didn't anticipate being able to return to the tour full-time. Zvonareva has a degree in physical education, and she studied for a second degree in international economic relations at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, the oldest diplomatic academy in the world.

This is Siegemund's first major women's doubles championship. She and Mate Pavic won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title in 2016. Today's victory marks Zvonareva's third major women's doubles championship. She won the U.S. Open, with Nathalie Dechy in 2006, and the Australian Open--in 2012--with Svetlana Kuznetsova. Zvonareva also holds two major mixed doubles titles.

In other big news today, defending champion and top seed Diede De Groot advanced to the women's wheelchair singles final with a three-set win over Marjolein Buis. Her opponent in the final will a familiar face--last year's runner-up, 2nd seed Yui Kamigi. Kamigi defeated Angelica Bernal in the semifinals.

In women's wheelchair doubles, De Groot and Kamiji will see each other again in the final. De Groot is the defending champion in this event, also, though this year, her partner is Buis (she won last year with Aniek Van Koot). De Groot and Buis, the top seeds, will face the second seeds, Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

The old guard meets the new on Saturday

This is what it means ❤️@vika7 collects an 11th consecutive win after upending Serena Williams in the #USOpen semifinals -->

It's been seven years since Vika Azarenka was in a major final. During that time, she was put through a wringer of life change and legal problems, the latter of which undoubtedly traumatized her. Her return to the tour brought her so much frustration that in January, she considered retiring. But the two-time Australian Open champion and two-time U.S. Open finalist decided to give it one more try. And from the moment she set foot on the grounds in Flushing Meadows, she looked like the Azarenka we remembered from years ago.

Azarenka allowed the considerably talented Elise Mertens one game in their quarterfinal match, and then all eyes were on her semifinal, in which she faced Serena Williams, who defeated her in the finals in 2012 (when Azarenka held a match point) and 2013. The atmosphere was electric, not just because of the historic meeting between the two women, but also because we had just witnessed a remarkable match between two players of another generation.

Williams' 6-1 first set scoreline made it look ominous for Azarenka, but in the second and third sets, she turned on the magic switch and won both of them 6-3. The quality of the match was very high, the rallies were thrilling, and the intensity of the opponents was almost off the charts. They really do bring out the best in each other.

Azarenka will play 2018 champion Naomi Osaka in the final. Osaka defeated Jennifer Brady, who--for a while--looked as though she working from the Sofia Kenin playbook. Brady hadn't dropped a set throughout the tournament, and she was making it all look pretty easy. But some time in the third set, it appeared that the heaviness of the occasion caught up to Brady--she lost her edge, and she began to make more errors. Osaka was happy to take advantage, and she skillfully honed in on all the shots she needed to make to get to the final, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3.

It was a thrilling, well-played match. Brady, who--for a while this summer--couldn't stop winning, finally saw her streak come to an end, but the 25-year-old Florida resident has a whole lot of which to be proud.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Misaki Doi
round 2--def. Camila Giorgi
round 3--def. Marta Kostyuk
round of 16--def. Anett Kontaveit (14)
quarterfinals--def. Shelby Rogers
semifinals--def. Jennifer Brady (28)

round 1--def. Barbara Haas
round 2--def Aryna Sabalenka (5)
round 3--def. Iga Swiatek
round of 16--def. Karolina Muchova (20)
quarterfinals--def. Elise Mertens (16)
semifinals--def. Serena Williams (3)

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Literally on her last leg, Pironkova gives Williams an exciting challenge

Her thigh, which had been wrapped for days, was still troubling her. She was exhausted. It wasn't a good day for Tsvetana Pironkova to play anyone, much less Serena Williams.When I saw the Bulgarian player too hampered to hit her impressive serve in the round of 16, and then limp to the net for the "handshake," I thought it might be over for her, barring a physio miracle. I was right.

In the first set of her quarterfinal match against Williams, Pironkova was still fresh enough to bring her signature trouble to her opponent--slicing the forehand, changing pace, and garnering some amazing service stats. She won that set, but two things happened in the second set--Pironkova started to show all the wear and tear her body (especially her thigh) had accumulated through the tournament, and Williams rose--big time--to the occasion.

Serena Williams won the match, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. She hit 20 aces. She's now into the semifinals, in which she will face off against a familiar opponent, Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Elise Mertens 6-1, 6-, in the second quarterfinal of the day. Mertens failed to hold serve even once. For Azaarenka, who has been through so much in the last few years--and who has always been strangely snake-bitten--this tournament has been a revelation. The Vika of years ago has emerged, and she is as dangerous as ever. She also has a better serve.

The other semifinal will feature Jennifer Brady and Naomi Osaka, and there aren't enough gourmet additives in existence to toss into that popcorn. Brady has yet to drop a set (and hasn't dropped that many games), and Osaka has looked like the problem-solver supreme. 

Wheelchair tennis singles play begans tomorrow, and top seed Diede De Groot, who has sustained a slump (for her) of late, will begin her U.S. Open campaign against Jordanne Whiley. 

3rd seeds Nicole Melichar and Xu Yifan advanced to the doubles final today when they defeated Asia Muhammed and Taylor Townsend 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7). Their opponents will be Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Down to eight--and one of them is Pironkova

Yesterday at the U.S. Open, we saw Shelby Rogers win a three-set-thriller against 6th seed Petra Kvitova, Jen Brady make fast work of 2016 champion Angie Kerber, and Naomi Osaka defeat Anett Kontaveit in straight sets. We also saw Yulia Putintseva, in all her animated glory, win a tough, three-set match against 8th seed Petra Martic.

Shelby Rogers has always been a big-stage player (as was Martic, until recently, when she became more consistent). Also, though it pains me to say it, it's no secret that pushing Kvitova to three sets is a good strategy, especially in a place like New York, where the humidity doesn't agree with her. Kvitova hit 58 winners and wound up winning twelve more points than Rogers, but Rogers held fast in a tense, third-set tiebreak and walked away, after two hours and forty minutes, having saved three match points, with a 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 victory. She will next face 4th seed and 2018 champion Osaka.

Kerber was looking under-the-radar sharp until she had to deal with Brady. Brady has yet to drop a set, and she has lost nineteen games in eight sets. The 25-year-old began the year in a strong position, and picked right up where she left off when she was the MVP at the Charleston exhibition event. She has looked very strong ever since.

Today, six-time champion Serena Williams (who has now won 100 matches on Arthur Ashe) played a red-hot Maria Sakkari, who defeated Williams at the Western & Southenrn Open. Today, Williams prevailed, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 in a two-and-a-half hour match. Sakkari's serve was really on today, but some of her shot selections were questionable.

Also today, Elise Mertens handily defeated Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who was all over the place, obviously unsettled and out of sorts. And Vika Azarenka defeated Karolina Muchova in a highly entertaining match that, unfortunately, included a medical timeout for the Czech player. They went three   sets, there was some great shot-making, and an obviously confident Azarenka emerged the winner, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4. The two-time Australian Open champion had a lot of good things to say about her opponent.   

Finally, Tsvetana Pironkova did it yet again. In a match that I found highly entertaining, the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery defeated Alize Cornet 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. Pironkova held a match point in the second set. In the past, she would likely have faded after that, but she came back strong in the third set. I'm especially fond of watching both of these players, and I have always enjoyed their personalities. It was tough to see one of them lose.

In doubles, the unseeded team of Asia Muhammed and Taylor Townsend advanced to the semifinals, as did 3rd seeds Nichol Melichar and Xu Yifan,

As always, commentating for this major has been a mixed bag. Commentators continue to mispronounce players' names, and ESPN continues to interview celebrities while there's action taking place on the court. The biggest disappointment for me (so far) is Alexandra Stevenson's response to Novak Djokovic's work toward forming a new player association (or, as some commentator said today, a "new tour"). Stevenson was filled with praise for Djokovic because "he's decided to add women!" She then gushed over how great he was because of that. And at that point, I switched channels.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Jennifer Brady (28) vs. Yulia Putintseva (23)
Naomi Osaka (4) vs. Shelby Rogers
Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Serena Williams (3)
Victoria Azarenka vs. Elise Mertens (16)

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery strikes again

She did it again. Tsvetana Pironkova, returning to the tour after a three-year absence, took care of 18th seed Donna Vekic today, defeating the talented Croatian player in a little over an hour. Pironkova's 6-4, 6-1 victory moves her to the U.S. Open round of 16, in which she'll face off against Alize Cornet.

The bad news is that Pironkova's thigh, which is wrapped, is now obviously hindering her. Her tricky serve, which was splendid in the second round, was considerably off in today's match, and she limped around the court during changeovers and at the conclusion of the match. Here's hoping that some massage and some physio magic will have her in top form again by Monday. 

In other Saturday news, Maria Sakkari all but blew away Amanda Anisimova, 6-3, 6-1, in just under an hour. Six-time champion Serena Williams needed three sets, but she defeated countrywoman and 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, and Elise Mertens defeated Caty McNally in straight sets. And Muchova and Karolina Muchova and Sorana Cirstea took it all the way to a third set tiebreak, in which Muchova saved three set points and emerged the winner, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7).

Vika Azarenka continued her excellent form with a straight-set victory over Iga Swiatek, and 2017 runner-up Madison Keys was forced to retired against Alize Cornet. Keys struggled with a neck/shoulder issue throughout the first set and for half of the second set, when she had to stop playing. Cornet, for her part, had 71/54 first and second serve win percentages.

Finally, in singles competition, 2nd seed Sofia Kenin defeated Ons Jabeur 7-6, 6-3 in a tough competition that was especially tight in the first set. The Australian Open champion was dealing with cramps during the match, she said afterwards in an interview. (Her father/coach appeared to be suffering with a near-nervous collapse.)

In doubles, 2nd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka won their match, as did 4th seeds Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs. (Mertens and Schuurs ended their partnership so that Mertens could concentrate on singles, but Mertens apparently had a change of heart about doubles competition.)

Top seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic were disqualified from competition because of Mladenovic's "bubble within the bubble" confinement (brought about by her contact with Benoit Paire, who tested positive for Covid-19).  Mladenovic hasn't exactly made new fans by her reference to herself as a virtual prisoner in her hotel, but--since bubble-within-the-bubble player Adrian Mannarino was allowed to compete yesterday--the Frenchwoman's plight has advanced to another level. Nassau County officials made the call, and it has to be a really bitter pill for both Babos and Mladenovic to swallow. As of this writing, it's still unknown how long Mladenovic will have to remain in her hotel room.

Perhaps there's a moral to this story, like "Don't play cards with Benoit Paire." But I suspect it's more like "Don't hold a major tournament during a pandemic."

Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Jennifer Brady (28) vs. Angie Kerber (17)
Yulia Putintseva (23( vs. Petra Martic (8)
Naomi Osaka (4) vs. Anett Kontaveit (14)
Shelby Rogers vs. Petra Kvitova (6)
Alize Cornet vs Tsvetana Pironkova
Maria Sakkari (15) vs. Serena Williams (3)
Vika Azarenka vs. Karolina Muchova (20)
Elise Mertens (16) vs. Sofia Kenin (2)