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:

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)

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.