Sunday, June 13, 2021

When you just can't stop winning

A week before the French Open began, Barbora Krejcikova stopped by Strasbourg and won the first WTA singles title of her career. She then went to Paris, unseeded, and won the French Open singles title. Today, she and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, won the doubles title. The Czech player defied the odds, and defied common wisdom about scheduling and fatigue. She couldn't help herself--she just kept winning.

Krejcikova and Siniakova, seeded second at the tournament, defeated 14th seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek 6-4, 6-2 in the final.

Whatever the Czechs have, I want it. Earlier in the week, Linda Noskova became the first Czech player to win the junior girls' singles title since Hana Mandlikova won it in 1978. Noskova and her partner, Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva, seeded third, were defeated in the semifinals of the junior girls' doubles competition. Noskova came so close, but didn't quite reach the level of her main tour win-everything countrywoman.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Barbora, Jana and Suzanne--a triumvirate of inspiration

It would have been an amazing story, no matter which way it went: Veteran Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, former junior world number 1, finally--after fourteen years--making it past a quarterfinal in a major, and then reaching a final after the longest number of tries--52--in the Open Era. And Barbora Krejcikova, a former world number 1 in doubles, and known as a doubles specialist, unseeded and playing in only her fifth major main draw. 

One was a story of determination overcoming disappointment; the other, a story of not giving up a dream to become a great singles competitor, and of being mentored and inspired by a tennis great who left us too soon.

Today, at Roland Garros, on Court-Phillippe Chatrier, it was the second story that became part of tennis history, as unseeded Krejcikova defeated Pavlyuchenova to win the 2021 French Open. 

Krejcikova got off to a shaky start, getting broken right away, but--as she has done during the entire two weeks--the Czech player did whatever it is she does to pull herself together, and then went about running over her opponent in the opening set, and winning it 6-1. But, as is usually the case in a big match, the loser of that set came back strong, and won the second set 6-2. We knew we were in for a tense final set.

In that set, Krejcikova--whose second serve had been better than her opponent's throughout the match--had significantly more success with her second serve. She was broken once; she broke Pavlyuchenkova twice. It had the look of a set that could go either way, but then--when it counted--Krejcikova, continuing to make big trouble with both her estimable forehand and her very reliable backhand--prevailed. 

But not until she missed out on breaking Pavlyuchenkova to win the match on her opponent's serve. She then had to serve for the match, and--once again--Krejcikova became shaky (and who could blame her?) and double-faulted on her third match point. But on her fourth, she claimed her 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 victory. Though it was a close (in an odd kind of way) match, it was Krejcikova who played the bigger game, hitting 34 winners to 31 unforced errors; her opponent hit 23 winners to 16 unforced errors.

It should also be noted that Pavlyuchenkova had to deal with injuries in both her left knee and her left thigh, which certainly impeded her service game (she had been serving at a high level throughout the tournament). It's always sad to see a final (or any match, but especially a final) played in which one of the opponents is injured, and this turn of events was most unfortunate.

If I'd had to guess which player might suffer an injury in the final, I would have picked Krejcikova. She spent only about an hour more on court than Pavlyuchenkova in singles play, but she was constantly active (and still is) in doubles play. Also, Krejcikova's matches were very demanding, both mentally and physically (Pavlyuchenkova, however, did have a very demanding quarterfinal match).

Krejcikova becomes the twelfth woman in the Open Era to win a major after saving a match point, and the third such woman to win the French Open. She is the first Czech player in forty years to win at Roland Garros; Hana Mandlikova won the title in 1981.

The new champion has long been known as an elite doubles player, and is, in fact, a former world number 1. She and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, won both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2018, and the pair, seeded second, is in contention to win the 2021 French Open title. Their opponents will be the veteran doubles star Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her partner, 2020 French Open singles champion, Iga Swiatek (who has also sustained a leg injury).

Only nine months ago, Krejcikova was trying to crack the top 100. For five years, she failed to get out of qualifying at majors. But last fall, the Czech player broke through in a big way, reaching the round of 16 at Roland Garros. She lost that round to Nadia Podoroska, who would go as far as the semifinals. After that run in Paris, everything changed. Krejcikova won her first title in Strasbourg two weeks ago, and reached the final in Dubai, a WTA 1000 event. 

In addition to her two major women's doubles titles, Krejcikova also holds three Australian Open mixed doubles titles. At the trophy ceremony, she said "Now I was just telling myself, it would be really nice if I can get the Grand Slam in all three categories. Now it's happening. I cannot believe it. Wow."

"All of this... it's a big achievement that nobody really expected, not even me," the new champion acknowledged.

The 2021 French Open champion is generous with her gratitude for many who have helped her and stood by her, but her most heartfelt gratitude is reserved for the late Jana Novotna, who coached Krejcikova when she was a teenager. Their relationship began when Novotna moved back to Brno, where Krejcikova's family lives. Krejcikova's mother drove her to the Wimbledon champion's house, unannounced--and, after a session of "show me what you got" on Novotna's court--the revered champion decided to coach her.

"Pretty much her last words were 'Just enjoy, and just try to win a Grand Slam,'" Krejcikova told the crowd at the awards ceremony. "All of this that just happened these two weeks, is pretty much because she's looking after me from up there. It was amazing that I had a chance to meet her and that she was such an inspiration for me. I just really miss her and I hope she's happy right now."

And that is how you might end an amazing sports story. Only it isn't over: Tomorrow, Krejcikova will hold one more trophy, in addition to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen already in her possession. If that turns out to be the champions' trophy, she will be the first woman to pull off the singles/doubles sweep at Roland Garros since Mary Pierce did it in 2000. 

One way or the other, it's a gripping and inspiring story, with a compelling and inspiring protagonist.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Doubles action at Roland Garros gets more exciting, but watching it is another matter

The second seeds, Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova, will contest the French Open title on Sunday against the 14th seeds, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek. Swiatek, of course, is out of singles competition, but she still has a chance to hold a trophy. Krejcikova will play in the singles final on Saturday, and--should she win--she would then be trying to become the first woman since Mary Pierce (2000) to take both titles.

Mattek-Sands and Swiatek (who has a leg injury) have already experienced quite a bit of drama. Down 1-5 in the third set against the tops seeds, Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens, they saved seven match points and went on to win the their third round match.

You'll probably want to watch the doubles final on Sunday, but good luck with that. Neither Tennis Channel nor NBC is broadcasting it; you have to view it on the Peacock Premium network.

In the meantime, Californian Desirae Krawczyk, with partner Joe Salisbury, won the mixed doubles title, defeating Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev in the final. Vesnina and Salisbury lost, yes, but the Russian WTA player made quite a statement, getting to a final upon her return to the tour after a two-year break. Vesnina, a former doubles world number 1 with five major women's doubles titles, also has an Australian Open mixed doubles title.

Krawczyk and Salisbury were mixed doubles semifinalists at this year's Australian Open.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

A Russian and a Czech create a dazzling pre-final story in Paris

There couldn't have been a greater contrast of on-court personalities: 17th seed Maria Sakkari--playing in her first major semifinal--shouted, fist-pumped, smiled, and scowled. On the other side of the net, the unseeded Barbora Krejcikova--also playing in her first major (singles) semifinal--delivered Evert-like stoicism throughout the entire 198-minute tense, momentum-swinging, physically grueling match. 

To add to the drama, Sakkari and Krejcikova had never before played each other. The Greek player entered the contest after having played a near-perfect quarterfinal match against injured defending champion Iga Swiatek. Her Czech opponent entered as a doubles semifinalist, as well; she and partner Katerina Siniakova are also in the doubles semifinals. 

There was little between the opponents. They both hit more unforced errors than winners, they had similar service stats, they broke around the same number of times (though Sakkari saved more break points), neither hit many aces (five for Krejcikova and two for Sakkari). So with neither player holding control for very long, the match went through a number of twists and turns before it finally ended.

A big twist occurred at 5-3 in the third set, when Krejcikova used her impressive backhand to save a match point. It would be the Greek's last match point, though Krejcikova would have to deal with five of her own. 

A bigger twist occurred at 7-8, 30-40 in the third set, when Sakkari hit a forehand that was called long, and Krejcikova began celebrating her victory. But Sakkari asked for the mark to be checked, and the chair umpire called the shot good. Unlike the other majors, the French Open does not use Hawkeye to check lines. Systems such as Foxtenn were used for the first time this year at other clay tournaments, but not at Roland Garros, and Hawkeye has yet to be declared accurate for clay surfaces.

So play continued, the Czech player remained calm, and on her fifth match point, she prevailed, defeating Sakkari 7-5, 4-6, 9-7.

Tennis Channel Commentator Lindsay Davenport reported that the margin wasn't in question--that the ball was way out on Hawkeye, so it's reasonable to conclude that Krejcikova actually won the match twice.

Earlier, 31st seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeated the unseeded Tamara Zidansek 7-5, 6-3. The young Slovenian players didn't make it easy for Pavlyuchenkova; her shot-making was, at times, stunning. But the Russian held fast and weathered the bad patches. 

There are people who are under the deluded impression that the women's draw at this French Open is boring, illegitimate, embarrassing, and any number of other unpleasant things (there are also many people who are under the deluded impression that the French Open isn't a fantastic major). The reality is that we have seen some thrilling and wonderful tennis this week.

The other reality is that seldom do we have such a dramatic backstory for a major final as we do this week. Let's start with Pavlyuchenkova, a former junior world number 1 and major junior champion. Much was expected of the Russian prodigy when she entered the WTA tour, but--as gifted as she is--Pavlyuchenkova had--until now--never been able to get past the quarterfinals of a major. She has also played in more majors--52--without reaching a final, than any other woman.

The 29-year-old Pavlyuchenkova said a few days ago that she has matured--that, in the past, she wanted to just hit the ball without thinking too much about strategy. This maturity has obviously paid off in a big way.

In contrast, Barbora Krejcikova has played in only five major singles draws. A former world number 1 in doubles, the Czech player was still playing singles qualifying matches as recently as last year. Only she was shut out of several of them because she was playing doubles in the second week of the tournaments that were played just prior to the ones in which she hoped to qualify. She seriously considered halting her singles career.

Everything changed for her at the 2020 French Open, when Krejcikova made it to the round of 16 in singles. She won her first WTA singles title last month in Strasbourg, and was a finalist in the 2021 Dubai tournament, a WTA 1000 event. Now, she is one win away from being the first Czech player since Hana Mandlikova (1981) to win at Roland Garros. 

It may not show, but Krejcikova has had her share of problems with nerves at Roland Garros, even going so far as to tell her team that she didn't know how she could possibly hang in with Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. As it turned out, she delivered Stephens a bagel, and allowed her only two games.

Krejcikova is the eighth unseeded player to reach the French Open final. Her path may be a little rougher than Pavlyuchenkova's because Krejcikova and her long-time partner, Katerina Siniakova (they won the French Open in 2018), have to play their semifinal tomorrow. (The last woman to win the tournament in both singles and doubles was Mary Pierce, in 2000.)

The revelatory nature of the Czech player's story is made only more dramatic by the fact that Jana Novotna was her coach and mentor.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

BARBORA KREJCIKOVA
round 1--def. Kristyna Pliskova
round 2--def. Ekaterina Alexandrova (32)
round 3--def. Elina Svitolina (5)
round of 16--def. Sloane Stephens
quarterfinals--def. Coco Gauff (24)
semifinals--def. Maria Sakkari (17)

ANASTASIA PAVLYUCHENKOVA (31)
round 1--def. Christina McHale
round 2--def. Ajla Tomljanovic
round 3--def. Aryna Sabalenka (3)
round of 16--def. Victoria Azarenka (15)
quarterfinals--def. Elena Rybakina (21)
semifinals--def. Tamara Zidansek

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Sakkari upsets French Open defending champion Swiatek

It's bad enough to sustain a leg injury during one's quarterfinal match; it's even worse when your opponent is playing lights-out. That was the situation that defending French Open champion Iga Swiatek found herself in today when she played her practice partner, Maria Sakkari, for a spot in the semifinals. Last year, Swiatek won the tournament without dropping a set, and--up to the quarterfinals--she hadn't dropped a set this year.

Swiatek broke right away, but it wasn't long before her usual blend of fluid power and strategy turned into a rush to get things done, and a rush to get things done almost always ends badly. It was the Polish player's right thigh that was giving her trouble, and she had it tended to in the first set, which she lost, 4-6. And while she had moments of Swiatek-like greatness in the next set, she ultimately couldn't move that well. And on the other side of the net, Sakkari was putting on a service clinic and generally controlling points left and right.

Swiatek acknowledged, after the match, that she was also experiencing some mental fatigue. Among that, the injured leg, and Sakkari's outstanding performance, it was a perfect storm to carry off the defending champion.

Sakkari, seeded 17th, is the highest-ranked player left in the draw.

As of this writing, Swiatek and her partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, are still in the doubles draw, in which they have reached the semifinals.

Sakkari's 6-4, 6-4 victory pits her against Barbora Krejcikova in the semifinals. The Czech player, known for her outstanding doubles skills, has been on a singles roll for the last year--she reached the round of 16 in the 2020 French Open, and this year, she reached the Dubai final and won the event in Strasbourg. Today, Krejcikova defeated Coco Gauff 7-6, 6-3, saving five set points in the first set. 

Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, are also still in the doubles draw, in which they are seeded second.

Yesterday, Tamara Zidansek defeated Paula Badosa 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 in their quarterfinal match. Badosa said in her press conference that she had been nervous throughout the match. My guess is that high a level of anxiety won't be a factor the next time that the Spanish player is on a big stage; she has nowhere to go but up. In the meantime, the tennis world has gotten a good look at Zidansek, who also took out Bianca Andreescu (in the opening round), Katerina Siniakova and Sorana Cirstea.

Also yesterday, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeated Elena Rybakina (Pavlyuchenkova's doubles partner at the French Open) 6-7, 6-2, 9-7, marking a huge breakthrough in the Russian's career. A junior world number 1, Pavlyuchenkova is a talented player who showed great promise for many years, and whose career has been a good one--just not as good as many expected it to be. And now, after fourteen years on the tour, she has finally reached a major semifinal.

It's certainly worth noting that Elena Vesnina, who just recently returned to the tour, has advanced (with partner Aslan Karatsev) to the mixed doubles final.

Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Barbora Krejcikova vs. Maria Sakkari (17)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (31) vs. Tamara Zidansek

Monday, June 7, 2021

Swiatek advances to French Open quarterfinals in both singles and doubles

Iga Swiatek, French Open defending champion in singles, has--so far--continued her 2020 pattern of not dropping a set. The Swiss player reached the quarterfinals today with a win over Marta Kostyuk. She has dropped a set in doubles, but that only made the story better. Swiatek and partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands took out the top seeds in the third round, and it took them over three hours to do it--oh, and they had to save seven match points.

It was also a very good day for the revelatory Czech doubles star, Barbora Krejcikova, who defeated 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-0. And while Krejcikova's rise may be the most dramatic, this year's French Open action has provided a platform for rising stars to shine. Maria Sakkari, whose climb up the rankings has been steady, reached her first major quarterfinal today with her straight-set defeat of 2020 runner-up Sofia Kenin, and Coco Gauff reached her first major quarterfinal when she defeated On Jabeur.

And yesterday, Spain's red-hot Paula Badosa defeated 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova. And let's not forget Tamara Zidansek, who may be 2021's "out of nowhere" player. Zidansek advanced to the quarterfinals when she defeated Sorana Cirstea, who has recently had a resurgence. Then there's Elena Rybakina, on whom we've had an eye for some time. The young Kazakhstani player earned her ticket to the quarterfinals with an upset of three-time champion Serena Williams. 

Finally, in her own "out of nowhere" fashion, Russian veteran Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has returned to the French Open quarterfinals for the first time in ten years, and she did it by upsetting Vika Azarenka, whom she had never before beaten (her one victory was due to Azarenka's retirement).

Not all of the news involves singles play. As noted above, the most thrilling doubles match of the tournament up to this point (and probably up to any point) was the third round upset of top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens by 14th seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek. 

And Diede De Groot is Diede De Great again. The Dutch wheelchair star was victorious in both singles and doubles. De Groot defeated Yumi Kamiji to win the singles titles, and she and partner Aniek Van Koot won the doubles title. This is De Groot's second French Open singles title, and her fourth doubles title. It's also her second time to sweep both titles.

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Coco Gauff (24) vs. Barbora Krejcikova
Maria Sakkari (17) vs. Iga Swiatek (8)
Elena Rybakina (21) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (31)
Tamara Zidansek vs. Paula Badosa (33)

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Five unseeded players to compete in French Open round of 16

It was an exhausting first week, marked by injuries, withdrawals, upsets--and some really good tennis. And still standing, after three rounds, are five players who are unseeded. They are: Sloane Stephens, Barbora Krejcikova, Marta Kostyuk, Tamara Zidansek, and Sorana Cirstea. Four of them will be competing against other unseeded players, though one tends to place an asterisk next to Stephens' name; she may be unseeded, but she's still Sloane Stephens.

Two of those players have had especially good seasons. Krejcikova, long a doubles star, has made good on her goal to bring her singles level up, as has her doubles partner, Katerina Siniakova. Usually, one member of a doubles team decides to focus on doubles and the team either breaks up or plays fewer events together, but these two--so far--are doing it all. For her part, Krejcikova upset fifth seed Elina Svitolina to advance to the final sixteen.

The other player who has had a "long time coming" boost this year is Cirstea, who recently won her first singles title in thirteen years, and then immediately went on to be a tournament runner-up. 

Three former finalists, Stephens (2018) Marketa Vondrousova (2019) and Sofia Kenin (2020), are in the round of 16 draw, as are two former champions--Serena Williams (2002, 2013, 2015) and Iga Swiatek (2020).

One-quarter of the draw is occupied by players from the USA--Stephens, Kenin, Williams, and Coco Gauff (Gauff's third round match against countrywoman Jen Brady came to an end when Brady retired with a foot injury). 

Last year, Paula Badosa reached the round of 16, in which she was defeated by clay court specialist Laura Siegemund. Badosa, who won a grueling three-hour contest against Ana Bogdan in the third round, is most likely engaged in heavy recovery work--both physical and mental--so that she can be reasonably fresh for her next match.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Ons Jabeur (25) vs. Coco Gauff (24)
Sloane Stephens vs. Barbora Krejcikova
Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Maria Sakkari (17)
Marta Kostyuk vs. Iga Swiatek (8)
Serena Williams (7) vs. Elena Rybakina (21)
Vika Azarenka (15) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (31)
Tamara Zidansek vs. Sorana Cirstea
Marketa Vondrousova (30) vs. Paula Badosa (33)

Friday, May 28, 2021

French Open first round matches worth watching

The French Open draw is sizzling, and there are a lot of first round matches worth watching. Here are a few that I hope I can watch (and there are several more that are also intriguing), though the time difference often means that I miss matches I really want to see.

Yulia Putintseva vs. Ons Jabeur (25)--This is all but guaranteed to be good. The fiery Putintseva, when she's "on," is dangerous, and Jabeur showed us her clay court skills during both Charleston tournaments, reaching the semifinals at the Volvo Car Open and the final at the MUSC Women's Health Open.

Wang Qiang vs. Hsieh Su-Wei--Wang just came out of a considerable slump, and reached the final on the red clay of Parma. Now that she's back, what could be more entertaining than watching her play Hsieh Su-Wei?

Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Alona Ostapenko--The 2020 Australian Open champion and 2020 French Open runner-up has had a disappointing 2021--so far. In a rather dramatic "luck of the draw" phenomenon, she will face 2017 French Open champion Ostapenko in the opening round. Ostapenko has slowly returned to form in the past several months, and she's looking more like the hard-hitting, free-swinging force of nature who stormed through Paris four years ago. She isn't there yet, though, and her game is still high on risk-taking. The stakes are high for both players.

Camila Giorgi vs. Petra Martic (22)--This match could be exciting, or it could be over quickly. Martic has what it takes to advance, but she may have to spend some extra time battling the relentlessness of the Italian.

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (Q) vs. Kiki Mladenovic--Between Schmiedy's lovely backhand (and that forehand has suddenly become quite the thing, too) and Mladenovic's very attractive game, this is a match that should be fun to watch. Mladenovic will have all the crowd support, of course. Both women can be inconsistent, and it may come down to a contest of nerves.

Vika Azarenka (15) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova--This is the Veteran Popcorn Special. Two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka, who is on her own impressive comeback trail, will face off against the 2009 French Open champion.

Ana Konjuh (Q) vs Aryna Sabalenka (3)--Konjuh has had more than her fair share of injury woes, and has had to endure multiple surgical procedures on her elbow, which have interrupted what many of us expected to be a steady climb up the rankings. The Croatian player has adjusted her game somewhat in order to protect her fragile elbow. It can't be easy, knowing that she has to face a red-hot Sabalenka in her opening round, but a healthy Konjuh may not be a walk in the park for the third seed, either.

Amanda Anisimova vs. Veronika Kudermetova (29)--If you want fire and ice, here it is. The talented Anisimova tends to show her emotions on court, while the 2021 Volvo Car Open champion is about as low-key and businesslike as they come. This match has the potential to be thrilling, with Anisimova's considerable ball-striking skills and Kudermetova's powerful serve and all-court skills.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

How commentators dishonor professional tennis

I am continually amazed by the unprofessional things that tennis commentators say and, and equally amazed that they are allowed to say them. Though a lot of people don't think language is very important (I've been "reprimanded," and even attacked, for pointing out sexist language in the tennis world--and in other worlds--because "that's what you want to spend your time complaining about?," "there are bigger fish to fry," etc.), but it is. Very. In fact, there is no more significant currency among us than our words. Through language, we express knowledge, respect and empathy--or the lack of them

Also, saying words is the major part of some jobs; for example, the job of tennis commentator. It is reasonable to expect a professional to do a good job handling a major part of her or his job.

But many tennis commentators do not appear to care that much about any of these factors. These are the areas in which commentators fail us again and again:

Mispronouncing players' names

This is not a problem in other sports, but it's a huge one in professional tennis. I listen mostly to U.S. and British commentators, and they constantly mispronounce players' names. Sometimes they even brag about how they mispronounce players' names, which is both disrespectful (as is mispronouncing names in the first place) and arrogant. 

It would seem that people who have been exposed to eastern European names for many years would learn that there are set patterns for pronouncing those names. The patterns are clear, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. to recognize them. But in every match I watch, there is at least one commentator who will (surprisingly) correctly pronounce an eastern European name, and then turn right around and mispronounce another one in which the same pronunciation pattern exists. There is only one explanation for this, and it isn't a nice one.

(Years ago, an ABC commentator did a not very amusing (and somewhat physically creepy) interview with a young player about her "difficult" name, and she explained how to pronounce it. After the recorded interview was shown, the commentator proceeded to again pronounce the player's name incorrectly. Draw your own conclusion.)

So commentators, when it comes to pronouncing names, are either disrespectful, not very bright--or both. But there is another factor involved. If they cannot learn the (rather simple) patterns of pronunciation, or if they come across a name that especially stumps them, all they have to do is check the WTA pronunciation guide. Obviously, they do not, so one has to wonder whether laziness is also at play. (Or maybe they just don't care.)

And it isn't just commentators. A few years ago, I had two tennis journalists (one of whom is quite well known) "correct" me (and argue with me) when I correctly pronounced a German player's name. I wish that players would follow the lead of Dinara Safina and Julia Goerges, and insist on being called by their correct names. But that doesn't mean that it's the players' job to make sure that their names are pronounced correctly--it's the job of the individuals who are paid to do the pronouncing.

Using sexist language

Calling any female over 18 a "girl" is sexist, and calling women in their late 20s and early 30s "girls" is very sexist. Calling tennis pros "young ladies" infantilizes them; that is a term that we use (well, I don't) for female children, and its connotation is obvious.

Then there's the issue of commentators discussing "tennis" when what they mean is "men's tennis." They are not the only ones who do it--I recall being asked "What's wrong with American tennis?, " and when I said "Are you kidding?! Serena, Venus, Sofia, Madison, etc." the answer was "Oh, you know, I meant the men."

Andy Murray sums it up nicely in this interview:

Using other offensive language

A friend once said to me, "I hate political correctness." My response was to tell tell him that "I hate the term 'political correctness.'" Yes, there have been a couple of terribly stupid (and damaging) things done by people who didn't have a clue about the subject (the horrible "niggardly" incident comes to mind), but in general, a call for a change in language is a call for respect to be paid to a member of a particular group. 

Often--very often--that group is the group known as "women and girls." But tennis commentators manage to offend other groups, too, by using terms and expressions that are offensive. The most common of these is the declaration that a player "has gone walkabout" when she suddenly mentally checks out of a match. This term originated among commentators when Evonne Goolagong was on the tour. Goolagong is an Aboriginal Australian, and the walkabout is an Aboriginal rite of passage in which an adolescent male makes a journey to the wilderness. 

Mainstream society did not understand (or want to understand) the walkabout, so those who participated in it were thought to be lazy, transient, etc. To apply this  twisted meaning of the term to Goolagong was flat-out racist (commentators also called her "the little chocolate drop").  To continue to use it to describe a player's little mental vacation is still an offense against Aboriginal people.

A term that commentators often use is that a player took her or his opponent "to the woodshed." This is a direct reference to a truly horrible type of child abuse, and it has no business being in the sports lexicon. Neither does the often-used (I heard it all week in Rome) term, "she got a scalp." That is, of course, a reference to an especially cruel practice performed during some wars in world history, and--as recently as the 19th Century--a practice sanctioned by the U.S. government against Native Americans. 

Using lame metaphors that elevate other sports over tennis

Way back in the day, some women wrote and illustrated a very funny book called Titters. On the back cover were some hilarious fake blurbs, one of which said "Makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte!" Well, that's the kind of metaphors that tennis commentators use all the time. Terms like "get to the finish line," "she teed off," "that's just batting practice for her," and "if that were a baseball pitch....," make tennis subordinate to almost all other sports. Football, basketball, golf, and baseball commentators are not using tennis metaphors to describe what's going on on the field, the court, the greens, and the diamond.

Also, it is just terrible metaphor construction, and makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte--minus the satire.

Words are very important, and commentators have an important job in which words are almost everything. Tennis, and especially women's tennis, deserves better.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Simona, sexism, and the denial and dismissal of sexism and misogyny in professional tennis

I like Simona Halep's game. I like the way she handles her career. I like her personality. To be even more candid--I like Simona. But her insistence that there is no sexism in professional tennis is, in a word, delusional. 

Halep, a former world number 1, has explained to us that there can't possibly be sexism in the sport because the umpires call the matches the same for both women and men. This is a head-spinning statement of 'logic" that could just as well have come from a Lewis Carroll creation.

  • When women have to constantly fight for equal pay, that is sexism.
  • When an ATP player (Jo Wilfried Tsonga) says that women are inherently inferior athletes because of female hormones, that is sexism (a lot of the media found that amusing--that, too, is sexism).
  • When an ATP player (Novak Djokovic) says that it's fine for woman to get more prize money as long as men then also get even more prize money, that is sexism. 
  • When an ATP player (David Ferrer) dismisses a ruling from a female umpire because "girls are so stupid," that is sexism.
  • When an entire Davis Cup team (Spain) becomes hysterical when they are given a female captain because "she can't possibly understand the men's game" (apparently, men must easily understand the women's game, since so many of them are WTA coaches), that is sexism.
  • When a member of that team (Rafael Nadal) criticizes said captain for being "defensive" when she has been attacked in public for days on end, that is sexism.
  • When the former director (Raymond Moore) of a major tournament says that the WTA players "ride on the coattails of the men," and that the women should "get down on their knees and thank" them, that is sexism.
  • When an ATP play (Andy Murray) hires a woman as a coach and he becomes the butt of many ATP jokes, that is sexism.
  • When an author (Patrick McEnroe) thinks that his observations on Venus Williams' "inappropriate" kits are important enough to include in his book, that is sexism.
  • When a member of the ATP Players' Council (Sergiy Stakhovsky) uses his position to campaign against equal prize money, that is sexism.
  • When members of the media ask about "tennis,"  and "tennis players," but they mean "men's tennis," and "male tennis players," that is sexism.
  • When an ATP member (Rafael Nadal) repeatedly brings up the subject of male models to justify women not getting equal pay, that is sexism.
  • When commentators use sexist language (more common among females), such as calling women "girls" and "young ladies," that is sexism.
  • When ATP members (Thomas Berdych, Giles Simon) declare that women's tennis is inferior, that is sexism.
  • When an ATP player (Nick Kyrgios) uses a WTA player's private life to publicly insult an ATP peer, that is sexism. 
  • When a former player now turned coach (Dmitry Tursunov) compares breaking rackets with rough sex, that is probably worse than sexism.
  • When a journalist (not to mention, countless fans) informs us that ATP players should make more money than WTA players because "the market rules," that is sexism (hello!--what about the inherent sexism in the "market"?).
  • When ATP players tell Andy Murray that they would rather forgo a pay raise if women are getting one, too, that is sexism--and worse. 
  • When fans in Australia loudly and demonstrably object to Vika Azarenka's grunting (which it isn't--it is screaming), that is sexism.
  • When an ATP player (Sam Querrey) stars on a television show that is based on outrageously male-dominant gender roles, that is sexism.
  • When Wimbledon inspects the insides of women's skirts, that is sexism (actually, it's assault).
  • When the French Open decides to deny night matches to all WTA players, that is sexism.
  • When a coach (Toni Nadal) dismisses the ruling of a female umpire by saying "we had some problems with a girl," that is sexism.
  • When an ATP player (John Isner) says that he could never hire a female coach because they wouldn't be able to live in the same house or apartment, that is sexism. 
  • When a former ATP player (Tim Henman) bases an entire interview with ATP players (and they go along with it) on "what would Serena Williams' ranking be on the ATP?" that is sexism.
  • When an ATP player (Alexander Zverev) is credibly accused of committing violence toward a woman and the ATP remains totally silent, that is sexism
  • When the Next Gen draw ceremony features female models who reveal groupings and letters under their clothes, that is blatant sexism.

Sexism coming from the ATP and the sports media is, of course, nothing new. From John Newcombe ("The ladies' game is the icing on the cake") to Stefan Edberg to Janko Tipsarevic--the organization has long shown a disdain for women. Halep herself was the victim of one of the most overt examples of sexism from a member of the press when he asked her a deeply personal and totally inappropriate question about her breast reduction surgery.

Whatever compels Simona Halep to deny sexism and misogyny in professional tennis is something about which I won't make guesses. What is really sad, though, is that there are so many fans who are well aware of all the sexism, but they continue to support the ATP--not just men, but a lot of women. I no longer watch ATP matches unless my favorites are playing, or two ATP members are playing who have not demonstrated sexist attitudes or said and done sexist things (or those few who have openly supported female players).

Why on earth would I want to watch someone who believes that I'm inherently inferior to him?

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Ad Astra! Astra Sharma wins MUSC Women's Health Open in Charleston

Astra Sharma (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Unseeded Astra Sharma of Australia upset top seed Ons Jabeur today to win the MUSC Women's Health Open in Charleston, thereby securing her first WTA title. Sharma's 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory capped a week in which the 25-year-old knocked off eighth seed Madison Brengle and two very talented teenagers, Linda Fruhtvirtova and Maria Camila Osorio Serrano. 

Jabeur, the favorite to win the title, showed just why she was expected to win her first title when, during the first set, she repeatedly frustrated Sharma with hitting her signature drop shot, and by pulling Sharma all over the court. But Sharma has shown this week that she is in it for the long haul:

“I didn’t know really what to do. She was wrong-footing me, she was drop-shotting me, she was making me cover a lot of court, and I couldn’t really read what she was doing....but I just thought, you know, if maybe, maybe I just keep competing, keep showing up, keep doing the right things—those are really inherently quite tricky shots, so like maybe she’ll waver here and there, and like I’ll get an opportunity to get it closer."

Sharma made her move in the second set, and won it 7-5. Then everything changed:

Astra Sharma (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

“…by the third set, it was hot, it was humid; I think I was a little bit more energetic than her and my intensity was still the same, so I think that was what eventually gave me the little lead, yeah.”

Sharma's thinking turned out to be accurate. She was patient, and she was relentless. And when she realized that she had a physical advantage, she imposed herself. 

After the match, Sharma said that she had used her time this week to employ her physicality in more of an offensive way than she has in the past. 

“I think that is the basis of my game….I might not have the straight-up weapons that a player like Ons has, but I do have the speed to kind of close and finish at the net….”

This was Sharma's first win over a top 30 player. 

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

 

Jabeur said that it was a tough loss, and that “She serves different from the other players, so it was kind of difficult for me to adapt and to return better.”

Of the treatment that she received for her right arm, Jabeur said that she has had long-term shoulder pain, and that she was just hoping to release it a bit so that she could serve better.

The U.S. team of Hailey Baptiste and Caty McNally won the doubles title, defeating top seeds Ellen Perez and Storm Sanders of Australia, 6-7, 6-4, 10-6. It was Baptiste's first doubles title, and McNally's third.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Jabeur and Sharma to contest for the title in Charleston

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

 Yesterday, top MUSC Women's Health Open seed Ons Jabeur said about her upcoming semifinal against Danka Kovinic: “I am going to really play like I never played before. I really want this win, and I’m going to do anything to win."  

She wasn't kidding. Today, playing against the woman who defeated her last week in the Volvo Car Open semifinals, Jabeur put on a clinic that included all of her clever, tricky shots. Add consistency, and you have a deadly formula. Jabeur defeated Kovinic 6-3, 6-0, but--as is often the case--the match itself was more than the score might indicate.

Kovinic fought. She fought so hard that, in the first set, she went from 1-5 to getting painfully close to having a chance to even things at 5-6--Jabeur needed ten set points to take the opening set. And even though the Montenegrin player won no games in the second set, she saw to it that her opponent needed four match points to finally end the match. 

“In my head, I was like, she deserve to play this game and she deserve to win this game,” Jabeur said about the game that went on and toward the end of the first set. Of the second set, Jabeur noted: “It’s a tougher set than it looks like. I know it’s 6-love, but the games were really long, and it was advantage most of the time”

Toward the end of the first set, Jabeur appeared to be struggling with some type of abdominal issue. She confirmed that she has been having stomach problems and plans to get checked when she goes home.

Once again, Jabeur talked about her determination: “I don’t want to waste any more opportunities…I’m in this momentum right now and I want this title, like, so bad, so I’m gonna do whatever it takes to get it…I wanna show the world what Ons is capable of.”

Asked about her husband's quickly coming to her aid to take her bag when she walked off the court, Jabeur's immediate response was “That’s part of our marriage contract, you know, to take my bag when I come out of the match.” (It's a tradition, of course, as in “Fix the drink and fix the racket.”)

Neither Jabeur nor Kovinic has ever won a WTA match. Kovinic had a chance last week, but lost the Volvo Car Open to Veronika Kudermetova. Now it's Jabeur's turn to attempt to win her first WTA title. Her opponent will be Astra Sharma, who defeated Maria Camila Osorio Serrrano 7-6, 6-1.

Astra Sharma (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

The last part of the first set between Sharma and Osorio Serrano was an eerie replay of the concluding part of the first set between Jabeur and Kovinic, with a lengthy battle at 5-6. Osorio Serrano had four set points, but Sharma prevailed, and she prevailed in the tiebreak. After that, the Australian was on fire, using her considerable athleticism and some expert shot-making to overcome her opponent. 

Speaking with the press, Sharma said that she thought that Osorio Serrano--having played so many matches lately--may have gotten a bit tired. The Colombian player agreed, saying that she grew tired and was "out of gas."

Osorio Serrano also had a bit of a leg problem which she intends to have checked  “It was a really good two weeks, and I’m happy for what I did. I’m pretty tired, but I feel like I did really good things these two weeks; I learned a lot....it’s good that I still have things to work on.”

“I really just want to go to sleep," she added.

Sharma talked about her mindset during the first set: There wasn’t a lot of pressure on me, I felt, because I thought, you know, even if she breaks, I still have two more sets, like I’m playing really well. I trust myself that I can keep this kind of play and push her….”

“She’s such a clean ball striker, such a tough opponent," she said of her opponent.

Sharma said that playing on clay is a good opportunity for her to utilize her fitness. “Clay is such a physical surface, and I’ve tried to use that, this time, to make girls beat me….If you can beat me over three sets and I’m going to run down everything, like, then—too good.

“...That’s what I tried this week, to do, like make sure that every point is tough, you really gotta play every point against me, and that was the goal this week.”

The Australian player talked about her college team days, and said that college tennis was a lot more pressure because team members were counting on her to win. “Every point counts, I don’t want to let anyone down.” 

When she turned pro, it was less intense for her because it just she: “No one’s cheering you on, no one’s holding you accountable, it’s just yourself out there….”

“…I’ve learned along the way, like, how to be my own little college team in a way, like having, supporting myself out on court….”

Sharma and Jabeur have never played each other before, and neither has ever won a WTA title, though each of them has reached a final.

Meanwhile, the doubles semifinals have been completed. In today's match, Hailey Baptiste and Caty McNally defeated Elixane Lechemia and Ingrid Neel 6-0, 6-2. In the final, Baptiste and McNally will play top seeds Ellen Perez and Storm Sanders, who defeated Julia Wachaczyk and Renata Zarazua 6-2, 6-2 yesterday.

Friday, April 16, 2021

"I was everywhere on the court"

Danka Kovinic (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

 Danka Kovinic defeated third seed Shelby Rogers 7-5, 6-1 today at the MUSC Women's Health Open in Charleston, and advanced to the semifinals. Rogers was dealing with an ab strain which inhibited her service motion and contributed to service stats that were not up to Rogers' usual standard. And--as Rogers was quick to point out--her opponent played extremely well today.

Kovinic credited mixing her shots, especially not giving Rogers the low, flat shots that she likes, as the main tactic that helped her win. “I think my game, mixing, with sometimes a higher spin on forehand and then a little bit faster spin backhand, and, plus I was really missing very little today, basically every return I was getting back in the court….”I was everywhere on the court.”

Kovinic also noted that having a day off was helpful. She said that her body felt fine, but that she had become mentally tired after playing so many consecutive competitive matches. Kovinic said that she first noticed the mental fatigue in her match against Lauren Davis, in which she felt somewhat nervous.

The Montenegrin player said that she especially liked playing the consecutive tournaments in Charleston because it has kept her mind busy: “It’s not like, everywhere—it’s still on the tennis court.”

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

For her efforts, Kovinic will get a repeat of last week's semifinal at the Volvo Car Open. She and top seed Ons Jabeur will again compete for a spot in the final. Last week, Kovinic came out on top, and she said that she is looking forward to playing Jabeur again. “Hopefully she’ll play a little bit less drop shots," she added.

For her part, Jabeur defeated Nao Hibino 6-0, 6-1 in 48 minutes. Jabeur said that her goal was to be aggressive today. “I’m really glad the way I played this match.”

Regarding the upcoming semifinal re-match between her and Kovinic, the top seed was very clear: “I am going to really play like I never played before. I really want this win, and I’m going to do anything to win. I will be brave, and not let the stress play the match for me. I can beat Danka. Obviously, this time, there’s less pressure on me—she won last week.”

Next was a contest between two talented upstarts--Clara Tauson and Maria Camila Osorio Serrano, both of whom have performed impressively at this tournament. Unfortunately, Tauson's left knee injury got the better of her, and she had to retire at 6-4, 1-0. This was unfortunate not only for Tauson, but for spectators, because--despite the injury--the two of them were playing so well, and the match had the potential to be quite exciting.

“I’m so sorry that it had to finish like that," Osorio Serrano said after the match. "I’m friends with her and I know it’s tough to be injured and not be able to play. It’s so sad to see her like that….”

Osorio Serrano said that she's been working a lot on the mental aspect of her game. "I used to get mad a lot when I was playing…I was thinking that I was too good….” Now, she says, she has put away the anger and frustration and just plays point by point.

The Copa Colsanitas champion appeared both surprised and amused with her results in Charleston. “I’m proud of what I”m doing and I still can’t believe that I’m in the semis…that’s crazy to say, for me.”

She also talked about the reactions of others to her success: “My family cannot believe it…they just keep texting me that this is unreal….The media in Colombia, they’re talking a lot about me, and that’s funny because I’ve never been that much on TV.”

Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)
Astra Sharma (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Finally, Astra Sharma and Linda Fruhvirtova played each other for the remaining spot in the semifinals. In her last two matches, the 15-year-old Czech player hit a combined 24 double faults. She got away with it in her round of 16 match against Emma Navarro, but not today. 

Sharma defeated her 6-4, 6-3. Fruhvirtova grabbed attention this week with not only with her game, but with her poise on the court, which is quite impressive for a 15-year-old. Sharma said it best: “She’s an amazing player who plays as if she’s been born to hold a racket her whole life.”

The Australian player explained that the considerable amount of strapping on her leg "looks pretty dramatic, but there's little pain. "...it's more for my peace of mind." 

Sharma said that, in playing Fruhvirtova, she kept it simple and used her physicality on court. “I think I’ve always utilized that well in a defensive way, but trying to use that more offensively, I think, has been paying some dividends."

Here is the semifinal draw:

Ons Jabeur (1) vs. Danka Kovinic
Astra Sharma vs. Maria Camila Osorio Serrano

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Osorio Serrano and Fruhvirtova continue their success in Charleston

Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

The round of 16 continued today in Charleston at the MUSC Women's Health Open, and two young players who have garnered a lot of attention got even more when they both advanced to the quarterfinals. Maria Camila Osorio Serrano and Linda Fruhvritova won their matches against Christina McHale and Emma Navrro, respectively.

Osorio Serrano, a former number 1 ranked junior, recently won her first WTA title at the 2021 Copa Colsanitas, which she entered as a wild card. Today, the 19-year-old Colombian player defeated Christina McHale 2-6, 7-6, 7-6, after being down a set and a break in the second set. 

Discussing her ability to come back and turn the match around, Osorio Serrano said: “I don’t know—I don't feel that I’m thinking that much. I don’t feel like I’m gonna lose…I just feel that I have to play every point.”

She gave credit to coach Ricardo Sanchez for helping her with a lot of things that she didn't realized she needed to improve. Osorio Serrano said that, despite what she may think or want to do, she always listens to Sanchez.

Linda Fruhvirtova (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

 Fruhvirtova, following her win over 4th seed Alize Cornet (who retired in the third set) in the second round, continued her campaign today with a straight sets win over Emma Navarro. The young Czech player said that she realized that her serve wasn't going to be good today, so she focused on other things. "Every match is different," she remarked, "every day you feel different." Fruhvirtova is now into her first WTA quarterfinal.

Top seed Ons Jabeur also advanced with a 6-4, 6-0 win over Alycia Parks. Jabeur said that it was difficult for her to adapt to Parks' serve because the ball was so high. She also talked about her comfort level in Charleston, and how nice it was to stay in the same location for two tournaments. "Everything is amazing here--the food, the sites, the hotel, nothing to complain about...."

The other winner today was Astra Sharma, who defeated Christina McHale 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, in a hard-fought match that contained a number of momentum swings.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Ons Jabeur (1) vs. Nao Hibino
Shelby Rogers (3) vs. Danka Kovinic
Astra Sharma vs Linda Fruhvirtova
Clara Tauson vs. Maria Camila Osorio Serrano

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Rogers advances at MUSC Women's Health Open, Tauson upsets Tomljanovic

Shelby Rogers (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Third seed Shelby Rogers advanced to the quarterfinals of the MUSC Open today when she defeated Clare Liu 6-2, 6-2. Asked in her press conference how it felt to have a straight-forward, no drama win, Rogers said, “Well,  think I was due for maybe a couple of tame matches; I’ve had quite a lot of mental battles over the past couple of months....” Most recently, she had a drama-filled match against Amanda Anisimova at theVolvo Car Open.

The third seed will next face Volvo Car Open semifinalist Danka Kovinic. Kovinic upset seventh seed Lauren Davis today in three sets.

Also winning today were Nao Hibino, who defeated Francesco Di Lorenzo, and Clara Tauson, who upset sixth seed Ajla Tomljanovic 6-1, 6-4. 

After the match, Tauson talked about her tennis mentality, and said that competing on clay involved her mindset: "“I’m trying to play a little bit higher over the net and play with less risk....I think it’s more mentally for me, staying in the rally and just hitting with the girls.”

Clara Tauson (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Tauson said that she has learned to look at higher-ranked players and think that she is just as good as they are. This tactic is helping her a lot right now, she said. She went on to talk about the mental shifts that she has undergone. “When I was younger, I was very explosive and had a lot of outbursts," she explained, but now she talks with her mental coach every day and is able to remain calm.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Top seed advances in Charleston, and a 15-year-old makes a very grown-up statement

Linda Fruhvirtova (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Top seed Ons Jabeur won her first match tournament in Charleston today, at the MUSC Health Women's Open, defeating Stefanie Voegele 6-4, 6-1. Jabeur reached the semifinals at the Volvo Car Open, also in Charleston, last week. Her next opponent will be Alycia Parks, who defeated Grace Min, 6-1, 6-4.

“Obviously, I’m not playing the game that I want to play, but, I mean, it is what it is; I’m getting used to every player, every condition with the player….," Jabeur said after the match.

“My ambition right now is to get my serve better,” she added.

Also today, Emma Navarro won her second WTA match when her opponent, Tereza Martincova, retired in the second round. Her first came last week at the Volvo Car Open when, playing as a wild card, she defeated Renata Zarazua. Volvo Car Open finalist Danka Kovinic also advanced today, with a win over Viktoriya Tomova.

The tournament saved the best for last, though in one major way, it wasn't good at all. 15-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova engaged in a two hour and forty-three-minute knock-down-drag-out with one of the queens of knock-down-drag-out fighting--Alize Cornet. Cornet has been showing her tenacious form lately, and that always makes for a good show. Unfortunately, tonight, she was forced to retire in the third set.

Cornet entered the court with her right thigh wrapped, and she had it re-wrapped between the second and third sets. However, the longer the match went on, the harder it was for the Frenchwoman to move; she was in obvious pain, but kept on playing. Her opponent also took a medical timeout to have her ankle wrapped. There were 18 breaks of serve in the match, and the young Czech player held a match point in the second set. It was also highly entertaining, other than the part about watching Cornet limp around the court.

It was 4-all in the third set when Cornet retired, so we'll never know what may have happened. But we do know that Fruhvitova fought as hard as the veteran Frenchwoman, and she showed considerable mental strength--especially for someone her age. After the match, when asked about her mental strength, Fruhvitova said that it comes naturally to her. She then added that “The matches I lost the past years helped me a lot in my mental strength so that I could perform the game that I did today.”

The teenager talked about “the way we both fought for every point, it just amazing. I’m satisfied with the way I played—it was just so tough mentally and physically….”

Fruhvirtova said that tonight's match would be memorable because it was her first WTA win, but it would also be memorable because it was this particular match that was her first. "I admire Alize, how can she fight, and she just never give up, if she’s injured or not injured.”

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Kudermetova leaves Charleston with new belief, a big trophy, a check--and a Volvo

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

Veronika Kudermetova said that when she arrived in Charleston, she didn't believe that she could win the title because she didn't have good preparation before Miami, and "...I had, I think, a lot of troubles in my head." But the 23-year-old Russian wound up "pulling a Swiatek" and winning the tournament without dropping a set. Kudermetova's Volvo Car Open victory represents her first WTA title, and starting with a 500-level event is an impressive way to make the tennis world take notice.

In today's final, Kudermetova, seeded 15th, defeated Montenegro's Danka Kovinic 6-4, 6-2. Kovinic had done a lot of heavy lifting at the tournament, upsetting the third, eleventh and twelfth seeds. But--while, on paper--Kudermetova's draw wasn't as difficult as Kovinic's--she had her work cut out for her in both the quarterfinals and the semifinals, in which she defeated 2016 champion Sloane Stephens and a red-hot Paula Badosa, respectively. 

Kudermetova has a very good serve (as of now, she's the WTA ace queen, with 130 aces hit in 2021), but it failed her several times throughout the tournament, so she repeatedly used her second serve to get out of trouble. She also did some excellent defending, and was a rather calm and cool presence on court at almost all times.

Despite her doubts when she began her Charleston campaign, the new champion said that once she started to play matches, she just focused on her work, and "...match by match, I started to play really well." Several times during the week, Kudermetova talked about her focus on "the work," explaining that the most important thing that she does is practice.

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Christ Smith

Kudermetova said that--of all her experiences on the courts in Charleston--the one that she will take with her is "I think most important, the belief in myself, trust in myself." Now that she has that belief, and now that she has a big title (and a new Volvo)!, "...the pressure come off from the shoulder." Indeed.

As for Kovinic, she had a splendid run this week, knocking out the likes of young star Leylah Fernandez, Petra Kvitova, Yulia Putintseva, and Ons Jabeur. Of the final, Kovinic said, “She was more constant from the baseline than I was today.”

Kovinic, like Kudermetova, is taking away more than her runner-up dish: “I stayed composed and calm during most of the match. I think that is the one thing I discovered about myself—that I can be really calm in some crucial moments, and just to make good decision when it’s very important."

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

The unseeded Kovinic also said: “…of course I feel a little bit sad because I didn’t lift that trophy, but that is only if I’m looking only at this day, but if I’m looking overall at this week and the process before this tournament, I’m really happy…”

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

The day began with a third title (and two Volvos) for the top seeds in doubles, Nicole Melichar and Demi Schuurs. In the final, they defeated Marie Bouzkova and Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 6-4. 

"To transition from the hard to the clay and win right away the first week, I think that’s incredible….” Melichar said. This is the U.S. player's tenth title, and she has also finally cracked the top 10, a convergence that she said was possibly "meant to be."








Saturday, April 10, 2021

Danka or Veronika--who will rule on green clay?

All photos courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith
 
Who would have thought that the final four women in the 2021 Volvo Car Open would be players who have never won a title? I think it's quite interesting, and it's also a kind of extended statement on the history of the Charleston tournament, which is known as a star-maker event. We need only go back to 2017 to note the last time that this phenomenon occurred: Dasha Kasatkina won the event, and it was her first title. Kasatkina would go on to win three more titles, and even to spend some time in the top 10. (The finalist that year, Alona Ostapenko, traveled to Europe after leaving Charleston, and--while she was there--won the French Open.)

Today's semifinal matches featured two seeded players and two unseeded players. In the first match, Danka Kovinic (the tennis face of Tunisia) faced off against 12th seed Ons Jabeur (the tennis face of Montenegro). Jabeur, who has an impressive variety of shots from which to choose, sometimes didn't appear quite prepared for the steadiness of Kovinic's game. Kovinic out-served Jabeur in both first and second serves, and she broke her four times. Her 6-3, 6-2 victory puts her into the final against 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia.

After the match, Kovinic told the press:  “I was feeling very calm today, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect this result in two sets, like 6-3, 6-2. I was feeling a bit tired, but somehow, I didn’t show that on the court.

“I didn’t even think about winning or even playing finals….to be honest, I didn’t feel a hundred percent confident in my first round, and even in my second round again Leylah. And then, match by match, my game improved, and my confidence raised a little, and then everything come together, and I’m in the final right now!”

In the second semifinal, Paula Badosa, who has played some really thrilling tennis all week, was stopped by Kudermetova, who had an answer for just about everything Badosa threw at her. Badosa made fewer unforced errors (22 to 26) than Kudermetova, but Kudermetova hit twice as many winners as Badosa, and she broke Badosa four times. 

The Spaniard raised her level in the second set, and there was a very tense game at 2-all, in which Badosa held two break points. After twelve minutes and half a dozen deuces, Kudermetova held, and that would turn out to be the last stop on the speeding Kudermetova train, bound for the final. The 15th seed defeated Badosa 6-3, 6-3. She still has not dropped a set.

“I have a lot of mistakes with my first serve and I played just with the second serve," Kudermetova said after the match, "but I’m really happy that I can find the way that I can win with the second serve against Paula because she’s aggressive player….”

Kudermetova also said that she felt that, at the Volvo Car Open, she has played smarter than she has in the past.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

Danka Kovinic
round 1—def. Gabriela Talaba
round 2—def. Leylah Fernandez
round 3—def. Petra Kvitova (3)
quarterfinals—def. Yulia Putintseva (11)
semifinals—def. Ons Jabeur (12)

Veronika Kudermetova (15)
round 1—def. Desirae Krawczyk (Q)
round 2—def. Emma Navarro (WC)
round 3—def. Karumi Nara
quarterfinals—def. Sloane Stephens
semifinals—def. Paula Badosa

In doubles play, top seeds Nicole Melichar and Demi Schuurs defeated Gaby Dabrowski and Asia Muhammad, 7-5, 6-1, in the semifinals. In the final, they will face Maria Bouzkova and Lucie Hradecka, who upset fourth seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk, 6-3, 0-6, 1-0.

And finally, this gem from Danka Kovinic:

Question: “What are Montenegins known for?”
Kovinic: “We’re known to be lazy.”

Friday, April 9, 2021

Badosa and Kovinic--women on a mission

Paula Badosa (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Yesterday, Paula Badosa told the press at the Volvo Car Open that she wanted to play Ash Barty because she wanted to know what it feels like to play against the number 1 player in the world. This evening, Badosa got her wish, and she made the most of it. The Spanish player served up a storm and kept her cool throughout the quarterfinal match, upsetting Barty 6-4, 6-3. The Spanish player got her first top 20 win earlier in the week when she upset fifth seed Belinda Bencic in a thriller of a match. She then defeated Caty McNally, before taking Barty out of the event.

Badosa said that she went into the match with a game plan, but had to change it a bit. " At the beginning, I didn’t know what was happening. I like rhythm, and she wasn’t giving me any rhythm.” Badosa said she wasn't prepared for Barty's slices, volleys and very fast forehand. “I think," she said, "when you play a player like that, the energy on court is different.”

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Badosa isn't the only player who has chosen the green clay of Charleston to make a big statement. Danka Kovinic upset 11th seed Yulia Putintseva in three sets (6-7, 7-5, 6-1) today to advance to the semifinals. Kovinic had already defeated the up-and-coming Canadian player, Leylah Fernandez, and--in the round of 16--she upset third seed Petra Kvitova. 

Talking about today's match against Putintseva, the Montenegrin said that “Sometimes I was also surprised by myself, by how composed I was....I kept thinking, if I show more emotions, she’s gonna get more pumped….

It was tough at the beginning, just to switch from yesterday’s match—it was really hitting good from the baseline, and today it was completely different—a lot of topspin, a lot of running. I knew, actually, how she’s gonna play, and I think I was well prepared.”

Kovinic talked about her struggles on the tour. When she had her highest ranking, she stopped working with her coach of eleven years, and everything went wrong. “Every week, I was losing….Sometimes you just doubt yourself….that was the first time in my career that I felt like, nothing is going well, physically and emotionally.”

It took about a year and half for her to get back on track, Kovinc said. Asked whether there was some particular advice that helped her, she replied: "I wanted to do it my way, and I think maybe it was longer, but at the end, I”m happy I did it this way because I get to know myself better, you know, and to know what I want to do in my tennis career, in life, what is good for me, what is not, and then I think, it just takes time.”

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
Also advancing today was 12th seed Ons Jabeur, who defeated 14th seed Coco Gauff 6-3, 6-3. It was Jabeur's first victory over Gauff, which prompted her to say that "Maybe this year is a revenge year for me.” Jabeur said that her serve hasn't really been working for her the way she wants it to, so "Maybe the miracle happens tomorrow.”

We often hear commentators say that the problem with having a wide array of shots from which to choose is that a player with this advantage sometimes doesn't know which shot to choose. Jabeur said exactly that during her press conference--that knowing how to hit so many different shots is an advantage, but sometimes it isn't.

It should be noted that Gauff injured her hip during the match, so she and partner Caty McNally have withdrawn from doubles competition.

Veronika Kudermetova (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
In the final match of the day, Veronika Kudermetova defeated 2016 champion Sloane Stephens 6-3, 6-4. Kudermetova, seeded 15th, broke Stephens four times. The Russian player said that she felt confident tonight. “When I start to win more matches, I feel confident. But I think first it comes from the practice. In the practice, you do the same thing—you try to do like, every day, the same, same, and I think—for me—it’s very important when I do the same thing every day in the practice, and I start to feel confident.”

Here is the semifinal draw:

Danka Kovinic vs. Ons Jabeur (12)
Paula Badosa vs. Veronika Kudermetova (15)

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Quarterfinals set in Charleston

Though we should always know to expect anything from a tennis match (and after last night, we should really know), I imagine that most of us were not prepared to see Garbine Muguruza retire in the second set of her round of 16 match this morning. The sixth seed, who has looked so good during this tournament, sustained a left leg injury. She had the trainer treat her, and, she said, "I definitely wanted to give it a chance…but it just got worse..." Muguruza also said that the transition from hard courts to clay courts was problematic for her.

Muguruza's retirement means that her opponent, Yulia Putintseva--who lost the first round 0-6 (it was 2-all in the second when Muguruza retired)--has advanced to the quarterfinals. The 11th seed told Tennis Channel, "I don't believe, at the moment, that I deserve to go through, because she was playing really good tennis." But go through she did, and she plays the unseeded Danka Kovinic in the quarterfinals.

Danka Kovinic (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
 
Today was hotter and more humid than any other day so far, and sure enough, we saw the demise of third seed Petra Kvitova. To be fair, her opponent, Danka Kovinic played quite well, defeating Kvitova 6-4, 6-1. But one can't help but think that the intense humidity was also Kvitova's undoing, as it has been so many times in the past.

Coco Gauff (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

2016 champion Sloane Stephens, continuing her excellent form, defeated Ajla Tomlhanovic in straight sets, 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova defeated Karumi Nara, and 12th seed Ons Jabeur ended Alize Cornet's run in an entertaining (it goes without saying) three-set match. And 14th seed Coco Gauff defeated countrywoman Lauren Davis 6-2, 7-6; there were seven breaks of serve.


Paula Badosa (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
 
Paula Badosa, who won that thriller contest against Belinda Bencic, won again today, this time defeating Caty McNally. Looking back on the Bencic match--which she served for twice, and won on her fifth match point--Badosa said:

“I recently learned to fight like that….My problem was that I wasn’t accepting the bad moments….But since some months ago, last year, I made a big change mentally, I started to work a lot on that, to fight, like every  point, no matter what.”

The Spanish player said that she didn't like green clay when she played in ITF tournaments, but that now, she likes playing on them. 

Recalling the 2020 French Open, she she upset both a French Open finalist and a French Open champion, Badosa said that the occasion was a turning point for her

“Totally, totally. Because I was having rough times. I had good matches, but not at that level because I never was believing on myself, but that two matches, and doing it in a Grand Slam, at Roland Garros, was very special to me. It helped me with self-confidence, and believing on myself, and to work the pre-season very hard, and believing that this season was going to be better than the last one.”

Badosa will play either home favorite Shelby Rogers or world number 1 Ash Barty in the next round. She was very complimentary of Rogers' game, and then added, "Ash Barty--I don't have words to describe that."

She then added: "Okay, I’m gonna be honest, I would like to play Ash Barty because I never played against a world number 1, and I would like to see what it is to play a world number 1."

In tonight's match, world number 1 Ash Barty had to go three sets to defeat Shelby Rogers. Barty had a lot of trouble with her serve (though she did hit nine aces), and it took her two hours and 23 minutes to overcome Rogers. 

After the match, Barty said that it was difficult for her to play at night on the Charleston court. "It’s quite dry and the ball travels through the air a little bit longer than it did in Miami….I felt like I wasn’t quite seeing the ball and angling the ball as well as I have been, but that’s all part and parcel of adjusting to a new surface and to different conditions.”

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Paula Badosa
Veronika Kudermetova (15) vs. Sloane Stephens
Yulia Putintseva (11) vs. Danka Kovinic
Ons Jabeur (12) vs. Coco Gauff (14)