Sunday, December 19, 2021

The holiday sing-along returns!

Photo by Daniel Ward


 Memos come, are you masking?
Are you vaxxed? they’ll be asking
A pitiful sight
No card games tonight
Living in a Covid wonderland

Gone away are the side trips
Here to stay are the swab tips
Aryna’s not sure
The science is pure
Stumbling through a Covid wonderland

In the hotel, we will build a prison
And pretend that it’s a luxury suite
Paula’s pounding balls
With great precision
While rodents make a run at Yulia’s feet

Later on, we’ll be testing
You can hear the protesting
The virus waylaid
The plans that were made
Living in a Covid wonderland

 

        ENJOY PREVIOUS HOLIDAY SING-ALONGS:

Saturday, December 4, 2021

My 2021 top ten

In a way, 2021 was even stranger than 2020. More tournaments were played, but with a limited number of fans, and often with very limited (or no) media. In fact, so much happened this year that I found it unusually hard to formulate a top ten. There were the Olympics, and the return of the Billie Jean King Cup--or rather, a ridiculous, crippled version of it, and the International Hall of Fame induction (finally) of the Original Nine. The media went all-out fabricating and promoting a non-story, and--this came so close to making the top ten--Camila Georgi won a premier event.

It's also worth noting that 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek was the only player to reach the second week of all four majors, a quiet accomplishment that causes me to believe that her future remains very bright. And let's not forget Garbine Muguruza's topping off her comeback by winning the WTA Finals (also a top ten contender).

There was also the forced disappearance of Peng Shuai, which became an international story, and--while it's the tennis story of the year--it deserves its own place in the world of tennis events, and is therefore not on this list of happenings, which focuses on accomplishments.

Here, in ascending order, are my top ten 2021 happenings:

10. Mixing metals is so on trend: Ask Belinda Bencic--she won a gold medal for Switzerland in women's singles, and a silver medal in women's doubles (with Viktorija Golubic). And Brazil surprised a lot of people by earning a medal. Here is the complete list of medal winners:

Women's Singles
gold--Belinda Bencic (Switzerland)
silver--Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic)
bronze--Elina Svitolina (Ukraine)

Women's Doubles
gold--Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (Czech Republic)
silver--Belinda Bencic/Viktorija Golubic (Switzerland)
bronze--Laura Pigossi/Luisa Stefani (Brazil)

Mixed Doubles
gold--Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, with Audrey Rublev (Russia)
silver--Elena Vesnina, with Aslan Karatsev (Russia)
gold--Ash Barty, with John Peers (Australia)

9. The Russians are here!: The Russians didn't just dominate mixed doubles at the Olympics. For the first time since 2008, they won the Billie Jean King Cup, defeating Switzerland in the final. The standout player was Ludmilla Samsonova, who was sent in as a substitute when Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was unable to play. Samsonova and her big serve went at it for two and a half hours against Belinda Bencic, and emerged the victor, and the hero of the Russian Tennis Federation's winning team.

8. They will all be missed: Sadly, it was a big year for retirements. Kiki Bertens, Carla Suarez Navarro and Barbora Strycova--all long-time treasures of the WTA--announced their retirement earlier this year. And just days ago, Johanna Konta announced that she, too, is retiring from professional tennis. Konta brought a lot of tennis pride back to the UK, reaching as high as number 4 in the world in singles. Her most memorable win was in Miami in 2017. (She also modeled for the WTA how to handle offensive members of the media.)

7. She does it with mirrors: Watching Naomi Osaka win a major is always a little like viewing a magic show. Her fluidity, her serve, and her strategic command of the court sometimes make it appear that she she's winning matches effortlessly. This year, she won the Australian Open by running through an especially difficult draw. In order to get to get the trophy, she had to beat the likes of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ons Jabeur, Garbine Muguruza, Serena Williams, and Jennifer Brady. This was Osaka's second Australian Open championship; she also won the event in 2019.

6. R-e-s-p-e-c-t/find out what it means to her: Desirae Krawczyk is not a WTA household word, but it certainly should be. This year, the USA doubles specialist came out one major shy of winning the Grand Slam in mixed doubles. She won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open--with three different partners (a new take on "Mladenovic and Anybody"). This was a huge accomplishment (though undoubtedly somewhat disappointing for her), but the sports media, including the tennis media, seems to not even know that she exists.

5. They're all coming for you!: The upstarts took over in 2021. Ons Jabeur, Anett Kontaveit and Paula Badosa all went on a tear, and close behind them were Leylah Fernandez, Katerina Siniakova, Clara Tauson, and Viktorija Golubic, all making their marks (Fernandez's mark was huge). Jabeur has steadily improved, in both skill and confidence, over the last few seasons, and is now the highest ranked Arab player of all time. Jabeur is also the first Arab woman to reach the WTA top 10 (no. 10). Kontaveit, from whom some of us have long expected great things, gave a dramatic master class on how to close a season, winning four titles, and practically willing herself into the WTA Finals. As for Paula Badosa, she won Indian Wells. Watch out.

4. She's number 1!: Ash Barty hasn't been on the scene too much because of Covid restrictions. But she did two very big things this season, in spite of that. She retained her number 1 ranking, and she won Wimbledon. Barty knocked out two big Czechs--Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova, as well as an on-fire Angie Kerber (who I thought was going to win her second Wimbledon championship), and Karolina Pliskova. 

3. The Golden Slam--so 1988: It's really, really hard to win the Golden Slam. A player has to win all four majors and an Olympic gold medal--next to impossible. But let's say that a player does that, but then--just to put the icing on the cake--also goes on to win both the singles and doubles championships at the prestigious end-of-year Masters event, and also leads her team to World Team Cup victory. How is that even possible? As Diede De Groot. She won all four wheelchair singles majors, both gold medals at the 2021 Paralympics, and the both the singles and doubles championships at the Masters.

But wait--she almost won the Grand Slam in doubles, too. She and partner Aniek Van Koot, the defending champions, lost in the semifinals at Wimbledon. 

It's hard to imagine that anyone could repeat this feat, but if anyone could, well--it would be De Groot. Diede the Great absolutely rules (and for this reason, she is also 2021's Ms. Backspin). 

2. Ranking really doesn't matter: Emma Raducanu was ranked number 150 in the world when she entered the qualifying rounds to compete at Wimbledon. Earlier in the year, she had received a wild card into Nottingham, but had lost in the first round. But then we saw the young Brit come out of nowhere to make it to the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and she might have gone even farther if she hadn't had to retire. 

Raducanu, not surprisingly, won all three of her qualifying rounds, and she did it without dropping a set. That was when we should have taken note, but how were we to know what was about to occur? She would go on to win every match she played (and she played a total of ten) without dropping a set. Raducanu beame the only qualifier in history to reach the final of a major. She won that, too, defeating a brilliant Leylah Fernandez, who had taken out such formidable opponents as 3rd seed and former champion Naomi Osaka, former champion Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elena Svitolina and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka. 

Raducanu's draw wasn't as tough as Fernandez's, but it was no walk in the park, either. She had to beat Sara Sorribes Tormo (whom, to my shock, she blew off the court), Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic, and a very in-form Maria Sakkari. It was astounding enough that the two teens made it to the final (though we already knew about Fernandez's talent), but then Raducanu won that in straight sets, too. 

Raducanu's victory was so historic in nature that we'll be talking about it for years.

1. All that glitters is Czech: 2021 was the year that Barbora Krejcikova glided onto the big stage, knocked down the sets, dismissed the other actors, and took enough bows to make even a dancing Czech dizzy. The Czech doubles star entered the French Open singles draw as an unseeded player, and left with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. In achieving this unexpected accomplishment, Krejcikova took out, among others, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, former finalist Sloane Stephens, young star Coco Gauff, and Maria Sakkari. She then defeated a resurgent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final. To add to the drama, the Czech champion also became the third woman in the Open Era to win the French Open after saving a match point (agains Sakkari).

But why stop there? Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, also won the French Open doubles championship (the first Roland Garros sweep in 21 years), then went on to win an Olympic gold medal. But why stop there? The Czech star qualified for the WTA finals in both singles and doubles, and she and Siniakova won the doubles trophy. Krejcikova also entered the top 10 in singles, rising as high as number 3 in the world (she is currently number 5).

The French Open champion also won Strasbourg and Prague; prior to 2021, she had never won a singles title. She was a very busy woman this year: She won the Australian Open mixed doubles title (with Rajeev Ram), and she and Siniakova were the runners-up for the women's doubles title. Also, she and Siniakova won titles in Gippsland and Madrid. Krejcikova is currently ranked number 2 in the world in doubles, but has been ranked as high as number 1. 

The Czech star was the protege of the late Jana Novotna, and remains inspired by her.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Muguruza completes her comeback in high style in Guadalajara

2021 was the year that Garbine Muguruza really started looking like Garbine Muguruza again. She didn't win anything big, but with each tournament, she looked more and more like the woman who--a few years before--won both the French Open and Wimbledon. And now, at the end of the season, she has won something big--the 2021 WTA Finals.

There were no finals played last year because of Covid, and this year, the host city, Shenzhen, was unable to accommodate the event. Given just eight weeks of preparation, Guadalarjara stepped in as host, and we were all the better for it. From the mariachi bands greeting players as they arrived at the airport to the beautiful dancers to the extraordinary crowds, the city proved to be a perfect (other than the altitude) spot to hold the tournament. 

And the crowd especially embraced Spain's competitors, Muguruza and Paula Badosa (who received the full mariachi birthday treatment while she was there). Muguruza and Badosa embraced them right back, and when Muguruza won the event, she looked as excited as I've ever seen her.

The 2021 Finals were a bit unusual, with world number 1 Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep opting not to compete. But their absence didn't make the event any less competitive or any less exciting. 

Muguruza lost her first match to Karolina Pliskova in round robin play, but won her other two matches, defeating Barbora Krejcikova and an on-fire Anett Kontaveit. In the semifinals, she defeated Badosa, and in the final, she prevailed 6-3, 7-5 over Kontaveit. This was, incidentally, the first time in the history of the WTA Finals, that the champion defeated the same player twice. It was also the first time that a Spanish player won the event.

And while Muguruza was the big story in singles, there were other great stories. Kontaveit, the last player to qualify, willed herself into the slot through some amazing end-of-season play, and Badosa was close behind her. And some of the most exciting tennis we saw in Guadalajara came from the racket of Maria Sakkari.

Barbora Krejcikova was the only player to go 0-3 in this year's round robin play, but she made up for this deficit in doubles (she was the only player competing in both singles and doubles), winning the WTA Finals with her partner, Katerina Siniakova. This final prize moves Krejcikova's season from outstanding to whatever is beyond outstanding. The Czech team, seeded first, defeated Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-4 in the final. As a bonus, Siniakova has secured the year-end world number 1 ranking in doubles.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Russia wins Billie Jean King Cup for the fifth time

Every Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup) produces a few stand-out players. With all of the rubbers being played together in a round robin format (more on that later), it was hard to keep up. But one name that will certainly linger is Liudmilla Samsonova, the young Russian who had the heavy task of going in as a substitute in the final when countrywoman Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had to withdraw because of an injury.

Russia's opponent in the final was Switzerland, led by Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic. Bencic took the first set, and Samsonova--who displayed the grit of Flavia Pennetta and the game face of Elena Vesnina--practically willed herself through the second set with a victory. Samsonova's serve was very much her friend today, but it's good to have more than one friend, and her other close ally was her raw determination.

The final four teams were Russia, Switzerland, Australia and the USA. Russia (with help from Samsonova, who defeated Sloane Stephens, and--with a red hot Veronika Kudermetova--defeated the USA doubles team) knocked out the USA, and Switzerland eliminated the Australian team. In the first rubber of the final, Dasha Kasatkina defeated Jill Teichmann in straight sets, then Samsonova and Bencic went at each other for almost two and a half hours.

The last time Russia won the Cup was in 2008. They did play in the 2015 final, but were defeated by eleven-time champions Czech Republic. 

The competition's format was changed because it was difficult for many players to commit to playing three times a year, in a quarterfinal, semifinal and final tie. Of course, Fed Cup was much more complicated than that, what with the different groups providing opportunities for countries to get into the elite World Group. 

Changing the format to a one-week round robin event did indeed streamline it, but it has made it much harder for fans to participate. With everyone playing pretty much at the same time, there are fewer opportunities than ever to watch the matches. And seeking information about anything is even harder than it used to be. The Fed Cup app was always pretty bad; the Billie Jean King Cup app is useless. And, whereas the Fed Cup website was excellent, the Billie Jean King Cup website is one of the least user-friendly websites I've ever seen. I gave up.

The only good thing is that Tennis Channel Plus (kind of) picked up the event, meaning that we didn't have to rely on Fed Cup TV. I never cared for Fed Cup TV because of the technical issues. But last year, there were other issues. All of the ties were blocked in the U.S., except for USA team ties, which I didn't need Fed Cup TV to watch. I asked for my subscription fee back, and each body I asked said "Oh, we don't do that--you have to talk to these people." This went on and on for months.

I recently decided to pick up where I left off, and--once again--I got "Oh, we can't do that--someone else has to help you," but I was having none of it. I'm finally getting my refund, but this was some of the worst "customer service" I've ever received (like, a 9 on the Sony scale).

Saturday, October 23, 2021

With apologies to Johnny Otis--Camila and the Hand Shove

 

Camila and the Hand Shove

I know a chick named Way-Out Camila
She’s a lotta things, but not vanilla
She can walk and stroll like Genie do
And do that crazy hand shove too

Papa told Camila, “you’ll ruin my show
You and that hand shove have got to go”
Camila said “Papa, don’t be a pain
Been doin’ that hand shove all over Spain”

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Mama, mama, look at our Cami
She’s doin’ that hand shove with Sakkari
Some people said she crossed a line
But she’ll do that hand shove one more time

Well a trainer and a coach and a referee
They all dig that crazy beat
Way-Out Camila gave them all a treat
When she did the hand shove with her feet

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Well, Camila played another Maria this fall
It was two sets done but that ain’t all
You know Camila lost again and it’s plain to see
Doin’ that hand shove on TV

Hand shove, hand shove
Hand shove, doin’ that crazy hand shove

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Paula Badosa rules in the desert

She had a shoulder injury.

She double-faulted eleven times.

She hit four fewer winners and eight more unforced errors than her opponent.

And she won Indian Wells, in a three-hour thriller that stands out as a highlight of the 2021 season.

Paula Badosa of Spain also had the draw from hell. In order to get to the final, she had to beat Dayana Yastremska, Coco Gauff, French Open champion and 3rd seed Barbora Krecjikova, the always formidable Angie Kerber, and Ons Jabeur. Her opponent in that final was two-time BNP Paribas Open champion Vika Azarenka, which would be enough to put fear into even the most seasoned competitor.

Badosa's backstory is dramatic in itself. The first player to test positive for the Covid-19 virus at the Australian Open, she was placed in an extended quarantine. During that time, she said, she wasn't given the training equipment that she had requested, so she resorted to using water bottles as weights and doing sit-ups in her 50-square foot room. Badosa said that she felt abandoned by tournament organizers.

Then there was the French Open, where the Spanish player emerged as a threat after having just won her first title in Belgrade. And she did make it all the way to the quarterfinals, but lost to Tamara Zidansek in a tight and thrilling 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 contest.

Badosa, seeded 21st, was a very worthy opponent for 27th seed Azarenka. They engaged in lengthy baseline rallies featuring some stinging shots. Badosa looked kind of tired in the third set, or perhaps her shoulder was bothering her more than usual. She had taken out four top-20 players en route to the final, but had dropped only one set (to Yastremska). Nevertheless, her fighting spirit was, well--Azarenka-like. 

And when it mattered, it was Badosa who made the high-risk shots count at the right times. In the final tiebreak, she was nothing short of brilliant, and defeated Azarenka 7-6, 2-6, 7-6. "I wouldn't be here without you," she told the Belarusian veteran when she accepted the trophy.

Playing in the longest final of the season, Badosa is the first Spanish woman to win Indian Wells, a prestigious 1000 event. As of tomorrow, she will be number 11 in the world, and she's definitely on a path to the WTA Finals.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

My U.S. Open Top 10

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

10. Always striving to be worse: I’m no fan of Tennis Channel—not by a long shot—but ESPN is something else again. This time, we were treated to commentators shaming Emma Raducanu because of the incident at Wimbledon. One (I forget who) said that she “admitted” to it, and Chris Fowler said that she “owned up” to it. This is also ironic in light of the supposed “mental health” meme that’s being circulated. Then there was Cliff Drysdale, who talked about the current players from--wait for it-- Czechoslovakia. But none could top Kat Adams, who explained to us that when Iga Swiatek won the French Open, “people didn’t even know how to pronounce her name.” She said this as she was calling her “ShwEYEtek.”

9. It’s not just nature that abhors a vaccum: Serena and Venus weren’t there. Sofia Kenin wasn’t there. Jen Brady had to withdraw. No worries—it was still the most exciting U.S. Open that anyone could have imagined, what with the teens, and some big-time thrillers that were played throughout the event.

8. “__________” is in the eye of the beholder: The aftermath of the match featuring French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova and former U.S. Open champion Garbine Muguruza had a kind of Rashomon quality to it, in that the people who saw it came away with such significantly different accounts of what happened. This isn’t unusual, of course, but the disparity seemed more pronounced to me this time.

One camp insisted that Krejcikova faked the MTO and therefore Muguruza was angry. Another camp said, no, the MTO was legitimate, but Krejcikova created long delays (getting towels) before Muguruza’s serves, and that made Muguruza angry. A third group claimed that it was both a fake MTO and the towel delays that upset the Spaniard. And yet another group claimed that Muguruza played badly and needed to blame someone other than herself.

Well, Muguruza did play poorly—until she didn’t. And adrenaline is a powerful painkiller; it seemed plausible to me that Krejcikova knew that she had to get the job done in straight sets or retire, so she went for it. As for the towel delay issue—it was made worse by the fact that ballkids cannot fetch towels for players during the pandemic. Was it legitimately annoying? I say yes. But none of us will ever know exactly what either player was feeling. All in all, it was an unfortunate affair.

7. And this was just the second round
: When 4th seed Karolina Pliskova played Amanda Anisimova, it looked like a final. The quality of play was so high from both of them, and it was nice to see Anisimova back in form. Pliskova—who hit 24 aces—prevailed, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6.

6. The match that had everything: 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu and Maria Sakkari put on a show of Schiavone-Kuznetsova proportions in the round of 16. Sakkari’s serving was spectacular, and Andreescu was right back to making shots that appeared impossible to make, but that she can somehow summon from her vast repertoire of impossible shots. They were at each other for three and a half hours. Andreescu fell several times, and the last fall—in the third set—produced an injury. But of course—this is Bianca Andreescu we’re talking about. The Canadian star could still hit some wicked shots after that, but she could no longer push off to serve, and fell to Sakkari, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3.

5. Better with a friend
: The team of Coco Gauff and Caty McNally, seeded 11th, created a stir when they knocked out the top seeds, Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens, in the quarterfinals. "McCoco" made it all the way to the final (with a little help when their Canadian opponents had to retire in the semifinals), but they couldn't get past good pals and 14th seeds Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai. The pair also won the Australian Open in 2019. This is Stosur’s second U.S. Open doubles title—she and Lisa Raymond won the championship in 2005.

4. One shy of a Grand Slam: U.S. commentators love to talk about U.S. players, yet they forget that accomplished doubles specialists Desirae Krawczyk and Nicole Melichar exist. It’s definitely time to remember Krawczyk: She just won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title (with partner Joe Salisbury), after also winning the French Open and Wimbledon titles. If someone comes that close to achieving the Grand Slam, it’s time to say her name.

3. Pure gold: She did it! Diede De Groot, known by fans as Diede the Great, has achieved the Golden Slam, winning all four majors and a Paralympic gold medal. And in addition to winning the wheelchair singles title, De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, also won the doubles title. This is De Groot’s fourth U.S. Open singes title, and her fourth U.S. Open doubles title. She is the first wheelchair player to win the Golden Slam. De Groot was discovered and mentored by the great Esther Vergeer, who, today, must be very proud.

2. The force that is Leylah: Some of us have been watching Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez for a while, and expecting great things from her. She didn’t disappoint us during this U.S. Open. In fact, her performances were sometimes jaw-dropping in their scope. Fernandez, who turned 19 during the tournament, was unseeded, yet she upset 3rd seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka, former champion (and extremely in-form) Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka.

How did she do it? Fernandez moved extremely well, showed excellent court judgment, and hit her shots with stunning precision. She also kept her cool throughout each match, trusting her sharp problem-solving brain to help her figure out her opponents. She didn’t wind up with the trophy, but this is one case of a runner-up deserving every word of praise that can be thrust upon her.

1. No teen angst here!: Emma Raducanu had her tour debut just recently, in Nottingham, where she was given a wild card, but failed to get past the first round. She got our attention soon after, though, at Wimbledon, where she reached the round of 16. Unfortunately, she had to retire because of what appeared to be a panic attack. But the 18-year-old Brit swatted that issue away, just like she swatted away her opponents in Flushing Meadows.

Raducanu had to go through qualifying, so she played three more matches than her opponent in the final, Leylah Fernandez. In an odd twist, though, Fernandez wound up spending more time on court because so many of her matches went to three sets. Not Raducanu---she didn’t drop a set the entire tournament. The first qualifier to win a major, Raducanu was ranked number 150 in the world when she entered the qualifying tournament.

The young Brit got my attention when she allowed Sara Sorribes Tormo one game in their third round match. It was hard for me to imagine anyone having that much dominance over the intrepid Spaniard, but Raducanu did. In fact, she easily dominated every opponent she played, though—before reaching the quarterfinals, in which she played 11th seed Belinda Bencic—Raducanu had never played a top 40 player.

The new champion didn’t have as tough a draw as Fernandez had, to be sure (with the exception of Sorribes Tormo, who—though not an elite player—can be a nightmare to play), but at the business end of the  tournament, she did have to face the likes of Olympic gold medal winner Bencic and an on-fire Maria Sakkari. She beat them 6-3, 6-4 and 6-1, 6-4, respectively.

Raducanu was the first qualifier to reach the final in the Open Era. In that final, she faced the toughest opponent she could have faced—the unseeded teenager, Fernandez (this was the first major final to feature two unseeded players). Though it was against all odds that it could happen, it nevertheless—in another way—felt like it was meant to be.

Was Fernandez a bit tired after her three-set ordeals? Probably. But she played extremely well. But Raducanu, who is as quick on the court as Fernandez, just continued to play her aggressive game, serving well, taking second serves from inside the baseline, and hitting laser-like forehands and backhands down the line. It was a champion’s display of tennis, and Emma Raducanu is a champion who made history over and over at the 2021 U.S. Open.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

If she can make it there, she'll make it anywhere: Emma Raducanu is the 2021 U.S. Open champion!

She's 18 years old.

She made her tour debut this year, when she was given a wild card into Nottingham, where she lost in the first round.


Hardly anyone had heard of her until she reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, then had to retire because of breathing difficulties. 

She had never won a tour-level tournament.

She was ranked number 150 in the world. 


She had to play three qualifying rounds to get into the U.S. Open main draw.

She didn't drop a set throughout the tournament.

She was the first person to ever reach a major final as a qualifier.

And today, the unseeded Emma Raducano of Great Britain became the 2021 U.S. Open champion. 

As if that weren't all amazing enough, there's the equally amazing fact that her opponent was also unseeded. Having two unseeded players in a major final is a first in professional tennis.

Leylah Fernandez of Canada, who turned 19 a few days ago, did a lot of heavy lifting at this year's event, taking out 3rd seed and defending  champion Naomi Osaka, former champion (and very much in form) Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka. Several of her matches went to three sets, and she wound up spending more time on court than Raducanu, despite Raducanu's having played three extra matches.

Fernandez may have been a little tired. She was out-served by Raducanu in the final, plus she had to deal with an opponent who takes the ball more rapidly than most.


The first couple of games were long and complicated, leaving us with the impression that the match could drag out for a long time. Fernandez was broken on Raducanu's seventh break point, putting Raducanu up 2-0. After the first few games, the players eased into a rhythm, and--after being broken--Fernandez, serving to stay in the set--saved three break points before falling 4-6 to her opponent.

Raducanu began the second set by serving an ace. Fernandez broke for 2-1, but was broken right back, and then Raducanu brought the set to 5-2. Fernandez, who had fought like mad throughout the tournament, again produced her best fight-back tennis, saving two championship points and breaking Raducanu. Fernandez then held, and had a break point on Raducanu's serve when Raducanu slid across the court and scraped her knee. Her leg was bleeding, so there was a mandatory medical timeout.

Raducanu returned to the court and saved the break point, and then she saved another one. On her third championship point, Raducanu hit an ace out wide to win the title, 6-4, 6-3. Afterwards, she told ESPN that she'd been trying to hit that particular ace throughout the match and had failed to do so, then thought, "If ever there’s a time to make it, this is the one."

The match may not have gone to three sets, but the quality was very high. Both players were, hands down, the two most impressive players at this year's U.S. Open
: Leylah's fighting spirit and problem-solving skills were nothing short of amazing, and Emma's anticipation and ability to read the court and make fast adjustments were sometimes mind-boggling. Both move very well and are good shot-makers.




I often say that I hate it for either player to lose, and this time, I think I had a lot of company. Both Emma and Leylah (whom serious fans have been keeping an eye on for a while) gave us the greatest show we could have asked for, and that show went on for two weeks. The circumstances surrounding this final may never appear again; two teenage girls made tennis history today, and their contribution to the sport was stunning.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Leylah the Giant-Killer vs. No-Nonsense Emma in the Battle of the Teenage Upstarts

One Day Only!

Young Blood Will Be (Metaphorically) Spilled!

Not For the Weak of Heart!

(smelling salts available, bring your own fan)

So it began with a wry smile and a shrug (or an eye roll) and "Watch it be the two teens!" which turned into "Hey, you know, it could be the two teens." That turned into "I think it might be the two teens." And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have--the two teens. 

Their backstories are different, but equally appealing. Leylah Fernandez took out two former U.S. Open champions (Osaka and Kerber), and three of the top five seeds (Osaka, Sabalenka, Svitolina), on her way to the final. Emma Raducanu played nine matches--she had to go through qualifying--to get to the final, and she has yet to drop a set. And though one would think that the young Brit (she's eighteen, and Fernandez just turned nineteen four days ago) would have spent much more time on court than her Canadian opponent, there wasn't much difference because Fernandez had to play several three-set matches.

There's an argument to be made that Fernandez, because she had a more difficult draw, is more match-tough than Raducanu--she had to handle the likes of Naomi Osaka, Angie Kerber,  Elina Svitolina, and Aryna Sabalenka. If you turn that idea on its head, there's the argument that Fernandez could suffer both mental and physical fatigue because of her difficult draw.

There's also the fact that--while she certainly didn't have to get past the queue of tough customers that her opponent had to handle--Raducanu's draw wasn't a walk in the park. Though several days have past, I still can't get over the fact the Raducanu allowed Sara Sorribes Tormo one game in their match. The Spaniard isn't an elite player, but she's one of the toughest players on the tour, and she'll happily drag you to three grueling sets, many of which she wins--yet the British upstart made very short work of her. 

Raducanu also had to face 2021 Olympic gold medal winner and 11th seed Belinda Bencic, whom some had talked about as a possible winner of this year's Open. And then, in the semifinals, she had to face off against Maria Sakkari. No problem.

One thing in particular, however, is missing from Raducanu's draw: She didn't have to play against one left-hander, but she will have to do so in the final. One assumes that, as I write this, she's hitting with at least one left-handed person.

Raducanu is the only qualifier, man or woman, to ever reach the final of a major. She has smiled through the routine swatting away of all of her opponents, including the formidable Sakkari, whose newly improved (and deadly) serve failed her when she needed it most. 

For her part, Fernandez was given a series of problems, all of which she solved. The toughest of those problems, in my opinion, was fellow lefty Angie Kerber, whom I (though I may have stood alone) thought had a good shot at winning the tournament. By the time Fernandez got to Sabalenka--even though she had to play three sets--her court life became a bit easier as she got into the 2nd seed's head and watched her slowly implode. 

It's highly doubtful that the young Canadian star will be permitted to get anywhere near Raducanu's head, and it's equally doubtful that Raducanu will be able to swat Fernandez away. What we have is the perfect combination of two brilliant young players who now have to deal with each other. Will one of them be frozen by the occasion? Don't count on it. These are tough young women who have undoubtedly learned a lot about themselves in the past few weeks, and I suspect that they liked what they learned. 

And as if this match weren't historic enough, it's also the first time that two unseeded women have competed in a major final.

This is the final of the year--brace yourselves.

Paths to the final:

EMMA RADUCANU (Q)
round 1–def. Stefanie Voegle
round 2–def. Zhang  Shuai
round 3–def. Sara Sorribes Tormo
round of 16–def. Shelby Rogers
quarterfinals—def. Belinda Bencic (11)
semifinals—def. Maria Sakkari (17)

LEYLAH FERNANDEZ

round 1–def. Ana Konjuh
round 2–def. Kaia Kanepi
round 3–def. Naomi Osaka (3)
round of 16–def. Angie Kerber (16)
quarterfinals—def. Elina Svitolina (5)
semifinals—def. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Two seeds, two upstarts--who will be the last two standing at the U.S. Open?

So far, Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu have defied all the conventional wisdom about inexperience, nerves and very big stages. The pair of 18-year-olds (Fernandez is now 19) have blazed through the U.S. Open draw like it was something they do every day between visits to the coffee shop (where I am now, so that I can have Wi-Fi). Raducanu has done it without dropping a set, and Fernandez has done it while taking out two top 5 players, plus former champion and currently very in-form Angie Kerber. 

For her part, Radacanu, who had an easier draw, did prevail over 11th seed Belinda Bencic. She also played three more matches than Fernandez, since she had to qualify to get into the main draw. She is the first qualifier in history to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

In the meantime, 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka didn't have much trouble defeating the undoubtedly tired (mentally and physically) French Open champion, Barbora Krejcikova. And Maria Sakkari, who played that wild, intense, extremely long thriller that ended with yet another Andreescu injury, defeated 4th seed Karolina Pliskova, a favorite to the win the tournament. The Greek star has improved a lot about her game, and one of those tweaks is her serve, which made it a lot easier for her to go head to head with Pliskova. In fact, Sakkari's first and second serve win percentages were 92 and 74, which are numbers we just don't see, as a rule.

If Sakkari continues to serve at this level, it could spell trouble for her next opponent, Emma Raducanu. It would, in fact, spell trouble for just about anyone. Fernandez will face Sabalenka, whose power and doubles skills have taken her this far.

In the meantime, Diede De Groot is trying to achieve the Golden Slam, and her chances are very, very good.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

And what a round of 16 it was!

So it turms out that I’m no longer on the hospital grid, so I can’t go home. I also can’t use my MacBook Pro because my duck head adapter disappeared into a black hole. Apple wouldn’t sell me one online, so I had to order the whole unit, which was to be shipped overnight. But because of the storms, it couldn’t be. To make matters worse, it was shipped via UPS, which doesn’t deliver on Sundays and holidays.

So here I am with just an iPad and no ability to embed Tweets. Oh, and I’m also exhausted from having no power, not being able to live in my house, and all the usual hurricane stuff—limited food, canceled appointments, refrigerator disasters, unreliable cellular service and Wifi, downed trees, and on and on.

So I will be brief in discussing the U.S. Open round of 16 (some of which I’ve already done on Twitter):

Elina Svitolina (5) def. Simona Halep (12) 6-3, 6-3: Halep isn’t “back” yet, and Svitolina played an exceptional match.

Leylah Fernandez def. Angie Kerber (16) 4-6, 7-6, 6-2: This was an exceptional match for both players, but—toward the end—Fernandez wore down the mighty Kerber. I didn’t expect this to happen. Kerber’s Wimbledon semifinal run spoke volumes about her status on the tour, but she didn’t have quite enough to hold off the (then) 18-year-old.

Aryna Sabalenka (2) def. Elise Mertens (15) 6-4, 6-1: I expected this to be a bit closer, but I wasn’t surprised by the result. Sabalenka is on a mission, and her former doubles partner—who is now a factor in singles—was destined to become a victim in the 2nd seed’s quest to win a major.

Barbora Krejcikova (8) def. Garbine Muguruza (9) 6-3, 7-6: I said quite a bit about this match on Twitter, so I don’t want to rehash too much of that. Muguruza, who I recently said was “back,” wasn’t back for this match. It was easy for Krejcikova to overcome a sluggish Muguruza in the first set, and when the French Open champion went up 3-0 in the second set, the whole thing appeared to be almost over. 

But two things happened: The sleeping Spanish giant awoke and suddenly began to look like—well, like Garbine Muguruza, using her efficient yet fluid style to catch up on the scoreboard. And Krejcikova appeared physically impaired. She was holding her diaphragm, and was quite obviously in respiratory distress. Things really went downhill after that. Krejcikova called for a trainer, and was taken off the court by the trainer and a doctor. 

When the Czech player returned, she didn’t look restored. She breathed heavily and staggered around the court. She also hit a series of deadly winners into the corners. I saw it for what I’ m pretty sure it was: She had to win the match in straight sets because attempting to play a third set would have meant certain retirement. I didn’t see the MTO as fake, as some did. I saw it as Krejcikova’s gathering  just enough relief to launch her incredible will to win the match.

But then there was the towel issue. Because of Covid, ballgirls and -boys aren’t there to hand towels to players; players have to fetch the towels themselves. And Krejcikova went for a towel after every point. This, quite understandably, annoyed the hell out of Muguruza. It annoyed me, too, and it made an already strange and unsatisfying match even more unsatisfying.

And while it appeared to go right by commentators and those I observed on Twitter, it was Muguruza who made the final, “Muguest” statement: She delayed going to the net for the handshake so that she could grab a towel. It was the only time I smiled.

Belinda Bencic (11) def. Iga Swiatek(7) 7-6, 6-3: Swiatek just hasn’t been the same since she won the French Open. And while this is a common phenomenon for young players who win majors, I thought that Swiatek would escape it. She rises to the occasion at times during a match, but she is no longer consistent, nor is she fluid. Bencic, for her part, appears bent on fulfilling all that long talked about potential.

Emma Raducanu (Q) def. Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-1: Raducano, not unexpectedly, began the match in a state we would expect from a very young player who suddenly finds herself on a grand stage at a major. She was nervous, she was tight. But that didn’t last long. The young Brit who allowed Sara Sorribes Tormo only one game adjusted to the occasion, and then it was Rogers who looked out of sorts for the remainder of the match. 

Karolina Pliskova (4) def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (14) 7-5, 6-4: Pavlyuchenkova has been on a roll lately (and high time), but she couldn’t quite get past an especially sharp Pliskova. Both women served well, though Pliskova’s second serve stats were better. Surprisingly, the Czech star really shone at the net, and she was able to break her opponent four times.

Maria Sakkari (17) def. Bianca Andreescu (6) 6-7, 7-6, 6-3: If you thought that there couldn’t possibly be more drama at the U.S. Open, then you didn’t think it through. These two put on quite a show in Miami, but that was nothing compared with last night’s three and a half-hour extravaganza of blistering groundstrokes, Radwanska-like magic, jaw-dropping shot-making, and the strength of two very strong wills. It was pretty colorful off the court, too, with gaudy costuming, dancing that I can’t unsee, and at least one drunken version of “O Canada.” 

Andreescu took the first set in a dramatic (of course!) tiebreak, and she was within two points of winning the match in the second set. Sakkari won that tiebreak, though, and then—after the fifth game of the third set—it happened: All Together Now—Andreescu sustained an injury. She had already fallen on the court several times while making lunges for the ball, but this final fall appeared painful. She called for the trainer, and returned with her thigh wrapped. But she could no longer push off well to serve, and the writing was on the wall. She did continue to come up with some great shots, but with limited movement and an impaired serve, there was nothing she could do to stop Sakkari.

The Andreescu injury cycle needs to be seriously addressed because—whatever her team is currently doing obviously isn’t working. The 2019 champion is an outstanding and unique talent, and last night, she proved why some of us can’t get enough of her. She also proved why we have to hold our breath and hope that nothing bad happens every times she walks onto the court.

As for Sakkari—she has nowhere to go but up.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Emma Raducanu (Q) vs. Belinda Bencic (11)

Karolina Pliskova (4) vs. Maria Sakkari (17)

Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Leylah Fernandez

Barbora Krejcikova (8) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Notes from Women Who Serve post-hurricane headquarters

As a rule, I would be blogging regularly during the U.S. Open. As a rule, I wouldn’t be forced out of my house by a hurricane, and I wouldn’t have lost my MacBook Pro adapter. And as a rule, the overnight shipment of a new one wouldn’t have been interrupted by the aftermath of the storm. Who knows when I’ll get it? In the meantime, the women’s draw has also been  a storm of sorts, blowing across Flushing Meadows with high tension and surprises, and knocking down predictions and expectations.

The second round match between 4th seed Karolina Pliskova and Amanda Anisimova was startling in its quality and suspense. It clearly marked the return to form of Anisimova, and served as a reminder that the Tall Cool One (who hit 24 aces) has a lot of game, especially on a hard court. But we’d hardly recovered from that when we were given a thrilling contest between 16th seed (and 2016 champion) Angie Kerber and 2017 champion Sloane Stephens. Kerber, who came back from the missing to contest the semifinals at Wimbledon, prevailed in that third round match, which many observers (not this one) thought was a sure thing for Stephens.

But there was more! Not at all surprisingly, Elena Rybakina took Simona Halep to the edge before losing in an exciting three-setter, Garbine Muguruza overcame Vike Azarenka, and 18-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez upset defending champion and 3rd seed Naomi Osaka, also in the third round. In the on-court interview, Fernandez made it clear that the point at which she believed that she could beat Osaka was before the match even started.

With the defending champion out, all eyes were on world number 1, Wimbledon champion Ash Barty. Barty’s third round opponent was a big stage player, Shelby Rogers, who rather easily took the first set off of Barty, 6-2. The world number 1 looked out of sorts, and quite uncharacteristically made a number of unforced errors. But by the second set, Barty pulled herself together, cleaned up the errors, and won the set 6-1. 

Seasoned fans know that the third set of this type of match is likely to be a carnival of thrills, and even more likely to end in a tiebreak, and this one fit the description. Both players raised their levels, with Rogers matching Barty slice for slice, and also delivering some stunning lobs. The last few games were “edge of your seat” in intensity, as the momentum swung back and forth. In the end, it was Rogers who walked away with the 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 victory.

Finally, there was the matter of 18-year-old qualifier Emma Raducanu, the Brit who—playing in her first major—advanced to the round of 16 at Wimbledon this year. Raducanu had to retire from that match because of dizziness and respiratory problems. Amd now, here she is, in the second major she’s ever contested, six matches strong and into the round of 16 once again. That’s quite a story, but it isn’t the whole story: In the third round, Raducanu upset the formidible Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-0, 6-1. I saw it and I still don’t quite believe it.

I can’t recall the first week of a major that was this exciting, and I didn’t even get to watch the first couple of days of play because I had no power and no Internet, thanks to Hurricane Ida.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Shelby Rogers vs. Emma Raducanu 

Belinda Bencic (11) vs. Iga Swiatek (7)

Karolina Pliskova (4) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 14)

Maria Sakkari 17) bs. Bianca Andreescu (6)

Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Simona Halep (12)

Angie Kerber (16) vs. Leylah Fernandez

Barbora Krejcikova (8)  s. Garbine Muguruza (9)

Elise Mertens (15) bs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Hurricanes and the U.S. Open

In 2005, we (I was married at the time) evacuated from the Northshore (my community is north of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans) because of Hurricane Katrina. We went with our two cats to a historic hotel in central Louisiana. We had a really bad television, but I was able to watch the U.S. Open. Between that and blogging for my social/political issues blog and blogging for Mother Jones (whose staff interviewed me about hurricane evacuation), I kept busy. (I wrote song parodies about the horror of how the government was dealing--or not dealing--with Katrina, and a man in New England sang them in a coffeehouse.)

It was a scary time. The things that were going on in New Orleans were sickening (I won't go into them here), and they still make me feel sick, sixteeen years later. I typed so much that I developed an RSI. Somewhere on the Internet, I found a message from relatives in the U.K., asking if anyone knew our whereabouts. I was surprised to see my name on a list of "missing Louisiana poets."

Velma learns about Katrina
 

That was the year that the "Can Andy find his Mojo?" promotion was used. It was kind of funny--until he lost in the first round. Later, after Maria Sharapova had a really good win, an interviewer asked her how she did it, and she said "I found Andy's mojo."

It was a while before we could go home, and when we got there, our front gutters were crushed,  there was a tree on our roof,  and a giant oak had fallen, leaving what looked like a moon crater in the back yard. In other words, we were lucky.

I really wanted to watch the U.S. Open final, but of course, we had no power. There was a chain restaurant near my house with both power and televisions, and the manager kindly offered to let me watch the Open from there. But he was unable to get the channel on which the event was showing, so I had to go home and look at the scores on my phone app. 

Tarzan gets into Birmingham hotel life
 

In 2012, we evacuated during Hurricane Isaac. This time, we took four cats with us to Birmingham, Alabama, and stayed in a hotel with considerably more space than we had in 2005. We also had a better hotel, and again, I watched the U.S. Open (on a much better television). That turned out to be a false alarm for us; we returned to an intact house and yard. But the trip back took such a long time (you can imagine) that again, I missed the U.S. Open final.

And here we go again. Tomorrow evening, the power will go out. How long it stays out depends on how many trees go down, and there are a lot of trees in my community. Fortunately, we have a hard-working, very efficient power company. Also, through some fluke, my house is on the hospital grid, so I get my power back before my neighbors do. But I'll miss the early part of the U.S. Open, an event that I've come to associate with hurricanes.

Friday, August 27, 2021

From Giorgi to Barty, the U.S. Open warmup season produces more questions than answers

Camila Giorgi's win in Montreal may wind up being--for me--one of major tennis stories of the year. For a decade and a half, fans and commentators--and I'm sure many others--watched the Italian player in frustration because she refused to use any but the "hit the ball hard' gear. I imagine that most of us had given up on her, but then, out of nowhere, Giorgi decided that adding some strategy--changing pace, using spin, paying attention to the court--would be a good idea. 

It was. She won the Montreal tournament, a WTA 1000 event, defeating Karolina Pliskova in the final, and knocking off the likes of Elise Mertens, Petra Kvitova, Coco Gauff, an Jessica Pegula along the way.

 

The next week, world number 1 Ash Barty won the prestigious Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. So far, Barty has won majors on clay and grass, but not on hard courts. She has won hard court tournaments, though, including Miami in 2019, so she definitely goes into the 2021 U.S. Open as a favorite. 

I think that Barty has a strong chance to take home the title in New York. It goes without saying that one of the players most likely to turn that script upside down is two-time champion Naomi Osaka, who loves hard courts. Some are saying that Karolina Pliskova could win the title. The Tall Cool One was the runner-up in 2016, and she's more or less always a contender, but it has to get tougher for her each year, not winning a major. Assuming that it does, how will she deal with her mindset?

World number 2 Aryna Sabalenka is also mentioned a lot as a contender, and she certainly is, though have to wonder if she's really ready to claim that big a prize. Then there's Elina Svitolina, who--like Piskova--has yet to win a major, but this could be her time. 

Simona Halep is back--maybe. Halep has never won the U.S. Open, so here's hoping she's healthy enough to compete at the highest level. Iga Swiatek, Jennifery Brady, Ons Jabeur, Belinda Bencic, and Barbora Krejcikova can all be tossed in, as well---any of them could win it. Throw in Danielle Collins and Maria Sakkari if you like. (I wish that I could say that about 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu, but right now, I can't.)

And then there's Angie Kerber. Kerber is back. Her appearance in the Wimbledon semifinals was a huge announcement. She's won the U.S. Open before, and she looks ready to do it again. The German star is in the third quarter of the draw, which also contains Svitolina, Elena Rybakina, Halep, and Osaka. 

First rounds of interest:

Karolina Muchova (22) vs. Sara Sorribes Tormo
Victorija Golubic vs. Bianca Andreescu (6)
Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Daria Kasatkina (25)
Camila Giorgi vs. Simona Halep (12)
Madison Keys vs. Sloane Stephens
Donna Vekic vs. Garbine Muguruza (9)
Alize Cornet vs. Ons Jabeur (20)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Rain, injuries, a huge pay gap--and some great tennis

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
 
It feels a bit strange not to be in Cincinnati this year, but then, "a bit strange" has become the norm in the last year and a half. Humidity and rain define much of the Cincinnati summer (very much like where I live), and there has been plenty of rain at this tournament, causing several delays in play.

There have also been several injuries and retirements.Simona Halep, back after a long injury (calf tear) layoff that caused her to miss Wimbledon, where she was the defending champion, had to withdraw after the first round because of an adductor tear. In doing so, she gave a walkover to Jessica Pegula. And in the round of 16, Karolina Muchova retired in her match against Belinda Bencic because of an abdominal injury.

Sadly, two of the four quarterfinal matches were decided by injury. Petra Kvitova, suffering with an abdominal illness, retired in her match against Angie Kerber. And Paula Badosa, arguably the hottest contender at the event, retired against Karolina Pliskova because of a shoulder injury. 

Then there's the matter of the prize money gap, which--this year--is greater than in the past. For example, a first-round WTA winner gets $12,385, while a first-round ATP winner gets $23,650. In the quarterfinals, the respective prizes are $47,820 and $116,655. The WTA champion gets $255,220, and the ATP champion gets $654,815. (Perhaps it's time to have Sinona Halep explain to us again how there's no sexism in professional tennis.)

Two elite players who are "back" did well--or not that well--depending on your glass half empty/full point of view. 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza, who has made a slow climb back to form, fell in three sets in the round of 16 to the now-dangerous French Open champion, Barbora Krejcikova. And Angie Kerber lost in straight sets to world number 1 Ash Barty in today's semifinals.

The break-out star of the event is wild card Jil Teichmann of Switzerland, a very talented player who has had some injury struggles in recent times. Teichmann took out 2nd seed Naomi Osaka in the round of 16. This was the biggest win of her career, and some wondered whether the emotional toll of that achievement might be too much for her. It wasn't. She went on to defeat Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals. Then, in the semifinals, she upset 5th seed and 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova.

There have been several outstanding matches. In the opening round, Paula Badosa and Petra Martic (both very interesting to watch!) went after each other in a two and a half-hour event which Badosa won 11-9 in a third set tiebreak (after saving five match points). That was the Spaniard's warmup: She next faced 3rd seed Aryna Sabalenka, favored by many to win the championship, and defeated her, too, also in a third set tiebreak. 

In the round of 16, Angie Kerber defeated Alona Ostapenko in what really could appropriately be called a "battle." The two of them threw everything they had at each other, with Ostapenko breaking Kerber the first time she served for the match. In the end, it was Kerber who prevailed in what was a really thrilling contest.

World number 1 Ash Barty has blazed through this event without dropping a set, not even to Barbora Krejcikova and Angie Kerber, both of whom I thought would give Barty a hard time. Barty also delivered a bagel to Victoria Azarenka, so that gives you an idea of how she's playing.

The final will be played tomorrow. Here are the players' paths to the final:

ASH BARTY (1)
round 1--bye
round 2--def. Heather Watson
round of 16--def. Victoria Azarenka (14)
quarterfinals--def. Barbora Krejcikova (9)
semifinals--def. Angeique Kerber

JIL TEICHMANN (WC)
round 1--def. Sorana Cirstea
round 2--def. Bernarda Pera
round of 16--def. Naomi Osaka (2)
quarterfinals--def. Belinda Bencic (10)
semifinals--def. Karolina Pliskova (5)

In doubles, the breakout stars are 6th-seeded Gabriela Dabrowski and Luisa Stefani. The pair upset 2nd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova in the semifinals, and will face Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai in the final.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

A dozen medals later, Olympic tennis concludes

I've read, on Twitter, that many tennis fans didn't watch much (or any) of the tennis matches at the Olympics. Some fans opted to watch sports that they don't otherwise get to see, or at least, see very often. And some just weren't interested, given the absence of some major players, and the early exit of others. My problem involved time zones--I just couldn't wake up in the middle of the night or the very early morning to watch matches.

I did get to see some live matches, however, and I watched a few replays. There were a few standouts in singles, and two of them had something in common: Elina Svitolina played in them. Her round of 16 match against Maria Sakkari was thrilling and of very high quality, as was her bronze medal match against Elena Rybakina (who continues to impress). The other memorable match was the final (which is always a nice thing), in which Belinda Bencic defeated Marketa Vondrousova.

Svitolina, incidentally, is the first tennis player from Ukraine to win an Olympic medal.

As always, some of the subtexts and backstories were as interesting as the tennis. Bencic has long been known as a talent to watch, yet she has never reached the heights to which many thought she would climb. Now, she has Olympic gold and silver. Then there's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, whose backstory is about the same as Bencic's. When the Russian player reached the final of the French Open, it felt like it was such a long time coming. At that time, Pavlyuchenkva said, "I want to believe that the best is yet to come," and now, she has a gold medal for mixed doubles.

Pavlyuchenkova's countrywoman, Elena Vesnina, took 32 months off for maternity leave. Upon her return, she reached the third round of the French Open in singles, and the final in mixed doubles (with Aslan Karatsev). At Wimbledon, she and Veronika Kudermetova knocked out the defending champions (and top seeds), and finished as the runners-up. 

Quite a comeback. Vesnina and Karatsev made it all the way to the final at the Olympics, too, and held a match point in the process. The Russian came away with a silver medal (she also played for a bronze in doubles), but we will also remember her for acing (and defeating) Novak Djokovic.

Here are the winners:

Singles
gold--Belinda Bencic (Switzerland)
silver--Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic)
bronze--Elina Svitolina (Ukraine)

Doubles
gold--Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (Czech Republic)
silver--Belina Bencic/Viktoija Golubic (Switzerland)
bronze--Laura Pigossi/Luisa Stefani (Brazil)

Mixed Doubles
gold--Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/Andrey Rublev (Russian Olympic Committee)
silver--Elena Vesnina/Aslan Karatsev (Russian Olympic Committee)
bronze--Ash Barty/John Peers (Australia)

Friday, July 30, 2021

It's hard to say goodbye, and even harder to say it three times

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)


It's always tough for fans when a talented, popular player retires. These are hard times, for not one, but three talented and popular players are leaving the tour. Kiki Bertens, Carla Suarez Navarro and Barbora Strycova have all announced their retirement. Each woman added something special to the WTA, and each will be remembered for her contributions, not only to the game, but to the unique culture that is women's professional tennis.

Kiki Bertens, who was ranked as high as number 4 in singles, was known as a clay court specialist for years, but then she showed the tennis world that she could be just as deadly on a hard court. In 2018, she won both Charleston and Cincinnati, securing her place as a two (at least)-surface threat. 

Several years ago, I had a strong feeling that Bertens could win the French Open. In 2019, I was no longer alone--the Dutchwoman was a top favorite--the favorite for some--to win in Paris. She had won Madrid without dropping a set, and her chances to win a major looked really good.

Sadly, Bertens had to retire in the second round when she became ill, and we'll never know what might have been. Nevertheless, she retires with a wonderful career record. Bertens won ten singles titles, the most notable of them, of course, in Charleston, Cincinnati and Madrid. She also won ten doubles titles, was on the Dutch Olympic team in 2016, and played Fed Cup for The Netherlands for eight years.

Bertens won a lot of points with her heavy topspin forehand, but she employed enough variety in her shot-making to get the better of a variety of opponents. The 29-year-old Bertens was also known for her high level of fitness. A nagging Achilles injury, however, contributed to her decision to retire from professional tennis. She also acknowledged that her pandemic-related time away from the tour allowed her to look at other options for her life.

"...Covid came and everything changed, of course," Bertens said when she announced her retirement. "I gave my body total rest because I felt like I needed it. With the unknown, it was tough to go out there and practice every day. So I thought I would give my body a total rest, and I quite liked it, to be honest."

The 29-year-old Dutch star acknowledged that she might have played for another two or three years if the pandemic hadn't come along and given her that rest. But, she added, there were days when it was hard for her to walk, so she doesn't really know how much longer she could have played. She played her final match at the 2021 Olympics, losing in the opening round to Marketa Vondrousova.

Bertens was both a crowd favorite and a peer favorite--always candid, always trying to improve, always available for a good laugh. She will be missed.

Also playing her final match at the Olympics was Carla Suarez Navarro, whose retirement story was especially poignant because the 32-year-old Spanish player had spent eight months undergoing both chemotherapy and radiation for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Suarez Navarro said that she knew that 2020 would be her last year on the tour, but then she changed her mind because she didn't want people to remember her as someone ill with cancer. "I didn't want to go through the back door...."

Suarez Navarro played at both the French Open and Wimbledon, then competed at the Olympics, where she defeated the talented Ons Jabeur in the first round. She and her friend, Garbine Muguruza, teamed for doubles competition, and made it to the second round.

Known for her beautiful one-handed backhand, Suarez Navarro won two singles titles (including Doha, in 2016, and three doubles titles (all with Muguruza). She played on Spain's Fed Cup team for eleven years, and she was a three-time member of the Spanish Olympic team.

Also announcing her retirement was Barbora Strycova, a very talented doubles player who could also be a tough singles opponent (she reached the 2019 Wimbledon semifinals). Strycova won two singles titles and 31 doubles titles, including the 2020 Wimbledon title (with Hsieh Su-wei). She was the world number 1 doubles player in 2019. Strycova played on the Czech Fed Cup team for twelve years, and she was twice a member of the Czech Olympic team.

The 35-year-old Czech player, who is pregnant with her first child, is a podcaster and a figure skater, and has long had somewhat of a cult following among serious WTA fans. She has been called "The Professor," a fact to which Elina Svitolina can attest:

 

One of my favorite of Strycova's professorial moments occurred when she showed Aga Radwanska how to "Radwanska" at the 2016 French Open:

The Czech star, in announcing her retirement, said that she hopes to play one final WTA event in 2022. We can only hope. One thing for sure--there will never be another like her. Perhaps world number 1 Ash Barty said it best when she described Strycova as a "hell of a chick."

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Credit One Bank new title sponsor in Charleston

Charleston Tennis, LLC, announced yesterday that Credit One Bank is the new title sponsor of the long-running Charleston 500 tournament formerly known as the Volvo Car Open. The event, a player favorite, is the largest women's-only tennis tournament in North America. The tournament will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022 in the newly renovated and modernized Credit One Stadium. The event's new name will be revealed at a later date.

Present at the announcement were: 
Bob Moran, President, Charleston Tennis, LLC
John Coombe, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Credit One Bank
Steve Simon, CEO, WTA
Madison Keys, 2019 Charleston champion

Madison Keys

Credit One first partnered with Charleston Tennis, LLC in June of 2020 for the Credit One Bank Invitational, which was part of Tennis Channel’s Re(Open) Tour and the first large-scale tennis event to be held after the sport shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament featured sixteeen players, received more than 40 hours of live coverage on Tennis Channel, and helped raise funds for the Medical University of South Carolina’s front-line healthcare workers. Following the success of the event, Credit One and Charleston Tennis, LLC began exploring additional partnership opportunities through sponsorship of the Daniel Island stadium and activation around the tennis tournament and throughout the region.

Charleston Tennis, LLC will continue to own and operate the facilities and event programming at the Credit One Stadium and LTP Daniel Island tennis center, including the WTA 500 tennis tournament, concerts, tennis programs, and more. Volvo Cars USA will continue to support the event as the official vehicle. 

Credit One Stadium will expand from 7,500 seats to 11,000 seats and feature sixteen fully air-conditioned permanent suites, all new concessions, additional bathrooms, and a 75,000-square-foot Stage House with a partial roof. The Stage House will transform the stadium experience for tennis players, entertainers, media, and special guests, offering locker rooms, a gym, training facilities, production and media space, catering amenities, and a VIP rooftop restaurant and outdoor bar. The roof of the Stage House will also provide partial shade for attendees at the tennis tournament and act as a support structure for concerts and special events.

Bob Moran

 
“The future of live tennis is a bright spot for us, building and planning for what the future will look like for the new Credit One Stadium. After nearly eighteen months of navigating postponements and cancelations, we look forward to bringing world-class tennis back to Charleston each April and broadening our reach to bigger and better concerts and special events throughout the year,” Moran said when making the announcement.

 

The 2022 tournament will be held April 2-10. Veronika Kudermetova is the defending singles champion, and Nicole Melichar and Demi Schuurs are the defending doubles champions.

 

Madison Keys, John Coombe, Steve Simon

Sunday, July 11, 2021

My Wimbledon top 10

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

10. You can call it tradition, or you can call it ridiculous: 2021 marked the final blank middle Sunday at Wimbledon, and it's about time. At a tournament where it often rains--the first three days of this year's event, it rained so much that there were massive delays--it makes no sense to have no play on the middle Sunday. But that isn't the only problem. Tournament administrators promote Manic Monday as "the greatest day in tennis" (but of course, they also claim to have the greatest tournament), but for fans, it's a nightmare. Then there's the matter of not having the quarterfinals played consecutively, which is even more of a nightmare for fans. Perhaps in another 50 years, those in charge will make changes to the round of 16 and quarterfinal schedules, too--but let's not raise our expectations.

9. The harder they fall: Defending champion Simona Halep tore her calf during the French Open, and--shortly before the Wimbledon draw was made--she announced that she would not be able to play in London. This sad news was followed by the equally sad news that Serena Williams had to retire during her first round match; the seven-time champion slipped on the court and injured her leg. After having to wait two years to play at the event, they were again denied the opportunity. And for fans, the agony continued when two-time champion Petra Kvitova was upset in the first round by Sloane Stephens.

8. Diede De Great adds a third Wimbledon title: Top seed Diede De Groot added a third Wimbledon title to her very impressive resume today, when she defeated Kgothatso Montjane 6-2, 6-2 in the wheelchair singles final. De Groot wasn't in the doubles final, which is very unusual; she and partner Aniek Van Koot were upset in the semifinals. Second seeds Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley won the doubles title, defeating Montjane and Lucy Shuker 6-0, 7-6 in the final.

7. Goal accomplished: Talking to the press the day before the MUSC Women's Health Open final in Charleston, Ons Jabeur said, "I want to show them what Ons can do." She was stopped by Astra Sharma in that final, but then Jabeur went to Paris and made it to the round of 16. She followed that by winning Birmingham (her first WTA title), then reaching the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. And what a run it was: Jabeur took out three major champions, two of them Wimbledon champions--Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek--on her way.

Jabeur had reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open earlier this year, and--at that time--she became the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of a major. Now she's the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and we can conclude that she has indeed shown us what Ons can do.

6. May I have another, please?: Desirae Krawczyk and her partner, Joe Salisbury, unseeded, won the French Open mixed doubles title this year. Now Krawczyk, this time playing with Neal Skupski, has also won the Wimbledon title. Krawczyk is ranked number 17 in the world in doubles. She and Alexa Guarachi were the women's doubles runners-up at the 2020 French Open.

5. No title, but certainly a victory: In 2016, Angie Kerber won the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, was a runner-up at Wimbledon, and won a silver medal at the Olympic Games. In 2018, she won Wimbledon again. Since that time, the former number 1 dropped out of the top 20, but she came to life in a big way during the 2021 grass season. Right before Wimbledon began, Kerber won the Bad Homburg event, her first title in three years. Her Wimbledon second round match was arguably the greatest singles match of the tournament, and she made it as far as the semifinals. Kerber (who looked a bit passive in the match) lost to eventual champion Ash Barty, but it was a great run. And more important--Angie's back.

4. You need a shot of vitamin V: Charleston champion Veronika Kudermetova and her partner, veteran Elena Vesnina, had already taken out the top seeds, French Open champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, in the quarterfinals (and saving two match points in the process). In their semifinal match, they had to contend with the on-fire team of Caroline Dolehide and Storm Sanders, and what ensued was as thrilling a match as anyone would want to see. 

Down 2-5 in the third set, the younger half of the Russian team appeared to be deflated beyond repair. Kudermetova's resigned agony was palpable, but experienced champion Vesnina did everything but breathe fire into her (and she may have found a way to do that), bringing her back to life. The Russians saved three match points, and went on to win the match, 7-6, 3-6, 7-5. It was two and a half hours of very high quality tennis and non-stop excitement.

3. The mirror doesn't lie: When we think of the fiery, determined Sara Sorribes Tormo, we tend to think of a clay court, but it turns out that the Spaniard is just as maddening an opponent on grass. Ask Angie Kerber, who had to deal with Sorribes Tormo in the Wimbledon second round. Kerber, with her strong legs and her ability to hit impossible angles, is one of the greatest defensive players on the tour, and perhaps one of the greatest ever. But when the German star looked across the net in the second round, she saw the tireless retriever from Spain, running and hitting and looking every bit as fierce as Kerber. It was exhausting just to watch them. For three hours and 19 minutes, they were at each other, providing continuing thrills for spectators. Kerber won, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.

2. London's finest drama: I don't like the custom of naming doubles teams (though I make an exception for The Spice Girls, because that name was inspired), but if Veronika Kudermetova and Elena Vesnina had to have a name, Drama Drama Drama would do as well as any. During their run at Winbledon, drama followed them wherever they went. There was that thrilling match against the top seeds, Krejcikova and Siniakova, and that crazy-exciting match against Dolehide and Storm. So it was no surprise when the final, which they played against Hsieh Sui-wei and Elise Mertens, was also filled with high drama. It was a tense and thrilling affair, beautifully played by all, and as good a final as one could hope to see. Hsieh and Mertens emerged the winners, 3-6, 7-5, 9-7, and Mertens has now returned to her number 1 ranking.

1. Four decades was long enough: In 1971, Evonne Goolagong lifted her first of two Venus Rosewater dishes. She won the title again in 1980. That no other Australian woman came along and won the title until 41 years had passed is rather strange. But now one has. World number 1 Ash Barty, whose childhood dream was to win Wimbledon, saw that dream come true when she defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 in the final.

Though their premier championship wins are half a century apart, Barty and Goolagong Cawley are friends, and Barty has named Goolagong Cawley as a mentor. They also share indigenous heritage: Goolagong Cawley's family is Wiradjuri, and Barty's father is of Ngarigo heritage. Throughout the tournament, Barty wore a dress with a scalloped hem, in tribute to the dress that her mentor had worn 50 years before. 

Barty is known for her variety in shot-making, and especially for her slice, but she has now made her serve even better, which makes her a major threat. In the final, she played the woman known for her serve, and her ability to hit aces--Karolina Pliskova. After a weak start, the Czech player came to life in the second set, and, via a tiebreak, forced the match to a third set. Barty prevailed, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, and then went on to show us a great number of emotions as it became to real to her that she was holding the Venus Rosewater Dish. 

A doubles star who leaves tennis behind for two years in order to sort things out and to play professional cricket, then returns to become number 1 in the world in singles--wins the French Open, then takes a year off because of the pandemic, during which time she wins a golf tournament. Then injures her hip at the French Open, but shows up at Wimbledon--and wins the title. 

Oh, that movie is too over-the-top to be made! It was, however, exactly what happened in the professional life of Ash Barty, 2021 Wimbledon singles champion, and world number 1.

 We await the sequel.