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)

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Paula Badosa gets her first top 20 win and shows impressive mental strength

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

She served for the match twice, lost a second set tiebreak, and then immediately went up 3-0 in the third set. Who does that? Paula Badosa does that, or at least she did it today in her second round match against fifth seed Belinda Bencic. 

It obviously wasn't a smooth ride. Badosa needed five match points to seal the victory, and she also had to contend with hitting eleven double faults (I should add, though, that she hit ten aces). And the second set featured a revived Bencic, who looked like she was going to wipe out the Spanish player's chances.

But Badosa continued her aggressive game plan, and--with a 6-2, 6-7, 6-1 victory--she marked her first-ever win against a top twenty player. 

A side note: My plan was to ask for a press conference with Badosa, but I suddenly found myself in the middle of a household crisis (I was frantically drying my hair in order to get on Zoom in time for Badosa's press conference, and then workmen unexpectedly showed up at my door, so I didn't have a chance to request her. ) I just assumed that someone else had requested her for a press conference, but then it became evident that no one had, which really surprised me because that was a huge win.

Next for Badosa is Caty McNally, who defeated Anastasija Sevastova in their second round match.

Lauren Davis (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

Second seed Sofia Kenin was upset in the second round by Lauren Davis, who defeated her 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. The match took interesting turn in the third set, with Davis up 3-0, when Kenin took a medical time-out, apparently for a groin injury. And while it took Davis a little while to get her momentum back, she eventually found it, and won the match on her second match point.

Talking about her strategy, Davis said:

“I went in with a certain game plan and found that it wasn’t working so much, and I was a bit uncomfortable, so I just really dug deep and really started thinking about how to beat her, and I found that, like, heavy deep balls were not her favorite and being on clay, the ball bounces high, and pushing girls back is very effective, so I did that. And then also, I changed my serve a bit, like I made more first serves, put more height on the ball, more topspin….”

Alize Cornet (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

I consider Alize Cornet the biggest under-achiever on the tour. On those occasions when she meets her potential, it's such a pleasure to watch her. Today was one one of those days when she met it, upsetting 7th seed Elise Mertens. Cornet was splendid in her gutsy 7-5, 6-3 victory. Next for her is 12th seed Ons Jabeur.

Rising Canadian star Leylah Fernandez was defeated by Danka Kovinic, and Emma Navarro, who won her first WTA main draw match yesterday, was defeated by 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova. Kurumi Nara, 12th seed Ons Jabeur, and top seed Ash Barty all won their matches today, as did Ajla Tomljanovic, who upset 17th seed Marie Bouzkova. 14th seed Coco Gauff defeated Liudmila Samsanova, and 2016 champion Sloane Stephens defeated eighth seed and defending champion Madison Keys. Stephens and Keys were the only two remaining former champions, after both 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic and 2018 champion Kiki Bertens withdrew from the event.

In the final match of the evening, we had a little of everything--18 breaks of serve, muttering, an injury, and a racket abuse warning, followed by a point penalty for leaving the court for an unauthorized destination. In just over half an hour, 13th seed Amanda Anisimova was up 6-1, 4-1 over Shelby Rogers. Anisimova, however, sustained a groin injury and have to have treatment. When she returned to the court, chaos reigned for the remainder of the match.

For one thing, it was quite clear that Anisimova was in pain; her movement was hampered, and she frequently grabbed her leg. She was also totally fed up, which led to the racket abuse incident. The unauthorized journey off of the court remains a mystery. All I know is that she reported that she was going to the restroom but went somewhere else. 

Despite being in physical and emotional pain, Anisimova was two points away from winning the match. Rogers broke, however, and went on to win the second set 7-5. The third set was close, though Anisimova was clearly in a meltdown. Rogers won the very unusual match, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4. Afterwards, in her press conference, she was quite candid (which we would expect of Shelby Rogers), and was able to laugh--quite a bit--at everything that had happened.

“I don’t ask questions sometimes," she said, "I was just trying to fight every single point, keep getting balls back as best I could, try to problem-solve my way through her array of winners that she was hitting….

Asked about the dramatic turnaround that she made, Rogers replied: “That was quite the turnaround, quite the predicament, I still haven’t really processed it all….I’m just so happy to move on and get away from that.

“That was about the most overwhelmed I’ve been in a long time, at the beginning of the match, just feeling like I couldn’t do anything right. She was not missing a ball, I wasn’t making a ball. It was just this perfect storm of really tough times. That’s the beautiful thing about tennis—you can always come back, right?"

Rogers' reward for surviving tonight's bizarre match? She plays world number 1 Ash Barty. Asked about that, Rogers said, “She’s so solid, it’s pretty tough to find a hole in her game.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Remembering my early years in Charleston

Patty Schnyder (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

Watching the Volvo Car Open on television feels really weird, but there was a time when I always watched it on television. Finally, in 2005, I decided to attend part of it. I booked a room in Summerville and arrived in time to watch the round of 16.

The first match I saw couldn't have pleased me more because it featured Patty Schnyder, a big favorite of mine. She played Klara Koukalova, and it was so cold, the players kept their warmup clothes on for the entire match. Schnyder won. Later in the morning, Justine Henin played Lindsay Davenport, and Davenport was winning when she sustained an injury. I don't recall whether she retired (I think she did), or whether she was just hampered for the remainder of the match. Henin would go on to win the tournament.

My place in Summerville was quite nice, and the resident cat stayed in my room at night. There was also a resident parrot who talked to the cat. My host told me a hilarious story about the parrot which I cannot repeat on this blog, but which I've told many times. 

I liked everything about what was then the Family Circle Cup--the green clay, the proximity to the players, the beautiful Althea Gibson Club Court, the Grand Lawn.

The next year, my then-husband accompanied me, and this time, we attended the entire event. Summerville was a bit dull and far away, so we stayed in Mount Pleasant, and would continue to do so for many years.  

I forget what year it was, but on one occasion, the night doubles match was canceled because of a walkover. I don't care for exhibition matches, as a rule, but I'll never forget the one that was thrown together for us that night. Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta played Liezel Huber and Katerina Srebotnik. Lynn Welch was the chair umpire. Dulko and Pennetta's antics were so hilarious that I was in tears half the time; they could have put their show on the road. I wanted a video of the match, but none was available.

One year, Schnyder was playing on one of the outer courts, and was quite irritated about her performance. Her coach was nowhere to be found, but she spotted me in the stands near the court and began yelling at me. This went on for the remainder of the match.

Back in those days, it would get very hot in the daytime, but then extremely cold at night, and if you didn't have a blanket, you were in trouble. And then, of course, there were the storms. In 2007, we were walking on King Street on the weekend before main draw play began, and--having experienced many hurricanes--I saw the color of the sky and smelled the flint-like odor I know only too well. I insisted that we drive to the hotel immediately.

Sure enough, a tornado hit Charleston, and very strong winds rocked the stadium, blowing down all sorts of things, but not the banner with Justine Henin's photo on it. No storm would dare mess with Henin. The final that year was wild, with strong winds blowing all over the court and debris flying. Jelena Jankovic handled the wind like a boss, and won the title, defeating Dinara Safina (who yelled at the wind a lot).

I also met my friend Daniel during those early years (though we "knew" each other from my blog), and he went on to take photos for Women Who Serve.

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees

It's hard to explain the Charleston tournament to someone who has never attended it. The grounds are beautiful, the vibe is very laid back, and the event is run with great efficiency. The crowd is very savvy and the people who attend place a premium on having a sense of humor. When Vera Zvonareva performed what was the greatest racket break of all time, the crowd--instead of booing her--cheered her on. (A few years ago, when Yulia Putintseva began yelling on the court the way she sometimes does, the crowd yelled with her.)

It will be so nice, next year, to not have to watch the Volvo Car Open on television, but in the meantime, I'm grateful to be able to watch it any way I can.

Kvitova and Muguruza win their first-ever Charleston matches

Petra Kvitova (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Wild card and third seed Petra Kvitova, whose only other visit to Charleston occurred in 2018, won her first Volvo Car Open match today, defeating Storm Sanders 7-6, 6-2. Also winning her first Volvo Car Open match was Garbine Muguruza, whose only other visit to Charleston took place in 2013. Muguruza, the sixth seed, defeated Magdalena Frech 6-1, 6-3. Both players had byes in the first round, and have now advanced to the round of 16.

Garbine Muguruza (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Both WTA stars lost in their opening rounds during their debuts in Charleston. Kvitova was upset by Kristyna Pliskova, and Muguruza was upset by qualifier Jessica Pegula.

Talking with the media, Kvitova looked back on her early days on the tour: "When you are new on the tour, you’re just taking everything like a gift. meeting all the players in the locker room, for me, it was very special."

As for playing the top players on tour, the Czech star recalled: "I always played very, very good, and I made them trouble." (She did.) "I had ups and downs in my career," Kvitova said. "I still do have them."

Muguruza told the media that she was glad that she was able to deal with a kind of clay to which she isn't accustomed. Speaking of her return to Charleston, she said: "This...green clay--I have to come back and have a different feeling."

She explained that it's harder to slide on green clay, that the clay is more compact, and that the bounces are tricky.

Shelby Rogers (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Also winning today was hometown favorite Shelby Rogers, who defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-4, 6-3 in the first round. Yesterday, rising Canadian star Leylah Fernandez upset 16th seed Zhang Shuai, and Amanda Anisimova defeated Magda Linettte.

Also winning today were 2016 champion Sloane Stephens, Anastasija Sevastova, Ons Jabeur, and Yulia Putintseva.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Players talk to the media on day 1 of the Volvo Car Open

On this, the opening day of the main draw of the 2021 Volvo Car Open, several players held press conferences throughout the day.

Top seed Ash Barty, just coming off of her victory in Miami, said that her body feels great, and that it helped that the Miami tournament spanned over two weeks, so she was able to get some rest. The Miami champion talked about her approach to winning and losing matches. "My self-worth," she said, "doesn't depend on wins and losses, or on my success as an athlete."

Barty--who won the French Open in 2019--said that, living in Australia, she had limited experience playing on clay. Because of Australia’s climate, it’s difficult to build clay courts there, and attempts to utilize both French and Italian clay have failed.

She credited working for a long time with the same team for the maintenance of her health and fitness. Her team knows her so well, she said, that she is able to rely on their guidance and skills at all times.

Of her Miami experience, Barty said : “It’s all about styaing in there and always giving yourself a chance. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned from Miami.”

And of pre-season training, she was quick to say, “I like the hard work.”

Sloane Stephens, asked about how she might turn her game around this season, said, “There’s no turning around—just moving forward….Tennis is a sport that takes time, to get your groove back, to get your confidence back.”

Petra Kvitova, who has never shied away from talking about her difficulty navigating clay courts (though she won Madrid three times, and has also won in Stuttgart), said:

“For me, probably, it’s the worst transition, to go from hard to clay, especially with the movement and bouncing the ball. I think on the clay it’s very special because it never bounces the same….it’s hurting a little bit more, I would say, not only because of the movement with the slides, but as well it’s a high-low ball, anytime. It’s not only the wind, but it’s also the surfaces.”

Kvitova said that she did hit two or three times while she was in Boca Raton, but—with her typical good humor, she added: “but it doesn’t really matter, because for me, it’s may be even better to not have time to be prepared. For me, mentally, sometimes, it’s more tough than physically….”

The Czech wild card, who is seeded third in Charleston, said that, though she isn’t a stranger to sliding on a clay court, she doesn’t do it that much, and that she has to rely on her aggressive game on all surfaces. “That’s my game, and I’m gonna stick with it.”
 

Sofia Kenin, whose career was interrupted by surgery to remove her appendix while she was in Australia, has planned a busy clay season which includes Charleston, Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome. Kenin was philosophical about her post-surgical entry into the tour; she said that she felt fine in Miami, but that she did get tired, which was to be expected. She said that goal is to play as many matches as possible and “get into a groove.”

The 2020 Australian Open champion, when asked about how she has handled the pressure of having won a major, was candid about this year’s Australian Open: “It wasn’t the best way of handling my emotions.”

Garbine Muguruza’s time with the media was especially personal and thoughtful. When asked if it’s easier for her to deal with losses at this stage of her career, she replied: “I would say yes, not because I accept them or anything like that—it’s just that I waste less energy being upset or being disappointed. I quickly get out of a bad energy and just start thinking faster, what do I have to do and what’s next? I don’t stay…in dark places.”

Muguruza said that she has also stopped thinking about rankings, and instead will “start focusing on playing well, getting to the last rounds. The ranking will come and you’ll have a nice number.” The Spanish star also said, about entering the clay season, “I’m very excited, and I have to control my excitement.”

I asked Garbine about how her extremely challenging off-season activities might translate to her game. She said that she guesses that these activities help her with tennis, but she does them because she loves doing them.

“Anything that challenges me mentally or physically gives me strength, gives me a wider perspective of effort….

“I love what it gives me—the self-confidence that I get once you achieve something. You know, when you go through something hard, and you do it…and that gives you so much power—it’s like an injection of confidence.”

Shelby Rogers, who grew up on Daniel Island and used to be a ballgirl at the tournament, was obviously very happy to be back at the Volvo Car Open. But she also enjoyed her lockdown period, during which she worked out in her house, caught up on her school assignments (she gets her psychology degree next month), did a Bible study, cooked more and learned some new recipes, and read more. “I was able to get into the routine and feel somewhat normal for a little bit….”

Rogers, who acknowledged that she has developed a stronger mentality as a tennis player, also talked about the comaraderie among the U.S. players, and said that’s really glad to be part of the group. “It’s so exciting, and it’s awesome to see U.S. tennis get that kind of recognition.”

Last on the schedule was 2019 champion Madison Keys, who talked about why she feels so comfortable at the Volvo Car Open: “I obviously grew up on green clay, and just constantly coming back and having the good memories here, and knowing that there’s been lots of matches when I’ve been close to down and out and have managed to come back and figure it out.”

Asked what it feels like to be a defending champion but to have to wait two years to defend, Keys laughed: “It feels a little weird. Everyone keeps saying ‘defending champion,’ but it doesn’t feel like it.”

“It’s obviously difficult, being a tennis player, and feeling like you can’t quite get your footing back, and getting that rhythm.”

Keys said that, in the past, when she’s been struggling, clay has slowed the game down and helped her piece together her game again.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Could Miami possibly get even better?

Probably not. The high-quality, entertaining, and outright thrilling matches have just kept coming at the Miami Open. Stand-outs this past week were:

Maria Sakkari--The impressive Greek woman with the impressive bun and shoulders has shown a lot of promise for some time, but she hasn't exhibited the consistency that she needed to win big matches. Things have changed, however and Sakkari's "new" game is more aggressive, and her serve has improved significantly. She took out Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals, and thereby broke Osaka's 23-match winning streak.

Sara Sorribes Tormo--The Spaniard is a breakout star whose athleticism and fitness, combined with her craft and court savvy, has nowhere to go but up in the rankings. Her round of 16 match against Bianca Andreescu was simply breathtaking--I could watch it repeatedly.

Ash Barty--In Miami, the world number 1 has done what she always does--moved quietly and efficiently through the draw. And it was the draw from hell, which included the likes of Alona Ostapenko, Vika Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka, and Elina Svitlina. Not only that--Barty's second round opponent, Kristina Kucova, took her to three sets and also held a match point.

Bianca Andreescu--Channeling Harry Houdini, the amazing Canadian star spent some time in Miami pulling herself out of tricky situations, sometimes at the last minute. Andreescu's Miami adventure has confirmed my theory that she is, at heart, a problem-solver, and does her best work if she has a problem to solve. 

She had a lot of problems to solve in her round of 16, quarterfinal and semifinal matches. In the round of 16, she faced Garbine Muguruza, who played brilliantly in the first set, which she won. Andreescu changed her strategy, however, and was able to overcome her opponent.

Against Sorribes Tormo, the world number 9 frequently looked like she was operating on fumes. Sorribes Tormo's returns were relentless, and she ran Andreescu all over the court. Andreescu had met her match, and the physicality and fighting spirit of the opponents brought back memories of the kinds of battles that Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova used to have. There were a lot of service breaks, and the Spaniard, who hits a heavy ball, looked like she could wear Andreescu down. But Andreescu came through, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, and--not surprisingly--the final rally of the match was as thrilling as so many of the others. 

Next came Sakkari, and once again, Andreescu had her hands full. Because of a rain delay, the match didn't start until 11 p.m. Sakkari, playing with obvious confidence, and took the first set to a tiebreak, in which she held two set points. But at the last moment, Andreescu simply would not be denied, and won the tiebreak 9-7. Sakkari let that pass, continued her aggressive and confident play, and won the second set 6-3, despite being down 1-3. In the final set, Sakkari served for the match, but she was broken at love, leading to a second tiebreak, which Andreescu won 7-4. Andreescu's ability to pop up at the last minute and snatch a victory is simply amazing.

Ana Konjuh--Injuries and surgery have plagued Konjuh's promising career for some time, so it was especially nice to see her do well in Miami. Konjuh defeated Katerina Siniakova, Madison Keys and Iga Swiatek, which is pretty impressive. She was stopped in the round of 16 by Anastasija Sevastova, but her upsets of Keys and Swiatek had to have boosted her confidence.

Here are the finalists' paths to the final:

Ash Barty (1)
round 1-- bye
round 2--Kristina Kucova
round 3--Alona Ostapenko
round of 16--Vika Azarenka (14)
quarterfinals--Aryna Sabalenka (7)
semifinals--Elina Svitolina (5)

Bianca Andreescu (8)
round 1--bye
round 2--Tereza Martincova
round 3--Amanda Anisimova (28)
round of 16--Garbine Muguruza (12)
quarterfinals--Sara Sorribes Tormo
semifinals--Maria Sakkari (23)

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

If I were Queen

If I were suddenly in charge of women's tennis--a job for which I'm not qualified, but this is fantasy, so we must suspend disbelief--there are certain changes I'd want to make, most of which are off-court items. Here they are, in no particular order (because it would be impossible for me to prioritize them):

1. Put the ad point back in doubles competition, and get rid of the super-tiebreak.

2. Recruit female stadium announcers!

3. Get rid of on-court coaching.

4. Train players, especially new ones, on how to handle inappropriate questions from the media.

5. Actively educate commentators so that the chronic mispronunciation of players' names will decrease.

6. Confront the ATP (publicly) when their players make sexist comments about women as athletes, about hormones making women inferior, and about the tour in general.

7. Create a marketing* campaign that can really grab public interest.

8. *Bring back WTA gear! 

9. Rename the Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award the Karen Krantzcke Sportswomanship Award. This is long overdue. (Now that Allaster is gone, at least I don't have to include "stop calling yourself a chairman.")

10. Focus on the mental health of players so that any stigma about getting help can be removed.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

My Australian Open top 10

 .@naomiosaka x @naomiosaka 🏆#AusOpen | #AO2021 pic.twitter.com/ys5Cw7vXbT

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

10. My Australian vacation: Sofia Kenin entered the tournament as the fourth seed and defending champion. Her hopes were dashed early on, though, when she was easily defeated in the second round by noted giant-killer Kaia Kanepi. That had to be really disappointing, but Kenin’s troubles were just beginning. She competed in the Phillip Island Trophy event as the top seed, with a bye in the first round, but was upset in the second round by world number 727 Olivia Gadecki. Then the world number 4 experienced severe abdominal pain and wound up in a hospital, where she underwent an apendectomy. In a few days, though, Kenin was in the stands, enjoying both the semifinals and the final. Some fans were surprised to see her there, but hey—this is Sofia Kenin.

9. Remember us?: Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina are two players for whom the tennis world has carried big expectations, i.e., that they would win majors. Pliskova came close in 2016, when she lost the U.S. Open final to Angie Kerber. But since then—though she’s reached the semifinals of the French Open (not expected) and the Australian Open—she still hasn’t won one of the big four tournaments. At the 2021 Australian Open, she made it to the third round, but was upset by Karolina Muchova.

Svitolina has gotten as far as the semifinals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. This year in Melbourne, she beat some very good players (Bouzkova, Gauff, Putintseva), but lost to a very in-form Jessica Pegula in the round of 16.

Common sense tells us that, the longer these players go without winning majors, the more psychologically difficult it becomes for them to do so. But tennis is nothing if not unpredictable, and Both Pliskova and Svitolina are still in the mix.

8. She’s Diede De Great again!: After having (for her), a somewhat slumpy season in which her serve went away, Diede De Groot is back on top where she belongs. She won the wheelchair singles title, and—with partner Aniek Van Koot—she won the doubles championship, giving her a sixth sweep of both titles in majors.

7. Don't cry for me, Flushing Meadows: U.S. tennis is looking better ever month, and players from the USA really shone at this Australian Open. Ann Li made it to the third round, defeating both 31st seed Zhang Shuai and Alize Cornet. Big stage specialist Shelby Rogers didn’t disappoint—she advanced all the way to the round of 16, taking out 21st seed Anett Kontaveit along the way. Both Jessica Pegula and Serena Williams were semifinalists, and Jennifer Brady, of course, made it all the way to the final.

Pegula began her campaign with a bang, taking out two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in straight sets. She went on to defeat Sam Stosur, Kiki Mladenovic and 5th seed Elina Svitolina. Her very impressive run was stopped by Brady, who defeated her in three sets.

The great Serena Williams, in her quest to win 24 singles majors, continues to come so close. In the past few years, she has reached two Wimbledon finals (losing to Angie Kerber and Simona Halep) and two U.S. Open finals (losing to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu). She lost a U.S. Open semifinal to Vika Azarenka last year, and this past week in Melbourne—during which she routinely beat Simona Halep in straight sets—she lost in the semifinals to Naomi Osaka, who defeated her 6-3, 6-4.

Williams’ exit from Melbourne included both a (literally) heartfelt goodbye to the crowd and a tearful exit from her press conference, leading to all kinds of speculation about her future. But only Serena knows (if, indeed, she does know) what comes next.

6. “Comeback” is her middle name: If you wanted some thrills to go with your Australian Open viewing, you had to look no farther than a court on which Karolina Muchova was playing. The talented Czech (redundant, isn’t it), whose body language and presence remind me so much of the great Chris Evert’s, found herself—again and again—in really tight spots, and she kept finding ways to get out of them.

Down 0-5 in her second set against 6th seed and countrywoman Karolina Pliskova, Muchova reeled off seven games, won the match, and saved herself the work of playing a third set. Down 0-4 in the first set against 18th seed Elise Mertens, Muchova went on to win that set and to defeat Mertens. In the quarterfinals, the Czech player was down a set and a break against world number 1 Ash Barty, but went on to defeat Barty, also. Muchova fell in the semifinals to Jennifer Brady in a three-set match, but her run was exciting and memorable.

5. The toughest opponent of all: Australia has done a marvelous job with handling the pandemic. But Covid crept in on a flight, and—as a result—72 players had to go into hard quarantine. This means that they did not get to practice at all, and all but one of them failed to get past the third round. Then, in the middle of the tournament, a cluster of coronavirus cases was found at a hotel near the Melbourne airport, so the city went into lockdown again, and for five days, players had to compete with no fans present.

4. Hat trick!: In 1965, Margaret Court won her third consecutive mixed doubles title, and that feat was not accomplished again until this year, when Czech doubles star Barbora Krejcikova did it.

3. World’s finest: Aryna Sabalenka had not intended to play doubles in Melbourne, but—the last minute—she decided to play in one more major with partner Elise Mertens. They won the title, defeating Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova in the final. This was the team’s second major championship—they won the U.S. Open in 2020. They are now the number 1 ranked doubles team in the world; however, though Mertens and Sabalenka will continue to play doubles together from time to time, Sabalenka has stated her intention to focus on her singles game. Mertens, incidentally, has finally come into her own in singles, also.

2. Hard quarantine, easy answers: What do you do when you’re one of the hottest players on the tour, you’re about to compete in a major, and you’re not allowed to leave your hotel room, or even open a window? You ride your stationery bike, lift some weights, and drag a mattress off one of the beds, stick it against the wall, and use it as a backboard, of course. That’s what Jennifer Brady did when she was placed in hard quarantine, and—while it was a far cry from hitting the courts to practice and going to the gym—it worked.

Brady, who could teach a class on attitude (Backspin Academy, are you listening?), never let any of it get her down, and—of the 72 players who were put into hard quarantine—she was the only one to advance past the third round. How did she do it? I’m not sure, but the attitude part surely helped. Jen Brady blazed her way through the draw, and made it all the way to the final, where she was finally defeated.

1. Queen of the hard courts
: Naomi Osaka has now won four majors—two in Melbourne and two in the U.S. At the 2021 Australian Open, she defeated 2020 finalist Garbine Muguruza in the round of 16, and seven-time champion Serena Williams in the semifinals. Osaka’s combination of athleticism, mental toughness and court cleverness have quickly elevated her to an elite status in the sport.

It will be interesting to see what Osaka does to lift her game on clay and grass courts. She’s only 23 years old and has nowhere to go but up. In the meantime, her immense talent and admirable persona have already made her a major star (and the highest-paid female athlete in the world). We have watched Osaka grow up right before us, and now we get to watch her mature as a champion.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Naomi and Daphne--a friendship that could last

Yesterday, Naomi Osaka became only the second woman in the Open Era to win all of her first four major finals. (She joins Monica Seles in achieving that distinction, and that's always good company to be in.) Osaka defeated Jennifer Brady to win her second Australian Open title, and to further reinforce her role as the Queen of the Hard Courts. 

Brady, for her part, "chose" the classic path of being hampered by nerves in her first major final. Brady's usual reliably deadly serve eluded her way too often, and she was often flummoxed by her opponent's laser-like returns. The more pressure Osaka put on Brady, the harder it was for the 22nd seed to maintain her service games in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

Brady did have her moments, which included breaking Osaka twice, and there were several "if only" points that the world number 3 just wouldn't give up, despite the USA player's best efforts. It took Osaka an hour and seventeen minutes to defeat her opponent 6-4, 6-3, and collect her second Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. There is every reason to believe that there are more Daphnes in Naomi's future.

Osaka wasn't the only player who matched a stand-out record. Barbora Krejcikova, playing with Rajeev Ram, became the first player to win three consecutive Australian Open mixed doubles titles since Margaret Court did it 61 years ago. Krejcikova and Ram, seeded sixth, defeated wild cards Sam Stosur and Matthew Ebden 6-1, 6-4.

The Czech doubles star was going for a "hat trick plus" distinction, but she and partner Katerina Siniakova lost the women's doubles final in straight sets (6-2, 6-3) to Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka will now move to the top of the doubles rankings, and Mertens will be number 2. The pair has decided, however, to significantly cut back on their doubles play because Sabalenka wants to focus on her singles game. It should be noted that Mertens has finally come into her own in singles, so this arrangement could benefit her just as much.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Some thoughts about Serena

Yesterday’s match, and its aftermath, produced an entirely new surge of sorrow, anger and anxiety about Serena Williams, her quest for a 24th major, and questions about her retirement. Her heart gesture, especially, caused people to wonder if she was saying goodbye forever to Melbourne.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t see it that way, though that certainly could have been what it meant. I saw it as a seven-time champion expressing her love and gratitude. (Of course, it could have been both of those things.)

Readers of this blog know how ridiculous I think the G.O.A.T. debate and the major-counting are. But if it’s important to Serena to match and/or surpass Margaret Court’s record, that’s Serena’s business.

In the meantime, however, Serena’s career record is rock-solid. She has achieved what very few athletes can achieve in their careers, and she has often done it under extremely difficult circumstances, ranging from injury to personal turmoil to rampant sexism and racism.

Serena Williams is an icon, but she is also a human being. Fans say that she will retire when she wants to, but that isn’t necessarily the case. She may have to retire when her body wants to, or even when her mind wants to. I hope that doesn’t happen any time soon, but it’s going to happen some time. And Serena will know when the time is right. And, I should add, only Serena will know.

Serena Williams has nothing to prove to anyone. She is an exceptional athlete, an admirable citizen, and an amazing woman. What Serena Williams isn’t is a template upon which fans can project their own anxieties and insecurities. Trust her.

Osaka goes for number 4

Tomorrow, Naomi Osaka will attempt to win a fourth major. Her chances of doing that are excellent, yet standing in her way is an athlete just as serious and determined. The rise of Jennifer Brady has been dramatic and impressive, and--no matter what the result of the Australian Open final turns out to be--Brady is someone with whom to be reckoned.

Yesterday, she and the very talented Karolina Muchova played in the "other" semifinal, which actually turned out be the semifinal. Brady wasn't at her best during much of the match, and she was playing against the 2021 Australian Open's undisputed Comeback Queen, so things got dicey. She took the first set 6-4, Muchova took the second set 6-3, and the third set led to a final game that we'll be talking about for a while.

Ahead 4-2, Brady looked bound to grab a spot in the final, but, after all, it was Muchova on the other side of the net, and the Czech player doesn't care if you're up a break. Eventually, Brady served for the match at 5-4, and things became very tense. Muchova saved two match points, and then Brady threw away a third. Before it was over, there were half a dozen deuces, and Muchova had failed to convert three break points. Finally, on her ffith match point, Brady got the job done. That last game, however, was as thrilling as anyone could hope to see in a tennis match.

Certainly, that match was more "worthy" of being a final than the one that preceded it, which was predicted to be worthy of a final. Osaka again took on her idol, Serena Williams, who has looked excellent throughout her time in Melbourne. 

Osaka got off to a slow start, but was able to calm her nerves fairly early in the opening set. Williams, however--after getting off to a strong start--made uncharacteristic errors from which she could not ultimately recover. The seven-time champion wound up hitting twelve winners and making 24 unforced errors; she broke Osaka once out of four tries. Osaka, who had a 75/57 first and second serve win percentage, emerged with a 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Osaka and Brady have played each other three times, and Osaka won two of those matches. The notable contest between them took place in 2018 at the U.S. Open, when Osaka defeated Brady 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 in the semifinals. 

Here are the players' paths to the final:

JENNIFER BRADY (22)
round 1--def. Aliona Bolsova
round 2--def. Madison Brengle
round 3--def. Kaja Juvan
round of 16--def. Donna Vekic (28)
quarterfinals--def. Jessica Pegula
semifinals--def. Karolina Muchova (25)

NAOMI OSAKA (3)
round 1--def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
round 2--def. Caroline Garcia
round 3--def. Ons Jabeur (27)
round of 16--def. Garbine Muguruza (14)
quarterfinals--def. Hsieh Su-Wei
semifinals--def. Serena Williams (10)

The women's doubles championship will be played later today, as 3rd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova compete against 2nd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka. Krejcikova, the defending champion, is also into the mixed doubles final.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Muchova and Brady advance to Australian Open semifinals

Czech tennis will sneak up on you. Pin one down, another pops up--just ask anyone who ever played them in Fed Cup competition. While you're keeping your eye on Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, Karolina Muchova will toss one of them (in this case, Pliskova) out of the tournament and then reach the semifinals. 

Yesterday, Muchova--who had already beaten not just 6th seed Pliskova, but also Alona Ostapenko and 18th seed Elise Mertens--defeated world number 1 Ash Barty in the Australian Open quarterfinals. In doing so, she also dropped her first set of the tournament. 

Much will be said about Muchova's nine-minute MTO, taken after she got on the scoreboard very early in the second set (after dropping the first set 1-6). The Czech player had symptoms of heat illness and was treated for them--all within the rules--after which she proceeded to significantly lift her game, while Barty simultaneously lost the plot. Muchova, the 25th seed, defeated Barty 1-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Should such an MTO be permitted? That's a discussion that stands on its own, and is being held as I write this. Another question worth asking is: How could the MTO have so significantly thrown the world number 1 off of her game? So many questions.

What isn't in question is that Muchova is a fine all-court player who can adapt to the tactics of all sorts of opponents. She's fun to watch, and her Chris Evert-style body language is a bonus.

In yesterday's other quarterfinal, good friends Jen Brady (seeded 22nd) and Jessica Pegula faced off. Pegula took the first set, but then Brady cleaned up her game and emerged with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory. Jen Brady has been on a dramatic upward spiral for the last several months, and is clearly headed toward a higher ranking. And during this Australian Open, we were able to also witness Pegula's steady rise as a talent on the tour. When I saw her play in Charleston in 2019, I was impressed with what she had done to improve her game, and I look forward to seeing much more of her. 

In the previous quarterfinal matches, 3rd seed and champion Naomi Osaka defeated Hsieh Su-Wei in straight sets, and--in a much anticipated contest--10th seed Serena Williams defeated 3rd seed Simona Halep, also in straight sets.

(On playing the very tricky Hsieh, Osaka had remarked: "It's actually fun when I'm not really angry.")

In doubles, 3rd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova will play 2nd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka for the title (if the Czechs win, I still want to see a repeat of the fabulous dance they did when they were juniors).

We already have some champions. Diede De Groot won the singles title when she defeated 2nd seed Yui Kamiji 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 . Top seeds DeGroot and Aniek Van Koot defeated 2nd seeds Kgothatso Montjane and Lucy Shuker 6-4, 6-1. 

These victories (especially that close one against Van Koot) have to bring some relief to De Groot, who had been off her game for a while and notably, off her serve. Her double victory in Melbourne marks the sixth time that De Groot has swept both the singles and doubles field at a major event.

In other news, 2020 champion Sofia Kenin, who lost to Kaia Kanepi in the second round, underwent an appendectomy Monday in a Melbourne hospital.

Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Karolina Muchova (25) vs. Jennifer Brady (22)
Naomi Osaka (3) vs. Serena Williams (10)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Halep, Williams and Osaka advance to the quarterfinals in Australia

French Open champion Iga Swiatek, who upset Simona Halep on her way to the championship in Paris, met her again last night in the Australian Open round of 16, and for one set, Swiatek looked like the human wrecking ball that we saw at the French Open (indeed, she has looked good throughout this event). But Halep would have none of it. "I knew I had to change something," the 2019 Wimbledon champion said after the match. Her second set strategy (which she extended to the final set) was to stop hitting the ball so flat, and to make Swiatek take as many balls on the run as possible.

It worked. Halep's 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory moved her to the quarterfinals, and she is obviously a strong contender for the title.

It's hard to believe that, before yesterday, Naomi Osaka and Garbine Muguruza had never played each other before. Their Australian Open round of 16 match was every bit as good as I expected it to be, and--while it could have easily gone either way--it was Osaka who kept finding ways to win big points. The more tense the situation became, the more strategic risks the 2019 champion took. Her strategy (which is really just her on-court nature) paid off: She defeated Muguruza (who was the 2020 runner-up) 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. 

I still consider Muguruza to be "back," though, and think that it's only a matter of time before she wins another major.

Seven-time champion Serena Williams and Aryna Sabalenka went at each other in the kind of match that made me tired just to watch it. Sabalenka is every bit the hard hitter and big server that Williams is, but she isn't yet the problem-solver that Williams is. And while the Belarusian has been the hottest player on the tour for the past several months, she still hasn't figured out how to get to the second week of a major (in fairness, she would likely have beaten many other players, but that's not how the draw works). 

Williams, looking both calm and fierce in an inspired Flo-Jo tribute catsuit, weathered whatever storm her opponent put forth into the atmosphere, and then remained patient while Sabalenka became an unforced error machine. When it was over, Williams walked away with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory.

In yesteday's other round of 16 match, Hsieh Su-Wei's maddening game got the best of Marketa Vondrousova, but the Czech player was also struggling with an injured knee, which was an obvious distraction. 

There were also a few notable third round matches. In the Battle of the Czech Karolinas, Muchova upset Pliskova 7-5, 7-5. Muchova helped herself by displaying a surprisingly good second serve. One is left wondering--as always--what does Pliskova need to do to win a major? (Or is this even a question anymore?)

Elise Mertens, who has become much more of a threat in the last couple of years, defeated Belinda Bencic in straight sets. And Big Stage Specialist Shelby Rogers upset Anett Kontaveit in straight sets.

The match of the third round, however, was the one contested by another Big Stage Specialist, Kaia Kanepi, and 28th seed Donna Vekic. It went on for over two and a half hours, during which time the powerful Kanepi threw everything but her chair at Vekic. The tension was high, and Vekic was almost always playing catch-up. 

Vekic had 17 break chances, but converted only four of them. Her opponent hit 46 winners (Vekic hit 38). But the Croatian player never gave up, never allowed herself to stop believing. In the end, they each won a total of 115 points, but it was Vekic's match, 5-7, 7-6, 6-4. And it was an absolute thrill to watch.

The other four round of 16 matches will be played today