Sunday, February 21, 2021

My Australian Open top 10

 .@naomiosaka x @naomiosaka 🏆#AusOpen | #AO2021

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:

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)

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

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Australian Open first round matches of interest

Watching the Australian Open is difficult for me, since so many matches that I really want to see are played in what is, for me, the middle of the night or very early in the morning. Here are some first round matches (one in particular) I think are worth watching:

Leylah Fernandez vs. Elise Mertens (18): Mertens is the favorite, and not just because she's seeded, but Fernandez is a really tough player to draw in the first round, and she could make Mertens uncomfortable. At any rate, it's likely to be a fun match to watch.

Karolina Muchova (25) vs. Alona Ostapenko: In this case, the unseeded player is likely to advance, but Muchova is capable of pulling a "reverse" upset. Also, when isn't it a good time to watch Ostapenko?

Anastasija Sevastova vs. Kaia Kanepi: I'm interested in this match for its unpredictability. Kanepi has been fierce lately, but Sevastova is tricky.

Yulia Putintseva (26) vs. Sloane Stephens: Oh, how things have changed, with regard to seeding. Which Sloane will show up? Putintseva has become a formidable opponent, and this could be interesting. (Or not.)

Polona Hercog vs. Caroline Garcia: I enjoy watching both of these players and think that this could be a good match.

And my top pick (and fingers crossed that I'll actually get to see it):

Hiesh Su-Wei vs. Tsvetana Pironkova (Q): The trickster faces off against the trickster in what almost has to be a highly entertaining contest. The latest version of the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery is one in which that great serve is now much more consistent. She's also cleaned up some other parts of her game, so Hsieh will have a lot with which to contend.