Friday, April 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 18, 2021

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

Astra Sharma (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

Astra Sharma (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)


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

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

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

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Jabeur and Sharma to contest for the title in Charleston

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astra Sharma (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 16, 2021

"I was everywhere on the court"

Danka Kovinic (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the semifinal draw:

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Osorio Serrano and Fruhvirtova continue their success in Charleston

Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

Linda Fruhvirtova (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

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

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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

Shelby Rogers (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

Clara Tauson (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

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

Linda Fruhvirtova (photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

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

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Christ Smith

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

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

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

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

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

Saturday, April 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the players' paths to the final:

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

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

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

And finally, this gem from Danka Kovinic:

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

Friday, April 9, 2021

Badosa and Kovinic--women on a mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the semifinal draw:

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

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Quarterfinals set in Charleston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

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

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: " 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)