Sunday, September 12, 2021

My U.S. Open Top 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 11, 2021

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

She's 18 years old.

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

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

She had never won a tour-level tournament.

She was ranked number 150 in the world. 

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

She didn't drop a set throughout the tournament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 10, 2021

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

One Day Only!

Young Blood Will Be (Metaphorically) Spilled!

Not For the Weak of Heart!

(smelling salts available, bring your own fan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paths to the final:

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


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

Thursday, September 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

And what a round of 16 it was!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

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

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

Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Leylah Fernandez

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

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Notes from Women Who Serve post-hurricane headquarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Shelby Rogers vs. Emma Raducanu 

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

Karolina Pliskova (4) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 14)

Maria Sakkari 17) bs. Bianca Andreescu (6)

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

Angie Kerber (16) vs. Leylah Fernandez

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

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