Thursday, November 18, 2021

Muguruza completes her comeback in high style in Guadalajara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Russia wins Billie Jean King Cup for the fifth time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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