Sunday, November 27, 2022

My 2022 top 10

2022 was the year that Alizé Cornet competed in her 63rd consecutive major (a “runner-up” for my list), the year that Ons Jabeur collected the runner-up trophy at two majors, and the year that the WTA and its “women’s health” partner chose to play its biggest tournament in a city where women’s health is endangered every moment. It was also the year when former world number 1 Simona Halep because the latest probable victim of WADA, an orgnaization whose corrupt ways are never even questioned by the very organizations that they harm.

And it was also the year in which there was palpable tension between at least one Ukrainian player and the players from Russia and Belarus, and the year when Wimbledon and both tennis tours had a political spitting contest.

Here, in ascending order, are my top ten 2021 happenings:

10. Now you see her, now you don’t: World number 1 Ash Barty fulfilled a dream at the start of the 2022 season—she won the Australian Open. And then she retired from professional tennis. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), this act was reported as her second retirement, which it was not; Barty’s earlier break was just that—a break. But who cares about facts?

Barty was so talented that she could have gone on and won who konws how many majors and big tournaments, but—in typical Ash Barty fashion—she did what she needed to do for herself, regardless of what anyone else might think.

The Australian star won three singles majors and one doubles major (a peculiar stat, given how very gifted she was in doubles). She won fifteen singles titles and twelve doubles titles, and she held the year-end number 1 ranking for three consecutive seasons. Barty also won the WTA Finals in 2018.
Last year, I wrote:

A doubles star who leaves tennis behind for two years in order to sort things out and to play professional cricket, then returns to become number 1 in the world in singles--wins the French Open, then takes a year off because of the pandemic, during which time she wins a golf tournament. Then injures her hip at the French Open, but shows up at Wimbledon--and wins the title.

Oh, that movie is too over-the-top to be made! It was, however, exactly what happened in the professional life of Ash Barty, 2021 Wimbledon singles champion, and world number 1.

9. Diede the even greater: Diede de Groot (aka Diede the Great), who is world number 1 in both singles and doubles, won the Golden Slam in 2021, and she hasn’t let up since. The 25-year-old, mentored by the great Esther Vergeer, won the Grand Slam in singles this year (and, in fact, went 38-0 in singles), and won three majors in doubles (with partner Aniek Van Koot). But that wasn’t all—De Groot also won both the NEC Wheelchair Singles Masters championship (her fifth), and—with Van Koot—the Wheelchair Doubles Masters title.

8. Fly (high) with Caro:
Caroline Garcia ended a lengthy slump this season, and she did it in style. The Frenchwoman began the 2022 season ranked number 78 in the world and is currently number 4. Garcia won the French Open (with Kiki Mladenovic) in doubles (her doubles game had never left her), and won Bad Homburg and Warsaw, defeating Iga Switek in the quarterfinals. But she wasn’t done—she went on to win Cincinnati, reached the U.S. Open semifinals for the first time, then capped her glorious year off by winning the WTA Finals. 

7. Epic—and awesome: World number 1 Iga Swiatek was on a ten-match win streak in finals. Her opponent in the Ostrava final was Barbora Krejcikova, who spent much of this year either out with injury or working to find her game again. She found it in front of her home crowd, in what was easily the match of the year. Krejcikova and Swiatek threw everything they had at each other for three hours and sixteen minutes, and it was a spectacle to behold.

Krejcikova went down 1-5 in the first set, but wound up losing it 5-7. She won the second and thrd sets 7-6, 6-3. The scoreline alone communicates how thrilling the match was, but the shot-making and athleticism made it something beyond thrilling. The players were very emotional, the people in the stands were very emotional, and those watching on television were very emotional, also.

6. I’ll have another, please:
The French Open champion in 2020 (Krejcikova won in 2021), Iga  Swiatek, did it again in 2022, taking out the likes of Jessie Pegula, Dasha Kasatkina and—in the final—Coco Gauff.

5. And one of these, too:
When I wrote about Swiatek and the 2022 U.S. Open, I described her as having a kind of Princess and the Pea role. She made it clear that she didn’t like the “special” women’s tennis balls used in Flushing Meadows (she isn’t alone), and she was constantly replacing her racket because she was dissatisfied with the string tension. But that didn’t stop her from winning the championship. Swiatek defeated 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, Jessie Pegula and Aryna Sabalenka, before defeating Ons Jabeur in the final. 

4. The master steps away?: Serena Williams retired from professional tennis this year—or did she? At first, it seemed like she did, but now, it’s hard to know.

3. Like a boss: Elena Rybakina may have been a first-time major champion, but her Wimbledon win should have come to no surprise to anyone who was paying attention. Seeded 17th, Rybakina had faced the challenges of both illness and injury, as well as having won only two of the eight finals that she had contested. But on the lawns of Wimbledon, she left all that behind, dropping only two sets in the entire tournament, and taking out 2019 champion Simona Halep in the process. Her victory made Rybakina the first Kazakhstani to win a major.

That was the good part. Rybankina received no ranking points for winning Wimbldeon, due the the WTA/ATP’s decision to strip ranking points as a protest against Wimbledon’t decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players fron competing. (As a result of both of these actions, Vladimir Putin has—of course—suffered greatly.)

2. A worthy encore: Last year, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won the Golden Slam and the WTA finals. We’ll never know what would have happened, but the pair just missed winning another Grand Slam this year when they had to had to withdraw from the French Open because Krejcikova contracted the Covid virus. They took home trophies after the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, which is still very impressive, especially coming after experiencing their glory year of 2021.

1. It’s all about Iga: World number 1 Iga Swiatek is now living in the rarified air of very elite sport. Her victory in San Diego gave her her eighth title of the year (including two majors), and she ended the season 24-1 in the USA. The Polish star also had a ten-match winning streak in finals (broken by Krejcikova), and—at one point in the season—she was on a 37-match win streak. She can only get better (I’m thinking lots of practice on grass courts?), and I, for one, can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in 2023.

Aside from her tennis, Swiatek is developing a rare (how unfortunate) Azaarenka-type voice; she is comfortable speaking out on everything from the U.S. Open’s insistence on forcing WTA players to use lightweight tennis balls to the problem of player abuse by authority figures.

But that’s not all. The Russian players are avid readers, but only the world number 1 has been spotted reading Wuthering Heights during a changeover (back when I read it, I couldn’t put it down, either). And my personal favorite Iga moment this year was her revelation that “Seven” is her favorite song from Folklore.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Four things we learned from the WTA Finals


The WTA Finals are brutal because the players have to play multiple matches in a six-day span--more, if they get to the knock-out rounds, and even more if they play both singles and doubles. And all this takes place at the end of the season, when they're already mentally and physically exhausted. 

For those reasons, it's not at all unusual for big upsets to take place, and the 2022 event was no exception. Here are some takeaways:

1. Iga Swiatek is human. 

One could argue that Barbora Krejcikova reminded us of that in Ostrava. But Ostrava was different--the final played between Swiatek and Krejcikova was of the very highest quality in every way; the Czech star simply figured out how to win. Aryna Sabalenka's semifinal upset of the world number 1 in Forth Worth was different. Swiatek looked flat (for her), and unable to put all of her skills together at one time. To Sabalenka's credit, she kept the pressure on Swiatek throughout the match and didn't let the occasion get to her.

2. Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are human, too. 

Throughout the first set of the doubles final, Krejcikova was so out of sorts that she looked a bit lost at times. Even her characteristically winning serve abandoned her. Not for the first time, Siniakova was able to not only work around her partner, but to lift her spirits. In fact, after the Czech team won the second set, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought that they were on their way to defending their title. 

But Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens had other ideas, and managed to overcome the top seeds in a tense and thrilling 11-9 tiebreak. It was a dramatic match, and a fitting end to the competition.

3. Caroline Garcia is so back.  

Garcia's slump lasted so long that it was easy to think that her glory days were behind her. She began the season as world number 79 in singles. Her doubles game, however, was intact, and she and Kiki Mladenovic won the French Open for a second time. Garcia then began her resurgence tour, winning Bad Homburg, Warsaw (defeating Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinal) and--most important--Cincinnati. Last night, the Frenchwoman defeated Aryna Sabalenka to win the 2022 WTA Finals--what a way to punctuate a return to form! Garcia is now the world number 4, a ranking she previously held in 2018.

4. Cognitive dissonance continues to rule.

The WTA Finals event, scheduled to be played in Shenzhen, was moved to Fort Worth, Texas because of the tour's ongoing protest of China's refusal to demonstrate the safety and well-being of Peng Shuai. That's understandable. But what about the safety of the women and girls in Texas? The WTA purports to be an organization that advocates for women, though--when advocacy is needed--the organization almost always fails to find its voice--it's all just talk, with little action.

But in this particular case, the situation was especially disheartening. The WTA's major sponsor just happens to be a women's health company. According to the WTA: "As one of the world’s top medical technology innovators, Hologic focuses primarily on improving women’s health and well-being." Hologic's mission statement declares that the company is dedicated to "enabling healthier lives, everywhere, every day." 

Even before the current laws in Texas were put in place, the state already had an unusually high maternal mortality rate, with that rate being exceptionally high for black women. Now, the situation is horrific because Texas has some of the most draconian abortion laws in the country. And--though protecting the life of the mother is the only exception--in Texas, as in other states, doctors are afraid to perform surgeries that will save women's lives and/or prevent those women and girls from having permanent disabilities. 

The WTA didn't need to announce that it wouldn't take the tour finals to a place where the lives of women and girls are not valued (though that would have been a great move); it just needed to find a place less hostile to women to stage its biggest event.

Monday, October 17, 2022

A season of resurgence

During the last two weeks, we've had the pleasure of watching some really great tennis, especially in Ostrava, where just about every match was a high quality contest. Also during this brief period of time, we've seen three WTA players revive their careers, with one of them winning her first WTA title.

Anna Blinkova, whose highest ranking, achieved in 2020, was number 54 in the world, has now returned to the top 100 (79), where she hasn't been in over a year. Blinkova,  a qualifier, won the Transylvania Open last week, defeating Jasmine Paolini in the final. During her long run, Binkova also took out the second and fourth seeds.

Then there was qualifier Donna Vekic, who made a run all the way to the final in San Diego. And what a run it was--Vekic defeated Emma Mandlik and Jil Teichmann in the qualifying rounds, and in the main draw, she defeated fifth seed Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, third seed Aryna Sabalenka, and Danielle Collins. She was stopped--as have so many--by world number 1 Iga Swiatek in the final, but she did set off of the world number 1. 

The talented Vekic has had an up-and-down career, and the biggest "down" occurred early last year when she had to undergo surgery on her injured right knee. Following surgery, the Croatian player's favoring of her left leg led to a plantar fascia tear in her right foot. Vekic feared that she might not ever regain the full functioning of her right leg.

In 2019, Vekic was ranked number 19 in the world; she is now number 47. Her performance in San Diego was exceptional. Unfortunately, she had to finish playing her semifinal match the day of the final (not to mention that her opponent was Swiatek). But it was a brilliant run--one that indicates a turnaround for a player who has had a tough couple of years.

Caroline Garcia, once ranked as high as number 4 in the world in singles, experienced a major slump that lasted so long, one might have thought that her best days were behind her. But this year, the Frenchwoman came roaring back. She and Kiki Mladenovic won the French Open (for the second time), then Garcia went on to win three singles titles, including Cincinnati.

In 2021, Barbora Krejcikova won everything. She won the French Open in singles as an unseeded player, then she won the doubles title with Katerina Siniakova. Then she won an Olympic gold medal (with Siniakova) in doubles, and then she and Siniakova won the WTA Finals. 

Krejcikova reached the quarterfinals at the 2022 Australian Open, and she and Siniakova won the doubles title. But an elbow injury caused the Czech star to stay away from the courts for three months. It was a tough journey back for Krejcikova, but in early October, she won the Tallinn Open, defeating top seed Anett Kontaveit in the final. She also defeated Ajla Tomljanovic, Marta Kostyuk, third seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, and second seed Belinda Bencic. 

But that was just the warm-up. Last week, Krejcikova did what no one else has been able to do in a long time--she defeated Iga Swiatek in a final, and she did from a set down. The world number 1 had not lost a final in three years, and had, indeed, won ten straight finals, and her loss to Krejcikova was only her second in twelve finals. The match lasted three hours and sixteen minutes, and it was, quite simply, the match of the year. 

Not only was the final continually thrilling, but the shot-making and athleticism from both women was often breathtaking. Krejcikova defeated Swiatek 5-7 (after being down 1-5), 7-6, 6-3. The trophy ceremony was an emotional occasion--especially since the champion had won in her home country--and viewers, both in Ostrava and at home, shared in the outpouring of emotions.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Lucie Hradecka, long-time Czech doubles star, retires from proessional tennis

On Wednesday, in a lovely and emotional ceremony in Ostrava, Lucie Hradecka was honored for her long and successful career. The Czech player, known primarily for her doubles skills, won 26 doubles titles, including the 2011 French Open (with Andrea Hlavackova) and the 2013 U.S. Open (also with Hlavackova) in doubles, and the 2013 French Open (with Frantisek Cermak) in mixed doubles. 

Hradecka also won a silver medal in doubles (with Hlavacklova) at the 2012 Olympic Games, and a bronze medal in mixed doubles (with Radek Stepanek) at the 2016 Olympic Games. She was a Wimbledon finalist in doubles in 2012, and an Australian Open finalist in doubles in 2016. Hradecka was also a finalist in mixed doubles at the 2013 Australian Open. Hradecka was a member of the Czech Fed Cup team 2010-2016.

The Czech doubles star, playing with three different partners, won the Western & Southern Open three times. In 2012, she and Andrea Hlavacklova won the WTA finals.

The 37-year-old Hradecka played her final tournament in Ostrava with 17-year-old Linda Noskova, one of the Czech Republic's most promising young players. Hradecka and Noskova lost to the top seeds in their round of 16 match. Hradecka and Noskova defeated Serena and Venus Williams at the 2022 U.S. Open in the sisters' final match.

Friday, September 30, 2022

My thoughts on Serena's retirement

It wasn't my intention to wait this long to comment on Serena Williams' retirement, but the U.S. Open and various life stressors got in the way of my writing anything. I won't go over Serena's amazing professional resumé--I'll leave that to others. Instead, I want to address what she has meant--and continues to mean--to not only the tennis world, but to the culture in general.

Until 2020, I was a psychotherapist. I treated many women from various walks of life--different ages, different political beliefs, different backgrounds. Yet--when they discovered that I was part of the tennis world--they all expressed a great admiration for Serena. Her accomplishments attracted them, but they also talked about her strength, her resilience, and her authenticity.

When I was younger, I watched Chris Evert grow up. Later, I watched Serena grow up and find her voice, and it was a thing to behold. Yes, she made mistakes; however, some of those "mistakes" were obviously a consequence of her most serious health challenge--a pulmonary embolism. I didn't write about it at the time because it didn't seem respectful, but I mention it now just to set the record straight.

If you're a woman, life is more difficult for you (even if you're one of those women who chooses not to recognize that reality). If you're a woman of color, the difficulty is greater. If you're a famous woman or a famous woman of color, it can be brutal. Serena Williams endured years of sexist, misogynistic and racist attacks every time she spoke or  played a match. She also endured multiple injuries and a life-threatening health problem. But she carried on, she improved, she solved problems, and she demonstrated the concept of "champion" in a way that was breathtaking.

There will never be another champion like Serena. She began her career as a very talented girl with a highly competitive spirit, and by the time she retired, she had become a cultural icon for the ages. She is a voice for all women, and her career is a dramatic reminder that female athletes are strong, spirited, competitive, and relentless.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

My U.S. Open top 10

Here are my top U.S. Open occurrences, in descending order:

10. Look who's in the final!: She didn't win (Alexandra Eala did that), but Lucie Havlickova from the Czech Republic made it to the final, and it's no surprise. Havlickova won the junior French Open singles title, and in 2021, Linda Noskova won the French Open. The Czech female tennis machine is a mighty thing.

9. Storming through the draw: Storm Sanders, with partner John Peers, won the mixed doubles championship. The Australian team defeated Kirsten Flipkens and Edouard Roger-Vasselin 4-6, 6-4, [10]-[7] in the final.

8. Sexism is as sexism does: You can name the facility after Billie Jean King, but your true colors will always come out. The U.S. Open's Twitter account was dismissive of women in so many ways--referring to "sportsmanship" between the two singles finalists, for example, and announcing that Matteo Berrettini and Jannik Sinner were the first Italians to ever reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open (Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci would like a word). But they outdid themselves when they drew a "cute" cartoon that was intended to insult Richard Gasquet (in a "fun" way, of course), by calling him a woman (in the most vulgar way imaginable).

7. French flair/French perseverance: Alizé Cornet began her U.S. Open campaign by upsetting the defending champion, but the most signiicant part of the Frenchwoman's run was that it was her 63rd consecutive appearance in a major tournament. Oh là là!

6. Hot wheels: Diede De Groot defended both her singles and doubles titles at this year's U.S. Open. She defeated Yui Kamiji (yet again) in three sets to win the singles title, and she and partner Aniek Van Koot defeated Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane to win the doubles title. This is De Groot's fifth U.S. Open singles victory in a row, and it's also her second consecutive Grand Slam--last year, it was actually a Golden Slam. During the trophy ceremony, the Dutch star acknowledged the U.S. Open for expanding the wheelchair draw. Diede the Great has now won 16 major singles titles and 15 major doubles titles.

5. Giving live-streaming a bad name: It was really difficult to watch the Open because ESPN's streaming was pure trash from day one. The screen would turn black, the screen would disappear altogether, a message would appear, telling you that the match you were watching wasn't included in your package. The only "solution" was to continually reboot the app, and that didn't always work. To their credit, the ESPN tech staff responded immediately to requests for help, but they insisted that the problems were at the users' end, and they were quite obviously (people all over the country were having the same issues) not.

4. There should have been a garden: So many top seeds and notable players fell in the first two rounds, it was shocking. Gone in the first round were defending champion Emma Raducanu, Simona Halep (a favorite to win the tournament), two-time champion Naomi Osaka, Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, and Dasha Kasatkina. In the second round, we lost 3rd seed Maria Sakkari and 4th seed Paula Badosa.

3. End of a golden era: The great Serena Williams retired from professional tennis at this year's U.S. Open. After her opening round, there was a ceremony to honor her, and--after she was defeated in the third round by Ajla Tomljanovic--her exit was an emotionally touching event. The six-time U.S. Open singles champion is a sports icon for the ages, and her appearance (in her gorgeous kit) in New York one final time is a top story in 2022, not just in the sports world, but throughout the culture at large.

2. History is made: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, seeded third, are the new U.S. Open champions; the Czech team defeated Caty McNally and Taylor Townsend 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the exciting final, despite being down a set and 1-4. But the new championship--the team's sixth major trophy--is part of a much greater story: Krejcikova and Siniakova are the first doubles team in history to win all four majors, the WTA Finals, and a gold medal in the Olympic Games. I'm calling it the Super Golden Career Slam, and it is very impressive. Sadly, however, Krejcikova and Siniakova were not able to try for a Grand Slam this year--despite also winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon--because Krejcikova was ill during the French Open.

1. Iga! Iga! Iga!: Iga Swiatek took on a kind of Princess and the Pea role at this year's U.S. Open. Before the tournament, she said that she didn't have high expectations because it was difficult for her to play with the lightweight tennis balls that are provided for the women at the U.S. Open (former world number 1 Ash Barty had the same issue), and that this was a problem that many WTA players had. Perhaps because of that, throughout the event, she was constantly replacing her racket because she wasn't satisfied with the tension of the strings. There was a low level of frustration involved with her on several occasions.

But never mind--the world number 1 walked away the 2022 champion. That's how good Swiatek is--whatever is bothering her, she either figures out or finds a way to ignore. Her countrywoman, Aga Radwanska, once remarked that good tennis players didn't need sports psychologists (or their equivalent)--I forget her exact words. I wonder what Radwanska thinks now, as the ever-present Daria Abramowicz has indeed been a major factor in forming Swiatek's mental strength.

The two most winning players on the tour, Swiatek and Ons Jabeur, contested the final, and--to the surprise of most fans, I would imagine--Swiatek totally dominated Jabeur for a set and a half. She went on to win the match, 6-2, 7-6, and thus became the first Polish woman to win the U.S. Open. Ealier in the year, Swiatek won the Sunshine Double and the French Open (for the second time).

After the trophy ceremony, ESPN invited the new champion to sit at the desk and chat, but it was sometimes hard to hear the conversation because a massive throng was yelling "Iga! Iga! Iga!" This went on for some time, and is undoubtedly a taste of what is to come as the 21-year-old Swiatek continues to make her mark on the tennis world.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Iga Swiatek, world number 1, wins the U.S. Open

I think that "what goes around comes around" is nonsense, but after today, Ons Jabeur may believe in it with some conviction. Because, for a set and a half in the U.S. Open final, she looked kind of like Caroline Garcia looked when she had to face Jabeur in the semifinals. Jabeur and Garcia are both outstanding players, yet each of them--for various reasons--could barely compete against their opponents when it really counted.

World number 1 Iga Swiatek, now a U.S. Open champion, didn't look that comfortable throughout the event. She made it clear that she dislikes the lightweight "women's" tennis balls that are used, and she was constantly changing her rackets because of issues with string tension. But it was Swiatek who solved the problems, one by one, then tolerated her discomfort, held her nerve, and won seven straight matches.

In today's first set, Swiatek took control quickly. She got in 90% of her first serves, and was successful with 100% of her returns. There really wasn't much that Jabeur could do. In the second set, the Polish star's level did drop a bit. Jabeur broke her, but Swiatek broke right back. The set wound up in a tiebreak, which Swiatek won, ending the match, 6-2, 7-6. 

Swiatek, who--earlier this year--won 37 consecutive matches, has won her last ten finals in straight sets. Her U.S. Open victory is her seventh title of 2022, and her second major of the year. She is the first Polish woman to win the U.S. Open.

Jabeur was also the runner-up at Wimbledon, and while these consecutive losses are undoubtedly very frustrating for her, it's a huge accomplishment to get to the final of two majors in one year.

Swiatek has already won the French Open (twice) and the Sunshine Double, and she's only 21 years old. After the match, the new champion was invited to the ESPN desk for an interview/chat, and I could hardly hear what she said because the very large crowd wouldn't stop yelling and screaming for her.

Also today, 4th seeds Storm Sanders and John Peers won the mixed doubles title, defeating Kirsten Flipkens and Eduard Roger-Vasselin in the final. And top seeds Diede De Groot and Aniek Van Koot won the women's wheelchair doubles title; they defeated 2nd seeds Yui Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane.

The doubles final will be held tomorrow. 3rd seeds Barbora Krejicikova and Katerina Siniakova will face off against Caty McNally and Taylor Townsend. If the Czech team wins, they will own what I guess we'll have to call the Super Golden Career Slam.

Also, the women's wheelchair singles final will be contested by top seed De Groot and 2nd seed Kamiji.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Tomorrow: The Minister of Happiness vs. The Secretary of Swing

Yesterday afternoon, I was talking with a tennis fan, and I told her to be sure and watch the first semifinal on Arthur Ashe because it would be so exciting. Imagine my surprise when it was not only not exciting, but also a one-sided shut-down. I don't know what happened to Cincinnati champion Caroline Garcia (I don't accept Chris Evert's "She peaked too early" explanation--Garcia is made of better stuff than that), but she was a mere shadow of the player who won Cincinnati and cruised through the first five rounds of the U.S. Open

My comment isn't intended to take anything away from Garcia's opponent, Ons Jabeur, who was certainly a big part of what happened to Garcia. Jabeur, who is always difficult to play because of her creative shot-making, also brought an on-fire serve to her semifinal match against Garcia. The Tunisian star hit eight aces and 21 winners in the 66-minute match, in which she never gave her opponent a single chance to break. Still, considering the brilliance of Garcia's 13-match win streak, her 1-6, 3-6 loss was a big surprise.

The second semifinal was a different story altogether. Aryna Sabalenka, in the U.S. Open semifinals for the second year in a row, had to deal with world number 1 Iga Swiatek, normally a formidable task. But Swiatek hasn't looked that comfortable throughout the New York event, and it wasn't unreasonable to think that the huge-hitting Sabalenka might be the one to stop her run.

Sure enough, the sixth seed easily overwhelmed Swiatek in the first set, which she won, 6-3. The loss apparently woke Swiatek up, because--as I like to say--when she returned to the court for the second set, she remembered who she was. Swiatek steamrolled Sabalenka 6-1.

The third set was exactly what one would have expected--a tight contest in which the momentum rapidly shifted. At 4-all, the tension was palpable. But it was the world number 1 who--once again, remembering who she was--brought the whole thing to a close with a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1-def. Jasmine Paolini
round 2--def. Sloane Stephens
round 3--def. Lauren Davis
round of 16--def. Jule Niemeier
quarterfinals--def. Jessica Pegula (8)
semifinals--def. Aryna Sabalenka (6)

round 1--def. Madison Brengle
round 2--def. Elizabeth Mandlik
round 3--def. Shelby Rogers
round of 16--def. Veronika Kudermetova (18)
quarterfinals--def. Ajla Tomljanovic
semifiunals--def. Caroline Garcia (17)

Also yesterday, 3rd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won their semifinal match. If the Czech pair wins the U.S. Open, they will be the owners of what I've decided to name the Super Golden Career Slam. Stay tuned.

And also yesterday: Top seed Diede De Groot won her quarterfinal match when her opponent retired, and she and partner Aniek Van Koot won their quarterfinal doubles match.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Down to four

In yesterday's quarterfinal competition, Ajla Tomljanovic--now a household word because she defeated Serena Williams in her final U.S. Open match--made her own exit from the Open at the hands of close friend and Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur. Jabeur was frustrated throughout parts of the match, threw a couple of rackets, and worried later that "I think I'm going to be fired from my job as Minister of Happiness."

But she persevered by keeping up with Tomljanovic's hard hitting, and by grabbing more of the key points. Despite occasionally being somewhat rattled, Jabeur displayed a keen tennis intelligence throughout the match, and hit more than twice as many winners as Tomljanovic. Hitting as hard and precisely as her opponent, and using her well-known variety of shots, the Tunisian star prevailed, 6-4, 7-6. The tiebreak "should" have been tension-filled, but Tomljanovic saw nerves creep in at that point, which made it easier for Jabeur to close the match.

In Tuesday's other quarterfinal, Caroline Garcia posted a 78 first serve win percentage, and she was successful at the net in 81% of her attempts. Those stats would make anyone hard to beat, and indeed, Garcia won the match against Coco Gauff 6-3, 6-4. Garcia was in a major slump for a very long time, and she has dramatically pulled herself out of it, winning Cincinnati, and now reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

Garcia is known for "flying" after a victory, and her stylish French plane has been on view a lot lately. Aryna Sabalenka, on the other hand, may have channeled her inner Lockheed Blackbird when she met Karolina Pliskova in their quarterfinal match today. 

Pliskova, who broke her wrist at the beginning of the season, has finally come back into form, but not quite enough to do much about her opponent. Sabalenka hit seven aces, and had first and second serve win percentages of 72 and 63. Most significant--Pliskova never saw a break opportunity; Sabalenka was too powerful and too fast. The 2016 finalist picked up her level considerably in the second set, but Sabalenka would have none of it--she won their match 6-1, 7-6, and reached the U.S. Open semfinals for the second straight year.

In the night match, world number 1 Iga Swiatek faced off against the USA's number 1 player, Jessie Pegula, who is seeded number 8 in New York. Swiatek won the first set with relative ease, but the second set was another thing altogether. Pegula became more aggressive, as Swiatek experienced periods in which she made repeated unforced errors. In the end, though, it was the Polish star who knew what to do, and she defeated Pegula 6-3, 7-6. This is the first time that Swiatek has reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. 

Here is the semifinal draw:
Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (6)
Caroline Garcia (17) vs. Ons Jabeur (5)

In other U.S. Open news, 3rd seeds Brbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova advanced to the semifinals today, as did 13th seeds Caroline Dolehide and Storm Sanders (who defeated Caroline Garcia and Kiki Moadenovic). And defending champion Diede De Groot advanced to the semifinals in women's wheelchair competition.

Monday, September 5, 2022

U.S. Open quarterfinals set

I could sense it coming, and--unfortunately--it did: Petra Kvitova, who has been on fire at this U.S. Open, put up a half-spirited resistance against round of 16 opponent Jessie Pegula in today's first match, allowing Pegula to easily defeat her, 6-3, 6-2. The Czech player served well, but she made twice as many unforced errors as Pegula, who broke her six times. This "should" have been a tightly contested, entertaining match, but almost from the moment she stepped onto the court, the Czech star looked depleted. We have seen this pattern over and over with Kvitova, and it's very unfortunate.

This is to take nothing away from Pegula, who is staying calm and playing at a consistently high level.

World number 1 Iga Swiatek had her hands full in the first set of her match against Jule Niemeier, whose quarterfinal match at Wimbledon was, in my opinion, the finest match played at that event. But Swiatek, as she so often does, solved the problem, and returned to win the next two sets, posting a 2-6, 6-4, 6-0.

Vika Azarenka served for the first set at 5-4 in her round of 16 match against 2016 runner-up Karolina Pliskova, but she was broken (in the final point, she broke herself by double-faulting), and Pliskova went on to take that set 7-5. Again, Azarenka took the lead in the second set, again, Pliskova caught up, but eventually lost the set in a tiebreak. Nevertheless, she prevailed, 7-5, 6-7, 6-2.

The final round of 16 match was played between Danielle Collins and Aryna Sabalenka. It was notable partly because Collins could not find a first serve. It was equally notable because her abysmal service stats didn't seem to bother her; she got creative with her second serve, and she went to work on Sabalenka's serve. The degree of mental energy that Collins preserved by just accepting that she was having a bad serving night and getting on with things was likely quite high.

Collins took the first set. In the grueling seventh game of the second set, Sabalenka saved seven game points, and then had treatment for her left thigh. Her serve intact, she went on to win the second set, after which she received some sort of leg treatment. But something else had happened, too: It was as if someone had pulled a plug and let all the air out of Collins. She had practically been willing herself to win points, and suddenly, she was just a good player without much of a serve who was being dominated by a steam-rolling opponent. 

When Sabalenka served at 4-1 in the third set and was broken, it looked like Collins might come back to life, but she was broken back in the next game, and Sabalenka proceeded to successfully serve for the match. Her 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory was hard-won, despite her opponent's issues. Between them, the players hit 72 winners and made 63 unforced errors, including 20 double faults.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Jessie Pegula (8)
Karolina Pliskova (22) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (6)
Coco Gauff (12) vs. Caroline Garcia (17)
Ons Jabeur (5) vs. Ajla Tomljanovic

There have already been three major upsets in doubles, though one of them is more of an upset on paper than anything else. Top seeds Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens were defeated in the second round by the unseeded team of Kirsten Flipkens and Sara Sorribes Tormo, and 2nd seeds Coco Gauff and Jessie Pegula went out in the first round to the unseeded team of  Leylah Fernandez and Daria Saville. 4th seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alona Ostapenko lost in the third round to 14th seeds Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic, but that team's seeding doesn't really reflect their level of competence.

About last night

Both Caroline Garcia and Coco Gauff won their round of 16 matches yesterday in fairly straightforward fashion, though Gauff got quite a challenge from Zhang Shuai. Not so the for the night matches, in which Ajla Tomljanovic and Ons Jabeur took the scenic--and by "scenic," I mean "crazy curves over cliffs with potential rock slide activity"--route.

Liudmila Samsonova, arguably the hottest competitor on the tour right now, stepped onto Louis Armstrong Stadium on a 13-match win streak. She went up 5-2 in the first round, looking for all the world like she was headed for number 14, but then things went wrong. One of the things that went wrong was that Samsonova's already-fragile knee became more fragile as the match wore on. The Russian player looked tired, and she made repeated unforced error,

The other thing that went wrong for Samsonova was that her opponent played better as the match progressed. Tomljanovic won the first set in a 10-8 tiebreak--after "pulling a Serena" and saving eight set points in the ninth game, which lasted 18 minutes and featured 12 deuce points. By the second set, Samsonova was a mere shadow of herself, and Tomljanovic took that set 6-1. 

Then there was Ons Jabeur, who had to face her nemesis, Veronika Kudermetova, whom she had never defeated. Kudermetova is a double threat: She hits the ball flat and very hard, but she's also an excellent doubles player, so she has exceptional net skills. 

Once again, the perhaps-favored player, Kudermetova, led 5-2 in the first set. Jabeur looked somewhat tentative, remaining on the baseline (which isn't where she does her best work), but then some switch got turned on, and Jabeur began to work her special magic against the Russian. Jabeur took the set to a tiebreak, in which she all but ran over (7-1) Kudermetova, then she won the second set 6-4.

Now Tomljanovic and Jabeur will meet in the quarterfinals, and we'll see what kind of route they decide to take.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Round of 16 set at U.S. Open

Today's U.S. Open lineup was not for the faint of heart. First, Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova put us all through the tiebreak from hell (which isn't to say that it wasn't exciting), but--just in case your heart rate didn't go up enough--Alizé Cornet and Danielle Collins put us through a second one. Both matches were well-played and great fun to watch.

The only result that might be called an upset was Belinda Bencic's win over Karolina Pliskova, but considering Pliskova's ability and history, I don't really put it into the "upset" category (except on paper).

Jule Niemeier, who played in my favorite Wimbledon match, defeated the talented Zheng Qinwen.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Jule Niemeier
Petra Kvitova (21) vs. Jessie Pegula (8)
Vika Azarenka (26) vs. Karolina Pliskova (22)
Danielle Collins (19) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (6)
Zhang Shuai vs. Coco Gauff (12)
Caroline Garcia (17) vs. Alison Riske-Amritraj
Ons Jabeur (5) vs. Veronika Kudermetova (18)
Liudmila Samsonova vs. Ajla Tomljanoivic

Some facts about the draw

Swiatek reached the round of 16 last year, but was upset by Belinda Bencic.

Azarenka has reached the final of the U.S. Open on three occasions.

This will be Collins' first U.S. Open round of 16 competition.

Kudermetova has yet to drop a set and is yet to be broken.

Samsonova is on a thirteen-match win streak.

The last twirl

If you're watching the U.S. Open and you're a serious tennis fan, you may feel exhausted by now--I know I do. Top seeds falling in the first and second rounds, the defending champion going out in the first round, ESPN's failure to deliver anything but consistently trashy streaming, and Serena Williams making one last--and very dramatic--appearance on Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

It was never going to be easy against Ajla Tomljanovic, one of those players who rises to the occasion at majors (though, oddly, nerves have tended to do her in at regular tour events--go figure). The Australian, however, is a very good player, despite her not having the titles to show for it. And from the moment she entered Arthur Ashe Stadium, she appeared to be in a kind of personal, protective, bubble. 

It served her well, as the crowd would go on to cheer all of her faults and sit in stone silence when she hit winners. The chair umpire "tried" to take control of the crowd, but it was a half-hearted, fruitless effort. No matter--Tomljanovic hit them anyway.

The match went to a third set (with Williams winning the second in a tiebreak), and Tomljanovic, certainly aware of Williams' lack of match play, refused to fade, unlike so many others who have had to face Third Set Serena. At 1-5 down, however, Serena gave the crowd what they wanted--the kind of relentless defense that has worn down many a player with credentials much more impressive than Tomljanovic's. She saved five match points, but Tomljanovic won, 7-5, 6-7, 6-1, in a dramatic contest that lasted over three hours.

The post-match atmosphere was memorable, between Serena's lovely and emotional goodbye and Tomljanovic's perfectly hit notes of respect, admiration and humor. ESPN's Alexandra Stevenson mentioned, after the match, that she had recently had an encounter with Tomljanovic that had left her convinced that the Australian player had entered a different mental zone. If that's true, players should watch out; Tomljanovic has always had the talent and skills.

A favorite of some to win the Open, Simona Halep, seeded 7th, was taken out in the first round by world number 124 Daria Snigur. Defending champion Emma Raducanu also made an exit in the opening round; Raducanu lost to resurgent French veteran Alizé Cornet. Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina lost to  world number 131 Clara Burel, two-time champion Naomi Osaka lost to (an obviously recovered) Danielle Collins, and 10th seed Daria Kasatkina was defeated in the first round by Harriet Dart. 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu lost in the opening round to Harmony Tan.

Both 3rd seed Maria Sakkari and 4th seed Paula Badosa were defeated in the second round. Sakkari lost to Wang Xiyu, and Badosa was defeated by Petra Martic.

In other news, the always-under-the-radar Veronika Kudermetova has yet to drop a set.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Andrea Petkovic dances off the court and into the future

photo by Daniel Ward

Andrea Petkovic, the thoughtful, intelligent, creative, and enormously well-liked German player with the crowd-pleasing dance moves, announced her retirement from professional tennis after her first round match at the U.S. Open this week. Petkovic, who is 34, said that "...I still love the game, still have a tremendous amount of passion for the game. It's more the body that is not allowing me to play tennis anymore in a way that I want to play it, train the way I want to train, just play a full season really."

Petkovic lost to Switzerland's Belinda Bencic, and remarked later that "I was glad that it ended like this, with Belinda, somebody I love and respect so much."

The German star reached a career-high ranking of number 9 in the world in 2011. She won seven singles titles, reached the semifinals of the French Open in 2014, and reached three other major quarterfinals. She  spent nine years playing on the German Fed Cup team, and was a member of the German Olympic team in 2016.

Sadly, Petkovic's career was riddled with injuries--her neck, knees, thigh, and lower back all put her out of commission, sometimes for long periods of time, and she made some remarkable comebacks.

photo by Daniel Ward 

Petkovic's interests were always broad and varied: On a given day, she could be reading Goethe, writing poetry, going to museums--or watching basketball, enjoying rock music, and making hilarious videos; she named her video-producing alter ego Petkorazzi. Petko, as she is known by fans, is also known for her post-victory on-court dances. At one point, she became tired of doing the Petko Dance, and declared that she would no longer do it, but fans were insistent, so she continued the ritual, though usually in abbreviated form.


If you're goal is to provide the best in silliness and entertainment, you may sometimes need a partner, and who better in the category of hilarity than Jelena Jankovic? Petkovic and Jankovic (whose doubles matches were shows in themselves) made a series of videos in Charleston that are WTA classics.


Petkovic said, in announcing her retirement, that she may play an exhibition in Germany later this year. 

"I did feel," she said, "this year also for the first time that my narrative has been told and is not relevant anymore in a way, that the new generation is taking over. I think I brought everything to the game that I had to give. Obviously it's not in an amount as Serena, but in my own little world, I feel like I brought everything to it and my narrative was done."

That may be true, but for fans, the Petkovic narrative will long continue in memory as an exemplary story of perseverance, sportswomanship, athleticism, generosity, and absolute delight.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

U.S. Open first rounds of interest

The opening round of a major is always tense, for players and fans alike. Here are some first round matches that have the potential to be of particular interest:

Zheng Qinwen vs. Alona Ostapenko 
Ostapenko does better on slower courts, but--when she can exert some kind of control over her whack-the-rubber-off-the-ball instincts--she can be a fierce competitor on any surface. Zheng, if she can keep from being overpowered by Ostapenko, could make this match interesting.

Garbine Muguruza vs. Clara Tauson
"Which Garbine will show up?" is a question most of us are tired of asking. If you-know-who shows up, this has "upset" written all over it.

Emma Raducanu vs. Alize Cornet
Of all the unseeded players for the defending champion to draw in the first round, Cornet may be the last one she wants to see. The Frenchwoman, just off of a semifinal run in Cleveland, is playing very well, and is obviously enjoying the latter part of her career. Raducanu looked fantastic in her first two rounds in Cincinnati, dramatically knocking out both Serena Williams and Victoria Azareanka. She looked pretty good in the third round, too, but was defeated by Jessie Pegula. Raducanu will have her hands full with Cornet, and we are likely to see some quality tennis in this match.

Naomi Osaka vs. Danielle Collins
Osaka is trying to find her way back to form, and Collins--the 2022 Australian Open runner-up--will be a test.

Zhang Shuai vs. Jil Teichmann
Both of these players can be inconsistent, but their "ups" are notable; Shuai is probably favored at this time, but one never knows when Teichmann is going to rise to the occasion

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The 2022 U.S. Open champion will be ???

Who is likely to be the new U.S. Open champion? Most members of the tennis media, as well as serious fans, acknowledge that it's a free-for-all, and hard to predict. This is nothing new, of course, but it seems more pronounced this year, for a few reasons:

1. World number 1 Iga Swiatek is not happy with the balls used for WTA players at the U.S. Open (and throughout the U.S. Open Series). They are lighter than the balls used by ATP players, and Swiatek argues that they are too hard to control; world number 4 Paula Badosa joined Swiatek in calling for an end to the use of lighter weight balls, and--according to Swiatek--a lot of WTA players have the same complaint. (Former world number 1 Ash Barty's coach had mentioned that the lightweight balls had made it difficult for Barty to compete optimally at the U.S. Open.)

2. Naomi Osaka, who has two U.S. Open titles, hasn't had much match play lately, and isn't the strong contender that she has been in the past.

3. Top players such as Badosa, Maria Sakkari and Ons Jabeur haven't looked their best lately.

Cincinnati was revealing. 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu looked quite impressive, despite being defeated in the third round. Petra Kvitova was playing at 2011 grass court level until she got to the final, during which she sustained a leg injury and couldn't move too well (she was also up against an absolutely on-fire Caroline Garcia). Champion Caroline Garcia was superb throughout the tournament, surpassing even her former high level of play.

No one wants Kvitova to do well at the U.S. Open more than I do, but--not only do we not know the extent of the leg injury--Flushing Meadows has never been a place where the Czech star has felt comfortable. The heat and humidity don't agree with her respiratory system, though--it should be noted--I live in Louisiana and I find the Cincinnati heat and humidity almost unbearable. Go figure. Could we get another surprise champion? Absolutely. It's also possible that Swiatek, Jabeur or Sakkari could rise to the occasion, and both Garcia and Jessie Pegula have to be considered serious contenders.

Of course, this year's event will have another focal point--it will be the final U.S. Open, and the final tournament, for six-time champion Serena Williams, who is retiring from professional tennis. Williams won the U.S. Open twice in doubles, and once in mixed doubles.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Organic and evolving

Serena Williams' recent announcement that she will retire after the 2022 U.S. Open has elicited some emotional responses, as one would expect. No name stands for "tennis" like the name "Serena." People who have never watched a tennis match are fascinated by her accomplishments and are inspired by her courage and determination.

Unfortunately, the announcement has also added new fuel to the tiresome G.O.A.T. discussion. One hopes that that won't detract from the simple process of saying goodbye to Serena, who is moving on to the next stage in her very interesting life.

But it isn't just Serena's upcoming departure from professional tennis that portends significant change--there really is a lot of depth on the tour (though there are people on Twitter who cannot name one good WTA player--hmm, I wonder why.....), and there is an entire generation that is evolving into a force. Elena Rybakina's recent Wimbledon victory is a good example of this evolution, not to mention the already highly impressive accomplishments of world number 1 Iga Swiatek.

Almost a year ago, we were treated to this, and we have been fortunate to watch the impressive rise of such players as Ons Jabeur, Coco Gauff, Paula Badosa, Maria Sakkari, Jessie Pagula, and--most recently--Zheng Qinwen and Beatriz Haddad Maia. There have also been some nice comebacks: Caroline Garcia and Daria Kasatkina are back in the mix, and former world number 1 Simona Halep is back in the top 10. Veterans like Alize Cornet, Shelby Rogers and Kaia Kanepi continue to bring excitement to the events in which they compete.

Tomorrow, we could see a new star rise on the tour, an--sadly--it won't be long before we see some more of our favorites say goodbye. There are people who long for a Chris-Martina/Steffi-Monica-type rivalry, and--while that would be exciting--it is hardly necessary. The tour doesn't suffer from a lack of talent, personality, or excitement. It does suffer from an abundance of sexism and misogyny, which is never really addressed, other than in symbolic, "showy" ways. 

Everything changes. Beloved players retire, our favorites sustain injuries and are out for a while, top players go into slumps, new players break through, and players who were always under the radar suddenly demand our attention. Nothing can ever be exactly the way it was, even a day ago. The tour is an organic entity, always evolving--and that's a good thing.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

My Wimbledon top 10

Here are my top 10 Wimbledon happenings, in ascending order:

10. Tennis gods--40, Wimbledon--0 (tennis media--forfeit): It's hard to avoid making the observation that--after Wimbledon banned Russian players from entering the tournament, the women's singles title went to a woman who is Russian-born and who sometimes trains in Moscow. It's one thing to shake one's head and appreciate (or not) the irony. It's another thing to bombard Elena Rybakina with questions about her birthplace, her national identity, and whom she supports in Russia's war against Ukraine. Not since the media told us a thousand times that Varvaro Lepchenko was a naturalized citizen of the U.S. has there been so much inappropriate media chatter and questioning about a player's national identity. It all needs to stop.

9. That was then: There were five former champions in the draw this year. I was closely watching Angie Kerber, who made it to the semifinals last year before losing to eventual champion Ash Barty. This year, Kerber lost in the third round to Elise Mertens. Serena Williams lost in the opening round, but--given her long absence from the tour--this wasn't a major surprise. Petra Kvitova lost in the third round to Paula Badosa, and Simona Halep--whom many had chosen to win the event--was routinely defeated in the semifinals by eventual champion Elena Rybakina.

Make what you will of these losses. The one that really caught everyone's attention, however, was the first round defeat by world number 88 Greet Minnen of Garbine Muguruza. Anyone can lose to anyone on a given day, but Muguruza has recently shown signs of making a comeback. Not at Wimbledon, though--the sometimes sullen Spaniard looked sad and lost, and it wasn't an easy thing to watch.

8. YOU get banned! YOU don't get ranking points!: The tennis world's version of "It's small, but it's uncomfortable" occurred when Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players from entering the tournament, and the WTA and ATP responded by refusing to award ranking points to participants. Everyone loses, despite ESPN's Rennae Stubbs' exclamation, "Who cares about ranking points?!" Yeah, right.

7. Number 4 for Diede the Great: Diede De Groot won her seventh straight major singles title at this year's event, and her fourth Wimbledon title. There was no sweep this time, however. Now and then, De Groot's serve goes wayward, and that happened during the doubles final; her partner, Aniek Van Koot, wasn't serving well enough, either. They lost the first set, and--though they made the second set competitive, even going up a break--they were defeated by Yui Kamiji and Dana Matthewson. The new Wimbledon wheelchair doubles champions had never before played together.

6. Desirae rules doubles: Desirae Krawczyk, who remains the most under-praised player in the U.S., won her third mixed doubles major. She and her Wimbledon partner, Neal Skupski, successfully defended their 2021 title.

5. It had to end some time: World number 1 Iga Swiatek's 37-match win streak was most likely going to end on a grass court. The Polish star isn't that comfortable on grass, and Alizé Cornet was happy to show her the exit in the third round. Cornet would go on to lose to Ajla Tomljanovic in a three-set match in the next round, but--once again--in the latter part of her career--the Frenchwoman stood out from the crowd.

4. The Minister of Happiness just misses the ultimate joy: Ons Jabeur entered Wimbledon as a favorite (along with Halep) to win the title. Her tennis was stunning and her attitude was great. But sport is nothing if not fickle, and it turned out that her opponent in the final--after easily losing the first set--came back as a formidable foe and she was able to flummox Jabeur. Jabeur, nevertheless, is the first Arab player to reach a major singles final, and her future remains very bright.

3. When grass is a canvas: Sometimes a match is not only thrilling, it's also a thing of great beauty. Such was the case when Tatjana Maria and Jule Niemeier took to the court in the quarterfinals. Friends and countrywomen, the German pair had impressively worked their way to the final eight. When they opposed each other in that quarterfinal match, they brought everything--grace, stunning athleticism, tricks, angles, multiple thrills. It was, for me, the match of the tournament, and one that I won't forget.

2. Too good: 2nd seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won their second Wimbledon doubles title, defeating top seeds Elise Mertens and Zhang Shuai in the final; Mertens was the defending champion (she won the 2021 tournament with Hsieh Su-Wei). The Czech team has now won five major titles, and this year, they achieved Career Slam status.

1. Making it look easy: It was only a couple of years ago that we were talking about how Elena Rybakina was taking the season by storm--and the season had only just begun. The then-20-year-old from Kazakhstan won Hobart and reached the finals of three other events, including Dubai. Then came Covid lockdown, illness and injury, and Rybakina's momentum was stopped cold.

Rybakina rebounded well in 2021, reaching career high rankings in both singles and doubles, and reaching the quarterfinals at the French Open and the round of 16 at Wimbledon (in which she lost to 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka). So--despite what some are saying--it really shouldn't have been a big surprise that the tall, business-like Rybakina, the tour's ace leader, would clean up at the world's most prestigious grass court tournament.

In a rather unusual occurrence, each finalist played only one seeded player in her draw. But seeding can be deceptive. Both women had to play dangerous players, and especially Rybakina, who who had to defeat the likes of 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, Zheng Qinwen, Alize Cornet, and Ajla Tomljanovic. Then she had to defeat the overwhelming favorite to win the title--16th seed (and 2019 champion) Simona Halep. 

By the time she reached the final, the only set Rybakina had dropped was one that she gave up to Tomljanovic. But then she dropped one right away to her final opponent, Ons Jabeur. Jabeur is a tricky, clever player, and she also has a good serve. But Rybakina figured out what to do, and eased her way through the next two sets. She is the first player from Kazakhstan to win a major singles title.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

The light and the joy are really gone

photo by Daniel Ward

Jelena Jankovic—aka JJ, Drama Queen, Glitter Queen, Queen Chaos, The Empress—has, at long last, officially retired from professional tennis, and in doing so, she leaves behind a legacy that will never, ever be filled by anyone. The hilarious, intelligent, good-natured, rubber-bodied Serb brought fans equal pleasure through both her stunning tennis and her inimitable worldview.

In announcing her retirement, Jankovic wrote: 

"I suddenly stopped playing because I didn't really know the situation with my injury. I didn’t know how long it would last and what would happen, so I left the door open and a year and a half after thebreak, after the last match at the US Open against Kvitova, I was in pain, I couldn't function. As time went on, there was no need for me to say anything, I accepted myself the fate of not being able to compete and play professional tennis anymore. My health is a priority, especially now that I have a child and she needs me."

photo by Daniel Ward

Over the years, I’ve looked at hundreds of photos taken of Jankovic in action, and in each of them, every muscle in her body was activated. Her ability to do wide splits on any surface may have surpassed even the Clijsters Straddle. She was never afraid to fall down, never afraid to hit from a fallen-down position, and—in her peak days—her backhand down the line set the standard for the tour.

Jankovic began her professional career in 2000. 2007-2010 were her glory years. During that three-year period, she won Auckland, Charleston, Rome (twice), Birmingham, Beijing, Stuttgart, Moscow, Marbella, Cincinnati, and Indian Wells. Also, in 2008, she was the runner-up in Miami and at the U.S. Open. In 2007, Jankovic won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title (with Jamie Murray).

For a long time, Jankovic’s serve was her only real weakness. Eventually, she turned it into something that was efficient, and—at times—very good, but then she would go through periods in which this skill would diminish. She also had some problems in 2009 when she bulked up. She did it to make herself stronger, but the extra muscle impeded her outstanding movement, so Jankovic then reversed her strength-training regime.

After experiencing an extended professional slump following her peak seasons, during which many fans wrote her off for good, she revived her career in 2013 and returned to the top 10.

The Serbian star won a total of fifteen singles titles and two doubles titles. She played for twelve seasons on the Serbian Fed Cup team, and was a member of the Serbian Olympic Team in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

Though she never won a major, Jankovic was a highly accomplished competitor who could beat anyone on a given day. For a long time, she was second only to Venus Williams in her victories over Serena Williams. Jankovic was a clean hitter whose strength lay in her precise baseline game and her astounding athleticism. 

      “I almost need a helicopter to go to my court.”


Fond of putting glitter in her hair during night matches, the fashionable Serb was quick to select the red Porsche as part of her prize when she won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart—because it matched a pair of heels she had in her closet.

When she became a victim of Wimbledon’s relentless scheduling of top-rated WTA players on outer courts, and was assigned Court 18, her response was: “I was almost playing in the parking lot. I almost need a helicopter to go to my court.”

Chaos followed Jankovic everywhere she went. In 2011, in New Haven, she was playing Elena Vesnina, and she suddenly looked up and saw the stands swaying. An earthquake had hit, and there was a stadium evacuation. This wasn’t really funny, of course, but—if you followed Jankovic’s career—it kind of was. A couple of years later, just as Jankovic began her night match in Charleston, the media tent began to shake. There was a terrible storm (not unusual for Charleston), but we all just looked at each other and said: “Jankovic.”

admiring her hospital bracelet (photo by Daniel Ward)
Only Jelena Jankovic could take a moment in the middle of a match so that she could admire herself on the JumboTron. Or do a showy towel shimmy in the middle of a final, or stretch her calves on the umpire’s chair—while the umpire was in it. Only JJ could yell “My feet are hot!” in the middle of a match. She once changed her underwear on court, and she once had a ballboy repair her bra strap. Jankvovic fans know that the Serb seemed to have a never-ending cold throughout her career, and she was often preoccupied with blowing her nose. She was obsessed with her hair.

photo by Daniel Ward
Jankovic saved a lot of her best off-court performances for Charleston, where players tend to get a bit loose and live more in the moment. There was nothing better than watching her and Andrea Petkovic play doubles together. Once, a few members of the media were sitting right behind them on the Althea Gibson Club Court, and a frustrated Jankovic—after struggling mightily to open a sports drink bottle—turned completely around, looked at us, pointed to Petko, and yelled, “What’s wrong with her?! Do something to pump her up!" After they won their opening match in 2014, Jankovic said that playing in that match had been the most fun she had ever had on a tennis court, and I found that easy to believe.

The hilarious duo did a series of Charleston videos with Nick McCarvel that will probably be shown forever. Here’s an example, in which JJ and Petko discuss--among many other things--proper tennis spectator etiquette:

                       “…My hair is like concrete.”


Even better were some of Jankovic’s Charleston press conferences. She once entered the room with a blanket wrapped around her like a cape, and declared herself a superhero. When I asked her what her super power was, she was quick to reply “To talk too much.”

photo by Daniel Ward

Here are some of her Charleston press conference gems:

Do you remember what she (Serena, in Rome) said to you at the net? You exchanged some words about something.
“I don't remember. I really don't remember. I have no idea. You know, I don't know what I was saying just now.”

“You can't glitter during the day. It doesn't shine.”

“A lot of times, you know, my mind just keeps running, and sometimes it makes sense, what I say, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“…my hair is like concrete.”

“I kind of feel like I’m a ballerina. I keep going from side to side.”

“I have these bangs, you know. So they can't fit in the ponytail, so I gotta glue it in. Imagine if I get frustrated with my hair--what would that look like?”

"I'm not too sure about my body. If I go into a split, who knows if I'll come back up, you know?"

“Here, I want to look like a beast. I just want to look as scary as possible. I don't want to look pretty and all nice and dolled up. For what? I'm going to get dirty and sweaty. The only thing—my hair has to be slick.”

                   “I bring the light—and the joy.”

In 2013, after arriving in Istanbul and being greeted by a member of the press, Jankovic replied, “I bring the light.” Then, as she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and added, “and the joy.”

And she did. Whether arguing with the umpire (which she did with relish), looking across the net from her bottom-down position on the court, making the media laugh until tears came, or hitting a laser-sharp backhand winner down the line, JJ made everything more exciting, more whimsical, more colorful. Sometimes she made things downright bizarre. She could find the humorous angle in anything, and she was always able to laugh at herself.

I was very fortunate to interview Jankovic in Charleston in April. She was there to attend the tournament’s 50th anniversary celebration, and she talked with me about motherhood, and about her memories of Charleston and all the good times she had there.

I consider JJ an international treasure, and one of the most wonderful things to ever happen to professional tennis. She brought the light and the joy—and so much more.

photo by Daniel Ward

Elena Rybakina serves big, stays cool, and wins the 2022 Wimbledon singles title

Ons Jabeur, seeded third at Wimbledon, came in as somewhat of a favorite in today's women's singles final match. She had played some of her very best tennis throughout the event, and it looked as though the time very well had come for her to win a very big title.

But then there was 17th seed Elena Rybakina, who stormed through the tour a couple of years ago with great promise She had won two singles titles, and was the runner-up in six (including Dubai), which is both impressive and troubling at the same time, depending on how you look at it. It hasn't been easy for Rybakina; the Covid crisis interrupted her momentum, as did illness and injury. But on the lawns of Wimbledon, it was as if she had closed an uncomfortable chapter and was returning to the heart of the story.

Jabeur, for her part, has worked steadily to fix the gaps in her game, and to further showcase her many strengths. 

The match was promoted as a contrast in styles, which--to a great extent--it was. Jabeur is the WTA's trickster, giving us the kind of pleasure we used to get from watching a Radwanska or a Schnyder. But she also has a really good serve, which makes her a threat on many fronts. Rybakina, the tour's ace leader, is known for her big serve and big groundstrokes.

In the first set, Jabeur was able to use her considerable bag of tricks to wrong-foot her opponent, or to catch her in a vulnerable court position. She won that set 6-3, and looked to be on track to perhaps pull off a straight-set victory. But things changed in the second set. Rybakina caught on to Jabeur's strategies, most obviously, the drop shots. She began to read Jabeur better, and she also decided to emulate Jabeur in moving to the net more. As a matter of fact, Rybakina wound up going to the net more than twice as often as her opponent.

Rybakina also varied her serve more in the second set, and she made a point of attacking Jabeur's backhand. Rybakina took that set 6-2, and while many fans were no doubt expecting an exciting and close third set, the tall, 23-year-old Kazakhstani player didn't let up. Both Rybakina and Jabeur are known to have frustrating mental lapses at big moments, but in this match, it was Jabeur who became frustrated while Rybakina held it together. 

Rybankina's 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory makes her the first player from Kazakhstan to win a major singles title, and the youngest woman to win Wmbledon since Petra Kvitova did it at age 21 in 2011. Jabeur is the only Arab player to ever reach the final of a major.

Rybakina surprised some by her very low-key reaction to winning--no falling to the knees, no jumping in the air, no screaming--just a raise of the racket and a faint smile. I may have to take Pliskova's "Tall Cool One" nickname and give it to the new Wimbledon champion. (It also apparently upset some people because--why should a player be allowed to possess her authentic personality?)

The potential has been there for a few years, and it shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that Rybakina overcame several obstacles and did something really big. It's also no surprise that Jabeur reached the Wimbledon final. Both players appear to have bright futures.

In other big news today, Diede De Groot (aka Diede the Great) won her seventh straight singles major and her fourth Wimbledon title. Top seed De Groot defeated 2nd seed Yui Kamiji 6-4, 6-2 to win the women's wheelchair singles title.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Rybakina and Jabeur to compete for Wimbledon title

No one has been on a more expansive improvement track than Ons Jabeur. We knew that she was getting closer and closer to reaching something big, and today, she did just that--she defeated her friend, Tatjana Maria 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 to advance to the 2022 Wimbledon final. It was an entertaining match, given that both Jabeur and Maria possess a variety of shots, and they used them all. It didn't equal Maria's semifinal in intensity and thrills, but it was nevertheless well played by both competitors.

And few have come as "close to being close" as Elena Rybakina. Much has been expected of her for some time, but she has had trouble closing big matches. Not yesterday, and not today. Today, the 17th seed defeated 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3. Rybakina had first and second serve percentages of 73 and 53, and she had a winners-to-unforced errors ration of 22-16. She broke Halep four times.

Halep, for her part, saw only one break opportunity, which she converted. She also double-faulted a non-characteristic nine times. In sbort, it was all about Rybakina. 

Jabeur is the first Tunisian person (and the first African woman) to reach a major singles final. Rybakina is the first player from Kazakhstan to reach a major singles final.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1—def. Coco Vandeweghe (LL)

round 2—def. Bianca Andreescu
round 3—Zheng Qinwen
round of 16—def. Alize Cornet
quarterfinals—def. Ajla Tomljanovic
semifinals—def. Simona Halep (16)

round 1—def. Mirjam Bjorklund (Q)
round 2—def. Katarzyna Kawa (Q)
round 3—def. Diane Parry
round of 16—def. Elise Mertens (24)
quarterfinals—def. Marie Bouzkova
semifinals—def. Tatjana Maria

Also today, Desirae Krawczyk and Neal Skupski successfully defended their 2021 mixed doubles title. Krawczyk now has three major mixed doubles titles.

Wheelchair singles competition began today also, with top seed Diede De Groot and 2nd seed Yumi Kamiji winning their quarterfinal matches. De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, also won their semifinal doubles match today.