Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Imagine, for a moment

Imagine, for a moment, that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had made comments about the inferiority o LGBTQ players.

Imagine, for a moment, that Giles Simon had insulted Jewish players.

Imagine, for a moment, that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and John Isner had made "back door" derogatory comments about people of color.

Imagine, for a moment, that Roger Federer had defended someone accused of brutally beating a Mexican player.

Imagine, for a moment, that David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Toni Nadal, and the entire Spanish Fed Cup team had made insulting comments about gay players or black players. 

Sure, the bigots would have been down with it all, but there would also have been a huge uproar against such comments. 

But they didn't do that. They made insulting, derogatory, and sometimes sneakily offensive comments about women.

Furthermore, some of the same fans who push back against the campaign against equal pay, and who push back against the atrocious threats and insults directed at WTA players on social media, continue to idolize sexist--and sometimes misogynist (and really, does the difference even matter?)--ATP players. The double standard is breathtaking. 

Until sexism and misogyny are taken seriously by those who purport to disown all prejudice and bigotry, WTA players, and all female athletes (and all females, for that matter), will continue to be seen as not as good, not as worthy, not as human, as men.

Monday, May 23, 2022

French Open first round--big upsets, mighty German

There are some things you can always count on at the French Open: It will rain, the crowd will be even ruder than the crowds in Australia, London and the United States, Angie Kerber will act (at least for a while) like she's never won a clay tournament, and I will find it hard to do anything but watch the matches at my favorite major.

And of course, there will be upsets early on. The first to go this year was a surprise--yet, maybe not to the degree that people seem to think. It was a surprise because it was 6th seed Ons Jabeur, who has won more clay matches this year than any other player on the tour. Jabeur won Madrid, and was the runner-up in Charleston and Rome. The Tunisian star was the favorite of some to win the title, but she fell to Magda Linette in the opening round. Linette, while ranked number 52 in the world, is no slouch on a clay court, and she was able to get the best of an increasingly rattled Jabeur in three tough sets.

The next to go was 10th seed and former champion Garbine Muguruza, who was shown the exit in the first round by giant-slayer Kaia Kanepi. And while it's true that any giant can be taken out by Kanepi on a given day, the Spanish star may have been especially vulnerable. Muguruza's inconsistency and inability to close matches are no longer "new" problems; Muguruza just isn't herself anymore.

Another first-round upset--this one especially sad--was that of 2nd seed and defending champion Barbora Krejcikova. The Czech star has been out for a several months with an elbow injury, and no one who pays attention to the tour expected her to do that well--she has hardly played any matches in a while. Still, I hoped that she'd at least be able to go for a few rounds. But French teenager Diane Parry had other plans; she defeated Krejcikova 1-6, 6-2, 6-3, and thus marked her first victory over a top 10 player (and her first over a top 50 player, for that matter). 

Krejcikova said, after the match, that she was able to play pain-free, but that she "hit the wall" physically after going for so long without playing matches.

Also going out in the first round were Petra Martic, former world number 1 Naomi Osaka, Dayana Yastremska, 25th seed Liudmila Samsonova, Anett Kontaveit, and last year's junior champion, Linda Noskova, who took Emma Raducanu to three sets. 

And then there was this:

I don't know which is stronger--the legs or the fight--but Angie Kerber remains a force of nature. This match was stunning, and peak Kerber--as always--left me breathless.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Iga, Ons and ??--just add red clay and mix vigorously

The recipe for French Open deliciousness is a bit of a mystery--but not by too much. Now that world number 1 Iga Swiatek has won Stuttgart and defended her title in Rome, she is the stand-out favorite to again win at Roland Garros. In defending her Rome title, Swiatek didn't drop a set--and she delivered two bagel sets. In Stuttgart, she dropped only one set--to Liudmila Samsonova. 

The other strong contender is Madrid champion Ons Jabeur, whose climb up the rankings (she is currently number 6 in the world) has been dramatic. Both Jabeur and Swiatek (the finalists in Rome) are excellent examples of what happens when players make commitments to improve various parts of their games. Hard work really does pay off, and all eyes will be on both of these players in Paris.

Who else?

Six weeks ago, I would have said that the two to watch would be Swiatek and Paula Badosa, but the Spaniard's spark has dimmed since then. But that doesn't mean that it won't come back in time for the French Open; she definitely has the game to go far in my favorite major. Former champion Simona Halep is another question mark: Right now, she doesn't look like a top contender, but it would be unwise to rule her out.

Unfortunately, last year's champion, Barbora Krejcikova, has been injured for a while, and has withdrawn from the recent clay tournaments that she entered. It's questionable whether she'll even be competing in Paris, which is sad under any circumstance, but especially when I consider her unforgettable 2021 performances. The Czech star's overall dominance in Paris last year was unforgettable.

There are other contenders, of course. Dasha Kasatkina, once considered a potential clay court star (she did win Charleston in 2017) kind of dropped off for a long time, but she's back, and her considerable show-womanship has been augmented by more solid serving and hitting. The USA has two potential contenders--both Amanda Anisimova and Jessie Pegula (the runner-up in Madrid) have looked very good on red clay this year.

Maria Sakkari is always hovering in the "contender" area, and Bianca Andreescu is back (again), and looking better on clay than maybe some would have expected. My biggest hope for the Canadian star is that she stays healthy.

Of course, there are many players who may not be contenders but who can cause trouble on clay courts; the list is too long to publish. Last year, it was Maria Sakkari who took out Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals. Sakkari has a 3-2 record against Swiatek, and none of their matches has ever gone past two sets. Their match in Paris last year was the only match they have ever played against each other on clay. However, the 2022 version of Swiatek is even more deadly than the 2020 version that swept through Roland Garros like a red dust storm.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Some final thoughts on Charleston

2022 champion Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)

The 2022 Credit One Charleston Open was special for several reasons: It was the first time since 2019 that fans (and media) were permitted to attend, it was the first year of Credit One's sponsorship, it was the tournament's delayed 50th anniversary celebration, and it was the unveiling of the new Credit One Stadium. 

The new stadium has so many enhanced features--additional seating, more bathrooms, better lighting, a new shade canopy, a new players' lounge, and a new media center. The already-lovely landscaping around the stadium has also been enhanced.

2022 champions Andreja Klepac & Magda Linette (photo by Daniel Ward)

Several past champions--including Charleston's first champion, Rosie Casala--were on hand to help celebrate, and the beautiful Althea Gibson Club Court was re-dedicated to the memory of Althea Gibson.

past champions Rosie Casals, Tracy Austin, Arantxa Sanchez (photo by Daniel Ward)

There's nothing quite like the Charleston Open. The palm trees, water views and irises....the beautiful club court....the good-humored, tennis-savvy crowd....the unpredictable weather--it's an event unlike any other.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees

Last year, I covered the tournament virtually, and that, too, was a laid-back, pleasant experience. This year, I experienced the new media center, which was comfortable and well-furnished, with plenty of space for interviews and press conferences. I have to confess, though, that I miss the old "media tent," the temporary building which used to shake during thunderstorms, and from which we were once evacuated (while wearing garbage bags) during a hail storm. I will always miss it; I can't help it. For years, we sat in there, hearing the sometimes-violent weather, and waiting for the players to arrive in golf carts for their press conferences and interviews.

I also really miss the coffee bar, where I used to pick up various hot drinks--what happened to it? Of course, for many years, I've missed the veggie hot dogs that used to be sold in the stadium. 

Magda Linette (photo by Daniel Ward)
There was a lot going on this past week, so the exploits of one particular player may have been lost in the flood of news stories and interviews that were made public. That player was Magda Linette, who probably had the most unusual--and stressful--experience of anyone in the field--and she walked away with a trophy.

On Tuesday, Linette defeated Katie Volynets in a three-set match in the first round. She then played her second round match against Leylah Fernandez, but it began to rain, so that match resumed on Thursday. It, too, went to three sets and ended in a tiebreak, which lasted 17 minutes. During that time, Fernandez saved six match points before Linette won on her seventh match point.

Later that day, Linette defeated Kaia Kanepi in another three-set match. On Thursday, Ekaterina Alexandrova defeated her 6-0, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. After the match, Alexandrova said: "...I also knew that she played yesterday like two three-set matches, and I think she finished like super late, and for her it would be extremely tough to play today. I knew that, but still, I was trying to play every single point, because I know, like you don't know when, but she can start to play like just amazingly and it will be super tough."

But that's not all! The same day that Linette played both Fernandez and Kanepi, she and her partner, Andreja Klepac also played their first round doubles match, defeating Alicija Rosolska and Erin Routliffe (and yes, there was a super tiebreak). 

If there were a trophy awarded for stamina and resiliance, Magda Linette would be holding it. Instead, she's holding the doubles championship trophy, and that feels like a happy ending.

It was great to attend the Credit One Charleston Open in person again, to see all of lovely enhancements and additions, and to enjoy the presence of a number of past champions. I learned a lot about the creation of Alize Cornet's book, and about Jelena Jankovic's new life as a mom. The players, as always, were open, insightful, and often very funny. For them, the Charleston tournament is a place where they can relax a bit and get the kind of personal attention that keeps them coming back.

all photos by Diane Elayne Dees

Sunday, April 10, 2022

What do you give a woman who has Olympic gold?

photo by Daniel Ward

Her first clay court trophy, of course.

Belinda Bencic of Switzerland became the 2022 Credit One Charleston Open champion today when she defeated Ons Jabeur 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in a thrilling and highly entertaining final that lasted two hours and 35 minutes and had the crowd enthralled throughout. One is tempted to use the old expression, "everything but the kitchen sink" to describe what the players threw at each other, but that doesn't quite get it because they threw the kitchen sink, too.

There were slices, drop shots, lobs, tweeners, and winners hit like lasers to the corners of the court. Jabeur got off to a slow start, dropping the first set 1-6. Meanwhile, Bencic won 90% of her first serve points and didn't face a break point. Jabeur later said that the shadow on the court was an especially difficult obstacle for her, and she also had trouble because Bencic takes the ball so fast. "I'm someone who needs to see the bounce of the ball," she told us at her press conference. 

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)

The second set was a different story, as Jabeur adjusted to the court and to Bencic's speed. The shot-making was intense and varied, and Jabeur--making fewer unforced errors--had a dramatic hold of serve to go up 6-5. She would go on to win this very tense set, 7-5.

The third set was also tense. At 3-all, Jabeur hit a drop shot that Bencic was able to get, and what commenced after that was possibly the most crowd-pleasing moment of the match. The rally featured a tweener, and then a fast run by Jabeur to get to a ball that Bencic hit into the corner. Jabeur got to the ball, but not in time to position herself to make a shot, so she kicked the ball over the net.

Bencic broke for 4-3, and had a match point on Jabeur's serve at 5-3. Jabeur saved that match point, but was unable to stop Bencic from serving out the match, giving the Swiss star her sixth WTA title, and her first title on clay. Bencic's defeat of Jabeur also marked the 29th top 10 win of her career. (She also defeated world number 3 Paula Badosa in Charleston.)

photo by Daniel Ward
It was a tough loss for Jabeur, who has won only one of the five finals in which she has competed. Bencic was very complimentary of her opponent: "I think Ons, she took everything from me today. And at some point, I just really didn't know what to do anymore, and I think she played great in the second set."

"...serving it out," Bencic said, "I really don't know how. Like I was so nervous. I was just like, okay, just put the serve in. And then somehow my instincts, they took over, and I played those rallies, and I think I played great three points, and then on the match point I just kind of, yeah, put it in."

The champion went on to talk about the evolution of her career--so much was expected of her when she was very young, and then she sustained a series of injuries. 

"It's not easy. And maybe I had some years where I had to really figure out myself and find myself and kind of get back to what I'm doing the best and appreciate tennis more after the injuries. But I never felt like my career is wasted or something."

Bencic also talked about her opponent's disappointment:

"I lost a lot of finals. I don't have a positive final record. And it's hard to accept sometimes, because you feel like you play an amazing tournament and you lose the last match and you are kind of disappointed with yourself.

"...So I feel like she does everything right to make her career like the best as possible. And I feel like if you keep doing that, then it will reward you, like later or sooner. So I just believe that sport is fair at one point, but sometimes you cannot feel it right away. So sometimes you lose, but then you feel later it's good for something."

Finally, the new champion told us what she most wants to do before she leaves Charleston: "I really want to go to Krispy Kreme doughnuts."

Andreja Klepac & Magda Linette (photo by Daniel Ward)

Bencic wasn't the only champion today. Earlier, 4th seeds Andreja Klepac and Magda Linette won the doubles title when they defeated Lucie Hradecka and Sania Mirza 6-2, 4-6, 10-7 in the final. It was Linette's first doubles title. Both players were without their usual partners, so they got together right before the tournament and entered as a team at the last minute. 

Sania Mirza & Lucie Hradecka (photo by Daniel Ward)

Rosie Casals, the first Charleston champion (photo by Daniel Ward)

Saturday, April 9, 2022

I Drove All Night--Jankovic in Charleston

photo by Daniel Ward
2007 Charleston champion Jelena Jankovic was determined to make it to the city to help fans and players celebrate the tournament's (delayed) 50th anniversary. Her flight was delayed, then she was flown to New York City, where she discovered that all of the flights to Charleston has been canceled. She then drove fourteen hours and arrived in Charleston early Saturday morning. She was determined to make it for the celebration, and she said that she was surrounded by people with so much positive energy, that she was able to forget about her exhaustion.

I sat down with JJ this afternoon to talk about her new life as a mom, and about her memories of Charleston, where she was practically a rock star for years.

Jankovic said that she had many great memories of the stadium, and--of course--her favorite memory is of winning the title in 2007. That was the year that there were serious storms and very high winds on finals day. Jankovic handled the wind really well, while her opponent, Dinara Safina, cursed the wind. "“She was cursing, and I was probably cursing as well, but inside myself," Jankovic recalled.

I asked her if there were any other matches that stood out for her, but she said that--though she remembered being in several exciting matches, she couldn't recall them specifically. She asked me if I could recall one, but unfortunately, the only one I could think of was a quarterfinal that she lost in 2010 to Daniela Hantuchova. I remember it because it was so well played.

We talked about her great comfort level in Charleston, where she always tended to be outrageously funny, and to get up to various antics, especially in the company of her friend, 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic.

photo by Daniel Ward
“I’m an open and honest person; I always show my emotions....

“Charleston, every year I came back to Charleston, they always made us feel like, you know, coming back to family. I think that’s what made me open up even maybe more….because I never take life very seriously, I’m just that type of person, so I think that’s why you could maybe get some more. Because maybe in other places, it was more serious—they didn’t give me that freedom to open and say some of the things maybe I would say here.”

  "I haven't slept in like one year and three days."

Jankovic's little girl, Una, had her first birthday just a few days ago, and the former champion describes herself as a full-time mom. JJ said that she doesn't have any nannies, and that she prepares all of her daughter's food, though she does have a cook for herself. She said that--because of teething issues--her baby wakes up "all the time." "I haven't slept in like one year and three days."

I asked if perhaps we can look forward to Una's picking up a racquet some day. Jankovic said: “I see her handle the balls, unbelievable, in her tiny little hand, she found a way to hold two balls, and I don’t know how she even did that....“She has very good motor skills, I see that from early, maybe three or four months.”

Jankovic stressed that she won’t put any pressure on her daughter,  but she hopes that Una plays sports "so she can learn about being disciplined, responsible, respectful." She said that she also wants her to be active rather than be preoccupied with electronic devices all the time.

“For me, the most important thing is that I want her to be a good person, to be respectful, and to have a good heart.”

JJ said that she, herself, is not currently involved in any fitness activities, but will eventually resume some type of fitness schedule. Right now, she simply has no time for anything other than taking care of her baby.

I asked her if, like some other players, she may be interested in writing a book. 

“Actually, I would have a lot to say; I think it would be a fun book to read.” 

Jankovic said that a lot of interesting things have happened, and that she had a lot to share, coming from a small country with no tradition in tennis. For a long time, people didn’t take her professional tennis goals seriously. 

“I had a vision, I had motivation, I was dedicated….'You’re too ambitious, too confident…it’s not gonna happen,'" people told her, and then she became the number 1 player in the world. “I opened the doors for other players.”

photo by Daniel Ward

Finally, I asked Jelena about her shoes. After all, this was the woman who--when she won Stuttgart--chose the red Porsche because she had a matching pair of heels at home. She was wearing Prada today, a pair she'd had for many years that she says have held up well because she's hardly ever worn them. She wore them today, she said, because the heels are low.

clockwise, from left: JJ and Petko, playing doubles in 2014, at a press conference in 2013, wearing her "superhero" cape for the press in 2014 (all photos by Daniel Ward)

Bencic and Jabeur to contest for the Charleston championship

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)
10th seed Belinda Bencic got a big step closer to winning her first title on clay today, when she defeated Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-4, 6-3 in the Credit One Charleston Open semifinals. The Swiss star didn't have an easy time getting to the final--her first on clay. In her first round match against Wang Xiyu, she was two points away from defeat, and in her quarterfinal match, she had to make a comeback to defeat Paula Badosa, whom she had not defeated in three other tries. 

Discussing her feelings about playing on clay, Bencic told the press: "I feel like over-analyzing sometimes it's worse, and that's what I said on the on-court interview. I just had like two days of practice after Miami to play the first round here. And I think sometimes that's better. You just, I don't know, just play and not think too much. You adapt quickly, and your body knows what to do."

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)
The final promises to be intriguing: Bencic's opponent will be 4th seed Ons Jabeur, who defeated 15th seed Amanda Anisimova in the second semifinal. That was a match of intense momentum swings, as Anisimova won the first set 6-2 with very aggressive play, and Jabeur won the second set 6-1. The 4th seed took the final set 6-4. It was a chilly windy day, which added to the drama.

Last year, Jabeur reached the semifinals of the tournament, in which she was defeated by Danka Kovinic. She then reached the final of the MUSC Health Women's Open, a WTA 250 event also held in Charleston, in which she lost to Astra Sharma. 

"...I don't have very good records in the finals. Let's start by that. Let's start by showing that I can really
push myself more mentally, physically and on the court, you know, playing a player that is strong enough and not easy to play in the finals. I think let me start by showing that side of me, the mentality that I'm going with tomorrow. I think that will be the best thing that I can show tomorrow."

Both Bencic and Jabeur are stylish players who each possess a large variety of shots. And while Jabeur is known as a stunning shot-maker with a lot of variety, Bencic is dangerous because she takes the ball very early, and also has superb touch.

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)


The doubles final will feature Lucie Hradecka and Sania Mirza, who upset top seeds Caroline Dolehide and Zhang Shuai, and 4th seeds Andreja Klepac and Magda Linette, who defeated Vivian Heisen and Xu Yifan.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Singles semifinals set in Charleston

Ons Jabeur (photo by Daniel Ward)
The top three seeds are out at the Credit One Charleston Open, leaving 4th seed Ons Jabeur as the highest seed remaining. Jabeur defeated Anhelina Kalinina 6-3, 6-2 this evening; what makes that notable is that the scoreline in Jabeur's other two matches (she had a bye in the first round) was 6-3, 6-2. The 10th seed's next opponent will be 15th seed Amanda Anisimova, who defeated lucky loser Coco Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2.

In the other semifinal, 10th seed Belinda Bencic, who upset 2nd seed Paula Badosa in an exciting quarterfinal played earlier today, will face Ekaterina Alexandrova. Alexandrova defeated Magda Linette 6-0, 6-2 in their quarterfinal match.

Linette played two three-set matches (one, a thriller) almost back-to-back yesterday, so one has to assume that she wasn't exactly fresh for her quarterfinal. Alexandrandova talked about this after this match:

"...it's always tough to play against her, but I also knew that she played yesterday like two three-set matches, and I think she finished like super late, and for her it would be extremely tough to play today. I knew that, but still, I was trying to play every single point, because I know, like you don't know when, but she can start to play like just amazingly and it will be super tough.

"The first set was quite easy for me, and I think somewhere like in the middle of the second set I started having some kind of issue. There was like a few mistakes, and she started to play much better than she played in the first set. And I knew I needed to finish it as fast as I can because I know like longer playing the better she will play."

Bencic is 2-2 against Alexandrova. The only time they played on clay, Alexandrova won. Jabeur and Anisimova have never played one another.

Bencic upsets 2nd seed Badosa to reach the Charleston Open semifnals

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)
Eight years ago, 17-year-old Belinda Bencic and Jana Cepelova played an absolutely riveting semifinal in Charleston. Bencic had gone through qualifying and had therefore already played six matches, and Cepelova had sustained a leg injury, and also had a sore shoulder. None of that appeared to trouble them, though (the operative word being "appeared"--who can really know?), as she and Cepelova went after each other for two hours and 33 minutes.

It was a memorable match--one of the most thrilling I've ever seen in Charleston--which I covered in detail here. There were constant momentum swings, Cepelova fell down and scraped her knee, and had to have medical attention, and the tension was consistently high. Bencic saved a match point, but was ultimately defeated, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6.

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)

This year, the Swiss star, seeded 10th, returns to the semifinals following her upset of 2nd seed Paula Badosa in a very high-quality match that last for two hours and 47 minutes. The wind, though not unusually strong, was nevertheless a factor, which made play even more tense. Badosa took the first set 6-2, but Bencic came back strong in the second set, eventually taking a commanding lead (7-2) in a tiebreak. And while the quality of play remained high in the third set, Bencic's combination of taking the ball at lightning speed off the ground and also repeatedly showing off her deft touch allowed her to overcome her opponent 2-6, 7-6, 6-4.

After the match, I talked with Belinda about that first semifinal in 2014, and she said that she remembered it well because she was so heartbroken when she lost. "I remember I lost and I just went to the clubhouse, and they had cookies, and I just took a cookie and put Nutella on it and just ate the cookie. That's what we do when we lose."

(I had to remind her that she was only 17 at the time.)

Paula Badosa (photo by Daniel Ward)

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Anisimova knocks out top seed in Charleston

Amanda Anisimova (photo by Daniel Ward)

It wasn't exactly a surprise. 15th seed Amanda Anisimova was 2-0 against Aryna Sabalenka before the Credit One Charleston Open began, having beaten the world number 5 at both the French Open and the Australian Open. Today, Anisimova defeated top seed Sabalenka 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, to advance to the quarterfinals. In that round, she'll face countrywoman Coco Vandeweghe, a lucky loser who upset 5th seed Jessie Pegula today.

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)
10th seed Belinda Bencic defeated 9th seed (and 2019 champion) Madison Keys 6-4, 6-4,  and Anhelina Kalinina upset 12th seed Alizé Cornet 7-6, 7-5. So far, Kalinina has defeated Cornet, 5th seed Elena Rybakina and Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

An intense final game of a three-set match was contested by 7th seed Leylah Fernandez and Magda Linette in the last match of the second round, which could not be played yesterday because of rain. In that game, which lasted seventeen minutes, Linette--serving at 5-4--saved four break points, and won the match on her seventh match point.  

She didn't have much time to celebrate or to rest, though, because she had to return to the court later and play Kaia Kanepi, whom she also defeated, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.

4th seed Ons Jabeur had to finish her second round match, which was interrupted by rain yesterday. She defeated Emma Navarro 6-3, 6-2. This evening, Jabeur was on court again, this time to play her third round match against Irina-Camelia Begu, whom she defeated 6-3, 6-2.

Paula Badosa (photo by Daniel Ward)
2nd seed Paula Badosa faced a tough opponent in Claire Liu, who won the first set, and was two points away from winning the match during four occasions during the second set tiebreak. Badosa defeated her 3-6, 7-6, 6-1.

Finally, Ekaterina Alexandrova upset 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-1.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Amanda Anisimova (15) vs. Coco Vandeweghe (LL)

Ons Jabeur (4) vs. Anhelina Kalinina

Magda Linette vs. Ekaterina Alexandrova

Belinda Bencic (10) vs. Paula Badosa (2)

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Alizé Cornet on tennis, writing, honesty, independence, and more

photo by Daniel Ward

I spent a little time with the Credit One Charleston Open's twelfth seed Alizé Cornet today, and we talked about tennis and writing and what those things have to do with how we live our lives. The veteran French player is the author of Sans Compromis, translated last year into English with the title, Transcendence: Diary of a Tennis Addict. I wondered what caused Cornet to write a memoir/diary, and she said that "I just thought it was time to put on paper some things that I had on my mind—to talk a little bit more about what’s happening behind the scenes….

"I always liked the exercise of writing, it was something very natural for me, and one morning, I just thought that I could write a book. And I started without knowing really where I was going, but I wrote it really fast. In about four months, it was done."

Cornet said that didn't know why she chose that particular time of her life to write the book; it's obvious, however, that she was in a state of flow while writing it. 

"It’s more like a diary," she said, "because it was really putting on paper my thoughts, and putting a knee on the ground, showing people my vulnerability and my weaknesses, why maybe sometimes I was behaving this way on the court…and I’m just trying to explain why. …It’s very honest. Writing this book, my first goal was to be as honest as possible, and even though sometimes, it was a little bit ugly, that was okay, because we all have a dark side…."

photo by Daniel Ward
"I decided to translate at the very last moment; I didn’t want to at the beginning," Cornet explained when I asked her if she was pleased with the English translation of the book. She was afraid, naturally, that a translation would rob the manuscript of some of its meaning. But she had a friend translate it, and "He kept the soul of the book in English."

I asked Cornet to name one or two things that she had learned from being a professional tennis player. She thought for a moment, then came up with two significant qualities--resilience and independence.

About resilience, she said: "This is something I’m also applying in my private life."

And in discussing independence, Cornet said that "It’s a very lonely world, and it teaches you how to be alone with yourself. And in the tennis life, you need to be alone, and to feel good alone. On the court, you’re also alone, making decisions."

Responding to a question about whether there is anything that she wishes she could change in her past, she quickly said, "I wouldn’t change anything because everything I did in the past makes me who I am." She elaborated that, of course, there are things that she (like all of us) could have done differently, but she made it clear that she is at peace with the person that she has become. "I’m very proud of my career, and very proud that I never gave up."

I wondered what Cornet would have done if she hadn't become a professional tennis player, and she smiled and said that it now seems pretty obvious--"maybe a writer." She plans to continue as an author once she retires from pro tennis, but she added: "I would like to be a Fed Cup captain, eventually, you know, just to stay in the tennis world and being able to help younger women and younger tennis players—that’s something that really drives me."

Next month, Cornet's first novel, La Valse Des Jours, will be published. Her first piece of fiction was inspired, she explained, by her mother's childhood. Set in the Sixties and Seventies, the story centers around a grandmother, aunt and mother--"their lives and what they've been through."

As of now, the plan is to publish the novel in French, but I'm sure that many of us in the English-speaking world hope that another translation will be in the works before too long.

Pliskova escapes trouble, Rybakina is upset, and the weather proves to be not too tough an opponent

Karolina Pliskova (photo by Daniel Ward)
Karolina Pliskova had to fight hard today to hold on to her place in the Credit One Charleston Open draw. Katarina Zavatska took the first set off of the 3rd seed, and led 5-3 in the second set. The players had to stop play at 3-2 in the second set yesterday because of rain, which only added to the drama. It took her two hours and 48 minutes, but Pliskova was able to end the match with a 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 victory. The Czech star missed the first two months of the season because of a right hand injury. For her part, Zavatska, who is from Ukraine, was out for six months because of a forearm injury.

Fifth seed Elena Rybanika was upset today by another Ukrainian player, Anhelina Kalinina, who defeated Rybanika 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. 

Madison Keys (photo by Daniel Ward)

Aryna Sabalenka (photo by Daniel Ward)

Top seed (and wild card) Aryna Sabalenka defeated Alison Riske 7-6, 6-4, 2nd seed Paula Badosa defeated Anna Bondar 6-1, 6-4, 6th seed Jessica Pegula defeated Jasmine Paolini, 9th seed Madison Keys defeated Ulrikke Eikeri 6-3, 6-1, and 10th seed Belinda Bencic defeated Linda Fruhvirtova 6-1, 7-6. Other seeds who won were Alize Cornet (12), Ajla Tomljanovic (14), and Amanda Anisimova (15). Lucky loser Coco Vandeweghe also won her match, Claire Liu upset 16th seed Zhang Shuai, and Kaia Kanepi won her match this evening.

Alize Cornet (photo by Daniel Ward)

Ekaterina Alexandrova advanced to the next round when her opponent, Zheng Qinwen, had to retire in the third set.

After the rain delay, things went well--until we were under a tornado warning. But--in keeping with a very fortunate Charleston tennis tradition--that warning turned into a watch, and the severe thunderstorm warning loomed over us, but nothing bad happened. After a break, late afternoon matches resumed.

Paula Badosa (photo by Daniel Ward)

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Day 2 in Charleston: an upset, a thrilling match, foreboding weather, and a first-rate photo bomb

Zheng Qinwen (photo by Daniel Ward)
On the second day of the Credit One Charleston Open, 2016 champion Sloane Stephens lost her first-round match to Zheng Qinwen, who--in defeating Stephens 6-3, 4-6, 6-0--earned the first top 50 win of her career. It briefly rained during the match, so the players had to deal with a 30-minute delay.

Earlier, 10th seed Belinda Bencic had to resort to using every shot she could think of in order to hold off Wang Xiyu, who threw everything she had at the Swiss star--and then some. In fact, Wang came within two points of upsetting Bencic, who--after almost two and a half hours--ended the match with a 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 victory. Both players served well, and both put on a show of athleticism and shot-making that thrilled the crowd. 

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)
Bencic's next opponent will be Czech teen star Linda Fruhvirtova.

Also winning today was Emma Navarro, who advanced when Madison Brengle retired at 0-3 in the third round. Also winning today were Alison Riske, Yulia Putintseva, Coco Vandeweghe, Lauren Davis, Magda Linette (who saved a match point), and Hailey Baptiste. 

Wang Xiyu (photo by Daniel Ward)

After her match, Baptiste did an interview with Pam Shriver in which she named a list of shots (almost all of them), and said that she wants to play like a man because men are better at making these shots.

Though there was little rain today, the night matches were canceled because of impending bad weather.

And--news from yesterday: Defending champion Veronika Kudermetova had to withdraw from the tournament because of illness, and Petra Kvitova had to retire in her opening round because of a left thigh injury. Also, Alize Cornet won her opening match, as did Amanda Anisimova. 

Finally, Emma Navarro had a press conference after her match today, and--while she had several worthy things to say--Major Tom was having none of it:

photo by Diane Elayne Dees

Monday, April 4, 2022

When the Minister speaks, we listen

clockwise from top: Jabeur, Keys, Badosa, Fernandez (photos by Daniel Ward)

Ons Jabeur, who is seeded fourth at the Credit One Charleston Open, joined other top players in a round table talk today with the media, and informed us that, in Tunisia, she's known as the "Minister of Happiness." So widespread is her fame that Tunisia's prime minister refers to her as " the Minister." 

The Minister of Happiness spread some of her joy today, talking with us about wanting to overcome her usual routine at a tournament. “I’m not a great tourist,” she said. “I come here every year and do nothing.” She does have a plan, though: She has always wanted to see the spots where The Notebook was filmed. “I have to make a deal with you guys—if I win the tournament, then I take the trophy and make the photos there.”

Sounds like a plan.

Jabeur, like all the other players at today's round table, talked about the difficulty of focusing on tennis during a pandemic, and at a time when there are major world crises. She also echoed something that several other players said: "Tennis is not the most important thing in the world."

Asked if she had a strategy for playing doubles with Aryna Sabalenka (the two paired spontaneously right before the tournament because Jabeur's scheduled partner could not play), the Tunisian star was quick to respond, "I hope she doesn't hit me with the ball."

2019 champion Madison Keys was candid about her struggles last year. "Tennis felt so insignificant," she said, and added that "it still feels that way sometimes." But, she said, she keeps in mind that entertainment for fans is important, and also--playing tennis is her job. 

Keys said that "just knowing how bad everything felt last year, and how overwhelmed I got" has helped her to commit to not letting herself feel that way again. She also talked about her goals, and said that--in the past--some of them were too outcome-specific, so now she thinks only about what she can control. This idea would also be expressed by several of the other players.

Someone reminded Keys about the time that she wore some virtual goggles and was able to "see" the new stadium. She said that when she arrived in Charleston and came out of the elevator, she wondered why everything looked so familiar--and then she realized that it wasn't the first time that she had seen her surroundings.

clockwise from top: Pliskova, Peguula, Bencic, Stephens (photos by Daniel Ward)

Belinda Bencic was especially philosophical. She told us that "You have to accept that--all the things that are happening--it's for a reason, and it's only going to do you good." 

Bencic also pointed out something that makes this tournament special--that the Charleston crowd goes all out to support women's tennis.

Asked if she had had the opportunity to respond to the question, "how did you do at the Olympics?" Bencic said that she had an opportunity almost immediately after her victory. She was boarding her flight out of Tokyo, and the crew noticed her Olympic bag, and asked how things had gone for her. And then she showed them her gold medal.

Jessica Pegula (who once lived in Mount Pleasant) talked a little about her job as a member of the Players' Council, and how she's glad that she can contribute to the game that way, to help start conversations about new topics and solutions. She also told us that she loves to play tennis and also enjoys practicing very much. 

Karolina Pliskova revealed that she loves to watch tennis. “Even if I lose in the tournament, I still watch.” Pliskova said that--while she sometimes learns important infornation about players that she hasn't competed against--she primarily watches for fun.

We also heard from Leylah Fernandez, who said what was the most surprising thing that I heard today--that many people had told her that “I’m not gonna make it.” She said that hearing this helped her to grow her own self-belief. (This, of course, nicely pairs with Bencic's statement about acceptance.)

Fernandez talked about the other sports in which she has participated--soccer, baseball, track and field. She said that she liked all of them, but  that it was tennis that won her heart. The U.S. Open finalist said that she can express herself better on a tennis court than anywhere else.

2016 champion Sloane Stephens spoke with us about the pandemic and its effects, reminding us that it wasn't just difficult for the players, but also for the support staffs, and for the WTA. Also, she said, it was easy to enjoy just being at home. Stephens went on to talk about the rhythms of professional tennis--the hot streaks that players get on, and then the difficulty of trying to keep those streaks going.

Her goals for the season? "To win matches and get out of my hotel room."

Paula Badosa had similar thoughts. She said that this was her first time to play in Charleston outside of the bubble, and that she's finally getting to see the city. Charleston has meaning for the Spanish player because it was here that she defeated former world number 1 Ash Barty. 

Quite a lot changed for Badosa after that, and she went from being number 70 in the world to number 3 in the world in a relatively brief period of time. That brought pressure, she said, but "It's the kind of pressure I like."

How does it feel, she was asked, to see that number 3 after your name? Badosa quickly responded, "To be honest, I wanted number 2."

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Ash Barty leaves at the top of her game

World number 1 Ashleigh Barty, at 25 years of age, has retired from professional tennis. Her announcement this week was—on the one hand—a bit of a shock, but—on the other hand—totally in line with the way that Barty lives her life.

When I first saw Ash Barty playing doubles on the tour, I thought that she was on her way to becoming a huge doubles star. Indeed, the Australian would go on to win twelve doubles titles, including one major—the 2018 U.S. Open (with Coco Vandeweghe); she would also be part of the runner-up team in five other majors.

But Barty had singles on her mind, and—while she continued to play doubles—her focus switched to her singles performance. But it wasn’t a conventional transition; in 2014, after playing for just a few years on the tour, Barty announced that she taking an indefinite leave. She was eighteen at the time, and said that she didn’t like traveling all the time, and missing out on experiencing a more normal teenage life.

It was startling to hear an adolescent display this much autonomy, especially in a field in which you can be a star one day and a “didn’t she used to be top 20?” the next. But Ash Barty did what she thought was the healthy thing to do. And she did it with style, becoming a member of the Women’s Big Bash League’s Brisbane Heat cricket team, which led to her eventually entering the league’s top 20.

Two years later, she quit cricket and returned to tennis. Barty won fifteen singles titles, including the 2019 French Open, the 2021 Wimbledon tournament, and the 2022 Australian Open. She also won the WTA Finals in 2018, and was a member of the Australian Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) team for five years.

During the most intense period of the Covid pandemic, Barty took the year off and played golf—and won a tournament. When she won Wimbledon the next year, I wrote this:

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. 

We await the sequel.

The sequel was pretty good. Barty not only went on to win the Australian Open, she also ended three straight seasons as number 1 in the world in singles, which is a rare feat. The Australian star is only the second WTA player to retire while she still holds the number 1 ranking (Justine Henin was the other one). 

In announcing her retirement, Barty said: “I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want, and  kind of everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the level anymore….I am spent. Physically, I have nothing more to give….I’ve given everything I can to this beautiful sport of tennis.”

And that is such an Ash Barty statement—candid and to the point, and minus the flourishes and TV-speak that characterizes so much of what celebrities (and many others) say. 

I don’t especially like the idea that athletes are automatically considered to be “role  models,” but—in many cases—they are. And for little girls and teen girls, there could be no better role model than a woman who always does what she knows is best for her, no matter how “different” it may appear to others, and no matter what others think about it, or what others expect her to do. Girls are still conditioned to do what’s best for others, often at their own expense.

There’s also a lot to emulate in Barty’s level-headed approach to life, calm demeanor, gracious sportswomanship, and vocal respect for everyone on her team. 

It’s always sad when a beloved player leaves the tour, and Ash Barty will be sorely missed. We were so fortunate to have her on the tour. As she said when she explained why she decided to announce her retirement via an interview with dear friend and former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua: “There’s no right way, there’s no wrong way—it’s just my way.”

Her way has served Barty quite well so far, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. In the meantime, we are all lucky to have been guests at the glorious Barty Party.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The WTA--wonderfully unpredictable

There are fans who complain that there is no "big" rivalry on the WTA tour. There are fans who complain that there is no one big, consistent champion on the tour. To each her own, but neither of those things bothers me; in fact, I rather like everything just the way it is. This is a tour with great depth, and depth brings unpredictability. 

It's the same on the LPGA tour. Occasionally, a consistent champion will arise, but most of the time, there are various elite players who win tournaments, including the majors. 

This year is likely to be a shiny mirror of the tour's current depth. World number 1 Ash Barty won her home major in Australia, which was thrilling, and Barty is likely to be a threat at all the majors. But the start of the 2022 season shows us that there are threats (not just at majors, but at all tournaments) popping up in all corners. For example, there is no bigger story right now than the rise of Anett Kontaveit. I'm happy to say that I was expecting big things of the Estonian for years, and she finally found a way to rise to those expectations.

Kontaveit, playing a more aggressive game than in the past--and with an improved serve-- announced herself as a top player in 2021, and she recently won her sixth WTA title. She is now number 5 in the world.

Then there's the resurgence of Alona Ostapenko, which also began in 2021, but has strengthened since the current season began. She recently won Dubai, while demonstrating the ferocious form that earned her the 2017 French Open title. But Ostapenko (who is still having trouble with her serve) has also learned to use a bit of finesse, which may be a result of her successful doubles career.

Bring in Iga Swiatek, who has never had the "typical" post-first major title letdown. After winning the 2020 French Open, Swiatek just kept rolling, reaching at least the fourth round of every major in 2021, and the semifinals of the 2022 Australian Open. Swiatek, who is ranked number 4 in the world, recently won the Doha tournament.

Also in the mix is Paula Badosa, the defending Indian Wells champion. The Spaniard, with her big serve and explosive style, reached the semifinals of the 2021 WTA Finals, and is already ranked number 6 in the world. 

We've also seen a steady resurgence, since 2021, from two-time major champion and world number 9 Garbine Muguruza. World number 2 Barbora Krejcikova remains a threat to all opponents, and both Maria Sakkari (number 7 in the world) and Ons Jabeur (number 10) are continuing to rise in both skill and confidence. Toss in Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Pliskova and Danielle Collins, and you have a recipe for "anything can happen."

It doesn't end there, of course. It's logical to expect Simona Halep to return to form; she always does. Madison Keys is another player who has been playing more to form lately, and it will be interesting to see what Elina Svitolina has to offer this season. It will also be a pleasure to keep our eyes on the 2021 U.S. Open surprise finalists--Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. 

There are others, of course, who could break through in various ways--too many to list here. The point is that we are likely to have some new champions, and to also have some surprises. What's not to like?

Sunday, January 30, 2022

My Australian Open top 10

 Here are my top 10 Australian Open highlights, in ascending order:

10. Crazy from the heat: This year, as in usually the case, there were days in Melbourne when the heat was beyond brutal, but the players had to go on. Both Simona Halep and Alize Cornet were suffering in their round of 16 match; Halep, especially, looked as though she might drop from the heat. 

But it was Barbora Krejcikova who was ultimately overcome by it. She played her quarterfinal match against Madison Keys through to the end, but she looked very weak and in pain. A commentator suggested that if she done some training in the heat instead of staying in the Czech Republic in the off-season, she might have done better. That's possible, but also, some bodies just do not adapt to extreme heat, no matter what.

9. Where Is Your Brain?: Human (and non-human) rights are not "political," in my opinion. The Australian Open, however, decided that some of them were political. The tournament's organizers put together a Pride Day for LGBTQ fans and players, but forced fans in Where Is Peng Shuai? shirts to remove them. That makes about as much sense as--well, as the way they handled the Novak Djokovic nonsense (crazy from the heat, maybe?). Public protest was successful, and--in the end--Where Is Peng Shuai? shirts were sold at the event.

8. A match point to remember: Every once in a while, someone hits a match point so spectacular, we have to keep looking at it. In Melbourne, Iga Swiatek hit one of those.

7. Diede the (really) Great: She did it again--Diede de Groot swept both titles at the Australian Open. Her 2022 dominance gives her four singles titles and three doubles titles in Australia. She and partner Aniek Van Koot (whom she defeated in the singles final) won the doubles title when they defeated Yui Kamiji and Lucy Shuker in the final. 

6. Mladenovic and Anybody--still a winning team: Kiki Mladenovic and Ivan Dodig won the mixed doubles title; they were seeded 5th. This is Mladenovic's third mixed doubles title; she also has five major women's doubles finals.

5. Not your typical tennis legend: Kaia Kanepi is one of those grand stage players (others include Tsvetana Pironkova, Sorana Cirstea and the now-retired Ekaterina Makarova) who comes to life during majors and takes on giant-killing status, even though we may not see much from her in other tournaments. 

While she was in Melbourne, Kanepi achieved a unique milestone: She became the only player ever to reach the quarterfinals of all four majors while unseeded. Kanepi had already twice reached the quarterfinals of the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Someone on Twitter suggested that we call this the Kanepi Slam, and I'm all for it. (Pironkova, by the way, is missing only the Australian Open on her path to achieving the Kanepi Slam. It would be easy to dismiss her, but after a three-year absence, she returned to the tour in 2020 and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and anything is possible with the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery.)

4. Allez!: It's a pleasure to finally include Alize Cornet in a top 10 list. Those who read this blog know that I consider her the biggest under-achiever on the tour, and one of the biggest under-achievers ever. That's the sad part. The joyful part is that--on her sixty-third try--Cornet finally made the quarterfinals of a major. She defeated qualifier Victoriya Tomova, 3rd seed Garbine Muguruza, 29th seed Tamara Zidansek, and 14th seed Simona Halep. She lost her quarterfinal match to 27th seed Danielle Collins, but it was one hell of a run.

3. Getting so close: And speaking of Collins, She made it all the way to the final, taking out the likes of Clara Tauson, Elise Mertens and 7th seed Iga Swiatek along the way. Collins reached the semifinals in 2019. Already diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, last spring, she had surgery for endometriosis, then won her first two WTA titles. Collins is the first NCAA singles champion (she won the title twice) to reach the final of a major. The U.S. player was up 5-1 in her second set against Ash Barty, but then saw her first serve--and ultimately, the match--disappear. 

I have a feeling that this won't happen a second time. Off the court, Collins is a feminist spokeswoman, and the tour desperately needs more of those (I no longer count the obligatory "I wouldn't be here without the Original 9" statement as meaningful.)

2. You can't have a list without Czechs: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova won their fourth major when they defeated Anna Danilina and Beatriz Haddad Maia in the doubles final. Match point featured Krejcikova yelling at her partner to let her have the ball, which Krejcikova then lobbed expertly at her opponent's feet. What a way to seal the match! The top seeds won a gold medal at the last Olympic Games, and Krejcikova has won three major titles (all in Australia) in mixed doubles. And--in a nod to how the stars used to do it--Krejcikova is now also an elite singles player.

1. Barty party all the time: It had been 44 years since an Australian had won the Australian Open, but world number 1 Ash Barty took care of that gap by winning the 2022 championship. Barty didn't drop a set throughout the tournament, and she was broken only three times--two of those breaks occurred in the final, in which she played Danielle Collins. Barty is a complete player--she can serve, she can move, and she can think. The Aussie star has now won a major on every surface, and achieving a Career Slam cannot be far behind. 

And if ever anyone did it her own way, Ashleigh Barty did. From veering away from her doubles success, to leaving the tour for a couple of years to play another sport, to playing what is unfortunately called a "throwback" style of tennis--the world number 1 followed her own needs and instincts, and the results are stunning.