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.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Oi! Oi! Oi!

Last night, in Rod Laver Arena, top seed Ash Barty became the first Australian to win the Australian Open in 44 years. She did it by defeating "surprise" (some of us don't agree with that assessment) finalist Danielle Collins. It was a very good match that had the potential to be great, but Collins--despite her fighting spirit and resolve--was overcome by the occasion when she most needed to be cool and deadly.

Barty dominated Collins, who didn't play badly, in the first set. Collins had a break opportunity early in the set, but couldn't convert it, and then she double-faulted with a break point against her, and went down 2-4. Barty took that set 6-3.

The second set was a different story--until it wasn't. Collins came out with her aggression already dialed to the next level, and broke Barty in the second game, on her second break point. She was almost broken back, but managed to hold for 3-0. It looked like the collegiate star from the USA was on her way to flipping the script of the match. Indeed, in the sixth game, she broke Barty again and went up 5-1.

And then, everything went wrong for Collins. On the brink of winning the set, she could not get a first serve in. Barty broke Collins when she served for the set, then held, then broke Collins when she served for the set a second time. At this point, the crowd was getting out of control, and people were yelling during a point, which threw Collins off even more. 

The set went to a tiebreak (Collins was a bit more relaxed when she didn't have to serve for the set), but the world number 1 ran away with it, going up 4-0 right away, and eventually winning it 7-2.

There was a lot to like (other than the crowd's interference) about this final. In a quirky turn of events, Collins' bracelet flew off of her wrist and she asked to have it found. I don't know if this was one of Collins' own bracelets--she designs (rather nice) jewelry. It was also interesting to watch Collins handle Barty's backhand slice, which is her signature shot. Unlike a lot of other players, Collins was often able to attack the shot with aggression by positioning herself low enough to manipulate the ball.

Prior to the final, Barty had been broken only once, by Amanda Anisimova. Collins broke her twice, which says a lot, because the Australian star's serve has become a thing to behold. Her serve speed is more than adequate, and the ease of her placement is impressive. 

Barty makes the whole thing look so easy, like an experienced chef who does elaborate prep, times everything just right, then adds her own instinctive creativity to the dish. An athlete's athlete, Barty can hit, move and think--all at once, and all extremely well.

The trophy ceremony was special because the great Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Barty's mentor, presented the trophies. Both speeches were touching. Collins, as always, went into detail thanking all of the staff and volunteers who had helped her throughout the tournament, and giving a special shout-out to the physios, who, she implied, made it possible for her to continue after some early physical problems.

(It's worth noting, by the way, that Collins is the first NCAA singles champion--she won that title twice--to reach the final of a major.)

Barty said that winning the Open was a "dream come true," and that she was proud to be an Australian. 

In 2021, after Ash Barty won Wimbledon, I wrote this:

A doubles star who leaves tennis behind for two and a half 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.

The Barty story continues to fascinate. The new Australian Open champion has now won a major on every surface, and a Career Slam is looming. I remember watching her in her early days of playing doubles and thinking that she was one of the best doubles players I had ever seen. Now she's number 1 in the world in singles and--at age 25--has won three majors. Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Top seed Ash Barty to face Danielle Collins in Australian Open final

Yesterday's semifinals proved my prediction of a few days ago (that thrilling early rounds often mean dull later rounds) correct--at least, so far. I do hope that my "success" in predicting doesn't extend to the final. But in the semifinals, both matches were completed quickly. T

Top seed Ash Barty needed just over an hour to defeat Madison Keys--who had put on a brilliant run--6-1, 6-3. And Danielle Collins needed under and hour and 20 minutes to dispatch of Iga Swiatek, whose serve has let her down throughout this tournament. Swiatek had gotten herself out of trouble in previous matches with a combination of guile and persistence, but that didn't work against the relentless Collins.

Barty has won the French Open and Wimbledon, and there's no doubt that she would love to win the major in her home country (or, as British and Australian male commentators love to tell us--all the time--she's "desperate" to win the title). Collins reached the semifinals in 2019, before her life was interrupted by illness and surgery. But she's back strong this year, dictating play and bossing opponents around. Of course, Ash Barty isn't that easy to boss. She has yet to drop a set, and she's been broken only once.

Here are the opponents' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Lesia Tsurenko
round 2--def. Lucia Bronzetti
round 3--def. Camila Giorgi (30)
round of 16--def. Amanda Anisimova
quarterfinals--def. Jessie Pegula (21)
semifinals--def. Madison Keys

round 1--def. Caroline Dolehide
round 2--def. Ana Konjuh
round 3--def. Clara Tauson
round of 16--def. Elise Mertens (19)
quarterfinals--def. Alize Cornet
semifinals--def. Iga Swiatek (7)

Meanwhile, we have our doubles finalists. Top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova defeated 3rd seeds Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens to advance to the final. Their opponents will be Anna Danilina and Beatriz Haddad Maia, who upset 2nd seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Semifinals set in Australian Open singles play

Top seed Ash Barty, who has been broken only once and has yet to drop a set, easily advanced to the semifinals on day 9 of the Australian Open when she defeated Jessica Pegula 6-2, 6-0. Also that day, Madison Keys defeated Barbora Krejcikova 6-3, 6-2 in a match that I expected to go three sets. It didn't, presumably because Krejcikova (like others before her) became ill from the intense heat and had trouble doing just about everything.

A commentator made the point that the Czech star, instead of doing some advance training in a very hot climate, chose to remain in the Czech Republic to be with her family and friends, and she paid for it when she was overcome by the heat. I think that this is probably true--but only to a certain extent. There are some human bodies (I know--I have one of them and I live in an intensely hot summer climate) that just can't handle that kind of heat.

This isn't to take anything away from Keys, who has been on fire since she set foot in Melbourne. But it would have been nice to have seen both players in top form.

Yesterday, Danielle Collins advances to the semifinals (for the second time) when she defeated Alize Cornet in straight sets. Cornet made the first set quite competitive, but the second set was all Collins. Cornet, who had made it to the quarterfinals for the first time in 63 tries, said after the match:

"I have eternal respect for the Grand Slam winner because it's such a long way. My God, I have the feeling I'm playing this tournament for a year. I'm so exhausted mentally, physically. When you go all the way and win these freaking seven matches, it's just huge."

And then there was Iga Swiatek, who had to deal with famed giant-killer Kaia Kanepi, who has put on quite a show in Melbourne. Kanepi took the first set 6-4, and Swiatek had to use every trick she had to squeak out a victory in a second set tiebreak. The 2020 French Open champion settled down a bit after that, and committed only two double faults, giving her a total of twelve for the match. The Polish star won the third set 6-3 and advanced to the semifinals, but it took her three hours to do it. And her match point was one of the best I've seen in a while.

Kanepi received huge applause when she left the court. It was deserved. the Estonian player, who is 36 years old, is the only player in history to reach the quarterfinals of every major while being unseeded. Even the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery has yet to achieve that distinction, though--when she returned to the tour in 2020 after a lengthy injury (and then pregnancy) leave--she reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. That gives her three major quarterfinals as an unseeded player, so stay tuned.

Here is the semifinal draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Madison Keys
Danielle Collins (27) vs. Iga Swiatek (7)

De Groot and Van Koot win Australian Open wheelchair doubles title

Diede de Groot (aka Diede the Great) and Aniek Van Koot won their seventh major title as a team yesterday when they defeated Kgothatso Montjane and Lucy Shuker in the wheelchair doubles final at the Australian Open. The teams were seeded 1 and 2, respectively. This is the second Australian Open title for De Groot and Van Koot, who hold the Grand Slam (2019).

The singles title will be determined today when De Groot and Van Koot, the top seeds, compete. 

The women's doubles semifinal draw features all three top seeds and one unseeded team. Number 1 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova will play 3rd seeds Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens, and 2nd seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara will compete against Anna Danilina and Beatriz Haddad Maia.

In mixed doubles, the title will feature Australian wild cards Jaimee Fourlis and Jason Kubler, who will compete against 5th seeds Kiki Mladenovic and Ivan Dodig. Mladenovic won the Australian title in 2014 with Daniel Nestor (and Mladenovic and Anybody remains a formidable team).

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The return of a champion

Though most eyes are on the singles draw, there's a lot more going on at the Australian Open--doubles, mixed doubles, juniors, wheelchair tennis, and legends. And one of the bigger stories, in my opinion, involves the quiet return of a retired player, Jiske Griffioen.

Former wheelchair number 1 singles player Griffioen retired in 2017, stating that she just wasn't up to competing anymore and wanted to transition to having a role in sports media. However, the Dutch star returned to competition last year. In Melbourne, Grififoen lost her quarterfinal match to Kgothatso Montjane, and she and partner Zhu ZhenZhen lost their semifinal match to the 2nd seeds. But it's nice to see her competing again. We've seen several former singles champions return, so this isn't a complete surprise.

Griffoen held the number 1 singles spot for 106 weeks. She is a two-time gold medal winner in the Paralympic Games, and a seven-time Masters doubles champion, and she won the Masters singles championship in 2012. Griffioen has won four majors (including two Australian Open titles) in singles, and fourteen (including five Australian Open titles) in doubles.

Meanwhile, top seed Diede De Groot will compete against 2nd seed Aniek Van Koot for the singles championship. De Groot and Van Koot, who are the top seeds in doubles, will play the doubles final against 2nd seeds Yui Kamiji and Lucy Shuker. Kamiji, who was seeded second in singles, was upset by Van Koot in the quarterfinals.

Monday, January 24, 2022


Last night, at the end of the second set of the match contested by Simona Halep and Alize Cornet, I was so tired and sleepy that I decided, sadly, that I had to turn off the TV and go to bed. But once I was in bed, I realized that I couldn't miss the third set, so I pulled up the ESPN app on my iPad and tuned in to the match. When I began watching, both players were resting and icing down during a changeover, and the commentator was saying something about one of the players (I think it was Halep). "...that she's already got it," the commentator said.

Closed captioning is the default selection on the ESPN app, and there--in big white letters--right over Cornet's body, was "THAT SHE IS ALREADY GOD." A moment later, "SHE IS ALREADY GOD" appeared over the veteran Frenchwoman as she drank water and applied ice to her neck. 

This was the greatest reward for staying awake that I could have asked for. 

The tennis was pretty good, too! That last set was as tense as one would expect it to be. Both players had suffered from the heat throughout, though it was Halep who frequently appeared to be on the edge of falling down. But they carried on, and the excitement mounted as Halep saved two match points. It looked as though the two-time major champion was about to turn things around, but that wasn't to be; Cornet won on her third match point, achieving a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory.

What happened after that was the stuff of video heaven. Cornet, who--in 63 tries--had never before reached the quarterfinal of a major, was overcome with emotion (not unusual for her, I know). She spoke with great admiration of her opponent, a former world number 1. And then she did the on-court interview with Jelena Dokic, and both interviewer and interviewee were in tears. 

Dokic reminded Cornet of that time, in 2009, when Cornet held a match point against Dinara Safina in the Australian Open round of 16. Had the Frenchwoman won, she would have played Dokic in the quarterfinals, but Safina saved that match point and went on to defeat Cornet. 

"Oh my god, yeah," Cornet said. "I wanted to play against you so bad. I was so disappointed. I loved your game and I was so excited about playing a quarterfinal against you and I couldn’t, and it was really painful. Now thirteen years later, you’re here, I’m still here, on the court.” Cornet went on to comment on Dokic's career transition: "I want to tell you something. How you moved on in your life, I think we can all congratulate you. You were an amazing player and now you’re an amazing commentator.”

This brought former world number 3 Dokic to tears, and the two women embraced. This scene would have been touching under any circumstance, but it was especially so in light of the fact that Dokic has undergone numerous challenges for years, including recently. The Australian great has long been a voice for all (and especially women) who have been abused and have undergone emotional turmoil. I only hope she knows how admired and respected she is by so many of us.

A couple of days ago, I wrote that I consider Cornet to be the greatest underachiever on the tour (and maybe ever). The first time I saw her play, she was doing that Suzanne Lenglen leap, and I was enthralled. I admire her lovely game, and wish that she could have had the competitive consistency she needed to go with it. But, as Cornet herself said to Dokic: "It's never too late to try again."

Everyone's favorite dramatic Frenchwoman will play Danielle Collins--who isn't exactly shy when it comes to drama--in the quarterfinals. And even if Cornet loses, she has achieved a remarkable career milestone.  

And--she is already God.

Meanwhile, two veteran giant-killers had an opportunity to reach the quarterfinals, and one of them lived to kill again. Sorana Cirstea became the first player to take a set off of Iga Swiatek, but Swiatek prevailed in three sets. And then there was Kaia Kanepi, and if she seems like she's been around forever--well, she kind of has. The 36-year-old Estonian with the cannonball groundstrokes outlasted 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka in a tense three-setter in which Sabalenka saved four match points.

The third set went to a tiebreak, and both players seemed a bit confused by the rules--at the Australian Open, a tiebreak goes to ten points instead of the usual seven. When Kanepi reached 9-7, she thought she had won the match, but she had to switch gears and win more more point.

Danielle Collins outlasted Elise Mertens in three sets which took almost three hours to play. And, in play from the day before, Madison Keys rather easily (this was the biggest surprise of the tournament for me) defeated Paula Badosa, 6-3, 6-1. Badosa was clearly exhausted by the time she reached the round of 16, and the fact that Keys has clearly been on a mission since she arrived in Melbourne didn't help.  

Also, in the first batch of round of 16 matches, Barbora Krejcikova defeated a somewhat lackluster Vika Azarenka in straight sets, and top seed Ash Barty claimed a straight-set victory over Amanda Anisimova. And then there was Jessica Pegula, who took out 5th seed Maria Sakkari, also in straight sets.

There are three U.S.A. players in the quarterfinals, yet the quarterfinal draw has a distinct French flavor. Three of the competitors--Barty, Krejcikova and Swiatek--are former French Open champions, and Cornet, of course, is French. Here is the draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Jessica Pegula (21)
Barbora Krejcikova (4) vs. Madison Keys
Danielle Collins (27) vs. Alize Cornet
Iga Swiatek (7) vs. Kaia Kanepi

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Australian Open third round hints at thrills to come

Sometimes, in a major, really good early rounds somehow give way to less than exciting semifinals and finals. One hopes that this phenomenon is coincidental and not somehow causal, because--if the latter is the case--we're in for some really dull final matches.

There were some real thrillers played in the first week, as well as some major upsets. Gone are:

3rd seed Garbine Muguruza (2nd round)
6th seed Anett Kontaveit (2nd round)
defending champion Naomi Osaka (3rd round)
2020 champion Sofia Kenin (1st round)
2016 champion Angie Kerber (1st round)
Coco Gauff (1st round)
2019 runner-up Petra Kvitova (1st round)
2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu (2nd round)
Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic (2nd round)
Elina Svitolina (3rd round)
Clara Tauson (3rd round)

The third round was the thrill round, with several matches (unfortunately, often shown at the same time) showcasing great skill and athleticism from both opponents. Danielle Collins was down a set and a break against Clara Tauson, but fought her way to a three-set victory in a tense and exciting match. Barbora Krejcikova came back from a set down against an in-form (at least, for a set and a half) Alona Ostapenko to claim a hard-won victory.

Tamnara Zidansek had to battle both an injury and an opponent in the third set of her match against Alize Cornet. Cornet prevailed, but if the injury hadn't occurred, this match would have been even more exciting. Then there was Amanda Anisimova, who is definitely back on the upswing, and her victory over defending champion Osaka. Anisimova did it in the riskiest, most tension-filled way possible--in a third set tiebreak. 

But perhaps none was as thrilling as the the match played between two close friends--Marta Kostyuk and Paula Badosa, who are also two of the most talented young players on the tour today. Watching them, I couldn't help but think that some day--maybe sooner than we think--we'll see these two in a big final. Their athleticism alone is stunning, and they both have polished skills, good movement, and they can read the court well. Badosa prevailed, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4.

Of all the upsets, the one that surprised me the most was Kontaveit's, though losing to the up-and-coming, progressively dangerous Clara Tauson is nothing shameful at all.

One of the key stories so far is the resurgence of two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, who has reached the round of 16. I was disappointed, however, to hear Azarenka apologize for her former "bad attitude." It was that bad(ass) attitude that helped make her the champion that she is, and it also helped to promote the oh-so-shocking idea that women can be competitive and aggressive. But then, isn't it just like a woman to apologize for being herself?

Another good story belongs to Alize Cornet, who had not reached the round of 16 in Melbourne since 2009, and then--as she did this year--she achieved the milestone on her birthday. Cornet upset Muguruza in the second round, and--in an act which probably surprised even her biggest fans--she backed that up with her defeat of Zidansek. I consider the very talented Frenchwoman to be the biggest underachiever on the tour, and--sadly--one of the biggest pro tennis underachievers ever.

What's next? Here is the round of 16 singles draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Amanda Anisimova
Jessica Pegula (21) vs. Maria Sakkari (5)
Barbora Krejcikova (4) vs. Victoria Azarenka (24)
Madison Keys vs. Paula Badosa (8)
Danielle Collins (27) vs. Elise Mertens (19)
Simona Halep (4) vs. Alize Cornet
Iga Swiatek (7) vs. Sorana Cirstea
Kaia Kanepi vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)