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.