Friday, December 15, 2023

The holiday sing-along is back!--Part 2

The Little Drummer Girl—Iga’s Version

Come, they told me
Pa rum pum pum pum
To a city by the sea
Pa rum pum pum pum
There are no tennis courts
Pa rum pum pum pum
But they have water sports
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum

The fans will love you
Pa rum pum pum pum
When you come

The wind will knock you down
Pa rum pum pum
Be careful you don’t drown
Pa rum pum pum pum
They’ll be no practice days
Pa rum pum pum pum
But your photo shoot will slay
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum

Shall I play for you?
Pa rum pum pum pum
From across the world I flew
Pa rum pum pum pum
The balls bounce crazy here
Pa rum pum pum pum
I might fall down, I fear
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum rum pum pum
Rum rum pum pum

Then I played for you
Pa rum pum pum pum
Coco and Ons played, too
Pa rum pum pum pum
Though my frustration grew
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for you
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum

The fans stayed dry at home
Pa rum pum pum pum
It wasn’t much fun.

Wasn’t much fun…..

Part 1--Mexico


Covid Wonderland
O Little Land of Serbia
Good Coach Annacone
Walkin' Around the Practice Courts
Allaster is Coming to Town
The Twelve Days of Christmas

Sunday, December 10, 2023

The holiday sing-along is back!--Part 1

photo by Daniel Ward


Oh, the weather outside is frightening
There’s wind and rain and lightning
But since we’ve no other place to go
Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!

It doesn’t show signs of quitting
And there are no courts for hitting
Attendance will be very low
Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!

When we finally get some courts
We still can’t go out in the storm
It’s still coming down in quarts
And it’s anything but warm

Now the courts are slowly drying
And all of us are trying
But progress is really slow
Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!

photo by Daniel Ward


Covid Wonderland
O Little Land of Serbia
Good Coach Annacone
Walkin' Around the Practice Courts
Allaster is Coming to Town
The Twelve Days of Christmas

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

My 2023 top 10

This year was so eventful (in every possible way) that I could have easily compiled a top 20 list--and I almost did. Iga Swiatek lost her number 1 ranking to Aryna Sabalenka, then won it back. The WTA Finals were a near-disaster, taking place during hurricane season in a stadium that was still under construction when the players arrived. And Barbora Krejciova and Katerina Siniakova broke up their very long doubles partnership--at least for 2024, the Olympics notwithstanding.

Barbora Strycova, who had already played her final singles match, played the last doubles match of her career with long-time partner Hsieh Su-wei, and won the Wimbledon title. And Australia's Storm Hunter became the number 1 doubles player in the world.

All of the above items could be considered "11."

The season was filled with disappointments, and the biggest one, for me, was Daniela Hantuchova's pronouncement that WTA players should just accept things the way they are and stop trying to get more prize money. Actually, "disappointed" doesn't begin to describe what I felt (and still feel) when Hantuchova made this sexist and inane statement.

Here, in ascending order, are my 2023 top 10 happenings:

10. But of course she did: In March, Petra Kivitova did something that I seriously doubt anyone was expecting--she won the Miami Open. And she had a very tough draw--The Czech star defeated Linda Noskova (with a second set bagel), Donna Vekic, Varvara Gracheva, Ekaterina Alexandrova, Sorana Cirstea, and Elena Rybakina. Kvitova dropped only one set (to Alexandrova) during her Miami run.

9. All the wheels on fire: In 2023, the great Esther Vergeer was finally inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Vergeer's record as an athlete is mind-boggling, and unlike that of any other athlete, ever. 

Also in 2023, Diede de Groot won her third consecutive singles Grand Slam and her sixth consecutive masters championship. (She won't be eligible to win a fourth consecutive Grand Slam because the Paralympic Games will coincide with the US. Open--more stupid scheduling.) Diede the Great's mentor is none other than Esther Vergeer.

8. Putting the "back!" in "comeback": Elina Svitolina has been a very busy woman the last few years. She got married, had a baby, had to deal with some health issues, and worked tirelessly for the Ukrainian cause. After taking a year off, the former top 5 player returned to the tour in the spring of 2023 with a new, less defense-oriented game, and she had a Wimbledon run that was unforgettable. 

During the course of that run, wild card Svitolina knocked out five-time champion Venus Williams, Elise Mertens, Sofia Kenin, Victoria Azarenka, and world number 1 Iga Swiatek. She was finally stopped by eventual champion Marketa Vondrousova, but Svitolina's mastery of the grass courts was a highlight of the season.

7. Czech treasure: Two players whom I could watch over and over are Bianca Andreescu (when she's "on") and Karolina Muchova, and--don't you know--those are the two players who are so cursed with injury that we don't even get to see them that much. However, the clever and gracefully athletic Muchova was healthy for the French Open, and she put on one of the greatest shows of the season.

Muchova began her Parisian campaign by defeating 8th seed Maria Sakkari, and went on to defeat the likes of WTA upstart Elina Avanesyan, 2021 finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka. She lost the final to top seed and defending champion Iga Swiatek, but not before taking Swiatek to three sets. Muchova was a joy to watch throughout the tournament. She would go on to have a semifinal run at the U.S. Open, and to qualify for the WtA Finals, from which she had to withdraw because of--all together now--injury.

6. They the North!: For the first time in history, Canada won the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly known as Fed Cup). Led by an absolutely on-fire Leylah Fernandez, the Canadian team defeated Italy in the final. Fernandez had some expert assistance from Gabriela Dabrowski and also from newcomer Marina Stakusic, who defeated Italy's Martina Trevisan in straight sets in the opening rubber. 

5. Business as usual: There are those who are convinced that she's innocent, and those who are convinced that she must be guilty; the doping case of Simona Halep is complex and somewhat confusing. But regardless, the treatment of Halep by those in power leaves much to be desired. There is simply no excuse for the constant delays that the Romanian star has had to endure in the course of having her case processed. 

But this is what we have come to expect from the organizations that oversee doping rules. In the case of Maria Sharapova (which, in some ways, was similar to Halep's), the head of WADA made a public statement that was outrageously discriminatory against Sharapova. Such a statement would have cost him his job in any other venue, and that would have been the end of the case, but there was no pushback at all. There are other examples of the doping system's failure to act fairly and consistently, and someone needs to take a serious look at that system. In the meantime, Sinona Halep has to wait--and wait.

4. Meeting her potential: No one ever doubted the talent of Aryna Sabalenka, but the Belarusian star has had her ups and downs, especially concerning her errant serve. However, she began the 2023 season in the best way possible--by winning the Australian Open. Sabalenka took out Elise Mertens, Belinda Bencic, Donna Vekic, Magda Linnette, and 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. Sabalenka would go on to be the finalist at the 2023 U.S. Open.

3. It was only a matter of time: The question, "When will Coco Gauff win a major?" was answered this year when Gauff won the U.S. Open. Gauff, seeded 6th, knocked out Laura Siegemund, young star Mirra Andreeva, Elise Mertens, Caroline Wozniacki, Alona Ostapenko, Karolina Muchova, and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka.

2. A French trilogy: In  2020, an unseeded Iga Swiatek stunned the tennis world by winning the French Open without dropping a set. In 2022, Swiatek won in Paris again, and this year, she did it for a third time. The world number 1 handed out four bagels in the course of the tournament, and she didn't drop a set until she had to face an on-fire Karolina Muchova in the final. Swiatek would go on to win the WTA Finals and end the year as the number 1 player in the world.

1. Destroying Wimbledon tradition: Anyone who reads this blog knows how pleased I am any time a Wimbledon tradition is broken or eliminated. This year, a very long-standing tradition was broken when the first unseeded woman in history won the tournament. And it was a Czech--of course. Marketa Vondrousova--who had to watch the event from the stands last year because she was recovering from surgery for a wrist injury (second injury, second surgery)--had to do some heavy lifting in London, and she did it with style. The 2019 French Open finalist and Olympic silver medalist defeated Peyton Stearns, Veronika Kudermetova, Donna Vekic, Marie Bouzkova, 4th seed Jessica Pegula, the very on-fire wild card, Elina Svitolina, and 2022 finalist Ons Jabeur.

Monday, November 6, 2023

She's the WTA Finals champion! She's number 1!..... She's Iga Swiatek, of course

Last year, when, at the last minute, the WTA--which is sponsored by a company that "focuses primarily on improving women’s health and well-being"--moved the WTA Finals from Shenzhen to a state whose leaders are dedicated to letting women die, get maimed, or suffer permanent disability, I was beyond disappointed. But, as a friend of mine likes to say, it can always get worse.

Back when we used to learn how to think in school, we were all taught the logical fallacies. It seems clear that they are no longer taught--spend five minutes on X or watch a session of Congress--so the concept of either-or thinking may be new to a lot of people. Either-or thinking is a logical fallacy in which a person is presented with only two choices, when--in fact--there may be many choices available.

A good example would be "You can play the Finals in Saudi Arabia, or you can play them somewhere where there's no stadium." I exaggerate. To be fair, Ostrava--according to a former member of the WTA Players' Council--was the original alternative to Saudi Arabia, but the Council selected Cancun, where there was no stadium. Why, one wonders, was the selection again made at the last minute?

When the players (sadly, minus Karolina Muchova, who still can't catch a break) arrived in Cancun, they couldn't practice--because the courts were not available. The stadium was still under construction, so the competitors had to just wait (or maybe some of them went all Badosa in the hotel--I don't know). Then there was the rain--a lot of it--to add insult to injury. And then there was the wind, which was fierce. The players complained, and--of course--they were told by some to shut up. Business as usual.

Somehow, the Finals did take place, with alternate Maria Sakkari substituting for the again injured Muchova. But the event had to be stretched to nine days because of the rain, with both the singles and doubles finals being played on Monday instead of Sunday. Players had to endure repeated rain delays, but patience wasn't the ony requirement; those who knew how to master the wind had a distinct advantage.

It wasn't all grim. At one point, while the ballgirls were wiping the courts dry, the deejay played "YMCA," and when the chorus came on, the girls dropped their towels so that they could properly dance out "Y-M-C-A!"

Sometimes, the math at the Finals can be confusing, but this year, the two singles finalists blew their way to the final. Jessica Pegula and Iga Swiatek each won all three of her round robin matches, and neither of them dropped a set. Pegula defeated Coco Gauff in the semifinals, and Swiatek--in a brilliant performance--defeated world number 1 Aryna Sabalenka. In addition, Swiatek lost only 20 games en route to the final--the fewest conceded games since the event was established.

There was also brilliance from Pegula, who, arguably, handled the wind better than any of her competitors. Pegula now holds the unique status of being the only woman in WTA history (more precisely, since the rankings system was established, in 1975) to play the four top-ranked women in the world in one event. Numbers 1, 3 and 4? No problem. But number 2 proved to be another matter.

If Swiatek looked deadly against Sabalenka in the semifinals, she looked even more lethal in the final. In just under and hour, the Polish star defeated Pegula 6-1, 6-0. She had first and second serve win percentages of 82 and 69, and the only break point opportunity that she faced--when she served for the match--she saved. It should also be noted that Pegula looked a bit tired--she just wasn't the same player who had stormed through round robin play and the semifinals. She also played three round robin doubles matches, so that was a lot of tennis.

In winning the championship, Swiatek has reclaimed the world number 1 ranking, and the glory that comes with being the year-end number 1.

6th seeds Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva won the doubles title, defeating 8th seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez 6-4, 6-4 in the final. Top seeds Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula lost all three of their round robin matches; 2nd seeds Storm Hunter and Elise Mertens won all three of their round robin matches, as did 7th seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

There is no trophy like redemption

For two consecutive weeks, the WTA Tour has featured the kind of drama we don't get to see that often: Two top players--one stuck in a double slump, and one stuck in something much worse--won big titles, just when they most needed to win them.

2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova started the year in fine fashion. She won the tournament in Dubai, once again serving as Iga Swiatek's kryptonite in the final. But in both singles and doubles (she was an elite doubles player long before her breakout in singles), the Czech star faded away as the season progressed. Krejcikova and long-time partner Katerina Siniakova won both the Australian Open and Indian Wells, and it was fair to think that they were on track to win the Grand Slam that had just eluded them in 2022 when they had to miss the French Open because Krejcikova was ill. 

But they stopped winning, and they made early exits in the remaining majors. This dramatic fall in both singles and doubles was mysterious and somewhat disturbing. But no worries--Krejcikova showed up on the hard courts of San Diego and took home both of the trophies. She defeated Beatriz Haddad Maia, Danielle Collins and Sofia Kenin, and she and Siniakova won their third title of the season.

This past week, the beautiful Guadalajara tournament, a 1000 event, became somewhat controversial when several top players withdrew. The tournament was moved to a post-U.S. Open, pre-Asian swing slot, and those top players made it clear that this change was undesirable. But it was nevertheless an excellent tournament, and it featured memorable performances from Martina Trevisan and Caroline Dolehide.

And not all of the tour's top players stayed home--Ons Jabeur, Maria Sakkari, Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys, and Alona Ostapenko were all there, as were Vika Azarenka and Sofia Kenin. Sakkari, the 2022 runner-up, has rock star status in Guadalajara--the crowd adores her. And she probably really needed them this year. The Greek player last won a tournament in 2019, and since then, she had lost six finals. Add to that the fact that she reached the third round at this year's Australian Open, and went out in the first round at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

But in her beloved Guadaljara, Maria Sakkari prevailed, defeating the likes of Camila Giorgi, Caroline Garcia and breakout star Dolehide. 

At one point during her emotional trophy acceptance speech, Sakkari had to pause because the crowed was screaming "Maria! Maria! Maria!" so loudly. And while the Sak bun deserves to be on display as much as possible, it had to feel good to be able to conceal it under a flashy sombrero as a mariachi band played its beautiful, spirited music for the new champion.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

My U.S. Open top 10

Here are my top 10 U.S. Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. California, here she comes: Unseeded Katherine Hui, an 18-year-old from the U.S., won the junior girls title, defeating 9th seed Tereza Valentova of the Czech Republic in the final. Hui is on her way to Stanford, where she's sure to get an enthusiastic welcome from the tennis team. The 8th-seeded Romanian team of Mara Gae and Anastasia Gureva won the doubles title, defeating Sara Saito and Nanaka Sato of Japan.

9. At least the players were good: I'm not going to go so far as to say that the U.S. Open crowd is now ruder than the French Open crowd, but it has certainly reached the French level. It never used to be that way, and it's really discouraging to hear cheering over double faults, yelling during points, and the constant "calling" of lines. As for the commentary--well, ESPN remains even worse than Tennis Channel; some things never change.

8. The predictable and the unpredictable: First there was the heat, which brought back memories of days at the Australian Open, when players were given IV fluids on the court, and were sometimes removed in wheelchairs. This situation isn't going to improve, so more attention will need to be paid to protecting the players. 

Then there was the issue of having the women use the heavier tennis balls. Some of the players had been asking to use these balls, and the WTA did have reservations about it, but this year, they were introduced in the women's game. There needs to be more discussion about this issue, and I'm sure there will be, but Marketa Vondrousova has already stated that she believes that the balls caused the elbow injury that resulted in her withdrawal from doubles competition. (This was especially unfortunate because her partner was Barbora Strycova, playing in her final tournament.)

And of course, there was the matter of the environmental protesters that showed up during the semifinals and disrupted play. Three of them were easily escorted off of the grounds, but they fourth had glued his feet to the stadium floor, and play was interrupted for 49 minutes.

7. A bittersweet observance: 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open's providing equal pay to women and men, so there was an on-court celebration which honored both the anniversary and WTA trailblazer Billie Jean King. Michelle Obama delivered a down-to-earth and inspired speech, and it was all very nice, and yes, all the majors now (finally) pay players equally, but.....there are only four majors a year. The rest of the season, the pay disparity is offensive. And while players like to honor BJK and thank her, what would be really useful would be for them to emulate her and the Original Nine. The sad truth is that equality must always be fought for, not just talked about at ceremonies.

6. Rolling to number 20: Diede de Groot won her sixth U.S. Open singles title, her 20th singles major, and her third consecutive Grand Slam (not a "Calendar Grand Slam") in New York. It's enough to make your head spin. She wasn't able to win her sixth U.S. Open doubles title because her partner, Jiske Griffioen (they were the top seeds), had to retire during her singles semifinal match and was unable to play. The 2nd seeds, Yui Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane, got a walkover, and thereby won the title.

5. Consistency? Czech. Brilliant shot-making? Czech.: Her shoulder was generously taped, and she also sustained an elbow injury, but Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova nevertheless backed up her London victory (as the only unseeded player to ever win Wimbledon) with a U.S. Open run to the quarterfinals. She was stopped by a very in-form Madison Keys, but being in the final eight was an emphatic follow-up statement.

French Open finalist Karolina Muchova did one better and made it all the way to the semifinals. Coco Gauff stopped Muchova's run, but it was a beautiful run to watch, and the third set of that semifinal--thanks to both players-- was just thrilling. A (finally) healthy Karolina Muchova's game is a thing to behold.

4. Storm damage: As if there weren't enough disruptive things already going on at the U.S. Open, Tropical Storm Alona blew in right about the time that defending champion and world number 1 Iga Swiatek was set to play her round of 16 match. Ostapenko, the only player on the tour who was undefeated (3-0) against Swiatek, defeated her yet again, not only knocking her out of the tournament, but also knocking her off of the top of the rankings, and assuring that Aryna Sabalenka would become the number 1 player in the world. 

After wreaking her havoc, Tropical Storm Alona dissipated (with some help from Coco Gauff, in the quarterfinals), as storms do (and as this one frequently does).  

3. What did you say your name was?: Anna Danilina and Harri Heliovaara had never met when they found themselves in the referee's office, hoping that they could somehow enter the mixed doubles competition. The pair--she, from Kazakhstan--he, from Finland--decided to take a chance on each other, and what a decision that turned out to be! Danilina and Heliovaara won the mixed doubles title, and--to make their victory even more dramatic--they defeated top seeds Jessica Pegula and Austin Krajicek in the final. As a bonus, they were both utterly charming during the trophy ceremony.

2. When it pays to take a chance: Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe played together for the first time in Montreal this year, and now, just a few weeks later, they've won the U.S. Open. The pair defeated 2020 champions Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva 7-6, 6-3 (that first set tiebreak was riveting). During the trophy ceremony, each woman thanked the other for taking a chance on her. This is Dabrowski's first major title in women's doubles--she has two mixed doubles titles. And this is not only Routliffe's first major title--it's the first time that a woman from New Zealand has ever won a major title of any kind.

1. Holding a racket or holding a mic, Coco gets it done: She won DC, then she won Cincinnati, but instead of being tired, Coco Gauff was simply fired up by the time she reached New York. In fact, she was speeding around the court like a woman on a mission, which is exactly what she was. Defending beautifully, displaying an upgraded forehand, and solving problems like a boss, Gauff got the better of tough opponents like Caroline Wozniacki, Alona Ostapenko, Karolina Muchova, and Aryna Sabalenka. And when she won the U.S. Open, she used the microphone not only to show gratitude and graciousness, but also to "have a word" with those who have had low expectations of her.

At just 19 years old, Gauff has the poise--both on and off the court--of a champion. She was last year's French Open runner-up in both singles and doubles, so it shouldn't have surprised anyone that she took it a step farther and, this time, got the big trophy. We can only look forward to what our new champion will achieve next.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

From prodigy to major champion--Coco Gauff makes the journey in style

Today, 19-year-old Coco Gauff became the 2023 U.S. Open champion, defeating soon-to-be number 1 in the world Aryna Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. It was an exciting final, and featured an opening set in which Sabalenka--always a formidable opponent--looked as if she could do no wrong. The Belarusian star overpowered Gauff (which isn't that easy to do) and broke her three times.

The second set was a different story, which shouldn't have surprised anyone. Gauff saved a couple of break points to start the set, then broke her opponent. As the set progressed, Gauff's defensive skills became the perfect foil to the very power that had caused the 6th seed problems in the first set. She was relentless, and won the set to set up some real third set drama.

But the only thing truly dramatic about the final set--other than the ferocity of Gauff's sometimes-unstable forehand--was the degree to which Sabalenka continued to make errors. The ball just kept coming back to her, eventually forcing her to hit an error. In all, Sabalenka hit 19 winners, but made 46 unforced errors.

In her post-match speech, the new champion said the usual things--she thanked her family and her team, thanked the tournament staff, thanks the fans, and gave touching praise to her opponent. But---in the tradition of Italy's Sara Errani--she also thanked her detractors. It is sometimes hard to believe that so much poise and thoughtful speech is coming from a 19-year-old, but this isn't just any 19-year-old--it's Coco Gauff.

Not long before she competed in the U.S. Open, Gauff won the 500 tournament in Washington, DC, and the 100 event in Cincinnati, presumably making her the hottest prospect coming into the Open. But winning warmup tournaments often doesn't translate to winning an upcoming major. In Gauff's case, however, those victories were just a taste of what was to come. 

Aryna Sabalenka's consolation prize isn't a bad one--on Monday, she becomes the number 1 player in the world. Her new ranking was clinched when current world number 1 Iga Swiatek lost to Alona Ostapenko in the round of 16. Swiatek has held the number 1 ranking for 75 consecutive weeks, the longest that a first-time number 1 has ever held it.

Friday, September 8, 2023

U.S. Open semifinals--a drama in two acts

In the last couple of days, the U.S. Open has been a bit overwhelming, but not always in a good way. The extreme heat brought back memories of days at the Australian Open when players had to get IV fluids and the old Rebound Ace surface caused the rubber to melt on the wheelchairs. And there was the issue of the first semifinal, which was interrupted for 49 minutes as three environmenal activists were escorted out of the stadium while officials had to deal with a fourth one who had glued his feet to the stadium floor.

Then there was the tennis. 

In Thursday night's first semifinal, Coco Gauff easily dominated Karolina Muchova, whose usual very good serve wasn't there, and who also wasn't bringing her usual shot-making magic. It looked like a case of nerves, yet I did have that niggling feeling that it might also be physical. Muchova had quite a bit of tape on her body, but then, if I were she, I would, too.

Down 1-5, the world number 10 seemed to suddenly "wake up," and proceeded to win three straight games. But Gauff took that set 6-4. She led 1-0 in the second set when play had to be stopped because of a lot of yelling in the stands that turned out to be environmental protesters. As stated above, play was delayed for over three-quarters of an hour while those in charge extricated a protester who was glued to the floor. (You can't make this stuff up.)

During a portion of this "break," Muchova had a medical consultation. When the players returned to the court, they both held serve until Gauff broke Muchova to go up 5-3. But when the world number 6 served for the match and held a match point at 40-30, Muchova--looking totally like herself (i.e., gracefully making what look like impossible shots)--broke her. At 5-all, the match contained all the tension that it lacked earlier. 

Muchova would go on to save five more match points in the final segment of the match, which was as thrilling as anyone could imagine, and which had the crowd in awe of the players. 

In the end, though, Gauff simply would not be denied. Having had just about everything thrown at her that can be thrown at an opponent in a tennis match--including at the net and over her head--she remained steady. Near the end, there was a 40-shot rally that fans will be talking about for some time to come. Gauff then ended the whole thing on her sixth match point. Her 6-4, 7-5 victory puts her into the second major final of her career.

And while we might have thought that the second semifinal would be comparatively "normal," we would have been fooled. In that match, Madison Keys, who has been playing at an extremely high level in New York, walked onto the court and proceeded to do what some might consider a magic trick--she bageled the soon-to-be number 1 Aryna Sabalenka. Keys, who hit twelve winners and made only three unforced errors in the set, was totally dominant over a player who is not easily dominated.

Sabalenka--never one to hide her emotions--became increasingly frustrated and angry. And then an image of Dr. David Banner popped into my mind: "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." 

That image proved to be an accurate metaphor. After emphatically losing her first set of the tournament, Sabalenka fought back. Keys went up 5-3 in the second set, but was broken. She then went up 5-4, but her attempt to win the match was destroyed by a series of errors, including a double fault. Sabalenka was able to take the set to ta tiebreak, which she won, 7-1. 

Keys broke to go up 4-2 in the third set, but Sabalenka broke her back. That set also wound up in a tiebreak, which Sabalenka won 10-5. (At the U.S. Open, a 10-point final set tiebreak is played. I see no need for this, and Sabalenka wasn't the first player to think that she'd won the match after she "won" a seven-point tiebreak). 

For what it's worth, the Belarusian star is only the third woman in the Open Era to win a major semifinal after losing the first set 0-6. The others were Steffi Graf (French Open) and Ana Ivanovic (Australian Open).

Sabalenka is 2-3 against Gauff, and 1-2 against her on hard courts.

Paths to the final:

round 1--def. Laura Siegemund
round 2--def. Mirra Andreeva
round 3--def. Elise Mertens (32)
round of 16--def. Caroline Wozniacki
quarterfinals--def. Alona Ostapenko (20)
seminfinals--def. Karolina Muchova (10)

round 1--def. Maryna Zenevska
round 2--def. Jodie Burrage
round 3--def. Clara Burel
round of 16--def. Daria Kasatkina (13)
quarterfinals--def. Zheng Qinwen (23)
semfinals--def. Madison Keys (17)

In other news, defending wheelchair champion Diede de Groot has now won 120 consecutive matches. If that sounds impressive--and it is--bear in mind that her mentor, Esther Vergeer, won 470 consecutive matches.

Some miscellaneous notes about this past week:

The WTA finally announced a location for the 2023 WTA Finals; the event will be held in Cancun, Mexico. Tomas Petera, negotiating for the Czech Republic's bid to have the finals held in Prague, had a lot to say.

Some advice: If you have no context whatsoever, and even less knowledge of the tour, please refrain from accusing a player of bigotry, and please refrain from automatically believing those with no context and even less knowledge.

And finally--but not at all surprisingly--an ESPN commentator, i.e., someone who is paid very well to say words, told us that she has a hard time with pronunciation; it just isn't her thing, Well, okay.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

We have our semifinalists!

In today's first U.S. Open semifinal, 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka took control early, winning the first set against Zheng Qinwen 6-0. Sabalenka served about as well as one could serve, and--while Zheng managed to make the match more competitive in the secone set, she never saw a break opportunity. Sabalenka defeated her 6-0, 6-3. Zheng has been quite impressive at this tournament, but there wasn't a lot that she could do against an in-form Sabalenka.

Aryna Sabalenka, by the way, has now reached the semifinals of all four majors this year.

In the last quarterfinal to be played, Madison Keys began business just the same as those in the quarterfinals before her did, getting a 6-1 first set against Marketa Vondrousova. In the second set, Vondrousova was able to be more competitive, but failed to convert nine break opportunities, The Wimbledon champion still had her shoulder taped and was presumably still dealing with an elbow issue, though she didn't appear to be especially hampered in her movement.

Vondrousova saved two match points, but Keys prevailed, 6-1, 6-4. Vondrousova's failure to convert any break points was somewhat mystifying.

Keys last reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2017, when she defeated Coco Vandeweghe in straight sets. She would go on to lose the final to Sloane Stephens, who defeated her 6-3, 6-0.

(And I'll take this opportunity to say that I think that Madi looks great in her stylish and colorful kit.)

Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Coco Gauff (6) vs. Karolina Muchova (10)
Madison Keys (17) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

And here is the doubles semifinal draw:

Gaby Dabrowski/Erin Routliffe (16) vs. Hsieh Su-wei/Wang Xinyu (8)
Laura Siegemund/Vera Zvonareva (12) vs. Jen Brady/Luisa Stefani

Gauff and Muchova drop just six games as they advance to the U.S. Open semifinals

Coco Gauff is a talented player with a strategy-minded coach, and--while I don't know what her specific game plan was for yesterday's quarterfinal match--I know what it might as well have been: Ostapenko dismantled the world number 1 in the last match, so--no worries! Because, with rare exceptions (and yes, there was a big one in 2017), Ostapenko is the queen of inconsistency. She is brilliant in one match, and easily destructs in the next. To be fair, Gauff gave Ostapenko plenty to handle today, but hitting 12 winners and making 36 unforced errors says it all. Gauff defeated the errant Latvian 6-1, 6-2 in just and hour and eight minutes. (Also, to be fair, Ostapenko said that she had been told that she would play a night match, which certainly would have been more beneficial to her since she wasn't able to go to bed until 5 a.m. on Monday morning.)

In Tuesday's other quarterfinal, French Open finalist Karolina Muchova faced off against Sorana Cirstea. Muchova not only put on her usual style clinic, she also put on a clinic in shot selection and accuracy. Muchova didn't allow Cirstea any games in the first set, and--while the Romanian player raised her level in the second set--she was defeated 6-0, 6-3. Muchova had a 70/60 first and second serve percentage stat, was successful at the net in 76% of her attempts, and hit 32 winners while making just 15 unforced errors.

Both Muchova and Czech countrywoman Marketa Vondrousova have had so many problems with injuries--in Muchova's case, she was told by doctors that she might now ever play tennis again--that the second half of 2023 feels like a long-delayed showcase of their considerable style and talent. Wimbledon champion Vondrousova will play her quarterfinal match tonight.

In doubles, the team of Jen Brady and Luisa Stefani has reached the semifinals, as has the team of Gaby Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe. In mixed doubles, top seeds Jess Pegula and Austin Krajicek have reached the quarterfinals, as have Ena Shibahara and Mate Pavic.

And in wheelchair singes, defending champion Diede de Groot won her opening match, defeating Pauline Deroulede.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Bandaged and wounded, Vondrousova prevails at the U.S. Open

Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova had to withdraw from doubles (a sad affair, since this was her partner Barbora Strycova's final event) because of an elbow injury. The Czech star stated that she thinks that the heavier ball was the cause. She also showed up for her singles round of 16 match with Kinesio tape all over her left shoulder, and--before too long--it was obvious that she was somewhat hampered by pain.

Vondrousova's opponent, Peyton Stearns, hit the ground running, and took the first set 7-6. Things didn't look that good for Vondrousova, but right about the time that one would have expected the anti-inflammatory med that she took to kick in, there was indeed a noticeable difference. And as Vondrousova pulled herself together, Stearns began to fade, though she continued to put whatever pressure she could on her opponent. But Vondrousova's serving was too good, and she won the match 6-7, 6-3, 6-2. This is the Czech player's first time to advance to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.

Another ailing star, 2022 finalist Ons Jabeur, who has felt ill throughout the tournament, finally ran out of fuel. Jabeur broke her opponent, Zheng Qinwen, when she served for the match, then went on to save three match points, but it wasn't enough. Zheng defeated her 6-2, 6-4.

Meanwhile, 3rd seed Jessica Pegula, the U.S.'s top ranked player, fell to countrywoman Madison Keys is straight sets. Montreal champion Pegula has never gotten past the quarterfinals of a major, and at this event, she didn't get that far. Keys didn't let her. The 2017 finalist dominated Pegula with her backhand and wound up hitting 21 winners in her 6-1, 6-3 victory.

Finally, soon-to-be world number 1 Aryna Sabalenka faced off against Daria Kasatkina. The Russian star, for all her graceful athleticism and strategic skill, doesn't have the kind of serve that can go far against Sabalenka (Kasatkina didn't even hold serve until the fifth game of the second set) unless Sabalenka is making a whole lot of errors, which--form time to time--she certainly does. But tonight, the 2nd seed was on point most of the time. She defeated Kasatkina 6-1, 6-3, hit 31 winners, and broke her opponent six times.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Alona Ostapenko (20) vs. Coco Gauff (6)
Sorana Cirstea (30) vs. Karolina Muchova (10)
Marketa Vondrousova (9) vs. Madison Keys (17)
Zheng Qinwen (23) vs. 

In other U.S. Open news, top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova went out in the second round. Sadly, this wasn't exactly unexpected; Krejcikova is in the midst of a significant slump in both singles and doubles. And in mixed doubles, top seeds Jess Pegula and partner Austin Krajcek have advanced to the quarterfinals. If they win, they will play Taylor Townsend and Ben Shelton.

Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Barbora Krejcikova has beaten her the last two times they've played each other. Jessica Pegula has beaten her three times, if you count the United Cup. However, both Krejcikova and Pegula have also lost to world number 1 Iga Swiatek; only Alona Ostapenko held a 3-0 record against her prior to their meeting in the roun of 16 at the U.S. Open. 

2017 French Open champion Ostapenko is a planet unto herself. A ballroom dancer-turned tennis star, the player that the Backspinner calls "Latvian Thunder" is known for her hilarious facial expressions, her constant questioning of electronic line calls--and her blistering groundstrokes. During her 2017 French Open campaign, her average stroke speed was clocked at 76 mph. 

Ostapenko goes for it, no matter what. She makes a lot of errors, but she hits a lot of winners. On a good day, she's full-out danger; on a bad day, she's just too error-prone to do anything. The world number 21 has, however, added something to her game that she needed--a really good serve. If she puts that serve together with "good day" Ostapenko tennis, she's practically unbeatable.

Ask Swiatek, who--despite winning the first set of their Sunday match--appeared flummoxed much of the time that she was on the court with the Latvian star. Ostapenko went after Swiaetek's forehand, she took time away from her, and she went on, as ESPN's Chris McKendry said, "one of her tears." She defeated the top seed 3-6, 6-3, 6-1, giving the baker a small (and almost a large) sample of her own famous baked goods.

Later, in press, Ostapenko said: “I think the main thing is she doesn’t really like to play big hitters. She likes to have some time. When I play fast, aggressive and powerful, she’s a little bit in trouble.” That sums it up pretty well.

Of course, this is the Ostapenko Show, so there's more than one thing going on. Because of Swiatek's round of 16 departure--as of next week--Aryna Sabalenka will be the new world number 1. Latvian Thunder indeed.

Also yesterday, 6th seed Coco Gauff had to fight with everything she had against comeback star Caroline Wozniacki (and against the nonstop mouthpiece otherwise known as Brad Gilbert). It paid off. Gauff defeated the former Australian Open champion 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.

Meanwhile, 33-year-old Sorana Cirstea became the oldest player to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open when she defeated Belinda Bencic in straight sets. This is Cirstea's second time to reach a major quarterfinal; she reached the quarterfinal of the 2009 French Open. Cirstea, as I've previously noted, flies under the radar most of the time, but can be deadly at majors.

2023 French Open finalist Karolina Muchova also had a fight on her hands. The new world number 10 (finally!) had to deal with an inpressive Wang Xinyu, but defeated her 6-3, 5-7, 6-1 in what was an enjoyable match to watch. Following the match, Muchova, who plays the guitar, was asked--for some reason--what song she would play if she were to play one right then, and her answer was perfect: "Highway to Hell"

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Four U.S. players reach round of 16 at U.S. Open

The U.S.A.'s top player, 3rd seed Jessica Pegula, is set to compete in the U.S. Open round of 16. Montreal champion Pegula has defeated always-dangerous Camila Giorgi, Patricia Maria Tig, and the resurgent Elina Svitolina. Her next opponent will be friend, countrywoman and 2017 finalist Madison Keys. Keys, seeded 17th, defeated 14th seed Liudmila Samsonova in the third round. 

Undoubtedly a highly anticipated fourth round match will be played by 6th seed Coco Gauff and Caroline Wozniacki, who has come out of retirement and is making quite an impact in New York. Wozniacki has already taken out Petra Kvitova and Jennifer Brady (who also just returned to the tour and who also looks like she never left). 

Finally, Peyton Stearns--who played for the University of Texas and became that state's first NCAA champion in women's tennis--will face Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova.

The third round wasn't without drama. A sick Ons Jabeur played an injured Marie Bouzkova, and--at times--it was painful to watch them struggle. I thought that Bouzkova was going to retire, but she took an anti-inflammatory and was able to carry on. And it took her almost three hours, but perennial giant-killer Sorana Cirstea was at it again--this time taking out 4th seed Elena Rybakina. The 33-year-old Romanian has won only two tournaments, yet--over and over--she has upset the biggest names at majors. 

Top seed and defending champion Iga Swiatek has lost nine games so far, and the scoreline for two of her matches was 6-0, 6-1.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Alona Ostapenko (20)
Caroline Wozniacki vs. Coco Gauff (6)
Sorana Cirstea (30) vs. Belinda Bencic (15)
Karolina Muchova (10) vs. Wang Xinyu
Peyton Stearns vs. Marketa Vondrousova (9)
Madison Keys (17) vs. Jessica Pegula (3)
Ons Jabeur (5) vs. Zheng Qinwen (23)
Daria Kasatkina (13) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Wang's and Zheng's place in the draw marks the first time that two Chinese women have ever advanced to the round of 16 at the U.S. Open.

Monday, August 28, 2023

The less things change, the more they stay the same

Bakers will bake....

Few would argue that New York City is the world capital of bagel consumption, and who is better prepared to participate than world number 1 Iga Swiatek? Swiatek, however, likes to be on the production end of the bagel experience, and her first customer in Flushing Meadows was Rebecca Peterson, whom Swiatek defeated 6-0, 6-1 in just under an hour.

Swiatek wasn't the only one delivering bagels in the opening day of U.S. Open  play. Danielle Collins defeated  Linda Fruhvirtova 6-2, 6-0, Daria Saville defeated Clervie Ngounoue 6-0, 6-2, and Karolina Muchova defeated Storm Hunter 6-4, 6-0.

Grinders will grind....

I can't imagine any player being happy to learn that either Sara Sorribes Tormo or Beatriz Haddad Maia is going to be on the other side of the net. They both display the kind of grit that was the signature of such WTA stars as Arantxa Sanchez and Francesca Schiavone, and Haddad Maia doesn't mind how long she stays on the court; she is--in fact--the queen of three-set matches. 

Today, the Brazilian defeated 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 in just under three hours--in other words, it was a typical Haddad Maia match. After the match, which had some very well-played points, Haddad  Maia said that the key to winning it was " forgive myself when I was doing bad tennis." I like that.

Sorribes Tormo, for her part, defeated Anhilina Kalinina (does anyone on the tour have a better name?) 6-4, 7-5. 

Maria Sakkari will lose in the first round....

World number 8 Maria Sakkari lost in the third round of the Australian Open. That must have been disappointing, but the worst was yet to come. She lost in the first round of the French Open and the first round of Wimbledon. And today, the Greek star lost in the first round of the U.S. Open. Sakkari lost to world number 71 Rebeka Massarova, who defeated her 6-4, 6-4. 

The normally easygoing Sakkari hasn't been "herself" lately, for sure. She called for the banning of Amarissa Toth, which--no matter how you "saw" the incident in Budapest--was ridiculously over the top. Then, in Montreal, she spiked a ball into the crowd. It didn't hit anyone, but Sakkari's opponent, Danielle Collins, wasn't pleased that the chair umpire let the incident go. The ensuing discussion became unpleasant, and Collins--of course--took the brunt of the criticism for telling Sakkari to "shut your mouth." But the chair umpire was indeed derelict in letting the incident go while Sakkari continued to yell "But it didn't hit anyone!"

These things aren't important in and of themselves, but I'm looking at them through a wider lens, and it appears that perhaps all of the "almosts" and "should haves" may have taken their toll on Sakkari. Indeed, she indicated today that she may need to take a break from competition.

Also of note on day one....

4th seed Elena Rybakina--who sustained an injury in the disaster that was Montreal and then had to retire in Cincinnati--looked really good today when she defeated Marta Kostyuk (in her fantastic yellow Wilson dress) 6-2, 6-1. 

Coco Gauff won a contentious match against Laura Siegemund, whom she defeated 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. She will next face 16-year-old Russian phenom Mirra Andreeva.

French vereran AlizΓ© Cornet quietly made an exit, defeated 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 by famous lucky loser Elina Avanesyan.

Jen Brady won her first U.S. Open match since 2020; the comeback continues.

Also making a comeback is Ajla Tomljanovic, who has struggled on and off for with a knee injury for some time. She will play Rybakina in the next round.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Swiatek leads contenders, but there's fierce competition to win the U.S. Open

Six months ago, I would have said that the three women most likely to win the U.S. Open were Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejicova and Aryna Sabalenka, with the first two being more likely. Despite winning the French Open in 2021, hard courts appear to be the Czech star's best surface, and--serving as Swiatek's kryptonite on that surface--her confidence kept growing.

But something has happened to Krejcikova in both singles and doubles, and as I write this, the slump continues. Whatever it is, I hope she gets it straightened out soon. However--short of a very fast cure--Krejcikova is no longer a serious U.S. Open contender.

Wbo is? 

Well, the defending champion, of course. Though more players are figuring out ways to beat the world number 1, she's still extremely likely to successfully defend her title. 

Two other players are also big contenders, but there are caveats. Elena Rybakina's chances are excellent--if she's healthy, following the debacle that was Montreal; Rybakina's retirement in Cincinnati may turn out to be her saving grace. Then there's reigning Australian Open champion Sabalenka, who has recently shown those old tendencies to let her head get the better of her in big matches.

Last year's runner-up, Ons Jabeur. Jabeur was the runner-up at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and this year, she was the runner-up at Wimbledon again. Jabeur is a wonderful competitor, but all this coming in second must surely be taking some kind of toll on her. Nevertheless, she's a contender, and this could very well be the event at which she finally gets the big trophy.

Also high on the list are U.S. players Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff. Gauff just won in both Washington, DC and Cincinnati (her first 1000 event victory). Her new coach, Brad Gilbert, says that they haven't had time yet to work on Gauff's errant forehand, but winning DC and Cincinnati was a statement in itself. The 19-year old has indeed arrived, and she should be a major threat in New York. She may have to be: She's theoretically drawn to meet Swiatek in the quarterfinals, and if that match occurs, she'll have to call on whatever got her past the world number 1 in the Cincinnati semifinals.

Pegula won Montreal, and while winning a pre-major tournament doesn't really mean that much statistically, the victory was undoubtedly a boost to her confidence. Pegula doesn't have an enviable first round--she plays perennial giant-killer Camila Giorgi.

Finally, the physically vulnerable Karolina Muchova--if she stays healthy (and oh, how I hope she does)--belongs in this circle of U.S. Open contenders.

But who else could cause big trouble? My first pick is Jen Brady. Yes, she's just coming back from a two-year injury hiatus, but her game looks great; it's almost as though she never left. Brady has that easy, fluid power that makes her a hard court threat. Another potential trouble-maker is Liudmila Samsonova, whose long-examined potential has recently blossomed on U.S. hard courts.

Certainly, Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova could put the hurt on someone with a high seed, and--if the planets so align themselves--Alona Ostapenko can be quite dangerous. Given her splendid performance at Wimbledon, Elina Svitolina now looks like a serious threat, and former finalists Madison Keys and Karolina Pliskova are not to be ignored.

There have been a lot of injuries in the last several weeks. Rybakina sustained an injury in Montreal and, as stated, had to retire in Cincinnati. Paula Badosa's back injury returned (stress fracture), Venus Williams recently sustained a knee injury, and Belinda Bencic rolled her ankle in Montreal. 

This year's U.S. Open poster honors Billie Jean King and the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open's decision to give equal prize money to men and women. Had it not been for King, we have no way of knowing when--if ever--the U.S. Open would have done so.

September will also mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes, which I have always opposed, and which I wish hadn't happened. The event fed right into the false belief that men's and women's tennis (and sports, in general) are the same, and that therefore men--who are stronger and usually faster--are "better" tennis players and "better" athletes. Margaret Court had already made the mistake of playing Bobby Riggs and had lost to him, which took nothing away from Margaret Court as an athlete, but--instead of challenging the sexism of believing that male players are "better"--there was a rush to play another match so that Riggs could be defeated.

Having said that, I do recommend the film, Battle of the Sexes, not because of its enactment of the event, but because of the acting, which is superb, and because it gives viewers a very good look at the ugliness of sexism in sports, which hasn't really changed that much since 1973. In Billie Jean King's wonderful memoir, All In, she describes how acting in the film changed Emma Stone forever. Playing the role of BJK (and putting on several pounds of muscle) empowered Stone to believe in herself on a new level and to become a feminist activist in the film industry.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

My Wimbledon top 10

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

10. Who'll Stop the Rain?: It rained and rained, and then it rained some more, and all kinds of matches got backed up. Then there was the wind, which caused the roof to be closed for the women's final. Every tournament has a bit of rain, but this was excessive.

9. Keep Off the Grass: Three players--Venus Williams, Karolina Muchova (of course) and AlizΓ© Cornet--slipped and fell on the grass. Williams hurt her knee, Muchova injured her hip, an Cornet twisted her knee. Both Paula Badosa (who has a history of back problems) and Beatriz Haddad Maia sustained back injuries. Barbora Krejcikova sustained an ankle injury, and Veronika Kudermetova sustained a hip injury. That's a lot of injury, and a lot of suffering for some of the best players on the tour.

8. But What a Streak It Was: Alina Korneeva won the junior Australian Open and the junior French Open. But she was taken down in the Wimbledon semifinals by Nikola Bartunova, who is Czech, and we all know what can happen when a Czech player shows up across the net. But a 16-match win streak in consecutive majors is nevertheless very impressive, especially for a 16-year-old.

7. I'm Still (barely) Standing:  Lesia Tsurenko and Ana Bogdan treated the crowd to a show that probably was anything but a treat for them. Their third round third set tiebreak consisted of 38 points. Both women were constantly bending over and both looked to be in some anguish after slogging through for 3 hours and 40 minutes. Tsurenko won the tiebreak (20-18) and the match, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6. 

6. Veteran Glory: It was a long time coming, but 30-year-old Lyudmyla Kichenok, with her partner, Mate Pavic, won the mixed doubles title, defeating Xu Yifan and Joran Vliegen in the final. This is Kichenok's first major title.

5. Re-Inventing the Wheel: Diede de Groot, aka Diede the Great, won her fifth Wimbledon singles title this past week, which gives her 19 major singles title. And playing with Jiske Griffioen, whom she defeated in the singles final, she won her third Wimbledon doubles title, and her 17th major doubles final. de Groot, who is the protegΓ© of the great Esther Vergeer, is already a legend in her own right.

Also notable is Griffioen's return to the elite ranks of wheelchair tennis. She retired from the sport in 2017, but came back in 2019, and has had to work her way back to the top of the game. This Wimbledon was a showcase for the work that she has done.

4. Farewell Way Too Soon: I've watched Anett Kontaveit for a long time, and have always been impressed by her tennis. But Kontaveit is one of the unlucky ones whose body just wouldn't cooperate with her skills and desires. Sadly, Kontaveit has had to retire from professional tennis because of lumbar disc degeneration. The affable Estonian, who is only 27, reached her highest rank of number 2 in the world only last year. She won six singles titles, and also played for the Estonian Fed Cup team. It looked like things were finally picking up for her, but instead, we got a very sad ending: She played her final match at Wimbledon.

This was also the final Wimbledon for Barbora Strycova, who returned to the tour briefly after having a baby, and it was the final doubles match (she had already retired from singles) for Kirsten Flipkens.

3. Reunited--and It Feels Awesome: Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova, who won the Wimbledon doubles title in 2019, both took lengthy breaks from the tour. Toward the end of the 2021 season, Hsieh announced that she was taking an extended break so that she could deal with an injury. Earlier in the season, Strycova announced that she was retiring from the sport, but left the door open for one final Wimbledon appearance in 2022. She also announced that she was going to have a baby.

Strycova did not return to Wimbledon in 2022, but she returned this year, with her partner, Hsieh. She made it clear that this would be her final Wimbledon, and she and Hsieh (each of whom is 37 years old) made it count, winning the title by defeating 3rd seeds Storm Hunter and Elise Mertens in the final. Hsieh holds four Wimbledon doubles titles (with four different partners) and two French Open doubles titles.

2. A Comeback for the Ages: Elina Svitolina, who at one time was in the top five, took a year and half off so that she could deal with some back pain, work on behalf of the Ukrainian cause---and have a baby. She returned in April of this year and played in Charleston. Shortly after, she won her 17th WTA title in Strasbourg. But few could have predicted what she had in store for her return to Wimbledon. Svitolina--with a new serve and new aggression--began her campaign by defeating five-time champion Venus Williams, and then she took out Elise Mertens, Sofia Kenin, Victoria Azarenka, and top seed and world number 1 Iga Swiatek. She was finally stopped, in the semifinals, by eventual champion Marketa Vondrousova, but she had one of the most dramatic and emotional comeback runs we've seen in a while.

1. No Rain, No Flowers/No Seed, No Worries: One of the tattoos on Marketa Vondrousova's arm reads no rain no flowers. Vondrousova should know about that. Twice, since she made her 2019 run to the French Open final, she has had to have wrist surgery. Last year, the 2020 Olympic silver medalist sat in the Wimbledon stands with a big cast on her arm. 

This year, she got the flowers. Vondrousova served, hit, sliced, and lobbed her way through the draw, taking out several players of note, inlcuding 12th seed Veronika Kudermetova, the especially dangerous Donna Vekic and Marie Bouzkova, 4th seed Jessica Pegula, and an impressively resurgent Elina Svitolina. The Czech player--who had the most break point conversions of any WTA player at the tournament--then handled a nervous Ons Jabeur with what appeared to be relative ease, taking away Jabeur's usual creative shot advantage. And before you could say "lefty Czechs are coming for you again," Marketa Vondrousova was the 2023 Wimbledon champion

The generously inked Czech with the Sphinx cat named Frankie (who, according to Vondrousova, will soon be getting some celebratory fish) had won only three grass court matches in her career before she entered the 2023 Wimbledon event. She was ranked number 42 in the world--the lowest ranked woman ever to win in London--and she is the first unseeded woman in history to win the tournament. The new champion summed it all up better than I ever could: "Tennis is crazy."

Saturday, July 15, 2023

No seed? No problem

Today, Marketa Vondrousova became the first unseeded woman in history to win Wimbledon. (Before Vondrousova's run, the last unseeded woman to reach the final was Billie Jean King, in 1963.) The Czech player--who has had to deal with two wrist injuries since her 2019 run to the French Open final---has reached six finals in her career, and she was unseeded in five of them. This is how Vondrousova rolls.

Her opponent was 2022 runner-up Ons Jabeur, who played her way through a particularly nasty draw to reach the final again. She had to beat 2020 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, two-time Wimbledon champion and 9th seed Petra Kvitova, defending champion and 3rd seed Elena Rybakina, and 2023 Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka. That was a lot of heavy lifting.

And, as I wrote yesterday, Vondrousova's draw was tougher than it looked like on paper. She had to take out some very tough opponents, including 20th seed Donna Vekic, Marie Bouzkova and wild card (and Wimbledon symbol of inspiration) Elina Svitolina. She also defeated 12th seed Veronika Kudermetova and 4th seed Jessica Pegula.

Needless to say, 6th seed Jabeur was the strong favorite to win the title. She was serving well, returning well, using her considerable bag of tricks against a variety of opponents, and she appeared to be filled with confidence. Perhaps most important, she had vanquished Rybakina, the woman who had prevented her from winning the title last year.

But something went wrong. Something going wrong tends to occur when there's a Czech player present (especially a lefty), and today was no exception. Actually, two things went wrong for Jabeur. One--the only one that people seem to be noticing--was that she had an obvious mental lapse, bringing to mind memories of a "former Ons." But the other thing that went wrong (and no doubt contributed to the first thing) was that her opponent had opened the aforementioned bag of tricks, examined the contents, and made appropriate preparation.

Jabeur likes to zing groundstrokes into the corners. Vondrousova picked them up and returned them, over and over. Jabeur is known for executing some of the tour's best drop shots. Vondrousova not only anticipated them, but returned them like a boss. The seemingly popular belief that Vondrousova "didn't have to do anything" is--to use a highly technical sports term--pure nonsense.

Then there was the matter of the serve. Jabeur ended the match with a 48/45 first and second win serve percentage stat--a huge comedown from her service game against Sabalenka. When Jabeur broke Vondrousova's serve early in the second set, there was reason to believe that the 6th seed could use her defensive skills to help her get her game back on track. But it wasn't to be, partly because Vondrousova stayed cool and collected throughout the match. Jabeur converted only 40% of her break chances. Her opponent converted 86%, and put together a 6-4, 6-4 victory in an hour and 20 minutes.

Vondrousova, ranked number 42 in the world, is the lowest-ranked woman to win Wimbledon. Prior to entering this tournament, she had won only three matches on grass in her career, which is even more remarkable than her unseeded status. When the Olympic silver medalist held up the Venus Rosewater Dish for the crowd, she also gave waiting fans a thumbs-up. (My hope is that she had easy access to the balcony. The last "unknown" Czech to win Wimbledon, Petra Kvitova, in 2011, was told by Wimbledon staff that she wasn't allowed to approach the balcony. The fact that she was holding the Venus Rosewater Dish apparently didn't impress the guards--someone had to come and tell them that Kvitova had just won Wimbledon.)

Ons Jabeur is a great athlete, an outstanding tennis player, and is beloved by peers and fans. She plays for her country as well as for herself. She was "supposed" to win. Sport is brutal. At the end of her trophy ceremony speech, she promised that she would come back and win the tournament. I think that she will. And right now, the person who comes to my mind is yet another Czech player--a beloved one who is no longer with us--who lost two Wimbledon titles, but came back strong on her third try. I also thought of Novotna today when the Princess of Wales comforted Jabeur, much as the Duchess of Kent had offered comfort to Novotna thirty years ago.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Knock down one Czech, another pops up

No one knows that better than Ons Jabeur, who easily dismissed two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova at this year's event, only to find herself one Czech away from winning the championship that eluded her last year. 

That Czech would be Marketa Vondrousova, the 2019 French Open runner-up who has had to deal with two wrist surgeries since she made that run in Paris. Vondrousova, like her countrywoman Karolina Muchova, is very talented, but has had her share of bad fortune. And, also like Muchova, she now finds herself in a major 2023 final. 

In the quarterfinals, Vondrousova ended the highly notable run of wild card Elina Svitolina. The match was guaranteed to be a good--both players were playing their best tennis (this was somewhat of a surprise regarding Vondrousova, who had never done especially well on grass). But Svitolina's newly found aggression, which--paired with her already excellent defense--faltered against her Czech opponent just when she needed it. Having won the first set, Vondrousova "went off" in the second, giving Svitolina a chance to even the match, but it wasn't to be. Svitolina held back, and her opponent reset herself and won the semifinal 6-3, 6-3.

Vondrousova is the first unseeded player to reach the Wimbledon final in the Open Era, and the first one to reach the final since Billie Jean King did so in 1963.

Jabeur, who had the Wimbledon draw from hell, had to face 2nd seed and Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals. Of course. Commentators became involved in pondering the question: Should Jabeur just use her master trickery against Sabalenka, since she can't match her power? The answer was: Yes, but with a significant caveat--she also had to serve really well. And she did. Jabeur ended the match with 74/64 first and second serve win percentages. She defeated Sabalenka--not an easy task these days--6-7, 6-4, 6-3, and in doing so, once again became a Wimbledon finalist.

It should also be noted--yet again--that Jabeur and Svitolina each defeated four major champions.

Last year, Jabeur lost the final to Elena Rybakina, whom she defeated this year in the quarterfinals. She has been described as a woman on a mission, and indeed she is. On Saturday, she'll also be a woman under pressure, probably more from herself than from any other source. She and Vondrousova are 3-3 against each other, though their last match involved a retirement from Jabeur. They have played only once on grass, and Jabeur won that one. This year, Vondrousova has won both of their matches (Australian Open and Indian Wells). And while Jabeur had an extremely tough draw, Vondrousova's was much tougher than it appears on paper; Vekic, Bouzkova and Svitolina were very dangerous opponents.

Paths to the final:


round 1--def. Peyton Stearns
round 2--def. Veronika Kudermetova (12)
round 3--def. Donna Vekic (20)
round of 16--def. Marie Bouzkova
quarterfinals--def. Jessica Pegula (4)
semifinals--def. Elina Svitolina (WC)


round 1--def. Magdalena Frech
round 2--def. Bai Zhuoxuan
round 3--def. Bianca Andreescu
round of 16--def. Petra Kvitova (9)
quarterfinals--def. Elena Rybakina (3)
semifinals--def. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

In other news, Lyudmila Kichenok and Mate Pavic won the mixed doubles championship, defeating Xu Yifan and Joran Vliegen 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 in the final. Kichenok and Pavic were seeded 7th.

Also, the doubles final is set. 3rd seeds Storm Hunter and Elise Mertens will face off against Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova for the title. Hunter and Mertens defeated Caroline Dolehide and Zhang Shuai (16) in the semifinals, and Hsieh and Strycova defeated Marie Bouzkova and Sara Sorribes Tormo. Hsieh and Strycova are reunited for what is Strycova's final Wimbledon appearance. Hsieh has won the Wimbledon doubles title three times, with three different partners (with Strycova in 2019).

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Defending champion and top seed both out of Wimbledon

Back in the day, when Elina Svitolina was in the top 5, she was known as an outstanding defensive player who wasn't aggressive enough to transcend her status on the tour. She was also known for her outstanding movement on the court. Now, back from giving birth to a daughter (and continuing to deal with the tragedy occurring in her country), she brilliantly played her way to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, where she met another outstanding mover, world number 1 Iga Swiatek. 

But this wasn't just the Svitolina who could match Swiatek's speed and footwork--this was a new Svitolina, who had developed offensive skills (including an improved serve), and--in doing so--had also developed quite a bit of confidence. That confidence was on full display when Swiatek led 5-3, 30-0 in the opening set, and Svitolina broke her. Swiatek served for the set again at 6-4, and Svitolina broke her at love.

The world number 1 would go on to win the second set in a tiebreak, and fans would have been justified in thinking that "order had been restored." However, as good a mover as Swiatek is on clay and hard courts, she still struggles with moving on grass. This doesn't mean that she won't eventually conquer the surface--recall Sharapova's "cow on ice" moment. (The Sharapova remark was funny, but inaccurate--cows are quite graceful. When I was a child, I saw them easily cross the cattle gap constructed to keep them out of the neighborhood.) 

But in her Wimbledon quarterfinal, Svitolina was able to out-move the Polish star. In fact, the third set, which Svitolina won 6-2, was a clinic in how to flummox Swiatek. The top seed ended the match with 41 unforced errors, and was clearly uncomfortable throughout much of the match.

Svitolina has now defeated four major champions--Venus Williams, Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andreescu, and Swiatek.

Yesterday's other quarterfinal featured another comeback player, Marketa Vondrousova, who has had to endure two wrist surgeries in the last few years. The 2019 French Open finalist and 2020 Olympic silver medalist has been very impressive throughout this tournament, taking out three seeded players in the first four rounds. She topped that in the quarterfinals, defeating 4th seed Jessica Pegula 6-2, 2-6, 6-4. Prior to this year, Vondrousova had won only four main draw matches on grass.

As for Pegula, she has now reached six major quarterfinals (three of them at the Australian Open), but has yet to go beyond quarterfinal success.

Today's quarterfinal match between Madison Keys and Aryna Sabalenka was all about Sabalenka. Keys, herself a big hitter, was no match for the big, yet precision-like, play of Sabalenka, who defeated her 6-2, 6-4.

And then there was the much-anticipated "re-match" of last year's Wimbledon final: Ons Jabeur again faced off against defending champion Elena Rybakina, and--in this case--revenge was a dish best served hot. 

The first set was very close, and Rybakina won it in a tiebreak. In the second set, one converted break point was enough to give Jabeur a 6-4 win. But what was most likely anticipated as a tense third set (I certainly had this anticipation) was not to be. Jabeur, not content to rely solely on her usual bag of highly impressive tricks, unleashed enough aggression to throw Rybakina off her game. Indeed, the defending champion's serve disintegrated, and Jabeur emerged the victor, 6-7, 6-4, 6-1.

Here is the singles semifinal draw:

Elena Svitolina (WC) vs. Marketa Vondrousova
Ons Jabeur (6) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

And here is the doubles semifinal draw:

Caroline Dolehide/Zhang Shuai (16) vs. Storm Hunter/Elise Mertens (3)
Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova vs. Marie Bouzkova/Sara Sorribes Tormo

Monday, July 10, 2023

Haddad Maia the latest victim of the Wimbledon injury plague

Beatriz Haddad Maia, seeded 13th at Wimbledon, had a 1-1 record (though neither match was played on grass) against defending champion Elena Rybakina when she entered the court today to play her round of 16 match. Between that and the Brazilian's considerable fitness and fighting spirit, there was obvious potential for an excellent match to be played. But it wasn't to be: At 1-4 in the first set, Haddad Maia's back suddenly went out, and the injury was bad enough that she had to retire from the match. 

Two-time champion Petra Kvitova had a different kind of problem. It was almost as though she wasn't there and some pod version of her was on the court. But that persona certainly wasn't P3tra, because Ons Jabeur finished off the Czech star in straight sets, and threw in a first set bagel. Kvitova, whose serve was way off today, hit only four winners, while hitting 26 unforced errors. The whole thing was done in just over an hour. 

Throughout the first week of Wimbledon, Kvitova has looked more like 2011/2014 Petra than we have seen her look in a long time. But today, she could barely do anything. Of course, she did have an especially clever opponent, but that doesn't fully explain the 6-0, 6-4 scoreline.

Madison Keys, who continues to look her best in the second week, had to deal with teenage sensation Mirra Andreeva, and the going was tough until Keys pulled away in the third set. Keys' 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 victory. All the same, Andreeva's advancement to the round of 16 was very impressive.

Ekaterina Alexandrova probably didn't fear her round of 16 match against Aryna Sabalenka the way some players might have feared it. She had a 3-2 record against the 2nd seed, and one of those victories ahd been played on a grass court. But Sabalenka was ready, and was able to diffuse Alexandrova's skills with a combination of her usual big hitting and a good dose of finesse. Sabalenka defeated Alexandrova 6-4, 6-0.

Here is the singles quarterfinal draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Elina Svitolilna (WC)
Jessica Pegula (4) vs. Marketa Vondrousova
Ons Jabeur (6) vs. Elena Rybakina (3)
Madison Keys (25) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Of special interest in the quarterfinal match to be played by Jabeur and Rybakina. They met in the final last year, and Rybakina was victorious (3-6, 6-2, 6-2). Jabeur would go on to reach the final in the U.S. Open, also, but she was defeated 6-2, 7-6 in that match by Iga Swiatek.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that Wimbledon is my least favorite major. This year's event, hampered by so many injuries and so much rain, has been especially problematic. The press has been busy telling us--great news!--that officials are finally permitting female players to wear dark undershorts (oh, where is Tatiana Golovin when you need her?). Institutions like Wimbledon, when they are dragged--kicking and screaming--into this (or even the last) century, somehow always get credit for the movement, when the appropriate response should be outrage that it took them this long to do something decent.

Less than a decade ago, officials were lifting women's skirts to check their undergarments. What troubles me even more than the fact that Wimbledon sponsored this degrading, abusive behavior is that the players let them do it. And the WTA--of course--let them do it.

And that brings me to the whole Russia/Belarus/Ukraine business, which I don't usually talk about. The crowd booed Vika Azarenka (the Australians would be proud) because she didn't come to the net to shake hands with Elina Svitolina after their match. Of course, anyone familiar with the current tennis climate knows that Svitolina is not shaking the hands of Russians or Belausians. That, of course, would not include Wimbledon spectators.

But fans had other issues regarding this non-handshake. Those who didn't get to see all of the camera angles were convinced that--following Azarenka's gesture of acknowledgement of Svitolina, Svitolina ignored her. She did not; indeed, she returned the acknowledgement. There are also some fans who think that the Ukrainian star is being "rude" or "mean." One doesn't have to agree with Svitolina's decision to refrain from shaking certain hands, but it is worth pointing out that she has repeatedly provided the reason--that she refrains out of respect for the Ukrainian people on the front lines of the war. Again, one doesn't have to agree with that decision, but it certainly doesn't sound "rude" or "mean ."

Azarenka and Svitolina have long regarded one another with respect. But--the current cultural climate being what it is--that doesn't stop thousands of people from going out of their way to make one or the other of them "the enemy." Some people like to say that we should keep politics out of sport. Sorry, but politics, like art, is part of everything. What would be nice would be to keep ignorance and bigotry out of sport.