Sunday, January 29, 2023

My Australian Open top 10

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

10. Putting on a (long) show: 15-year-old Alina Korneeva, playing in her first major, not only had to oppose her doubles partner, Mirra Andreeva, in the singles final, but also had to do so for three hours and 18 minutes. Korneeva won the championship, and she and Andreeva scored major points for junior level competitiveness and fitness.

9. Remember their names: If you follow junior tennis, you know that Diana Shnaider has been a standout in both singles and doubles (and especially doubles) for the past few years. This year, the 18-year-old Russian qualified for the singles main draw in Melbourne and won her first round, defeating Kristina Kucova. She played her second round match against 6th seed Maria Sakkari, took a set off of the Greek star, and dragged her through a two-hour and 33-minutes contest. She lost that battle, but the lefty in the all-business head wrap was a formidable opponent and a joy to watch.

Sakkari escaped that challenge, but in the next round, she couldn't escape Zhu Lin. After beating Rebecca Marino in the first round, Zhu went on to upset 32nd seed Jil Teichmann. That would have been impressive enough, but then the Chinese player went on to take out Sakkari in the next round. She would fall to two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the round of 16, but not before pushing Azarenka to three sets.

8. An outstanding career
: Samantha Stosur, who had already retired from singles competition,  made the 2023 Australian Open her last tournament in doubles. The Australian player was a doubles star before she broke out as a singles star, a trend that would be repeated by her countrywoman Ash Barty, and----more recently--by Czech player Barbora Krejcikova.

Stosur reached the number 1 ranking in doubles, and the number 4 ranking in singles.  She won eight doubles titles (including four majors), three mixed doubles titles (all majors), and eight singles titles, including the 2011 U.S. Open championship. She was also the runner-up at the 2010 French Open.

7. Just how great is Diede the Great?: Pretty great. The defending champion won her fifth Australian Open singles title, even though it was a bumpy ride in the final, in which she lost 0-6 to Yui Kamiji in the first set. And she and Aniek Van Koot defended their doubles title, making it their fourth win in Australia. de Groot has now won 17 singles majors and 16 doubles majors.

6. A pairing made in broadcast heaven
: We hear so much bad commentary in tennis (and the one commentator that so many of us loved disappeared from the airwaves) that it was an absolute pleasure to listen to Laura Robson and Daniela Hantuchova at this Australian Open. I've enjoyed listening to both of them for a while, but putting them together sparked magic. They are both intelligent analysts, and each of them has a delicious sense of humor. More, please.

5. The comeback just keeps getting better
: After her knee surgery, Brazlian doubles player Luisa Stefani was out for almost a year. Upon returning in the fall of 2022, she got right down to business, winning in Guadalajara (with Storm Sanders), then winning in Adelaide (with Taylor Townsend) at the beginning of 2023. Stefani was scheduled to play doubles with Caty McNally at the Australian Open, but McNally had to withdraw. She did play mixed doubles, however, with countryman Rafael Matos, and they won the title.

4. "It ain't over 'til it's over" doesn't begin to describe it: Miriam Kolodziejova and Marketa Vondrousova played 7th seeds Beatriz Haddad-Maia and Zhang Shuai in the second round of doubles. The situation was already complicated because Vondrousova was injured, but it got a lot more complicated as the match wore on.

Haddad Maia and Zhang won the first set, 6-3. It looked like they were going to win the second set--and the match--but by the end of the set, the Czech team had saved six match points before going on to win a tiebreak, 11-9. That was exciting enough, but it paled compared with what took place in the third set. Haddad Maia and Zhang, obviously frustrated with what happened in the second set, quickly went up 5-0, but Kolodziejova and Vondrousova were still there to play. They won five straight games, saved a match point, and then took the match to another tiebreak, in which they saved two more match points, and won, 14-12. Their 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory took two hours and 31minutes to achieve.

While I was watching this incredible match, I thought of another Australian Open doubles match, played in 2009, in which Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama played Cara Black and Liezel Huber. Black and Huber won the first set in a 7-0 tiebreak, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama won the second, 6-3. 

In the third set, Hantuchova and Sugiyama went down 2-5, but--just as it looked as though they didn't have a chance--some switch got turned on, and they began to play in complete sync with one another, with Hantuchova setting up repeated winning volleys for Sugiyama. The set went to a tiebreak, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama went down 2-6, but they wound up winning it 12-10. The match lasted three hours, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama saved seven match points.

3. Polish power in Melbourne: We were expecting it, and we got it. But it wasn't world number 1 Iga Swiatek--she went out in the round of 16 to eventual finalist Elena Rybakina. What we did get was Magda Linette. After defeating Mayar Sherif in the first round, she went on to upset 16th seed Anett Kontaveit, 19th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, 4th seed Caroline Garcia, and 30th seed (whose status is certainly higher than the seed number next to her name) Karolina Pliskova. 

Linette's run to the semifinals was thrilling. The 30-year-old had never made it past the third round of a major before this year, but she kept trying, and she kept working on the mental aspect of her game. In her semifinal match, Linette took eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka to a first set tiebreak, but lost in straight sets. It was a great run, and further proof that the "older" athlete can be a force on the tour.

2. We liked it so much, we did it again!: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova were the top seeds and defending champions at this year's Australian Open, and now they're the new champions. The Czech pair defeated 10th seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara in straight sets in the final. Last year, they won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but missed a chance to win the Grand Slam because Krejcikova was ill and could not compete at the French Open. Now the new champions--who already own a Career Slam (a golden one)--have another chance to go for the Grand Slam.

1. When it all comes together: Aryna Sabalenka has always been a fiery ball of potential. The 24-year-old from Minsk not only plays power tennis, she also has an abundance of doubles skills. But lately, she has been plagued with problems with her serve, and--throughout her career--she has had to struggle with her emotions on court. Determined to put these issues behind her, Sabalenka arrived in Melbourne with an Adelaide trophy, a new serve, and a new attitude. Sabalenka didn't drop a set until she ran into Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the final, but she hit 17 aces and a total of 51 winners in that very exciting match, and emerged the 2023 Australian Open singles champion.

Sabalenka's Australian Open victory gives her twelve singles titles. She also won the Australian Open doubles championship in 2021, with partner Elise Mertens, whom she defeated this year in the third round of singles competition.

Krejcikova and Siniakova win Australian Open doubles title--again

Top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are once again the Australian Open doubles champions. They defeated 10th seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara 6-3, 6-4, thereby setting up another possible try for the Grand Slam. There's every reason to believe that the Czech pair would have won the Grand Slam in 2022, but they were unable to compete at the French Open because Krejcikova was ill. They won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Krejcikova and Siniakova (who are ranked number 2 and number 1, respectively) have been playing together for ten years. Their 2023 Australian Open victory gives them seven major titles. The pair already owns a golden Career Slam, having won the U.S. Open once, and the other majors twice.

Krejcikova won the French Open in singles in 2021, and both she and Siniakova intend to continue focusing on their singles careers, while playing selected events in doubles.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Sabalenka overcomes her demons and overwhelms the field

In the last couple of years, Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semifinals of majors three times, and it seemed, in some ways, inevitable, that she would take the next step. However, a combination of emotional unsteadiness on court and an increasingly unreliable serve also gave credence to the possibility that she wouldn't. But the world number 5 solved that puzzle in style these past two weeks in Melbourne, and topped off her run with a three-set win (4-6, 6-3, 6-4) over Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. 

Sabalenka approached her problems in a very Kerberesque way, identifying them and seeking expert help to overcome them. She worked with a biomechanics expert to get her serve back on track, and she also worked with a sports psychologist. Just the other day, however, Sabalenka said that she had stopped working with the psychologist. "I realized that nobody other than me will help," she said. "In pre-season, I spoke to my psychologist, saying, 'Listen, I feel like I have to deal with that by myself, because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it's not fixing my problem.'"

Well, of course it isn't. Note to Aryna: Sports psychologists (and all other mental health professionals) aren't there to fix your problems--they're there to guide you in fixing your problems. 

The Australian Open final definitely lived up to expectations. What Mary Carillo once dubbed "big babe tennis" (a tribute to Mary Pierce) was on display throughout the entire two hours and 28 minutes, but it was also big babe tennis with style. Rybakina showed off some very deft touch at the net, and of course, Sabalenka's considerable doubles skills were on display when needed.  

Rybakina's first serve is scary good. She sometimes hits aces with seeming abandon, and the ones that aren't aces are deadly, more often that not. Prior to the final, she had an Australian Open first serve win percenrage of almost 80, a statistic which is practically unknown. Her second serve, however, is inconsistent, but she made it to the final on the strength of that first serve. Rybakina hit nine aces in the final, but here's the stat that fans may not have expected: Sabalenka hit seventeen. 

Sabalenka's shadow did appear from time to time--she double-faulted seven times. But she didn't let it get to her. She hit 51 winners and made 28 unforced errors. Rybakina's stats in that department weren't bad, either--she hit 31 winners and made 25 unforced errors. However, "51 winners" says it all.

It's interesting to note that--in the first set, which Rybakina won--the Wimbledon champion's second serve win percentage was 75. But in the second set, it went down to 44, and in the third, it dipped all the way to 29. Fans logically expected Sabalenka to have problems with her serve (and she did, from time to time), but in the end, it was Rybakina who missed too many first serves and couldn't compensate with her second serve. Sabalenka's response to all the first and second set missed first serves was deadly.

Rybakina had to do a lot of heavy lifting during the tournament. She took out three major champions, including world number 1 Iga Swiatek; perhaps there was some mental fatigue in the final. But even if there was, she played extremely well, but she just wasn't up to handling the barrage of aces and winners coming off of Sabalenka's racket.

In other big Australian Open news, defending wheelchair singles champion Diede de Groot won the Australian Open for the third time in a row, but it was a bit of a wild ride. In 2020, de Groot began to have problems with her serve, and failed to defend both her Australian Open and French Open titles. Her service problems were on display again in the opening set of the final against 2nd seed Yui Kamiji. Kamiji won that set 6-0, which--in the world of Diede the Great--is a stunning phenomenon. 

de Groot double-faulted five times in that set, and six times in the second set, but Kamiji also struggled with her serve in that set. de Groot's 0-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory gives her four Australian singles titles, and a total of seventeen major singles titles. She and partner Aniek Van Koot defended their doubles titles, and that means that de Groot also possesses sixteen major doubles titles. Then there are her four Masters singles gold medals and two Masters doubles gold medals--and her Paralympic gold medals in both singles and doubles. The protogΓ© of the great Esther Vergeer is a grand reflection of her mentor. 

And finally, in a contest between two Russian teens, 9th seed Alina Korneeva, playing in her first major, defeated 7th seed Mirra Andreeva 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 in a final that lasted three hours and eighteen minutes to play. I don't recall another major junior match lasting that long, and the fact that this one did is a tribute to the girls' fitness. The two 15-year-olds are also doubles partners. They were seeded 2nd at the Australian Open, and made it to the semifinals. The new junior doubles champions are the unseeded team of Renata Jamricho and Federica Urgesi. They defeated 4th seeds Hayu Kinoshita and Sara Saito in the final.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Rybakina and Sabalenka to compete for Australian Open singles championship

Magda Linette, the older (30) of two breakout stars of the 2023 Australian Open, playing in her first major semifinal, had a huge task--playing against the huge-hitting Aryna Sabalenka, not to mention a Sabaklenka who has tamed the long-time problem that she has with her serve. Yet, during the first set, it looked like either of them could win. Sabalenka won that set in a tiebreak, and then--as very good players often do--broke away and won the second set 6-2. In fact, she broke away in the first set tiebreak, which she won, 7-1.

Linette, who says that she has done a lot of mental work on her game, attracted attention in Melbourne not only because she was playing superbly, but because she's the Polish player who isn't Iga Swiatek, and she's also the one who made it to the final four. World number 1 Swiatek lost in the round of 16 to Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, which brings me to another matter. Unlike many tennis fans, I don't need a big rivalry in order to enjoy tennis. Yes, Monica and Steffi were exciting, and Martina and Chris were (and are) legendary, but I can easily live without a major rivalry on the tour. But if there's going to be one, I'm all in with Swiatek and Rybakina.

Rybakina won her semifinal by defeating two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who has been playing some of her best tennis at this event. The Wimbledon champion, who has a tournament first serve win percentage of almost 80 (!), hit ten aces and 30 winners, and broke Azarenka five times. It was a was a great display of tennis from both women.

Paths to the final:

round 1--def. Elisabetta Cocciaretto
round 2--def. Kaja Juvan
round 3--def. Danielle Collins (13)
round of 16--def. Iga Swiatek (1)
quarterfinals--def. Alona Ostapenko (17)
semifinals--def. Victoria Azarenka (24)

round 1--def. Tereza Martincova
round 2--def. Shelby Rogers
round 3--def. Elise Mertens (26)
round of 16--def. Belinda Bencic (12)
quarterfinals--def. Donna Vekic
semifinals--def. Magda Linette

In claiming victories over Swiatek, Ostapenko and Azarenka, Rybakina became the first player to defeat three major champions at a single Australian Open event since Martina Hingis did it in 2001.

Meanwhile, in doubles, top seeds and defending champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova have reached the final, in which they will face off against Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, who upset 2nd seeds Coco Gauff and Jessie Pegula in the semifinals. And Luisa Stefani and are the 2023 mixed doubles champions. They defeated Sania Mirza (playing in her final major) and Rohan Bopanna in the final.

And in wheelchair tennis, top seed and defending champion Diede de Groot has reached the final, and will play familiar opponent and 2nd seed Yui Kamiji. And top seeds and defending champions de Groot and Aniek Van Koot are the 2023 Australian Open wheelchair doubles champions. They defeated Dana Mathewson and Lucy Shuker in the final.

In junior competition, 7th seed Mirra Andreeva will compete against 9th seed Alina Korneeva for the championship.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Australian Open quarterfinals feature surprises--or are they?

Top seed and world number 1 Iga Swiatek isn't playing in the Autralian Open quarterfinals, nor is 2nd seed and world number 2 Ons Jabeur. Also gone are 4th seed Caroline Garcia, 6th seed Maria Sakkari, and the rest of the top 10, save Jessie Pegula and Aryna Sabalenka. 

But that doesn't mean that the quarterfinal draw isn't filled with quality. Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, seeded 22nd because of a ridiculous political dispute between the WTA (and the ATP) and Wimbldeon, should have a much higher seed/ranking. Victoria Azarenka is a two-time Australian Open champion, and Alona Ostapenko is a former French Open champion.

Donna Vekic, who has shown so much promise for so long, has reached a major quarterfinal for the second time in her career--she made it to the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2019. And the hard-working Magda Linette has reached a major quarterfinal for the first time in her career. So far, the 30-year-old Polish player has upset 16th seed Anett Kontaveit, 19th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova and 4th seed Garcia.

And then there's Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up and the 2021 Wimbledon runner-up. Pliskova has long been just on the edge of winning a major, and is certainly a contender to win this one.

 Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Elena Rybakina (22) vs. Alona Ostapenko (17)
Jessie Pegula (3) vs. Victoria Azarenka (24)
Karolina Pliskova (30) vs. Magda Linette
Aryna Sabalenka (5) vs. Donna Vekic

Notes on the draw:

If (and "if" is the operable word) French Open (and--so far--2023 Australian Open) Ostapenko shows up, she can give Rybakina a very hard time, though Rybakina's serve can do the same to Ostapenko.

Pegula gets stronger with every match, and it will be interesting to see her (which I won't be able to) play against a fully in-flight Azarenka, who loves the courts in Melbourne. Pegula won't get rattled, though.

Pliskova has yet to drop a set in Melbourne. Defeating her looks like a tough task for Linette, who will either build on the tremendous confidence that she's gained--or be done in by the occasion. My gut feeling is that Linette--who has worked for so long to get to this point--won't fold; this could be an interesting match.

Aryna Sabalenka also hasn't dropped a set, and has been in full control of her matches--even against the formidable Belinda Bencic--at this event. She does have a tendency to "go off," especially with her serve, but if she keeps playing in her current form, Vekic has an uphill battle.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Round of 16 set for Australian Open

As I write this, top seed Iga Swiatek is playing her round of 16 match against Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. Gone is 2nd seed Ons Jabeur and gone is Danielle Collins (courtesy of Rybakina); both of them were considered serious contenders for the title. 6th seed Maria Sakkari is also out.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Elena Rybakina (22)*
Alona Ostapenko (17) vs. Coco Gauff (7)
Jessie Pegula (3) vs. Barbora Krejcikova (20)
Viktoria Azarenka (24) vs. Zhu Lin
Karolina Pliskova (30) vs. Zhang Shaui (23)
Magda Linette vs. Caroline Garcia (4)
Aryna Sabalenka (5) vs. Belinda Bencic (12)
Donna Vekic vs. Linda Fruhvirtova

*Rybakina should be ranked higher, but she was denied ranking points after her Wimbledon victory.

The three matches that intrigue me the most are the one that's being played now--Swiatek vs. Rybakina, Peguala Vs. Krejcikova, and Sabalenka vs. Garcia. 

Rybankina's serve could allow her to boss Switek around, and the world number one may have to do more problem-solving than ususal (as I write this, she's down a set). Pegula and Krejcikova could give us a thriler, and Sabalenka's big hitting won't get her as far against Bencic as it does against many other players.

Fruhvirtova is already a winner of sorts, making it to the round of 16 of a major at 17 years old. Petra Kvitova and Karolina Muchova are already out of the tournament; Muchova (back in good health and good form) lost in a thrilling match against Collins. And Marketa Vondrousova, back after two wrist surgeries, sustained a foot injury in her third round match and faded away as she played in considerable pain in her third set against countrywoman Fruhvirtova. But there are always more Czechs, and Krejcikova and Fruhvirtova are carrying the Czech flag at the business end of the Australian Open.

The only former champion left in the draw is Azarenka, who won the tournament in 2012 and 2013.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

10 questions for 2023

< A new season has begun, and there are some questions hanging in the air:

1. Will anyone seriously challenge Iga Swiatek? My best bet for that task is Barbora Krejcikova, who--healthy again--is ready to resume her slaying ways. The final that the two of them played in Ostrava last year was as high-quality and thrilling a sports event as one could hope to see. But Krejcikova isn't the only one who could give the world number 1 trouble: Ons Jabeur is also a good choice, and it's probably time to look fearfully at Caroline Garcia again. There are others, of course, but these are the names that come to (my) mind first, when I consider all the contingencies.

2.  Which Garbine Muguruza will show up? Good luck making a guess on that.

3. Will Paula Badosa get out of her mini-slump? I say yes.

4. Will Ons Jabeur win a major? My answer is yes. 

5. Will Maria Sakkari overcome whatever it is that keeps her from winning finals? Probably--her serve has improved quite a bit, and that could give her the confidence she needs.

6. Will Danielle Collins stay healthy? Oh, how I hope she does--a healthy Danielle can go very far.

7. Will Bianca Andrescu stay healthy? Same answer as above--a healthy Bibi can rise to a very high level and change the WTA landscape.

8. Will Liudmila Samsonova make it past the fourth round of a major? Yes.

9. Will Liudmila Samsonova win a 1000 tournament? Again, I'll go with yes.

10. Who is likely to quietly make a huge statement? My bet is on Veronika Kudermetova, who has a splendid and fluid game, with lots of doubles skills to assist, and who appears to have gained quite a bit of confidence.