Sunday, February 26, 2023

Beware of kryptonite in the desert

World number 1 Iga Swiatek practically waltzed to the final in Doha, albeit she had some help with both a bye and a walkover (from Belinda Bencic). She defeated Danielle Collins 6-0, 6-1, and she defeated Veronika Kudermetova with the same scoreline. Those two victories were shocking enough, but then she defeated 2nd seed Jessie Pegula 6-3, 6-0 in the final. 

Seemingly fresh from spending so little time on court in Doha, Swiatek moved on to Dubai, where she again had both a bye and a walkover (from Karolina Pliskova). She defeated Leylah Fernandez 6-1, 6-1, and Liudmila Samsonova 6-1, 6-0 (another shocking scoreline), then Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-2.

But in the final, as Swiatek sought to win the Desert Double, she had to deal with Barbora Krejcikova, who defeated her in the Ostrava final, a match that was so amazing in every way, I still think about it. The Czech star has been on a dramatic comeback tour since having to drop out for a while because of an elbow injury. In Dubai, she defeated the likes of Dasha Kasatina, Petra Kvitova, 2nd seed (and world number 2) Aryna Sabalenka, and 3rd seed (and world number 3) Jessie Pegula.

Sometimes, when a player does that kind of heavy lifting in a tournament, she doesn't have much left by the time she gets to the final. And imagine that that final is to be played against the world number 1, who has been dispensing bagels as though she were heir to a famous New York City bakery. And then imagine that the world number 1 hasn't really spent that much time on court. Oh--and that she was eager to get some revenge following the Ostrava final.

Krejcikova apparently didn't trouble herself with any of those facts. She defeated Swiatek 6-4, 6-2 with excellent serving (first and second serve win stats of 70%/57%), and by reading the court expertly, hanging in with Swiatek during long rallies, and interrupting the Polish star's rhythm. Swiatek was able to convert only one of six break opportunities.

Commentator Claire Curran remarked that Krejcikova is an expert disruptor, but that it is also very hard to disrupt her. Curran said that she thought that these were the traits to which Krejcikova was referring when she said that she had used her doubles skills to defeat Swiatek in Ostava.

In completing her Dubai run, the Czech player became the fifth woman to defeat the three top-ranked players in the world at a tournament.

Swiatek and Krejcikova are now 2-2 against each other, and Krejciova has won both of their finals. Is Krejcivkova now in Swiatek's head, or is the world number 1 immune to that sort of thing? Regardless, it may be a good idea for Swiatek to line her cap with some lead the next time she meets Krejcikova in a final.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Farewell to the Forehand of Fire

If it seems like Sania Mirza has been on the tour for ages, well--it's because she has. Mirza began her WTA career in 2003, when she showed up with a forehand that demonstrated why her favorite player was Steffi Graf. But having one of the deadliest forehands ever seen on the tour also cost Mirza, who was sustaining wrist injuries as early as 2007. Eventually, she would play doubles exclusively, a move which allowed her to significantly reduce her injuries.

In 2005, Mirza became the first Indian woman to win a WTA tournament when she won her hometown event in Hyderabad. Ten years later, she would become the first Indian woman to attain a number 1 ranking (in doubles), and the first Indian woman to win a major, when she and Martina Hingis won Wimbledon.

Mirza won 43 doubles titles, including the aforementioned 2015 Wimbledon title, the 2015 U.S. Open (also with Martina Hingis), and the 2016 Australian Open (with Hingis). She also won three major mixed doubles titles: the 2009 Australian Open (with Mahesh Bhupathi), the 2012 French Open (also with Bhupathi), and the 2014 U.S. Open (with Bruno Soares). Mirza also won the WTA Finals in 2014 (with Cara Black) and 2015 (with Hingis).

In 2018, Mirza went on maternity leave. She returned to the tour in 2020, won the first tournament that she entered, and returned to the top 25 in doubles.

In 2014, Mirza was appointed brand ambassador for the Indian state of Telangana. She was also the first Asian woman to be named UN Women Goodwill Embassador for South Asia. Mirza, who has established a tennis academy in Hyderabad, used her influence in 2012 to bring about the awarding of equal prize money for all tennis tournaments in India. 

I was disappointed--though not surprised--a few years ago, when the Indian star and activist told a journalist that she wasn't a feminist. The word's meaning has become so distorted, I suppose, that women who support social, economic and political equality for women (i.e., feminism) find ways to avoid claiming the identity (e.a., Christina Aguilera's "I don't want to be labeled" and Patti Smith's "reasoning," which is so outrageously upside down-ridiculous that I won't even go into it here). 

Many years ago, the mother of a WTA player told me that Mirza and her mother--who often accompanied Mirza to tournaments--were the nicest, most gracious people that she had encountered on the tour. This didn't surprise me--Sania Mirza, whose early career was sometimes overshadowed by controversy (e.a., in 2005, a group of Muslim clerics ordered her to wear long tunics and headscarves when she competed), had to learn, early on, to handle not only the pressure of being a professional athlete, but also the pressure of bearing publicity that she never sought.

This week, the 36-year-old Mirza retired from professional tennis, leaving a legacy that includes the expansion of tennis in India, a model of grace under pressure, a stellar doubles career---and a forehand of fire.