Sunday, June 11, 2023

My French Open top 10

Here my top 10 French Open occurrences, in ascending order (and an honorable mention to Alina Korneeva for winning consecutive junior titles): 

10. Remember Her Name: By now, fans who follow tennis seriously know who Mirra Andreeva is, and there's every reason to believe that others will know soon enough. The 16-year-old Russian reached the final of the Australian Open junior competition. And when she was 15, she became the third youngest player to win a main draw match (def. Leylah Fernandez) at a WTA 1000 tournament (Madrid). She has also defeated Beatriz Haddd Maia and Magda Linette. Playing as a qualifier in Paris, Andreeva defeated Alison Riske-Amritraj and Diane Parry, and she took a set off of 6th seed Coco Gauff before losing to her in the third round.

9: More Than Lucky: Elina Avanesyan is just the fifth women's player in the open era to make it to the round of 16 as a lucky loser in a major, and the first one to do so in 30 years. The 20-year-old Russian got everyone's attention immediately when she upset 12th seed Belinda Bencic in the first round. She also defeated notable young player Clara Tauson before falling to eventual finalist Karolina Muchova.

8:  10. Wheels On Fire!: While she was in Paris, Diede de Groot won her hundredth consecutive match, making her an even more stunning reflection of her mentor, the great Esther Vergeer. She also won the French Open in singles for the fourth time. de Groot missed winning the doubles title, though she and her partner, Maria Florencia Marino, made it to the final (de Groot's regular partner, Aniek Van Koot, is out with an injury). Unfortunately, the women's final was played on court 14, which one might think indicates a lack of respect for wheelchair tennis; however, the men's final was played on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Of course it was.

7. Oh Happy Ending!: Miyu Kato and her partner, Aldila Sutjiadi, who were seeded 16th in women's doubles, had to default their third round match when Kato inadvertently hit a ballgirl with a tennis ball. But Kato and her partner, Tim Puetz, went on to win the mixed doubles title, defeating Bianca Andreescu and Michael Venus in the final. (Kato's women's doubles prize money and points were taken away, and she is appealing this decision.)

6. Now You See Her, Now You Don't: Last year, 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova lost in the first round of the tournament, but that was no surprise; she had been absent from the tour for some time because of an elbow injury. This year, her clay season hasn't been anything special, but it was nevertheless a shock to see her go out again in the first round. (Unfortunately, the popular narrative is that Krejcikova lost in the first round two years in a row, without any mention of her injury.) We may never know what happened,* but we can expect to see better results on hard courts, where the Czech star really shines.

5. A Comeback to Remember: The past several months have been deeply significant for Elina Svitolina, symbolizing the epitome of both sorrow and joy. The sorrow, of course, is that her country remains under invasion; the joy is that she gave birth to a daughter in October. Svitolina returned to the tour in April, and in May, she won her 17th title, in Strasbourg. That was impressive enough, but the Ukrainian star went on to reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

4. "Upset" Doesn't Begin to Describe It: They were the top seeds, and they had won the French Open twice. Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova have been utterly dominant in doubles for some time. However, the upset of the 2023 French Open occurred in the first round of doubles, when the Czech team *fell in straight sets to the unseeded team of Ulrikke Eikeri and Eri Hozumi.

3. How to Make a Comeback: Because of injury, Hsieh Su-Wei hadn't played in a major since 2021. She and Wang Xinyu had played together only once before. But they defeated five seeded teams to reach the Roland Garros final, in which they defeated 10th seeds Taylor Townsend and Leylah Fernandez 1-6, 7-6, 6-1.

2. The Marvelous Ms. Muchova: Karolina Muchova is a player of such talent and atheticism, a casual observer would probably wonder why she isn't in the top 10, and why she has won only one WTA tournament, despite doing well at some majors. The answer is sad: Muchova has been injured throughout her career, and between the injuries and the surgeries (in 2021, she was told that she might not ever play again), she has had next to no momentum. 

But Muchova arrived in Paris in good physical condition, and proceeded to show the world her considerable wealth of tennis skiils. Muchova can serve, she can volley, she can move beautifully, and she can think fast. The Czech player began her campaign by upsetting 8th seed Maria Sakkari, then went on to take out the likes of 2021 finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and 2nd seed and Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka

Muchova, down and almost out, turned the final around and became the first player in the tournament to take top seed Iga Swiatek to three sets. Toward the end of the match, she had a chance to go for an upset, but a combination of the occasion (her usual nerves of steel were visibly a bit shaken) and the mighty force known as Iga prevented that from happening. Nevertheless, it was a stunning run. I join many in hoping that Muchova remains healthy for the rest of her career; if she can do that, she can finally reach the heights that have eluded her for so long.

1. She Loves Paris in the Spring: Top seed and defending champion Iga Swiatek won Stuttgart, but withdrew from Rome because of injury. There was some concern about how fit she would be for the French Open, but she took her usual romp through the red clay, not dropping a set, until she reached the final and had to deal with a resurgent Muchova. But the world number 1 found a way to win, which is what champions often do, and she defeated her opponent 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 in the final. This is Swiatek's third French Open championship--she also won the tournament in 2020 and 2022--and her fourth major (she won the U.S. Open last year).

Swiatek now has a couple of players chasing her, notably Elina Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka, as well as Barbora Krejcikova, who has defeated her in two hard court finals. One has to believe that the Polish star would like to dominate on grass. During the second week of Roland Garros, she wore an all-white kit; I, for one, am looking forward to seeing her wear it in July.


Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Queen of Paris holds on to her crown

World number 1 Iga Swiatek dropped a set in the final at the French Open today--her only one during her two-week campaign to defend her title--but that didn't stop her from winning the championship. Her opponent was Karolina Muchova, an immensely talented player whose career has been seriously impeded, over and over, by multiple injuries. During the last two weeks, fans were able to get a good look at what a healthy Muchova can do--and on the surface she has always said was her worst.

The first set was routine for Swiatek--she won it 6-2. The usually cool and calm Muchova didn't look frantic, but it was obvious that the heft of the occasion had kicked in. Swiatek went up 3-0 in the second set, and then it happened--what those who have watched Muchova for a while knew would happen--the unseeded Czech player broke the world number with one of many impressive forehands that she would hit for the remainder of the match.

The switch had been flipped, and Muchova would go on to put on the kind of show we saw from her in the semifinals, which included shots like this. But it wasn't easy because, as agile and quick and creative as Muchova is, her opponent is all that--and more. Muchova, however, was able to take the second set 7-5 on her second set point.

The third set was tense, as one might expect. Muchova quickly went up 2-0, and at 4-all, she had a break opportunity. If she managed to break Swiatek, would she be able to serve successfully for the match? We'll never know because Swiatek held her serve. Muchova, for her part, did not. The forehand that had served her so well for so many games let her down at the most important moment, and then she lost the match on a double fault.

"Honestly, this match was like so long, with so many ups and downs," Swiatek said after the match. "I kind of stopped thinking about the score. I wanted to use my intuition more, because I knew that I can play a little bit better if I'm going to get a little bit more loosened up."

This is Swiatek's fourth major title, and her third French Open title. In winning the tournament this year, the Polish star pulled off the rare feat of winning a major in consecutive years. As for Muchova, this is the first time that she has ever lost to a top-three player. Someone on Twitter commented that Muchova had every gift but health, which is true. What could have already been a great career was blocked repeatedly by injuries (in 2021, Muchova was told by doctors that might never play tennis again), but if the Czech player can stay healthy, she can still have that career.

"The feeling is a little bitter, because I felt it was very close," Muchova said after the match. "But overall, to call myself a Grand Slam finalist, it's an amazing achievement, and for sure big motivation"


Swiatek wasn't the only winner today. Top seed and defending champion Diede de Groot defeated Yui Kamiji 6-2, 6-0 to win her fourth French Open wheelchair singles title. However, de Groot and partner Maria Florencia Marino lost the doubles championship to top seeds Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane. It should be noted that de Groot was not playing with her usual partner, Aniek Van Koot, which explains the seeding, and quite possibly, the loss.

While she was in Paris, Diede the Great won her 100th consecutive match.

In juniors, 3rd seed Alina Korneeva won the title when she defeated 6th seed Lucciana Perez Alarcon 7-6, 6-3. Korneeva, who is Russian, also won the junior title at the 2023 Australian Open. Korneeva and her partner, Sarah Saito, were seeded number 1 in doubles, but lost the final to the USA team of Tyra Caterina Grant and Clervie Ngounoue, who defeated them 6-3, 6-2.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Who can penetrate the power of a Warrior Princess? (Answer: A Czech, of course)

Yesterday, I wrote that both Karolina Muchova and Beatriz Haddad Maia are very talented players who have had to deal with way more than their share of injuries. When you're injured several times, and especially when surgery is involved, it's very hard to maintain momentum on the tour. Had their bodies not been so vulnerable, both players would undoubtedly have higher rankings. 

Today, in the first semifinal, spectators and viewers got a chance to see Muchova in full flight, as she battled against 2nd seed (and Australian Open champion) Aryna Sabalenka. This match had everything--great serving, stinging ground strokes, serve-and-volley, intriguing net play, speed-sliding at wicked angles, cramping, and all manner of thrills. However, Sabalenka, who is known as the Warrior Princess, ultimately looked across the net and saw a warrior princess powered by laser beams.

Muchova held a set point at 5-4 in the opening set, but failed to convert it. The set went to a tiebreak, which Muchova won with a screaming backhand down the line. She then immediately broke in the second set, but Sabalenka broke back, and that set also went to a tiebreak, which Sabalenka won. The third set was so tense, I could almost feel its vibration through my television screen. There was some additional drama, as Muchova's leg began cramping, and Sabalenka kept changing her racket because she wasn't satisfied with the strong tension.

The end appeared near when Muchova served at 2-5, 0-30. Sabalenka would have a match point later in that game, but she failed to convert it. She then served for the match at 5-3, but Muchova broke her, and that was when "tense" became a real thing. At 5-all, the 2nd seed, already struggling with the production of unforced errors, double-faulted twice and was ultimately broken again. Suddenly, it was the Czech serving for the match at 6-5. She held at love, providing a stunning conclusion to an extremely high quality match.

Commentators love to talk about "weapons," but extremely important things like movement, shot variety, and court intelligence don't count in that category (presumably, they are too "feminine"). Maybe, for a laser-powered warrior princess, that's an advantage, because the opponent doesn't see the "attack" coming. (Justine Henin and Aga Radwanska could provide lengthy tutorials on this subject.) Muchova threw everything she had at Sabalenka, and--most notably--used her backhand slice to great advantage. Her second serve was very effective (something we don't see that often), and she converted all five of her break opportunities.

Commentators like to call Muchova's brand of tennis "old-school," but, in fact, it's just plain excellent tennis. Not every player can compete against a big hitter, but a smart player with a good serve can.

Last year, Muchova turned her ankle in the third round at Roland Garros and had to retire from her match against Amanda Anisimova. Once again, injury stopped her momentum. Now she's projected to return to the top 20, and--should she win the tournament--she'll be in the top 10. The Czech player, unseeded in Paris, arrived with a 4-0 record against top 3 players, and--as of yesterday--she made that a 5-0 record.

The other semifinal featured defending champion and top seed Iga Swiatek and Beatriz Haddad Maia, who--by the time she stepped onto Court Philippe-Chatrier--had already spent almost thirteen hours on the Roland Garros courts. Haddad Maia has physical and mental resources that sometimes defy belief. She's also a really good tennis player, but nothing that the Brazlian had going for her was enough to stop Swiatek. 

It started well for the 14th seed--she broke Swiatek at love. And while Swiatek went on to win the set 6-2, anyone familiar with Haddad Maia knew that the second set would be more complicated. It was. The Brazilian broke early, and remained steady, while Swiatek looked increasingly uncomfortable on the court. In a "normal" match, one could assume that a third set was forthcoming. But Swiatek has looked uncomfortable and out of sorts before, and each time, she has found ways to treat the discomfort as a mere annoyance, rather than a hindrance to her game.

Still, though, a third set seemed to be forthcoming when Haddad Maia went up 5-3 in the tiebreak. But she failed to execute a volley, and missed her chance to have set points. She continued to fight, though--as Haddad Maia always does--but the world number 1 won the tiebreak, 9-7. And while Swiatek has yet to drop a set at the French Open, that second set against Haddad Maia was extremely competitive. Swiatek's victory also assures that she holds on to her number 1 ranking.

Paths to the final:

Iga Swiatek (1)
round 1--def. Cristina Bucsa
round 2--def. Claire Liu
round 3--def. Wang Xinyu
round of 16--def. Lesia Tsurenko
quarterfinals--def. Coco Gauff (6)
semifinals--def. Beatriz Haddad Maia (14)

Karolina Muchova
round 1--def. Maria Sakkari (8)
round 2--def. Nadia Podoroska
round 3--def. Irina Camelia Begu (27)
round of 16--def. Elina Avanesyan (LL)
quarterfinals--def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
semifinals--def. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

In the meantime, Miyu Kato and Tim Puetz won the mixed doubles title, which had to feel especially good to Kato, who had to forfeit a women's doubles match when a ball that she hit landed on a ballgirl. Kato and Puetz defeated Bianca Andreescu and Michael Venus for the title.

And--surprise!--the women's wheelchair finalists are Diede De Groot and Yui Kamiji. Yet again. They are seeded 1 and 2, respectively. In wheelchair doubles competition, top seeds Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane will play De Groot and Maria Florencia Moreno for the title.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Top seeds to face talent and grit in French Open semifinals

Karolina Muchova is ranked number 43 in the world, but when you watch her play, you're likely to wonder why that ranking isn't higher. Her game--a beautiful combination of aggression, variety and fluidity--is hard to ignore. But the Czech player hasn't been able to use it to advance to the point where her potential appears to lie, primarily because her career has been plagued by her many injuries, and last year's injury layoff didn't help at all. But in Paris, Muchova's place in the draw is finally matching her considerable set of skills. 

Muchova started her French Open campaign in a big way, upsetting 8th seed Maria Sakkari. She then went on to upset Irina Camelia Begu and to defeat the impressive young Elina Avanesya. In the quarterfinals, Muchova defeated 2021 finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, putting her into the semifinals of a major for the second time--she reached the Australian Open semifinals in 2021.

Her opponent in the semis will be 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka, who ended Elina Svitolina's exciting run in the quarterfinals. Sabalenka's mental strength has improved signficantly. She can still go "off," but she can also bring herself back quickly. 

Today, world number 1 Iga Swiatek again defeated Coco Gauff, her opponent from last year's final. Gauff is now 0-7 against Swiatek.

Next for Swiatek is Beatriz Haddad Maia, the first Brazilian woman to reach the semifinals of the French Open in the Open Era, and the first woman to do so since Maria Bueno did it in 1968. During the past few years, I've expected Haddad Maia to go far in Paris, but until now, that feat eluded her; like Muchova, she has had many injuries and a few surgeries. But I'm not surprised to see her finally do it.

An examination of Haddad Maia's draw reveals that she has spent just 13 minutes short of 13 hours on the court in Paris, and all but one (first round) of her matches has gone three sets. Haddad Maia (perhaps we can start calling her "Bia the Beast"?) has considerable physical and mental resources to spare, and thrives on fighting extended battles. Today, she upset 7th seed Ons Jabeur after dropping the first set. She got some help from Jabeur in the final set; the Tunisian star looked flummoxed and dejected, a demeanor we haven't seen from her in a while.

We have finalists in mixed doubles: Miyu Kato and Tim Puetz will face off against Bianca Andreescu and Michael Venus for the trophy. Both teams are unseeded. The top seeds, Jessica Pegula and Austin Krajicek, were upset in the first round.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Quarterfinals set in Paris

Lesia Tsurenko, who has had to deal with way more than her share of injuries over the year--and especially with her chronically vulnerable elbow--made it all the way to the French Open round of 16, but had to retire in her match against Iga Swiatek. This time it was illness that brought the Ukrainian player down, and she retired at 1-5 in the first set. There are a few players on the tour who just can't seem to catch a break, and Tsurenko is one of them. 

A full match that also didn't last too long was  the played between Bernarda Pera and 7th seed Ons Jabeur. Jabeur won it, 6-3, 6-1, in just over an hour. Also winning today was 6th seed Coco Gauff, who defeated Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 7-5, 6-2. Schmiedlova made a comeback from 2-5 down in the first, but was unable stop Gauff.

And then there was the match that lasted for three hours and 51 minutes, not at all to my surprise. I wrote yesterday that my hope was that the round of 16 contest between Sara Sorribes Tormo and Beatriz Haddad Maia would be on at a time that I could watch it; the day before, I wrote that, given my luck, it would probably be on early.

Well, it was on early, and I felt cheated because I knew what kind of grinding, knock-down-drag-out fight they would get into. My luck wasn't all bad, though--the match went on for such a long time that I was able to watch the third set. I wasn't disappointed. Sorribes Tormo and Haddad Maia, both appearing indefatigable, threw everything they had at each other, and the result was wildly entertaining. Haddad Maia won, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5, and one hopes that she'll be able to recover adequately for her quarterfinal match.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Coco Gauff (6)
Beatriz Haddad Maia (14) vs. Ons Jabeur (7)
Karolina Muchova vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Elina Svitolina vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Gauff was the runner-up last year (lost to Swiatek in the final), and Pavlyuchenkova was the runner-up the year before (lost to Barbora Krejcikova in the final). Swiatek won the French Open in 2020 and 2022.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

In Paris, the upstarts keep upstarting

There are always upsets, and especially on clay, so it's no surprise that some big names dropped out of the French Open early. It does seem especially dramatic this year, though, because of the presence of a couple of young players whose names will become better known soon enough. 16-year-ld Mirra Andreeva, who already had plenty of buzz going around her, won three qualifying rounds, then made it to the third round, in which she took a set off of 6th seed Coco Gauff. 

Then there was lucky loser Elina Avanesya, who began her campaign by upsetting 12h seed Belinda Bencic, then went on to also take out young star Clara Tauson. Avanesya is the first lucky loser in 30 years to advance to the round of 16 of a major (only five players have accomplished this). And in that round of 16, Avanesya will face Karolina Muchova, which should be quite a test for the 20-year-old. Muchova, by the way, upset 8th seed Maria Sakkari in the first round.

Not all of the upstarts are among the very young. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, whose up-and-down career has always leaned toward the "up" part when Schmiedlova plays on clay, has reached the French Open round of 16 for the first time. Schmiedlova, who possesses an especially potent backhand, began with a bang, taking out 11th seed Veronika Kudermetova. She then went on to win two more rounds and has yet to drop a set. 

Then there's Bernarda Pera, who began with a win over Anett Kontaveit, knocked out 22nd seed Donna Vekic, then defeated Elisabetta Cocciaretto, the 22-year-old who upset Petra Kvitova in the first round.

It was a big first week for Ukrainian players. Elina Svitolina, returning to Paris as a new mom, won her first three rounds, but it was veteran Lesia Tsurenko who pulled off the shock upset: She defeated 2021 champion Barbora Krejicikova in the first round. Then, in the third round, she allowed only two games from a visibly sluggish Bianca Andreescu.

But the biggest upset was the one that commentators aren't even talking about: Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, the top seeds, lost in the first round of doubles to the unseeded Ulrikke Eikrei and Eri Hozumi, who defeated them 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. 

A good deal is being made of the fact that Krejcikova has gone out in the first round for two years straight, but this is not a fair assessment of the situation. In 2022, she was just coming back from a long injury layoff, and it didn't seem odd at all that she would make an early exit (but hey--who cares about context, right?). This year's upset, however, was shocking.

Last year, Krejcikova and Siniakova almost won the Grand Slam. They won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. However, they were unable to play at the French Open (where I feel reasonably sure they would have won the title) because Krejcikova was ill and the team had to withdraw. There is currently talk that the Czech pair has now missed a chance to win a non-calendar year Slam, so I'll take this opportunity to say: There is no such thing--you win the Grand Slam (and, by the way, a major is not a grand slam) or you don't. 

Krejcikova hasn't had an especially good clay season, but I did expect her to get past the first round, or even to come alive on the clay again and do something big. She and Iga Swiatek were on a collision course in the draw, which would have been interesting, since the Czech star has defeated the world number 1 twice in finals. Those finals were on hard courts, and it may be that it will be on hard courts that we see the best of Krejcikova in the future.

Here is the singles round of 16 draw:

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Lesia Tsurenko
Anna Karolina Schmiedlova vs. Coco Gauff (6)
Sara Sorribes Tormo vs. Beatriz Haddad Maia (14)
Bernarda Pera vs. Ons Jabeur (7)
Karolina Muchova vs. Elina Avanesya (LL)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Elise Mertens (28)
Elina Svitolina vs. Daria Kasatkina (9)
Sloane Stephens vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

My greatest viewing hope is that the Sorribes Tormo vs. Haddad Maia match is on at a time that I can watch it; it has the potential to be an intense clay contest.