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 Alizé 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.