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.