Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Elegant Assassin leaves the game

Two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza has retired from professional tennis. This wasn't a surprise; the Spanish star has been on an extended leave from the game, and has strongly hinted that she might retire soon. Muguruza won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017. She won a total of ten singles titles, including the 2021 WTA Finals, and reached a singles ranking of number 1. Muguruza also won five doubles titles, and reached a doubles high ranking of number 10. She was on the Spanish Fed Cup team from 2015 to 2019, and was on the Spanish Olympic team in 2016.

Muguruza, who was born in Venezuela and moved to Spain when she was six, could be a bit of an enigma in terms of her persona. She sometimes appeared rather sullen on court, but then we would see her bringing her spirited (and in-form) dance moves to TikTok. She was, in my opinion, also a WTA fashion icon. In the 2020 off-season, Muguruza followed in the (metaphorical) footsteps of Amelie Mauresmo, and climbed a mountain.

Muguruza sustained an injury early in her career that set that career back a bit, but she came back strong and fulfilled the promise evident in her game. The Spaniard's combination of power and fluidity was special. She could take control of a match against any player, and she could make it look so easy, as though she were one with the court on which she stood. 

In addition to winning the French Open and Wimbledon, the Spanish star was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2015 (lost to Serena Williams), and she was an Australian Open finalist in 2020 (lost to Sofia Kenin).

Since 2017, Muguruza has served as an ambassador with Room To Read, a global non-profit that focuses on literacy and girls’ education in historically low-income communities. In announcing her retirement, Muguruza said that she has joined the Laureus World Sports Academy as an ambassador.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Some final words from the 2024 Credit One Charleston Open champion

Danielle Collins (photos by Daniel Ward)

"...I think for women with endometriosis, what I seem to have learned--and I'm not a medical expert, but I've talked to a couple of different people in the field--is that a lot of people are under the impression that painful periods are normal. Sometimes they can be normal, but sometimes they can be something more, and I just really encourage people to talk to their medical provider and to go annually to have their annual
gynecological exam. 

"I think it's really important that you communicate with those medical professionals and every once in a while maybe get a second opinion if needed. There's never any harm in doing that. And I've been really fortunate and lucky, I think, with the ability to have access to great medical staff and people that really listened to my concerns and took me seriously. I don't think it's always like that for all women, and especially in this country, we have a lot of health inequity."

Yeah, I feel like...one of my personal strengths starting at a young age was the problem solving. I remember I used to look at my dad during matches and I'd be like, 'dad, like help me!' And my dad's like, 'you know, you're going to figure it out.' You have to learn how to problem solve and think for yourself.

And I think that's something that I use to an advantage. I've, of course, had lots of people that have helped me along the way, coaches, physios at times. And I've had a lot of great instruction over the years. There've been periods [when] I've worked with people consistently. There've been people that have been here for six months or a year and have helped me...."

Danielle, to do this, no coach, no physio. You get in the car and drive up here and win this tournament. It's an amazing thing. Are you kind osurprised at yourself that you were able to do this coming off that long week in Miami?

"Yeah. I mean, I guess I'm just a low-maintenance gal, right?"

Only one survivor remains on Danielle Island

Danielle Collins (photos by Danielle Ward)

Sixty-four women competed in the Credit One Charleston Open main draw this week on Daniel Island, but--in the end--there was only one woman standing, and--to no one's surprise--that woman was Danielle Collins. Collins, who was unseeded, drove--with neither a coach nor a physio--to Charleston from Miami where, incidentally, she had just won the Miami Open. Winning two consecutive tournaments is a feat in itself, but winning a hard court tournament and then immediately winning a clay court tournament is another thing altogether.
photo by Daniel Ward

Collins dropped only one set the entire week, and that was to defending champion and 2nd seed Ons Jabeur, in the second round. Her very aggressive play took her past Paula Badosa, Jabeur, 2016 champion Sloane Stephens, 11th seed Elise Mertens, 3rd seed Maria Sakkari, and finally, 4th seed and 2017 champion Daria Kasatkina, whom she defeated 6-2, 6-1 in the final. The new champion is now on a thirteen-match win streak.
Daria Kasatkina and Danielle Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)

Quincy with Danielle and Dasha (photo by Daniel Ward)

One never likes to think that there's an inevitability about how a draw will turn out. This is tennis, and all kinds of things can happen--injuries, sudden, unexplained "flatness" on the court (e.a., Charleston in 2018), fatigue, and just plain big upsets. But as the week wore on, it did become increasingly hard to believe that anyone could stop Collins. Yesterday, before the second semifinal between Collins and Sakkari, Kasatkina was asked to give her thoughts about the upcoming match, and she said, "Collins is killing everyone, so we'll see." This morning, after the doubles final, Sloane Stephens remarked that "Danielle is smokin' everyone--she smoked me."

Collins had the highest first serve win percentage--72.73--of anyone who competed. She also won the most service games--84.21%, and she hit 21 serves in six matches (Taylor Townsend, who played only three matches, hit 29 aces). It should also be noted that on Thursday, Collins had to play two matches because of Wednesday's weather.

Sloane Stephens and Ashlyn Krueger (photo by Daniel Ward)

Collins wasn't the only winner today. Ashlyn Krueger and 2016 singles champion Sloane Stephens won the doubles title, defeating Lyudmyla Kichenok and Nadia Kichenok 1-6, 6-3, 10-7. Both teams were unseeded. This was the first doubles title for the team, and the first doubles title for both players.

l to r: Lyudmyla Kichenok, Nadia Kichenok, Sloane Stephens, Ashlyn Krueger (photo by Daniel Ward)


Some final thoughts before the final match at the Credit One Charleston Open

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)

"So if you want to be--if you want to compete on the good level, you have to always improve things. And I am one of the players who needs to--so if I want to compete, I have to be always on the highest level of my ability. So I have to be always in the best shape, which is tough to keep it all the time. But that's what I am trying to do all the time."
--Daria Kasatkina

 

 

 "I feel like I've been asked a lot of times, do you think because you announced your retirement, you're playing more freely? I think when that's being said, it's kind of like a vague thing or assumption to kind of make because it's easy to say, oh, well, she's retiring at the end of the year, so she must be playing so freely. But the reality is is that I've made improvements each match, and a lot of those improvements have  been technical, tactical. Athletically, there are things that I've improved, not remendously, but little by little. And I think it's important to highlight those things."
--Danielle Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)

Saturday, April 6, 2024

We have finalists in Charleston!

Daria Kasatkina (l) and Danielle Collins (photos by Daniel Ward)

Today, 4th seed and 2017 champion Daria Kasatkina and Danielle Collins advanced to the final of the Credit One Charleston Open. Kasatkina upset top seed Jessica Pegula 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5) in a well-played, momentum-swinging match that lasted two hours and 47 minutes. Collins defeated 3rd seed Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-3.
Maria Sakkari (photo by Daniel Ward)

Collins is now on a twelve-match streak after winning in Miami and reaching the final in Charleston. She has show no sign of either physical or mental fatigue throughout her week in Charleston. Kasatkina has played some of her very best tennis this week, and both women have provided delightfully entertaining interviews and press conferences all week long.

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)

"Danielle is, I think, playing the best tennis of her career right now," Kasatkina said of her upcoming opponent. "She's fearless. When she feels her game, she's one of the most dangerous players on tour, and she definitely feels it right now. She's in I don't know how many matches winning streak. So it doesn't matter that she was changing the surface. She doesn't care, it seems like." Earlier, at the Tennis Channel Desk, before the second semifinal, Kasatkina said that "Collins is killing everyone, so we'll see."

Jessica Pegula (photo by Daniel Ward)


Collins said of Kasatkina: "She's one of my favorite players to watch because she makes these matches so interesting. The way that she plays and her tennis IQ, how creative she is on court is phenomenal. I think against Daria I have to be very flexible. She has just about every tool in her toolbox. She can hit big. She can hit with shape. She can hit slices. She can come into the net. She does everything very, very well. She serves and returns well. She mixes up her pace. She's just solid all over. And so it's going to be a battle, and I have to be ready to play a long, tough match, if that's what's needed."

Kasatkina has a 2-1 record against Collins; they have not played each other since 2021. Here are the players' paths to the final:

Daria Kasatkina
round 1--bye
round 2--d. Ashlyn Krueger
round 3--d. Anhelina Kalinina
quarterfinals--d. Jaqueline Cristian
semifinals--d. Jessical Pegula (1)

Danielle Collins
round 1--d. Paula Badosa
round 2--d. Ons Jabeur* (2)
round 3--Sloane Stephens
quarterfinals--d. Elise Mertens (11)
semifinals--d. Maria Sakkari (3)

*defending champion

Friday, April 5, 2024

Maria Sakkari advances to the Credit One Charleston Open semifinals

Maria Sakkari (photo by Daniel Ward)

3rd seed Maria Sakkari advanced to the semifinals of the Credit One Charleston Open tonight when she defeated 9th seed and 2021 champion Veronika Kudermetova 6-2, 6-4 in the day's last quarterfinal.

"I played really well, probably the best match I've played here," Sakkari said. "Obviously the more I play on clay, the more I get used to the surface, and just felt very confident today while I was playing, and yeah, I knew it was going to be tough, but I just trusted myself."

Veronika Kudermetova (photo by Daniel Ward)

Sakkari will face off against Danielle Collins in the semifinals. The Greek star has a 2-1 record against Collins; they have not played each other since 2022. 

photo by Daniel Ward
 
In the other semifinal, top seed Jessica Pegula will play 4th seed and 2017 champion Daria Kasatkina. Pegula has a 2-0 record against the Russian star.

In doubles, wild cards Ashlyn Krueger and Sloane Stephens have reached the final. They defeated Olivia Nicholls and Heather Watson in the semifinals. As of this writing, the other semifinal, Lyudmyla Kichenok and Nadia Kichenok upset top seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez 7-6, 6-7, 13-11.

Danielle Collins extends her streak to eleven matches and advances to the Credit One Charleston Open semifinals

Danielle Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)

She did it again. Miami champion Danielle Collins defeated 11th seed Elise Mertens 6-3, 6-4 in the third final of the day at the Credit One Charleston Open. Following the match, Collins said that earlier this year, and toward the end of last year, she was playing well and had some close matches. "It's just like the difference of 'this much' in some of those outcomes, and the margins can be so slim, especially in these long three-set matches. And when sets are going 7-5 and 7-6 -- and I had a lot of those last year--and it was just a few points here and there. So now I'm kind of dealing with those situations when the sets get closer, like, a little bit better, and I feel like I'm also doing some things in the beginning of the matches, too, where I get off to a good start, and that's working in my favor."
photo by Daniel Ward

"...it was a no-brainer to come here," Collins said of coming to Charleston straight off of her Miami victory. "I also felt good physically, so it was kind of like, let's just try to keep it rolling and see how I do."

Elise Mertens (photo by Daniel Ward)


One tiebreak, nine match points--top seed Pegula wins a "really crazy match"

Jessica Pegula (photo by Daniel Ward)

Not to be outdone by Dasha Kasatkina and Jaqueline Cristian, number 1 seed Jessica Pegula and number 12 seed Victoria Azarenka put on their own thrill show in the second quarterfinal of the day at the Credit One Charleston Open. The match, which lasted two hours and 36 minutes, brought out the best in both players, and the third set tiebreak brought fans to the edges of their seats.

Victoria Azarenka (photo by Daniel Ward)
Pegula took the first set 6-4, Azarenka took the second, 6-3. The third set was as tense as a set could be, and after breaking Azarenka toward the end, Pegula went up 5-3 and served for the match. But Azarenka saved four match points, then made it 5-all. Pegula then had a quick, easy hold, then Azarenka took the match to a nerve-wracking tiebreak. This time, it was Pegula who saved four match points, then won the tiebreak 9-7.

After the match, Pegula said that "That was a really crazy match--really, really crazy....to be honest, I wasn't feeling that great. It was really windy. I was like, ugh, I'm tight. It's windy. It's not helping. Like you don't want to make stupid errors, but you want to still kind of like play your game, and the wind amplifies the nerves like ten times...."

Pegula went on to say that she was trying not to feel like she had given up. "I think I was just trying to stay calm and be like, okay, let's just see what happens, and luckily that was good enough today." The top seed summed it all up best, however, when she signed the Tennis Channel camera WTF?

photo by Daniel Ward

Matches don't get much better than this--Kasatkina wins the first quarterfinal of the day

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)

They held very long rallies. They zinged balls into the corners. They hit lobs, they spun against the wind, they hit more drop (successful) shots than I could count. 4th seed Daria Kasatkina and Jaqueline Cristian put on a show that had everyone in the stands excited inside the Credit One Stadium on Daniel Island in today's opening Credit One Charleston Open singles quarterfinal. 

Jaqueline Cristian (photo by Daniel Ward)
Cristian, who is unseeded, was somewhat of a surprise quarterfinalist. She had defeated both 2019 Madison Keys and 10th seed and hometown favorite Emma Navarro. And--in a first set that lasted an hour--the Romanian player came from behind several times to win the tiebreak 7-4. Kasatkina won the second set 6-2, and the third set 6-3. However, these were all very competitive sets that featured thrilling, high-quality tennis from both women. The match, which lasted two hours and 42 minutes, will be remembered as one of the best matches of the tournament (maybe even the best)

Kasatkina, who won the tournament in 2017, will next face either top seed Jessica Pegula or 12th seed Victoria Azarenka. Kasatkina and 2021 champion Veronika Kudermetova are the only two former champions who are still in the draw.

photo by Daniel Ward


Thursday, April 4, 2024

Danielle Collins plays two matches in one day and extends her match win streak to ten

Danielle Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)

It was a busy day for Miami champion Danielle Collins. She had to play two singles matches at the Credit One Charleston Open because most of yesterday's play was rained out. This morning, Collins played her second round match against defending champion and 2nd seed Ons Jabeur, and won it, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. It was one of those matches in which the crowd was more or less cheering for both players; Charleston fans are very big on Collins, but they also have strong positive feelings for Jabeur.

After the match, Jabeur said: "I think it was up-and-down match. I mean, it's tough to play players that have confidence, and Danielle is playing really good. I wish I could get the win today, but I feel like already taking a set from her was a good start....It's obviously sometimes very, very difficult when she returns very well. You don't know if you need to hit hard the ball or you need to make more serves in. And sometimes it's really frustrating when you think you serve really well and she has a good return."

This evening, Collins took out 2016 champion Sloane Stephens, 6-2, 6-2, and advanced to the quarterfinals. In the first round, Collins defeated Paula Badosa.

In other "catch up" second round play, wild card (and 5th seed) Beatriz Haddad Maia defeated Caroline Dolehide, Elise Mertens defeated Varvara Gracheva, Elina Svitolina defeated Daria Saville, and Sloane Stephens defeated Leylah Fernandez for the first time.

Veronika Kudermetova (photo by Daniel Ward)

In the remaining round of 16 matches, top seed Jessica Pegula defeated Magda Linette, Victoria Azarenka defeated Taylor Townsend, 3rd seed Maria Sakkari defeated lucky loser Astra Sharma, and Daria Kasatkina defeated Anhelina Kalinina. 2021 champion Veronika Kudermetova defeated Beatriz Haddad Maia, and Elise Mertens defeated Elina Svitolina. 

Jaqueline Cristian (photo by Daniel Ward)

Local favorite Emma Navarro lost to Jaqueline Cristian, who had already defeated 2019 champion Madison Keys. Cristian defeated Navarro 6-3, 5-7, 6-1; the match lasted almost two and a half hours. It should be noted that Cristian had a first serve win percentage of 74.

Cristian, who is ranked number 83 in the world, has reached only one other clay court quarterfinal--Palermo, in 2021.

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Jessica Pegula (1) vs. Victoria Azaarenka (12)
Daria Kasatkina (4) vs. Jaqueline Cristian
Veronika Kudermetova (9) vs. Maria Sakkari (3)
Elise Mertens (11) vs. Danielle Collins

Two long-time media volunteers win 2024 Charleston Open Volunteers of the Year award

Sal Kindel (l) and Lynn Coursey (photo by Daniel Ward)

This year’s Credit One Charleston Open Volunteers of the Year, Lynn Coursey and Sal Kindel, both volunteer for the media at the tournament, and some of us have known them for many years. Coursey, in fact, has a bit of a media cult following because of her “She’s…here!" introduction as each player enters the the room for her press conference.

Coursey and Kindel (photo by Daniel Ward)

Both Coursey and Kindel have worked as Charleston Open volunteers for a long time—Coursey for 20 years, and Kindel for 18. “We both started out as just regular volunteers,” Coursey explained, and the two ladies who were leading it when I moved up to be co-chair—one of them left. Nancy asked me to move up—she got shift leader, so I moved up. When Nancy got the job at the clubhouse, Sal moved up.”

Kindel became involved as a volunteer when her daughter was on the ball crew. She started at the ticket office, then—when there was a shortage among media volunteers—she was invited to cover for a week, and she never left.

Coursey’s story is different. She moved to Daniel Island in order to play tennis at the Charleson Open facility. “The second year when I came around, they had a little fan thing downtown, and all the players were on the stand, and it was just so much fun. I took a day off from work and volunteered with the USTA, and fell in love with it.” That was it for her—she became a tournament volunteer.

“It’s like a camp,” Coursey said. “You meet the same people every year, but you look forward to seeing them again.” “And it’s like you never left,” Kindel added.

Coursey’s favorite part of media volunteering is “seeing how it works, what it takes to make it work and make it work so well.”

“The people, for sure,” Kindel added, as her favorite part of volunteering. “And getting to see tennis up close.”

The two honored volunteers have many great memories of their time with the media, but—when asked to single out one or two—Kindel chose the infamous 2017 hailstorm evacuation. The media used to be housed in a temporary building we called the media tent, and when strong thunderstorms would come along, it would shake. In 2017, there was a hailstorm in addition to the thunderstorm, and we were told to evacuate, but first, we were given trash bags to wear to protect us from the rain. We were a sight.

Sal serving peak trash bag fashion (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

Her other choice was “Jankovic, when we were in the clubhouse during the storm. She was going from table to table, thanking everyone, and sharing a gift. Very, very gracious.”
 
Coursey’s standout memory was also about Jelena Jankovic. She got to interview the Serbian star about what she would do if she were a volunteer. (JJ fans—I know that your imaginations are running wildd right now.)

“I can’t imagine not being here,” Coursey said, and Kindel agreed: “People don’t understand why we take five days off of work.”

Both women said that anyone thinking about volunteering for media duties should just “give it a try” for “just one day,” and it would become clear why they take on the job year after year.

“I was on the subway in New York, going to the U.S. Open with my swag on,” Coursey recalled, “and a girl across the subway, from Georgia, saw it and asked me about it, and literally, the next year, she signed up—because I was on the subway.”

Although the media volunteers don’t regularly see each other outside of the tournament, they do get together for dinner before the event, and they have a party when the tournament is over. “I wouldn’t have found all the friends that we’ve made doing this,” Coursey said.

And as a member of the tennis media, I can attest to the fact that this year’s Volunteers of the Year recipients are more than worthy of the honor.They and their fellow volunteers do so many things for us—in the press room and in the stadium—and they do it all with style, dedication and humor.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Emma Navarro moves easily into the Charleston Open round of 16

Emma Navarro (photo by Daniel Ward)

It rained most of the day in Charleston, and play on Daniel Island didn't commence until a little after 5 p.m. All of the day matches had to be canceled, but the evening and night matches went on. 10th seed Emma Navarro, playing second on the Credit One Stadium court, defeated Katie Volynets 6-1, 6-1. Prior to tonight's match, Navarro had been 0-3 against Volynets. Next for the 10th seed is Jaqueline Cristian, who upset 2019 champion Madison Keys last night to get the biggest win of her career.

Anhelina Kalinina (photo by Daniel Ward)

Earlier in the evening, Anhelina Kalinina defeated 2011 champion Caroline Wozniacki 6-2, 6-3. Kalinina changed the pace frequently, and used her deft footwork to take Wozniacki out of her comfort zone. The Ukrainian player also beat Wozniacki in Miami a couple of weeks ago. Kalinina's next opponent will be 2017 champion Daria Kasatkina, who--tonight--defeated Ashlyn Krueger 6-3, 0-6, 6-1.

Victoria Azarenka (photo by Daniel Ward)
In the meantime, lucky loser Astra Sharma defeated Lesia Tsurenko 6-4, 6-0, and Victoria Azarenka defeated Elisabetta Cocciaretto 6-1, 6-2. Also tonight, 2021 champion Veronika Kudermetova defeated wild card Shelby Rogers 7-6, 6-

As I write this, the match featuring Taylor Townsend and Ekaterina Alexandrova is still in progress.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Top seed Pegula takes the long road to the third round in Charleston

Jessica Pegula (photo by Daniel Ward)

The featured match tonight in Charleston lasted almost two hours and twenty-seven minutes, but--to observers--it sometimes felt as if it were dragging on even longer. Top seed Jessica Pegula and Amanda Anisimova experienced so many momentum swings that it was difficult to get a read on what was taking place.

Anisimova took the first set 6-3 in a pretty decisive fashion, going up 5-0 before Pegula was able to assert herself. The former world number 25 won that set 6-3, but then had to face a determined top seed. To make her job even harder, she also sustained a back injury. Pegula took that set 6-4. The third set was not unlike the second, in that the momentum swings occurred so frequently. It was also a tense set, in which Anisimova had to keep coming from behind. 

Throughout the match, Pegula was able to flummox her opponent with returns that stayed very low, and she had a consistently excellent read on Anisimova's shot placement. But Anisimova didn't make it easy for her. There was some stunning shot-making on both sides, but there were also a lot of errors. The third set, probably to no one's surprise, went to a tiebreak, which Pegula won. 

Amanda Anisimova (photo by Daniel Ward)
 

Later, at her press conference, Pegula confirmed that she hit as much as she could to Anisimova's forehand because "You don't want to go to her backhand. Her backhand is money. I always say I think she has the best backhand on tour....I don't really want to go there much." 

Pegula also talked about her determination to move her opponent around the court. "When she's set up, it's really tough, and she hits one of the cleanest balls out there and can really overpower you. So you definitely want to try and keep her moving as much as possible."

Also today, 3rd seed Maria Sakkari defeated Victoriya Tomova 6-3, 6-3, and 2016 champion Sloane Stephens defeated Magdalena Frech 6-0, 6-2. And Astra Sharma, who won the 2021 MUSC Health Women's Open 250 in Charleston, won her second round match against Arina Rodionova. Also winning today were Magda Linette, Elisabetta Cocciaretto, Caroline Dolehide, Ashton Krueger, and Taylor Townsend. Linette upset 13th seed Dayana Yastremska, and Townsend defeated Sofia Kenin. 

Danielle Collins (photo by Daniel Ward)
 

And then there was Danielle Collins. The newly crowned Miami champion had to face former world number 2 Paula Badosa, who has struggled on and off for months with a back injury. Badosa hit some very fast, powerful serves, which were often returned as fast and as powerfully by Collins, who occasionally left the Spanish star with a "What do I have to do?" expression on her face. Collins, who hit eight aces, won that match 6-1, 6-4. 

Paula Badosa (photo by Daniel Ward)

Finally, when the deejay broke out "Respect" as Jaqueline Cristian upset 2019 champion Madison Keys, it was a really special moment for the Romanian player. Cristian, making her Charleston debut, got the biggest win of her career, and her second top 20 victory. She had already defeated Elena Rybakina, who was ranked nunber 20 in the world at the time, and tonight she beat the world number 18 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Early in the evening, I enjoyed the final part of an interview that Tracy Austin, Alison Riske-Amritraj and Monica Puig did with Ellen Perez, and I stuck around to hear them talk about the singles draw. They all had really good things to say about both Emma Navarro and Danielle Collins, and Riske-Amritraj and Puig talked about their friendships with Collins. Earlier in the day, Riske-Amritraj walked into Collins' press conference and they had a reunion.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Top Charleston seeds talk with the media

clockwise, from top: Emma Navarro, Jessica Pegula, Victoria Azarenka, Elina Svitolina, Maria Sakkari, Beatriz Haddad Maia. Center: Ons Jabeur (all photos by Daniel Ward)

Seven of the top seeds participated in Media Day at the Credit One Charleston Open today, and they talked about everything from adjusting to clay courts to motherhood to their love of the tournament, as well as mental health, living in the now, and--a boat named Ons.

Emma Navarro told us that “Coming back this year, I feel like I’ve really earned my spot.” The 10th seed said that she felt like she had a level to work toward, and “I kind of took a slower approach, a slower and more gradual approach.”

“From the outside," she said, "it may seem like it happened overnight,..." but it was a deliberate progression, and one which has made her feel comfortable. Navarro said that she and her coach have taken this approach since she was 12, with her mastering one step before moving to the next.

She added that winning a title has boosted her confidence, and--while it's not her favorite thing--she's leaning into being more in the spotlight.

I am a very fighting girl.

Wild card Beatriz Haddad Maia told us about how nice it was to stay with a local family when she was in Charleston before, and she is still in touch wih that family. The Brazilian, famous for her long three-set matches, said that "I am a very fighting girl.... “I try to not think in the fatigue…I try not to expend energy on other things." Haddad Maia said that she is working on being "more constant in matches."

Vika Azarenka talked about her fondness for the tournament, and about her activism for mothers on the tour. Not all of them, she explained, have her level of financial security and they need support. She also talked about her son, who is now old enough to appreciate tennis, and how she wants to model for him the degree of hard work that is required if one is to be a serious athlete. 

Azarenka  also called for more empathy online and in general public discourse. 

She revealed that she not only refuses to look at the draw, but that she refuses to participate in any WTA draw ceremony, saying that she will do anything to help the tour except for that. “I actually despise the projections of people who are doing it…most of the time they’re wrong.” The two-time Australian Open champion said that she wants to live in the now, and she can't do that if she's looking ahead at the names of her upcoming opponents.

Jess Pegula told us that she has been working on her serve this year. She, too, talked about how much the tournament means to her, Pegula said that players are eager to give back to the event because they are so appreciative of it. And while--in some ways--the Charleston Open is a "home" event for her, she said that she also feels at home in several other locations because she has moved around so much.

Maria Sakkari told us that she likes the green clay as a transitional surface—it's like a hard court, but there is still sliding and having to be more patient. Each player was asked to report a question that they had never been asked by the media. All (but one) of them struggled with this topic, and Sakkari thought about it, rambled a bit, then told the questioner "I'll get back to you--you're here for a few days? It's a deal!"

It's not always good days....

The one player who was quick to answer the question about the unasked question was Elina Svitolina. It didn't take her long to say that she wished that more questions were asked about players' mental health. "It's not always good days...for the players," she added.

Like those before her, Switolina was quick to praise the Credit One Charleston Open, saying that she has "great memories from the amazing organization of this tournament." She also praised the Charleston crowds for their enthusiasm--not just for big matches, but even for practice sessions. "Players," she said, "are happy to be here."

Svitolina also talked about the challenges of playing on clay. "You have to always be on the front foot, " she explained, because there is "no room for a misstep." 

Asked what she--a very busy woman--does in her spare time, Svitolina answered that "I always try to use it in a beneficial way for me. I like to learn new things and discover something that I'm not good in." The Ukrainian star watches educational videos and research videos so that she can learn things that can help her with tennis, with managing her foundations, and "to be a good mom."  

Finally, we heard from defending champion Ons Jabeur. Fans may recall that, in 2022, Jabeur said that if she won the tournament, she wanted to do the photo shoot at Cypress Gardens because of its prominent place in the book and film, The Notebook. Jabeur came close that year--she made it to the final, but lost the title to Belinda Bencic. Last year, Jabeur won (with Bencic taking home the runner-up trophy), but there was no time for a Cypress Gardens photo shoot.

What should be done, she was asked, if she defends her title this year? Her latest Cypress Gardens idea? Name a boat the Credit One Ons Jabeur

It turns out that the Tunisian star visited the gardens on Saturday and may make another visit before she leaves Charleston, a city in which she said she would consider living. "When I play here, I feel amazing because the crowd, they bring something out in me."

Asked what--given the context of her injury-riddled season--it feels like to be the defending champion, Jabeur revealed that "With what's happened lately--doesn't help much."

And when asked if she has expectations for the clay season, Jabeur replied, "I hate expectations."  She added, though, that she thinks that the surface will be better for her injured knee than the hard courts have been this year. She also said that she's having "excellent practices." 



Friday, March 29, 2024

Previewing the Credit One Charleston Open

photo by Diane Elayne Dees
 

Six former champions--Caroline Wozniacki (2011), Sloane Stephens (2016), Daria Kasatkina (2017), Madison Keys (2019), Veronika Kudermetova (2021), and Ons Jabeur (2023)--will compete in the 2024 Credit One Charleston Open. The top seed is Jessica Pegula, followed by Jabeur, Maria Sakkari, Kasatkina, and wild card Beatriz Haddad Maia.

Unfortunately, 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova had to withdraw from the field.

And of note: Ekaterina Makarova, who retired from professional tennis in 2020, is back, and will be competing in the qualifying rounds on March 30 and 31. Makarova is a former world number 8 in singles and world number 1 in doubles.

You can see the entire player field (minus qualifiers) here.

Some of the hottest competitors on the tour right now--including Danielle Collins (who, tomorrow, will contend for the Miami title), Emma Navarro, Anna Kalinskaya, Anhelina Kalinina, Dayana Yastremska, and Taylor Townsend--will be in Charleston. Paula Badosa will continue her comeback from injury at the Charleston Open, and Amanda Anisimova will make her return to the courts.

The Credit One Charleston Open, with its state-of-the-art Credit One Stadium, is the largest women's-only tournament in North America, and attracts 90,000 fans annually. The event is also the only women's clay court tournament in North America.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees
Last year, for the first time in the tournament's history, the previous year's finalists once again were the last two standing. In 2022, Belinda Bencic won the event, and Ons Jabeur was the runner-up. In 2024, they switched roles, with Jabeur prevailing as the champion.

The top doubles seeds in 2024 are Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez, followed by second seeds Caroline Dolehide and Desirae Krawczyk and third seeds Miyu Kato and Aldila Sutjiadi.

The Charleston Open is played on green clay, which generally plays a bit faster than red clay. It is also the home of the Althea Gibson Club Court, which is a favorite among both players and fans. The event was played in Hilton Head for 28 years, then moved to Daniel Island in 2001. It was the Family Circle Cup for many years, then the Volvo Car Open, and the title sponsor is now Credit One Bank.

The initial Charleston tournament was played in 1973, and it was the first women's tournament to be broadcast on network television.


Saturday, February 24, 2024

2024 so far: trophies, coaching changes, and--at long last--a new Fighting Italian

The 2024 season isn't even two months old, but there's a lot going on. 

The big early-season news, of course, is that Aryna Sabalenka won her second consecutive Australian Open title. The world number 2, long known for her shaky serve, has put that problem behind her; her Melbourne run was very impressive. Of note: This year's finalist was Zheng Qinwen, who is now number 7 in the world.

While it's sad news, it has the potential to be good news: Karolina Muchova just had surgery for her troublesome risk. Muchova is an extremely talented player. When she had that span of good health last year, we saw her reach the final of the French Open and also the U.S. Open semifinals. But 2024 brought on more injury, so the Czech player--who finally reached the top 10, but will now drop out of it--so surgery was the answer.

Both world number world number 5 Jessica Pegula and world number 11 Maria Sakkari announced that they had parted ways with their coaches. Pegula is no longer being coached by David Witt, while Sakkari ended a six-year relationship with Tom Hill.

Danielle Collins announced that this will be her final year on the tour. The 2022 Australian Open finalist took the long road to join the tour; she played college tennis and won the NCAA singles title twice. Collins is 30 years old.

2024 is also the year (perhaps the only one?) that Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova--members of a very elite doubles team--are playing with other partners. So far, so good for Siniakova--she and Storm Hunter just won the Dubai championship.

Now, cue the new year, and enter--stage left, right and everywhere--Alona Ostapenko. The Latvian star has already won two tournaments--Adelaide and Linz, both 500 events. There's no point, ever, in trying to determine what these big wins mean, but it will be interesting, as always, to watch Ostapenko this season.

It sounds odd to say that former world number 1 Karolina Piskova just made a comeback, of sorts, but she recently did, in Transylvania. It was there that Pliskova won her first title since 2020. It was a 250 event, but it still has to be a confidence-booster.

Meanwhile, Elena Rybakina won Brisbane and Abu Dhabi (both 500 events), delivering a bagel to Aryna Sabalenka in the Brisbane final. The 2022 Wimbledon champion reached a third final, in Doha, but lost that one to Iga Swiatek, which now gives her a 3-2 record against the world number 1. 

Swiatek started the year strong by winning the United Cup, and then won the 1000 event in Doha. She looked good in Dubai, too, until she came up against qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, and lost in the semifinals. 

Diana Shnaider won the Thailand Open, the first singles title of her career, and Elise Mertens won the tournament in Auckland.

That brings us to Dubai, also a 1000 event. Qualifier Anna Kalinskaya had an amazing run, taking out three top 10 players (world number 9 Alona Ostapenko, world number 4 Coco Gauff, and world number 1 Iga Swiatek. Kalinskaya gave us a taste of what she's capable of at the Australian Open when she made a run to the quarterfinals. 

In the Australian Open round of 16, Kalinskaya defeated Jasmine Paolini in straight sets before she lost to eventual runner-up Zheng Qinwen. This week, in Dubai, after going through qualifying and taking out the aforementioned top 10 players, Kalinskaya fell to Paolini in the final. It was an excellent final, too, with a lot of momentum swings. In the end, though, Paolini, who--like her opponent--has been getting better and better in the last several months--defeated Kalinskaya 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. 

The unseeded Paolini is something we haven't seen in a long time--an authentic Fighting Italian. She did get a little help in Dubai from Rybakina, who gave Paolini a walkover in the semifinals because of a viral illness. But the champion did her share of heavy lifting, defeating 11th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, Leylah Fernandez, 6th seed Maria Sakkari, and Sorana Cirstea. It was a great tournament, with so-called "surprise" finalists, and a lovely trophy ceremony.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

My Australian Open top 10

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

10. Want to see a comeback?: Mirra Andreeva was down 1-5 in the third set of her third round match against Diane Parry, but--no worries. The 16-year-old (who had already upset 6th seed Ons Jabeur) fought her way back, saved a match point, and--after two hours and 23 minutes--emerged victorious, 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (5).

9. Super-sized popcorn required!: Ukrainian players were on fire at this Australian Open, and Marta Kostyuk was one of them. She played 4th seed Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals, and I doubt that anyone expected to see what would unfold during the next three hours (and eight minutes). The entire match was a festival of alternating brilliance and error production. They just coudn't stop making mistakes, but they also couldn't stop making outstanding shots. In all, they made 107 unforced errors, pretty evenly divided between them. Kostyuk hit 39 winners, Gauff hit 17. There were 16 breaks of serve. Gauff finally broke away in the third set, and won the match 7-6, 6-7, 6-2. It was a mess, yet it was wildly entertaining.

8. Oops: The first two rounds were brutal for some of the top seeds. In the first round, 7th seed Marketa Vondrousova was upset, though--to be fair--she was obviously struggling with a hip injury, and I'm not sure why she even entered the tournament. Both 13th seed Liudmila Samsonova and 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova were also upset, as was two-time champion Naomi Osaka. Osaka, it should be noted, was just returning to the tour after giving birth.

The second round was more shocking. 3rd seed Elena Rybakina went out in a thrilling contest against Anna Blinkova, and 5th seed Jessica Pegula, 6th seed Ons Jabeur, and 8th seed Maria Sakkari were all upset. In addition, 14th seed Daria Kasatkina and 16th seed Caroline Garcia (who beat Osaka in the opening round) were defeated.

7. Nobody's perfect: Top seed Iga Swiatek did make it to round 3, but then, she, too, was shown the exit by young Czech player Linda Noskova. Swiatek won the fist set, but then failed to convert some crucial break points, while her opponent was happy to break her. Noskova was fearless in competing against the world number 1, and her willingness to take control gave her the biggest victory of her young career.

6. At long last: When Dayana Yastremska was a junior, all eyes were on her, but--as is often the case with gifted juniors--she was unable to find the consistency that creates success on the tour (though she did reach a world ranking of 21). It should also be noted that the Ukrainian player has been through some stuff--no need to go into all of it here, but there have been multiple stressors in her life. At this Australian Open, though, Yastremska began to deliver on that early promise.

She had to qualify to play in the main draw, so she had already won three matches when she began her campaign, in which the first victim was the aforementioned injured 7th seed. She then went on to beat the likes of 27th seed Emma Navarro, two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, and Swiatek-slayer Noskova. Her Ostapenko-type tendencies got her in trouble in the semifinals, though, and she lost to eventual finalist Zheng Qinwen. But what a run it was, and here's hoping for more.

5. Diede the Great makes it six: The top seed and defending champion arrived in less than perfect condition; she'd been carrying a small injury and suffering from a cold. But that didn't stop her from claiming her sixth Australian Open singles title. Once again, Diede de Groot defeated 2nd seed Yui Kamiji in a final, though, in this final, Kamiji had more opportunities than is usually the case. de Groot and her partner, Jiske Griffioen, seeded 2nd, defeated top seeds Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjaneto to win the doubles title. 

deGroot has now won 21 singles majors, 17 doubles majors, six Masters titles, eight World Team Cup titles, four Paralympic medals (three gold, one silver) in doubles, and a Golden Slam. She has also won the Grand Slam in singles three times, and is the only tennis player to win the Grand Slam two consecutive years; in 2019, she also won the doubles Grand Slam. 

4. Casual slaying: Hsieh Su-wei, known by fans as the Casual Queen, joined Jan Zielinski in winning the mixed doubles title. In so doing, they denied Desirae Krawcyzk (partnered with Neal Stupski) the Grand Slam. This was Hsieh's first mixed doubles title and her seventh major title--all in doubles. Playing with various partners, Hsieh has won the French Open and the U.S. Open twice, and she has won Wimbledon four times.

3. Match point palooza!: If you were able to watch only one match in Melbourne, I hope that it was the second round match contested by 3rd seed Elena Rybakina and Anna Blinkova. Blinkova, whose talent is often overlooked, took Rybakina through a three-set ordeal that lasted over two and three-quarter hours, and ended in an upset, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (20). The 42-point tiebreak was the longest tiebreak ever played in a major. Rybakina saved nine match points--seven of them in the seemingly endless tiebreak--and Blinkova saved six, and won on her tenth match point. It was an extremely well-played match, and an exciting pleasure to watch.

2. Casual slaying by committee: Hiesh Su-wei wasn't content with winning just one title--she and partner Elise Mertens, seeded 2nd, defeated 11th seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alona Ostapenko 6-1, 7-5 in the women's doubles final. This makes eight major titles for Hsieh--seven in doubles and one in mixed doubles. This is Mertens' second Australian Open title; she and Aryna Sabalenka won the title in 2021. Mertens and Hsieh won Wimbledon in 2021, and Mertens and Sabalenka won the U.S. Open in 2019.

1. She liked it so much, she did it again: Last year's Australian Open champion, Aryna Sabalenka, looked unbeatable in Melbourne this year, and it turned out that she was. The defending champion buzzed through the draw without dropping a set (last year, she didn't drop a set until she reached the final). She defeated 9th seed Barbora Krejcikova and 4th seed Coco Gauff, then needed only two sets to defeat 12th seed and finalist Zheng Qiwen. Sabalenka, who once struggled terribly with her serve, now struggles with pretty much nothing, and the hard courts in Australia suit her well. She was number 1 in the world for a brief time last year, and will undoubtedly be seeking to regain that distinction in 2024.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Sabalenka wins her second Australian Open title

If pressure really is a privilege, it may take Zheng Qinwen a while to realize it. In the Australian Open final, the big-serving, athletic Zheng, who knows her away around a tennis court, couldn't find her way around the scary version of defending champion Aryna Sabalenka that has dominated for two straight years in Melbourne. 

If you look at the match stats, it's obvious that--for the most part--Zheng held her own: She had a very high (74) first serve win percentage, she hit six aces, she hit more winners than her opponent, and she made only a couple more unforced errors than Sabalenka. But those stats don't tell the whole story. Zheng also double-faulted six times because of the relentless pressure that was put on her serve. And throughout the entire match, Zheng held only one break point, toward the very end, which she failed to convert.

Sabalenka's hard, fast hitting was more than Zheng could handle. The defending champion never let up on her opponent, and--after an hour and 16 minutes, she held the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup again. Sabalenka failed to drop a set, and delivered three bagels along the way. She is the first woman to win in Melbourne two years in a row since her countrywoman, Victoria Azarenka, did it in 2012 and 2013.

The good news for Zheng is that next week, she will enter the top 10.

Sabalenka wasn't yesterday's only champion. Top seed Renata Jamrichova of Slovakia defeated 6th seed Emerson Jones of Australia 6-4, 6-1 to win the junior girls title.

And, of course, there was Diede the Great. Top seed and defending champion Diede de Groot yet again defeated 2nd seed Yui Kamiji (7-5, 6-4) to win her sixth Australian Open singles title, and her fourth consecutive one. She and partner Jiske Griffieon had already won the doubles title. de Groot has now won 21 majors in singles, and 18 in doubles (not to mention all the Masters titles, World Team Cup titles and Paralympic medals--it boggles the mind).



Friday, January 26, 2024

The defending champion vs. the upstart--we have our Australian Open finalists

Throughout this Australian Open, it appeared highly unlikely that defending champion Aryna Sabalenka was going to wind up anywhere but back in the final, and that's exactly where she landed. Battling to be her opponent were qualifier Dayana Yastremska and 12th seed Zheng Qinwen. Yastremska had already played eight matches by the time she arrived at the semifinals, but she appeared fit and fresh for the competition. Was she tired mentally? Perhaps. I say that because she was just a bit too "Ostapenko" to survive Zheng. Of course, Yastremska has a tendency to be an "all or nothing" player under any circumstances, but it would have served her well to have been more strategic (she has demonstrated that she can be) against the young Chinese star. Zheng won the match 6-4, 6-4.

For her part, Sabalenka defeated Coco Gauff (against whom she had a losing record) 7-6, 6-4 to reach the final. The defending champion has yet to drop a set in Melbourne, and now, only Zheng stands in her way. No one has won the Australian Open twice consecutively since Victoria Azarenka, Sabalenka's countrywoman, did it in 2012 and 2013.

Paths to the final:

Zheng Qinwen (12)

round 1--def, Ashlyn Krueger
round 2--def. Katie Boulter
round 3--def. Wang Yafan
round of 16--def. Oceane Dodin
quarterfinals--def. Anna Kalinskaya
semifinals--def, Dayana Yastremska (Q)

Aryna Sabalenka (2)

round1--def, Ella Seidel
round 2--def. Brenda Fruhvirtova (Q)
round 3--Lesia Tsurenko (28)
round of 16--def. Amanda Anisimova
quarterfinals--def, Barbora Krejcikova (9)
semifinals--def. Coco Gauff (4)

It should be noted that, although Zheng did not face any seeded players, she still had to face tough opposition. In addition to defeating an (almost) in-form Yasteremska, she barely escaped Wang Yafan,  defeating her 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (8).

Meanwhile, Hsieh Su-wei, with partner Jan Zielinski, won the mixed doubles championship. Hsieh and Zielinski defeated Desierae Krawczyk and Neal Stupski in the final. Had Krawczyk and Stupski won, Krawczyk would have achieved the Grand Slam (a reminder--there is no such thing as a "calendar slam"--it's the Grand Slam or it's nothing--other than a good run). Now she'll have to wait a year to try for that distinction.

In doubles,  11th seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alona Ostapenko defeated 2023 U.S. Open champions and 4th seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe 7-5, 7-5 to reach the final. Mixed doubles champion Hsieh Su-wei and Elise Mertens, seeded 2nd, defeated 3rd seeds Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova 7-6, 1-6, 6-3 to reach the final.

We have women's wheelchair doubles champions, and--no surprise--they are 2nd seeds Diede de Groot and Jiske Griffioen. They defeated top seeds Yui Kamiji and Kgothatso Montjane in the final.

In wheelchair singles (all together now!), top seed and defending champion Diede de Groot will face off agianst 2nd seed Yui Kamiji.