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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Yastremska hits her way to the Australian Open semifinals

Dayana Yastremska has never had a shortage of talent. As a junior, she received a lot of attention, and much was expected of her. She did reach a career ranking high of 21, but her inconsistency kept her from realizing anything more. However, as a qualifier at the 2024 Australian Open, she has finally made good on those expectations. The singing Ukrainian has held her nerve through eight matches, knocking out the likes of (an injured) Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, two-time champion Australian Open Victoria Azarenka, and young Czech star Linda Noskova. 

Yastremska is the last Ukrainian standing in what has been a banner event for Ukrainian players. Marta Kostyuk defeated 25th seed Elise Mertens and break-out player Maria Timofeeva before losing to Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals. Sadly, Ukrainian star Elina Svitolina--who was playing at a very high level--had to retire in the first set of her round of 16 match when her back went out. 

4th seed Coco Gauff dropped a set in her highly entertaining match against Kostyuk, but pevailed, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2. Gauff was certainly not playing her best tennis in this match, but her champion's mind allowed her to stay calm and focused, and to solve the problem in front of her.

12th seed Zheng Qinwen, whose progress in the last couple of years has been steady and impressive, defeated quarterfinalist Anna Kalinskaya 6-7, 6-3, 6-1. And while a resurgent 9th seed Barbora Krejciova had a really good run, taking out young Russian star Mirra Andreeva, she fell in straight sets to defending champion Aryna Sabalenka. 

Here is the women's singles semifinal draw:

Dayana Yastremska (Q) vs. Zheng Qinwen
Coco Gauff (4) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Yastremska and Zheng have never played each other. Gauff is 4-2 against Sabalenka, and 3-1 against her on hard courts.

In doubles, 3rd seeds Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova defeated 5th seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Laura Siegemund in the quarterfinals. Until the end of last year, Krejcikova and Siniakova were partners, and had been partners since they were juniors. Together, they won seven majors (including the 2022 and the 2023 Australian Open), the 2021 WTA Finals, and an Olympic gold medal. They have a career slam, and they were on their way to winning the Grand Slam in 2022, but Krejcikova became ill and they had to withdraw from the French Open (they did win the other three majors that year).

The 2024 Melbourne quarterfinal lasted two hour and 44 minutes, and Krejcikova sustained an injury while playing. It made me sad to see the perfunctory handshake between the Czechs after the match. The pair, in making the announcement about the split (Siniakova's idea) said that they would not play together in 2024. This makes me think that the door is open, and I do hope that they reunite.

Hunter and Siniakova will face 2nd seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Elise Mertens in the semifinals. In he other semifinal, 11th seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alona Ostapenko (who defeated Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic in the quarterfinals) will play 4th seeds and 2023 U.S. Open champions Gabriela Dobrowski and Erin Routliffe.

Hsieh is also into the mixed doubles final. She and partner Jan Zielinski, the 3rd seeds, will compete against 2nd seeds Desirae Krawczyk and Neal Shupski. If Krawczyk and Shupski win the championship, Krawczyk will achieve the Grand Slam.

In wheelchair singles competition, top seed and defending champion Diede de Groot had to work a bit in her quarterfinal match against sometime doubles partner, Aniek Van Koot. de Groot dropped the first set, and Van Koot saved four match points, but the top seed prevailed, 3-6, 6-1, 6-0. de Groot's next opponent will be her current doubles partner, 3rd seed Jiske Griffioen.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Unseeded Ukrainian players reach Australian Open quarterfinals

The new, and deadly, version of Elina Svitolina arrived in Melbourne with an opportunity to go very deep within the draw, and she was, perhaps, on her way to realizing that opportunity when her back gave out and she had to retire in the first set of her round o 16 match. This was unfortunate, especially considering the fact that three Ukrainian players made it to the round of 16, and--had Svitolina emerged victorious over opponent Linda Noskova--there would have been three Ukrainians in the quarterfinals.

The other two are Marta Kostyuk and Dayana Yastremska. Yesterday, Yastremska, a qualifier, defeated 18th seed and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in straight sets. Azarenka had some problems with her first serve, which definitely helped Yastremska, but it should be noted that the Ukrainian player performed superbly. Now she will face Noskova in the quarterfinals.

I didn't get to see the match played between Jasmine Paolini and Anna Kalinskaya, and I was somewhat surprised to see that it was a straight-set affair, won by Kalinskaya. 

The other two Russians in the round of 16, both young players on the rise, were defeated. Marta Kostyuk allowed break-out player Maria Timofeeva only three games, while 9th seed Barbora Krejcikova defeated Mirra Andreeva in three sets.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Linda Noskova vs. Dayana Yastremska (Q)
Anna Kalinskaya vs. Zheng Qinwen (12)
Marta Kostyuk vs. Coco Gauff (4)
Barbora Krejcikova (9) vs Aryna Sabakenka (2)

There have been some interesting goings-on in doubles competition. In the second round, Kiki Mladenovic, playing with former partner Caroline Garcia, defeated former partner Tiimea Babos and Anna Bondar. The unseeded Garcia and Mladenovic will face 11th seeds Lyudmyla Kichenok and Alona Ostapenko in the quarterfinals, and that should be a match worth watching. 

Also in the quarterfinals, 5th seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Laura Siegemund will face off against 3rd seeds Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova. Krejcikova and Siniakova, who had been partners since their junior days, split at the end of the 2023 season. (They announced the split as "for 2024," and I take that seriously; I believe that they will ultimately get back together.)

Top seeds Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff withdrew from the tournament before competition began.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

An intriguing round of 16 draw at the Australian Open

Every major features shock (and not-so-shock) upsets, the break-out of young stars, and the resurgence of players who were either once highly-ranked or who were forgotten along the way. But this Australian Open is especially dramatic with regard to who's in and who's out.

The big news, of course, is that young Czech star Linda Noskova upset world number 1 Iga Swiatek in the third round yesterday. Swiatek barely escaped big hitter Danielle Collins in the second round, and big hitter Noskova was more than she could handle. (However, contrary to the musings of so-called fans on social media, Swiatek is neither "finished" nor "mediocre;" she is an elite player who lost a match to someone who outplayed her. Imagine that.)

Another huge upset, of course, was that of 2nd seed Elena Rybakina, who played what will undoubtedly be one of the matches (if not the match) of the year against Anna Blinkova, the talented Russian who has stayed under the radar for some time. Blinkova won their third set tiebreak 22-20, in the longest tiebreak ever played at a major. I thought that she might be too mentally spent to win her third round match, but I was wrong--she appeared physically spent. And--she had to go against the constantly improving Jasmine Paolini, who is putting Italy on the tennis map again.

Speaking of under the radar--Wang Yafan has quietly made improvements to her game, and she gave the Chinese number 1 Zheng Qinwen a real run in a high quality third round match, which Zheng did win, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (8). 

Amanda Anisimova, who took nine months off from the tour, is making quite a comeback statement in Melbourne. Anisimova has already defeated 13th seed Liudmila Samsonova and former world number 2 Paula Badosa (also making a comeback). Her next task is to take on defending champion and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka. 

Russian players (seems like old times) are making a big statement in Melbourne, too. Anna Kalinskaya is into the round of 16 after defeating Sloane Stephens, and two young, very promising players--Mirra Andreeva and Maria Timofeeva--are also into the fourth round. Andreeva has already upset 6th seed Ons Jabeur (allowing her only two games), as well as winning a third round match in which she was down 1-5 in the third set. Timofeeva has overcome a trio of formidable opponents--Alize Cornet, former champion Caroline Wozniacki and 10th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia.

Barbora Krejcikova, still working on her consistency since she was taken off the tour by injury, is still in the draw, as is the scary new version of Elina Svitolina. And of special interest: two-time champion Vika Azarenka, who defeated an in-form Alona Ostapenko in straight sets in the third round, is into the round of 16.

I could go on and on, but here is the really fascinating round of 16 draw:

Linda Noskova vs. Elina Svitolina (19)
Victoria Azarenka (19) vs. Dayana Yastremska (Q)
Jasmine Paolini (26) vs. Anna Kalinskaya
Zheng Qinwen (12) vs. Oceane Dodin
Marta Kostyuk vs. Maria Timofeeva (Q)
Magdalena Frech vs. Coco Gauff (4)
Mirra Andreeva vs. Barbora Krejcikova (9)
Amanda Anisimova vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2)

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Four former champions out of Australian Open

Angie Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Naomi Osaka, and Sofia Kenin--all former Australia Open champions--have already been eliminated in the 2024 event. Kerber, Wozniacki and Osaka (a two-time winner) are all returning to the tour after giving birth; Wozniacki returned in 2023, but only briefly. The only former champion who remains in the draw is two-time title winner Victoria Azarenka, who has made it to the third round.

Also out are 2023 Wimbledon champion Marketa Vodrousova, who struggled with a hip injury (and I'm not sure why she played at all), 2022 Wimbledon champion and 3rd seed Elena Rybakina, 5th seed Jessica, Pegula, 6th seed Ons Jabeur, and 8th seed Maria Sakkari. Rybakina's second round match ended up being record-breaking. Her opponent, Anna Blinkova, who saved six match points, won the third round tiebreak 22-20 in the longest major tournament tiebreak in history. Also notable are the early losses of Caroline Garcia (who defeated Osaka) and Leylah Fernandez.

These early defeats help clear the way for top players Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff, though Swiatek was taken to the edge by Danielle Collins in her second round match. The match, a very intense affair, went to three sets, with Collins--who was bombing her opponent with relentless speed-- leading in the third, but the world number 1 put together a last-minute comeback (as great champions are prone to do) which led to her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory. 

Speaking of Swiatek: After her first round match, she told the interviewer that she had felt compelled to expand the breadth of her game in order to compete against Ash Barty, and that she believes that that change was what led her to become the world number 1.

Also notable is Emma Navarro's recent Australian run. Navarro won her first WTA tournament in Hobart, and has now reached the third round of the Australian Open.

Third round matches of interest:

Alona Ostapenko (11) vs. Vika Azarenka (18)--Azarenka has already vanquished one big hitter, Camila Georgi, and she'll have her hands full with Ostapenko under any circumsances, but especially if the Latvian star stays in her current zone.

Anna Blinkova vs. Jasmine Paolini (26)--Will Blinkova draw strength from her amazing win over 3rd seed Rybankina, or will she be mentally spent? She doesn't have experience with this type of intensity, so it's not hard to imagine that "mentally spent" is the right answer. It doesn't help that the Italian player has really come into her own lately, and can be a formidable opponent for anyone.

Alycia Parks vs. Coco Gauff (4)--This match appears to be of interest to those who want to see two good USA players compete against each other, but--as good as she is--it's hard to imagine Parks' getting the best of the 2023 U.S. Open champion.

Storm Hunter (Q) vs. Barbora Krejcikova (9)--Hunter has been getting steadily better in singles, while Krejcikova--despite her strong comeback in San Diego--still hasn't regained the scary consistency she had before she had to deal with a significant injury last year. But it wouldn't be surprising if the Czech star (who recently parted with both her coach and her very long-term doubles partner) continued to play her way through this event--she loves hard courts.

Amanda Anisimova vs, Paula Badosa--Amanda is back! Paula is back! Anything can happen, and this has the potential to be a very good match, with nothing "unseeded" about it at all.