Thursday, May 30, 2024

Already gone

Upsets at majors are common. And upsets in the first round are sometimes not really unexpected, yet those are often part of a bigger, sadder, story. And some "upsets" are really about seeding--they are just results that are somewhat surprising.

Here are the first round upsets at Roland Garros:

Marie Bouzkova d. Veronika Kudermetova (29)--No one runs more hot and cold than Kudermetova, only lately, the cold tap has been dominant. Kudermetova is good on clay; however, when Bouzkova is on, she can be a handful.

Victorija Golubic d. Barbora Krejcikova (24)--The 2021 French Open champion hasn't had a great couple of years. Plagued by both illness and injury (elbow, wrist, ankle, and back), she has also had to deal with the breakup of one of the WTA's longest-running (and highly successful) doubles partnerships. Despite these significant setbacks, the Czech star won both Dubai and San Diego last year. To see her go out in the opening round of the French is worrisome.

Victoriya Tomova d. Ekaterina Alexandrova (16)--Alexandrova has worked hard to join the top 20, but clay courts are not her favorite.

Elisabetta Cocciaretto d. Beatriz Haddad Maia ((13)--Haddad Maia, known for playing three-set matches, likes to say that the clock is her friend, but the French clock let her down. Her opponent defeated her 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Varvara Gracheva d. Maria Sakkari (6)--Gracheva, who now plays for France, is a talented player, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that she would pull a big upset. The story here, however, is about Sakkari. The Greek star went into a slump last year, but then won Guadalajara, which appeared to increase her confidence. She also parted ways with long-time coach Tom Hill, signaling a desire to try something new. But Sakkari's issue is larger than just the disappointment of being in a slump: She has played in ten WTA singles finals, and has won only two of them. It will be interesting to see if her new partnership with David Witt will produce a new mental approach to playing big matches.

There were also a few surprises (for me) among unseeded players. Anhelina Kalinina lost to Camila Osorio. That wasn't a shocking result, but a bit of a surprise, given how ood Kalinina has been on clay lately. Sara Sorribes Tormo lost to Bianca Andreescu, and yes--when she's healthy, Andreescu is fearsome--but she hasn't played much lately, and it's Sorribes Tormo who loves the clay courts. And finally, Angie Kerber lost to Arantxa Rus. The former world number 1 has showed several flashes of her old self lately, and I expected her to win some matches in Paris this year.

In Poland, they do it with mirrors

Aside from their shared homeland, Iga Swiatek and Aga Radwanska may seem to have little in common, tennis-wise. Radwanska was known as The Magician (and sometimes, The Ninja), but after yesterday's escape from what appeared to be certain defeat, it appears that Swiatek may have out-tricked The Magician herself. 

I had a late morning appointment, and expected to watch Swiatek's match against Naomi Osaka earlier in the morning. But the rain in Paris delayed the match and ruined my viewing plans; I saw a little of the first set, and then I had to leave. When my appointment was over, I checked my phone, and the defending champion was down 0-3 in the third set. Naturally, traffic was backed up like crazy, and it took me a while to get home. I tuned in just as Osaka had a match point. 

Something told me that the match wasn't really over--it just looked like it was. And sure enough, Iga the Illusionist went from being down 0-3 to being down 2-5 to saving a match point, breaking Osaka, holding for 5-all, breaking Osaka again, and successfully serving for the match.

Later, I watched the entire match, and Osaka was so impressive--and on her least favorite surface. Throughout most of the three-hour match, she went about flummoxing the world number 1 in great style. We know that it can be done--Sabalenka can do it, Rybakina can do it, Krejcikova can do it, and Ostapenko can really do it. But we don't expect anyone to do it so forcefully on clay, especially when that someone isn't too fond of clay courts.

My main takeaway from this match is that Swiatek's mental strength is a thing to behold. (Radwanska once said that hiring a mental coach was a sign of weakness. Well, Swiatek not only hired sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, Abramowicz travels all over the world with her--seems like a sign of strength to me.)

Now that I've discussed the illusionist skills of the world number 1, here's some old-school Polish magic from ten years ago:

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Au revoir, Alize--you will be missed


photo by Daniel Ward

The first time I saw Alize Cornet play, many years ago in Charleston, I was taken with her energy, her playing style, and her skillful shot-making. I was also taken with her graceful leaping, as she brought the athletic spirit of Suzanne Lenglen onto the court. I have followed her career ever since, and--while I don't think that there's any such thing as an over-achiever--I believe that Cornet has to be one of the most interesting under-achievers on the tour.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees

The Frenchwoman, known for her dramatics on court, has a wealth of talent, and--on a given day--could beat just about anyone (she ended Iga Swiatek's 37-match win streak in 2022). But, as tennis fans know all too well, that kind of talent doesn't always translate into an elite career. In Cornet's case, however, it did translate into a very impressive and deeply satisfying career.

The 34-year-old Frenchwoman won six singles titles and three doubles titles (she won both singles and doubles titles in Strasbourg), was a member of the Billie Jean King Cup French team from 2008-2017, an in 2019, and was a member of the French Olympic team in 2008, 2012 and 2016. She also had 25 top 10 wins in her career, and reached a career high of number 11 in the world in singles. Cornet, who played her debut match at a major when she was a 15-year-old wild card, has appeared in 69 consecutive major main draws, an all-time record.

In 2021, Cornet wrote a diary/memoir, Transcendence: Diary of a Tennis Addict (original French title, Sans Compromis). The book is touching, colorful, filled with inside information, and--at times--very funny. I highly recommend it. Cornet then wrote a novel, La Valse des Jours, which has not been translated into English. Inspired by her mother's childhood, La Valse des Jours is based in sixties and seventies France. This year, she published a second novel, Ce qui manque a l'amour, also available in French only.

When I spoke with Cornet in 2022, she said that she plans to continue writing, and that she would like to be France's Billie Jean King Cup captain. 

Talking about her retirement, Cornet said:

"I'd like to be remembered as a genuine player who shared all her emotions with everyone all throughout her career with a fighting spirit. Someone who is a passionate tennis player, who likes to fight and who could die for it. 

"I think I showed it several times, that it was actually my type of character. People may love me or not for that type of personality, actually, but this is what brought me here."

Her message to her younger self, she said, would be:  "I would just say stay as you are and be yourself. Don't fight to be perfect, because you will never be perfect, and you will waste a lot of energy doing so. Be genuine. Be loyal and truthful, and people will accept you as you are or not."

Cornet lost her 2024 French Open first round match to up-and-coming player Zheng Qinwen. She was then presented a retirement gift by tournament director Amelie Mauresmo, for whom she had once been a ballgirl, and to whom she lost in the second round in her French Open debut. Highlights of Cornet's caeer were shown on a big screen, and Cornet then gave a moving speech to the many fans who had come to watch her play.

I fully expect Cornet to continue her writing career (here's hoping for more English translations), and to also participate, in some way, in the tennis world. There will never be another like her. As she said in her farewell speech on Court Philippe-Chatrier, she gave her all. And her all was more than enough.