Thursday, January 18, 2018

Call it what it is--the norm

Every time a major rolls around, the dialogue surrounding its early days is similar: "Seeds out early!," "Top seeds shocked!," "Early round upsets!" Well, it's no longer a shock--it's just the way things are. Why? My best guess is that the majors are much bigger deals than they used to be (they were always important, but now they've become measuring sticks for all kinds of ridiculous stats), and the pressure on top players is greater than it was several years ago.

There are other factors. The physical intensity of the game has created more injuries, making top players vulnerable, sometimes before they even step onto the court. Also, there's a devil-may-care attitude among many of the younger (or even veteran) players. These players tend to go all-out at majors, knowing they can go out early, but also knowing they can pull off upsets. Yesterday's upset of Garbine Muguruza combined both theories: The 3rd seed has been quite physically fragile lately, and her opponent, Hsieh Su-wei, brought her best game.

One could say that the ultimate manifestation of this shift was Alona Ostapenko's French Open victory. Ostapenko was not only unseeded--she had never won a WTA tournament. A lot of factors went into Ostapenko's breakthrough, but one of the major ones was the Latvian player's attitude. It was though she was wearing Melanie Oudin's Believe shoes while also sporting a serial amnesia approach to each match. It worked.

What can be done to stop so many early upsets (and is it really that bad that we have them?)? Many have called for shortening the season even more in order to decrease injury.

 I wonder whether a strong emphasis on mental strength is part of the answer. Players who have worked with sports psychologists have usually seen significant benefits. Unfortunately, there are still players (Aga Radwanska, CoCo Vandeweghe) who disdain the idea of working with a sports psychologist. An increase in mind-body activities such as yoga and tai chi would also be helpful. Playing sports does make a person (especially a woman) psychologically stronger, but sometimes a psychological boost is needed to improve sports performance.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Bye bye, Miss American Pie

5th seed and 2017 runner-up Venus Williams, 10th seed CoCo Vandeweghe, 13th seed Sloane Stephens, Irina Falconi, Sofia Kenin, Jennifer Brady, Alison Riske, Taylor Townsend, CiCi Bellis--these women are all out of the Australian Open, defeated in the first round. Of the ten women from the USA who competed yesterday, only one--Nicole Gibbs--advanced to the second round.

The early departure of so many women from the USA was dramatic, especially considering that three of them were seeded rather high, and two of them were considered by some to be contenders for the title. Williams had the bad luck to draw Belinda Bencic, who has obviously fully recovered from surgery and rehab.

Bencic, the spiritual little sister of Martina Hingis (and formerly coached by Hingis's coach and real-life mother, Melanie Molitor) looked just wonderful as she neutralized much of Williams's estimable game. Bencic looks physically stronger now, which is going to come in handy as she navigates her way back through the rankings.

As for Vandeweghe and Stephens--they didn't really need opponents; they were fully skilled in defeating themselves. Vandeweghe, who apparently does not learn from experience, was passive aggressive, argumentative and inappropriate. But not to take anything away from her opponent, Timea Babos. Babos, unfortunately, is an inconsistent player, but she's "on," she's a threat to almost anyone. She was on yesterday, and might have won, regardless of Vandeweghe's antics.

Sloane Stephens is just back to "being Sloane." The U.S. Open champion hasn't won a match since she left Flushing Meadows. With Stephens, who knows how long this will last?

The next group of U.S. women to compete in the first round includes Lauren Davis, Madison Brengle, Kristie Ahn, Varvara Lepchenko, Madison Keys, and Shelby Rogers. 17th seed Madison Keys, the U.S. Open runner-up, faces Wang Qiang. Rogers, a big stage player who likes to pull off upsets, will play Mijana Lucic-Baroni. If Lucic-Baroni brings her best (always a question these days), this could be a really good match.

In other Australian Open news: Long-time Aussie star Sam Stosur was defeated in the opening round by Monica Puig, former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova was defeated by Irina-Camelia Begu, and former runner-up Dominika Cibulkova lost to Kaia Kanepi.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Defending champion absent, but there are plenty of contenders in Melbourne

It's always sad when a defending champion cannot be at a major, but such is this case with the Australian Open and the unfortunate absence of Serena Williams. It's also quite sad that two-time champion Vika Azarenka cannot be there. However, there are still a lot of stories to be played out in the Australian heat.

World number 1 Simona Halep has undergone a kind of Melbourne curse the last couple of years, so all eyes will be on her from the moment she steps onto a court for first round competition. Halep was defeated in straight sets in the opening round last year by Shelby Rogers, and in 2016, she was taken out in the first round, also in straight sets, by Zhang Shuai. That turned out to be a career-defining moment for Zhang, but it must have been a real drag for Halep.

In this year's first round, Halep plays young Australian wild card Destanee Aiava. Aiava is talented, and she'll have the crowd behind her, so it won't be a walk in the park for Halep. However, at this point, probably no Melbourne first round would be a walk in the park for the Romanian. If she sticks around, she could be headed toward a quarterfinal clash with Karolina Pliskova, who can also be considered a contender for the title, despite the fact that she has yet to win a major.

Speaking of first rounds--the one that's getting all the buzz is the one that will be played by Venus Williams and Belinda Bencic. Bencic is back and looking like her "old" self, and Williams couldn't have asked for much worse in a first round draw.

The first round that's also a "must watch" (meaning--if it isn't in the middle of the night) for me is the one that features Aleks Krunic and Anett Kontaveit I'm also very interested in the contest between Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka. The crowd will, of course, go crazy for Barty--as well they should--but if anyone won't make it easy for her, it's the young Belarusian.

But I digress. Who else besides Halep and Pliskova will try to put together a big story at the Australian Open? How about 2016 champion Angie Kerber, who--since the beginning of this season--has looked more like herself than she did throughout 2017? Or Garbine Muguruza, who has already retired from two events in 2018?

Those retirements (one was a walkover, to be accurate), in my opinion, don't fare well for Muguruza's success in the brutal conditions that generally accompany the Australian Open, especially considering that cramping was a reason for one of them. Also, she's likely to meet Kerber in the round of 16, and that could be the end of her run. On the other hand, no one is more apt to smoothly crush a series of opponents when we least expect her to than the Spaniard.

Caroline Wozniacki could have a deep run, and could meet Alona Ostapenko in the quarterfinals. Ostapenko's game has been filled with errors and double faults so far, but far be it from me to predict the fate of the player Todd Spiker has so aptly named Latvian Thunder. She could go out in the first round, she could win the Australian Open. So far, though, she isn't looking that sharp.

These days, Venus Williams is always a potential quarterfinalist or beyond, but again, she has that tricky first round against Bencic. Jo Konta is again a contender, and Caroline Garcia--if she's healthy after her bout with the heat a couple of weeks ago--could go very deep into the tournament. The same can be said of Julia Goerges (who knew I'd be saying that?--but it sounds really good).

And then there's the question: Is this Elina Svitolina's time? I wouldn't be surprised to see the Ukrainian reach the final. I also wouldn't be surprised to see CoCo Vandeweghe reach the final. Vandeweghe's fitness (there was a time when I would never, ever say that), combined with her newly finessed game and big hitting set her up to be a genuine threat in Melbourne.

The ability to withstand the heat and all that it entails is a major factor in determining who can get through seven matches at the Australian Open. Before the tournament directors replaced the rebound ace surface, it was anyone's guess who would be taken out with an ankle injury, but that worry is behind us now.

Other players to watch: Madison Keys, Anastasija Sevastova, 2006 champion Maria Sharapova, former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, Shelby Rogers, Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The lure--and the mystery--of the big stage

I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause
Lady GaGa et al

The "big stage player," as far as I can tell, is a relatively new phenomenon. Let me be clear about what a "big stage" player is, in this context: It's not an elite player like Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, who loves playing in the biggest events; rather, it's a player who could be called "good" or "very good" who performs at her best at majors. Big stage players, for the most part, create an air of mystery that is usually never solved by fans or observers.

The queen of big stage players is Russia's Ekaterina Makarova. There was a time when one scarcely heard about Makarova unless she was participating in the Australian Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Gradually, she began to focus more on her performance in other events (consequently--or coincidentally, I have no idea which--her performances in majors decreased in intensity). 

Makarova, an outstanding doubles player who has won three majors in doubles one and one in mixed doubles (and has been a finalist an equal number of times), has also won the WTA Championships, and she owns an Olympic gold medal. Makarova is also a very fine, but inconsistent, singles player. She has reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and the fourth round of the French Open (twice). The Russian has been ranked as high as number 8 in the world, yet she has won only three WTA singles titles.

The quirkiest big stage player is Tsvetana Pironkova, though her big stage days appear to be over. The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, as she is known on this blog, had a bit of a specialty, for a while, and that specialty was going after Venus Williams at majors. In 2006, she defeated Williams in the first round of the Australian Open. That victory earned a "fluke" label which later had to be peeled off. 

In 2010, Pironkova, with her tricky serves and forehand slices, defeated five-time Wimbledon champion and 2nd seed Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. The next year, she again defeated Williams at Wimbledon, this time in the round of 16, and--once again--with a score of 6-2, 6-3. Surely, the saga of Pironkova and Williams is one of the strangest in all of WTA history. (One final note: Guess who beat the Bulgarian in the semifinals of her very first WTA tournament? Uh huh.)

A recent entry into the big stage club is Charleston native Shelby Rogers. Rogers began playing in major main draws in 2015. She has reached the third round of the U.S. Open twice, the third round of Wimbledon, and the quarterfinals of the French Open. That French Open run was dramatic; Rogers defeated clay expert Irina-Camelia Begu, Petra Kvitova (with a second set bagel), Elena Vesnina, and Karolina Pliskova. 

Rogers also got off to a roaring start last year when she took current world number 1 Simona Halep out of the Australian Open in the first round. She has yet to win a tour title, so Rogers is clearly in the "big stage" group--for now.

But that doesn't mean she has to stay there. Just ask Sloane Stephens, who spent the first part of her WTA career as a big stage performer who frustrated fans at every turn in regular tour events. Stephens stunned the tennis world in 2013 when she defeated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, a tournament Williams had won five times. Stephens would go on to reach the fourth round of the French Open four times and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon (2013).

Meanwhile, Stephens would go one step forward and two steps back, sometimes appearing that she wasn't even that interested in the game. She did win some titles, though, most notably in Charleston in 2016. In August of that year, she ended her season early because of a right foot stress fracture. She had surgery in January 0f 2017, and did not return to the tour until grass season. 

It was the North American hard court season that served as the scene of Sloane Stephens' stunning comeback from injury. Unseeded, she advanced to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati. She then re-entered the top 100, and--to commemorate the occasion--won the U.S. Open. Stephens performed poorly after that, even losing both of her singles rubbers in the Fed Cup final. Only time will tell how consistent Sloane Stephens will be as a player, but for now, she's lost her membership in the big stage club.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Could 2018 be even stranger than 2017?

Photo by Daniel Ward
2017 was a year of constant surprises. Will 2018 be more "normal," or will it also be a year of "who would have thought?" I say expect the unexpected, yet again. Here's why:

Serena Williams, while she may be tennis's version of Wonder Woman, missed almost an entire season. She also had a baby, which I know is not of itself a hindrance--consider both Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters--but because she has a new baby, she is very tired. She also isn't young, in tennis terms. None of these factors, on its own, has much meaning when we're dealing with someone of Serena's extreme mental and physical fitness. However, taken together, they present a potential obstacle.

Do I think this multi-faceted obstacle will present Serena from winning a major? Not necessarily. But it is likely to inhibit her.

Vika Azarenka is back (at least for now), and while it's difficult to imagine that she can pick up right away where she left off, she is still likely to spoil some good times for other talented player. When Azarenka is "on," she can go after anybody.

And there are so many players with big (or at least medium-sized) question marks above their heads:

Karolina Pliskova: She has yet to win a major, but it could happen at any time, except perhaps, during the French Open. Pliskova is low-key and focused. She goes about building her career in a deliberate, Kerber-like, way that should serve her well. Pliskova has already experienced playing in a major final; it would be no surprise if she reaches another one--and wins it--this coming season.

And speaking of....

Angie Kerber: Considering her talent and her accomplishments, she has no way to go but up from her 2017 level. And while no one I know is expecting Kerber to have another 2016, it isn't fair to toss her into a corner marked "aberration." The German played her heart out in 2016, yes, but she was able to reach a very lofty height because of planning, determination and a willingness to change. At least keep an eye on her.

Petra Kvitova: Kvitova is slowly regaining the feeling in her left hand. Her 2017 performances were nothing less than remarkable, under the circumstances. I know my heart refuses to push me in any other direction, but I really do have a good feeling about 2018 Petra; I'm expecting some very nice results.

Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's return to the tour looked good, also. Her serve reflected the Maria serve of years earlier, and the fire was still there. I like her prospects for 2018, also, though it may take playing some more matches before she's fully comfortable. More than anyone, with Sharapova, if the serve is solid, good things happen.

Simona Halep: She's the world number 1. For some players, that designation causes anxiety; for Halep, it may create confidence. Is 2018 the year that she finally wins the French Open? It's quite possible. Or she may surprise us and win another major. As long as someone can calm her down (Amelie Mauresmo, I have a job for you!), Halep can swing freely and believe in herself.

Caroline Wozniacki: The arc of the Dane's career makes me think of the old "Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football" routine. She goes off the track, gets distracted, disappoints her fans, then suddenly launches into offensive play and climbs back up the rankings. Then, just when fans' expectations are peaking, she takes several steps back. This has been going on for a very long time, and there are a lot of fans and commentators who are happy to play the role of Charlie Brown. I would be surprised if the pattern changes.

Alona Ostapenko: My only question about the player Todd Spiker calls Latvian Thunder is: How is her coaching going? If Ostapenko is busy learning some finesse and developing some feel about the court and her shot selection, then watch out. (If she isn't, watch out anyway.) Ostapenko possesses the power of a giant and the resiliance of a child. As I write this, she's participating in a ballroom dance competition, and the grace required to do that has already helped her on the court, and could help her even more in the future. If ever there were a player to watch, it's our new star from Latvia. Watch her serve, watch her hit groundstrokes, watch her move her rubber, Jankovic-like body. And watch her face. There's never been a player quite like her.

Venus Williams: Williams's 2017 was nothing short of amazing.  With everything she's been through, reaching two major finals was quite an accomplishment. Does she have another year like that in her? She just may.

Other players whose 2018 fates hold my interest are Carolina Garcia, Johanna Konta, Elina Svitolina, Julia Goerges, Kiki Mladenovic, Belinda Bencic, Ash Barty, Madison Keys, Dasha Kasatkina,
and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens. A year ago, I was especially intrigued by Svitolina. I still am, but I'm perhaps even more intrigued by the progress of Garcia.

Someone who doesn't have a question mark over her head, in my opinion, is Garbine Muguruza. She had a big one during part of 2017, but once she won her second major (on a completely different surface from her first one), she removed my doubts. Yes, I think we'll see her "Mugu" around the court for much of her career, but we'll also see her take home huge trophies. When Muguruza is at her best, she's calm, fluid, and completely in charge.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017--the year of "Who would have thought...?"

I’m sure that there’s been another year when almost everything on the WTA tour got turned on its head, but I can’t recall when it was. This past year, however, will be a hard one to forget, as every imaginable “order of things” was overturned, with other surprises popping up all over the place. But it wasn’t about chaos—well, most of the time, it wasn’t. Rather, it was about turns of events that frustrated us, puzzled us, surprised us, delighted us, and sometimes made our heads spin.

Let’s start with the number 1 ranking. Angie Kerber did start with it, in the early spring, but her 2017 turned out to be as dismal as her 2016 was glorious. In 2016, the German star won two majors, reached the final of a third major, and won a silver medal at the Olympics. In 2017, she not only won no majors—she won no titles. And in two majors (one in which she was the defending champion), she went out in the first round. Kerber ends the season as number 21 in the world, which is the biggest drop in ranking for a number 1 player in the history of the rankings.

Karolina Pliskova was number 1 for a while, but lost the ranking to Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza, who won Wimbledon this year, felt more like a “real” number 1, but that didn’t last, either, because along came Simona Halep, who grabbed the end-of-year high ranking.

But what about Serena Williams? Well, she did what she has done from time to time throughout her career—she dropped out for a while. Her reason this time was a very nice one, too—she had a baby.

With Serena out for three-quarters of the season, a lot of titles were up for grabs. And like some kind of cellular phenomenon, who should step into the spotlight but Venus Williams? Venus was in two major finals, though she won neither of them. Nevertheless, her return to this level of professional tennis was one of the standout happenings of the season.

2017 marked a big change in how—or if—we watch tennis. It brought us two significant returns to the tour, two new major champions, and the end (at least for now) of a Fed Cup dynasty.

Here are my top 10 happenings of 2017 (and a bonus), in ascending order:

10. I waited months for this?: A year ago, the WTA announced that it was about to launch a wonderful, all-inclusive streaming platform that would be the best thing since Tatiana Golovin’s red drawers. In two weeks, we would learn more. Only we didn’t. Weeks went by, and we still heard nothing. Finally, CEO Steve Simon told us it was coming soon—be patient, it will be worth the wait. Only it didn’t come soon. It didn’t arrive until more than half of the season was over.

In the meantime, people were told to watch beIN Sports (the WTA had severed its contract with the first-rate Tennis TV, and Tennis Channel and ESPN retained few women’s events). For some of us, getting beIN Sports was next to impossible (if I had pages and pages, I would write about my own crazy-making beIN experience and how much money it cost me to get nothing). But even those who had beIN in their television packages made the unpleasant discovery that beIN didn’t care at all about showing women’s tennis, which was frequently preempted or cut off by football.

Finally, WTA TV arrived. Now, one would think, after all that time, it would have arrived in really good shape. But no. WTA TV arrived without an app. More important, it arrived with no platform for viewing it on a television screen via Apple TV, Roku, etc. It arrived as a really great, cutting-edge streaming platform—for 1997.

9. Kathy + CoCo = a great big trophy:
Kathy Rinaldi, working in her first year as USA Fed Cup captain, went all out: Her team won the 2017 championship! After former Captain Mary Joe Fernandez struggled for years to make relevant player selections, Rinaldi stepped in and made it look easy, a la Amelie Mauresmo. The USA got some help from defending champion Czech Republic, but Fed Cup competition is always difficult, no matter who plays. Take, for example, Team Belarus—minus Vika Azareanka—forcing the USA into a fifth rubber in the final.

For her part, CoCo Vandeweghe not only won all of her matches in the final—a rare feat—she is also the only player in Fed Cup history to go 8-0 for the entire season.

8. Saving the awesome for last:
Who would have thought that both Caroline Garcia and Julia Goerges would charge into the very end of the season and do amazing things? But pro tennis is like that: just when you think nothing much is going to happen, something huge happens right in front of you. Of course, it wasn’t as if the Frenchwoman and the German hadn’t given us some hints. They had both performed solidly all year. Goerges, in fact, had reached three finals. The problem was that she hadn’t won any of them.

But then, in October, Goerges won the Kremlin Cup, giving her her first victory in six years. In the meantime, Garcia did something extraordinary: She won Beijing and Wuhan back to back. She even went to the WTA Finals, and made it all the way to the semifinal round. The German with the lethal forehand, for her part, won the WTA Elite Trophy in Zuhai, defeating CoCo Vandeweghe in the final. 2017 was Goerges’ best year ever, and she ended it ranked number 14 in the world.

But that wasn’t all. Caroline Wozniacki, who had a great season and is back in the top 5, went to Singapore and won the WTA Finals.

Three to watch in 2018.

7. What a way to go!: Near the end of the season, Martina Hingis, for the third time in her career, retired from professional tennis. There is every reason to believe that this is also the last time. Hingis left as the number 1-ranked doubles player in the world, just as she was twenty years ago. She and her partner, Chan Jung-Jan, who, in October joined Hingis as co-number 1, were expected to win the WTA Finals, but were knocked out in the semifinals.

Hingis and Chan, who became a team in February, won nine titles, including the U.S. Open, and they were named Doubles Team of the Year. Hingis’s career is one of the most outstanding careers in WTA history.

6. It takes both feet and a lot of heart: Sloane Stephens began 2017 as number 957 in the world. That’s because she’d been rehabbing for eleven months from foot surgery. Stephens returned to the tour in July, and by the time the U.S. Open rolled around, she had bumped her ranking up to 87, and was looking really good. She looked so good, in fact, that she established herself as a threat at the event, taking out a number of very talented players with very different game styles. She defeated countrywoman Madison Keys in the final, and suddenly—having schlepped around for months in a cast—she was the U.S. Open champion.

5. Prenatal exercise is important: Serena Williams was pregnant in January of 2017, but before dropping out of the tour for a while, she stopped by Melbourne and won the Australian Open. Because she’s Serena Williams. The former world number 1, who was married in New Orleans a week ago, will be back in 2018.

4. It’s called Unstoppable for a reason:
Maria Sharapova, who was away from the tour for over a year because of a drug ban (or, as some of us contend, a cruel and out-of-control circus of prejudice and inconsistency), returned to the tour in April as a wild card in Stuttgart. Unfortunately, despite training intensely during her absence, she was physically vulnerable, and spent much of her return in an injured state. Nevertheless, she was back, and playing quite well--in some cases, better than she has played in a while. Assuming she gets past the injuries, she could add quite a note of interest to competition in 2018.

3. The Elegant Assassin mows the lawns: It was going to happen sooner or later, and Mugu chose “sooner.” Garbine Muguruza won the French Open in 2016 by defeating Serena Williams, and was stopped at the Wimbledon final that year by Serena Williams. In 2017, Serena wasn’t around, but Venus certainly was, and it was the older Williams—a five-time Wimbledon champion—who faced off against the Spaniard in the final. Muguruza defeated Williams 7-5, 6-0, and in doing so, became the first woman to defeat both Venus and Serena in major finals.

2. Who needs a seed when you have rhythm?: No one saw it coming, but when it came, it was a force of nature. Alona Ostapenko, the rubber-bodied, ballroom-dancing, perpetually mugging hitting machine from Latvia, had herself a high old time in Paris in the spring. Unseeded, and without one tournament win in her career, Ostapenko slam-banged her way through the field at Roland Garros, hit 299 winners, and won the French Open.
Photo by Daniel Ward

Ostapenko was fearless, and when she made an error, she made one of her expressive (read: hilarious) faces, shrugged it off, and kept going. Even during the latter stages of the tournament, when other relatively inexperienced players would have caved, Ostapenko remained fearless. And even against clear favorite and former finalist Simona Halep in the final, the Latvian just kept "dancing." Her game is raw; when it becomes more consistent and nuanced (and I assume it will), she might become truly frightening. A testament to her fearlessness—not to mention her all-surface acumen—is that she made it to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon a few weeks later.

Of course, it isn’t unusual for a young and gifted player to become less dangerous as others figure out her game and the pressure mounts. I suspect, though, that the Latvian (whose image now graces a postage stamp) may be immune to that sort of thing: Planet Ostapenko occupies its own place in the universe.

1. The Rock returns: In December of 2016, the unspeakable occurred. Petra Kvitova was viciously attacked by a knife-wielding criminal in a home invasion. The good news was that Kvitova fought off her attacker, whose intention was to slit her throat. The bad news was that she used her dominant hand to do it, and  wound up with multiple sliced tendons, ligaments and nerves. Every finger of her “money” hand was severely damaged, and it was unknown whether she would be able to play tennis again.

Kvitova underwent extensive surgery, and was told that it would be about three months before she could start rehab, and at least six months before she could play again. But five months after she had her surgery, the Barking Czech stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier, to the joy of the French crowd, her peers, and tennis fans all over the world. She even won her opening match, though she did not have full feeling in her left hand. In June, she did the seemingly impossible—she won Birmingham, still without full feeling in her hand. “I was still thinking it was not really normal what happened," the Czech star said in a WTA interview. “I couldn’t still believe it.”

I submitted a nomination essay for Kvitova for the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. Here is an excerpt:

I have thought a lot about what it must have felt like: knowing you could have died, knowing that your career hand has been sliced to the bone, knowing that you may never again stand on one side of a net screaming “Pojd!” and rendering other talented players helpless.

But Petra knew more than that: She knew that she had the strength—both within herself, and through the power of the spirit of those who admire and respect her—to transcend a truly horrific experience. That she did it so quickly makes the story even more glorious.

Yes, 2017 was an amazingly unpredictable year for the WTA, and many stunning things occurred. But none was as profound as the sight of Petra Kvitova holding a tennis racket and playing her beloved game.

And now for the bonus (what we call “lagniappe” in Louisiana)—They blinded me with science:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On a cool fall evening in Minsk, hot CoCo hits the spot

Today, CoCo Vandeweghe pulled off the rare Fed Cup hat trick: She walked away from the 2017 Fed Cup final with three wins--two in singles and one in doubles. Vandeweghe is a natural Fed Cup team leader. During the 2017 season, she went 5-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles. Today, she led Team USA to its first Fed Cup championship in 17 years.

In a year when the unexpected became the expected--over and over--it's not really that much of a surprise that rookie Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi, Vandeweghe and the entire USA team won it all. They had some help--defending champions and overwhelming Fed Cup giants Czech Republic showed up in the semifinals with neither its A or "other A" teams, making it much easier for the USA to advance to the final.

The USA has now won Fed Cup 18 times. The team did it today without Serena Williams, Venus Wiliams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, or Madison Keys. They did it without U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens winning a rubber. Vandeweghe and Shelby Rogers (who played in the deciding doubles rubber) took the team over the final hurdle.

But the USA story wasn't the only unlikely one. Also playing in the final was Belarus, a team that had never before reached a Fed Cup final, and a team which was missing its only star, Victoria Azarenka. It was hard to imagine Belarus getting to the final, especially since, in the semifinals, they had to play Switzerland. The Swiss team included its star, Timea Bacsinszky, and also recent Fed Cup wonder, Victorija Golubic. But Team Belarus got past the Swiss in five rubbers.

This weekend, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Aryna Sabalenka played their hearts out (Sasnovich, as a matter of fact, won a Fed Cup Heart Award for her exploits in the semifinals). Vandeweghe beat both of them, but each of them beat Stephens. The doubles rubber seemed a given, since Sabalenka, in particular, has limited doubles experience (and it showed), but it was actually more competitive than one would have thought. The second set was about as thrilling as a set could be, and the USA won it in a tiebreak, though Belarus held multiple set points.

The USA's opening 2018 tie will be against Netherlands, and if they win it, they will face either France or Belgium.