Monday, May 14, 2018

Arrivederci, Roberta

Knowing that a player is about to retire doesn’t make it any easier for us to say goodbye. Such is the case with Roberta Vinci, the second of the Four Fighting Italians to leave the tour. Vinci’s farewell took place in Rome today, when she was defeated in the first round by Alex Krunic. But she had been warning us about it for some time.

A spirited purveyor of stylish (my favorite kind) tennis, and a stand-out in both singles and doubles, Vinci knew how to turn her racket into a magic wand. At the very least, she was always entertaining, and at her best—especially in doubles competition—she was lethal.

Vinci’s WTA record is impressive. She won 10 singles titles and 25 doubles titles, five of which were majors, and all of which she won with Sara Errani. Vinci also holds a career Grand Slam in doubles. Her highest singles ranking was number 7 in the world, and she held the number 1 spot in doubles for  a total of 110 weeks.

Vinci also holds the distinction of being the oldest woman on the tour to make her debut in the top 10. The tour’s trend toward success among veterans was reflected nicely by the Italian when she won her biggest singles trophy at the premier tournament in St. Petersburg in 2016.

The five-foot, four-inch Italian made world headlines in 2015 when she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, ending Williams’ quest for the Grand Slam. Vinci was the oldest player to ever reach a major semifinal (and final). She lost the title to fellow Fighting Italian Flavia Pennetta, and ended the year ranked number 15 in the world.

As impressive as all of these achievements are, however, Vinci’s greatest contribution to tennis (in this writer’s opinion) was her absolutely sterling performance in Fed Cup competition. Vinci, Errani, Pennetta, and Francesca Schiavone took Italy to the Fed Cup title in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2013.

For a very long time, Vinci held an astounding record: She won all 18 of her Fed Cup doubles rubbers (playing with nine different partners). She almost retired with a perfect record, too, but in 2015, Errani and Vinci were defeated by Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in the 2015 Fed Cup opening tie. It was a sad moment, but Vinci nevertheless leaves with the longest undefeated streak in the history of Fed Cup.

The Italian's old-school "slice and dice" tennis put the hurt on a lot of players. It was always a joy to watch her play, and especially on a clay court. In every tournament she played, Vinci embodied the "Fighting Italian" spirit.

"I'm really proud of my tennis, myself and my career," Vinci said as she departed the tour. As well she should be. She will be missed.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Helpful advice, or just another version of "Smile!"?

Sometimes, during an ATP match, a commentator will occasionally say something like "He needs to get himself more pumped up." However, during WTA matches, commentators are known to often launch into lengthy monologues about the players' affects. Just recently, in one match, I heard (not all exact quotes) "She needs to show us something," "She never smiles," "She needs to have some expression on her face."

Really? While we do know, from neurological research, that smiling improves one's mood, commentators never suggest that male players do it. Also, during the tense framework of a tennis match, a player may have other needs that have a higher priority than mood improvement. And then there's the subject of individual differences. Some competitors do better if they show some anger and get it out, but some are better off if they simply calm themselves.

Of course, when female players do show emotion, they can easily become targets because they show too much emotion, or because they show the wrong emotion. ATP players can get away with almost any amount of whining and disgruntlement, but WTA players are held to ridiculous "feminine" standards that, of course, reflect the standards of the culture at large.

It's understandable that players who get very down on themselves during a match are going to create talk about their being too negative because they're showing us that they lack belief. That's one thing. But suggesting that a player isn't showing us enough emotion (or showing us "bad" emotion) is presuming that the observer knows what's going on inside a player's mind, or--worse--has some decidedly sexist views.

Many commentators are former players, and may be projecting their own expressive styles onto the players.

Professional tennis is composed of many different types of personalities and emotional styles, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

Aside from their observations of self-punishing behvaviors (and even some of those appear to be less than harmful), those who insist on knowing how players should express themselves on court may have a point. After all, imagine what a fabulous career Chris Evert could have had if only she'd shown some emotion.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Czech Republic and USA reach Fed Cup final

Germany's Julia Goerges found her serve again today, and when Goerges finds her serve, it's generally bad news for whoever is on the other side of the net, even a big server like Karolina Pliskova. In today's opening World Group Fed Cup semifinal rubber between Germany and the Czech Republic, Goerges maintained a remarkable 92/75 first and second serve win percentage, and defeated Pliskova 6-4, 6-2.

That gave Germany hope, but it wasn't enough. In the next rubber, Petra Kvitova defeated Angie Kerber 6-2, 6-2, putting her country back into the Fed Cup final yet again.

The Czech team's opponents in that final will be defending champions USA. Entering the second day of semifinal competition with a 1-1 score against France, team USA won both of today's rubbers. Sloane Stephens handily defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-2, 6-0 in under an hour.

In the second rubber, team captain Kathy Rinaldi substituted Madison Keys for CoCo Vandeweghe. Keys faced off against Pauline Parmentier, who--on the first day of competition--gave Stephens all kinds of trouble, despite losing to her. Parmentier got off to a quick lead against Keys, but Keys caught up and brought the first set to a tiebreak, which she won. The second set was just as tight as the first, but Keys prevailed in that one, too--6-4.

The final will be held in Prague. The Czech Republic has won the Fed Cup champion five times in the past seven years.

Here are the results of World Group Play-offs:

Belarus def. Slovakia, 3-2
Romania def. Switzerland, 3-1
Australia def. Netherlands, 4-1
Belgium def. Italy, 4-0

Note that former Fed Cup giant Italy could not get back into the World Group. Sara Errani remains as the only member of the Fed Cup stalwarts, and she lost both of her singles rubbers.

Here are the World Group II results:

Latvia def. Russia, 3-2
Canada def. Ukraine, 3-2
Spain def. Paraguay, 3-1
Japan def. Great Britain, 3-2

Latvia is, of course, another former Fed Cup giant. Unlike Italy, however, the Russian team included two rather competitive players, Ekaterina Makarova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But that wasn't enough for Latvian team members Alona Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova (though Sevastova did lose to Pavlyuchenkova in three sets).

The Canada--Ukraine competition went on for hours today. Starting the day at 1-1, Canada went to 2-1 when Genie Bouchard won her rubber (she also won her Saturday rubber). In the fourth rubber, Gabriela Dabrowski took the first set, but Kateryna Bondarenko came back to take the final two, forcing a deciding doubles rubber. That also went to three sets, with Canada winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

Japan's victory over Great Britain was brought about by, of course, Naomi Osaka, though the young Japanese star lost in straight sets to Jo Konta.

I watched this semifinal like I watched the first tie, on ITF TV via Apple TV, and it was a technical disaster. For about one set, everything would be okay, and then the picture would pixilate like crazy, there would be constant popping noises, and--in one case--the sound lagged quite far behind the picture. ITF TV is now forcing us to buy a pass for both WTA and ATP (like Tennis TV did after the first season). I have no need to watch Davis Cup on ITF TV, but I had to pay for it. To add insult to injury, I couldn't even watch what I did pay to see.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Kiki CoCo Provence

It's always exciting when two Fed Cup big shots oppose each other in Fed Cup competition. Today, it was France's Kiki Mladenovic and the USA's CoCo Vandeweghe, both Fed Cup queens in their own right. In the second rubber of the day, played on red clay in Aix-en-Provence, Vandeweghe--took the first set 6-1. Mladenovic didn't make many errors, but Vandeweghe was able to break her three times.

Not surprisingly, Mladenovic came out in holy terror form in the second set, won it, then continued the momentum through the third, taking away a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory in the World Group semifinal rubber. The Frenchwoman's combination of creativity and athleticism is always stunning, and it was on full display today.

Mladenovic's countrywoman, Pauline Parmentier, did her best to take advantage of a sluggish (how often do we use that adjective in front of her name?) Sloane Stephens, and she almost got away with it. But Stephens had a "wake up" moment and prevailed, 7-6, 7-5, as Parmentier saw set point after set point disappear.

In Charleston, Petra Kvitova made a point of telling us how she isn't that good on clay. Reminded that she won Madrid, she countered with the (legitimate) high altitude/faster surface argument. Then, reminded that she had reached the semifinals of the French Open, she just smiled. Today, on red clay in Stuttgart, she handled Charleston finalist Julia Goerges in straight sets.

In the other rubber played between the Czech Republic and Germany, Karolina Pliskova defeated (former Stuttgart champion) Angie Kerber 7-5, 6-3. Plisko hit 15 aces.

Here are the results of the first day of the World Group Play-offs:

Belarus vs. Slovakia: 1-1
Australia vs. Netherlands: 1-1
Romania vs. Switzerland: 2-0
Belgium vs. Italy: 2-0

And in World Group II Play-offs, there was this:

The Russia vs. Latvia tie is a tasty one. Today, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeated Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, and Alona Ostapenko defeated Ekaterina Makarova 7-5, 6-4.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Schmiedlova plays winning tennis and teaches a worthwhile lesson


She of the beautiful backhand and the slumping career gave us a big exhale Sunday when she won the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota. But the final, in which Anna Karolina Schmiedlova played against 2012 champion and 5th seed Laura Arruabarrena, also featured some of the Schmiedlova roller coaster play we've seen all too much of in the last few years.

Leading 6-2, 5-2, Schmiedlova served for the match and was broken. Arruabarrena then held serve for the first time in the match. The Slovak served for the match again, and was broken again. However, she was then able to break Arruabarena to win the match 6-2, 6-4.

At the trophy ceremony, speaking of her coach, Schmiedy said: "He was with me in the bad times, now he's with me in the better times." Obviously, it was a very emotional moment for both of them.

In 2015, Schmiedlova played in three finals--all against Italians--and won two of them. She lost to Sara Errani in Rio de janeiro, and defeated Errani in the Bucharest final. She also won in Katowice, defeating Camila Giorgi in the final. Schmiedlova entered the top 30 that year, becoming number 26 in the world. Her competency on clay, as well as her amazing backhand, looked like a combination that could take her far.

But when the slump came, it was a huge one. In 2016, she lost 16 consecutive WTA matches, and her ranking dropped to 227. The next year, it rose to 133. That was a big improvement, but it wasn't a ranking that reflected Schmiedlova's talent.

But she kept at it, looking better--sometimes only a little bit better--each month, grinding her way through challengers and winning them, and this past week, she proved that--on some level--she never lost belief in herself. Tennis is a very mental affair (as are all sports, but tennis is an especially cerebral--and isolating--game), and belief has to exist. Sometimes--as in all of life--someone else has to hold the belief for us for a while, but eventually, we have to hold it ourselves, or everything falls apart.

It didn't all fall apart for Schmiedy. None of us can know what she went through, but it had to have been very difficult to go from being one of the most promising players on the tour to not being able to win a match. But this weekend, in Bogota, she found her way again. That's something that can inspire us all.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Some final thoughts on Charleston

2018 champion Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)
When I arrived at the Volvo Car Open on Daniel Island on Monday, April 2, I picked Julia Goerges to win the tournament. I predicted she would defeat Naomi Osaka in straight sets, which she did. I predicted that she would defeat defending champion Daria Kasatkina; she did. I also predicted that Kiki Bertens would defeat Madison Keys; that happened, too. And I predicted that Anastasija Sevastova would be in the final four; she was.

I was on a real roll--until the final. It wasn't shocking that Bertens won, though I thought she would be the runner-up, but there were some factors that were truly surprising: Bertens prevailed, despite carrying a hip injury, and despite having played, on the same day, a tense and grueling three-set semifinal. And most surprising of all--Goerges, who had been brilliant most of the week, came out flat for the final and was never able to do much of anything.

Julia Goerges (photo by Daniel Ward)

So for me, the results were quite predictable--until they weren't. And that's one of the reasons we watch tennis--anything can happen.

Bertens' win in Charleston created a genuine feel-good moment. This is the biggest victory of her career, and she achieved it under very difficult circumstances. She indicated, after the final, that once she got through her difficult semifinal, she used her desire to win to give her the energy she needed to go on. That match point she saved against Keys probably also gave her some energy.

Goerges, for her part, handled her loss with wisdom and perspective. She was mentally drained after her semifinal, and just couldn't do what she intended to do. In her press conference, she was able to place her runner-up status within the context of her recent success, rather than seeing it as a failure.

Much has been made of Naomi Osaka's tears, and her comments about waking up feeling depressed the day before her loss to Goerges. But this turn of events really isn't an unexpected thing. Osaka is not only young, but also sometimes seems even a bit younger than she actually is. Suddenly, she's famous in the tennis world, and she doesn't yet have the skills to deal with all the changes that take place when that happens. I assume there will be people who can help Osaka manage this change in her career.

Two players made their post-injury returns to the tour at the Volvo Car Open. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, beloved in Charleston, went out in the first round in singles and made it to the second round in doubles. Her fans were very happy to see her.

Also returning to the tour after almost a year off was Laura Siegemund (who would have been my choice to win the tournament under different circumstances). The German--the most entertaining clay court player around--made it to the second round, but lost to Naomi Osaka. Last year, Siegemund made it to the semifinals and lost to eventual champion Daria Kasatkina. She then went to Stuttgart and won the championship.

A day didn't go by when one of us didn't mournfully say "I miss JJ." Jelena Jankovic, Charleston's post-Patty Schnyder era rock star, was conspicuous by her absence. Her comedy partner, the also-very popular Andrea Petkovic, arrived as a wild card, but went out in the first round. Jankovic won the tournament in 2007, and Petkovic won it in 2014.

Also absent was 2017 runner-up Alona Ostapenko, who I hope will return soon.

Of course, I didn't get to see all of the matches--no one can do that. But of the ones I saw, there were some I especially enjoyed:

2nd round--Julia Goerges def. Kristie Ahn: Ahn took Goerges to the edge in this match, dragging her to three tough sets (2-6, 6-4, 7-6) and giving the 5th seed quite a scare.

3rd round--Alize Cornet def. Caroline Garcia: Cornet is a very gifted player who is as inconsistent as they come. But when she's switched on, she's a joy to watch. She used both guile and stunning athleticism to take out the top seed in straight sets; Garcia didn't have a chance.

Alize Cornet (photo by Daniel Ward)
quarterfinals--Madison Keys def. Bernarda Pera: Pera made a splash at the Australian Open when she upset Johanna Konta, and she made another splash last week when she made it to the third round, when she took out 2014 finalist Jana Cepelova and Sara Errani, then took Madison Keys through three tough sets. Pera's serve gave her a lot of trouble; had it been in better shape, the match (6-2, 6-7, 7-5) might have ended differently.

semifinals--Kiki Bertens def. Madison keys: This was a total thriller, with no one having any idea who would win until the last moment. Bertens held two match points in the second set; Keys held one in the third set, and then Bertens won the match 6-4, 6-7, 7-6.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Kiki Bertens plays five sets in one day and wins Volvo Car Open

photo by Leslie Billman
It was a crazy tennis day on Daniel Island. Yesterday's rain-out caused both doubles semifinals to be played today, all of one singles semifinal, and most of another one.

The first singles semifinal played today featured 12th seed Kiki Bertens and Madison Keys, and it was a wild ride indeed. Bertens won the first set, then held two match points in the second. On her second match point, she had what appeared to be an easy passing shot to take the title, but she didn't pass, and Keys was able to win the point easily. Keys went on to win that set.

To add to the drama, Bertens' hip--which she injured on Thursday--was bothering her throughout the  match. And the match went on and on--for over two hours and and forty-two mintues. In the third set, Keys held a match point. Bertens saved it, and went on to win a tiebreak, putting her into the final.

Meanwhile, the match between Julia Goerges and Anastasija Sevastova was stopped at 4-all in the first set on Friday. They resumed play late this afternoon, and Goerges won the match in straight sets.

Goerges had a wobble in her second round match against Kristie Ahn, but after that, she pretty much cruised through the draw, using her killer serve and her estimable forehand. So this evening, she had to play someone who had labored under duress for close to three hours today, and who was carrying an injury. It didn't take a lot of imagination to believe that the German would most likely hold the trophy.

But that's not what happened. Goerges came out flat, and was unable to find her game at all. Bertens, on the other hand, appeared as fresh as can be, and made quick work of her opponent, defeating her 6-2, 6-1 in under an hour. Bertens is a very fine clay court player, but this was nevertheless a stunning turn of events.

Later, in a press conference, Goerges said that her semifinal had drained her of mental energy, and that her performance "obviously wasn't the way I was planning to play and the way it should have been happening." She also said that Bertens made few mistakes and made her work for every point. "...she's a hell of a player, and for me it's great--if I have to lose to someone, I want to lose to her today."

Bertens said that the day of rest helped her hip, but then it was tight when she woke up this morning. But, she said, the more she played, the warmer her hip became, and she was able to cope.

During the trophy ceremony, three Volvos were driven onto the court. The winner of the Volvo Car Open gets a Volvo to drive for two years. While Bertens was still holding her trophy, she was invited to use the Volvo app to design her car, which she did.

Bertens is the first player from Netherlands to win in Charleston.

Meanwhile, Alla Kudryavtseva and Katarina Srebotnik won the doubles title, defeating Andreja Klepac and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez 6-3, 6-3 in the final. Srebotnik last won the doubles championship in Charleston ten years ago, when she and Ai Sugiyama defeated Edina Gallovits-Hall and Olga Govortsova.

Kiki or Julia? Volvo Car Open final is coming up

A bit later today, 12th seed Kiki Bertens of Netherlands will compete against 5th seed Julia Goerges of Germany for the singles championship of the 2018 Volvo Car Open.

It's a tough day for both competitors. Bertens' hip locked on her during her match on Thursday. Fortunately, a good pull from the trainer put her back on the court in pretty good shape. Yesterday, she and Goerges were at 4-all in the first set of their semifinal when the bad weather came; eventually, all play was canceled for the day. This may have worked in Bertens' favor because it gave her another day to work on injury recovery.

The Dutchwoman was on the schedule first today, and she defeated 7th seed Madison Keys in a real seesaw match in which Bertens held two match points in the second set. But she was unable to convert them. Keys held two match points in the third set, but also failed to convert them. The two-hour and 42-minute match was a toss-up right until the last moment, when Bertens won the third set tiebreak. Her 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 victory put her into the biggest final of her career.

It should be noted, however, that the 12th seed was somewhat bothered by her hip during this match.

Goerges, for her part, defeated 8th seed Anastasija Sevastova 7-6, 6-3 in today's delayed semifinal. Aside from struggling in her second round match against Kristie Ahn, the German has been spot-on throughout her campaign in Charleston. Goerges is attempting to become the fifth German to win the tournament; past winners were Steffi Graf, Sabine Lisicki, Andrea Petkovic, and Angie Kerber. 

This is the first time since Lisicki's victory in 2009 that two western Europeans have vied for the championship.

Rained out at 4-all, Goerges and Sevastova resume semifinal play today

It isn't easy, for players or spectators, to have a match stop two-thirds into the first set, but it does happen, and it happened today in Charleston when the rain came during the Volvo Car Open's first singles semifinal match.

Julia Goerges and Anastasija Sevastova were locked at 4-all after Goerges caught up from a slow start to the match. All play for the day was eventually suspended, so the match will resume this afternoon.

This is the first time that either player has reached the semifinals of the event.

The other semifinal, which will be played this morning, features Madison Keys and Kiki Bertens. Bertens sustained a hip injury in her Friday night quarterfinal, so the delay in play could be helpful to her. Keys was a finalist in 2015, when Angie Kerber won the tournament.

Madison Keys (original photo by Daniel Ward)
Kiki Bertens (original photo by Daniel Ward)