Saturday, May 30, 2015

The conundrum of "Serenativity"

I'm borrowing one of WTA Backspin's special words because "Sernativity" is the only word that fits in this context. The conundrum is this: If you play Serena Williams and you get behind, she'll destroy you. And if you play Serena and you get ahead (unless you're having a Muguruza Moment), she'll destroy you. Ask anyone on the tour, only maybe not Vika Azarenka, at least not today.

Azarenka and Williams competed against each other at the French Open today, with a very on-target and aggressive Azarenka taking the first set, 6-4. The second set was close, and serving at 4-5 while facing a break point, Azarenka had to deal with more than she should have. She hit a ball in, it was called out, only late. Williams hit it, but claimed that the call interfered with her return. The point was replayed, to the discontent of Azarenka. Williams then proceeded to win the set.

After leaving the court and, so it seemed, re-focusing herself, Azarenka returned and immediately went up 2-0 in the third set. But you know how these things go: Williams put the clamps on, broke back, and the next thing you knew, she had won the set 6-2. It was a good enough match, and it surprised me a bit. When I wrote yesterday that I thought this match would be less dramatic than past Williams-Azarenka matches, I was guessing that Serena would take this one in straight sets.

So we've gotten throught the Williams vs. Azarenka drama, but next we have the Williams vs. Stephens drama. Or not. Maybe there will be no drama, just a quiet round of 16 match. Maybe.

The top seed moves on, but sadly, Francesa Schiavone does not. Schiavone lost today to Andreea Mitu, who beat her 7-5, 6-4. Mitu has made quite a pest of herself at this tournament, and now faces Alison Van Uytvanck, who efficiently took Kiki Mladenovic out of competition today. Van Uytvanck played well and was remarkably calm, but she was also lucky to get a sluggish, out-of-sorts Mladenovic.

Sara Errani defeated Andrea Petkovic today, and Julia Goerges defeated Irina Falconi. Stephens advanced by beating Tsvetana Pironkova, and Timea Bacsinszky defeated Madison Keys.

French Open officials continually schedule the matches I most want to see at a time when I just can't be awake. This has happened over and over, and will happen again tomorrow when  Elina Svitolina and Alize Cornet face off. I may actually have to find a way to get up and watch it, but I'm not counting on it.

Lucie Safarova of the tricky lefty serve gets the defending champion, Maria Sharapova, and Ana Ivanovic plays Ekaterina Makarova. Of interest is the fourth match, in which Flavia Pennetta takes on Garbine Muguruza. If Muguruza has one of her letdowns and starts double-faulting and everything that goes with that, Pennetta will be glad to move on to the quarterfinals. It's not at all an unrealistic scenario. But if Muguruza prevails, it puts her closer to really spoiling the good times of some other players. Muguruza hasn't figured out the head part of her game yet, but the potential is there for danger, should she snap her mentality into place.

Third seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic were upset today by the unseeded (but obviously dangerous) team of Daniela Hantuchova and Samantha Stosur. Also, the "older dream team" of Kimiko Date-Krumm and Francesca Schiavone were defeated by Michaela Krajicek and Barbora Strycova.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Six days in, and Fighting Italians have made themselves at home in Paris

Yesterday's epic French Open performance from the great Francesca Schiavone would have given us all enough Fighting Italian spirit to last us for quite a while, but today, Flavia Pennetta--one of the comeback specialists of the WTA--efficiently took tournament contender Carla Suarez Navarro out of the competition. And while it may be true that the 8th-seeded Spaniard played far below her best level--just leave it to Pennetta to be there to clean up.

Pennetta (or "Pennahta," as a commentator called her yesterday) is already into the round of 16, while both Schiavone and 2012 runner-up Sara Errani have made it to the third round. Next up for Schiavone is Andreea Mitu, one of the great stories of the 2015 season, and next for Errani is Andrea Petkovic. As for Pennetta, she will face the formidable Garbine Muguruza, who showed the exit to 11th seed Angelique Kerber today. It was Muguruza who ended the run of another Fighting Italian, Camila Giorgi, and she had a lot of help from the anxiety-prone Italian.

Alize Cornet won her third round match today, and the crowd was treated to a full helping of the victorious version of Alize!, the Opera. (It isn't as good as Bartoli Theatre, but it's good.) For her troubles in defeating Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, the dramatic (why is it that when Alize does it, it's hilarious, and when a certain German does it, it makes me leave the room?) Frenchwoman will face Elina Svitolina, and that will be no small task for either of them. In fact, I consider that match a must-see.

Tomorrow, we'll see another Serena Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka match, and I just have a feeling that this one will be less dramatic than the others. Sloane Stephens will face the Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery, who--having run out of other tricks--has now added "advance in the French Open" to her repertoire of oddities. Pironkova has a very, very good and very tricky serve, but it isn't always available to her. If it is tomorrow, the match should be fun.

Petra Kvitova will play Irina-Camelia Begu, who could give her headaches. Madison Keys takes on the Queen of Mexico, and Kiki Mladenovic must face Alison Van Uytvanck, and that's another match I really want to watch.

Also advancing to the round of 16 today were 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, Ekaterina Makarova (she had to defeat her doubles partner, Elena Vesnina), Lucie Safarova, and defending champion Maria Sharapova.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Don't you just love it when the first round is over?

There's that feeling of "settling in." The French Open (or whatever, but the French is my favorite) is real and in progress. And we always learn some things. For example, today, we learned that Genie Bouchard is as much of a mess as she was the last time we saw her. Bouchard, who has obviously lost muscle weight, wasn't moving at all like she did last year, and she made careless errors that appeared to be coming from a much less experienced player. I'm calling this as "beyond slump."

We learned, also, that Bouchard's opponent, Kiki Mladenovic, is still battling the demon of nerves. Mladenovic, who led 5-0 in the second set, had to serve for the match three times before she won it. That's okay, perhaps, against an opponent who isn't doing much right, but against someone who is prepared, one missed chance could be the end for the Frenchwoman.

We learned other sad things: Jelena Jankovic lost her first round in straight sets. Aga Radwanska continues to fall into a shocking downward spiral. And Caroline Garcia needs to enroll quickly (with countrywoman Mladenovic) in an anti-anxiety program.

We also discovered that defending champion Maria Sharapova is sick. And while her respiratory problem may be "just a cold," (or not) there's no such thing as "just a cold." A cold can be debilitating.

Petra Kvitova made it clear in her press conference that she wasn't exactly brimming with confidence about this French Open. When another player says that, it may be a case of hustling the press (which is so easy to do, it isn't sporting), but when Kvitova says it, you know she means it. Not good.

This is also a good time to take a look at potentially dangerous clay court floaters who won't be floating--Venus Williams, Kiki Bertens, Anna Schmiedlova, Mona Barthel, Roberta Vinci, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. They're all out, as of round 1.

Finally, we know what kind of entertainment round 2 could bring. The completely enigmatic Julia Goerges will get a chance to mess with Caroline Wozniacki (or not), rising stars Belenda Bencic and Madison Keys will meet, rising stars (giving the benefit of the doubt to the Italian) Garbine Muguruza and Camila Giorgi will also meet (my don't-miss match), and Daria Gavrilova will get a crack at Sabine Lisicki.

And on a sentimental note--even though we all probably know the outcome--those grand veteran warriors, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, will play each other for a spot in the third round. Kuznetsova and Schiavone played the longest women's match in the Open Era in the round of 16 the 2011 Australian Open, and it was also one of the greatest matches I can recall seeing--ever.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Top seeds all face vulnerabilities in French Open draw

Mannequins in front of a Paris boutique
There's something about the publication a fresh draw that excites tennis fans almost as much as actually watching the matches. The four quarters of the French Open draw lead to all manner of speculation, but I think the speculating is perhaps more of a fan passion than it is anything else. And a great one indeed, because it gives us something to do while we wait for the tournament to begin.

Top seed and two-time Champion Serena Williams presides over the first quarter. Her likely third round opponent will be Victoria Azarenka, a fact which is stirring up some conversation, but I don't really see Azarenka giving Williams much trouble in this tournament. There are two players in this quarter--one in particular--who have histories of really challenging Williams. Those would be her sister, Venus, and Jelena Jankovic. But neither of them poses much of a threat at this time, either. Sloane Stephens is part of that quarter, and I don't see her doing much damage. Only Caroline Wozniacki could give Williams a bit of a run, and they are "scheduled" to meet in the quarterfinals.

I read somewhere today that Petra Kvitova has an "easy" draw. I think not. The Kvitova quarter includes Irina-Camelia Begu, Timea Bacsinszky (okay, she's no longer "hot" but anything can happen, and especially with Bacsinszky), Karolina Pliskova, and 2009 chamption Svetlama Kuznetsova. Also lurking are Lara Arruabarrena, Belinda Bencic (also in a slump, but she kind of likes majors), Anna Schmiedlova, and Kiki Mladenovic. In other words, players who do well on clay are congregated in Kvitova's quarter. Genie Bouchard is there, too, and you never know, but the Canadian would have to get past some gutsy clay players first.

Next is Simona Halep's quarter, which isn't without danger to the Romanian star (whose greatest danger may actually be her own psyche). Caroline Garcia loves the big stage, and she's French, on top of that. When she's on, she's dangerous. Frenchwoman Alize Cornet can be dangerous, also, and then there are Elina Svitolina and the mercurial Mona Barthel. And--while she hasn't had a lot of great days this year--Roberta Vinci could have some in Paris.

Finally, there is the Sharapova quarter. The defending champion could meet 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur in the third round. If that happens, and Strasbourg champion Stosur has a good serving day and Sharapova has a bad one, it could be the end of the Russian's run. Both of those scenarios are quite possible. But Stosur isn't the only potential trouble-maker in that quarter. Carla Suarez Navarro, who must be practically itching with desire to beat Sharapova, is there, as are the unpredictable (but often threatening) Camila Giorgi, Charleston and Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber and Lucie Safarova. Kerber is coming in with an injury, but she is not to be taken lightly. Oh, and add to this list the tour's latest ubiquitous pest, Daria Gavrilova, and  you can see that Pova has her work cut out for her.

French Open champion predictions

Here is a list of who has picked whom, so far. I will add to it as more predictions come in.

Maria Sharapova
Cliff Drysdale
Mary Joe Fernandez
Todd Spiker
Kamakshi Tandon

Simona Halep
Darren Cahill
Brad Gilbert
Pete Bodo
Pam Shriver
Matt Wilansky

Serena Williams
Tracy Austin
Greg Garber
Chris Evert
Steve Tignor

Petra Kvitova
Jon Wertheim
Steve Weissman

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sharapova wins Rome, but is she the Queen of Clay?

Maria Sharapova won the Italian Open for the third time today, making her one of a small group of women who have won big titles since the "official" clay season began last month. Angelique Kerber tops the list with victories in both Charleston and Stuttgart, and Petra Kvitova won the title in Madrid.

In today's final in Rome, Sharapova defeated Carla Suarez Navarro 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. The Spaniard player had an outstanding run, taking out both 4th seed Kvitova and 2nd seed Simona Halep. Always a talent on clay, it's only in the last year or so that Suarez Navarro has been able to calm her nerves in big matches. But today, she couldn't take Sharapova down in straight sets, and we all know what result that scenario usually brings.

3rd seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic won the doubles title, defeating top seeds Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza 6-4, 6-3 in the final. Doubles has become quite a curiosity lately, with Errani and Vinci out of the picture, and several teams playing extremely well.

And now we are only a week away from my favorite major, the French Open. As I see it, there are several major contenders, yet each of them is vulnerable:

Maria Sharapova: She's the defending champion, and also won in Paris in 2012. Sharapova's transformation to clay court expert is no longer news; she is a real force at Roland Garros. Her victory in Rome puts her back into the number 2 ranking spot, which means she'll be on the opposite side of the draw from Serena Williams, which allows for more time for Williams to be knocked off before the final takes place. Sharapova, with her unpredictable serve, can play some sloppy tennis, but she can also take hold of a match and claim it, as she did today in Rome.

Simona Halep: If the 2014 runner-up plays in Paris like she did last year, her chances of winning the whole thing are very big. In her 2014 run, Halep looked scary, she was so good. She took Sharapova to three sets in the final, which was one of the best finals in recent memory. Right now, though--despite having won three titles this year (including Dubai and Indian Wells)--Si-mo-na looks sen-si-tive. She lost to Caroline Wozniacki in Madrid, and to Suarez Navarro in Rome. She's been making a lot of unforced errors and faux-smashing a lot of rackets. Something is wrong, and one (very likely) possibility is that the nerves have reappeared now that Halep is a favorite to win at Roland Garros.

Serena Williams: It generally doesn't matter whether Williams is injured, recovering from injury or not playing at her highest level; she can still be counted on to rise to the occasion if the occasion is a really big one. She did it at the French Open in 2013. However, of all the majors, the French Open is the one at which the world number 1 is least likely to be able to just put on her Believe shoes and win. She's vulnerable there, and can't be considered a sure thing.

Petra Kvitova: Yes, P3tra and all that. But the Barking Czech can win; she has the skills. I never count her out.

Carla Suarez Navarro: She's finally coming into her own, and her clay game is classic and beautiful. Why not?

Angelique Kerber: Anyone who wins both Charleston and Stuttgart gets on this list. Also, the way Kerber won Charleston--fighting like mad all the way through--gets her some extra notice.

There will also be many players at Roland Garros who will be happy to ruin it all for one of the contenders. Players like Andrea Petkovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur, Alize Cornet, Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, 2012 runner-up Sara Errani, Caroline Garcia, and of course, the Queen of Mexico, aka Timea Bacsinszky. Danger also lurks among the likes of 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Victoria Azarenka, Madison Keys, Irina-Camelia Begu, Kiki Mladenovic, and--on the right day--Camila Giorgi. Throw in Mona Barthel, Jelena Jankovic and Elina Svitolina, and there's a trap everywhere a top contender turns (and I haven't even named all of them).

Of course, experience helps a lot, but clay--the great neutralizer--allows classic clay court players a chance to out-maneuver "bigger" players. Clay court play can be a real grind, too, with longer rallies and more breaks of serve, so fitness is key. Sharapova and Williams each hold eleven clay court titles, but they have some worthy opponents. Who will be the last woman standing in the red dust?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Kvitova wins second Madrid title

Petra Kvitova may have struggled a bit here and there this week, but she also had "the look"--the one she gets when she's mostly relaxed on court and can put herself into "Scary Petra" mode at will. It was almost a given that her opponent in today's final, Svetlana Kuznetsova, would be down to her very last reserves. The 2009 French Open champion played two epic matches against very tough opponents (Stosur and Safarova) and she played them consecutively, in the quarterfinals and semifinals. It was a wonder, in fact, that Kuznetsova was able to go three hours against Safarova after what Stosur had put her through.

Today, Kuznetsova felt ill during the match, and that was certainly no surprise. She also had to deal with a very in-form Kvitova, who hit 33 winners in 66 minutes, beating Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-2. This, of course, after she defeated defending champion Serena Williams in the semifinals.

The Madrid title, Kvitova's second, gives her a total of 16 singles titles, and she's now 16-5 in tour finals.

Most people don't believe that Kvitova is, or ever was, a contender to win the French Open, so great is her love of grass and indoor courts. I've always thought that she was a contender for all of the majors, though the French would be more difficult for her, and her asthma gives her problems in Flushing Meadows. Mostly, I think, it's about the head--everything else is nicely in place.

Casey Dellacqua and Yaroslava Shvedova won the doubles title, defeating 3rd seeds Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro 6-3, 6-7, 10-5 in the final. Dellacqua and Shvedova defeated Stuttgart champions Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova in the semifinals; Muguruza and Suarez Navarro defeated Kiki Mladenovic and Karolina Pliskova.