Monday, February 22, 2016

The Zen of the Fighting Italian

Certain things are considered "truth" in tennis:

Older athletes will be defeated by younger ones.
Smaller athletes will not be able to win consistently in today's "power game" culture.
Graceful point constructors cannot prevail over the tactics of "power" players.
Having a weak serve removes a player from the top levels of competition.

Like all so-called "truth," the real power of such maxims often lies in the fact that people believe them. But somewhere in Italy, there's a group of spirited women who load up on pasta, pass around a bottle of red wine, and wholly believe their version of Truth.

And they probably laugh until they cry.

These are the Fighting Italians. For several years now, Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani, and Roberta Vinci have made a specialty of turning Tennis Truth on its head. Schiavone, a player of breathtaking artistry, was in final after final, but could not win a WTA title. But she kept trying, and with the help of her "mental coach," she broke down the barrier that prevented her from being a champion.

In 2010, Schiavone, seeded 17th, stunned the tennis world by winning the French Open, beating the highly favored Samantha Stosur in the final. And, adding to an already poetic occasion, Stosur was the woman who had defeated Schiavone in the first round of the 2009 French Open. "This is mean that everybody have the chance to be who really you want to be, and to do everything in your life. This is what's happen to me," the Italian said after she won.

The image of a joyful Schiavone kissing the clay at Roland Garros is now iconic. 17th seed? 29 years old? Smaller body? Not a power player? Not considered at all likely to win? Non c'è problema!
The definition of "heart" in sports may as well read "see Schiavone."

The woman I originally referred to as a "Fighting Italian" is Flavia Pennetta, whom I also named the Queen of Fed Cup. Pennetta's notable career was derailed several times by serious injury, but she always came back stronger, no matter what she had to do. And even during those times when her WTA mojo was off, she rose to the occasion in Fed Cup competition, leading Italy to four championships.

When wrist surgery prompted Pennetta to seriously consider retiring, she had a change of heart. In 2014, Pennetta won the BNP Paribas Open, one of the most prestigious events in tennis. At this point, the original Fighting Italian had won 10 singles titles and 15 doubles titles, including the 2011 Australian Open (with Gisela Dulko), and she had achieved the distinction of being the first Italian doubles number 1, and the first Italian player to reach the top 10 in singles.

Pennetta would go on to win two more doubles titles (with Martina Hingis) in 2014. Finally, in 2015, at the age of 32, she decided it was time to retire. Pennetta entered the U.S. Open (where she had always played well) as the 26th seed, knowing it was the last time she would compete in Flushing Meadows. And she played well. Before the commentators seemed to notice that she was there, Pennetta knocked off 5th seed Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, and then ran over 2nd seed Simona Halep in the semifinals. In an all-Italian final, she beat friend Roberta Vinci, then picked up her trophy and left the world of professional tennis. It was a stunning occasion.

Vinci wasn't expected to be in the U.S. Open final, either. All she had to do in the semifinals was upset Serena Williams, an accomplishment that left both fans and media in a state of shock. People then wondered whether Vinci, who just turned 33, would be able to "back up" her new fame.

Not that Roberta Vinci had anything to prove to anyone. A former world number 1 in doubles, Vinci and former partner Sara Errani won five majors and achieved the doubles career slam. So far, Vinci has won 25 doubles titles. And until Italy had an unfortunate collision with France's Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic in 2015, the Italian held an 18-0 record in Fed Cup doubles competition.

And that brings me to Errani, who is sometimes known as the WTA's "feisty" player, and who is as well known for her poor serving as she is for her fighting spirit. It's hard to imagine what Errani could do if she had a better serve, or why there hasn't been an improvement in that area. But just by being an outstanding defender and a relentless retriever, Errani has won nine singles titles, and was the French Open runner-up in 2012. She, too, has earned 25 doubles titles.

When Errani won her first singles title in Palermo in 2008, she dedicated her victory to all the people in her country who didn't believe in her. That's a Fighting Italian.

Pennetta, of course, has retired from tennis. 35-year-old Schiavone failed to make it through qualifying at the Australian Open (had she done so, she would have tied Ai Sugiyama for having the most consecutive main draw appearances in majors), and Errani and Vinci have had to deal with the seemingly emotionally-charged breakup of their dominating doubles team. Errani has also been in a notable slump in both singles and doubles. To add insult to injury, France beat Italy again in Fed Cup play, and this time, the damage was done in the opening tie earlier this month.

The Italians were down. And also older, which--for most players--means it becomes harder to bounce back from any type of adversity. But Italy is shaped like a boot for a reason--it's always ready to kick some ass, no matter what the circumstances may be. And The Boot has been in high-gear action for the last couple of weeks.

Last weekend, at age 33, Vinci won her very first premier title at the inaugural St. Petersburg tournament. In doing so, she also became the oldest woman in tour history to make her debut in the WTA top 10. And isn't that just like a Fighting Italian?

But there was more to come. This past Saturday, Errani won the Dubai title--the biggest of her career--and is once again a top 20 (17) player. Then, yesterday, 35-year-old Schiavone won the Rio Open, which puts her back into the top 100. The champion was overcome with joy, in the way that only Schiavone can be overcome with joy. She ran around, yelled, sprayed champagne on people, then drank champagne and doused herself with it. And--in a gesture that spoke volumes about her expectations of herself--she reached into the waistband of her skirt to retrieve her acceptance speech, which she had written in Portuguese.

What is it about these Italians that creates in them the will--and the ability--to win against all odds?

First, they have belief. They can lose matches, be small in weight and stature, sustain multiple injuries, and undergo personal and professional hardships, but they never stop believing that they can win again.

I think that one reason they sustain so much belief is that they are unified. Just as the human heart contains four chambers, the heart of Italy has long contained four chambers--Flavia, Francesca, Roberta, and Sara. And while one of these "chambers," Flavia Pennetta, has left the court, she is most surely with the others in spirit.

They are tough. Think of the Italians, and in your mind's eye, there will be vivid images: Schiavone covered from head to toe with red clay, Pennetta stepping off the court multiple times in an attempt to vomit during a marathon Wimbledon match, Errani fighting back tears as she realizes the pressure she has placed on herself with her own success. Fighting Italians are all in, all the time. They are not impervious to pain--no one is--but they appear to be impervious to defeat of any kind.

They live in the moment. Italians are known for their appreciation of sense and pleasure. What matters is what's happening right now--not what happened in the past or what might occur in the future. There are beautiful clothes to be worn, gatherings to attend, pasta to be eaten, and wine to be drunk. There are also tears to be cried and celebrations to be held. The Italian players are never arriving--they're just there.

Will there be more Fighting Italians? I think there is already one--Camila Giorgi. She has all the qualifications: she's "too small" to hit the ball as hard as she hits it, she has tremendous grit, and--at least for now--she even has to overcome issues with her serve. Though she doesn't yet have either the wounds or the decorations of the Fighting Four, Giorgi has the makings of becoming yet another full-fledged you-know-what.

In the meantime, Schiavone, Errani and Vinci continue to delight the tennis world with comeback after comeback. Because that's what Fighting Italians do.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Pliskova and Bencic shine in Fed Cup World Group play

Karolina Pliskova seemed nothing if not an avatar of (a former) Petra Kvitova this weekend in Romania. Pliskova has continued to disappoint in majors, but has become a deadly force in Fed Cup--kind of like Kvitova used to be. This weekend, she had to win both of her singles rubber and a double rubber in order for defending Fed Cup champion Czech Republic to advance to the semifinals. No problem. Pliskova defeated both Simona Halep and Monica Niculescu (though Niculescu made it a very tough job), then teamed with Barbora Strycova to win the deciding doubles contest against Romania. This was, you'll recall, the doubles team that finished off Russia in last year's final.

Once again, Lucie Safarova was absent. Safarova, a key member of the Czech team, is still recovering from a lengthy illness. Team leader Petra Kvitova was there, but that didn't help the Czech Republic. Kvitova lost on day one to the tricky Niculescu, and on day two, she lost to Halep (Kvitova is now 0-3 against Halep).

Also showing the old guard that the "new guard" can handle things, Belinda Bencic won both of her singles rubbers against Germany, and also her doubles rubber. Of course, in doubles, she had some help from legendary doubles competitor Martina Hingis. In singles, Bencic defeated both Andrea Petkovic and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, both in straight sets. Kerber defeated Timea Bacsinskzy. On day 2, Annika Beck was put in to substitute for Petkovic, and she also defeated Bacsinszky in a memorable performance.

The Swiss doubles team took their country to the semifinals with a victory over Petkovic and Anna-Lena Groenefeld. Switzerland will play the Czech Republic in the semifinals.

For the second straight year, France drew Italy in the first round of Fed Cup, and for the second straight year, France beat Italy. Caroline Garcia won both of her singles rubbers, defeating Sara Errani and Camila Giorgia. Kiki Mladenovic--who either serves brilliantly or double-faults--rode a kind of roller coaster in her service game against Giorgi, and it cost her. Despite tearing through the first set 6-1, Mladenovic lost the match. In her singles rubber against Errani, Mladenovic was much more conservative in her serving game, and won the match.

Italy, of course, is a four-time Fed Cup champion. But gone is the doubles team of Errani and Vinci, and gone is the Queen of Fed Cup, Flavia Pennetta. France won even the dead doubles rubber.

Next for Captain Amelie Mauresmo's upstart team is The Netherlands, the latest giant-killers on the Fed Cup scene.

Russia collapses in first weekend of Fed Cup competition

"I can't remember things before they happen."
"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," the Queen remarked.
From Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll

I propose a new Sugarpova flavor: Futility--it's hard to swallow, and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

It wasn't just any team that crashed into wondrous depths in Fed Cup competition this weekend--it was four-time champion Russia, sunk by The Netherlands, and by the weight of its own irrationality. It's hard to imagine that the Russian team may have under-estimated Kiki Bertens, who entered this weekend's tie with a 11-1 Fed Cup singles record, but at this point, nothing would surprise me. Bertens has a 13-1 record now, having put away both Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Makarova has had a hard time of it lately because stayed out for so long with a leg injury. But she's been back a while, yet she failed to take even a set off of the Dutchwoman, who is ranked number 106 in the world.

"There's no use trying," she said, "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen.
From Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll

Then there was Svetlana Kuznetsova, who can be either brilliant or a total puzzlement, depending on the day (or the game). Kuznetsova is known for engaging in extremely long matches, notably her two big-stage matches against Francesca Schiavone, who won both times. The Russian outdid herself yesterday, however, by playing a four-hour match against world number 141 Richel Hogenkamp. She lost that one, too. Hogenkamp, in a stunning display of endurance, beat Kuznetsova 7-6, 5-7, 10-8.

These kinds of "improbable" victories are not really that improbable in Fed Cup competition. Backed by the strength of an entire team and playing in a team sport atmosphere, lower-ranked players often rise to the occasion and pull big upsets. What The Netherlands did was especially notable, however, because they were competing in Moscow, with the crowd cheering for their opponents.

The Red Queen shook her head. "You may call it nonsense if you like," she said, "but I've heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!"
From Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll 

So you have a questionable Makarova and an undoubtedly exhausted (at least mentally) Kuznetsova. But you also have mentally tough and impressive rising star Darya Kasatkina available. Oh--and world number 6 Maria Sharapova is on the bench, too. Granted, Olympic Games hopeful Sharapova was there for "doubles," but that's hardly the point, is it?

All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
From Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll 
What transpired with Sharapova, we'll probably never know. But again, there was Kasatkina, all ready. But it was Kuznetsova who was chosen to play the third rubber, against Bertens. And she lost in straight sets, which meant that Russia was defeated. Russia lost the last three finals the team played (all to the Czech Republic), but at least they made it to the finals. Now the team is out before the semifinals take place, and--while not to take anything away from Bertens and Hogenkamp--we are left to just scratch our heads and ask "What the hell happened?"

This is the first time in 19 years that The Netherlands has advanced to the Fed Cup semifinals. The Dutch team will next play France.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Defending champion Czech Republic faces Romania in this weekend's Fed Cup tie

Defending champion Czech Republic begins its 2016 Fed campaign Saturday with a tie against Romania, a tie for which Simona Halep postponed her nose surgery. The Romanians have the home court advantage, but, arguably, the defending champions have the court surface advantage. That's because the tie is being played on an indoor court, on which team leader Petra Kvitova is generally deadly.

"Generally" is the operative word there because even Fed Cup Queen (reigning alone now that Flavia has retired from the tour) Kvitova has her "off" moments. She lost to Maria Sharapova on an indoor court in November's final.

Also making it difficult for the Czech team to operate at full capacity is the continuing absence of Lucie Safarova, who has not recovered fully from a long illness. During last year's final, the team had to cope with Safarova's absence, as well as Kvitova's loss to Sharapova, but they pulled out the win against Russia, thanks to Karolina Pliskova, who had some superb help from Barbora Strycova in the deciding doubles rubber. Pliskova and Strycova will be on hand this weekend, as well as Denisa Allertova.

Playing for Romania, in addition to Halep, are the eternally tricky Monica Niculescu, Andreea Mitu and Raluca Olaru. Mitu, you'll recall, won a rubber against Genie Bouchard last year when Romania (without Halep) played Canada in the semifinals of the World Group Playoffs. (Mitu was a last-minute substitute for Irina-Camelia Begu.)

It seems likely that--barring unforeseen factors--Niculescu will share singles duties with Halep. There's a lot going on here: Halep has not been feeling well for a while and has cited physical weakness and fatigue as a significant problem. Kvitova, of course, has been ill a whole lot, but--as far as I know--is okay at this time. The inconsistencies caused by her chronic illness and resulting lack of play could play a role in how she competes against Halep. But given that this is Fed Cup, I consider it likely that the Czech star will rise to the occasion.

Pliskova's improvisational leadership role in the 2015 final should give her a lot of confidence in her singles rubbers. If Halep is "on," however, things could get tricky for the Czech Republic. The two countries last met in 1980 in Berlin, and the Czech Republic emerged the winner.

In another World Cup tie, two of the biggest stars of the Australian Open make appearances. World number 2 and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber leads the German team against Switzerland on an indoor court in Germany. A factor I'll call the KareBear Spirit will loom over the German team, for sure. Andrea Petkovic, whose results have been less than stellar lately on the tour, is nevertheless an especially tough Fed Cup competitor, and the combination of Petko and Kerber is very strong. Also on the German team are Annika Beck and doubles specialist Anna-Lena Groenefeld.

But the Swiss team is no slouch! None other than Australian Open doubles champion Martina Hingis will be on hand, should a doubles rubber need to be played. And both Belinda Bencic and Timea Bacsinszky will handles the singles duties. These matches hold promise for being very high quality and thrilling. And while it's true that Bacsinszky has turned out to be somewhat of a streaky player, Fed Cup just seems like her cup of tea. Also on the Swiss team is Victorija Golubic.

Who would have dreamed that France and Italy would draw each other again two years in a row? Last year, France's dramatic comeback victory over Italy was one of the most exciting moments of the entire season. Facing the second day of play with an 0-2 score, coach Amelie Mauresmo re-structured her team, with the result that Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia turned the whole thing around and won the tie. The pair is once again on the French team, as are Pauline Parmentier and Oceane Dodin. Conspicuously absent is Aize Cornet, whom Mladenovic substituted for on day 2 play.

Playing for Italy are Sara Errani, Camila Giorgi, Francesca Schiavone, and Martina (even in Italy, they name them Martina) Caregaro. Absent is Roberta Vinci, who suffered her first-ever Fed Cup doubles loss last year, courtesy of Mladenovic and Garcia. Errani hasn't really been herself lately, and Giorgi, despite her talent, can't always carry the psychological burden of competing (neither can Garcia, but she has some good 2015 memories to help her, as well as her recent experience playing Olympic-year doubles with Mladenovic).

While the first three ties create anticipation, the final one is easy to gloss over. Fed Cup giant Russia takes on The Netherlands, which is a pretty one-sided affair. Of course, odd things happen in Fed Cup play, but it's still hard to imagine that the Dutch team, led by Kiki Bertens, can make much of a dent in a team that includes Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ekaterina Makarova, and Darya Kasatkina.

In World Group II play, Slovakia will take on Australia. Since the tie is being played in Bratislava, Sam Stosur is likely to play well. She and her team will have their hands full, though, what with the likes of Anna Karolina Scmiedlova and Dominika Cibulkova competing for Slovakia. Schmiedy has had a terrible time of it lately, and Fed Cup might be just what she needs to get herself going again.

Canada, without Genie Bouchard, will play Belarus, with Victoria Azarenka. That probably says it all.

The USA (for once) has a very good team put together: Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandewegh, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Poland has a team without Aga Radwanska, so there you are.

Finally, Serbia plays Spain. Jelena Jankovic is on Serbia's team, but Aleksandra "The Bracelet" (WTA Backspin's nickname for the Serbian team's lucky charm) Krunic is not. Playing for Spain are both Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro. The tie is being played in Serbia on what is described as a medium slow indoor hard court. That sounds like a good deal for Jankovic, Muguruza (who appears to favor any surface) and Suarez Navarro. Even if someone from Spain has a slip-up, it's hard to see the Spanish team losing this.