Monday, October 31, 2016

The Domi-nator outdoes herself

Last week, for the second time this year, world number 1 Angelique Kerber was very close to winning a huge prize, but couldn't do it. Both times, she was defeated--not by a massive forehand or backhand or wicked cleverness--Kerber was done in by feisty. Both Monica Puig at the Olympic Games and Dominika Cibulkova at the WTA Finals--both of whom have a lot of tennis talent, no doubt--were able to overcome the German star by injecting into the matches an extra dose of sheer grit and determination.

The 6-3, 6-4 scoreline of the final match in Singapore doesn't begin to convey what Cibulkova had to go through to stop the defensive brilliance of Kerber. There were moments, in the second set, when I wasn't sure the players were still in the stadium, they had pulled each other so far off of the court. It was a very good match, with moments of great excitement. Cibulkova, who ended the match with an astonishing first serve percentage of 83, hit 28 winners and made only 14 unforced errors. She won the title on her fourth match point, a netcord gift that only served to underscore the drama of the entire event.

Cibulkova has now overcome the two liabilities that have held her back in her already very good career. A few years ago, she conquered the lower back/thigh problem that had haunted her for a very long time. (Because of her height, the Slovakian player has to rely on her strong core, but because she hits the ball so hard, she has some physical vulnerabilities.) She also conquered a worse problem--being undone by nerves at crucial times in matches. With those two issues resolved, Cibulkova became a different player.

Unfortunately, a left achilles injury and subsequent surgery put her out of commission for several months in 2015, and she had some catching up to do. In typical Cibulkova fashion, she attacked that project with force. In February, the former Australian Open runner-up was ranked number 66 in the world; today, she is ranked number 5.

Last year, after going 1-2 in round robin play at the WTA Finals, Agnieszka Radwanska won the event. That was an unusual scenario that we didn't expect to see repeated any time soon, but Cibulkova, the 2016 Comeback Player of the Year, won the WTA Finals the same way. As a member of the "weak" white group, she went 1-2 in round robin play, losing to Kerber in round 1, and then to Madison Keys. In round 3, she beat Simona Halep, and the way the numbers fell, she wound up in the semifinals, in which she faced a resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova. She won that match, too, thereby getting a chance to face Kerber (who knocked out defending champion Radwanska) again.

And while it can't feel good for Kerber to have lost the prestigious Singapore title, this did mark the first year that she made it as far as the semifinals, so she, too, outdid herself.

I'm going on record here as someone who wholeheartedly approves of the round robin format. After all, these are eight elite players, and a knockout tournament just doesn't seem to do them justice. Also, the unpredictability of the event is kind of fun.

Cibulkova wasn't the only winner of the WTA Finals. Olympic gold medal winners Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina won the doubles title, defeating Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. Had Mattek-Sands and Safarova won, Mattek-Sands would have become the number 1 doubles team in the world. As it is, Sania Mirza retains that ranking.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Singapore Sling--WTA recipe

Blend appropriate quantities of Cointreau, pineapple juice, grenadine, brandy, Benedictine, lime juice, and gin. Crush the players with impossible scheduling and shake until they drop. Garnish with an orange slice, a maraschino cherry and a photoshoot. Be careful not to drink more than one a year.

Moscow is more than 5,200 miles from Singapore. Just ask Svetlana Kuznetsova--she knows. Today, Kuznetsova defended her 2015 Moscow title, then had to board a plane for a very long flight to Singapore, the site of the WTA Finals. In winning the Kremlin Cup, the Russian veteran secured the eighth spot in the prestigious year-end event.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, Johanna Konta was cooling her heels, getting her photo taken, and not knowing whether she was a contender or an alternate.

Something is clearly wrong, and not for the first time. Last year, Timea Bacsinszky, in a similar situation that Kuznetsova found herself in this year, decided to make a go at grabbing the eighth spot, and entered the Luxembourg tournament. But the WTA waited until October to announce that Road to Singapore points would not be given for Luxembourg competition. This move shut Bacsinszky out of contention. At the same time, the top seven Road to Singapore players had to wait--just like this year--to find out whether Carla Suazrez Navarro, who was competing in Moscow, would join them. She didn't qualify, as it turns out.

So Kuznetsova enters the WTA Finals as she lands in Singapore, while the others have been posing and dining and practicing in and around the event site. Why, oh why, can't the WTA get this right?

The draw was performed on Friday, and here is the breakdown for round robin play:

Angelique Kerber (1)
Simona Halep (3)
Madison Keys (6)
Dominika Cibulkova (7)

Agnieszka Radwanska (2)
Karolina Pliskova (4)
Garbine Muguruza (5)
Svetlana Kuznetsova (8)

World number 2 Serena Williams isn't there because she withdrew from all competition for the remainder of the year in order to rehab a shoulder injury. Garbine Muguruza's presence in Singapore is a little unusual, in that she won only one tournament in 2016, but it happened to be the French Open. The most dramatic presence in Singapore, in my opinion, is that Cibulkova, who just won the WTA Comeback Award, as well she should have.

Radwanska is the defending champion, and her chances of advancing within her group are pretty good. Kuznetsova is likely to be both physically and mentally tired, and Muguruza is, well, Muguruza. The surface is a hard court, which suits the skills of each of the eight players, though it's arguably the Spaniard's least preferred surface.

The event has been changed to include the eight top doubles teams, instead of the four top teams, as in the past. The top-seeded doubles team is that of Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, who also recently won the WTA Doubles Team of the Year award.

Play begins tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that (Asian) swing

Tennis players have different "wake-up calls." For some, it's the beginning of the clay season, when they can play the slow game they enjoy, carefully constructing points and employing a lot of spin. For others, it's the grass season, when they can be very aggressive. For Aga Radwanska, the grass certainly calls loudly, but it's the Asian swing that really gets her going.

It was no surprise that Radwanska won last week's premier tournament in Beijing. Earlier in the season, she won the International event in Shenzhen. Last year, she won Tokyo and also the international event in Tianjin. In 2011, The Ninja won the Tokyo-Beijing premier double.

During this year's Asian swing (so far), Radwanska reached the semifinals at the premier Tokyo tournament, and the quarterfinals at the premier tournament in Wuhan. She is currently the defending champion and top seed in Tianjin. The 2nd seed, by the way, is Svetlana Kuznetsova, who defeated Radwanska in the quarterfinals in Wuhan.

Nine of the world number 3's career titles have been won in Asia. Her Asian groove is so solid, it has an almost tennis-mystical quality to it. Is it these particular hard courts? The light? The weather? The crowds? Of course, part of Radwanska's success, at this point, is due to her former success. Playing in Asia now brings an automatic boost of confidence to the world number 3. It's nice to see her continue her Asian swing tradition because it puts her in a good ranking place at the end of the season, and it also prepares her for the WTA Finals.

Radwanska is, in fact, the defending champion in Singapore.

The "big three" tournaments of the Asian swing, the premier events, were won this year by Radwanska, Wozniacki (Tokyo) and Kvitova (Wuhan). Wozniacki has inserted herself back into the top level conversation, if only for a while. Kvitova has only added to our confusion; just when we think she's out--she's in. And just when we think she's in again--she's out. This was Kvitova's second time to win in Wuhan; she also won the debut event in 2014. Her close friendship with Li Na appeared then--and now--to be part of her motivation to bring Scary Petra to the court.

In the meantime, the new pairing of Sania Mirza and Barbora Strycova was successful in Tokyo, and the now red-hot team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won both Wuhan and the China Open.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Eerie silence still follows Craig Reedie's outrageous statement

Everyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on the Sharapova ban issue: I have yet to see meaningful evidence for meldonium to be a banned substance, and I find it beyond suspicious that a multitude of athletes took it, but in the end, Sharapova was the lone villain. But considering her role in the whole nasty affair, I thought a six-month ban would have been appropriate.

But WADA gave Sharapova two years, which brought up bad memories of Martina Hingis (who received a two-year ban for allegedly ingesting a non-performance-enhancing substance). When all of the evidence (and lack of evidence) are looked at together, two years seems very harsh.

What I'm about to say isn't about how guilty or not guilty Sharapova was. It's about the culture of envy, contempt and group-think that permitted the president of WADA, Craig Reedie, to publicly express a sentiment that was, at the very least, shockingly tasteless. At worst, it added more than a tinge of suspicion to the decision to give Sharapova such a lengthy ban.

In case you've forgotten (or you missed it, since the media couldn't make it go away fast enough), Reedie's post-decision comment was: "For me the only satisfactory element in Madame Sharapova's case was that in one year she can earn more money than the whole of Wada's budget put together."

Sharapova's attorney called the statement "unprofessional" (you think?) and asked for an apology. It would have been absolutely appropriate for her attorney to call for more than an apology, i.e., an investigation, but that would have wound up hurting his client, so it was out of the question. In a reasonably sane world, this is when the media would have stepped in and suggested the possibility of a link between Reedie's obvious contempt for Sharapova and the fact that WADA gave her an especially harsh penalty.

But the sports (and general news, for that matter) media--which is generally prone to blathering on even if there's nothing relevant or intelligent to be said--was so silent, you could have conducted a church ritual. Why?

I can only speculate, of course, but "fear of WADA" comes to mind as one reason. WADA has made several questionable (and erroneous) decisions over the years, and the press has remained silent or relatively silent about all of them. It isn't hard to infer that the one institution that is supposed to be able to take on anyone is afraid to challenge WADA.

Another reason--a worse one--is that through its silence, the media was in (at least unconscious) agreement that Sharapova's wealth makes her an easy hate target. Social media was strangely silent about the matter, too.

And there's always the possibility--unfortunately, a strong one--that our culture of ignoring injustice if we dislike the victim may have been at play. If you "hate" Sharapova (and I seriously doubt you know her, much less have even met her), or if you are outraged by how she handled the meldonium situation--that has nothing to do with the fact that Reedie's statement was very inappropriate, and quite possibly a clue that WADA did not act impartially.

The fact that Reedie knew he could safely make the statement in public, sadly, says everything (unless he is very stupid, which I doubt). And I can't help but wonder whether he would have made the same contemptuous statement had the subject been Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Maybe, but my gut says no.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Scary Petra rampages through Wuhan

Today, Petra Kvitova won her second Wuhan title, giving her 18 titles for her career. The Barking Czech hadn't won a title in over a year, and her return to her dear friend Li Na's home city inspired her in such a way that an observer was reminded of Kvitova's 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon campaigns. This was Scary Petra, who doesn't let an opponent--even an elite opponent--into the match, so overpowering is her dominance.

The physically fragile Kvitova complained of being tired, and after her epic 3rd round match with world number 1 Angelique Kerber, it seemed a given that the Czech star wasn't going to get through the quarterfinals. Holding three match points at the end of the match, Kvitova started cramping, and that  leg cramp meant that she could not convert. Yet somehow, on her seventh match point, Kvitova prevailed in this three-hour and 20-minute beauty of a match.

Having already beaten nemesis upstart Jelena Ostapenko, Elina Svitolina and Johanna Konta, Kvitova was already showing great strength by the time she got to Kerber. And then, despite her fatigue, she showed up at her semifinal match and thumped Simona Halep, of all people, 6-1, 6-2. Nothing to it. Scary Petra.

In the final, Kvitova made short work of beating Dominika Cibulkova (6-1, 6-1), and Cibulkova wasn't exactly playing poorly.

Where did this Kvitova come from, and why do we see her so rarely? The Barking Czech had some very candid things to say after the tournament:

These remarks didn't go over well with some fans, who considered them to reflect a defeatist, even apathetic, attitude. I heard them as Petra's characteristic unguarded honesty. And I also thought they had a tinge of sadness. I've said for some time that Kvitova's physical issues--chronic infections and asthma--could probably be addressed in a more successful way than they are currently being addressed. I could be wrong about this, but my instinct feels just right.

Also, whatever psychological assistance (if any) the Czech star is getting is obviously not the kind she needs. Kvitova worked for eight years with David Kotyza, who obviously coached her to greatness. But it's doubtful that she could have shown much vulnerability to a man who publicly stated that he could coach her "because she isn't like a girl." It was quite telling that in her trophy acceptance speech, Kvitova apologized for WTA players being women and "difficult." Until female players feel comfortable with being women and hire only personnel who respect them as women, a lot of problems aren't going to get solved.

Kvitova will now move to a ranking of number 11 in the world. She is 18-4 since her bronze medal run in Rio.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won the doubles title, defeating Sania Mirza and Barbora Strycova in the final. In doing so, they qualified for the WTA Finals in Singapore.