Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Rock rocks Birmingham, and gives new meaning to "comeback"

Winning her opening round at the French Open was a very emotional victory for Petra Kvitova. Barely losing her second round wasn't too shabby, either. Then she stepped onto the grass and did what Petra does best--slay. In Birmingham, Kvitova beat lucky loser Tereza Smitkova, wild card Naomi Broady, 5th seed Kiki Mladenovic, her friend, Lucie Safarova (by retirement), and a red hot Ash Barty, who did some very heavy lifting to get to the final.

Oh--and The Barking Czech won the Birmingham title with incomplete feeling in her left hand. You know--that hand.

Barty took Kvitova to three sets, and you know how that can sometimes work out for the Czech star. But no worries--Kvitova won the final with a 35/25 winner-unforced error result, and that included hitting thirteen aces. She also had long stretches of being Scary Petra, and--considering all that she's been through--there couldn't have been a more beautiful thing for us to watch.

From her performances in Paris and Birmingham, there is reason to postulate that experiencing a near-end to her career (and perhaps her life) may have caused Kvitova to give up her self-destructive on-court meltdowns that have kept her from winning the many major titles she "should" have won. Her priorities have been rearranged; she could be a lot looser from now on.

I should note that it would be just as likely--if not more so--that the trauma would have made the Czech star even more anxious and less self-confident. Every time we suffer a trauma, we are re-visited by any former traumas we have expeienced. If those former traumas (and we've all suffered some) were not resolved, their subsequent visits are especially intense.

Also, immediate, appropriate treatment of a trauma provides a dramatically better outcome than postponed, non-existent and/or incompetent treatment. We know that Kvitova received immediate, expert treatment for her hand injury, and I hope she received the same for the emotional/cognitive injury.

Other factors also come into play, including a trauma victim's general outlook, her level of social and healthcare support, and her ability to transcend obstacles. 

So far, the outlook for Petra appears to be excellent. She is already an inspiration to those who saw her play in Paris and Birmingham. She won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014: do the math, and bring on the pineapples!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

My French Open top 10

original photo by Daniel Ward
Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 French Open occurrences:

10. Canada finally in the mix: Gabriela Dabrowski became the first Canadian woman to win a major title when she and partner Rohan Bopanna won the mixed doubles event in Paris. In the final, Dabrowski and Bopanna fought off two match points to defeat Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah, 2-6, 6-2, 12-10.

9. Conspicuous by their absence: Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova and three-time French Open champion Serena Williams did not compete in this year's event for reasons that were ridiculous and delightful, respectively. Also missing was Vika Azarenka, who--though not known for her clay court play--is nevertheless a top player. And, sadly, among the missing was Laura Siegemund, who has been setting the clay courts on fire lately, but suffered a serious injury right before the event began.

8. This Court is closed (no repairs anticipated): Margaret Court just won't shut up. And while she has a right to practice her religion and express her beliefs--when those beliefs are contrary to masses of actual evidence, then their expression becomes harmful, and there is going to be backlash. I find Court's obsession with everything gay/evil quite interesting.

7. 1 really is the loneliest number: Angelique Kerber, the world's number 1 player, went out in the first round, a victim of Ekaterina Makarova. There's no shame in getting beaten by Makarova (though, on a clay court, that was pretty strange). And sometimes top players get upset in the first round. But Kerber's career has been on such a downward slide that she wasn't even considered a favorite going into the French Open, and she should have been.

6. They love Paris in the springtime: The French players were true stars in this year's French Open. One of them, Kiki Mladenovic, seeded 13th, was a favorite to win the whole thing. She took out former finalist Sara Errani, and she took out defending champion Garbine Muguruza, who was also a favorite to win the whole thing. Mladenovic was on a roll, but fell to Timea Bacsinszky in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet had the misfortune of having to play one another in the round of 16. Garcia won that match, but she, too, fell in the quarterfinals, beaten by Karolina Pliskova. But it was a spectacular run by the French stars.

5. More to come: They didn't win the French Open, but both Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova solidified their roles as important players on the tour. Svitolina, of course, is probably still quaking from the hurt put on her by Simona Halep just as it appeared obvious that the Ukrainian star was about to advance to the semifinals. Pliskova did advance to the semifinals, and Halep got her, too. But who thought the Long Tall One was going to do so well on clay?

4. They can't stop winning!: Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova did it again. They won their second French Open doubles title and their third major doubles title in a row. Mattek-Sands and Safarova have now won five majors together, and a Wmbledon win would give them a Career Slam.

3. The bittersweet times of Simona Halep: I've written so much about Simona Halep in the last several days, and I don't want to re-hash what I've written. My final take is this: She really has made a turnaround in attitude: Her miraculous defeat of Svitolina in the quarterfinals is all the proof I need. But brain-wiring is a tricky thing, and sometimes, nerves kick in even when you think you may have conquered them. Also, sometimes you find yourself face to face with a grinning, grimacing, "Isn't Roland Garros a blast?" hitting machine. Halep isn't the only top player who, on a given day, would have been overwhelmed by Ostapenko. Here's hoping Halep keeps the faith because many of us would love to see her lift that (or any big) trophy.

2. The Rock returns: This event has been so thrilling and so full of surprises that it's easy to "forget" some of the earlier big moments. But surely nothing could have touched our hearts more than seeing Petra Kvitova enter Court Philippe-Chatrier. Well, except maybe seeing her play--and win her first match. She lost her second match, but by the very close score of 7-6, 7-6. And it didn't matter at all. Petra had returned, and a month earlier than what had been projected as her earliest possible return time. Kvitova won't get all the feeling back in her fingers for a while, but she's able to play, and that is, as far as I'm concerned, the best thing that will happen all season.

1. They say it's your birthday: Those of us who have watched Jelena Ostapenko for a while were aware of her somewhat scary tennis skills. But there was so much more to be done--the taming of her emotions, learning some discretion in shot selection, finding a better serve. And there is still plenty of work for the young Latvian to do (I can only imagine, if she fixes her problems areas, what she might become). But that didn't stop her from pulling off one of the greatest upsets in tennis history.

The first Latvian player to win a major, the first unseeded woman to win a major since 1933 (and the first one in the Open Era), the first woman to win a major as her first WTA victory since
1979--Ostapenko crashed the record books the same way she crashed the dreams of Simona Halep and Timea Bacsinszky. It's just how she does things.

Ostapenko turned 20 the day she beat Bacsinszky (who was also observing her birthday) in the semifinals. So why not just party through the weekend and, on your way out, pick up the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen?

The ballroom dancer turned tennis pro started her campaign with a defeat of Louisa Chirico, went on to take out Olympic gold medal winner Monica Puig, the talented Lesia Tsurenko, former French Open finalist Sam Stosur, former world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki, and friend Bacsinszky, before she got to the highly favored 3rd seed (and former finalist) Simona Halep. Ostapenko entered Roland Garros (only her eighth appearance at a  major) as a teenager, and--299 winners later--left as a member of the tennis elite.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jelena Ostapenko: an expert dancer who prefers to lead

It "shouldn't" have happened. Kind of like the hummingbird "shouldn't" be able to fly. But it did happen: Jelena Ostapenko, who had never before won a WTA tournament, defeated obvious favorite Simona Halep today and became the 2017 French Open champion.

Ostapenko is the first unseeded player in 74 years to win the event. She entered the tournament ranked number 47 in the world, and on Monday, she'll be ranked number 12--with a bullet.

The young, very expressive, ballroom-dancing Latvian appears to have swirled around in a ring of magic throughout her two weeks at Roland Garros. She won her semifinal match on her birthday (oddly, played against a friend and former doubles partner who was observing her birthday, also). And we know how some people like to extend their birthday celebrations into the weekend--well, no one can do that better than Ostapenko just did.

But that coincidence pales compared with this one: The last player to win the French Open as his first tournament was Gustavo Kuerten, and he did it on June 8, 1997--the day Ostapenko was born.

You can't make this stuff up.

Halep was the runner-up in 2014, after playing a very hard-fought final against Maria Sharapova. In the next couple of years, the Romanian player--who had her break-out year in 2013--found the pressure to win get to her in ways that impeded her progress. Halep is clever, graceful (every generation has a player of notable grace, and Halep is that player), strategically superior, and extraordinarily athletic. But her self-punishing ways, tied to her perfectionism, have held her back.

Halep came into this French Open, however, with a new attitude, and that attitude was made dramatically manifest when she pulled off a miracle in the quarterfinals, beating Elina Svitolina after being down a set and 1-5. It looked, for all the world, like the Romanian had conquered her demons and would finally collect her Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Halep won the first set 6-4, against risk-taker Ostapenko, who plays all-out on every shot, with the hope that all those errors, in the end, will be neutralized by all those winners (I call it "Kvitova-style"). At that point, the match looked like my expectation--that Ostapenko would hardly fade, but that the occasion would cause her to create more errors than winners. I was almost right: She hit 54 of each.

One of the most appealing things about Ostapenko is how quickly she gets over disappointment. She misses a shot, makes a face, then moves on to the next shot. She uses a poor strategy, waves her arms at her box, then moves on to the next strategy. So today, she lost a set, shrugged it off, and moved on to the next set. No big deal. She went down 0-3 in that set, and shrugged that off, too. Down 1-3 in the third? No problem. Is it the resilience of youth, or is it just the way Ostapenko is? Regardless, she cleaned her game up in the middle of the second set, dramatically changing her winner-error ratio, and won it 6-4.

The third set was just as tense as one would have expected it to be. In that set, Halep saw only two break opportunities, and she converted one. Ostapenko converted three out of seven. And as the set progressed, Ostapenko--who "should" have been falling apart mentally--entered the zone we've seen her enter throughout the last two weeks. She entered it, and she stayed in it, finding angles that are generally known only to players like Kvitova, Kerber--and Halep. She kept the ball in the court more frequently. She had grasped the idea that she could win the French Open, and this knowledge, rather than causing her to collapse mentally, only made her more deadly. She defeated Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Halep had candidly stated, before the match, that she felt pressure, and she confirmed this after the match. Well, who wouldn't? We could analyze this for days: Did Halep cave mentally again, or was she just outplayed? I prefer to leave that analysis alone because I think the match was more complex than that, and because any seasoned player would have felt a bit squeamish going against the almost cartoon-like winner-smacking of the sometimes cartoon-like Latvian.

Ostapenko hit 299 winners in her French Open run. She is the first Latvian player to win a major title, and undoubtedly the first player to give up a professional ballroom dancing career in order to play professional tennis.

When she spoke with the press in Charleston, Ostapenko said that her favorite ballroom dance was the cha-cha-cha. In Paris, she said it was the samba. I'm wondering how she feels about the tango--the most fiery of dances, filled with emotion and gliding steps. The tango permits dancers to focus on individual steps, and to coordinate those steps, moment by moment, with the music and the mood of the occasion. Something tells me that Ostapenko can do a mean tango. In the meantime, we were lucky enough to watch her glide her way to a championship (my favorite championship) that most players will never achieve.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Can the final possibly top what we saw today?

I think not. Ostapenko, Bacsinszky, Halep, and Pliskova were so inspired in today's semifinals, it's hard to imagine that we'll see greater, more exciting tennis on Saturday. It was a joy to watch both matches, in which the players displayed remarkable athleticism, amazing speed and stunning shot-making. Unfortunately, two of them had to lose.

Those two would be Timea Bacsinszky and Karolina Pliskova, each of whom had great Paris runs, and who would have made equally great finalists. But it wasn't to be. What we will get is pretty great, too: 3rd seed and former French Open runner-up Simona Halep and the unseeded, never-won-a-WTA- tournament Jelena Ostapenko.

Though none of us can know how the finalists feel (it's easier to figure out how Bacsinszky and Pliskova probably feel), it's not making much of a stretch to conclude that most of the pressure is on Halep. A win would make her the world number 1, but I doubt that her ranking is a major source of pressure.

When Halep broke through in 2013 (going from number 47 in the world to number11), she set her own bar very high. Since then, she has struggled with many things--injuries (especially to her feet and ankles), coaching changes, players who know her game and form strategies to defeat her, and--most significant of all--her own piercing self-judgment. Cursed with perfectionism, Halep has often responded to her own mistakes by just giving up, which has served as her form of self-punishment.

That she has changed her ways was dramatically evident when she won her semifinal match against Elina Svitolina, who was dominating Halep, and who was on the brink of upsetting her.

Today's challenge was different. Karolina Pliskova, who sort of sneaked into the semifinals when no one was paying attention, didn't know what to do about Halep during the first set. Clay isn't exactly where the Czech star feels at home; her huge serve and big, flat groundstrokes are her bread and butter on hard and grass courts. But by the middle of the second set, Pliskova found a rhythm against Halep, and forced a deciding set. Each woman played some beautiful tennis, but in the end, Halep's extraordinary clay court athleticism--and her opponent's less than her usual high standard-serve--led her to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory.

The other match also went to three sets. Bacsinszky and Ostapenko broke each other 16 times, Ostapenko hit 50 winners, it was Bacsinszky's birthday, it was Ostapenko's birthday, and a good time was had by all. It was really a very entertaining match, with the Swiss player's speed and cleverness on display throughout; she wound up winning just one less point than her opponent. Had there been an évier de cuisine handy, I'm sure Bacsinszky would have thrown it at Ostapenko--she threw everything else.

But it wasn't quite enough. Ostapenko (somewhat like the young Kvitova) gives new meaning to "swinging freely." The average speed of her explosive forehand was 76 mph. Ostapenko is a grinning, grimacing, bending, missile-tossing phenomenon who--when she can keep the errors in check--is kind of scary. (On the court--otherwise, she's quite charming.) And as if that weren't enough, all that ballroom dancing has undoubtedly given her a superb sense of her own body, as well as a keen sense of balance.

The young (20 today) Latvian defeated Bacsinszky 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. She is the first Latvian player to ever reach the final of a major, and she's the first unseeded player in 34 years to reach the final of the French Open. Ostapenko is also the lowest-ranked player (47) to reach the French Open final since the advent of computerized rankings in 1975. This blasting through the numbers and the expectations is pure Ostapenko.

The Latvina's coach for the clay season, at least, is former WTA player Anabel Medina-Garrigues, who won the French Open doubles title twice.

However, as free and hard-hitting as Ostapenko may be, she's never been in a huge final before. She has been in three regular WTA finals, and she lost all of them. The most recent loss occurred in Charleston, when she was defeated in straight sets by Daria Kasatkina.

Halep, on the other hand, has been here before. In 2014, she took Maria Sharapova to the brink, prompting Sharapova--after she defeated Halep and won her second French Open title--to say that the match against the Romanian was the toughest final she had ever played.

But today's action wasn't all about the aforementioned players. Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner, Rohan Bopanna, won the mixed doubles title when they defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah 2-6, 6-2, 12-10. Dabrowski is the first Canadian woman to win any kind of major title.

The women's wheelchair competition began today, with top seed Jiske Griffioen getting knocked out by Aniek Van Koot. 2nd seed Yui Kamiji survived and advanced to the semifinals.

Here are the singles finalists paths to the final:


round 1--def. Louisa Chirico
round 2--def. Monica Puig
round 3--def. Lesia Tsurenko
round of 16--def. Sam Stosur (23)
quarterfinals--def. Caroline Wozniacki (11)
semifinals--def. Timea Bacsinszky (30)

round 1--def. Jana Cepelova
round 2--def. Tatijana Maria
round 3--def. Daria Kasatkina (26)
round of 16--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (21)
quarterfinals--def. Elina Svitolina (5)
semifinals--def. Karolina Pliskova (2)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Simona Halep: She's got a new attitude

Running hot
Running cold
I was running into overload...

Somehow that wire's uncrossed
The tables were turned
Never knew I had such a lesson to learn...

I've tidied up my point of view
I've got a new attitude

from "New Attitude," Hull, Gilutin, Robinson 

I wasn't sure that a "new" Simona Halep had emerged from the rubble of Miami, but today, the Romanian star did a dramatic reversal of much of her old, self-defeating behavior. Very dramatic. 

Up against Elina Svitolina (and no, this wasn't even a final, but a quarterfinal), Halep needed all the athleticism, strategy and mental strength she could muster. The hot Ukrainian player entered Suzanne Lenglen Court containing an inner fire that would almost burn Halep to a crisp. This didn't have to do with a poor performance from Halep, but rather, with Svitolina's entering a kind of scary zone in which she hit everything as though she were some kind of tennis super-hero sent to rain misery on Romania. 

Svitolina totally dominated Halep, and before you could say "bow down to Elina of the Golden Forehand," Halep found herself down 0-5. It was at that point that the 3rd seed figured out how to interrupt Svitolina's transition game, cutting her off at the pass, as it were, and taking over the offensive role. That left Halep with a 3-6 set, which must have felt a lot better than a 0-6 set.

But then the second set commenced, and Svitolina came swooping down again, not allowing Halep to get any momentum or construct any points. The 5th seed went up 5-1, and it was easy--and natural--to start wondering about how she would fare in her semifinal match. But something was different, and that something was Simona Halep. Instead of muguing (it's a handy verb) around and getting a head start on the grief process, she played tennis. She played as though she were trying to win the match. She displayed a new attitude.

In tennis, you have your forehand, your backhand, your footwork, your speed--and, as a friend of mine used to say--your head part. Simona held onto her head part, and couldn't help but notice that Elina was letting hers slip away. Svitolina served for the match at 5-2 and was broken. She served again at 5-4, and was broken. Halep was now in full flight, though her opponent was able to save three set points and send the set to a tiebreak, in which Svitolina held her only match point. But again, Halep stopped her, and though it took Halep several set points to take the set, she eventually did it. 

And that was that. Halep won the final set 6-0. The opponents took turns demoralizing each other, but it was Halep's turn that counted. What a match. 

Meanwhile, France's last hope, Caroline Garcia, had to contest against Karolina Pliskova. As the 2nd seed, Pliskova was hardly playing with house money, but she seemed to think she was. The non- clay-favoring Long Tall (Cool) One has quietly gone about her business in Paris, taking out opponents while fans and commentators talked about everyone from Kiki Mladenovic to Caroline Wozniacki, as well as players who aren't even there. 

This match lacked the drama of the first match (most matches would), but it was well-played, and Pliskova won it 7-6, 6-4. And while she made an exit today, Caroline Garcia has a lot to be proud of.

Pliskova, it turns out, wasn't the only Czech player sneaking up on potential glory. The doubles team of Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova upset 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-1, 6-4. 

In other doubles play, top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova prevailed, as did 3rd seeds Chan Yung-Jan and Martina Hingis, and Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua. 

Tomorrow's first semifinal features the unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia and 30th seed Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland. The second features 3rd seed Halep and 2nd seed Pliskova.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Mother Nature teams with Timea, and the last Kiki has left the building

It was tennis's sweetheart pitted against tennis's--shall we say, not-sweetheart. Timea Bacsinszky--the player who decided to drop out of tennis in favor of having a career in the hotel industry, but was lured back in when she gave it a whirl at the French Open four years ago--has become a beloved figure on the tour. She still has to deal with injuries, and has seen her ranking slip during the past year, but her thankful attitude has made her a special kind of star. She can also play some kickass tennis.

Today, with hours of waiting for continuing thunderstorms to come and go, and with swirling wind wreaking havoc on the court, it was Bacsinszky who literally weathered the storm to take out France's great hope (and rightly so), Kiki Mladenovic. The incredibly speedy Bacsinszky looked, at times, to be a cartoon figure, dashing across the court to get back balls that other players would have missed. When she play with the wind, she took care; when she played against it, she hit with might.

Mladenovic did not play badly, though eventually, a lot of errors did appear. She just wasn't up to managing the brutal conditions on Philippe-Chatrier Court. The Frenchwoman had to do some fancy escaping throughout the first week's matches, and there may have been some mental fatigue, especially since an entire country was counting on her to win the event. I certainly considered her a contender, and thought that she would defeat Bacsinszky, but it wasn't to be. The Swiss star took the match 6-4, 6-4.

I was reminded of 2010, when the rain was relentless. What Mladenovic and Bacsinszky had to go through was a bit tame compared to what Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin had to go through seven years ago. They played in the rain--in red mud--in the dark. Officials would not stop play, so they swatted at what they thought was the ball while they sank into the muck that was once a tennis court. It was riveting. Henin won in three sets. In that same event, Nadia Petrova and Aravane Rezai were also forced to play in the rain and in the dark until officials finally stopped play. Petrova won the very close and thrilling match the next morning.

While Mladenovic and Bacsinszky were playing, waiting, playing, waiting, there was another pair also forced to deal with the continuous delays. Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko, meeting on clay for the third time, went to three sets. Wozniacki dominated the first set, and led 5-1, but Ostapenko made a comeback, winning three straight games. It wasn't enough, though, and Wozniacki took the set, 6-4.

That was all Ostapenko was going to stand for. She went up 5-2 in the second set, but then the rain forced the players to leave the court. Upon their return, Ostapenko completed the job and took the set 6-2. This was the Ostapenko we saw play against Wozniacki in Charleston--mugging, muttering, smiling, and smacking winners like she'd been hired to put on a hitting clinic. The Latvian player somehow manages to be businesslike and silly at the same time, and this combination seems to keep her at an even mental keel. All that ballroom dance experience probably helps, too. If you're nimble and rhythmic and have good balance, you can take a lot of physical risks.

Ostapenko won the match, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Playing "Kvitova style," she made 50 unforced errors, but also hit 38 winners. Wozniacki, by contrast, made 25 unforced errors and hit six winners.

Now it gets strange. Bacsinszky and Ostapenko--who have never played one another before--will face off in the semifinals on June 8. Bacsinszky has been to the French Open semifinals before; Ostapenko has never even won a WTA title. Also, June 8 is Bacsinszky's birthday. It is also Ostapenko's birthday. I don't know what the deejay will be up to, but no one is going to want to hear "Too Bad on Your Birthday."

Tomorrow, Simona Halep will play Elina Svitolina, a match that feels like it should be a final. I expect it to go to three sets. Also, Caroline Garcia, the last Frenchwoman standing (taking a moment here to spare a thought for Kiki, who may have melted from the heat in her head by now), will play Karolina "what's she still doing here?" Pliskova. The crowd is going to go crazy without having to be orchestrated by anyone on the court. This is Garcia's opportunity to let the Amelie Mauresmo in her head take over.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Garcia takes flight into French Open quarterfinals

I don't take much interest in tennis handshakes (that is, unless Professor Strycova is demonstrating); I think way too much is read into them by fans. But the handshake, and everything that went with it, after today's all-French round of 16 match did make me smile. I know she's a controversial figure (not with me--I could watch her every day), but I've always felt that Alize Cornet had a good heart, and at the end of today's match, she displayed it. Caroline Garcia, for her part, was warmly receptive.

Both Cornet and Parmentier, I imagine, momentarily got caught up in the "bash Caroline" campaign that occurred right before Fed Cup competition. The new head of the French Federation turned a routine Fed Cup disappointment (it happens all the time, with every team) into a chance to redefine patriotism (the current White House has a lot of vacancies--maybe he should apply) and go all judgmental and authoritarian. Garcia was the victim, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out who the instigator was.

Anyway, Garcia won in straight sets, and her "airplane" may have flown a bit lighter today after that post-match meeting at the net. This is the first time the French Fed Cup star has reached the singles quarterfinals of a major.

The Frenchwoman's opponent in the quarterfinals will be Karolina Pliskova, the reluctant clay court winner. Now that Pliskova has gotten the hang of this winning thing, she just keeps doing it. But Veronica Cepede Royg didn't make it easy for the Long Tall One. She took the first set 6-2, but then Pliskova was able to adapt better, and to take control of the match, winning it 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Simona Halep, looking very much like The Boss, dismantled clay court notable Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-1, 6-1. Halep has yet to drop a set. She next meets Elina Svitolina, who rose from the dead in her round of 16 match against qualifier Petra Martic. Martic--just returning to the tour after a long injury layoff--went up 6-4, 3-6, 5-2 against the Ukrainian star, and then saw Svitolina go down 0-30.

Svitolina held, and that was all it took to bring Martic down to clay Earth. She lost her nerve, Svitolina smelled it--you know how it goes. Svitolina prevailed, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. A more experienced player, say, someone like Simona Halep, would not have caved. This makes Svitolina--depending on your perspective--either a gifted, mentally tough escape artist or a (insert creature of choice) on thin ice. Stay tuned.

And since it wouldn't be a French Open blog post without Kiki Mladenovic, here's the latest news: She's out of doubles. Mladenovic and Kuznetsova were defeated in straight sets in the third round  today by top seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova.

Tomorrow, Mladenovic faces off against Timea Bacsinszky, and Jelena Ostapenko challenges Caroline Wozniacki.

The final seven nations represented:

France: Mladenovic and Garcia
Latvia: Ostapenko
Denmark: Wozniacki
Switzerland: Bacsinszky
Ukraine: Svitolina
Romania: Halep
Czech Republic: Pliskova

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ostapenko glides into French Open quarterfinals

I got what I got from ballroom dancing
Paul McCartney

Jelena Ostapenko, of the extremely expressive face and body, almost became a professional ballroom dancer, and she credits ballroom dancing for helping her with her footwork. Her favorite dance is the cha-cha-cha, which involves an excessive shuffling of the feet. Ballroom dancing also helps one develop poise and confidence, two things that come in mighty handy for a tennis player. 

Today, the young Latvian star defeated former French Open runner-up Sam Stosur 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the round of 16 in just under two hours. Ostapenko hit 46 winners and made 34 unforced errors, which is a very nice stat. Now, the plot thickens: In the quarterfinals, Ostapenko will face Caroline Wozniacki, whom she defeated in the Charleston quarterfinals in April. 

In that match, Ostapenko beat the Dane in straight sets, hitting 40 winners and 26 unforced errors. And except for some shakiness at the end when it took her a few match points to close, the 19-year-old was in charge throughout.

For her part, Wozniacki defeated 2009 champion Svetlana (Oh, Sveta) Kuznetsova 6-1, 4-6, 6-2. 

Venus Williams, the last holder of a major singles championship standing, was sent home by Timea Bacsinszky, the same woman who sent her home last year, also in the round of 16.

And then there was that other match--the one contested by defending champion Garbine Muguruza and home favorite Kiki Mladenovic. You could say that it had everything, I suppose. There was a bit of muguing around by the Spaniard, and Mladenovic (after I wrote that she now had control of her nerves) double-faulted 16 times. 

They played for just under two hours, though it seemed longer to me. It probably seemed longer to Muguruza, too. There is no ruder crowd than the French, and there is no greater crowd agitator than Mladenovic. Though she certainly didn't go full Bartoli (an impossibility), the Frenchwoman was quite animated throughout the match, and the atmosphere eventually carried its own drug-like energy. 

Muguruza should have been able to handle that, and perhaps she could have. But Mladenovic herself was yelling in response to some of Muguruza's errors, and that seemed to be the last straw for the defending champion. The scene, in its totality, clearly rattled her somewhat. Had I been in charge of Muguruza's preparation, I would have taken her through a "rehearsal" of yelling, booing, shouting, fist-pumping, etc. Once you've practiced keeping your cool in the middle of something like that, it's much easier for you to ignore the real thing.

Mladenovic won, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. As Muguruza left the stadium, she gave the French crowd a finger wag, which--of course--resulted in her getting booed. I appreciated the gesture because I think Muguruza tends to hold too much in at times. In her press conference, she had a tearful moment and had to retreat, but she returned as her usual articulate and gracious self.

I was okay with either of them winning (though Mladenovic, strictly because of the quality of her tennis), but no matter what, I didn't like seeing it end the way it did. I've long suspected that Muguruza is a lot more complex and vulnerable than she lets on, and this was just a very unfortunate way for the champion to have to make an exit. 

So today, we lost the defending French Open champion (Muguruza), a former U.S. Open champion (Stosur), a former U.S. Open and French Open champion (Kuznetsova), and a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion (Williams).

There was also third round catch-up today. Karolina Pliskova defeated last-German-standing Carina Witthoeft, and Elina Svitlina defeated Magda Linette in a very respectable scoreline of 6-4, 7-5. In the all-South American battle, Veronica Cepede Royg defeated Mariana Duque-Marino in a very competitive three-set match.

The surprise of the day, also a third round contest, was Petra Martic's easy defeat of 17th seed Anastaija Sevastova. Sevastova has been on kind of a hot streak since she came back from retirement, playing the best tennis of her career. Martic is just coming back from a lengthy injury recovery. Nevertheless, she prevailed, 6-1, 6-1. 

We don't know what tomorrow's highlight will be, but a good guess would be the quarterfinal match to be played between Frenchwomen Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet. Not only are they both French, but--you know, it's Alize!

But there's more. Cornet recently served as one of Mladenovic's minions when the French Federation determined that Garcia wasn't injured enough to justify skipping Fed Cup. Forcing players to play Fed Cup is draconian. And, in such a system, some will identify with the aggressor. In this case, "some" were Mladenovic, Pauline Parmentier and Cornet, all of whom mocked Garcia for declaring she was too disabled from a back injury to participate in Fed Cup rubbers. 

I think it's a must-watch.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The last time I saw Paris

Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
Martha: Amen.

photo by Diane Elayne Dees
Much has been made lately of how "open" the women's draw is at Roland Garros. This is because neither three-time champion Serena Williams nor two-time champion Maria Sharapova is there, and also because three major contenders--Simona Halep, Kiki Mladenovic and Garbine Muguruza--sustained injuries shortly before the event began.

And while these facts do add interest to the competition, it's my opinion that at least one of them belongs more in the "illusion" column than in the realm of reality. If Serena and Maria were there, would one of them win the French Open?

I say "probably not." 'Pova would have done well (and yes, she would have been a contender; I had her listed as one before the French Federation declined to "invite" her). But could she have done well enough to go seven matches? My best guess is no--but she would certainly have wreaked havoc on the draw. 

How about Serena? She, too, would have been a contender (she always is), and she, too, would have done a lot of damage to the draw. Yet, as Serena (slowly) winds down, others have found their mojo, and some of those "others" are especially adept at clay court tennis. My gut feeling is that someone not named Maria or Serena was going to win, anyway. 

As for the injuries: So far, that problem seems to have worked itself out. Halep, Mladenovic and Muguruza are making their way through the draw. I say "so far" because, as the grind gets tougher, any (or all) of these women could have problems with their injuries.

Muguruza may be at the safer end of the spectrum, in that a neck injury is probably harder to tweak than other injuries. Halep has a good chance of staying healthy because there is so much preventive attention that can be given an ankle. Of course, she does have a torn tendon, so she's still vulnerable. I think Mladenovic is a bit more vulnerable, though, because her problem is with her back, and if her back goes out, there goes her serve.

If you were to rise in one of those beautiful French hot air balloons, you would be be able to see the big picture: that the French Open is always less predictable than the other majors because the "power" players get their serves, and even their groundstrokes, neutralized by the heavy clay and the considerable spin and lob skills of very experienced clay court players.

Rise a little higher to get a really breathtaking view of Paris, and you would see both a new and a not-quite-new (talking to you, Simona) generation put on quite a show at Roland Garros. This is not to count the veterans out--Sam Stosur, Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova are having very good runs n Paris right now. It's just to point out that there is a lot of competition right now, as the younger stars pull together the mental strength to match their tennis skills.

We all have a tendency to miss what came before. I miss Chris and Martina, Yvonne Goolagong, and Hana Mandlikova. I miss wooden rackets. I wish that Amelie Mauresmo, Patty Schnyder, Marion Bartoli, Li Na, and Flavia Pennetta were still on the tour. But everything changes all the time, and even the greatest players (well, except Martina Hingis) eventually leave us. Some go abruptly, others just let nature take its course and slowly roll down the rankings until one day, they say "enough." Some even come back, but they, too, finally leave us.

The revered veterans on the tour are certainly not through. Serena, Venus and Sveta are still elite players, and Serena, in particular, is very dominant. We can also expect Vika Azarenka to make a nice ascent when she returns to the tour. But the landscape is changing, and things that once seemed clear are now a bit faded--unless you choose to look through the lens of illusion. That change is expected and organic, and one of the highlights of the current WTA tour is the competitive energy that has been established between the veterans and the new (and somewhat-new) guard.

Bon voyage!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Fighting Italians out, one Kiki standing

Today, former French Open runner-up Sara Eranni joined Roberta Vinci, Francesca Schiacone and Camila Giorgi in saying au revoir to Paris. Petra Kvitova said goodbye, too, after she lost two tiebreak sets to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. It was sad to see Petra go, but that sadness is really minimal compared with the joy of seeing her compete so well after all that she has been through.

Yesterday, I was really surprised to see Mona Barthel lose, but I was more surprised today to see Kiki Bertens go out in straight sets. Bertens, a semifinalist in 2016, lost to CiCi Bellis.

The other Kiki--Kiki Mladenovic--was the one who knocked out Sara Errani. Mladenovic said that her back is still stiff, but she is not in pain at this time. That's a good thing, since the Frenchwoman has a serious shot at winning the whole thing.

The two "shaky" contenders both lived up to their reputations. Defending champion Garbine Muguruza and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova both had to go three sets to secure their places in the third round--Muguruza against the increasingly dangerous Anett Kontaveit, and Muguruza against Frenchwoman Oceane Dodin.

Oh, and while all this was going on, Ons Jabeur upset 6th seed Dominika Cibulkova.

Kuznetsova's next opponent will be Zhang Shuai, and next up for Muguruza is Yulia Putintseva, and who doesn't want to see that? (I probably won't, because I'll be in workshops all day Friday, or the schedulers will put the match on 11:00, which is 4:00 where I live.) If Garbine mugus around and Julia yells and carries on, the match will be--well, about as expected.

Next up for Mladenovic is Shelby Rogers, who has once again inserted herself in an interesting way into a big draw. There's a very good chance that Mladenovic will meet Muguruza in the round of 16, and--assuming both are feeling healthy enough--that could be an extraordinary occasion (sure to be broadcast at 11:00 because that's the kind of luck I have--and I would consider getting up to watch it). The crowd will respect its defending champion, of course, but will most likely go into a frenzy over Kiki.

One of the other big contenders, Simona Halep, plays her second round tomorrow, against Tatjana Maria. Elina Svitolina, also a contender, plays her second round tomorrow, too. The Rome champion will face off against the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, Tsvetana Pironkova.

In the past, Pironkova made a kind of niche hobby of knocking off huge stars on grass and hard courts--especially at Wimbledon, and she had a particular gift for upsetting Venus Williams. In the past few years, however, the gifted but wildly inconsistent Bulgarian has left everyone alone. Now, the last place we would expect to see her pop up again would be on a clay court, but she reached the quarterfinals last year, and it was she who defeated clay specialist Barthel in the first round this yesr--with a 6-0, 6-4 scoreline.

We may still be in the second round, but at the French Open, it's never too early to advise everyone to expect nothing but the totally unexpected.

Monday, May 29, 2017

So how do you like it so far?

We knew going into this French Open (actually, we know going into every French Open) to expect just about anything, and though we're still in the first round, it looks like it was a good idea that we were so prepared.

That Angie Kerber was upset in the opening round was hardly a surprise, but that doesn't make it any less sad. I saw that someone on Twitter asked (not an exact quote) "how could someone with Kerber's 2016 season have this kind of 2017?" Easy--there is a lack of psychological preparedness. This happens not only in sports, but in every endeavor, in both the short- and long-term. We just notice it more in sports because of the drama of competition.

The sad part is that it doesn't really take that much to turn a negative mindset around. We now have several methods of doing this, from hypnosis to mindfulness to visualization to cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. But apparently, these very effective methods aren't being employed.

A struggle that shouldn't have been a surprise, but apparently was, involved Kiki Mladenovic. Mladenovic recently sustained a back injury, yet none of the talk about injured contenders included her; I have no idea why. Mladenovic, obviously hampered by pain, squeaked past Jennifer Brady, but only because Brady's nerves got the best of her toward the end of the match. Unless she has a sudden resolution of her problem (and she might), the Frenchwoman's Roland Garros future doesn't look too good. That's a shame, because she was (and may still be) definitely a contender to win the title.

We saw 2012 runner-up Lucie Safarova go out, and we saw CoCo Vandeweghe go out--rather easily. And also sadly, we also saw an ill Julia Goerges go out in the first round. Daria Gavrilova is out, once-a-contender Jelena Jankovic is out, and 2010 champion (and 2011 runner-up) Francesca Schiavone had the bad fortune to draw defending champion (and once again, contender) Garbine Muguruza in the opening round. Irina-Camelia Begu is out, too.

But all of that--even Kerber's exit--pales next to the very, very good news:

There won't be better news this season.

Tomorrow, two condenders take to the Parisian red clay--3rd seed Simona Halep, who faces Jana Cepelova, and 5th seed Elina Svitolina, who will play Yaroslava Shvedova. Also of interest is Caroline Garcia, who will compete against Nao Hibino, and the also recently injured Daria Kasatkina, whose opponent is Yanina Wickmayer.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Svitolina: why not?

Last week, I named four French Open champion contenders--Simona Halep, Kiki Mladenovic, Maria Sharapova, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. I held back on Elina Svitolina, and then she won Rome, so I'm putting her on the list. I'm doing this not so much because she won Rome, per se (we all know how the warmup victories can go), but because she's having a season filled with confidence and I think she's ready to be considered a contender. (And I'm pleased to have promoted Svitolina's great potential a long time ago.)

It now seems clear that defending champion Garbine Muguruza belongs on the list, too.

Sharapova is off of the list, and no one sums up my feelings about that better than The Backspinner. A pig to slop, indeed.

Now, just days away from the start of the French Open, both Halep and defending champion Garbine Muguruza have sustained injuries. Muguruza injured her neck and Halep rolled her ankle--both in Rome. Assuming, for now, that both of them will be okay for the upcoming competition, the competitive mix looks pretty interesting.

An argument can be made that Halep is under even more pressure than Muguruza, and, of course, the Spaniard's unpredictability is an entity in itself. She could Mugu around and go out in the first or second round, or she could defend her title.

Of the five of them, Mladenovic and Svitolina are the most consistent. Each will have to be beaten; they won't beat themselves. Mladenovic will also have tremendous crowd support, which she will use to great advantage. Halep does seems more stable than last year, Muguruza I already covered, and Kuznetsova is--well, Kuznetsova.

It's my favorite major, and I can't wait for it to begin.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Who will win the French Open? Your guess is as good as mine

This year's French Open championship is being described as "totally open" by commentators and tennis writers, and while it isn't that "open," there isn't a clear favorite. Historically, the French has been the hardest to call because players who do really well on hard courts and grass often find their skills neutralized by clay courts--and by experienced clay court players.

Serena Williams won't be at Roland Garros. The defending champion, Garbine Muguruza, doesn't appear to be in the form that took her to to the championship last year. She could grab some last-minute mojo, but I have serious doubts about that.

On paper, Angie Kerber is a contender, but--sadly--she doesn't seem up to it right now.

Who does? In no particular order:

Simona Halep
Who will show up in Paris? Right now, it looks like 2014 Halep will make the trip. It was that year that the Romanian star went all the way to the final and gave Maria Sharapova an extremely tough, three-hour battle. Sharapova said afterwards that it was the most difficult final she had ever played. Halep certainly has what it takes to win the French Open, and this could very well be the year she wins her first major.

Halep just defended her 2016 title in Madrid* (and drama does seem to follow her these day, doesn't it?), something that is hard to do. That's the "up" side. The "down" side is: She won Madrid last year, but failed to get past the round of 16 in Paris. Nevertheless, given the way she's been playing, it's impossible not to consider her a major contender to take the 2017 title.

*The Madrid final played between Halep and Kiki Mladenovic was a beautiful thing to watch. Mladenovic sustained an injury in the semifinals, and was hampered by it in the final. She skillfully played through it, and appeared to overcome it, but in the last part of the third set, it looked as if all the stress had finally taken her down a notch. But that isn't to take anything away from the brilliant performance that Halep put on, defeating Mladenovic 7-5, 6-7, 6-2.

As for Mladenovic, this makes two clay runner-up finishes in a row for her, which has to be disappointing, but which also demonstrates what a threat she has become.

Maria Sharapova
The three-time champion is definitely a contender. Her comeback has been impressive so far, and her vast experience at the business end of Roland Garros should serve her well. We'll know in a few days whether Sharapova gets a wild card into the main draw or into qualifying; it's expected that she'll get one into the qualifying draw. That, of course, means she would have to play an extra three matches, and playing ten matches is a lot to ask of anyone. I hope she gets a wild card into the main draw, but even if she doesn't, I make her a contender. (Also, her unseeded appearance in the draw could spell the end for other contenders.)

Kiki Mladenovic
Mladenovic has been a French Open contender in my head for a few years, though I knew that she wasn't ready--until now. The French star did something to change her mental strength status, and that something--whatever it was--did several things for her. It gave her a huge boost of confidence, more fluidity in working the court, and much more consistency in her already very good serving. She's now a major threat; also, she's excellent at creating crowd frenzy.

Svetlana Kuznetsova
I know--we say it because we want it to be true. But Kuznetsova's season is quite promising, she's a former champion (2009), and when she's "on," she owns a clay court.

The usual suspects--and a few new ones--will be around to spoil things for the main contenders. No one would be fond of stepping into an early round and having to face the likes of Kiki Bertens (who I hope will some day be a serious contender), Charleston champion Daria Kasatkina, Charleston runner-up Jelena Ostapenko, Stuttgart champion Laura Siegemund, Rabat champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the resurgent Anastasija Sevastova, Caroline Garcia, Elina Svitolina, Prague Open champion Mona Barthel, and former French Open finalist Lucie Safarova.

Francesca Schiavone could also be on hand to sweeten the draw. And despite the fact that I don't think they're going to win the championship, Kerber and Muguruza could make it difficult for others to win it.

Could any of these women wind up winning the tournament? Of course, but they don't have the advantages of the four contenders listed above.

The French Open is my favorite of the four majors. It's also the least predictable, and perhaps, this year, it's even less predictable than usual.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Scientists discover genetic flaw in Blonde Female Contrition Deficiency

Scientists working in the field of genetics have discovered what they describe as a weak propensity toward contrition among blonde females. The study, funded by multiple scientific communities, is especially relevant at this time because of what some have described as "a startling lack of contrition" from U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova.

Clinton, who won the popular vote by more than 3 million votes, was denied the presidency because of a decades-long media campaign to demean and disparage her, massive voter suppression, the last-minute interference of FBI director James Comey, and a sophisticated campaign in Russia that used bots to plant continuous false "news" stories about her.

Clinton's campaign also made strategic errors for which Clinton has assumed responsibility. However, her detractors believe strongly that these errors comprise the only relevant factor in Clinton's failure to win sufficient electoral college votes, and that the candidate is therefore "without contrition."

Sharapova was found guilty of taking a substance that has not been scientifically proven to enhance performance, and that was suddenly banned under very suspicious circumstances, and--in a move that was draconian even for the International Tennis Federation--a ban of four years was suggested as her punishment. The ban (the only one given to the dozens of athletes who used the substance) was changed to two years, after which WADA (the anti-doping organization)'s president made a shockingly prejudicial statement about the Russian athlete.

The Court for Arbitration of Sport reduced Sharapova's ban to 15 months, and stated that she "bore no Significant Fault or Negligence." It is true that Sharapova was careless in failing to take responsibility for knowing that meldonium, the substance in question, was banned. She took full responsibility for her negligence. She has also (correctly) pointed out the questionable way in which the WADA/ITF procedure was handled, and has therefore been accused of both "playing the victim" and not demonstrating that she is contrite.

The genetic scientists who conducted the study were quick to point out that Clinton and Sharapova are only the two most recent cases of Blonde Female Contrition Deficiency. They cited the case of Madonna, who refused to express any contrite feelings for appearing in cutting-edge music videos, despite the demands of the Catholic Church, among other institutions. And they pointed out that Clinton has a long history of BFCD, which includes not feeling bad enough over her disdain for baking cookies, and not feeling guilty enough for staying with her sexually misbehaving husband.

The panel also found worthy of further study the phenomenon they called Projective BFCD, citing the case of Genie Bouchard. The blonde Canadian tennis star, who has stated her belief that Sharapova should receive a lifetime ban, is currently under attack by the United States Tennis Association for failure to show contrition for sustaining a concussion because of the USTA's blatant negligence at the 2015 U.S. Open.

There is no word yet as to whether BFCD will be classified as a genetic medical vulnerability or be put forth for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Monday, May 1, 2017

For Sharapova, the condemnation continues--for WADA and the ITF, it doesn't exist

I want to be clear from the start: What I am about to say does not in any way promote the idea that Maria Sharapova did nothing wrong.

Now, let me say it loud to the outrageously large number of people who:

  • "see" and "hear" what's already in their emotionally driven heads
  • like to skip the process of rational thinking
  • skipped the classes in which logical fallacies were taught
  • have no interest in learning facts
  •  do not grasp the idea of context
  • definitely skipped the logical fallacy and psychology classes in which black-and-white thinking was taught

What I am about to say does not in any way promote the idea that Maria Sharapova did nothing wrong.

We can all agree that Sharapova did something wrong. There are consequences for making mistakes. But, just as our (I'm speaking of the U.S. since that's the country with which I'm familiar) system of justice is deeply flawed and too frequently based on prejudice, weak evidence and hidden (or, these days, not so hidden) agendas, so are other systems. Like the one involving WADA and the ITF.

Whether one thinks that Sharapova is a shameful and dishonest person (and please bear in mind that the Court for Arbitration of Sport does not agree with you), a careless and irresponsible person, or something in between--what she did or did not do is like everything else anyone does or not do: It took place within a context.

When I saw Sharapova's news conference and then heard about the large number of athletes who had been taking the newly banned meldonium, the first thing that struck me was that they were all from eastern European countries and most were from Russia. The second thing that struck me, almost immediately, was that the Olympic Games were forthcoming.

What a coincidence.

I set about to learn about meldonium and discovered that there were no human studies done on the substance, and therefore, there was nothing known scientifically about its effects on athletes. Other studies did indicate that it could possibly boost energy and speed recovery. So, apparently using Trumpian science, WADA banned it.

How unprofessional.

I consulted some physicians and pharmacists, who said they thought the ban was unjustified.

And then, suddenly, dozens and dozens of meldonium-using athletes were told to proceed to Rio--no problem. But not Sharapova. The ITF wanted to give the Russian star a four-year ban, which has to be interpreted as "your career is over." It wound up being a two-year ban.

By this time, my head was spinning. But not just because I didn't understand what was going on. What was really troubling me was the failure of the media--both the sports media and the news media--to investigate this chain of highly questionable events.

In his excellent October, 2016 article in the New York Times, Christopher Clarey quotes now-ITF president David Haggerty, discussing the ITF's refusal of his idea to skip the ITF hearing and take the case directly to the CAS: "The ITF wouldn’t do it because they wanted to have this sham tribunal of three handpicked people go and blast Maria to give the appearance that they are being tough on doping. But this wasn’t a doping case at its heart, so they really did a disservice to Maria, but also a disservice to the system."

There you are.

But that wasn't the end of it. Following the announcement of the ban, WADA president Craig Reedie announced to the world that "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."

And the media was again silent, despite the fact that Reedie was displaying a blatantly prejudicial attitude toward Sharapova because she is wealthy.

The CAS, you may recall, declared that Sharapova "bore No Significant Fault or Negligence for her anti-doping rule violation and therefore her ban should be reduced from two years to 'time served.'" In effect, this reduced Sharapova's ban to a period of 15 months.

Having been declared innocent of "doping" in the strict sense that WADA and the ITF intended, Sharapova was free to resume playing on the tour this month. Now, the granting of wild cards to her is the latest "outrage" surrounding the issue. And while I understand the objection to the wild cards in a legitimate doping case (and I might not even agree with them then, but I understand them), Sharapova's record, while not expunged, is not unclean, either.

There has also been a huge call for Sharapova to stop "playing the victim." Most of her comments have had nothing to do with being a victim, but she has indeed made a few comments about being victimized, and I have no problem with them at all.

There is much more that I could say, but the salient factors here are: Sharapova, not known for being a cheater in her sport, failed to follow the rules. The ban, which affected eastern European athletes, was suspiciously called--with no reliable scientific evidence to support it--right before the Olympics. Everyone but Sharapova got to go on with her or his life. The ITF intended to end Sharapova's career, but couldn't. The president of WADA has a problem with Sharapova's wealth.

No matter what you think about Sharapova, what she did or didn't do, and how guilty you think she is, there's no getting around the reality that the entire WADA/ITF process failed to pass the smell test. Even the worst of crimes cannot be handled by a "justice" system this flawed.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

How to Siegemund: part 3

I've written before about how to Siegemund, and today, the German gave us a new chapter when--playing as a wild card--she won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in a final that, as I expected, was dramatic, thrilling and chock-full of high quality tennis. I could watch both Siegemund and Kiki Mladenovic play tennis all day because they have all the shots, all the style and all the cleverness that clay court play requires.

Both finalists had very difficult draws. Siegemund had to defeat Zhang Shuai, Svetalana Kuznetsova (8), Karolina Pliskova (2) and Simona Halep (4), while Mladenovic, who was unseeded, had to go through the always-tough Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, defending champion and top seed Angelique Kerber, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Maria Sharapova (and that match had its own dramatic backdrop). 

I have thought, for some time, that Kiki Mladenovic could be a pretty important figure on the tour if only she could get control of her nerves. She's done just that, and the difference in her performance has to be putting fear into many opponents. Mladenovic has the serve (consistent now that the nerves have calmed), the elite doubles skills, and the ability to read the court well.

Siegemund has speed, grit, variety, and a drop shot that would make even Patty Schnyder proud. One of the German's strength, however, is also sometimes her downfall. She's able to grind out a victory if it takes hours, but then that drawn-out grinding on clay can catch up with her, rendering her too exhausted to carry on. But that didn't happen in Stuttgart. Siegemund also had the added strength of having the crowd behind her, as well as the knowledge of what it feels like to be in the final--she was last year's runner-up.

The German wild card came out on fire, playing almost perfectly and not allowing Mladenovic to do much of anything; Siegemund took the first set 6-1. Not surprisingly, the Frenchwoman found a way to impose herself in the second set. She was more aggressive, and the set was hers, 6-2. The stage was set for a thriller of a third set, and the players gave us one.

Mladenovic was broken right away, but--unlike in the first set--Siegemund's early lead faded quickly. The set became a battle of nerves, with both players holding steady, despite setbacks. The most dramatic setback occurred when Siegemund was given a point penalty for a time violation after she broke Mladenovic and was serving for the match at 5-4. Already down 15-30, she then went down 15-40 and was broken.

But--after expressing her displeasure in no uncertain terms (while the crowd booed and whistled), the German player was able to carry on, and the set--quite appropriately--went to a tiebreak. Mladenovic took an early lead in that tiebreak, and before you could say "Tennis is such a cruel sport," it was 4-1. Siegemund, however, was having none of it, and brought the score to 5-all. She ended the whole thing with--what else?!--a drop shot--for a 7-5 tiebreak score, and collected a bouquet of flowers, a trophy and a red Porsche, which she (hesitantly) drove around the stadium.

And that is how you Siegemund.

It was a great match in every way, with both players playing the kind of tennis I love to watch. This is Siegemund's second WTA title, and her first premier title.

The doubles final was also interesting, in that two former (and long-time) partners faced off against each other. 3rd seeds Racquel Atawo and Jelena Ostapenko defeated top seeds Abigail Spears and Katarina Srebotnik 6-4, 6-4.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, top seed Elina Svitolina defeated 6th seed Elise Mertens 6-2, 6-4 in the singles final. The doubles event was won by the unseeded team of Dalila Jakupovic and Nadia Kichenok. They defeated 4th seeds Nicole Melichar and Elise Mertens 7-6, 6-2, making it kind of a tough day for Mertens.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The streak has ended: USA beats defending Fed Cup champions

Petra Kviotva--absent
Lucie Safarova--absent
Karolina Pliskova--absent
Barbora Strycova--absent

Each of those four women--all absent, for one reason or the other--from the 2017 Fed Cup World Group semifinals, has led her team to victory or has brought the victory in at the last moment. With none of them available this time, the outlook wasn't that good for the defending champions. And sure enough, they lost to team USA. Yet even the team that captain Petr Pala managed to scrape together was able to extend the semifinal to a fifth rubber. Such is the magic of Czech tennis.

In the end, though, the ad hoc doubles of team of Katerina Siniakova and Krisyna Pliskova was no match for the Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe, who beat them 6-2, 6-3. The Czech team, in fact, didn't have much of a chance against doubles world number 1 Mattek-Sands and the formidable Vandeweghe.

Vandeweghe won all three of her rubbers, showing again that she thrives in a Fed Cup atmosphere. In singles, she defeated both Siniakova and new teen star Marketa Vandrousova. Her teammates didn't do as well. Shelby Rogers, who reached the quarterfinals in Charleston, was expected to do well on the green clay in Florida, but she lost in straight sets to Siniakova. And Lauren Davis, subbed in on Sunday, lost in straight sets to Vondrousova.

The Czech team won the Fed Cup championship in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and also in 2011 and 2012.

The USA's opponent in the final will be Belarus. Team Belarus reached the Fed Cup final for the first time in history, and they did it without Vika Azarenka (such a wonderfully typical Fed Cup kind of story). Switzerland's Victorija Golubic, who--only a year ago--was a breakout star in Fed Cup, lost both of her singles rubbers. And Timea Bacsinszky won only one of her singles rubbers; she defeated Aryna Sabalenka.

Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who defeated Dutch Fed Cup Beast Kiki Bertens in the February tie, took it to Bacsinszky this time (and she also defeated Golubic). It was a 3-1 victory for Belarus.

In the World Group Play-Offs:

France def. Spain (that was Julia Goerges who won both her singles rubbers!)
Belgium def. Russia
Germany def. Ukraine
Netherlands def. Slovakia (and Kiki has her mojo back)

Here are the World Group II Play-Off results:

Italy def. Chinese Taipei
Australia def. Serbia
Romania def. Great Britain
Canada def. Kazakhstan

Once again, there was drama, and not the good kind. Romanian Fed Cup captain, Ilie Nastase, already known in Fed Cup circles for insulting his best player, Simona Halep, took it to a new level this week. For starters, he made a racist comment about Serena Williams, then insulted the journalist who reported the comment. Then he hit on (including an unwanted touch) Great Britain's Fed Cup captain, Anne Keeothavong.

That should have been enough, but left to his own judgment, Nastase had plenty of abuse left in him. During Romanian Sorana Cirstea's Fed Cup singles rubber against Great Britain's Jo Konta, the Romanian Fed Cup captain became extremely verbally abusive (in a misogynistic way, of course) to Konta, the chair umpire and--of course--Captain Keeothavong. Konta was reduced to tears, and Nastase was escorted off of the grounds by security. He is provisionally banned from ITF events, pending an investigation.

The final will be played in November in Belarus, and it is expected that Vika Azarenka will be a participant. Azarenka has announced that she intends to return to the tour this summer.

Monday, April 17, 2017

No wild card, nessun problema!

2010 French Open champion and all-around tennis legend Francesca Schiavone, playing her last year of professional tennis (we think), asked for a wild card into the main draw of the Italian Open. Sounds reasonable, given all that she has done for Italian tennis, but her request was denied. So she took one into the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota, and proceeded to win the event.

Just another "Schia moment" in the 36-year-old Italian's remarkable, if circuitous, career. Going into the Bogota event, Schiavone was ranked number 168 in the world. She's now number 104, which means she has a chance to qualify for the main draw at Roland Garros. If she can raise her ranking, it will help. But even if it stays where it is, or drops a bit, she still has a chance.

Schiavone's win in Columbia wasn't an easy one. She had to knock out three seeds, including top seed Kiki Bertens. The Italian star did have some luck in the final when her opponent Laura Arruabarrena, injured her leg during the second set. Schiavone's run in Bogota gave her her eighth WTA singles title and her 600th career match victory.

It took Schiavone a while to crack the code; she was the runner-up in eight events before she figured out how to go home with the big trophy. Her 2010 French Open victory was one of my very favorite big wins in my decades-long history of watching women's tennis, and her performance in that final was exquisite. She would also make a run to the 2011 French Open final, but would be stopped by Li Na, who claimed her first major on a surface no one could have predicted.

(The Italian Open, by the way, gave wild cards to Maria Sharapova and Sara Errani, and I have no problem at all with those choices. It's just unfortunate that Schiavone got left out.)

The tennis gods were very active over the weekend. Not only did Schiavone win Bogota, but 17-year-old qualifier Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic won the inaugural even in Biel, and her run was quite impressive. Vondrousova (who spent much of last year injured), took out the likes of Annika Beck, top seed Barbora Strycova, Kristyna Pliskova, and--in the final--Anett Kontaviet. Since she had to go through qualifying, Vondrousova played a total of eight matches in order to get her trophy.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Some final thoughts on Charleston

It was a long, tense week, filled with weather, excitement and great tennis; some things stand out for me and linger in my mind:

  • The disappointment of having JJ and Petko withdraw from doubles. For some of us, JJ and Petko playing doubles is enough reason to attend a tournament

Shelby Rogers (photo by Daniel Ward)
  • Watching Shelby Rogers shine at her hometown event

  • Struggling to open a giant plastic bag and wear it as protection as we were evacuated from the media tent during a thunderstorm/hail storm

  • The multiple thrills provided by Laura Siegemund, with her clever, physical, exciting, all-court game (her press conferences aren't too shabby, either)

Laura Siegemund (photo by Daniel Ward)
  • (As always) The wonderful media tent volunteers, who anticipate our every need

  • Socks! They're not just for Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Laura Siegemund and Anastasia Rodionova wore them, also

  • Fans yelling "Come on Daria!" when Daria Kasatkina played Daria Gavrilova
  • Listening to Elena Vesnina talk about the gift of having experience on the tour
  • The endearing grace of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (photo by Daniel Ward)

  • The marvelously expressive and hilarious faces of Jelena Ostapenko and Daria Kasatkina, which turned out to be "the faces" of the tournament

Daria Kasatkina (photo by Daniel Ward)

Jelena Ostapenko (photo by Daniel Ward)