Monday, January 22, 2018

Kerber survives brilliant Hsieh

The glory of Hsieh Su-wei's 2018 Australian Open continued yesterday, even though she lost her round of 16 match to 2016 champion Angie Kerber. Hsieh's mistake was not winning the match in straight sets. By the time the two players reached the third set of this extremely physical match, Hsieh was running on reserve energy, and that energy gave out. But in the first two sets, the veteran from Chinese Taipei, known for her doubles skills, put on a show that had Kerber running, stretching, tumbling, falling, and generally throwing herself into a constant scramble to keep up with her opponent's almost casual dominance.

Hsieh, using two hands on both sides, took the ball very quickly and cracked angled groundstrokes that left Kerber bewildered. She hit the gentlest drop shots, outwitting even the very speedy German. And she hit overheads that were delivered in what appeared to be the height of nonchalance. Hsieh made it look so easy. And of course, all of her doubles experience was reflected in the way she judged the court and handled the  net.

Finally, in the latter half of the second set, Kerber was able to assert herself. And the third could have been a toss-up if Hsieh hadn't finally wound down. Often, in these types of matches, the higher ranked player takes the third set because the opponent has finally caved in mentally, but in this case, Hsieh's demise was obviously physical. At the end of the 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 match, Hsieh--who had already taken Garbine Muguruza and Aga Radwanska out of the tournament--received a hugh crowd ovation as she left the stadium. Kerber, for her part, passed an important test. Now, she has to face another one, in the form of Madison Keys.

Keys handled Caroline Garcia with amazing ease, hitting 32 winners, including 9 aces, and allowing the talented Frenchwoman to win only five games in a match that lasted only an hour and eight minutes. World number 1 Simona Halep also got the job easily, defeating upstart Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-2. And, playing into the middle of the night, Karolina Pliskova defeated countrywoman Barbora Strycova 6-7, 6-3, 6-2.

In doubles, 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina won their third round match, as did  5th seeds (and reunion team) Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic.

Today, quarterfinal play begins, and--lucky me--the match I really want to see is the day match, featuring Elise Mertens and 4th seed Elina Svitolina. Mertens has become a serving machine, and throughout this tournament, her serving has been consistently excellent, which partly explains why she's in the quarterfinals (though, in the round of 16, she played someone else with a very good serve--Petra Martic). I'm expecting a very good match.

The night session features Carla Suarez Navarro and 2nd seed Caroline Wozniacki.

Here is the complete singles quarterfinal lineup:

Simona Halep (1) vs. Karolina Pliskova (6)
Angelique Kerber (21) vs. Madison Keys (17)
Elise Mertens vs. Elina Svitolina (4)
Carla Suarez Navarro vs. Carolina Wozniacki (2)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Refusing to drag their injured feet, Halep and Davis put on a show we won't forget

Coach? Check. Physio? Check. Podiatrist??

Tennis players probably have the most beaten up feet of any athletes. They pound their feet for hours, often on hard courts. They slide, they run forward, they run sideways. Their ankles are always vulnerable, and blisters are always just a sock thread away. Yesterday, world number 1 Simona Halep and world number 76 Lauren Davis played for three hours and 44 minutes ( the third set lasted two hours and 22 minutes) in the Australian heat, and both had to deal with foot issues. Halep was victorious--4-6, 6-4, 15-13.

Halep had injured her ankle in her first round match against Destanee Aiava, and there had been talk that she might have to withdraw from the tournament. But she went on to defeat Genie Bouchard in the second round, and then--still dealing with a compromised ankle--had to face Davis. Don't let the ranking fool you--Davis, when she's really on her game, is capable of going into hitting machine mode, and she was very much on her game yesterday.

Doing everything Halep did--and often better--the five-foot-two Davis was relentless, both physically and mentally. As the third set dragged on, one couldn't help but think of the Australian Open masterpiece that Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova created in 2011. Schiavone showed up with a groin injury that had kept her out of Hopman Cup play, and Kuznetsova's feet were covered with blisters. They played--marvelously--for four hours and 44 minutes, and Schiavone won it, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14. The pair would go on to more or less repeat this performance at the French Open four years later, when they played for "only" three hours and 49 minutes. Again, Schiavone won--6-7, 7-5, 10-8.

Halep and Davis created plenty of their own drama. It was enough that an injured world number 1 was playing in the heat against a player who just would not let up. In the third set, it was obvious that both women were suffering, but they kept going. At one point, it appeared that Davis might be cramping, but she wasn't--she was having trouble moving because her toenail had fallen off. More foot issues. She would take a couple of medical timeouts for both feet during this very long set.

Halep had other third set issues. She served for the match three times and was broken three times. In the 22nd game, Davis held three match points on Halep's serve, but was unable to convert them. Would it ever end?

It did, as Davis's energy and resolve finally wore down. And when it was over, Halep said she felt that her muscles were gone, and--when asked about her ankle, said that she didn't know how her ankle was because "I don't feel it anymore."

Next for Halep will be big-hitting Naomi Osaka, who defeated Australian hope Ash Barty.

In third round news, 2016 champoion Angie Kerber soundly defeated Maria Sharapova in straight sets. I expected Kerber to win, but was sad to learn that she had pretty much blown Sharapova off the court. But the season is young, and the Russian has time to pull her game together.

Also, Hsieh Su-wei did it again. After taking out 3rd seed Garbine Muguruza in the second round, she defeated 26th seed Aga Radwanska yesterday. Lucky loser Bernarda Pera's run came to an end at the hands of Barbora Strycova, Karolina Pliskova--playing under the radar, the way she likes it--defeated Lucie Safarova, Madison Keys defeated Ana Bogdan, and Caroline Garcia defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

My pick for the next match to watch is the quarterfinal contest featuring Petra Martic and Elise Mertens. Both women are playing extremely well, and this has the potential to be an exceptional match.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Call it what it is--the norm

Every time a major rolls around, the dialogue surrounding its early days is similar: "Seeds out early!," "Top seeds shocked!," "Early round upsets!" Well, it's no longer a shock--it's just the way things are. Why? My best guess is that the majors are much bigger deals than they used to be (they were always important, but now they've become measuring sticks for all kinds of ridiculous stats), and the pressure on top players is greater than it was several years ago.

There are other factors. The physical intensity of the game has created more injuries, making top players vulnerable, sometimes before they even step onto the court. Also, there's a devil-may-care attitude among many of the younger (or even veteran) players. These players tend to go all-out at majors, knowing they can go out early, but also knowing they can pull off upsets. Yesterday's upset of Garbine Muguruza combined both theories: The 3rd seed has been quite physically fragile lately, and her opponent, Hsieh Su-wei, brought her best game.

One could say that the ultimate manifestation of this shift was Alona Ostapenko's French Open victory. Ostapenko was not only unseeded--she had never won a WTA tournament. A lot of factors went into Ostapenko's breakthrough, but one of the major ones was the Latvian player's attitude. It was though she was wearing Melanie Oudin's Believe shoes while also sporting a serial amnesia approach to each match. It worked.

What can be done to stop so many early upsets (and is it really that bad that we have them?)? Many have called for shortening the season even more in order to decrease injury.

 I wonder whether a strong emphasis on mental strength is part of the answer. Players who have worked with sports psychologists have usually seen significant benefits. Unfortunately, there are still players (Aga Radwanska, CoCo Vandeweghe) who disdain the idea of working with a sports psychologist. An increase in mind-body activities such as yoga and tai chi would also be helpful. Playing sports does make a person (especially a woman) psychologically stronger, but sometimes a psychological boost is needed to improve sports performance.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Bye bye, Miss American Pie

5th seed and 2017 runner-up Venus Williams, 10th seed CoCo Vandeweghe, 13th seed Sloane Stephens, Irina Falconi, Sofia Kenin, Jennifer Brady, Alison Riske, Taylor Townsend, CiCi Bellis--these women are all out of the Australian Open, defeated in the first round. Of the ten women from the USA who competed yesterday, only one--Nicole Gibbs--advanced to the second round.

The early departure of so many women from the USA was dramatic, especially considering that three of them were seeded rather high, and two of them were considered by some to be contenders for the title. Williams had the bad luck to draw Belinda Bencic, who has obviously fully recovered from surgery and rehab.

Bencic, the spiritual little sister of Martina Hingis (and formerly coached by Hingis's coach and real-life mother, Melanie Molitor) looked just wonderful as she neutralized much of Williams's estimable game. Bencic looks physically stronger now, which is going to come in handy as she navigates her way back through the rankings.

As for Vandeweghe and Stephens--they didn't really need opponents; they were fully skilled in defeating themselves. Vandeweghe, who apparently does not learn from experience, was passive aggressive, argumentative and inappropriate. But not to take anything away from her opponent, Timea Babos. Babos, unfortunately, is an inconsistent player, but she's "on," she's a threat to almost anyone. She was on yesterday, and might have won, regardless of Vandeweghe's antics.

Sloane Stephens is just back to "being Sloane." The U.S. Open champion hasn't won a match since she left Flushing Meadows. With Stephens, who knows how long this will last?

The next group of U.S. women to compete in the first round includes Lauren Davis, Madison Brengle, Kristie Ahn, Varvara Lepchenko, Madison Keys, and Shelby Rogers. 17th seed Madison Keys, the U.S. Open runner-up, faces Wang Qiang. Rogers, a big stage player who likes to pull off upsets, will play Mijana Lucic-Baroni. If Lucic-Baroni brings her best (always a question these days), this could be a really good match.

In other Australian Open news: Long-time Aussie star Sam Stosur was defeated in the opening round by Monica Puig, former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova was defeated by Irina-Camelia Begu, and former runner-up Dominika Cibulkova lost to Kaia Kanepi.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Defending champion absent, but there are plenty of contenders in Melbourne

It's always sad when a defending champion cannot be at a major, but such is this case with the Australian Open and the unfortunate absence of Serena Williams. It's also quite sad that two-time champion Vika Azarenka cannot be there. However, there are still a lot of stories to be played out in the Australian heat.

World number 1 Simona Halep has undergone a kind of Melbourne curse the last couple of years, so all eyes will be on her from the moment she steps onto a court for first round competition. Halep was defeated in straight sets in the opening round last year by Shelby Rogers, and in 2016, she was taken out in the first round, also in straight sets, by Zhang Shuai. That turned out to be a career-defining moment for Zhang, but it must have been a real drag for Halep.

In this year's first round, Halep plays young Australian wild card Destanee Aiava. Aiava is talented, and she'll have the crowd behind her, so it won't be a walk in the park for Halep. However, at this point, probably no Melbourne first round would be a walk in the park for the Romanian. If she sticks around, she could be headed toward a quarterfinal clash with Karolina Pliskova, who can also be considered a contender for the title, despite the fact that she has yet to win a major.

Speaking of first rounds--the one that's getting all the buzz is the one that will be played by Venus Williams and Belinda Bencic. Bencic is back and looking like her "old" self, and Williams couldn't have asked for much worse in a first round draw.

The first round that's also a "must watch" (meaning--if it isn't in the middle of the night) for me is the one that features Aleks Krunic and Anett Kontaveit I'm also very interested in the contest between Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka. The crowd will, of course, go crazy for Barty--as well they should--but if anyone won't make it easy for her, it's the young Belarusian.

But I digress. Who else besides Halep and Pliskova will try to put together a big story at the Australian Open? How about 2016 champion Angie Kerber, who--since the beginning of this season--has looked more like herself than she did throughout 2017? Or Garbine Muguruza, who has already retired from two events in 2018?

Those retirements (one was a walkover, to be accurate), in my opinion, don't fare well for Muguruza's success in the brutal conditions that generally accompany the Australian Open, especially considering that cramping was a reason for one of them. Also, she's likely to meet Kerber in the round of 16, and that could be the end of her run. On the other hand, no one is more apt to smoothly crush a series of opponents when we least expect her to than the Spaniard.

Caroline Wozniacki could have a deep run, and could meet Alona Ostapenko in the quarterfinals. Ostapenko's game has been filled with errors and double faults so far, but far be it from me to predict the fate of the player Todd Spiker has so aptly named Latvian Thunder. She could go out in the first round, she could win the Australian Open. So far, though, she isn't looking that sharp.

These days, Venus Williams is always a potential quarterfinalist or beyond, but again, she has that tricky first round against Bencic. Jo Konta is again a contender, and Caroline Garcia--if she's healthy after her bout with the heat a couple of weeks ago--could go very deep into the tournament. The same can be said of Julia Goerges (who knew I'd be saying that?--but it sounds really good).

And then there's the question: Is this Elina Svitolina's time? I wouldn't be surprised to see the Ukrainian reach the final. I also wouldn't be surprised to see CoCo Vandeweghe reach the final. Vandeweghe's fitness (there was a time when I would never, ever say that), combined with her newly finessed game and big hitting set her up to be a genuine threat in Melbourne.

The ability to withstand the heat and all that it entails is a major factor in determining who can get through seven matches at the Australian Open. Before the tournament directors replaced the rebound ace surface, it was anyone's guess who would be taken out with an ankle injury, but that worry is behind us now.

Other players to watch: Madison Keys, Anastasija Sevastova, 2006 champion Maria Sharapova, former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, Shelby Rogers, Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The lure--and the mystery--of the big stage

I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause
Lady GaGa et al

The "big stage player," as far as I can tell, is a relatively new phenomenon. Let me be clear about what a "big stage" player is, in this context: It's not an elite player like Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, who loves playing in the biggest events; rather, it's a player who could be called "good" or "very good" who performs at her best at majors. Big stage players, for the most part, create an air of mystery that is usually never solved by fans or observers.

The queen of big stage players is Russia's Ekaterina Makarova. There was a time when one scarcely heard about Makarova unless she was participating in the Australian Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Gradually, she began to focus more on her performance in other events (consequently--or coincidentally, I have no idea which--her performances in majors decreased in intensity). 

Makarova, an outstanding doubles player who has won three majors in doubles one and one in mixed doubles (and has been a finalist an equal number of times), has also won the WTA Championships, and she owns an Olympic gold medal. Makarova is also a very fine, but inconsistent, singles player. She has reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and the fourth round of the French Open (twice). The Russian has been ranked as high as number 8 in the world, yet she has won only three WTA singles titles.

The quirkiest big stage player is Tsvetana Pironkova, though her big stage days appear to be over. The Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, as she is known on this blog, had a bit of a specialty, for a while, and that specialty was going after Venus Williams at majors. In 2006, she defeated Williams in the first round of the Australian Open. That victory earned a "fluke" label which later had to be peeled off. 

In 2010, Pironkova, with her tricky serves and forehand slices, defeated five-time Wimbledon champion and 2nd seed Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. The next year, she again defeated Williams at Wimbledon, this time in the round of 16, and--once again--with a score of 6-2, 6-3. Surely, the saga of Pironkova and Williams is one of the strangest in all of WTA history. (One final note: Guess who beat the Bulgarian in the semifinals of her very first WTA tournament? Uh huh.)

Petra Martic also holds membership in this group. Last year, returning from a serious back injury layoff, Martic reached the round of 16 at both the French Open and Wimbledon. She also reached the French Open round of 16 in 2012 and she reached the 3rd round at Wimbledon the next year. Martic, however, has yet to win a WTA title.

A recent entry into the big stage club is Charleston native Shelby Rogers. Rogers began playing in major main draws in 2015. She has reached the third round of the U.S. Open twice, the third round of Wimbledon, and the quarterfinals of the French Open. That French Open run was dramatic; Rogers defeated clay expert Irina-Camelia Begu, Petra Kvitova (with a second set bagel), Elena Vesnina, and Karolina Pliskova. 

Rogers also got off to a roaring start last year when she took current world number 1 Simona Halep out of the Australian Open in the first round. She has yet to win a tour title, so Rogers is clearly in the "big stage" group--for now.

But that doesn't mean she has to stay there. Just ask Sloane Stephens, who spent the first part of her WTA career as a big stage performer who frustrated fans at every turn in regular tour events. Stephens stunned the tennis world in 2013 when she defeated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, a tournament Williams had won five times. Stephens would go on to reach the fourth round of the French Open four times and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon (2013).

Meanwhile, Stephens would go one step forward and two steps back, sometimes appearing that she wasn't even that interested in the game. She did win some titles, though, most notably in Charleston in 2016. In August of that year, she ended her season early because of a right foot stress fracture. She had surgery in January 0f 2017, and did not return to the tour until grass season. 

It was the North American hard court season that served as the scene of Sloane Stephens' stunning comeback from injury. Unseeded, she advanced to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati. She then re-entered the top 100, and--to commemorate the occasion--won the U.S. Open. Stephens performed poorly after that, even losing both of her singles rubbers in the Fed Cup final. Only time will tell how consistent Sloane Stephens will be as a player, but for now, she's lost her membership in the big stage club.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Could 2018 be even stranger than 2017?

Photo by Daniel Ward
2017 was a year of constant surprises. Will 2018 be more "normal," or will it also be a year of "who would have thought?" I say expect the unexpected, yet again. Here's why:

Serena Williams, while she may be tennis's version of Wonder Woman, missed almost an entire season. She also had a baby, which I know is not of itself a hindrance--consider both Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters--but because she has a new baby, she is very tired. She also isn't young, in tennis terms. None of these factors, on its own, has much meaning when we're dealing with someone of Serena's extreme mental and physical fitness. However, taken together, they present a potential obstacle.

Do I think this multi-faceted obstacle will present Serena from winning a major? Not necessarily. But it is likely to inhibit her.

Vika Azarenka is back (at least for now), and while it's difficult to imagine that she can pick up right away where she left off, she is still likely to spoil some good times for other talented player. When Azarenka is "on," she can go after anybody.

And there are so many players with big (or at least medium-sized) question marks above their heads:

Karolina Pliskova: She has yet to win a major, but it could happen at any time, except perhaps, during the French Open. Pliskova is low-key and focused. She goes about building her career in a deliberate, Kerber-like, way that should serve her well. Pliskova has already experienced playing in a major final; it would be no surprise if she reaches another one--and wins it--this coming season.

And speaking of....

Angie Kerber: Considering her talent and her accomplishments, she has no way to go but up from her 2017 level. And while no one I know is expecting Kerber to have another 2016, it isn't fair to toss her into a corner marked "aberration." The German played her heart out in 2016, yes, but she was able to reach a very lofty height because of planning, determination and a willingness to change. At least keep an eye on her.

Petra Kvitova: Kvitova is slowly regaining the feeling in her left hand. Her 2017 performances were nothing less than remarkable, under the circumstances. I know my heart refuses to push me in any other direction, but I really do have a good feeling about 2018 Petra; I'm expecting some very nice results.

Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's return to the tour looked good, also. Her serve reflected the Maria serve of years earlier, and the fire was still there. I like her prospects for 2018, also, though it may take playing some more matches before she's fully comfortable. More than anyone, with Sharapova, if the serve is solid, good things happen.

Simona Halep: She's the world number 1. For some players, that designation causes anxiety; for Halep, it may create confidence. Is 2018 the year that she finally wins the French Open? It's quite possible. Or she may surprise us and win another major. As long as someone can calm her down (Amelie Mauresmo, I have a job for you!), Halep can swing freely and believe in herself.

Caroline Wozniacki: The arc of the Dane's career makes me think of the old "Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football" routine. She goes off the track, gets distracted, disappoints her fans, then suddenly launches into offensive play and climbs back up the rankings. Then, just when fans' expectations are peaking, she takes several steps back. This has been going on for a very long time, and there are a lot of fans and commentators who are happy to play the role of Charlie Brown. I would be surprised if the pattern changes.

Alona Ostapenko: My only question about the player Todd Spiker calls Latvian Thunder is: How is her coaching going? If Ostapenko is busy learning some finesse and developing some feel about the court and her shot selection, then watch out. (If she isn't, watch out anyway.) Ostapenko possesses the power of a giant and the resiliance of a child. As I write this, she's participating in a ballroom dance competition, and the grace required to do that has already helped her on the court, and could help her even more in the future. If ever there were a player to watch, it's our new star from Latvia. Watch her serve, watch her hit groundstrokes, watch her move her rubber, Jankovic-like body. And watch her face. There's never been a player quite like her.

Venus Williams: Williams's 2017 was nothing short of amazing.  With everything she's been through, reaching two major finals was quite an accomplishment. Does she have another year like that in her? She just may.

Other players whose 2018 fates hold my interest are Carolina Garcia, Johanna Konta, Elina Svitolina, Julia Goerges, Kiki Mladenovic, Belinda Bencic, Ash Barty, Madison Keys, Dasha Kasatkina,
and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens. A year ago, I was especially intrigued by Svitolina. I still am, but I'm perhaps even more intrigued by the progress of Garcia.

Someone who doesn't have a question mark over her head, in my opinion, is Garbine Muguruza. She had a big one during part of 2017, but once she won her second major (on a completely different surface from her first one), she removed my doubts. Yes, I think we'll see her "Mugu" around the court for much of her career, but we'll also see her take home huge trophies. When Muguruza is at her best, she's calm, fluid, and completely in charge.