Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rain break in Cincinnati

It's raining in Cincinnati and Center Court is soaked. Waiting for the sky to clear are Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys, who are at 2-all in the third set. Keys has had a number of coaching visits, and Muguruza had to have her thigh wrapped in the first set, which she won.

Caroline Wozniacki has advanced, with a straight-set win over Ash Barty, and Chan and Hingis got a straight-set win over Babos and Hvalackova.

During the Center Court match, there was an announcement that construction will soon be underway of a new building, to be located between the main stadium and the Grandstand, and that building will house--among other things--air-conditioned boxes. The 40,000 square-foot South Building will be 104 feet high. You can see what it will look like here.

If one has to be stranded, there are worse places to be stranded than in the media building, where we have enough coffee, tea, water, fruit, cookies, and wit to wait out any storm.

So maybe now is a good time to talk about who is going to win the U.S. Open. I have no idea, but I'm looking at (in no particular order): Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys, Elina Svitolina, Simona Halep, Jo Konta, and Garbine Muguruza. I do think that any of them could lift the trophy. Can anyone pull an Ostapenko in Flushing Meadows? Of course, but I don't think it's likely.

Speaking of Ostapenko (and I love to)--the hard court season has brought about her uncoiling, at least so far. Getting to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon was nevertheless a sign of more good things to come. If her coach can get her to apply more discipline to her game, she has the potential to be dangerous, just as she was at Roland Garros. Of course, I said this about Petra Kvitova, too, and she did apply some discipline, but Kvitova has health issues that haunt her throughout the season.

I do have the feeling, however, that for both Ostapenko and Muguruza, the hard courts will never be favorite venues. I hope they prove me wrong.

Halep and Kuznetsova advance in Cincinnati

15th seed Anastasija Sevastova got off to a fast, 3-0 start against 2nd seed Simona Halep, but once Halep grounded herself, she was able to dominate and win in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3. Meanwhile, 8th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2, 6-4.

Halep's job gets harder now. She will next face the winner of today's third round contest featuring 7th seed Jo Konta and 11th seed Dominika Cibulkova. As for Kuznetsova, her next opponent will be the winner of the highly anticipated (and coming up soon) match between 4th seed Garbine Muguruza and 15th seed Madison Keys.

The late-night match tonight features Sloane Stephens and Ekaterina Makarova. Given what Makarova went through yesterday, it's a bit difficult to believe that she'll survive, but then, it was hard to believe she would survive yesterday's match, yet she managed to prevail. Playing her third round at night gives her a fighting chance, should the match go on for a long time. Also, despite everything, the Russian must have gotten quite a boost in confidence yesterday.

Also today, red hot Elina Svitolina plays red hot Julia Goerges in the first night match, and I think this could be a highly entertaining event.

Also today: Ash Barty gets a crack at Caroline Wozniacki, and hard-hitting Camila Giorgi, the last-stand Fighting Italian, plays top seed and defending champion Karolina Pliskova. If Giorgi is "on," she can make life miserable for the world number 1.

Alona Ostapenko, sadly, has completed her Cincinnati run. Upset in singles in the second round by Aleksandra Krunic, she and partner Gabriela Dabrowski were defeated yesterday in the second round of doubles by Lyudmyla Kichenok and Lesia Tsurenko.

And finally, in the "I'm going to tip you anyway" category: This morning, my Uber driver informed me that he used to follow tennis more but it was easier back then "because it was all Americans."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sweating, cramping and dropping to the ground, Makarova bests Kerber in Cincinnati drama

When I think of Ekaterina Makarova, "drama" isn't the word that comes to mind. Quite the opposite: I think of a kind of quiet, businesslike steadiness. But after today's second round in Cincinnati, I have a an appreciation for aspects of the Russian's persona formerly unknown to me.

Makarova and 2016 runner-up Angelique Kerber played their second round match in the Grandstand in notable heat and humidity. I live in Louisiana, and you'd think I'd be "used to it," but I can barely manage sitting and watching a match; I have no idea how the players are able to perform in this weather.

Deep into today's match, Makarova didn't look as though she had much idea how to keep going, either. Makarova was sweating profusely and was obviously suffering from the heat. She had won the second set 6-4, but the heat had affected her so much in the second, that--as she later told us--all she could do was concentrate on getting on to the third. Kerber took the second easily at 6-1.

The third set was quite a thing to behold. In fact, something really extraordinary will have to happen in the remainder of the tournament to top it. Makarova, having conserved some energy, was nevertheless broken right off in the final set, and saw Kerber go up 2-0. Makarova looked forlorn, but suddenly, she turned on that switch that players can sometimes turn on, and won five straight games.

It looked like it was all Makarova, but after Kerber held for 3-5, Makarova saw two match points evaporate. After she double-faulted on Kerber's fifth break point, it seemed for all the world that her chances were gone. She looked weak, and she was sweating a lot, but then--after Kerber held for 6-5, the Russian star also held. And from a poetic standpoint, this match, I suppose, was destined to reach a third set tiebreak.

And what a tiebreak it was. Kerber easily went up 3-0, "confirming" my theory that Makarova had had her chance and now it was gone.

But what do I know? Because before you could say "Makarova is going to become unglued over this loss," it was 3-all. Makarova won two points and Kerber double-faulted.

Many things would happen after that. Makarova would have a medical timeout for her thigh. Kerber would hold a match point. But I don't think anyone anticipated what happened at 6-all: Makarova fell. Just dropped to the ground, with an intense look of agony on her face. The medics were ready to tend to her, but then--just as suddenly--she was on her feet. She explained later, in her press conference, that she fell because she was cramping so badly, and while she was on the ground, she moved her legs as much as she could. When she arose, her legs felt okay.

Makarova saw five more match points go away. Then, at 11-all, Kerber hit a forehand long, giving the Russian an eighth match point, which she executed with a drop shot. Makarova had survived the two hour and 39-minute ordeal, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (11).

After the match, Makarova had an ice massage, and, she said, ate and drank "a lot," and got plenty of salt into her system.

Asked what she did to calm herself when she got nervous in the tiebreak, she said that she concentrated on breathing and "I focused on my body."

There was also a considerable mental factor at play, which Makarova summed up as: "If I lose this match leading 5-2, I will just kill myself."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Radwanska and Ostapenko out of Cincinnati in first round

Aga Radwanksa, seeded 10th at the Western & Southern Open, fell in straight sets today to Julia Goerges, who has recently resurrected her career rather dramatically. Goerges, who is unseeded, hit 12 aces in the match. The German player had a 77 first serve win percentage and saved nine of eleven break opportunities.

Also going out today was 12th seed and French Open champion Alona Ostapenko, who was defeated 6-4, 6-4 by the unseeded Aleksandra Krunic. Yesterday, 13th seed Kiki Mladenovic was defeated 6-0, 7-6 by Daria Gavrilova.

Featured in the Grandstand tonight are wild card Sloane Stephens and Lucie Safarova. Safarova is 2-1 against Stephens, and they are 1-1 on hard courts. The late night match on Center Court will be played by 4th seed Garbine Muguruza and qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia. The two have never played each other.

We're (maybe) number 1!

There are five WTA players who, by the end of play in Cincinnati this week, could be ranked number 1 in the world. Here's the breakdown:

World number 1 Karolina Pliskova can retain her ranking if:
  • she wins the title
  • she reaches the semifinals and Simona Halep does not win the title
  • she reaches the quarterfinals, Halep does not reach the final, or Elina Svitolina does not win the title
  • she reaches the third round, Halep does not reach the semifinals or Svitolina does not win the title
World number 2 Simona Halep can become number 1 if:
  • she wins the title
  • she reaches the final and Pliskova does not reach the semifinals
  • she reaches the semifinals, Pliskova does not reach the semifinals, and Svitolina does not win the title
 World number 4 Elina Svitolina can become number 1 if:
  • she wins the title and Pliskova does not reach the semifinal
  • she reaches the final, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
World number 3 Angelique Kerber can regain the number 1 ranking if:
  • she wins the title, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
World number 5 Caroline Wozniacki can regain the number 1 ranking if:
  • she wins the title, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
And if you think that's confusing, consider it handy practice for when the Singapore round robin process rolls around.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sveta kills the pain

I had somewhat of a bad, mishap-filled morning, but even I was able to relax and laugh--and laugh--when Svetlana Kuznetsova did her all-access meeting with the media. We got on the subject of what it's like to have been on the tour for so long, how Sveta's tour life has changed, what kind of advice she would give, and has received--that sort of thing.

Kuznetsova, who serves as the unofficial source of wisdom for the tour, talked about how much it troubles her when players are criticized because they don't win a major, or they don't this or that. She spoke of the importance and uniqueness of each individual career, and made a point of explaining how much Anna Kournikova's career meant to her.

The most important thing, she said, is to have humility, and to treat every person with respect. This got my attention, and I asked her if she'd like to run our country. She demurred at first, then changed her answer to "Never say never!" and put it on her "Who knows?! future jobs to do" list, along with Fed Cup captain.

Kuznetsova said that she doesn't do long practices like she used to, but that her practice period is more intense. She likes so much to practice with top players that she and her coach are making an effort to find her other players with whom to practice.

The Russian star said that the best advice she ever got came from Martina Navratilova, who told her that, when she gets onto the court, to forget everything--no matter how bad and critical it is--and focus on the tennis. The advice she would give your younger self is "Listen more to yourself."

Kuznetsova wasn't the only player to charm us with wit. World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, when told that she was still leading the WTA in aces this year, deadpanned, "It's every year." Asked about her New Year's resolution to "bend my knees more," Pliskova said she thought she was doing "a little better--maybe five centimeters."

As a matter of fact, Pliskova is serving fewer aces these days because, she said, she has added body serves and has been hitting more of them.

Billie Jean King would have been proud of Pliskova's statement that she's learning to use the pressure to her advantage rather than be harmed by it.

Rogers Cup champion Elina Svitolina talked about the many, constant changes that players have to make because of weather, the surface, the balls---so many factors that require players to make fast adjustments. She also said that her steady progression up the rankings reflects how she was raised by her parents, who taught her to always take every task step by step.

Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, when asked about her apparent love of the big stage, said that she held that mindset from the beginning of her career: "I want to be on the center court. What do I have to do to get there?"

All of the players talked about the brutality of social media, but no one summed it up better than Jo Konta, when she described trolls, attackers and threat-makers as people "with too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to do something with it." The British star was quite entertaining, and talked about everything from her Hungarian conversations with Timea Babos to her post-Wimbledon experiences.

Simona Halep and Angie Kerber also met the press, but unfortunately, I had other obligations and was unable to attend their sessions.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

U.S. hard court swing as full of mystery as the rest of the season

Madison Keys sealed her comeback at Stanford by winning the event. Ekaterina Makarova took the smaller Washington, DC title, and--as I write this--the Rogers Cup will go to either Caroline Wozniacki or Elina Svitolina. Then it's on to Cincinnati and New Haven, followed by the last major of the year, the U.S. Open.

We know nothing at this time about whether that last major will include Maria Sharapova, though I earnestly hope it does. We do know that there's a good chance it won't include Vika Azarenka, who is preoccupied with a very difficult family situation. And of course, Serena Williams won't be in Flushing Meadows.

World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, who just lost to Wozniacki in the Toronto quarterfinals, is the defending champion in Cincinnati. Though she's known for having an excessive amount of cool, I have to wonder how the pressure of being number 1 in the world is affecting her. Pliskova hasn't won a major, but was the runner-up in last year's U.S. Open, which may create even more pressure.

In the meantime, popping up as serious contenders in the U.S. hard court season are Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki. Stephens lost to Wozniacki in the Rogers Cup semifinals, but she has played exceptionally well this week, seemingly out of nowhere (which is Sloane's way). Simona Halep, defending Rogers Cup champion, was holding her own until Elina Svitolina ate her alive in the semifinals (which must have felt pretty good after what she went through at Roland Garros). Svitolina knocked out two top 5 players in one day, which may be some kind of record. Keep an eye on the Ukrainian--she's on a roll. Also, like Pliskova, she appears to get over disappointments quickly and move on, which is a very nice quality in an athlete.

Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza hasn't returned to muguing around the court, which is a very good thing. She made it to the semifinals in Stanford, where she was defeated by eventual champion Keys. In Toronto, the Spaniard lost to Svitolina in the quarterfinals. Given her obvious preference for the big stage, she could do quite well in Flushing Meadows.

I'll be in Cincinnati next week and will keep everyone up to date.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Five is the loneliest number

Today, Caroline Wozniacki lost her fifth final of the season to 2016 runner-up Katerina Siniakova at the Swedish Open in Bastad. The top-seeded Dane has reached five finals in 2017 and has lost all of them. The champion, yet another Czech player on the rise, will now move back into the top 40, but what of former world number 1 Wozniacki? As time goes by, the Dane's career becomes stranger and stranger. She has fought her way back into the top 10, yes, but what does it mean?

I'm reminded of when Jelena Jankovic stunned almost everyone by getting herself back into the top 10 in 2013, but then was unable to capitalize much on this achievement. My gut feeling is that Wozniacki's career is on the same path. I should add that I don't think this casts a bad light on either of them; they have both been number 1 in the world and they have both had great careers.

But the WTA landscape is shifting toward a younger group of players.

Well, sort of. The winner of the Nanchang event was none other than 31-year-old Peng Shuai, whose comeback from a back injury has been quite impressive. But in general, the younger generation of players is finally making its mark on the tour.

Will the North American hard court swing make a difference? I'm looking at Jo Konta to do well, but I'm also looking at Angie Kerber to make a late-season statement. Will Muguruza make a big hard court statement? And what about Ostapenko? Both of them feel like true wild cards in that they can now be expected to do just about anything.

If there's any pressure, though, it's on world number 1 Karolina Pliskova, who has yet to win a major, and who was last year's U.S. Open runner-up. An argument can be made that Pliskova "needs" to win the 2017 U.S. Open, and--while it would be a nice touch, and take the pressure off of her--I think she'll be fine if she doesn't win it. Having said that, I should add that I do consider her a major contender for the title.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

When champions are snubbed

A very long time ago, Janis Joplin was in her car, trying to find the entrance to a venue for a big Janis Joplin concert. She was stopped by security and told that she was not authorized to drive in the area where she had her car. The security official made it very clear to her that only the star, her band and her official entourage could approach the stage parking lot. Joplin protested, but the security man would have none of it. Finally, exasperating with the driver's disobedience and practically yelling at her, he said, "Listen, I wouldn't let you in here if you were Janis Joplin!"

That's a favorite story of mine, and I thought about it in 2005 when security wouldn't allow Svetlana Kuznetsova into a restricted area of the U.S. Open. The 2004 champion tried to explain who she was, but again, security would have none of it. Finally, Kuznetsova caught a break: She saw a life-size poster of herself as the defending champion, pointed at it, then pointed to herself. She was admitted.

I thought of it again in 2011, when Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon and was barred from entering the All England Club reception area, which leads to the balcony where champions hold the trophy and greet throngs of admirers. Finally, a staff member explained to security personnel that they needed to let Kvitova through because she had just won Wimbledon.

And we can laugh about the "cheekiness" of Jelena Ostapenko's "I'm a grand slam champion!"'s complaints about having her match placed on an out-of-the-way court (one that required a loan of Jelena Jankovic's famous Wimbledon helicopter), but it isn't really funny. The newly crowned French Open champion deserved at least a little special treatment. I have to wonder if the schedulers even knew who she was. In the recent past, Wimbledon officials have not known the names of important female players and have published and spoken them incorrectly.

Also, Wimbledon has a "tradition" of snubbing important female players when it comes to scheduling, including their past champions, like five-time champion Venus Williams.

In 2013, The Times bitterly opined that the ladies' quarterfinals were going to be played by "the women you've never heard of." Those women included 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli (who would go on to win the tournament), French Open champion Li Na, the previous year's runner-up, Agnieszka Radwanska, and 2011 Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova. This was an outrageous statement, but The Times was given a pass.

The problem of snubbing female champions, especially at Wimbledon, is one that needs to be addressed. But then, there are endless problems related to sexism toward the WTA that need to be addressed, and they almost never are.

My Wimbledon top 10

Here are my top 10 Wimbledon occurrences, in ascending order:

10: Every day is a winding road: We've never had huge expectations of Simona Halep at Wimbledon, but it was interesting to see how well she'd do after having struggled for a while, and then having just missed becoming the French Open champion. She did well, getting to the quarterfinals, in which she lost a very tough match to Jo Konta. Keep watching.

9. Welcome to the club: Diede De Groot, the 20-year-old from The Netherlands, won her first singles major by defeating Sabine Ellerbrock 6-0, 6-4 in the wheelchair final. De Groot tried to do a sweep, but she and Marjolein Buis, the second seeds, lost the doubles championship to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

8. Every step is progress: Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova has never mixed well with heat or humidity. She won her first round, but in the second, she became ill, even getting her blood pressure checked toward the end of the match. The combination of the heat and perhaps exhaustion (she won Birminham) were too much for her, and she fell to Madison Brengle. But the important thing is that she was there.

7. Brits mix it up: Martina Hingis and her British partner, Jamie Murray, won the mixed doubles championship, defeating defending champions Heather Watson--also British--and Henri Kontinen. This is Hingis's second Wimbledon mixed doubles title, and her sixth major mixed doubles title. And while we may sometimes joke about a player needing an entire room for her trophies, Hingis may need an entire apartment for hers. She now has earned a total of 110 trophies, including singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and Hopman Cup.

6. Just when you thought it was safe to step back onto the grass: Bethanie Mattek-Sands' career has been hampered by injury probably more than the career of any other woman on the tour. She and her doubles partner, Lucie Safarova, were seeking a Career Slam at this event, but had to withdraw when Mattek-Sands--playing the second round of singles--sustained an injury so horrible, even veteran players were shocked. The doubles star fell, dislocating her kneecap and injuring her patella tendon. Screaming in pain, Mattek-Sands insisted that she be anesthetized before having her kneecap reset. She has undergone surgery, and the prognosis is guarded, with one expert saying that she might return in six months, but that it will more likely be a year.

5. Simply the best: The best matches at majors are often (usually) played early in the tournament, and this Wimbledon was no exception. There were two outstanding contests, both played in the second round. Jo Konta and Donna Vekic starred in a three-set thriller that ended with Konta's winning 7-6, 4-6, 10-8. Both players had better second serves than first serves. They hit 23 aces between them (12 and 11), and 97 winners.

The other stand-out match was played between Karolina Pliskova and Magda Rybarikova. Pliskova was a favorite to win the tournament, but Rybarikova had other ideas. Making a comeback from two different injuries, the Slovakian player was in a rare zone (for anyone) throughout the match, combining stunning shot selection with stunning court speed. Here is, in my opinion, the point of the tournament:

4. Once a queen, always a queen: It wasn't enough that Venus Williams got all the way to the final at the Australian Open; she had to do it again at Wimbledon. Looking like the grass queen of old, Williams swatted away the likes of the 2017 French Open champion and Jo Konta. Things didn't work out for her when she faced off with Garbine Muguruza, but it was still a remarkable run.

3. You say you want a revelation: Petra Martic and the above-mentioned Magda Rybarikova were as much the stars of this Wimbledon as anyone. Martic, a qualifier who missed a lot of time because of a back injury, made it all the way to the quarterfinals (having won three qualifying matches), taking out 20th seed Daria Gavrilova in the first round. In the quarterfinals, as fate would have it, she faced off against Rybarikova, who beat her in straight sets.

Rybarikova went on to defeat dark horse favorite CoCo Vandeweghe in straight sets in the quarterfinals, but was finally stopped by Muguruza in the semifinals. What a run!

2. Are we there yet?!: 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina had to wait--and wait and wait for the very long (4 hours and 39 minutes) men's doubles final to end before they could take to the court. They also knew, when they stepped onto the court at 9:30 p.m., that all play had to end by 11 p.m. Their opponents were 9th seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Monica Niculescu, and the Russians played like they had a flight to catch, or at least an important dinner reservation that they didn't want to miss. In 54 minutes, it was over, and Makarova and Vesnina had won, 6-0, 6-0. This was the first double bagel to to delivered in a major women's double final since 1971 (Australian Open), and the first one to be scored at Wimbledon since 1953.

Makarova and Vesnina are one championship shy of having a Career Slam; they just need to win the Australian Open.

1. The strike of The Elegant Assassin: I wish I knew who the (British) commentator was who gave Garbine Muguruza the name "The Elegant Assassin" so that I could give him credit for doing so (if anyone knows, please tell me). It's as good a tennis nickname as I've ever heard. And yes, there are times when Muguruza's game isn't exactly elegant, but when she finds her zone, she's both stylish and scary at the same time. Such was the state of all things Mugu throughout the Spaniard's two-week stay in London.

She made it look so easy. The only player to take a set off of her was world number 1 Angie Kerber, and their round of 16 match was a great one. Muguruza barely broke a sweat through her other matches. When she stepped onto Centre Court with her bouquet on Saturday, she was the picture of composure. Her first set against five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams was a very tough one, but after she saved two set points, she went into assassin mode and stayed in it.

Muguruza defeated Williams 7-5, 6-0. She hit 14 winners and made 11 unforced errors. This is her second major championship--she won the French Open last year. In fact, she has won only two other tournaments in her career, one international and one mandatory premier. Muguruza was coached by former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez during this event since her regular coach could not be present, and the combination obviously worked very well.

The pressure of winning the French Open really got to Muguruza, and it didn't help when the French crowd turned against her this year when she competed against (and lost to) Kiki Mladenovic in the fourth round. Martinez is credited with getting Muguruza calm, and a calm Mugu is a deadly Mugu.