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 expressed 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)