Thursday, May 24, 2018

French Open first rounds to watch

clockwise from top: Errani, Begu, Goerges, Siegemund, Cornet (photos by Daniel Ward)

The thing about a major is that the tension begins with the first ball hit. When the first round of the French Open commences on Sunday, there will be several first rounds that could be especially tense:

Angelique Kerber (6) vs. Mona Barthel: Kerber has had a tough time of it since she had her glory year in 2016, when she was number 1 in the world and won two majors plus an Olympic silver medal. Back then, she certainly seemed in place to win at Roland Garros, given her clay court skills. Recently, she has elevated her game again, but it can't be too thrilling for her to learn that her very first opponent will be countrywoman Barthel. It's not that Barthel has done anything in particular lately, but when she's "on," she can be dangerous on a clay court. And you never know when Barthel's "on" switch will be tripped.

Irina-Camelia Begu vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova: Schmiedlova recently, dramatically, resurrected her career. The last thing she needs to face someone like Begu in the first round in Paris. The Romanian player can be quite tricky on clay, and this has the potential to be a really good match.

Garbine Muguruza (3) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: There's nothing like having two former French Open champions meet in the first round. Muguruza won in in 2016, Kuznetsova in 2009. Both are prone toward "going off," and both are outstanding clay court performers. This is the first round match I most want to watch.

Laura Siegemund vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (15): If it weren't for her accident and lengthy rehab, I'd look for the German to go deep into the tournament. She hasn't returned to her deadly form on clay, however, and Vandeweghe has suddenly begun to perform well on it. One way or the other, it will be worth watching.

Julia Goerges (11) vs. Dominika Cibulkova: The German's outstanding form has dropped a bit lately, though I still consider her someone who could do very well in Paris. And while Cibulkova tends to shine on hard courts, she could prove to be a problem if Goerges doesn't arrive in top form.

Alize Cornet (32) vs. Sara Errani: Errani is 4-3 against Cornet in general, but Cornet is 2-1 against the Italian on clay. The outcome of this match probably depends on which Cornet shows up. The Cornet who took out top seed Caroline Garcia in Charleston last month could beat any number of players. The problem is that the Frenchwoman's nerves often don't permit that Cornet to play her game.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A prediction: Someone will win the French Open

carousel in Montmartre

We are now a few days away from my favorite major, and I'm as confused as ever. Last year, the title of my French Open preview post was Who will win the French Open? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps this year's should have been Who will win the French Open? Your guess still means as little as mine does.

Yes, it's always up in the air, last year it was really up in the air, and this year it's floated off into space. As little as two weeks ago, someone asked me which players I thought stood the best chance of winning in Paris, and yesterday--while having this same discussion--I realized that my picks had changed. And they may change again before the week is over.

For one thing, I didn't see this Sharapova coming. Pova's time in Rome has blown the life back into her and we're seeing the fierce fighter of long ago. And then there's Kvitova. I know it's a "fool me once" thing to have a lot of hope for Petra in Paris, but she really is on fire in this clay court season. I cannot count her out.

Also, who knew that Karolina Pliskova was going to take such a liking to clay? I didn't. The first major for the Czech has to come some time, and it's not unreasonable to think it could come at Roland Garros.

I also like Kiki Bertens' chances. Bertens can beat anyone on clay, and her confidence has obviously risen to an all-time high, with her win in Charleston and her runner-up status in Madrid. 

Garbine Muguruza is in a class of her own. The 2015 champion could win it again; she tends to show up at majors as the very best version of herself. I should add, however, that she could also go out in the first or second round. That's our Mugu.

Two players I think will make deep runs but aren't likely to win are defending champion Alona Ostapenko and Serena Williams. Ostapenko still isn't consistent enough, and Williams is really just coming back.

And now I come to the subject of world number 1 Simona Halep, and what a complicated subject that always is. Twice a French Open runner-up, Halep has more to prove than anyone else in the field. On paper, this should be Halep's championship. But this is tennis, and even more significant--this is the French Open.

And of course, this is Simona Halep. Her loss to Elina Svitolina in Rome today wouldn't be such a terrible thing (Svitolina kills in finals) if it weren't for the way she lost. It all happened so fast, and these 0-6, 1-6 sets have become rather common.

Halep is the anti-Ostapenko. Whereas the Latvian player is in the moment--without any regard to what may have just happened--Halep sometimes seems to carry the weight of the entire stadium on her shoulders. Tremendously gifted, the Romanian star can sometimes get in her own way and step out of the flow, allowing an opponent to take over the momentum of the match. Nevetheless, she's a contender to win the 2018 title.

There are several other dangerous players who could, at the least, upset contenders, and who could also wind up at the extreme business end of the tournament. These include Julia Goerges, Daria Kasatkina, Naomi Osaka, Anastasija Sevastova, Elina Svitolina, Angie Kerber, and the two Frenchwomen--Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic.

Goerges and Svitolina, in particular, are to be feared. Goerges is playing the best tennis of her career, and is in highly competitive mode. Svitolina appears to be allergic to majors, but--the tide has to turn some time, and the time may be just a few weeks from now. Her performance in Rome was smooth and confident, and she just doesn't go "off the road," as many other top players are prone to do.

Some of the shine has come off of Kasatkina as of late, and--as for the Frenchies--neither is at her best right now, but Mladenovic uses the crowd the way she uses her racket, and she's a potential threat at any time.

We're very likely to get another first-time French Open champion, and--for that matter--first-time major winner. I love the French Open, no matter what, but it's even more exciting when we have no idea who's going to win it.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Arrivederci, Roberta

Knowing that a player is about to retire doesn’t make it any easier for us to say goodbye. Such is the case with Roberta Vinci, the second of the Four Fighting Italians to leave the tour. Vinci’s farewell took place in Rome today, when she was defeated in the first round by Alex Krunic. But she had been warning us about it for some time.

A spirited purveyor of stylish (my favorite kind) tennis, and a stand-out in both singles and doubles, Vinci knew how to turn her racket into a magic wand. At the very least, she was always entertaining, and at her best—especially in doubles competition—she was lethal.

Vinci’s WTA record is impressive. She won 10 singles titles and 25 doubles titles, five of which were majors, and all of which she won with Sara Errani. Vinci also holds a career Grand Slam in doubles. Her highest singles ranking was number 7 in the world, and she held the number 1 spot in doubles for  a total of 110 weeks.

Vinci also holds the distinction of being the oldest woman on the tour to make her debut in the top 10. The tour’s trend toward success among veterans was reflected nicely by the Italian when she won her biggest singles trophy at the premier tournament in St. Petersburg in 2016.

The five-foot, four-inch Italian made world headlines in 2015 when she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, ending Williams’ quest for the Grand Slam. Vinci was the oldest player to ever reach a major semifinal (and final). She lost the title to fellow Fighting Italian Flavia Pennetta, and ended the year ranked number 15 in the world.

As impressive as all of these achievements are, however, Vinci’s greatest contribution to tennis (in this writer’s opinion) was her absolutely sterling performance in Fed Cup competition. Vinci, Errani, Pennetta, and Francesca Schiavone took Italy to the Fed Cup title in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2013.

For a very long time, Vinci held an astounding record: She won all 18 of her Fed Cup doubles rubbers (playing with nine different partners). She almost retired with a perfect record, too, but in 2015, Errani and Vinci were defeated by Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in the 2015 Fed Cup opening tie. It was a sad moment, but Vinci nevertheless leaves with the longest undefeated streak in the history of Fed Cup.

The Italian's old-school "slice and dice" tennis put the hurt on a lot of players. It was always a joy to watch her play, and especially on a clay court. In every tournament she played, Vinci embodied the "Fighting Italian" spirit.

"I'm really proud of my tennis, myself and my career," Vinci said as she departed the tour. As well she should be. She will be missed.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Helpful advice, or just another version of "Smile!"?

Sometimes, during an ATP match, a commentator will occasionally say something like "He needs to get himself more pumped up." However, during WTA matches, commentators are known to often launch into lengthy monologues about the players' affects. Just recently, in one match, I heard (not all exact quotes) "She needs to show us something," "She never smiles," "She needs to have some expression on her face."

Really? While we do know, from neurological research, that smiling improves one's mood, commentators never suggest that male players do it. Also, during the tense framework of a tennis match, a player may have other needs that have a higher priority than mood improvement. And then there's the subject of individual differences. Some competitors do better if they show some anger and get it out, but some are better off if they simply calm themselves.

Of course, when female players do show emotion, they can easily become targets because they show too much emotion, or because they show the wrong emotion. ATP players can get away with almost any amount of whining and disgruntlement, but WTA players are held to ridiculous "feminine" standards that, of course, reflect the standards of the culture at large.

It's understandable that players who get very down on themselves during a match are going to create talk about their being too negative because they're showing us that they lack belief. That's one thing. But suggesting that a player isn't showing us enough emotion (or showing us "bad" emotion) is presuming that the observer knows what's going on inside a player's mind, or--worse--has some decidedly sexist views.

Many commentators are former players, and may be projecting their own expressive styles onto the players.

Professional tennis is composed of many different types of personalities and emotional styles, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

Aside from their observations of self-punishing behvaviors (and even some of those appear to be less than harmful), those who insist on knowing how players should express themselves on court may have a point. After all, imagine what a fabulous career Chris Evert could have had if only she'd shown some emotion.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Czech Republic and USA reach Fed Cup final

Germany's Julia Goerges found her serve again today, and when Goerges finds her serve, it's generally bad news for whoever is on the other side of the net, even a big server like Karolina Pliskova. In today's opening World Group Fed Cup semifinal rubber between Germany and the Czech Republic, Goerges maintained a remarkable 92/75 first and second serve win percentage, and defeated Pliskova 6-4, 6-2.

That gave Germany hope, but it wasn't enough. In the next rubber, Petra Kvitova defeated Angie Kerber 6-2, 6-2, putting her country back into the Fed Cup final yet again.

The Czech team's opponents in that final will be defending champions USA. Entering the second day of semifinal competition with a 1-1 score against France, team USA won both of today's rubbers. Sloane Stephens handily defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-2, 6-0 in under an hour.

In the second rubber, team captain Kathy Rinaldi substituted Madison Keys for CoCo Vandeweghe. Keys faced off against Pauline Parmentier, who--on the first day of competition--gave Stephens all kinds of trouble, despite losing to her. Parmentier got off to a quick lead against Keys, but Keys caught up and brought the first set to a tiebreak, which she won. The second set was just as tight as the first, but Keys prevailed in that one, too--6-4.

The final will be held in Prague. The Czech Republic has won the Fed Cup champion five times in the past seven years.

Here are the results of World Group Play-offs:

Belarus def. Slovakia, 3-2
Romania def. Switzerland, 3-1
Australia def. Netherlands, 4-1
Belgium def. Italy, 4-0

Note that former Fed Cup giant Italy could not get back into the World Group. Sara Errani remains as the only member of the Fed Cup stalwarts, and she lost both of her singles rubbers.

Here are the World Group II results:

Latvia def. Russia, 3-2
Canada def. Ukraine, 3-2
Spain def. Paraguay, 3-1
Japan def. Great Britain, 3-2

Latvia is, of course, another former Fed Cup giant. Unlike Italy, however, the Russian team included two rather competitive players, Ekaterina Makarova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But that wasn't enough for Latvian team members Alona Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova (though Sevastova did lose to Pavlyuchenkova in three sets).

The Canada--Ukraine competition went on for hours today. Starting the day at 1-1, Canada went to 2-1 when Genie Bouchard won her rubber (she also won her Saturday rubber). In the fourth rubber, Gabriela Dabrowski took the first set, but Kateryna Bondarenko came back to take the final two, forcing a deciding doubles rubber. That also went to three sets, with Canada winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

Japan's victory over Great Britain was brought about by, of course, Naomi Osaka, though the young Japanese star lost in straight sets to Jo Konta.

I watched this semifinal like I watched the first tie, on ITF TV via Apple TV, and it was a technical disaster. For about one set, everything would be okay, and then the picture would pixilate like crazy, there would be constant popping noises, and--in one case--the sound lagged quite far behind the picture. ITF TV is now forcing us to buy a pass for both WTA and ATP (like Tennis TV did after the first season). I have no need to watch Davis Cup on ITF TV, but I had to pay for it. To add insult to injury, I couldn't even watch what I did pay to see.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Kiki CoCo Provence

It's always exciting when two Fed Cup big shots oppose each other in Fed Cup competition. Today, it was France's Kiki Mladenovic and the USA's CoCo Vandeweghe, both Fed Cup queens in their own right. In the second rubber of the day, played on red clay in Aix-en-Provence, Vandeweghe--took the first set 6-1. Mladenovic didn't make many errors, but Vandeweghe was able to break her three times.

Not surprisingly, Mladenovic came out in holy terror form in the second set, won it, then continued the momentum through the third, taking away a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory in the World Group semifinal rubber. The Frenchwoman's combination of creativity and athleticism is always stunning, and it was on full display today.

Mladenovic's countrywoman, Pauline Parmentier, did her best to take advantage of a sluggish (how often do we use that adjective in front of her name?) Sloane Stephens, and she almost got away with it. But Stephens had a "wake up" moment and prevailed, 7-6, 7-5, as Parmentier saw set point after set point disappear.

In Charleston, Petra Kvitova made a point of telling us how she isn't that good on clay. Reminded that she won Madrid, she countered with the (legitimate) high altitude/faster surface argument. Then, reminded that she had reached the semifinals of the French Open, she just smiled. Today, on red clay in Stuttgart, she handled Charleston finalist Julia Goerges in straight sets.

In the other rubber played between the Czech Republic and Germany, Karolina Pliskova defeated (former Stuttgart champion) Angie Kerber 7-5, 6-3. Plisko hit 15 aces.

Here are the results of the first day of the World Group Play-offs:

Belarus vs. Slovakia: 1-1
Australia vs. Netherlands: 1-1
Romania vs. Switzerland: 2-0
Belgium vs. Italy: 2-0

And in World Group II Play-offs, there was this:

The Russia vs. Latvia tie is a tasty one. Today, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeated Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, and Alona Ostapenko defeated Ekaterina Makarova 7-5, 6-4.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Schmiedlova plays winning tennis and teaches a worthwhile lesson


She of the beautiful backhand and the slumping career gave us a big exhale Sunday when she won the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota. But the final, in which Anna Karolina Schmiedlova played against 2012 champion and 5th seed Laura Arruabarrena, also featured some of the Schmiedlova roller coaster play we've seen all too much of in the last few years.

Leading 6-2, 5-2, Schmiedlova served for the match and was broken. Arruabarrena then held serve for the first time in the match. The Slovak served for the match again, and was broken again. However, she was then able to break Arruabarena to win the match 6-2, 6-4.

At the trophy ceremony, speaking of her coach, Schmiedy said: "He was with me in the bad times, now he's with me in the better times." Obviously, it was a very emotional moment for both of them.

In 2015, Schmiedlova played in three finals--all against Italians--and won two of them. She lost to Sara Errani in Rio de janeiro, and defeated Errani in the Bucharest final. She also won in Katowice, defeating Camila Giorgi in the final. Schmiedlova entered the top 30 that year, becoming number 26 in the world. Her competency on clay, as well as her amazing backhand, looked like a combination that could take her far.

But when the slump came, it was a huge one. In 2016, she lost 16 consecutive WTA matches, and her ranking dropped to 227. The next year, it rose to 133. That was a big improvement, but it wasn't a ranking that reflected Schmiedlova's talent.

But she kept at it, looking better--sometimes only a little bit better--each month, grinding her way through challengers and winning them, and this past week, she proved that--on some level--she never lost belief in herself. Tennis is a very mental affair (as are all sports, but tennis is an especially cerebral--and isolating--game), and belief has to exist. Sometimes--as in all of life--someone else has to hold the belief for us for a while, but eventually, we have to hold it ourselves, or everything falls apart.

It didn't all fall apart for Schmiedy. None of us can know what she went through, but it had to have been very difficult to go from being one of the most promising players on the tour to not being able to win a match. But this weekend, in Bogota, she found her way again. That's something that can inspire us all.