Friday, September 19, 2014

The bird that sticks out has flown: Li Na retires from tennis

The Chinese proverb is a warning to all about the consequences of not conforming: The bird that sticks out always gets shot. "Be the bird that sticks out," Li Na countered, and she was--and is--the bird that sticks out, spreads its wings and soars above the dreary expectations and phony restrictions below her. In a world--and not just a sports world--where there are so few role models for girls, Li--throughout her career--has demonstrated courage and authenticity, and has done so with charm, candor and a deliciously mischievous wit.

Li announced her retirement from professional tennis today, citing recurring problems with both knees. The 32-year-old's announcement was not a surprise, but the reality of her retirement affects tennis fans all over the world, and especially in Asia. Largely because of Li, Asian tennis is now a major factor in the women's tour.

The WTA icon's career spanned 15 years, and was frequently punctuated by huge highs and devastating lows. As a little girl, she played badminton, and when it was suggested she use her backhand skills in tennis instead, her family and community didn't know what tennis was. She did make the change, though, and became involved with the Chinese national tennis team. In 2002, she left the team to work on a degree in journalism. At the time, some reports stated that she left because the national tennis team would not let her choose her own coach; others stated that her departure was due to the strictness of the coaching system.

Li returned in 2004, and in 2006, she married Jiang Shan, who was her coach for much of her career. Two years later, Li left the national team for good and she also parted ways with the state-operated sports system in her country. This was a major step, in that it meant that she could choose her own coaches trainers and would also be responsible for her expenses. It also meant that 8% of her winnings would go to the state, as opposed to 65%.

Plagued by injury throughout her career, Li suffered from problems with her knees, her back, her rib, and her ankle. All athletes get injured. but Li went through a period in which she could not sustain any momentum because of injuries. To make matters worse, the Chinese star became known for choking away big matches, and for sometimes not even seeming to be fully present during big matches.

Late in her career, Li would hire Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, and he went about not only improving Li's fitness and her game, but doing what he could to counter her self-defeating beliefs. According to Rodriguez--and Li has affirmed this opinion in several interviews--Li had trouble believing in herself because, in her formative tennis years, she had been given only criticism, and no praise or encouragement.

But even with all the problems Li faced, she used her abundant talent, personal strength, and incomparable personality to emerge as an international symbol of all that is good about sport. She won two majors, the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open (while saving a match point in the third round). She was the Australian Open runner-up twice, in 2011 and 2013. Li won nine singles titles and two doubles titles, she was a member of the Chinese Fed Cup team for many years, and she was a member of the Chinese Olympic Team in 2000, 2008 and 2012. Li's highest singles ranking was number 2 in the world.

Statistics, however, just don't provide an accurate picture of Li Na, and what her career has meant to women's tennis, and to Chinese tennis, in particular. She really did "open the door" for Chinese players to emerge as significant members of the tour, in both singles and doubles. Li Na was the first Chinese player to win a WTA title, the first Chinese player to reach the top 10 and the first Asian player to win a major. Twice, she has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Known by her countrywomen and -men as Big Sister Na, Li has also been called The Great Wall of China by opponents who could not penetrate her defensive strategies. Her precision-point and powerful backhand can easily be viewed as a standard for the women's game.

I remember a time when Li had not yet mastered the English language, and her press conferences were unintentionally funny because she answered every question "yes" or "no." Later, when she bcame fluent in English, her on-court interviews and press conferences featured either blunt, often brutal self-criticism, or hilarity of the sort that left me wiping tears from my face, I had laughed so hard and for so long. (Li and Jelena Jankovic used to be doubles partners, and one can only imagine what those conversations were like.)

"Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing," Li wrote in her book, Li Na: My Life. I have thought about that belief a lot, about what it has probably meant to Li and her career, and even about what it has meant to my own life. There is something so fully human and open about Li that fans all over the world were drawn to her; she freely talked about the types of struggles that all us face in one way or another.

Jiang Shan, Li's husband, and the subject of many of her jokes, became a personality in his own right during the course of Li's career. Li ultimately decided that it was better for their marriage for him to be her hitting partner and not her coach, and she kept up a string of anecdotes that included everything from his annoying snoring to his fear of her well-known credit card shopping rampages.

With all her joking, Li also made it clear that Jiang's support made it possible for her to go through everything she had to go through in order to succeed on the tour. When she won the Australian Open, she thanked him for being such a nice guy. "Fix the drink, fix the rackets...." And, she added--as only Li could--"also, you are so lucky--find me."

It's almost impossible to pick one's favorite Li Na moment. Her acceptance speech at the Australian Open trophy ceremony is considered a comedy classic, but there are other memorable quotes:

"People in China say 'If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate your children, also send them to New York.'"

On what inspires her: "Prize money."

The first of her Australian Open thank-you mentions: "Max, agent, make me rich. Thanks a lot."

"I know when so many people ask where I'm from, I say Wuhan. They say small town. Not so many people. Just like 10 million."

When asked by Rennae Stubbs if she would name her rackets if she won in Melbourne: "I have eight rackets. If you want, I call them Li Na One, Li Na Two...until Li Na Eight."

No review of Li Na's career would be complete without a mention of the bizarre final she played against Victoria Azarenka at the 2013 Australian Open. In the second set, Li rolled her ankle, and though she had it taped, it would affect her for the rest of the match. But that wasn't all--in the third set, she fell down and cracked her head. And while the occasion itself was far from humorous, Li made it hilarious when she cracked up during the brief neuro exam upon being asked to follow the physio's finger and to answer questions about her orientation. At the 2014 tournament, when asked to comment on her preparation, she quickly replied, "Special. Not falling down."

Nike, one of Li's longtime sponsors, has already announced it's Be the Bird That Sticks Out campaign to honor the retiring Chinese star. This is a fitting tribute to the woman who wore a shirt bearing the Chinese characters for "My heart has no limits" at her post-Australian Open press conference this year. It won't be easy for fans to say goodbye to one of the most beloved champions the WTA has ever produced.

I leave with you with one final piece of Li Na wisdom:

Monday, September 15, 2014

Respect your elders

What began as a trend on the WTA tour is now a theme: The "veterans" are still around and they're kicking your ass. And in the recent case of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Venus Williams, they're kicking each other's asses. Lucic-Baroni is the latest of the "whatever happened to?" players who has played her way into the spotlight, starting with her U.S. Open run to the round of 16.

The 32-year-old Lucic-Baroni won the Australian Open title with Martina Hingis in 1998, when she was just 15 years old. The year before, the Croatian player had won the first WTA tournament she had ever entered, the Croatian Bol Ladies Open. Lucic-Baroni defended that title the following year.

In 1999, Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. And then, she just faded away. Not that she lost interest or became physically hindered: Lucic-Baroni was dealing with a history of child abuse, financial problems, and all the terrible things that accompany those issues.

In 2007, Lucic-Baroni returned to the tour, and in 2012, she made it to the third round of Wimbledon, upsetting 2013 champion Marion Bartoli along the way.

At this year's U.S. Open, Lucic-Baroni began by beating formidable new Spanish star Garbine Muguruza. But that was just the warm-up. The Croatian player went on to upset 2nd seed Simona Halep in the third roundm byt she then lost a three-set match against Sara Errani in the round of 16.

It was a very emotional run for Lucic-Baroni, since it was the best showing she'd had at a major since her 1999 Wimbledon run. But who among us thought that she'd follow her Flushing Meadows moment up with her first singles title in 16 years? I didn't. But that's just what she did. Lucic-Baroni defeated top seed Venus Williams in the final in Quebec City. In doing so, the Croatian player set a new record--formerly held by Kimiko Date-Krumm--for the longest time gap between singles titles.

Williams is 34, Lucic-Baroni is 33. (Serena Williams, who won the U.S. Open, is also 33.) Venus Williams recently remarked, when asked about her age, "According to Kimiko, I have another decade." True. Date-Krumm, who retired from an excellent career somewhat early and then returned to the tour to do some impressive showing off, is 43. "Some of the players," she said last year, "their mothers are older than me."

29-year-old Jelena Jankovic's career has been revived, to some extent; last year, she returned to the top 10. This year, she made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open and the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. 32-year-old Flavia Pennetta reached the semifinals of the 2013 U.S. Open and the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open, as well as the quarterfinals of the 2014 U.S. Open. 29-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova--unpredictable at any age--reached the quarterfinals of this year's French Open (she's a former champion).

Doubles is another matter. The great Martina Hingis recently came within a hair of winning the U.S. Open doubles title (with Pennetta).

Older is not necessarily "better," but older is definitely to be feared. It's no longer a surprise when an older player--especially one who has already had a great career--breaks through for a second time. Sam Stosur is 30; Li Na is 32. They could retire from the sport soon, or they could both win more majors.

Given my personal history as a late bloomer in many categories, I am enthralled with the new culture of age on the WTA tour.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lucic-Baroni wins everything in Quebec City

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who had an emotional showing at the U.S. Open, beat top seed VenusWilliams 6-4, 6-3 today in Quebec City to win the title. This is Lucic-Baroni's first title in 16 years. She and partner Lucie Hradecka also won the doubles title. In the final, they defeated Hradecka's former partner, Andrea Hlavackova, and Julia Goerges.

In Hong Kong, top seed Sabine Lisicki won the title when she defeated 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova 7-5, 6-3. However, Karolina and her sister, Kristyna, won the doubles title.

And in Tashkent, Karin Knapp won her first WTA singles title. Knapp defeated top seed Bojana Jovanovski 6-2, 7-6. Aleksandra Krunic and Katerina Siniakova won the doubles title.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My U.S. Open top 10

New York Public Library Lion
Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 U.S. Open occurrences:

10. Are we in Melbourne?: It doesn't generally happen at the U.S. Open, but the heat rule had to be applied on several occasions, making play difficult for everyone, and causing semifinalist Peng Shuai to endure what appeared to be a pretty scary heat illness incident.

9. Swiss Miss just misses: Martina Hingis, who--with Jana Novotna--won the U.S. Open doubles title 16 years ago, came very close to winning it again. She and Flavia Pennetta made it all the way to the final, in which they were defeated by the 4th seeds. In the course of their run, Hingis and Pennetta took out seeds number 5 and 3.

8. Mission accomplished: In winning the U.S. Open, wheelchair doubles team Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley won the Grand Slam. In addition, Kamiji won the U.S. Open singles title (and also the 2014 French Open).

7. Giving youth a bad name: Just when you think it's safe to head back to the court, there's Kimiko Date-Krumm, ready to give you a lesson. Younger players haven't broken through in a really big way for a while because they keep getting tripped up by their elders. And then there's the comeback Japanese star, who--with partner Barbora Zahlavova Strycova--made it to the U.S. Open semfinals in doubles. The took out the Chan sisters and they upset 2nd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. Date-Krumm will be 44 in three weeks.

6. Just add Sania and stir: Sania Mirza and her Forehand of Fire teamed with Bruno Soares and won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title. This is Mirza's third major mixed doubles title. She no longer plays singles because of the damage done to her wrist by that incredible forehand, but she has continued to excel in doubles.

5. What did I do to upset you?: Down they went, one seed after another. Only three of the top eight seeds played in the round of 16, and only one (Serena Williams) was left to play in the quarterfinals. 2nd seed Simona Halep was taken down in the third round by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 3rd seed Petra Kvitova lost to Aleksandra Krunic in the third round, and 4th seed Aga Radwanska went out in the second round, a victim of Peng Shuai.

4. The best show in New York: That would be Aleksandra Krunic, a player whom ESPN commentators had never heard of, which means they don't watch Fed Cup matches (kind of interesting, since the USA's Fed Cup captain is also a major commentator, but what do I know?): Krunic's Fed Cup doubles exploits with Jelena Jankovic, who she acknowledges is a mentor, have taken Serbia dramatically into victory.

In Flushing Meadows, the rather slight young Serbian player put on a big show of athleticism, speed, serving, returning, court poise, and even a little Radwanskan trickery. It was an absolute joy to watch her, and she was just as notable in her interviews as she was on the court. Krunic came close to taking out Victoria Azarenka, in what was a memorable match, but Azarenka's toughness and experience ended the Serb's run. Nevertheless, Krunic--at least for me--was a major highlight of the 2014 U.S. Open.

3. Awesome times two: They both met unfortunate fates in their semifinal matches, but Ekaterina Makarova and Peng Shuai had great runs at the Open. Makarova, always a danger at a major, broke through to the semifinals for the first time, taking out both Genie Bouchard and Victoria Azarenka in the process. Peng put on a service clinic, going 40 games without dropping serve. She showed the exit to Aga Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, Lucie Safarova, and Belinda Bencic. Against Caroline Wozniacki, she had some unexpected drama when heat illness overcame her and she staggered off the court and on again in a hopeless attempt to keep competing.

2. New dominance--same country: Who says the Russians are finished? Not only did Makarova make it to the semifinals in singles, she and partner Elena Vesnina won the doubles championship. It was a dramatic match, and the Russian pair dropped the opening set to Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta, the unseeded veterans who fought their way through a tough draw. Makarova and Vesnina have now won two majors together.

1. Hear. Her. Roar.: Nike just about always does well by Serena Williams, but this time, the effect was especially appropriate. Williams was dressed in an oh-so-Serena leopard print, and she took to giving the crowd a little cat roar after her match victories. Katy Perry's "Roar" became the top seed's U.S. Open theme song, and Williams had plenty roar about. She didn't have any particular problems with her draw, and in both the semifinals and the final, she easily dispatched the estimable Ekaterina Makarova and the "new and (quite) improved" Caroline Wozniacki--both in straight sets.

This was Williams' sixth U.S. Open championship; she won her first one in 1999. She has now won 18 singles majors. Unable to get past the round of 16 in Melbourne, Paris and London, the champion really did save the best for last, proving--yet again--that you can never, ever count out Serena Williams.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

U.S. Open--what they said

You're an inspiration to me on and off the court.
Caroline Wozniacki, to Serena

I train really hard and I never want to stop. Then sometimes I ask Patrick, Is this normal? He says, No, it's not normal. Because I didn't think so. Tell me I'm not crazy. He's like, You are.
Serena Williams

How will you celebrate tonight? 
I don't know yet. I haven't thought of it yet, but I think we will go to the Fifth Avenue. Maybe go shopping.
Marie Bouzkova

You know, today I went out there and I was a little nervous. I had a game plan in mind, but it was kind of difficult at the start. I tried to push her back, but that really didn't work for me.
Caroline Wozniacki

I put a lot of pressure on myself. I don't have to put pressure on myself, because like I said, I don't have to win another title. I always have my little 18 bracelet now. I'm good to go.
Serena Williams be the first ever to win US Open juniors, it's amazing feeling, you know. No one ever in history won that. Yeah, it's great.
Marie Bouzkova

You're an unbelievable friend and you definitely owe drinks later.
Caroline Wozniacki, to Serena

Serena Williams wins U.S. Open in style

Something about Serena Williams' leopard print Nike dress said "I'm not messing around here" from the onset of this year's U.S. Open. There was just a feeling in the air (and--from my standpoint--way too much Katy Perry in the air). Williams hadn't gotten past the round of 16 in the three other majors held this year and it was hard to imagine her doing her version of "crashing out" in the last one.

And as great as Williams was in today's final--and she was great--the real story, I think, is a sad one, and one that commentators are stepping around. But I won't step around it: What the hell happened to Caroline Wozniacki? The genuinely "new and improved" Dane--the one who took Maria Sharapova out of the tournament--must have been locked in a closet somewhere while a doppelganger of "the old Caroline" (and a poor version of the old Caroline, at that) took to the court to contest the final.

Ekaterina Makarova should have done much better against Serena in the semifinals, but the Russian is known for her match-to-match inconsistency. But Wozniacki? She's consistent if nothing else. Down a set, she waited until the latter part of the second set to finally hit a non-ace winner. It was the only one she would hit in the entire match (plus three aces). Hello! You have added so much to your game and you are playing Serena Williams. In a major final. What's wrong with this picture?

As for Williams, she hit 29 winners and had first and second serve win percentages of 77 and 52, while her opponent's percentages were 56 and 38.

Williams defeated Wozniacki 6-3, 6-3 (Wozniacki did play a lot better in the second set), and won her 18th singles major. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who each won 18 singles majors, presented her with a gold bracelet. I thought that was lovely, though I thoroughly disapprove of the comparisons commentators and writers do regarding the number of majors players have won. It means nothing. In the Navratilova/Evert era, players weren't even counting the number of majors they won. They frequently skipped the Australian Open because it was held during the Christmas holidays. Evert skipped three French Opens (yes, French Opens) because she was playing World Team Tennis. Same on the men's side: The legendary Rod Laver wasn't allowed to play a number of majors because the Open era had not been established.

There were other winners today. Maria Bouzkova won the junior girls' championship when she defeated 9th seed Anhelina Kalinina 6-4, 7-5 in the final. Bouzkova is the first Czech girl to win the championship.

Top seed Yui Kamiji won the women's wheelchair singles title, defeating 2nd seed Aniek Van Koot 6-3, 6-3. Yesterday, Kamiji and partner Jordanne Whiley won the doubles Grand Slam. Kamiji also won the French Open.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Makarova and Vesnina win U.S. Open

Ekaterina Makarova made it to the semifinals in both singles and doubles at this year's U.S. Open, and though Serena Williams stopped her run in singles, the Russian--with partner Elena Vesnina--did make it to the final in doubles. Four players who know their way around a doubles court--Makarova, Vesnina, Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta--vied for the title today. Makarova and Vesnina became the first Russian team to win the U.S. Open when they defeated their opponents 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.

This is the second major win for Makarova and Vesnina. They were the French Open champions in 2013.

Ipek Soylu and Jil Belen Teichmann won the junior doubles title. The 6th seeds defeated Vera Lapko and Tereza Mihailkova 5-7, 6-2, 10-7. Also winning a doubles title were top women's wheelchair seeds Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley, who defeated 2nd seeds Jiske Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. This means that Kamiji and Whiley have won the Grand Slam (and shame on the U.S. Open for calling it the "Calendar Grand Slam"--it's the only Grand Slam).

Top seed Jamie Loeb won the inaugural Women's Collegiate Invitational, and Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna won the Women's Champions Doubles.

U.S. Open--what they said

Well, excuse me, Flavia Pennetta.
Rennae Stubbs, after Pennetta nails 2-0 lead

I'm not sure what the benefit of the double grunt is.
Rennae Stubbs, referring to Vesnina

I think it was a great final, very entertaining, lots of nerves.
Elena Vesnina

Friends don't let friends beat them in the final

Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki are close friends. Tomorrow, they will face off against each other for the 2014 U.S. Open singles title, and each of them has a compelling backstory.

Williams, of course, is looking for her 18th major title. Most observers thought she would have already grabbed it by now, but until she arrived in New York, Williams was unable to get past the round of 16 in a major this year. She was taken out of the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon by Ana Ivanovic, Garbine Muguruza and Alize Cornet, respectively. But at the U.S. Open, she has looked more like the Serena Williams who is destined to be the last woman standing.

Williams has won the title five times, starting in 1999. Wozniacki, on the other hand, has never won it, though she was a finalist in 2009, when she lost to Kim Clijsters. A fast-moving athlete with impressive endurance, Wozniacki used her crack defensive game to take her all the way to the number 1 ranking several years ago. Her critics continually pointed out her lack of aggression as her only real weakness. Coaches came and went, sometimes quickly, and Wozniacki always returned to her father Victor (formerly known as Piotr) as her coach.

Eventually, the Dane slipped down in the rankings, and faced with a new appreciation of aggression on the tour, found it harder to win matches than it had been before. She also experienced a very public, flashy romantic relationship, and then a very public breakup. She found solace in spending time with her friend, Serena. And then, from the many and varied elements of her history emerged a new tennis player--a fast, enduring, defensively gifted player who hits winners and takes charge of rallies.

It is this newer version of Wozniacki who will compete against Williams for the title on Sunday. Here are their paths to the final:

Serena Williams

round 1--Taylor Townsend
round 2--Vania King
round 3--Varvara Lepchenko
round of 16--Kaia Kanepi
quarterfinals--Flavia Pennetta (11)
semifinas--Ekaterina Makarova (17)

Caroline Wozniacki

round 1--Magdalena Rybarikova
round 2--Aliaksandra Sasnovich
round 3--Andrea Petkovic (18)
round of 16--Maria Sharapova (5)
quarterfinals--Sara Errani (13)
semifinals--Peng Shuai

Friday, September 5, 2014

Williams and Wozniacki to play in U.S. Open final

It took her five years, but Caroline Wozniacki is back in the U.S. Open singles final--just as fit, just as fast, but with a bigger game. Wozniacki won her semifinal today when Peng Shuai had to retire with heat illness. It wasn't a pretty sight, what happened to Peng, and it put a terrible end to what had been a marvelous run for the Chinese player.

Peng's problems began when she served for the first set and was broken. The set went to a tiebreak, which Wozniacki won handily. Down a break at 2-4 in the second set, Peng began to visibly suffer with cramping. She was later diagnosed with heat illness--I'm going to skip the controversy that ensued because I just don't feel like dealing with it--and, despite trying to stay in the match, she had to retire at 6-7, 3-4. Peng has had problems with the heat before. Some players, no matter what they do, are very sensitive to heat and humidity.

I hope that, at some point, viewers will remember that the first set was very close up until the tiebreak.

The second semifinal wasn't any more satisfying in terms of exciting tennis. Serena Williams pretty much ran over a sluggish, error-prone Ekaterina Makarova (ah, yes--that Makarova), though the Russian did "wake up" toward the end. But it was too late. Williams won 6-1, 6-3, and advanced to her fourth U.S. Open final in a row.

Top seed Yui Kamiji and 2nd seed Aniek Van Koot advanced to the final in women's wheelchair singles, defeating Jiske Griffoen and Marjolein Buis, respectively. 3rd seed Iryna Shymanovich and 4th seed Tornado Alicia Black were both upset in the junior quarterfinals.

U.S. Open--what they said

What did Serena say to you at the net? I thought she mentioned the doubles match; is that right?
Yeah, she--I don't know how to say in English, like good luck me in doubles.
Ekaterina Makarova

At this point in your career are you still working on your game, or has it now moved off to being consistent?
No, absolutely still working on it. I think in life you should work on yourself until the day you die. I think why not apply the same thing to your tennis game? Yeah, I'm still working on it.
Serena Williams

Could you guys tell me how long you have been a team and how you originally became a team?
Bruno Soares: We have been playing for two weeks. No, I tried to play with Sania for a long time.
Sania Mirza: What a lie.
Bruno Soares: She finally gave me a chance to play. I mean, my results before wasn't good enough, so after a couple of weeks she accept my offer. I'm just joking. She had another partner, and after Wimbledon she messaged and another conversation started.

...I was pretty ready for it. I felt good. I felt physically good, you know. Technically the ball was sitting good on the racquet.
Ekaterina Makarova

If I can play Venus, I can play anybody.
Serena Williams

I believe the best in people. I believe if you need a bathroom break you go to the bathroom. If you need treatment, you get treatment. I don't think any rules should be changed.
Caroline Wozniacki

Bruno Soares: I guess now Sania, she will accept my offer to play Australia.
Sania Mirza: We have to win. My standards are very high.