Friday, July 3, 2015

Serena Williams and Heather Watson star in heart-pounding thriller


Sitting on my sofa, watching Serena Williams and Heather Watson in today's third round match, I couldn't help but notice that my breathing was rapid, my muscles were taut, and I'm sure my heart rate must have gone up, though I didn't think to check it. Then I thought--how must Serena and Heather feel?

Serena Williams has a knack for getting herself into all kinds of trouble at very big moments, and then--at the last minute, with the locomotive quickly approaching--untying herself from the railroad tracks. Never was this talent more on display than it was today, when British number 1 Heather Watson took a nervous, error-prone Williams to the very edge. And by very edge, I mean that Watson served for the match at 5-4 in the third round.

Williams is currently halfway to what would be her first Grand Slam, and three quarters of the way to a second so-called "Serena Slam." There is pressure. Had this match been played a couple of years ago, it would likely have been routine for the world number 1, but Watson has calmed her nerves considerably in the last year, and she has also greatly improved her serve and become more aggressive. The Brit was highly competitive today, taking advantage of Williams' shakiness, and also throwing in some flair of her own. And of course, the crowd was very enthusiastically on her side during every point.

Williams took the first set 6-2, but then Watson came alive and won the second set 6-4. The third set was not for the weak of heart. It began with Watson's breaking of Williams' serve and then holding her own serve. At 2-0 in the final set, the British star's confidence was high, while Williams continued to double-fault and to have to run to every corner of the court as Watson executed angled volleys and drop shots. At this point in the match, Watson had won six straight games.



A break up at 5-4, Watson served for the match, and then it happened. You know--the part when a screaming, foot-stomping, fist-pumping Serena has had all she can take of this upstart nonsense. She became more aggressive and took more risks--she looked like Serena--but something else happened, as it always does. Playing out the invisible script that has had a trance-like effect on opponents for years, Watson blinked. Two points from an upset of extreme proportions, she couldn't pull it off. Williams broke her, then held, then broke Watson again, though Watson bravely saved two match points.

Watson's performance was elite, yet she lost, and that's what often happens when an opponent tries to stop Serena Williams during a major. A few players (most notably, Garbine Muguruza, who was in some kind of other-world zone when she upset Williams during the 2014 French Open) have survived to take bows, but not many.  Heather Watson has a lot of company. She also has a lot of which to be proud.

In other Wimbledon news, Coco Vandeweghe went crazy on Sam Stosur and beat her 6-2, 6-0. Vandeweghe has done some heavy lifting in this tournament--she's taken out Anna Schmiedlova, Karoina Pliskova and Stosur.

Vika Azarenka beat Kiki Mladenovic, who went from brilliant to sloppy, sometimes several times in the same game, making me think she may have the same "evil twin" problem that Petra Kvitova sometimes has. It took her three sets, but Lucie Safarova rather brilliantly defeated Sloane Stephens, Belinda Bencic defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Zarina Diyas defeated Andrea Petkovic. Also, Maria Sharapova beat Irina-Camelia Begu in straight sets.

And then there was Venus Williams, whose defeat of Aleksandra Krunic means that she'll play Serena Williams in the round of 16. We were treated to a little psychology discussion on ESPN, the subject of which was how conflicted Venus will be at the prospect of denying her sister both the Grand Slam and the Serena Slam. Venus Williams is a five-time Wimbledon champion--it's hard to imagine that she lets any circumstances mess with her head.

Of course, you could also say: How conflicted is Serena, knowing that she could deny Venus what could conceivably be her last Wimbledon title? Take that and ponder it, ESPN.

In doubles, Cara Black and Lisa Raymond upset 6th seeds Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro, top seeds Marina Hingis and Sania Mirza ran over Kimiko Date-Krumm and Francesca Schiavone, and 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina advanced with a win over Lauren Davis and Kurumi Nara.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The scary and the scared




My favorite version of Petra Kvitova showed up today at Wimbledon to play in the opening round. That would be Scary Petra, the pineapple-loving, Princess-slaying, give-you-"that-look" Petra. Kvitova defeated Kiki Bertens 6-1, 6-0 in 36 minutes. The defending champion made only three unforced errors, and one of the those was a double fault--the only point she lost on her serve. Scary Petra.

Meanwhile (speaking of Princess), Genie Bouchard was defeated in her first round match by world number 117 Duan Ying-Ying, known in some circles as the Chinese Lindsay Davenport.

Things are looking grim for Bouchard. The 2014 Wimbledon runner-up said, in her press conference, "...when I had a loss in Indian Wells or Miami, I didn't feel like it was the end of the world....We're closer to the end of the world now."

I should point out that Bouchard was playing with a torn abdominal muscle, which she was advised not to do. One can't really blame her for wanting to give Wimbledon a try, especially considering all of the ranking points at stake, but going out in the first round can only make the mental injury worse, if not the abdominal injury.

To add insult to that injury, the Canadian star was issued a code violation for wearing a black bra under her white bra. We know that the inspection of women's underwear is a priority at Wimbledon, so the Greater Good was doubtless served by calling Bouchard out on her bra. Understand why I dread Wimbledon every year?

Meanwhile, third seed Simona Halep was also shown the door--by Jana Cepelova. All we heard from commentators is that Cepelova is ranked number 106 in the world, but there's a lot more to the story than that. Cepelova has talent. We got to see that talent in 2014 when she made a Serena Williams-defeating run to the Charleston final. Her semifinal victory over Belinda Bencic was one of the great matches of the year.

Unforunately, Cepelova has had to overcome several health obstacles--and all that goes with that--since she made that great run, but today, we got to see her shine once again. Her win over Halep was a reminder of what she's capable of doing, and here's hoping she can be more consistent in the future.

As for Halep--things just aren't right. She has changed coaches so much that one might confuse her with Ana Ivanovic, and she has spoken publicly about the pressure she's under now that she's a huge sports star. She feels that pressure especially in her homeland, Romania. 

There's also the matter of Halep's having to deal with a stalker. Being stalked is a violation, and a violation is a trauma. The Danish "fan" issued death threats toward the Romanian star in April, and she supposedly "shrugged them off." Let me take a professional moment here and say that no one can "shrug off" death threats. Halep seems like a pretty stoic woman, but death threats--or any kind of stalking or threats--make you vulnerable.

To add to her troubles, Halep played today's Wimbledon match with a blister on her toe, and it was obvious that her serve was hampered by the injury. Suddenly, the Romanian star can't catch a break.

The curse didn't reach as far as Sabine Lisicki, who won her first round match, as did grass court threat Ekaterina Makarova. Katerina Siniakova, whom some consider a grass court threat in the making, was defeated, and--in a holdover from day 1--British number 1 Heather Watson defeated 32nd seed Caroline Garcia. Jelena Jankovic defeated Elena Vesnina (who served for the match) 6-4, 3-6, 10-8, in what may have been the match of the day.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Williams and Kvitova lead the field at WImbledon




Wimbledon play begins Monday, and the first round has the potential for some early drama. The draw is anchored by the top four seeds--Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, and Maria Sharapova--three of whom have won the tournament in the past. Kvitova is, of course, the defending champion.

Either a successfully returning Dominika Cibulkova or Caroline Garcia appear likely to be Williams' third round opponent, and either is capable of issuing her a challenge. If Williams reaches the round of 16, she's likely to have to face off against five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams. If she makes it to the quarterfinals, she could have to deal with Victoria Azarenka, but she could also have to deal with Kiki Mladenovic, who now appears at home on any surface laid out in front of her. And then there's Ana Ivanovic, who--on a good day--is dangerous, though less so on grass than on other surfaces.

If Williams wins the tournament, she'll be 3/4 of the way to a Grand Slam (not a "calendar Grand Slam"--there is no such thing). A determined Williams could be unstoppable; an anxious Williams could be beatable. The world number 1 has won Wimbledon five times.

Sharapova's draw is quite difficult. Right off, she has to play Johanna Konta, who was scary-good in Eastbourne until she met up with eventual champion Beinda Bencic. Konta has a wild card, and is very likely going to be a free-swinging, hard-hitting nuisance for the Russian. Sharapova can't afford to have a bad serving day against the Brit.

But there's probably more trouble in store for the 2004 champion. Daria Gavrilova (assuming she isn't too hampered by the abdominal strain that forced her to withdraw from Eastbourne and miss her quarterfinal) is her probable third round opponent. Gavrilova defeated Sharapova in Miami, and is improving as the season goes on.

There's more. Flavia Pennetta is in Sharapova's quarter, and is always capable of making a deep run. Big server and improved future star Karolina Pliskova is there, as are Barbora Strycova, Alison Riske and Sloane Stephens. And finally, 6th seed Lucie Safarova, who took Sharapova out of the French Open, is in the Russian's quarter. It won't be easy for Sharapova to fight her way out of harm.

The Halep quarter is a bit calmer, but contains its own hazards. One of those hazards comes in the form of Halep's back, which has been troubling her again lately, and which caused her to withdraw from Eastbourne. But even if Halep should stay healthy (we hope), she could have to contend with the likes of 2013 runner-up Sabine Lisicki, Caroline Wozniacki, Camila Giorgi, Timea Bacsinszky, and Svetana Kuznetsova. And Angelique Kerber. Kerber, who is having a very fine 2015, recently won her first grass court title, and could be this quarter's nightmare.

That brings us to the Kvitova quarter. Kvitova has been suffering--yet again--with a viral infection (someone please get Petra some help with her immune system!), but--assuming she's fine for her Wimbledon run--she nevertheless has some work to do. One wonders what the psychic health of Aga Radwanska is after the first half of this season, and after today's loss in the Eastbourne final. All the same, Radwanska is always to be feared on grass, and the 2012 runner-up could suddenly turn right back into The Ninja when she most needs to do so.

Big danger often lies on the racket of Ekaterina Makarova, and she's in Kvitova's quarter, too. Makarova retired from the Eastbourne doubles competition with an injury, however, so she may not be at her healthiest. Madison Keys is in there, too, as are Elina Svitolina and--wouldn't you know it?--2014 runner-up Genie Bouchard. Bouchard could face Tatjana Maria in the second round, and that might be interesting. Since switching to a one-handed backhand, Maria has brought her best game ever.

Here are some first round matches worth watching:

Daniela Hantuchova vs. Dominika Cibulkova
Heather Watson vs. Caroline Garcia
Sara Errani vs. Francesca Schiavone
Belinda Bencic vs. Tsvetana Pironkova!
Alison van Uytvanck vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Maria Sharapova vs. Johanna Konta
Danka Kovinic vs. Sam Stosur
Barbora Strycova vs. Sloane Stephens
Alison Riske vs. Lucie Safarova
Ana Konjuh vs. Alize Cornet
Jelena Jankovic vs. Elena Vesnina

As for my feeings about Wimbledon--they remain the same as ever.

Bride of Chucky




One can argue that Belinda Bencic had a relatively easy time of it in today's Eastbourne final because two of her opponents (Genie Bouchard and Caroline Wozniacki, who retired after just three games) had retired in mid-match. You can also argue that she had a difficult time of it because she was playing with a knee injury. Or you can also say "that's tennis" and look at what happened.

Bencic, claiming her first WTA title, not only beat Aga Radwanska, who is superb on grass (and any surface, for that matter), but played a 6-0 third set against her. Throughout the match, Bencic, to some degree, actually outplayed Radwanska at her own game, finding the wickedest of angles on the court to ruin what looked like Radwanska winners. She engaged Radwanska in very long rallies, but while those kinds of rallies almost always favor The Ninja, today was different.

Both women wound up with a positive winner to unforced error ratio, with Radwanska actually hitting more winners (about three times as many as we expect from her). If you look at those stats, you assume Radwanska won. But now there are two official "Swiss Misses"--the irrepressible Timea Bacsinszky and 18-year-old Bencic, who played today in her third WTA final.

Bencic comes from the tennis "bloodline" of the clever Melanie Molitor, who coached Martina Hingis to greatness, and who still sometimes coaches Bencic. Great things have been expected from the young Swiss for a while, and today marked the beginning of those great things.

Her luck isn't too good going into Wimbledon, however. Bencic's first round opponent is Tsvetana Pironkova, one of the last players anyone wants to see on the other side of the net on the lawns of the All England Club. Pironkova is actually somewhat of a magic monster at Wimbledon, and will give Bencic all she can handle.

As for Radwanska, her first round is no walk in the park, either. She faces huge server (and much improved player) Lucie Hradecka. However, Hradecka has never gone beyond the first round at Wimbledon, and it's unlikely that she will do so this year.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The grass is green--and filled with surprises

The players move from clay to grass, and before you can say "Nobody serves and volleys anymore," all manner of interesting things happen.

This, for example:


That can hardly be a coincidence, though why it occurred probably involves a complex conversation about court surface, young players' early experiences in their respective countries, and what appears to be a new emphasis on serving (finally) in the women's game.

And speaking of serving, Sabine Lisicki cracked the WTA record yesterday by hitting 27 aces in one match. Even more remarkable, it was a two-set affair. Big serving is becoming more common, as is smart, tricky serving. Some players with clever serves (Tsvetana Pironkova and Ekaterina Makarova are good example) cannot always access those serves, so serving helps them only some of the time. And some players with big and tricky serves (like Lisicki and Petra Kvitova) tend to go through periods of double-faulting.

And speaking of double-faulting--Camila Giorgi finally won a title. The talented but wildly inconsistent Italian defeated Belinda Bencic in the Topshelf Open final earlier this week.

Perhaps the most talked about event of recent days, however, is the 6-3, 4-6 6-0  defeat of Genie Bouchard by Kiki Mladenovic in the second round (Bouchard had a bye in the first round) of the Aegon Classic in Birmingham. It was Mladenovic who took Bouchard out of the French Open in the first round. The Canadian star has a 7-11 win-loss record for 2015, though it's worth noting that she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

Bouchard hasn't been the same since she lost the 2014 Wimbledon final to a terrifyingly efficient Petra Kvitova. Injuries have bothered her, but there's obviously something else going on. I don't think Bouchard (or any player) is obligated to talk about all of her ongoing issues with the press. Having said that, I'm stunned--yet again--that the sports press describes Bouchard's explanations as "candid" and "honest." They're actually vague and repetitive. Again--I support a player's right to be vague. This isn't a criticism of Bouchard, just one more observation that you can tell the tennis press anything at all and they will instantly turn it into either a virtue or a crime.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

My French Open top 10


Moulin Rouge
My top 10 French Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. One is nice, two is tres doux: Jiske Griffioen won her first singles major at the Australian Open, and now, at the French, she has won her second. The Dutch wheelchair star also won the doubles championship, with partner Aniek Van Koot.

9. Who was the consultant, Wimbledon?: The French Open website, iPhone and iPad apps were dismal beyond description. They were hard to navigate, they froze easily, and it was often difficult to refresh the information.

8. Halfway there!: Serena Williams won the Australian and the French, so she's halfway to a Grand Slam. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won the Australian (the first time they played together) and the French, so they're halfway there, too. And wheelchair champion Jiske Griffioen, who won her first singles major in Australia, is also halfway there!

7. Czeched out: One of Lucie Safarova's many high-end victims was defending champion Maria Sharapova, whom Safarova defeated 7-6, 6-4. Sharapova wasn't at peak physical health, but, nonetheless, Lucie made it look so easy.

6. The Queen of Mexico dazzles Paris: Timea Bacsinszky's career took a bit of a dip after she pulled off her double-title runs in Mexico, but she rose to the occasion in Paris, and how. The "new" Swiss Miss took out the likes of Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova and the also-impressive Alison Van Uytvanck. By the time she got to Serena Williams in the semifinals, however, Bacsinszky did something she rarely does--she choked.

5. Roasted pepper: Many fans and members of the sports media thought that Simona Halep would win the French Open. I thought her chances were quite good, despite a recent display of the old nerves. But the 2014 runner-up, sometimes known as Halepeno, was booted out in the second round by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who played a next-to-perfect match against the third seed.

4. Giving "doubles" a new meaning: Bethanie Mattek-Sands wasn't content to win just the mixed doubles title with Mike Bryan. She and Lucie Safarova also won the women's doubles title. This is such a wonderful accomplishment for a very talented player who hasn't had the best of breaks in her career.

3 Encore! Encore!: 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova played a completely awesome, never to be forgotten, match in the 2011 Australian Open round of 16. I don't believe in "bests," but if I were forced to pick a best match of all that I've seen (and I've seen a lot), I'd probably pick that one. It went on for four hours and 44 minutes in the sweltering Australian heat, and neither player ever had a letdown. It was simply a festival of thrills and artistry, all performed under the most difficult conditions. Schiavone won, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14.

Those two. They did it again at the French Open, in the second round. This time, they played for "only" three hours and 49 minutes, with Schiavone winning again, 6-7, 7-5, 10-8. The first set tiebreak score was 13-11.The Fighting Italian would go on to lose to Andreea Mitu in the next round, and it was sad to see her go. But the level of tennis that she and Kuznetsova played (they really bring out the best in each other) is awe-inspiring. Schiavone is surely near the end of her career, but how wonderful to know that, with a little help from a very gifted opponent, she can still steal the show from everyone.


2. We love Lucie: What a run! During the last couple of seasons, Lucie Safarova has done two important things. She's calmed her nerves, and she's become more aggressive. During these last two weeks, we all got to see just how far the talented Czech player has come. She had to beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Kurumi Nara, Sabine Lisicki, defending champion Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza, and former champion Ana Ivanovic to get to the final.

But, as is often the case, the player who does the really heavy lifting isn't quite up to the task of finishing off an opponent in the final. Safarova gets a break here because "an opponent" was Serena Williams. The 13th seed actually didn't come alive until halfway through the second set, but when she finally found her game, she was able to take Williams to a third set. Williams would have none of it, though, and lifted her game even higher to defeat Safarova. Still, it was a remarkable run, and a very old-school kind of run in that Safarova also competed for two weeks in doubles. She and partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands won that title. What an impressive two weeks!

1. 20 and counting: She struggled throughout the tournament, constantly getting dragged to three sets, and suffering with a very nasty case of flu. She had to fight off old foes Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens. But--no surprise at all--Serena Williams prevailed. The world number 1, who appeared to be on her last leg after winning her semifinal match, did what she came to do in Paris: She won the whole thing, giving her her third French Open title.

This means that Williams has now won 20 singles majors. For what it's worth, she's also won 13 doubles majors and two mixed doubles majors. The 33-year-old Williams is halfway to winning the Grand Slam, one of the few things she's never done, but something that is not at all out of the question.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Super-athlete Serena Williams wins French Open for third time



A hundred years from now, when we're all dead and gone, Serena Williams might just have one more match left in her. Just saying.

Today, the world number 1 won the French Open for the third time, beating Lucie Safarova 6-3, 6-7, 6-2. In doing so, Williams also won her 20th major singles title.

Williams started off strong, serving both with power and precision. Throughout the first set, Safarova struggled to keep up, as she rushed most of her shots and continually hit the ball out of the court. Safarova had hit with extraordinary control throughout the tournament, in which she hadn't dropped a set, but this was a different scenario. The Czech player had never before reached the final of a major, and now, here she was, playing in one, with Serena Williams standing across the court from her.

I expected the Czech star to straighten herself out in the second set, and I was a little surprised to see Williams go up 4-1. But then it happened: Safarova found her rhythm and recovered her form. She made a thrilling comeback, and the set went to a tiebreak, which Safarova won 7-2 with such ease, Williams looked stunned.

Safarova won the second set on her own merit, but it helped that Williams had begun to have trouble with her serve, double-faulting nine times throughout the match (an unusual stat for the world number 1, but I should add, she also hit 11 aces).

Safarova appeared to still have the momentum at the beginning of the final set, when she broke Williams right off. But at 1-2, when she hit her only double fault of the match, she was broken back. Williams broke her opponent again to go up 4-2, and that was that for Safarova's chances--maybe not technically, but reality-wise. Williams simply stormed through the remainder of the match, with Safarova saving one match point on her own serve, but then getting broken on the second.

This was a difficult French Open (they kind of all are) for Williams. She had to go three sets in five of her seven matches, and she was ill from the third round on. When she played Timea Bacsinszky in the semifinals, she was obviously very ill. But this is Serena Williams we're talking about, and she once again found a way to be the last woman standing.



Lucie Safarova had a wonderful run, reaching the final by taking out two former French Open champions (Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic), as well as clay court standouts Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Garbine Muguruza. And her performance in the second set of the final reminded us of everything she had accomplished during her two-week stay in Paris. Tomorrow, she and partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands will contend for the French Open doubles championship.

When the new singles rankings are posted tomorrow, Safarova will be number 7 in the world.

In the meantime, Serena can have some real illness recovery time before she heads to the grass courts to prepare for Wimbledon.

It was a dramatic final, fun to watch. I'll be glad to be rid of the ill-behaved French crowd, but mostly, I'm about to feel my usual letdown. The French Open is my favorite of the four majors, and I have no relief in sight, since it's followed by the major I can barely bring myself to watch.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Lucie Safarova--the busiest woman in Paris



Today, Lucie Safarova and her doubles partner, Bethan Mattek-Sands, advanced to the final of the French Open. Mattek-Sands, with partner Mike Bryan, has already won the mixed doubles title, so she's been pretty busy. But Safarova is also going to play in the singles final, which makes her the busiest woman of all.

Mattek-Sands and Safarova, the 7th seeds, claimed their spot in the final by defeating 2011 French Open champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. Also playing in the final is the 12-seeded team of Casey Dellacqu and Yaroslava Shvedova who upset 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals.

Serena Williams has won the French Open twice; Safarova has never before played in a major final. The Czech star has yet to drop a set in singles play (she's dropped only one in doubles, and that was to Hlavackova and Hradecka). Williams and Safarova have played each other twice on clay. Williams won both matches (one was a final), which were both played in Charleston.

Williams, who has been suffering with flu for several days (yes, idiots posting on Twitter, she's sick), said yesterday that she hoped the worst part of the illness would be over very soon. If she wins the final, it will be her 20th major singles championship.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

Serena Williams
round 1--def. Andrea Hlavackova
round 2--def. Anna-Lena Freidsam
round 3--def. Victoria Azarenka (27)
round of 16--def. Sloane Stephens
quarterfinals--def. Sara Errani (17)
semifinals--def. Timea Bacsinszky (23)

Lucie Safarova
round 1--def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
round 2--def. Kurumi Nara
round 3--def. Sabine Lisicki (20)
round of 16--def. Maria Sharapova (2)*
quarterfinals--def. Garbine Muguruza (21)
semifinals--def. Ana Ivanovic (7)*

*former French Open champion