Sunday, July 19, 2015

Unsolved mysteries of the WTA

Do you ever wonder why certain players do the things they do, or don't do the things they "should" do? I do--quite often. These questions become unsolvable puzzles because, obviously, we as fans cannot know all of the variables involved. And I suspect that--even if we did--many of these puzzles would still mystify us.* 

Ekaterina Makarova: Why can't she get fired up for tournaments that aren't majors? With the exception of the French Open, the tricky lefty-serving Russian is practically a fixture in the second week of a major, but close to nonexistent at other times.

Petra Kvitova: Has she really done the healthcare consulting that she needs to do? Asthma and respiratory weakness are deadly for athletes, and I can't help but believe that there are treatments the Czech star hasn't tried. Her countrywoman, Lucie Hradecka, had some of the same problems, and she resolved them with dietary intervention. There are a lot of ways to approach chronic illness, and it always troubles me how few of them people attempt.

As for Kvitova's other issue--going to pieces in the middle of matches--she was working with a "mental coach," but I don't know if she is still doing that, nor do I know what level of competence the practitioner has. I would like to know what type of psychological interventions are being used with players.

Maria Sharapova: Can't she come up with something new when she plays Serena? At this point, Serena can practically phone it in. Sharapova is a smart player--surely there's another way to try to solve the Serena problem.

Tsvetana Pironkova: Known on this blog as the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, Pironkova has a great backhand, and--when it's working--a very tricky serve. Her forehand slice, though laughed at, can be effective, but the rest of her forehand is another story. Here is another very good player who needs some special help, but just doesn't seem to get it. 

Simona Halep: Halep says that Ilie Nastase says she plays for Porsche, but, she protests, she plays for Romania. Maybe try playing for herself? Though Halep keeps as low a profile as possible and speaks with quiet conviction, there seems to be a lot of drama surrounding her all the time. There's the patriotism plot, the sudden stardom plot, the coach-changing plot. It can't be easy for Halep to have emerged (finally) as an elite tennis player. I think she is deeply talented and hope that she can narrow her focus enough to win big titles.

Sabine Lisicki: She has a huge serve, she has a lovely drop shot, she can construct points. But the German player cannot connect emotional balance with the demands of competition. That's something that can be fixed, but so far, it hasn't been.

Eugenie Bouchard: Do I even go here? There's no WTA award for Mysterious Phenomenon of the Year, but if there were, Bouchard would win it.

*This post originally included Sara Errani's serve, but I have been informed that her shoulder issue is apparently much worse than I was aware of, so I've removed that part of the post. However--given the number of players who have had to modify their serves because of shoulder and back issues, I still wonder whether Errani is serving optimally within the confines of her limitations.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

My Wimbledon top 10



My top 10 Wimbledon occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Half a dozen and counting: Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley, who--a couple of years ago--couldn't even speak to one another because of a language barrier--have nevertheless managed to win six major championships. The sixth one came on the last day of the tournament, when the top seeds defeated 2nd seeds Jiske Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

9. Bittersweet CoCo: CoCo Vandeweghe has always appeared to have some threatening potential, and for the first time, we were able to see what it looks like unleased. Vandeweghe had a very tough draw. She beat Anna Schmiedlova, 11th seed Karolina Pliskova, 22nd seed Sam Stosur, and 6th seed (and 2014 semifinalist) Lucie Safarova. Her run ended when she faced Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals, but what a run it was. After the match, she complained about Maria, and though (thankfully) the question was never asked, in my head, I heard Isn't she back in California?

8. Make that toast, hold the Halepeno: Only weeks after Simona Halep was upset in the second round of the French Open, she was upset in the first round of Wimbledon. Jana Cepelova, playing the kind of tennis she can deliver when she's healthy, lost her first set against 3rd seed Halep, but took the other two, creating the first huge upset of the tournament.

7. Leave it to JJ: Serving out of her mind and leaping on the opportunity to show Petra Kvitova's evil twin the door, Jelena Jankovic upset the defending champion in the third round. For a set and a half, Kvitova looked like the Wimbledon champion, but then "that thing" happened, and she still might have overcome her problem, only Jankovic was just too good.

6. So near, so far: Britain's number 1 player, Heather Watson, rocked the house during her third round match against top seed and eventual champion Serena Williams. Watson, who has improved a lot in every aspect of her game, played the match of her life against Williams. With the crowd in an absolute frenzy, the world number 59 served for the match and came within two points of winning it. But she learned, as have so many, that when you play Serena, objects in the mirror are not as close as they appear. Williams won, 6-2, 4-6 7-5.

5. Did I just see that?!: Not since Aga Radwanska made us gasp throughout her final set against Vika Azarenka in the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals has there been been a set played like the one played by Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza in the third round of Wimbledon. Only in this case, it was both players bringing the magic. The high degree of athleticism, tactical intelligence and shot-making in the opening set of the match was simply dazzling. Muguruza won the set in a tiebreak (14-12) and went on to win the match in three sets.

4. Timeless: Seventeen years after winning her last Wimbledon title, Martina Hingis showed up this year and won two titles. She and Leander Paes won the mixed doubles championship, and she and Sania Mirza won the women's doubles title. The women's final featured the top seeds against the 2nd seeds, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, and it was thrilling from the first shot. Hingis and Mirza were down 2-5 in the third set, but staged a dramatic comeback to win their first major as a team (and Mirza's first major women's doubles title). It was one of the best matches of the tournament.

3. The sparkle of glitter, the magic of Ninja: Little was said about the round of 16 match played between Jelena Jankovic and Aga Radwanska. All eyes were on the Williams sisters, and the upset of Safarova and the progress of Madison Keys preoccupied commentators. But Jankovic and Radwanska played one of the most beautiful matches I've seen in a long time. Their matches are always entertaining and well-played, but this one was special. Jankovic's movement looked like it used to, and her serve was again on fire. As for Radwanska, she brought the kind of athleticism and trickery for which she has become famous. Both players sometimes seem like they might be made of rubber, so it's always a joy to watch them try to out-maneuver each other. Radwanska won, 7-5, 6-4, and it was sad that something so lovely had to come to an end. The very best part? Aga and JJ are back!

2. "...I'm not afraid": The day before the final, Garbine Muguruza blew a breath of fresh air over the lawns by announcing that she had no fear of playing Serena Williams. It would turn out that she did develop some fear, then overcame it, but not enough to stop Williams. Nevertheless, this was a noteworthy run, if not a surprise. The young Spanish star-in-the-making had to do some hard work to get to the final. She took out (in addition to the sometimes-deadly Mirjana Lucic-Baroni) four seeds: Angelique Kerber (10), Caroline Wozniacki (5), Timea Bacsinszky (15), and Aga Radwanska (13). That is terribly impressive.

Muguruza lost in straight sets in the final, but she broke Williams both times she served for the match, giving the crowd some real excitement and showing that--when the pressure was on--she really wasn't afraid.

1. Serena Slam? Yes, ma'am!: She did it. The world number 1 has earned her second "Serena Slam." The world number 1 now holds all four major major championships, and with a win at the 2015 U.S. Open, she'll also have the Grand Slam, something she has yet to achieve.

Serena Williams' journey through the Wimbledon draw was not an easy one. She was taken to the edge by Watson, and had to play her sister, Venus, as well as her most challenging opponent, Victoria Azarenka. Then Williams had to contend with a stubborn Muguruza in the final. But she got the job done; getting the job done is her strongest characteristic. At age 33, Serena is the oldest woman to win a major in the Open Era. This is her sixth Wimbledon title and her 21st singles major, and she's playing better than ever.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Perhaps youth will be served, but not at Wimbledon



Earlier today, 33-year-old Serena Williams lifted the Wimbledon singles trophy. Never one to be outdone, later in the day, 34-year-old Martina Hingis and partner Sania Mirza lifted the doubles trophy. The number 1 team in the world beat the number 2 team, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 5-7, 7-6, 7-5.

It was a superb match, and the trophy was about to go into the hands of the Russians, who were up 5-2 in the final set. But Hingis and Mirza staged a huge comeback, and made some history in the process. For Hingis, it was her first Wimbledon victory in 17 years. (She won the singles title in 1997 and the doubles title, with Jana Novotna, in 1998.) Mirza, in winning her first major women's doubles title, became the first Indian woman to win a major title of any kind.

Makarova and Vesnina won the 2013 French Open and the 2014 U.S. Open. Vesnina and Mirza are former doubles partners. Together, they won both Indian Wells and Charleston in 2011.

Serena Williams redefines the term, "Plan B"



Today's Wimbledon final, featuring world number 1 Serena Williams and 20th Wimbldon seed Garbine Muguruza, turned out to be a microcosm of Williams' entire 2015 Wimbledon experience, which makes Williams' victory all the more amazing.

It was an unusually difficult tournament for the top seed. She struggled against the unknown Margarita Gasparyan in the first round. In the third round, Heather Watson, supported by an almost out-of-control British crowd, served for the match, coming dangerously close to taking Williams out of the tournament. Williams then had to play her sister, but there was no "rest" for her because next, she had to play her current most challenging opponent, Vika Azarenka.

The world number 1 had a routine win over Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, but was visibly nervous at the beginning of the final, double-faulting three times in the first game. Broken, she saw the break consolidated when Muguruza held. At 3-2, Muguruza saved two break points to go up 4-3, but was then broken the next time she served.

Serving behind for the first time, at 4-5, Muguruza hit an ace at 30-all, which looked like a very good sign for her, but it wasn't. Williams got a break point on her, and then--for the first time--the Spaniard double-faulted. The "oh my God I'm playing Serena in the Wimbledon final" moment had finally come, and with it came an entirely different Muguruza--a "nervious" (as she is prone to say) one.

Williams held and took the first set at 6-4. In the second set, she broke Muguruza at 1-2, and then the whole thing turned into the Serena Show--until it didn't.

But I digress. After that break, before you could say "Garbine Muguruza is finished," Williams went up 5-1 and served for the championship. Only Muguruza, exhibiting what I'll call a champion's mind in the making, would have none of it; she broke Williams at love, then efficiently held for 3-5.

So Williams served for the match a second time, and suddenly found herself down 0-40, when Muguruza hit a sharp, angled forehand on Williams' second serve. Williams then saved the three break points, getting the third save with an ace down the T. She followed that one with another ace, which gave her match point. Only Muguruza hit another stinging crosscourt forehand. The Spaniard next earned a break point, but Williams returned the game to deuce.

Surely Muguruza's powers had run their course. But they hadn't--not yet. What followed was a frenzied rally won by the 20th seed, who took her break point and went with it, bringing the set to 4-5.

Armed with comeback momentum rarely seen in a major final, and particularly against Serena Williams, Muguruza was now in a position to even the match and go for another break. But then something happened, something that seemed like a magic trick at the time. Williams broke Muguruza at love--just like that--and it was over. It happened so fast that even chair umpire Alison Hughes didn't appear to be able to keep up. "Game, set, match," she said, then hesitated, and finally, "Miss Williams."

Later, in her on-court interview, Williams would say "I didn't even know it was over...." It was, in the end, a very exciting contest, thanks to Muguruza's will to survive. And if Williams showed today that she will find a way, no matter how unexpected that way may be, Muguruza showed that she, too, is  made of "find a way" stuff. It didn't work for her this time, but she seems like a player who can only get better.


This is Williams' sixth Wimbledon title. She is the oldest woman to win a major in the Open Era, and she has now won the "Serena Slam" twice. The new title is also her 21st major singles championship. Much is being made of her needing to win more to "catch up" with Steffi Graf, but you won't get any of that here because--if you know anything about tennis history--you know that such comparisons are totally irrational.

Now all Williams has to do is win the U.S. Open and she will win the Grand Slam, something she has never done. (You also won't get the ridiculously incorrect "Calendar Slam" from me.) Will there be pressure? For sure. Today, we got a really good look at how Williams handles pressure, which leads me to believe that her chances of winning the Grand Slam are very, very good indeed.

The Season of Serena continues!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Wimbledon final between Williams and Muguruza of historical interest




Tomorrow, world number 1 Serena Williams has a chance--a very good chance--to attain her second "Serena Slam." More notable, should she win the 2015 Wimbledon final, she'll be three-quarters of the way toward winning the Grand Slam, one of the few great accomplishments missing from her tennis resume. Also, a win tomorrow would make Williams, 33, the oldest woman to win a major in the Open Era.


Standing in Williams' way is a Spanish upstart, Garbine Muguruza, who--unlike most of her generation--already has a significant Serena victory among her accomplishments. It was Muguruza who took Williams out of the 2014 French Open in straight sets, in the second round. Should 20th seed Muguruza win the 2015 Wimbledon title, she will be the first Spanish woman to do so since Conchita Martinez denied Martina Navratilova her 10th Wimbledon title in 1994. Regardless of tomorrow's outcome, Muguruza will enter the top 10.

The top doubles seeds, Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza, will face the 2nd seeds, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, in the other final. Hingis and Mirza defeated 5th seeds Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears in the semifinals. Makarova and Vesnina reached the final by defeating 4th seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, seeded 6th, were halfway to a Grand Slam when they were defeated in the quarterfinals by Kop-Jones and Spears.

Timea Babos could still win a doubles title. She and partner Alexander Peya, seeded 5th, will play 7th seeds Martina Hingis and Leander Paes in the mixed doubles final. Hingis, obviously, has a chance to do a doubles sweep.

In an odd moment yesterday, Aga Radwanska, defeated by Muguruza, made a late-match challenge that could conceivably have cost her the victory, and at the very least, virtually took her out of the match. It was an odd moment because the same thing happened to Petra Kvitova (only the Kvitova version was considerably stranger) in the third round. These incidents are reminders that the smallest lapse of judgment can be deadly in professional tennis.

Despite its unusual (and for many, unsatisfying) ending, however, the three-set Radwanska vs. Muguruza match was a good one. The other semifinal, between Williams and Maria Sharapova was just a bit too predictable.

Here are the players' paths to tomorrow's final:

SERENA WILLIAMS
round 1--def. Margarita Gasparyan
round 2--def. Timea Babos
round 3--def. Heather Watson
round of 16: def. Venus Williams (16)
quarterfinals--def. Victoria Azarenka (23)
semifinals--def. Maria Sharapova (4)

GARBINE MUGURUZA
round 1--def. Varvara Lepchenko
round 2--def. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
round 3--def. Angelique Kerber (10)
round of 16--def. Caroline Wozniacki (5)
quarterfinals--def Timea Bacsinszky (15)
semifinals--def. Agnieszka Radwanska (13)

British number 1 Heather Watson served for the match against Williams in round 3. As if that weren't enough, the number 1 seed then faced three very familiar opponents in a row--Venus Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova. There was a lot of drama in that draw.

Both players faced opponents who were mentioned as potential champions of the event. Williams beat both her sister, who is a five-time Wimbledon champion, and Sharapova, who won the tournament in 2004. Muguruza defeated both Kerber and 2012 runner-up Radwanska.

Monday, July 6, 2015

What's worse than middle Sunday?

Manic Monday.

Commentators call it "the best tennis day of the year." Really? I can handle watching two matches at a time, even though I don't like it, but when it comes to watching three or four, I hardly see the point. I kept up as best as I could, and found myself almost totally drawn to one match--Radwanska vs. Jankovic. I've never seen them play a match against each other that I haven't found compelling.

The only result that surprised me to today was CoCo Vandeweghe's upset of Lucie Safarova; I really didn't see that coming. Vandeweghe played with such conviction that even the clever and precise Safarova couldn't do anything about it. Safarova was close to breaking Vandeweghe on nine occasions, but succeeded only twice.
 

The 23-year-old from the USA has now knocked off Anna Schmiedlova, 11th seed Karolina Pliskova, 22nd seed Sam Stosur, and now 6th seed (and 2014 semifinalist) Safarova. Her next challenge will be to play 4th seed Maria Sharapova, and let's just say that Sharapova had better not mess around with her own serve.

Pova, by the way, defeated Zarina Diyas in straight sets.

Also having a pretty easy time of it was 23rd seed Vika Azarenka, who defeated Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-3. Her next task will be to face Serena Williams. It boggles the mind to think about it--Serena getting Venus and Azarenka, right in a row. The world number 1 won the much-anticipated sister match 6-4, 6-3, and is now three matches away from attaining a second "Serena Slam." But more of note: Should she win the tournament, she would be three-quarters into winning the Grand Slam.

Radwanska won that entertaining match against Jankovic, and Madison Keys needed three sets to beat Olga Govortsova. Timea Bacsinszky needed three sets, too--it took her an entire set of bafflement to adjust to Monica Niculescu. Bacsinszky won the match 1-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Finally, Garbine Muguruza upset 5th seed Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets. Toward the end, Muguruza had one of her Kvitova-like meltdowns, but she put herself back together in good form to defeat the Dane (or the Belgian, as one commentator call her). Muguruza played "big" (again, like Kvitova), hitting 29 winners and making 33 unforced errors. It was "big," however, that got the job done.

Here is the quarterfinal draw:

Serena Williams (1) vs. Victoria Azarenka (23)
Maria Sharapova (4) vs. CoCo Vandeweghe
Garbine Muguruza (20) vs. Timea Bacsinszky (15)
Madison Keys (21) vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (13)

If I could watch only one of those matches, I'd watch Muguruza vs. Bacsinszky. Fortunately, however, I'll be able to keep up a bit better tomorrow.

In doubles, top seeds Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza have advanced to the quarterfinals, as have 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, and 3rd seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, seeded fourth, also advanced.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The annual "I hate middle Sunday" rant

I hate middle Sunday. First, why would the tournament that generally has the most rain take an entire day off? It makes no sense to me, but then, it's Wimbledon--say no more. Beyond that, most people don't go to work on Sunday, which makes it a perfect day to watch tennis, except there isn't any to watch.

People say that middle gives the players a rest, but actually, it gives the male players a rest. Since all of the women's round of 16 matches are played on Monday and the women's quarterfinals are played the next day, the middle Sunday "rest" really doesn't mean much for the WTA side of the competition.

Here are some things you can do on middle Sunday:

Celebrate Amelie Mauresmo's birthday by re-living a great moment from 2006 (and my greatest Wimbledon final moment as a viewer)



See Virginia Wade, Joyce Williams and Ann Haydon Jones in their Ted Tinling Wimbledon outfits in 1969. You also get to see their cameras.

Learn about the Venus Rosewater dish.

Do my favorite thing, and listen to the Evonne Goolagong song!



Watch Goolagong and Evert play the final in 1976.
 


Take a moment to miss Tatina Golovin and her awesome undergarments.

Or, if like I, you have to get up very early to watch the round of 16 tomorrow, you can just:



Saturday, July 4, 2015

Wimbledon day 6: Jankovic and Kvitova upset defending champion

Glitter on the mattress
Glitter on the highway
Glitter on the front porch...
The whole shack shimmies!
from  The B-52s' "Love Shack"


The whole shack, as in Wimbledon Centre Court, shimmied today when the Glitter Queen, aka Jelena Jankovic, aka JJ, aka Queen Chaos, masterfully defeated defending champion Petra Kvitova in the third round. Let me be quick to add that Jankovic had plenty of help from Petra's evil twin, who made her appearance halfway through the match and never left the court (though Petra certainly did, during that seven-minute disappearing act).

It was a shock--and it wasn't. When Jankovic shows up to play, strange things tend to happen: Shots are hit from a legs-up--ass-down position, fans are called on to repair a sports bra, an earthquake commences and the stands shake, you know how it goes. Today, during the opening set, Scary Petra was present, and JJ's minutes looked numbered. But then the Serb raised her level and began to sweetly hit her trademark backhand down the line to great advantage. She was also serving well.

And Scary Petra disappeared, to be replaced by she who is sometimes known as P3tra, but whom I prefer to call the Evil Twin. Having lost the first set 3-6 and having gone down 2-4 in the second set, Jankovic won that second set 7-5. It took a long time for the third set to begin because of the above-referenced very long break taken by Kvitova. During those seven minutes, JJ hit the ball and chatted with fans because--she's JJ.

Kvitova started the final set in shaky fashion but then got back some of her service mojo, and things looked better for her. But then, at 4-all, with Jankovic serving, the defending champion did something so shockingly mindless--and I hate to say this--that it made me think of her dear friend Li Na and the costly mental vacation she took when she played Kim Clijsters in the 2011 U.S. Open final. The Czech star stopped play to challenge a call at 15-30--even though the instinctive crosscourt backhand she hit was obviously a winner. She was close to breaking Jankovic, but then she challenged, lost the challenge, and saw Jankovic hold for 5-4. 

We will never know what was going through Kvitova's mind when she did that, but it arguably cost her the match. There was something really wrong with Petra during the second half of the match. On ESPN, Chris Evert was quick to point out a chronically-repeated piece of misinformation--that Kvitova is troubled by heat. No, she has asthma and is troubled by humidity. That wasn't a problem today at Wimbledon, though. But something was. I always wonder whether Kvitova's lapses are at least partly a consequence of her left-handedness. Whatever it was about, it was painful to watch.

But not to take anything away from JJ, who played the best match she's played in a long time, on her least favorite surface. It's been five years since the Serb has advanced beyond the second round at Wimbledon. Her next challenge will be to play Agnieszka Radwanska, who--after having a terrible first half of the season--has very much found her winning ways at her favorite major. Radwanska defeated Casey Dellacqua in straight sets in today's third round.

Madison Keys defeated Tatjana Maria, Caroline Wozniacki easily defeated a flustered Camila Giorgi, Monical Niculescu beat Kristyna Pliskova, and Olga Govortsova defeated Magdelena Rybarikova. Thats right--Olga Govortsova has advanced to the second week of Wimbledon competition.

Garbine Muguruza, who runs hot and cold with such rapidity that I can't keep up, upset 10th seed Angelique Kerber 7-6 (14-12), 1-6, 6-2. That one surprised me. The one that didn't surprise me was Timea Bacsinszky's straight set win over Sabine Lisicki. Magic grass or not, the Queen of Mexico is a better, smarter player. 

In doubles, 3rd seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won their second round match against Jocelyn Rae and Anna Smith, and 4th seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenvic defeated Monica Niculescu and Olga Savchuk.

Lucie Safarova and Coco Vandeweghe are the only players left in both singles and doubles. Lucie is going at it old school, just like she did at the French Open. She's also the last Czech standing. On Monday, she plays Vandeweghe for a spot in the quarterfinals.