Saturday, June 25, 2016

The first time I watched Wimbledon

When I was an older adolescent, I traveled to London with my mother to visit her family. She hadn't seen her brother and sister--or her country--for a couple of decades, and it was an emotional event. We stayed with her brother and his wife, and they usually had the television on.

This visit took place while Wimbledon was in progress. My aunt and uncle had almost no interest in it, but I couldn't take my eyes off of young Evonne Goolagong. She seemed to practically float around the court, she was so graceful. Goolagong made it look so easy, and of course, her entire persona was of great interest to fans and the tennis press (generally not in a good way) because of her ethnic origin.

Goolagong won the tournament, beating Margaret Court in the final, and I was hooked. Goolagong would go on to be the rival (before the great rivalry emerged) of Chris Evert, whose career then became the focal point of my fan enthusiasm. But I never stopped following Goolagong, who would go on to win Wimbledon again, nine years later. This time, she beat Evert in the final.

I later learned about the great Maria Bueno, also a "ballerina" on the tennis court. And I would become entranced by the grace of Hana Mandlikova, Gabriela Sabatini and Amelie Mauresmo. It's no surprise that I now take great delight in watching Francesca Schiavone, Simona Halep and, of course, Aga Radwanska.

Readers of this blog know that I don't care for Wimbledon, but at least I have the lovely memory of sitting in front of a small television, watching an absolutely magical 19-year-old glide across Centre Court, covering this young woman with a kind of fairy dust that led to a lifelong love of women's professional tennis.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The grass is always wetter on the other side of the net




I'm in my usual pre-Wimbledon bad mood. First, there's the letdown because the French Open (my favorite) is over, and now comes the dread of the underwear-inspecting, female player-dismissing, national press sexist female abusing, and all around horrible behavior the AELTC promotes in the name of "tradition." It's time to watch line officials sweat in ridiculous outfits, and listen to people rave about the extremely dubious claim that Wimbledon is the "greatest" of all the tournaments.

The tournament where it rains the most is, of course, the tournament that takes a day off, and that drives me crazy, too. But middle Sunday ranting will come later.

It's easy to say that 2016 is a "crazy" season, but really, every WTA season seems kind of crazy. What is interesting about this one, however, is that world number 1 Serena Williams has appeared in two major finals, and has lost both of them. The Australian Open used to be Williams' "bread and butter" event, but now, most of us--I think--are more likely to consider Wimbledon the place where she's most likely to prevail.

And while Williams may again be considered the "most likely" to lift the Venus Rosewater dish, there are some others who surely have their eyes on it.

I'll start with two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Kvitova has dropped out of the top 10 and has fallen even father down the rabbit hole than last year. Things just aren't going well for her at all. But if there's one venue where the Barking Czech could get her act together in a big way, it's Wimbledon. Her 2011 and 2014 victories runs were things of great beauty. Eugenie Bouchard, in fact, hasn't been the same since the 2014 final when Kvitova smacked her down 6-3, 6-0. But this is Petra, and Petra is a mystery. She's also a contender.

Only a year ago, 2016 French Open champion Garbine Muguruza was the runner-up at Wimbledon, losing to Williams in straight sets. It's entirely possible that Mugu will wind up in the final again and this time, be successful. She has a tough first round against Camila Giorgi, and is in the same half of the draw as Madison Keys and Angelique Kerber. Simona Halep is in that half, too, but she doesn't seem near the threat that she used to, and especially not on grass.

2012 runner-up Angieszka Radwanska gets a shout-out here, even though her results have been on and off lately. But Wimbledon tends to bring out the best in The Ninja, and nice things could happen for her. At any rate, we know we'll see some stunning shot-making from her. With a little luck, we'll be seeing it throughout two full weeks.

Who can cause trouble at Wimbledon? Madison Keys, for sure. Keys just won Birmingham, which--these days--doesn't necessarily mean she'll do well at Wimbledon, but in her case, it just could. Keys has experienced slow momentum over the last couple of years, but is now looking more and more like someone set to meet her considerable potential.

Keys beat Barbora Strycova in the Birmingham final, and Strycova (who almost outshone The Ninja herself at the French Open) can definitely cause trouble--to anyone. Kiki Mladenovic isn't someone you want to see on the other side of the net, and--on grass--neither is CoCo Vandeweghe. Kerber is always a threat, Johanna Konta--with the crowd behind her--is to be feared, and Ekaterina Makarova is almost always ready to do major damage at a major.

Suddenly, Dominika Cibulkova is shining on grass, having won two matches today in Eastbourne, both against formidable opponents (Radwanska and Monica Puig). Five-time champion Venus Williams has the ability to go far, as does Karolina Pliskova (well, on paper), and even Halep. And then there's the original Wimbledon trouble-maker, the Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery--Tsvetana Pironkova.

Here are some interesting first-round contests:


Caroline Wozniacki vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Two of the endurance queens of the tour will most likely run each other into a frenzy to see who advances to the second round. Tough to see either of them lose.

Alison Riske vs. Roberta Vinci: This "should" be Vinci's match, but she's not having the best time of it lately, and Riske really likes grass courts.

Dominika Cibulkova vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni: Cibulkova has reached the final in Eastbourne. She might be tired next week, and Lucic-Baroni can be a very tough opponent. Chances are, however, that Cibulkova will advance to the second round.

Monica Puig vs. Johanna Konta: This could get intense. Both did very well this week in Eastbourne, both play well on grass. Konta, of course, is one of the two British hopes (the other being Heather Watson), and she'll need all the fan support she can garner against Puig.

Petra Kvitova vs. Sorana Cirstea: This probably isn't how Kvitova wants to start her Wimbedon campaign--against a player known for pulling big upsets. But it's what she gets.

Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Belinda Bencic: This would be more interesting if Bencic weren't just coming back from injury. But it's interesting nevertheless.

Simona Halep vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova: Schmiedy's season is still a shockingly poor one, but she's been doing better lately, and with Halep, you just don't know these days.

Camila Giorgi vs. Garbine Muguruza: Again, this probably isn't the way Muguruza wants to start, but she'll have to be in top form to deal with the hard-hitting Italian.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

ITF adds Sugarpova to list of banned substances

The International Tennis Federation, in conjunction with the World Anti-Doping Agency, announced today that Sugarpova has been added to its list of banned substances, effective June 9, 2016. The ITF acknowledged that several professional tennis players have been consuming the substance for a few years now, but warned players that they will heretofore be tested for it, and if they are found positive, they will face suspension from the WTA and ATP.

Sugarpova is a fairly new substance, having been introduced in 2012 by a candy company owned by professional tennis player Maria Sharapova. However, its prototype, gummy candy, has been popular for a very long time. Generally consumed as “bears” or “worms,” gummy candy contains a high concentration of various forms of sugar.

Sugarpova, specifically, contains sucrose, corn syrup and dextrose, all of which, the ITF claims, can provide athletes a big jolt of energy that can enhance their performance on court.

Asked about the legality of using other candies such as Haribo Gold-Bears, Sunkist Fruit Gems or Swedish Fish, ITF spokespeople repeated a statement from WADA that research was ongoing and that players should check their email accounts constantly because--at any moment--they might have to be tested for consuming Albanese Worms or Gummy Killer Sharks.

Not surprisingly, there have been questions about why a particular gummy candy, Sugarpova, has been placed on the banned list while hundreds of others are still considered legal substances. WADA's response was that an unusually large number of Russian and other eastern European athletes were consuming Flirty, Sporty and Quirky, and that this consumption had "aroused suspicion."

Sharapova, who is currently involved in a legal battle with the ITF, refused to comment when asked about the decision to place Sugarpova on the list of banned substances. However, when told that a French tennis player had recently described her as "a cheater," the five-time major champion became philosophical and implied that those words could soon be regretted.

"Surely," Sharapova said, "you don't believe that Kiki "Macaron Breath" Mladenovic hasn't consumed sucrose. I assure you she has.

"However," the Russian star added as she made her exit, "it certainly didn't enhance her performance."

Sunday, June 5, 2016

My French Open top 10

Sculpture, Centre Georges Pompidou
Here are my top 10 French Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. The (seemingly) unstoppable rise of P3tra: Beaten 6-0, 6-7, 6-0 by Shelby Rogers in the third round was the latest--and the most dramatic--example of the obvious fact that something is wrong with Petra Kvitova. I've written about my speculations so many times, I won't go into them here. What matters is that someone fix it. Soon.

9. Somebody write a score: Everyone knows that Alize Cornet is going to provide BIG drama almost any time, but especially at a major, and especially at the French Open. She certainly didn't disappoint. Suffering with cramps in one leg in her third round match, she also had an injury in the other leg. This double pain resulted in numerous medical timeouts, which some questioned because the cramped leg was getting worked on so often. The evidence shows that no one did anything wrong, but a lot of people--even accepting the legality of the procedure--continued to object to what they considered extreme gameswomanship.

No one, however, was as upset as Cornet's opponent, Tatjana Maria. At the conclusion of the match, which Cornet won, Maria scolded her at the net instead of shaking her hand. Cornet was not impressed: She continued to celebrate her victory and work the crowd. It didn't take long for Maria to tell the world that she planned to take legal action against the tournament, the ITF, and perhaps the WTA. There were apparently some unpleasant encounters between her camp and Cornet's camp.

This was a far cry from, say, Bartoli Theatre, which brought delightful drama to big stages. This was something else--kind of "made for TV"--and may still be going on.

8. Quietly magnificent: While no one was looking, Monica Puig and Julia Goerges played one of the most beautiful matches of the tournament. All you have to do is look at the score, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5, to get an idea of what went on. Puig won, with a total of 130 points, while Goerges had 126 points. It was a very long, grueling affair, and it had everything. Both players were superb in this second round match, though not much was ever said about it.

7. Nothing could be finer: South Carolinian Shelby Rogers, who was a ballgirl at what is now the Volvo Car Open (and who won the Family Circle Cup junior event), somehow slipped into the main draw of the French Open. Ranked 108 in the world, she started the tournament with a bang by defeating 17th seed Karolina Pliskova.

But that was just the beginning of Rogers' French feat: In the second round, she defeated Charleston runner-up Elena Vesnina, then took out 10th seed Petra Kvitova. But Rogers wasn't quite finished. In the round of 16, she handed a defeat to Irina-Camelia Begu, whom many (this writer included) expected to be around during the second week.

Rogers bowed out in the quarterfinals, to none other than eventual champion Garbine Muguruza. What a run!

6. The rain in France falls mainly at the French Open: It rained and rained. It was worse than 2010. There were delays, a major power outage, and one entirely lost day. Matches had to be moved, players had to play on two consecutive days, and the schedule became so crowded that spectators had to make hard choices about what to watch. There were also several angry players who thought that officials had forced them to play in dangerous conditions. And of course, players who don't do well in heavy conditions were defeated.

5. Help!--I can't stop winning!: Here it is, 2016, and I'm writing about the winning ways of Martina Hingis. The original Swiss Miss, in her third career, won the mixed doubles title with partner Leaner Paes. In an odd twist (there were so many of those at this tournament), Hingis wound up playing the other half of Santina in the final; Sania Mirza reached played in the final with Ivan Dodig.

Hingis has now won three of the four majors in singles, and all four in both doubles and mixed doubles. The only major missing from her singles resume is the French Open. As I wrote a few days ago, had she won that, too, we would have to call her accomplishment the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Career Slam. Maybe I'll call it that, anyway (especially if some gold is added later this year).

4. "Going Dutch" gets a whole new meaning: I call Kiki Bertens the Fed Cup Beast because in Fed Cup, she is just about unstoppable, and is an elite player. That vibe hasn't translated well to the regular tour--until lately. And in Paris, Bertens shone as brightly as anyone. She had a terrible draw, yet she worked her way through it, all the way to the semifinals.

The Dutchwoman began her campaign by removing 3rd seed Angelique Kerber from competition. She then knocked out rising clay court star and 29th seed Daria Kasatkina, and followed that with a defeat of 15th seed Madison Keys. Bertens' next trick was to beat 8th seed Timea Bacsinszky. She had played a lot of tennis, both at Roland Garros and before, and it finally caught up with her. The unseeded Bertens sustained a calf injury which hampered her movement in the semifinals.

Had she not been injured, could she have beaten top seed Serena Williams? We'll never know; Bertens was on quite a roll. No one in the tournament had a more difficult draw, and Bertens' performance was spectacular. 

3. The Ninja in the mirror: Aga Radwanska is the greatest shot-maker I've ever seen. And while her opponents occasionally "out-Aga" her once or twice in a match, in Paris, she met her Ninja twin. Barbora Strycova faced off against Radwanska in the third round, and the match was pure magic. You can't watch it without repeatedly gasping and applauding and just being in absolute awe of the things these two women did to get the ball over the net (though NBC declared Nadal's tweener a better shot than anything Aga and Barbora did--please): It's one of the most entertaining and inspiring matches I can recall seeing. Radwanska won it, but they were both in absolute top form. Here are some highlights:



2. Vive la France!: Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic have become very serious threats. After winning Charleston, Stuttgart and Madrid, the French Fed Cup stars took a giant leap onto the red clay of Paris and won the French Open, defeating 2013 champtions Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. This is the first time in 16 years that a Frenchwoman has won the doubles title at Roland Garros, and the first time in 45 years that a French pair has won. The French Open title is the (new) pair's first major, and the Frenchwomen have aligned themselves nicely for a run at the Olympic Games.

1. Call her Garbi. Call her Mugu. Call her French Open champion: Garbine Muguruza, who transcended "rising star"status when she reached the final at Wimbledon last year, went one better this year in Paris. She not only won the Roland Garros title, she did it by defeating Serena Williams in the final. The first clue came in 2014, when the Spaniard defeated Williams in the second round of the French Open. And while, at times, Muguruza has been known to let negative emotions take her over in the middle of a match, she was all business in Saturday's final.

It was a very good match, and included Williams' signature roar back when everything was on the line in the second set. But Muguruza seemed prepared for that, and handled it masterfully. Her 7-5, 6-4 defeat of the defending champion made her the first Spanish woman to win the French Open since Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario did it in 1998. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Over the head and on the line--Muguruza wins French Open in style




Garbine Muguruza announced her intentions right away in today's French Open women's final: She won the coin toss and elected to receive against the tour's greatest server. The message was clear. Of course, Serena Williams--unfazed by the message--proceeded to hold, and included an ace in her first service game.

Muguruza got the first break when Williams double-faulted while serving at 2-all, then went up 4-2, only to have Williams broke her back, then held. Facing Serena Williams at 4-5 has been the undoing of many good players. Just the sight of the world number 1 on the other side of the net seems to produce errors that preclude winning a set. Not so Muguruza--she cruised through her next game, then broke her opponent.

This is when the Spaniard became "nervious," as she likes to put it.  Nevertheless, she took the set on her third set point.

This was already a very high quality match, but it was about to get even better. Muguruza began the second set by breaking Williams, but one of her many (nine total) double faults resulted in her getting broken herself. But Williams was unable to consolidate the break. If there was a turning point in the set, it occurred at that time; Muguruza and Williams proceeded to hold their serves, and being down 2-4 still placed the top seed in the "I can win this" zone. I say that because she's returned from worse spots than this, and taken control of a big match.

Muguruza, though, would have none of it. She's beaten Williams in the 2014 French Open, so she knew what was possible. The Spaniard's huge hitting and keen court geometry were clear; the question: Could she hold her nerve? Williams had beaten her in the Wimbledon final, not to mention that Muguruza is known for sometimes just "getting off the bus" before the trip is completed.

Not this time, though she was certainly put to a stringent test. Serving at 3-5, Williams saved four championship points, largely thanks to her on-point forehand.

On these occasions, it's often a lot easier to win by breaking than to have to serve for the championship. Again, Muguruza's nerves were put to the test when she served at 5-4 in the second set. And again, she passed the test, with flying red and gold colors. Leaving the best for last, Muguzuza's championship point was a perfectly hit lob that sailed way over Williams' head and landed right on the baseline. It was a very stylish moment.

Muguruza, for all her missed opportunities and sullen "disappearances" in matches, was almost certainly going to experience this moment--and sooner than later. There's a smoothness about the Spaniard's style that puts her in a position to win big matches. Yes, she's a power hitter, but she's also a thinker, and she can hit some keen angles and change direction quickly. Muguruza, at her best, makes it look easy.

There's also this: Muguruza barely missed being the Wimbledon champion. If you're that good on both grass and clay, you kind of have "champion" stamped on your head.

Oddly, the French Open is the first clay tournament Mugurza has ever won. Also odd--prior to today, she had won only two events. Hers has been a "big stage" evolution, and one can expect her to go about things "backwards"--now, she can relax and win smaller tournaments. It's a strange path to take, but it seems to be working.

As for Williams--she's dealing with a thigh injury and needs to rest and heal in time for Wimbledon and the Olympic Games.

In the meantime, a young player with promise has broken through in a very big way, and that's quite refreshing. Bravo!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Serena and Garbine, as you always wanted to see them




After two weeks of rain, mud, angry reactions, crazy schedules, and a power failure, it's come to this: World number 1, top seed and defending champion Serena Williams will face former Wimbledon runner-up Garbine Muguruza in the 2016 French Open singles final.

That looks straightforward enough--the champion and the anointed upstart. But of course, there's a bit of backstory that provides some context for the upcoming final. The only other time the pair met in a major final, Williams defeated Muguruza to win the Wimbledon title last year. However, in 2014, the Spaniard took Williams out of the French Open in straight sets in the second round.

Muguruza, for all her sudden fame, has won only two WTA tournaments. Still, she has the look of an emerging Big Deal. She can be very moody on the court, which often means nothing at all, but in her case, appears to be a real detriment because when she gets that way, she loses the plot of the match. In Paris these past two weeks, however, Muguruza has looked wonderful. Quick and instinctive, she has handled all of her matches like the player most of us think she is on the way to becoming.

Williams, who got past an injured, yet spirited, Kiki Bertens in today's semifinals, is having some thigh problems herself. Of course, an injured (and sometimes heavily bandaged) and sick Serena Williams has won many a title, so there's no reason to think that a thigh injury will hold her back. She simply knows how to handle these matters. Like no one else, I should add.

There could have been an all-Russian women's doubles final, but the very last standing Kiki--Mladenovic, that is--and her partner, Caroline Garcia, didn't let that happen. The French pair, seeded 5th, defeated Margarita Gasparyan (who displayed a sweet volleying skill) and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semifinals. Garcia and Mladenovic will compete against 7th seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina for the title.

Today, the Russians defeated the Czech team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova in the semifinals. (I'll admit--as much as I really, really like Makarova/Vesnina, there was a little part of me that wanted Krejcikova and Siniakova to win the title so we could see one fabulous dance routine after match point.)




Meanwhile, Martina Hingis completed what is almost--but sadly, not quite--a  Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Career Slam. She has now won titles in doubles in all four majors, titles in mixed doubles in all four majors, and three of four titles in singles in the majors. So perhaps we'll just say that she continues to have a brilliant career. In a twist that complemented all of the Kiki interconnectedness, Santina faced off in the mixed doubles final, and Hingis and Leander Paes defeated Sania Mirza and Ivan Dodig 4-6, 6-4, 10-8.

In somewhat of a surprise final, 2013 French Open champion Sabine Ellerbrock will play Marjolein Buis for the wheelchair singles title. Both are unseeded at the French Open. In doubles, it will be the number 1 seeds, Jiske Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot, against the number 2 seeds, Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley.

Here are the singles finalists paths to the final:

SERENA WILLIAMS (1)
round 1--def. Magdalena Rybarikova
round 2--def. Teliana Pereira
round 3--def. Kristina Mladenovic (26)
round of 16--def. Elina Svitolina (18)
quarterfinals--def. Yulia Putintseva
semifinals--def. Kiki Bertens

GARBINE MUGURUZA (4)
round 1--Varvara Lepchenko
round 2--Myrtille Georges (WC)
round 3--def. Yanina Wickmayer
round of 16--def. Svetlana Kuznetsova (13)
quarterfinals--def. Shelby Rogers
semifinals--def. Samantha Stosur (21)

And while she didn't make it to the final, it was the unseeded Bertens who did the heavy lifting at this event--what a draw!:

round 1--def. Angelique Kerber (3)
round 2--def. Camila Giorgi
round 3--def. Daria Kasatkina (29)
round of 16--def. Madison Keys (15)
quarterfinals--def. Timea Bacsinszky (8)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

So many Kikis--so little time




This French Open has given us a plethora of Kikis. Kiki Mladenovic made it to the third round in singles, and played a very respectable match again world number 1 Serena Williams, which Williams won, 6-4, 7-6 (10). That was a good showing in itself, but since then, the Frenchwoman (who, unlike some others, appears to love playing to the home crowd) has reached the semifinals of the women's double competition with partner Caroline Garcia.

Mladenovic also reached the semifinals in mixed doubles, but today, she and partner Pierre-Hughes Herbert, lost to Sania Mirza and Leander Paes.

Meanwhile, another Kiki--Kiki Bertens--did what apparently shocked a lot of people, though I wasn't one of them. The unseeded Bertens reached the semifinals in singles when she defeated 8th seed Timea Bacsinszky in straight sets (7-5, 6-2). Bertens, who continues to astonish in Fed Cup competition, has previously shown that she's able to translate that success onto the regular tour, but not often enough. Lately, though, she's been doing it.

Consider her French Open run. So far, she has defeated 3rd seed Angelique Kerber (not a bad way to start a tournament), often-dangerous Camila Giorgi, 29th seed Daria Kasatkina, 15th seed Madison Keys, and Bacsinszky. During her match today, the physically tough Bertens had to take a medical timeout to have her left calf re-taped. Bertens has played a whole lot of tennis lately. At this event alone, she's played twelve sets of singles and nine sets of doubles--she and Johanna Larsson took out the Williams sisters in the third round.




There's a bit of a twist in doubles. Bertens and Larsson advanced to the quarterfinals, only to be beaten by Caroline Garcia and--of course--Kiki Mladenovic. Garcia and Mladenovic have reached the semifinals, in which they will face off against the Russian team of Margarita Gasparyan and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Kiki "The Beast" Bertens is a very hearty type, but even she might be a bit tired by now. She'll have to deal with that left leg, and she'll also have to deal with another matter--her opponent in the semifinals is top seed and defending championSerena Williams. (You can beat Serena, but she just pops up again in another venue--kind of like the Kikis.) Williams, whose only real weakness is her footwork, had somewhat of a footwork nightmare against Yulia Putintseva earlier today, but after dropping the first set, worked it out.

In the other semifinal, 2010 champion Sam Stosur will play Garbine Muguruza. Stosur is seeded 21st and Muguruza is seeded fourth. Each of these players has a tendency to "go away," but if neither takes a mental vacation, this could be a very fine match.