Sunday, August 20, 2017

Notes on Muguology

Muguruza was always going to happen.

The foot injury slowed down the Spaniard's path to stardom, and she did herself no favors with her tendency to become very negative and then "go off" in the middle of matches.




Photo by Leslie Billman
But even with all the muguing around on court, there was still the talent, and the poise, and that easy-to-watch fluidity that comes along once in a great while. When she won the French Open, it was hardly a surprise.

Nor was it a surprise that the obviously emotional Spaniard retreated somewhat after winning a major. We saw this reaction after Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon the first time. Once you win a major, you're a celebrity and once you're a celebrity, your life changes, and adjustments must be made. This is especially true in an age when communication is widespread and rapid, and marketing is everything.

When Muguruza won Wimbledon, she created a startling WTA statistic: 50% of her titles were majors. And of the other 50%--two tournaments--only one was a premier event. She had become the ultimate "big stage" player. Would this odd pattern continue? The answer appears to be "no." Since winning in London, the Spanish star has looked more consistent and relaxed, and she has learned to embrace her stardom with a bit more ease. Also, she just won another tournament--a big one.

Muguruza is an unusual combination of poise and emotional fragility. Right now, the balance is tipped way over to the poise side, but it would be unrealistic to believe that it won't sometimes tip over to the other side. This is also perfectly fine. Muguruza made it clear this week that she's glad to own all of her emotions, and that doing so feels like the natural thing to do. It is, of course, and it was gratifying to hear her say this.

This week marked a turning point for Muguruza: She won her first tournament in the USA. Always before, she said, she entered the U.S. hard court season ready to play, but things just didn't go well for her. Now, she's the Cincinnati champion. Asked how long it took her to become comfortable during today's final, she immediately replied, "from the first moment." Muguruza had already saved three match points in two consecutive matches--perhaps the hard part was over for her.

A little over a year ago, I said that the Age of Mugu wasn't quite upon us (obviously, I thought--even then--that there would be such an era). But it appears to have arrived. This doesn't mean that she'll dominate--there are too many other really good players waiting for their moment, with Karolina Pliskova first in line. And one, Alona Ostapenko, has already sneaked in. But the Spaniard has already won two majors on two very different surfaces, and she possesses that je ne sais quoi that makes me look forward to what I think will be a notable career.

The Elegant Assasin leaves her mark on Simona Halep--and Cincinnati

Photo by Leslie Billman
The first set of the Western & Southern Open championship match seemed to last about as long as the opening ceremony, which featured the performing of three national anthems. Simona Halep failed to win on any of her five second serves, and she won with 58% of her first serves. In contrast, Garbine Muguruza served up a storm and broke Halep twice. The Romanian had no break opportunities.

Photo by Leslie Billman
   
I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking that the second set might represent a "clean slate" for Halep, but Muguruza remained steady and let Halep implode. In just under an hour, 4th seed Muguruza defeated 2nd seed Halep 6-1, 6-0. The Wimbledon champion hit five winners and made three unforced errors.

Photo by Leslie Billman

I expected Muguruza to win this tournament, but I didn't expect this final. As I wrote yesterday, it may be better for Halep not to enter the U.S. Open as the world number 1, but, regardless, this has to be a terrible loss for her.

After the final, Halep said that she didn't do what her coach told her to do--that she just wasn't confident enough to execute his suggested plan. She was filled with praise for Muguruza's performance, but said that she felt shame over the scoreline, even though she knows that these kinds of losses are part of the game.

"I don’t want to go down too much and I don’t want to analyze too much," Halep said. "Maybe I feel the pressure and don’t realize it, maybe i just played bad."

Asked whether she thought she could develop any kind of control over whether she has confidence in a given match, the Romanian star smiled and said "I am like this in real life--up and down, every day."

The world number 2 said she feels no physical fatigue, but she needs some mental rest. "I leave with positives," she said.

Had Halep won, she would have taken over the number 1 ranking.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tomorrow's Cincinnati final: featuring Halep, Muguruza and Pressure

"Pressure is a pain," Garbine Muguruza said when asked to talk about how she's handling it these days. She went on to say that it's also a good thing because it involves hope. Both finalists at the 2017 Western & Southern Open know something about both hope and pressure, and both factors will play a role in tomorrow's final.

After she won the French Open last year, Muguruza obviously had to struggle with the pressure of having won a major, and she's been quite open about it. But after this year's Wimbledon win, the poised Spaniard settled into her celebrity, and made a commitment not to be a victim of it. This week in Cincinnati, Muguruza's comfort level has been obvious. She's been confident and fluid, and her star power has been evident at all times.

Halep, on the other hand--despite what she might say--rarely appears to be comfortable on a consistent basis. A perfectionist who is hard on herself and always striving to meet the expectations of her native Romania, the world number 2 is known to stray far too close to the Cliffs of Simona, as The Backspinner would say. She made a brief venture there yesterday, in her quarterfinal match against Jo Konta, but pulled herself back before something really perilous occurred.

Now that Karolina Pliskova is out of the tournament, Halep can succeed her as number 1 in the world--if she wins the final tomrrow. Pressure? Halep wants the ranking, we know that. I have to wonder, though: Would it be easier for her to enter the U.S. Open without being nunber 1 in the world?

None of us knows the internal pressure felt by Muguruza, but there are a couple of external factors (other than the obvious one of wanting to win the tournament) that come to mind: As the new Wimbledon champion and the holder of two major titles, Muguruza is "expected" to win. Also, she has never won a tournament in the U.S.; indeed, this is the first time she has reached a final in this country.

Both Muguruza and Halep had byes in the first round. To get to the final, 4th seed Muguruza defeated Beatriz Haddad Maia, 16th seed Madison Keys, 8th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova (in one of the best match of the tournament), and top seed Pliskova. 2nd seed Halep defeated Taylor Townsend, 15th seed Anastasija Sevastova, 7th seed Jo Konta, and wild card Sloane Stephens.

No matter who wins tomorrow's match, both women are clear contenders to take the U.S. Open title, as is Karolina Pliskova. And the fans in Cincinnati can expect a high quality final.

Halep to play in her second Cincinnati final




Simona Halep, seeded number 2 at the Western & Southern Open, easily advanced to the final this evening when she defeated wild card Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-1. Halep said that yesterday's quarterfinal match against Jo Konta had given her confidence, and that she was "feeling the court" from the  moment she stepped onto it today.

Halep reached the final in 2015 and lost to then-world number 1 Serena Williams. Last year, she made it to the semifinals, and was defeated by Angelique Kerber. Kerber, who would soon win the U.S. Open and become number 1 in the world, lost the 2016 final to Karolina Pliskova, the current number 1. Pliskova lost today to Garbine Muguruza. If Halep wins the Cincinnati final, she becomes number 1 in the world.

So maybe set that to music.

Halep has her eye on that number 1 spot, though she stated in her press conference today that winning a major is still her main goal. But, regarding the number 1 ranking, she said: "I am so close, I really want it."

Muguruza advances to her first U.S. final



Playing a mentally and physically tired Karolina Pliskova on Center Court today, Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza advanced to the Western & Southern Open final, her first final in a U.S. venue. The Spaniard played as closely to perfectly as we are likely to see, hitting 15 winners and making only 13 unforced errors. There were only three break points against her in the match, and she saved all of them. Muguruza ended the match with a first serve win percentage of 80.

Things didn't look good for Pliskova in the very first game, which was very long, and which ended with a break. The world number 1 didn't even see a break point. She looked more competitive in the second set, but in the sixth game, she was broken at 15 when Muguruza hit a crosscourt backhand into the corner of the ad court. That was the beginning of the end, and after an hour and 19 minutes, the Spaniard emerged with a 6-3, 6-2 victory.
Photo by Leslie Billman


After the match, when asked about her fatigue, Pliskova said that the scheduling (she had to play two  matches yesterday because of rain) created problems both physically and mentally. She pointed out that it wasn't just that she had to play three matches in a row, but that she had to play three different types of matches in a row against a varied group of Camila Giorgi, Caroline Wozniacki and Muguruza. "I just wasn't there today," she added.

Pliskova said that it didn't help that Muguruza--against whom she now has a 6-2 record--was hitting everything to her backhand, making her less able to be aggressive.

Asked about whether she has some type of ritual--a favorite food, a glass of wine, shopping, etc.--after she experiences a loss, the Pliskova replied, in her typically droll manner, that she doesn't--and that she doesn't want to develop one.

Pliskova will remain number 1 in the world if Simona Halep does not win the Cincinnati title. Halep will play Sloane Stephens later today in the second semifinal.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Muguruza in, Svitolina out in Cincinnati




After winning the Rogers Cup, Elina Svitolina came to Cincinnati to try her hand at yet another Premier 5 win, and she was looking good until she ran into the (still) in-form Julia Goerges, who defeated the 5th seed today in the third round. Goerges, when she's in the form she's been in lately, is a trickster with flowing power, especially from her signature forehand. She beat Svitolina in Fed Cup play this year, and did it again today.

This time, the German player needed only two sets to get the job done. She had first and second serve percentages of 66 and 72, and she saved all eight break points against her. Goerges's 7-5, 6-4 victory puts her into the quarterfinals, in which she'll face Sloane Stephens. Earlier in the tournament, Goerges upset 10th seed Aga Radwanska.

Stephens, who is suddenly on quite a roll, took out Ekaterina Makarova in a hard-fought three-set match. Makarova saved two match points, but Stephens prevailed.

World number 1 Karolina Pliskova advanced to the quarterfinals with a victory over Camila Giorgi. In doing so, the Long Tall One retains her number 1 ranking, provided Simona Halep doesn't win the title.




And then there were Svetlana Kuznetsova and Garbine Muguruza, who put on a show on Center Court for two hours and 46 minutes (because that's how Sveta rolls) in their quarterfinal match. The Spaniard, wearing a black kit and a displaying a black ribbon on her visor, opened the match with a break and took the first set 6-2. The second set looked, at first, like it was going to be a repeat of the first, as Muguruza immediately went up 3-1. But the Russian star, who is nothing if not tenacious, had other plans.

Kuznetsova broke Muguruza three times, and finally found herself in the lead at 5-4. She would go on to win the set at 7-5. The third set was a show it itself, with Muguruza saving three match points, just as she had done the day before against Madison Keys. Muguruza broke Kuznetsova in a very long game when the Russian star served at 5-all, then closed on her second match point.

Muguruza called the match "probably one of the best matches of the year." Now in the semifinals, teh Spanish star will face either Pliskova or Caroline Wozniacki. Last year, Muguruza was defeated in straight sets in the semifinals by Pliskova, who would go on to win the tournament.

How things stand on Friday

Of the six major champions who entered this year's Western & Southern Open, the only two remaining are playing each other right now. Two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza are the last two standing in a group that included Venus Williams, Alona Ostapenko, Angelique Kerber, and Petra Kvitova.

The only U.S. player left in the draw is Sloane Stephens, who will play Ekaterina Makarova later today.

If Simona Halep wins her quarterfinal match against Jo Konta today and Karolina Pliskova loses her third-round match against Camila Giorgi, Halep will become number 1 in the world.

However, if Giorgi upsets Pliskova and Elina Svitolina wins the title, the Ukrainian player will be the world number 1.

If Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova defeat Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua (they were leading 6-3, 5-all when the match was suspended because of rain yesterday), Safarova will become the doubles world number 1, succeeding her injured regular partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

The sun is out and it is cloudy, but so far, so good.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rain break in Cincinnati




It's raining in Cincinnati and Center Court is soaked. Waiting for the sky to clear are Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys, who are at 2-all in the third set. Keys has had a number of coaching visits, and Muguruza had to have her thigh wrapped in the first set, which she won.

Caroline Wozniacki has advanced, with a straight-set win over Ash Barty, and Chan and Hingis got a straight-set win over Babos and Hvalackova.

During the Center Court match, there was an announcement that construction will soon be underway of a new building, to be located between the main stadium and the Grandstand, and that building will house--among other things--air-conditioned boxes. The 40,000 square-foot South Building will be 104 feet high. You can see what it will look like here.

If one has to be stranded, there are worse places to be stranded than in the media building, where we have enough coffee, tea, water, fruit, cookies, and wit to wait out any storm.

So maybe now is a good time to talk about who is going to win the U.S. Open. I have no idea, but I'm looking at (in no particular order): Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys, Elina Svitolina, Simona Halep, Jo Konta, and Garbine Muguruza. I do think that any of them could lift the trophy. Can anyone pull an Ostapenko in Flushing Meadows? Of course, but I don't think it's likely.

Speaking of Ostapenko (and I love to)--the hard court season has brought about her uncoiling, at least so far. Getting to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon was nevertheless a sign of more good things to come. If her coach can get her to apply more discipline to her game, she has the potential to be dangerous, just as she was at Roland Garros. Of course, I said this about Petra Kvitova, too, and she did apply some discipline, but Kvitova has health issues that haunt her throughout the season.

I do have the feeling, however, that for both Ostapenko and Muguruza, the hard courts will never be favorite venues. I hope they prove me wrong.

Halep and Kuznetsova advance in Cincinnati

15th seed Anastasija Sevastova got off to a fast, 3-0 start against 2nd seed Simona Halep, but once Halep grounded herself, she was able to dominate and win in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3. Meanwhile, 8th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2, 6-4.

Halep's job gets harder now. She will next face the winner of today's third round contest featuring 7th seed Jo Konta and 11th seed Dominika Cibulkova. As for Kuznetsova, her next opponent will be the winner of the highly anticipated (and coming up soon) match between 4th seed Garbine Muguruza and 15th seed Madison Keys.

The late-night match tonight features Sloane Stephens and Ekaterina Makarova. Given what Makarova went through yesterday, it's a bit difficult to believe that she'll survive, but then, it was hard to believe she would survive yesterday's match, yet she managed to prevail. Playing her third round at night gives her a fighting chance, should the match go on for a long time. Also, despite everything, the Russian must have gotten quite a boost in confidence yesterday.

Also today, red hot Elina Svitolina plays red hot Julia Goerges in the first night match, and I think this could be a highly entertaining event.

Also today: Ash Barty gets a crack at Caroline Wozniacki, and hard-hitting Camila Giorgi, the last-stand Fighting Italian, plays top seed and defending champion Karolina Pliskova. If Giorgi is "on," she can make life miserable for the world number 1.

Alona Ostapenko, sadly, has completed her Cincinnati run. Upset in singles in the second round by Aleksandra Krunic, she and partner Gabriela Dabrowski were defeated yesterday in the second round of doubles by Lyudmyla Kichenok and Lesia Tsurenko.

And finally, in the "I'm going to tip you anyway" category: This morning, my Uber driver informed me that he used to follow tennis more but it was easier back then "because it was all Americans."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sweating, cramping and dropping to the ground, Makarova bests Kerber in Cincinnati drama





When I think of Ekaterina Makarova, "drama" isn't the word that comes to mind. Quite the opposite: I think of a kind of quiet, businesslike steadiness. But after today's second round in Cincinnati, I have a an appreciation for aspects of the Russian's persona formerly unknown to me.

Makarova and 2016 runner-up Angelique Kerber played their second round match in the Grandstand in notable heat and humidity. I live in Louisiana, and you'd think I'd be "used to it," but I can barely manage sitting and watching a match; I have no idea how the players are able to perform in this weather.

Deep into today's match, Makarova didn't look as though she had much idea how to keep going, either. Makarova was sweating profusely and was obviously suffering from the heat. She had won the second set 6-4, but the heat had affected her so much in the second, that--as she later told us--all she could do was concentrate on getting on to the third. Kerber took the second easily at 6-1.

The third set was quite a thing to behold. In fact, something really extraordinary will have to happen in the remainder of the tournament to top it. Makarova, having conserved some energy, was nevertheless broken right off in the final set, and saw Kerber go up 2-0. Makarova looked forlorn, but suddenly, she turned on that switch that players can sometimes turn on, and won five straight games.

It looked like it was all Makarova, but after Kerber held for 3-5, Makarova saw two match points evaporate. After she double-faulted on Kerber's fifth break point, it seemed for all the world that her chances were gone. She looked weak, and she was sweating a lot, but then--after Kerber held for 6-5, the Russian star also held. And from a poetic standpoint, this match, I suppose, was destined to reach a third set tiebreak.

And what a tiebreak it was. Kerber easily went up 3-0, "confirming" my theory that Makarova had had her chance and now it was gone.

But what do I know? Because before you could say "Makarova is going to become unglued over this loss," it was 3-all. Makarova won two points and Kerber double-faulted.

Many things would happen after that. Makarova would have a medical timeout for her thigh. Kerber would hold a match point. But I don't think anyone anticipated what happened at 6-all: Makarova fell. Just dropped to the ground, with an intense look of agony on her face. The medics were ready to tend to her, but then--just as suddenly--she was on her feet. She explained later, in her press conference, that she fell because she was cramping so badly, and while she was on the ground, she moved her legs as much as she could. When she arose, her legs felt okay.

Makarova saw five more match points go away. Then, at 11-all, Kerber hit a forehand long, giving the Russian an eighth match point, which she executed with a drop shot. Makarova had survived the two hour and 39-minute ordeal, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (11).

After the match, Makarova had an ice massage, and, she said, ate and drank "a lot," and got plenty of salt into her system.

Asked what she did to calm herself when she got nervous in the tiebreak, she said that she concentrated on breathing and "I focused on my body."

There was also a considerable mental factor at play, which Makarova summed up as: "If I lose this match leading 5-2, I will just kill myself."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Radwanska and Ostapenko out of Cincinnati in first round

Aga Radwanksa, seeded 10th at the Western & Southern Open, fell in straight sets today to Julia Goerges, who has recently resurrected her career rather dramatically. Goerges, who is unseeded, hit 12 aces in the match. The German player had a 77 first serve win percentage and saved nine of eleven break opportunities.

Also going out today was 12th seed and French Open champion Alona Ostapenko, who was defeated 6-4, 6-4 by the unseeded Aleksandra Krunic. Yesterday, 13th seed Kiki Mladenovic was defeated 6-0, 7-6 by Daria Gavrilova.

Featured in the Grandstand tonight are wild card Sloane Stephens and Lucie Safarova. Safarova is 2-1 against Stephens, and they are 1-1 on hard courts. The late night match on Center Court will be played by 4th seed Garbine Muguruza and qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia. The two have never played each other.

We're (maybe) number 1!

There are five WTA players who, by the end of play in Cincinnati this week, could be ranked number 1 in the world. Here's the breakdown:

World number 1 Karolina Pliskova can retain her ranking if:
  • she wins the title
  • she reaches the semifinals and Simona Halep does not win the title
  • she reaches the quarterfinals, Halep does not reach the final, or Elina Svitolina does not win the title
  • she reaches the third round, Halep does not reach the semifinals or Svitolina does not win the title
World number 2 Simona Halep can become number 1 if:
  • she wins the title
  • she reaches the final and Pliskova does not reach the semifinals
  • she reaches the semifinals, Pliskova does not reach the semifinals, and Svitolina does not win the title
 World number 4 Elina Svitolina can become number 1 if:
  • she wins the title and Pliskova does not reach the semifinal
  • she reaches the final, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
World number 3 Angelique Kerber can regain the number 1 ranking if:
  • she wins the title, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
World number 5 Caroline Wozniacki can regain the number 1 ranking if:
  • she wins the title, Pliskova loses her first match, and Halep does not reach the semifinals
And if you think that's confusing, consider it handy practice for when the Singapore round robin process rolls around.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sveta kills the pain

I had somewhat of a bad, mishap-filled morning, but even I was able to relax and laugh--and laugh--when Svetlana Kuznetsova did her all-access meeting with the media. We got on the subject of what it's like to have been on the tour for so long, how Sveta's tour life has changed, what kind of advice she would give, and has received--that sort of thing.

Kuznetsova, who serves as the unofficial source of wisdom for the tour, talked about how much it troubles her when players are criticized because they don't win a major, or they don't this or that. She spoke of the importance and uniqueness of each individual career, and made a point of explaining how much Anna Kournikova's career meant to her.

The most important thing, she said, is to have humility, and to treat every person with respect. This got my attention, and I asked her if she'd like to run our country. She demurred at first, then changed her answer to "Never say never!" and put it on her "Who knows?! future jobs to do" list, along with Fed Cup captain.

Kuznetsova said that she doesn't do long practices like she used to, but that her practice period is more intense. She likes so much to practice with top players that she and her coach are making an effort to find her other players with whom to practice.

The Russian star said that the best advice she ever got came from Martina Navratilova, who told her that, when she gets onto the court, to forget everything--no matter how bad and critical it is--and focus on the tennis. The advice she would give your younger self is "Listen more to yourself."

Kuznetsova wasn't the only player to charm us with wit. World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, when told that she was still leading the WTA in aces this year, deadpanned, "It's every year." Asked about her New Year's resolution to "bend my knees more," Pliskova said she thought she was doing "a little better--maybe five centimeters."

As a matter of fact, Pliskova is serving fewer aces these days because, she said, she has added body serves and has been hitting more of them.

Billie Jean King would have been proud of Pliskova's statement that she's learning to use the pressure to her advantage rather than be harmed by it.

Rogers Cup champion Elina Svitolina talked about the many, constant changes that players have to make because of weather, the surface, the balls---so many factors that require players to make fast adjustments. She also said that her steady progression up the rankings reflects how she was raised by her parents, who taught her to always take every task step by step.

Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, when asked about her apparent love of the big stage, said that she held that mindset from the beginning of her career: "I want to be on the center court. What do I have to do to get there?"

All of the players talked about the brutality of social media, but no one summed it up better than Jo Konta, when she described trolls, attackers and threat-makers as people "with too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to do something with it." The British star was quite entertaining, and talked about everything from her Hungarian conversations with Timea Babos to her post-Wimbledon experiences.

Simona Halep and Angie Kerber also met the press, but unfortunately, I had other obligations and was unable to attend their sessions.