Friday, May 29, 2015

Six days in, and Fighting Italians have made themselves at home in Paris




Yesterday's epic French Open performance from the great Francesca Schiavone would have given us all enough Fighting Italian spirit to last us for quite a while, but today, Flavia Pennetta--one of the comeback specialists of the WTA--efficiently took tournament contender Carla Suarez Navarro out of the competition. And while it may be true that the 8th-seeded Spaniard played far below her best level--just leave it to Pennetta to be there to clean up.

Pennetta (or "Pennahta," as a commentator called her yesterday) is already into the round of 16, while both Schiavone and 2012 runner-up Sara Errani have made it to the third round. Next up for Schiavone is Andreea Mitu, one of the great stories of the 2015 season, and next for Errani is Andrea Petkovic. As for Pennetta, she will face the formidable Garbine Muguruza, who showed the exit to 11th seed Angelique Kerber today. It was Muguruza who ended the run of another Fighting Italian, Camila Giorgi, and she had a lot of help from the anxiety-prone the Italian.




Alize Cornet won her third round match today, and the crowd was treated to a full helping of the victorious version of Alize!, the Opera. (It isn't as good as Bartoli Theatre, but it's good.) For her troubles in defeating Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, the dramatic (why is it that when Alize does it, it's hilarious, and when a certain German does it, it makes me leave the room?) Frenchwoman will face Elina Svitolina, and that will be no small task for either of them. In fact, I consider that match a must-see.




Tomorrow, we'll see another Serena Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka match, and I just have a feeling that this one will be less dramatic than the others. Sloane Stephens will face the Bulgarian Woman Of Mystery, who--having run out of other tricks--has now added "advance in the French Open" to her repertoire of oddities. Pironkova has a very, very good and very tricky serve, but it isn't always available to her. If it is tomorrow, the match should be fun.

Petra Kvitova will play Irina-Camelia Begu, who could give her headaches. Madison Keys takes on the Queen of Mexico, and Kiki Mladenovic must face Alison Van Uytvanck, and that's another match I really want to watch.

Also advancing to the round of 16 today were 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, Ekaterina Makarova (she had to defeat her doubles partner, Elena Vesnina), Lucie Safarova, and defending champion Maria Sharapova.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Don't you just love it when the first round is over?

There's that feeling of "settling in." The French Open (or whatever, but the French is my favorite) is real and in progress. And we always learn some things. For example, today, we learned that Genie Bouchard is as much of a mess as she was the last time we saw her. Bouchard, who has obviously lost muscle weight, wasn't moving at all like she did last year, and she made careless errors that appeared to be coming from a much less experienced player. I'm calling this as "beyond slump."

We learned, also, that Bouchard's opponent, Kiki Mladenovic, is still battling the demon of nerves. Mladenovic, who led 5-0 in the second set, had to serve for the match three times before she won it. That's okay, perhaps, against an opponent who isn't doing much right, but against someone who is prepared, one missed chance could be the end for the Frenchwoman.

We learned other sad things: Jelena Jankovic lost her first round in straight sets. Aga Radwanska continues to fall into a shocking downward spiral. And Caroline Garcia needs to enroll quickly (with countrywoman Mladenovic) in an anti-anxiety program.

We also discovered that defending champion Maria Sharapova is sick. And while her respiratory problem may be "just a cold," (or not) there's no such thing as "just a cold." A cold can be debilitating.

Petra Kvitova made it clear in her press conference that she wasn't exactly brimming with confidence about this French Open. When another player says that, it may be a case of hustling the press (which is so easy to do, it isn't sporting), but when Kvitova says it, you know she means it. Not good.

This is also a good time to take a look at potentially dangerous clay court floaters who won't be floating--Venus Williams, Kiki Bertens, Anna Schmiedlova, Mona Barthel, Roberta Vinci, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. They're all out, as of round 1.

Finally, we know what kind of entertainment round 2 could bring. The completely enigmatic Julia Goerges will get a chance to mess with Caroline Wozniacki (or not), rising stars Belenda Bencic and Madison Keys will meet, rising stars (giving the benefit of the doubt to the Italian) Garbine Muguruza and Camila Giorgi will also meet (my don't-miss match), and Daria Gavrilova will get a crack at Sabine Lisicki.

And on a sentimental note--even though we all probably know the outcome--those grand veteran warriors, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, will play each other for a spot in the third round. Kuznetsova and Schiavone played the longest women's match in the Open Era in the round of 16 the 2011 Australian Open, and it was also one of the greatest matches I can recall seeing--ever.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Top seeds all face vulnerabilities in French Open draw

Mannequins in front of a Paris boutique
There's something about the publication a fresh draw that excites tennis fans almost as much as actually watching the matches. The four quarters of the French Open draw lead to all manner of speculation, but I think the speculating is perhaps more of a fan passion than it is anything else. And a great one indeed, because it gives us something to do while we wait for the tournament to begin.

Top seed and two-time Champion Serena Williams presides over the first quarter. Her likely third round opponent will be Victoria Azarenka, a fact which is stirring up some conversation, but I don't really see Azarenka giving Williams much trouble in this tournament. There are two players in this quarter--one in particular--who have histories of really challenging Williams. Those would be her sister, Venus, and Jelena Jankovic. But neither of them poses much of a threat at this time, either. Sloane Stephens is part of that quarter, and I don't see her doing much damage. Only Caroline Wozniacki could give Williams a bit of a run, and they are "scheduled" to meet in the quarterfinals.

I read somewhere today that Petra Kvitova has an "easy" draw. I think not. The Kvitova quarter includes Irina-Camelia Begu, Timea Bacsinszky (okay, she's no longer "hot" but anything can happen, and especially with Bacsinszky), Karolina Pliskova, and 2009 chamption Svetlama Kuznetsova. Also lurking are Lara Arruabarrena, Belinda Bencic (also in a slump, but she kind of likes majors), Anna Schmiedlova, and Kiki Mladenovic. In other words, players who do well on clay are congregated in Kvitova's quarter. Genie Bouchard is there, too, and you never know, but the Canadian would have to get past some gutsy clay players first.

Next is Simona Halep's quarter, which isn't without danger to the Romanian star (whose greatest danger may actually be her own psyche). Caroline Garcia loves the big stage, and she's French, on top of that. When she's on, she's dangerous. Frenchwoman Alize Cornet can be dangerous, also, and then there are Elina Svitolina and the mercurial Mona Barthel. And--while she hasn't had a lot of great days this year--Roberta Vinci could have some in Paris.

Finally, there is the Sharapova quarter. The defending champion could meet 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur in the third round. If that happens, and Strasbourg champion Stosur has a good serving day and Sharapova has a bad one, it could be the end of the Russian's run. Both of those scenarios are quite possible. But Stosur isn't the only potential trouble-maker in that quarter. Carla Suarez Navarro, who must be practically itching with desire to beat Sharapova, is there, as are the unpredictable (but often threatening) Camila Giorgi, Charleston and Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber and Lucie Safarova. Kerber is coming in with an injury, but she is not to be taken lightly. Oh, and add to this list the tour's latest ubiquitous pest, Daria Gavrilova, and  you can see that Pova has her work cut out for her.

French Open champion predictions

Here is a list of who has picked whom, so far. I will add to it as more predictions come in.

Maria Sharapova
Cliff Drysdale
Mary Joe Fernandez
Todd Spiker
Kamakshi Tandon

Simona Halep
Darren Cahill
Brad Gilbert
Pete Bodo
Pam Shriver
Matt Wilansky

Serena Williams
Tracy Austin
Greg Garber
Chris Evert
Steve Tignor

Petra Kvitova
Jon Wertheim
Steve Weissman

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sharapova wins Rome, but is she the Queen of Clay?



Maria Sharapova won the Italian Open for the third time today, making her one of a small group of women who have won big titles since the "official" clay season began last month. Angelique Kerber tops the list with victories in both Charleston and Stuttgart, and Petra Kvitova won the title in Madrid.



In today's final in Rome, Sharapova defeated Carla Suarez Navarro 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. The Spaniard player had an outstanding run, taking out both 4th seed Kvitova and 2nd seed Simona Halep. Always a talent on clay, it's only in the last year or so that Suarez Navarro has been able to calm her nerves in big matches. But today, she couldn't take Sharapova down in straight sets, and we all know what result that scenario usually brings.

3rd seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic won the doubles title, defeating top seeds Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza 6-4, 6-3 in the final. Doubles has become quite a curiosity lately, with Errani and Vinci out of the picture, and several teams playing extremely well.

And now we are only a week away from my favorite major, the French Open. As I see it, there are several major contenders, yet each of them is vulnerable:

Maria Sharapova: She's the defending champion, and also won in Paris in 2012. Sharapova's transformation to clay court expert is no longer news; she is a real force at Roland Garros. Her victory in Rome puts her back into the number 2 ranking spot, which means she'll be on the opposite side of the draw from Serena Williams, which allows for more time for Williams to be knocked off before the final takes place. Sharapova, with her unpredictable serve, can play some sloppy tennis, but she can also take hold of a match and claim it, as she did today in Rome.

Simona Halep: If the 2014 runner-up plays in Paris like she did last year, her chances of winning the whole thing are very big. In her 2014 run, Halep looked scary, she was so good. She took Sharapova to three sets in the final, which was one of the best finals in recent memory. Right now, though--despite having won three titles this year (including Dubai and Indian Wells)--Si-mo-na looks sen-si-tive. She lost to Caroline Wozniacki in Madrid, and to Suarez Navarro in Rome. She's been making a lot of unforced errors and faux-smashing a lot of rackets. Something is wrong, and one (very likely) possibility is that the nerves have reappeared now that Halep is a favorite to win at Roland Garros.

Serena Williams: It generally doesn't matter whether Williams is injured, recovering from injury or not playing at her highest level; she can still be counted on to rise to the occasion if the occasion is a really big one. She did it at the French Open in 2013. However, of all the majors, the French Open is the one at which the world number 1 is least likely to be able to just put on her Believe shoes and win. She's vulnerable there, and can't be considered a sure thing.

Petra Kvitova: Yes, P3tra and all that. But the Barking Czech can win; she has the skills. I never count her out.

Carla Suarez Navarro: She's finally coming into her own, and her clay game is classic and beautiful. Why not?

Angelique Kerber: Anyone who wins both Charleston and Stuttgart gets on this list. Also, the way Kerber won Charleston--fighting like mad all the way through--gets her some extra notice.

There will also be many players at Roland Garros who will be happy to ruin it all for one of the contenders. Players like Andrea Petkovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur, Alize Cornet, Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, 2012 runner-up Sara Errani, Caroline Garcia, and of course, the Queen of Mexico, aka Timea Bacsinszky. Danger also lurks among the likes of 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Victoria Azarenka, Madison Keys, Irina-Camelia Begu, Kiki Mladenovic, and--on the right day--Camila Giorgi. Throw in Mona Barthel, Jelena Jankovic and Elina Svitolina, and there's a trap everywhere a top contender turns (and I haven't even named all of them).

Of course, experience helps a lot, but clay--the great neutralizer--allows classic clay court players a chance to out-maneuver "bigger" players. Clay court play can be a real grind, too, with longer rallies and more breaks of serve, so fitness is key. Sharapova and Williams each hold eleven clay court titles, but they have some worthy opponents. Who will be the last woman standing in the red dust?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Kvitova wins second Madrid title



Petra Kvitova may have struggled a bit here and there this week, but she also had "the look"--the one she gets when she's mostly relaxed on court and can put herself into "Scary Petra" mode at will. It was almost a given that her opponent in today's final, Svetlana Kuznetsova, would be down to her very last reserves. The 2009 French Open champion played two epic matches against very tough opponents (Stosur and Safarova) and she played them consecutively, in the quarterfinals and semifinals. It was a wonder, in fact, that Kuznetsova was able to go three hours against Safarova after what Stosur had put her through.

Today, Kuznetsova felt ill during the match, and that was certainly no surprise. She also had to deal with a very in-form Kvitova, who hit 33 winners in 66 minutes, beating Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-2. This, of course, after she defeated defending champion Serena Williams in the semifinals.

The Madrid title, Kvitova's second, gives her a total of 16 singles titles, and she's now 16-5 in tour finals.

Most people don't believe that Kvitova is, or ever was, a contender to win the French Open, so great is her love of grass and indoor courts. I've always thought that she was a contender for all of the majors, though the French would be more difficult for her, and her asthma gives her problems in Flushing Meadows. Mostly, I think, it's about the head--everything else is nicely in place.

Casey Dellacqua and Yaroslava Shvedova won the doubles title, defeating 3rd seeds Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro 6-3, 6-7, 10-5 in the final. Dellacqua and Shvedova defeated Stuttgart champions Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova in the semifinals; Muguruza and Suarez Navarro defeated Kiki Mladenovic and Karolina Pliskova.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A note to readers

I am participating in the Mindfulness in May project in order to provide clean water to people in developing countries. A donation to sponsor me will provide clean water to one person for life. All of us who are seeking sponsors will be participating in a mindfulness meditation experience for the duration of the fund-raising period, i.e., the month of May.

To donate, please click on the water icon on the top right of this blog page, or click on the above link. All donations are very much appreciated.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mental health problems--when you can't call for the trainer

A few years ago, a member of the WTA told a journalist that if all of the tour's eating disorders were cured, the top 20 would change dramatically. Some players' eating disorders have been easy to discern--those players have suddenly become frighteningly thin, and then just as quickly, they have become obviously overweight, then very thin again. Others may have eating disorders that are not as obvious to onlookers.

Anxiety runs high among players in terms of performance, and that is to be expected in sport. Players who choke a lot are suffering with a form of anxiety, and this fear of performance outcome is more likely to be manifest in left-handed players, since left-handed people are more prone to being fearful than right-handed people. (Take a look at your favorite "head cases" and you'll see a pattern.)

None of this is talked about, of course, except for the occasional acknowledgment by a player that she is seeing a sports psychologist or "mental coach." Such professionals help players overcome the mental blocks that keep them from performing at their highest level. One player who has talked freely about receiving such help is Francesca Schiavone. The Italian star was in a number of finals that she didn't win, but after adjusting her mental approach, she went on to win tournaments, including the French Open.

Depression is another story, and one that is rarely discussed. Victoria Azarenka was open about the depression she felt when she couldn't play for a long time because of injury. Marion Bartoli went through something similar, as have many injured players. This is situational depression, and it is generally extinguished when a player is able to return to the sport. In fact, players often return with a renewed commitment to performing at their best level.

Sometimes situational depression among athletes can get very serious, as with skier Picabo Street, but it can generally be overcome. You don't have to be a professional athlete, in fact, to understand how hopeless it can feel to suffer an injury and go through physical pain.

But what about more serious depression that isn't related to injury? We rarely hear this subject discussed in sport, yet common sense informs us that just as many athletes experience clinical depression (and there are several kinds of clinical depression) as individuals in the general population. We know about Jennifer Capriati's experience with depression, and not that long ago, the tour lost Rebecca Marino to depression.

As all fans know, a number of top WTA players have had abusive parents. The only ones we hear about are the famous ones, but there are more. There is no way that the daughter of an abusive parent  (make that "parents" because the other one is allowing the abuse to occur) cannot suffer emotionally. Abuse (of all kinds) by parents is the main reason people do suffer emotionally. And while these elite players have shown great strength in "overcoming" the abuse, all that we as fans see is their performance on the court.

An athlete who has been very candid about her depression is golfer Christina Kim, who--I can't help but think--has helped others by her candor. But surely she isn't the only member of the LPGA who has had to cope with clinical depression, just as Marino can't possibly be the only member of the WTA who has had to cope with it.
 
In the non-sports celebrity world, there is often a lot of talk about mental health issues, probably because celebrities feel their every move is exposed to the public, anyway. But the professional sports world is more closed, and the socially defined role of "athlete" is considered "stronger" than the role of "actor" or "musician." Quite possibly, there is perceived to be more shame among athletes if they acknowledge mental health issues. A few years ago, you'll recall, an ATP player became enraged when he heard that people thought he might have suffered from depression.

Professional tennis players are given nutritional advice, massage and physical training on a regular basis, but I can't help but wonder who is looking out for their mental health.

Kerber continues clay court tear and wins Stuttgart



When Angie Kerber won Charleston the week before last, she was just warming up. Today, in front of her home crowd, the German star won Stuttgart and had a white Porsche added to her trophy and flower bouquet.

A final played between Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki was bound to have long rallies and excitement, and this one did. Wozniacki, who has played some excellent clay court tennis this week, took the first set easily, as Kerber appeared somewhat heavy-legged and unable to make the ball penetrate into the corners as she had earlier in the tournament. She looked tired, and her opponent (who never looks tired) was very much in control, winning the opening set 6-3.

That changed in the second set, when Kerber suddenly seemed to wake up from a stupor and hit the ball faster and harder. With a little confidence carrying her, she also began to add some variety to her game and to make Wozniacki run vertically as well as horizontally. Kerber took that set 6-1.

This match had "tight third set" written all over it, and that, too, turned out to be reality. Wozniacki went up an early break and eventually, led 5-3, when Kerber threw everything she had at the Dane and broke her. It was a true turning point, as Kerber went on to hold and then to break Wozniacki again. It took her four match points, but the KareBear prevailed with 7-5 in the third.



The trophy ceremony, always a good one in Stuttgart, was especially emotional since a German player won the tournament (someone needs to tell the emcee, however, that Stuttgart is not the first clay tournament of the season). Kerber gave her new Porsche a spin, after telling the crowd that her victory wouldn't have been possible without them.

This is Kerber's fifth WTA title and her eleventh consecutive match win. She is now 6-4 against Wozniacki, and 2-0 against her on clay.

The doubles title went to 3rd seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, who defeated 2nd seeds Caroline Garcia and Katarina Srebotnik 6-4, 6-3. This is the second title the pair has won; they also won the 2015 Australian Open.