Saturday, October 10, 2015

Limping toward Singapore

Sometimes I wonder why we have the WTA Finals at all. By this time, players are exhausted and injured, yet they must trudge on to the last big event of the year. Maybe I'm just too influenced by the moment, but 2015 seems worse than usual to me.

Four players have qualified in singles: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova, and Garbina Muguruza. Now subtract Williams because she has withdrawn from the event and ended her season.

Halep will be the top seed in Singapore; however, she's dealing with a foot injury and it's not certain that she'll be able to compete. And even if she's healthy, there's some doubt as to her ability to win the event. The Romanian star apparently didn't get the memo about pressure being a privilege, and she tends to perform stunningly well until she gets to the final segment of a big tournament. On the other hand, Singapore could serve as a turnaround for Halep's career. (I know--she's number 2 in the world! But her career still needs a turnaround--she's that good).

Sharapova has just returned to the court to practice after taking a few months off because of injuries; it's also fair to say that she won't be at her best in Singapore.

Muguruza, who has been out-shone by fellow star-in-the-making Belinda Bencic for much of this season, has suddenly gotten out of her slump--undoubtedly with the help of Sam Sumyk--and is about to play in her second final of the last two weeks. She lost the Wuhan final to Venus Williams, and will face Timea Bacsinszky (also in the middle of a mini-comeback) in the Beijing final.

The Spaniard, who has just entered the top 5, is kind of the wild card of wild cards, everywhere she goes. She could win Beijing, she could win the WTA Finals, she could not win either of them. My instinct, however, is that the round-robin format will agree with Muguruza. And with the two top seeds returning from injury recovery (if they are there at all), Mugurza is in a position to do extremely well.

As of now, the remaining players in the top 8 on the Road To Singapore are Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, and U.S. Open champion Flavia Pennetta. Kvitova won the event in 2011, when it was played in Istanbul. The Barking Czech lost only two sets in that tournament, and beat Victoria Azarenka in the final. Having won a big event in the past is always an advantage, but who knows which Petra will show up, and for how long?

Kvitova's friend and countrywoman, Safarova, was recently hospitalized for a bacterial infection. Assuming she has fully recovered and gets some practice in, Safarova could be threat in Singapore. But an infection that's serious enough to put someone in the hospital can be debilitating.

Kerber is having the season of her career, and though she sometimes loses when we think she "should" win, she's shown that she can collect trophies on all surfaces. Pliskova was in four big finals this year and lost all of them. Playing in Singapore, in a round robin format, might help her with confidence issues. As for Pennetta--assuming she even plays in the WTA Finals if she qualifies--she's the ultimate "nothing to lose" competitor. The Italian star is retiring at the end of the season, which could make her not as focused as needed in Singapore, or deadly. She'll be on a hard court, her favorite.

Next in line right now are Carla Suarez Navarro, Venus Williams and Aga Radwanska. Any of them could make it to Singapore, and of course, there are always alternates.

In the doubles race, six teams have qualified so far. The team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova (those two are ranked number 2 and 3 in the world) has not competed lately because of Safarova's illness. A face-off between them and the team of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza would be tasty, but that may not happen.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The return of The Ninja, and other tales of the WTA

She's back. After slumping (or at least, her version of it) for most of the season, Aga Radwanska is now in possession of a second beautiful Tokyo trophy. The new title is Radwanska's first of 2015, and she won it by defeating CoCo Vandeweghe, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, and Belinda Bencic--an impressive run by any standard. The Polish star's defeat of Bencic in the final was especially impressive. Bencic was red-hot at this event, and while the 6-2, 6-2 scoreline doesn't begin to do justice to the young Swiss star's performance in the final, it does tell the story of The Ninja At Her Best.

Radwanska, whose skills and artistry practically defy description, is capable of being more aggressive than she sometimes is. But for the Tokyo final, she brought out the full package, and there was little Bencic could do to stop her.

Radwanska likes this Asian swing. In 2011, she won Tokyo and Beijing back to back.

World number 1 Serena Williams turned 34 yesterday. And today marks the 24th birthday of world number 2 Simona Halep.

The Road To Singapore is paved with uncertainty. Only three players--Williams, Halep and Maria Sharapova--have qualified for the WTA Finals. Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Flavia Pennetta, Angelique Kerber, and Carla Suarez Navarro are currently in the top 8 of the race, followed by Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Radwanska, and Bencic.

Earlier in the season, it looked as though Muguruza were "it"--the young player who was most likely to make a giant move soon. Now, most observers would probably pick Bencic. Anything could still happen, and "anything" could also be Karolina Pliskova--or Sloane Stephens, or Genie Bouchard, for that matter.

Meanwhile, Halep has played her way to the number 2 spot in the world, but has yet to win a major. Both Halep and Radwanska play beautifully artistic and athletic tennis, and neither--in my opinion--has met her full potential.

Sharapova, who has been out with a leg injury, returns this week as an entrant in Wuhan. The defending champion is Petra Kvitova, who won the event last year just as her dear friend Li Na was retiring. To astute observers, in fact, it appeared that Kvitova won Wuhan "for" Li, who did not enter the tournament. The Czech star received the trophy after she defeated Genie Bouchard in straight sets in the final. This occurred, of course, a couple of months after Bouchard lost to Kvitova in the Wimbledon final.

Bouchard, by the way, is scheduled to play Bencic later today in the Wuhan first round. Never a dull moment.

Monday, September 14, 2015

My U.S. Open top 10

Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 U.S. Open happenings:

10. Whiley joins exclusive club: Jordanne Whiley became a member of the women's wheelchair tennis elite, winning the U.S. Open women's wheelchair singles title. Whiley, who is from Great Britain, defeated three-time major winner Yui Kamiji with a lopsided score of 6-4, 0-6, 6-1.

9. Oh, Petra: Petra Kvitova, seeded 5th, pretty much romped through the draw, mowing down opponents and displaying her sly sense of humor. But the New York humidity, when it was at its worst, had its usual effect on her, rendering her helpless in her quarterfinal match against Flavia Pennetta. It didn't help that she was recovering from mononucleosis. The good news is that she finally made it to the quarterfinals. But The Rock is still no match for the steamy air in Flushing Meadows, or for the fragility of her own immune system.

8. Mother Nature def. U.S. Open: It rained, sometimes a lot, and it rained at some of the most crucial times in the tournament. It's possible that the rain had an effect on the outcome of both the women's semifinals and the men's final. And while environmental conditions are part of the sport, that doesn't mean that some control can't sometimes be exercised, especially for the sake of the fans. It will be, beginning next year, when Arthur Ashe Stadium gets a roof.

7. Angie & Vika's Excellent Adventure: Two outstanding hard court players put on one of the greatest shows--perhaps the greatest show--of the tournament in the third round. Victoria Azarenka defeated Angelique Kerber 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, and you just didn't want it to end. Both women possess so much fight, and the tension was unrelenting. A commentator remarked afterwards that almost every thrilling match she's seen lately featured Kerber, which is a spot-on observation. However, the still-coming-back Azarenka would "pull a Kerber" at this U.S. Open, going on to play another high-quality match against 2nd seed Simona Halep. That would be the end of Azarenka's run, but it was a promising run indeed.

6. She's a rocker, she takes after me: It isn't often that an all-female sports contest becomes one of the most talked-about topics of the week, but the promotion surrounding the quarterfinal match between Venus and Serena Williams was just that. Everywhere I went, in my relatively small community, someone mentioned the upcoming match, even if that someone knew nothing about tennis. The match was excellent, and showed us, once again, that Venus Williams is still a force with which to be reckoned. The older Williams would lose, putting an end to the 24/7 dialogue about what it would feel like to deny one's sister the Grand Slam (an Italian took on that task).

5. The Not (Quite) Ready for Prime Time Player: Simona Halep talks a lot about being relaxed and not letting the pressure get to her, but it's obvious that it does. The number 2 seed didn't breeze through the draw the way Kvitova did, but she put her mighty talent on display through five rounds, and was, of course, expected to be the finalist from her half of the draw. But when she played Flavia Pennetta in the semifinals, she was all but blown off of the court. The Italian sensed vulnerability early on, played a very clean (23/16) match, and beat Halep 6-1, 6-3. The Romanian star was flat throughout the contest, and Pennetta wasn't about to let her in. The problem is that we've seen this before from Halep; as the stakes become greater, Halep loses her way.

4. Forget SABR: What we really got last week was Sneak Attack By Italy. Conveniently shaped like a boot, Italy will kick your ass. They've done it in Fed Cup, and they've done it in countless tournaments where they were supposed to be the "challengers." Now they've done it in a way that will go down in tennis history, taking out the first and second seeds--in the semifinals, no less--and assuring that an Italian woman would win the U.S. Open for the first time in history.

3. The Grand Slam that almost was: Serena Williams was only two matches away from winning the Grand Slam, one of the very few accomplishments missing from her amazing resume (and missing from almost every great player's resume). But if anyone could pull it off, Serena could, and that would also be a 33-year-old Serena. The common wisdom, based on history, is that if no one can pull off an upset against Williams in the first week of a major, forget it. At the business end, she goes into full flow and dominates, often hitting her signature ace on match point.

What Williams hadn't counted on was that Sneak Attack By Italy. Roberta Vinci, unseeded for the first time since 2010, sneaked through the draw, got a walkover in the round of 16, then defeated the on-fire Kiki Mladenovic in the quarterfinals. Suddenly, she was facing the world number 1 at a historic moment in Williams' career. And what did she go and do? She defeated Williams in three sets, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. I saw it, but I couldn't quite believe it. When Vinci served for the match at 5-4, I just assumed she would be broken and go home with nice memories. Even when she reached 40-0, I thought there was a good chance we would soon see 5-5 on the scoreboard.

But Vinci, who played Williams fearlessly throughout the match, had no intention of being broken. And as if to say "How do you like me now?," she threw in a sweet half-volley for match point. Cheeky. And so Italian. It was done. The great Serena Williams, whom we all assumed would win her 22nd major and thrill in the rare, unearthly light of Grand Slam glory, was defeated. It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of women's tennis (certainly the biggest one since Marion Bartoli beat Justine Henin in the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals), and it stunned fans across the world.

2. Her mother named her "Martina": And not for nothing. Creating a brand new career in doubles only, just like her namesake, Martina Hingis swept the U.S. Open doubles competition, winning the women's title with partner Sania Mirza, and the mixed title with partner Leander Paes. And she did the same thing at Wimbledon several weeks ago. The partnership of Hingis and the Forehand of Fire is one of the great combinations to come about in recent women's doubles history, and this latest victory gives Mirza two major titles in women's doubles.

The U.S. Open title is Hingis's fifth major doubles title of 2015: She and Paes also won the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Martina Hingis has now won a total of 20 major titles--five singles, eleven women's doubles and four mixed doubles.

1. Forza!: Unlike most others, I have long thought that Flavia Pennetta had it in her to win the U.S. Open. She excels on hard courts, loves to play in New York, and has nicely exorcised most of her player demons. After taking out both Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, the Queen of Fed Cup was expected to play Serena Williams in the final, and--while Pennetta has performed well against Williams in New York in the past--she had little chance to do anything but take pleasure in holding the runner-up trophy.

But then countrywoman, Fed Cup teammate and close friend Roberta Vinci threw the entire draw into turmoil, and in the end, there were only two Italians standing, and each of them had spent considerable time as the number 1 doubles player in the world. It was the first time two Italian women had faced each other in a major final, and the first time that two women over 30 had played in a major final in the Open Era. Pennetta was visibly nervous and overly cautious in the first set, while Vinci--even after enduring an extremely emotional 24 hours--was on her game. That set went to a tiebreak, and it was then that Pennetta turned on the aggression. She won the tiebreak and then stayed in aggressive gear for most of the second set, showing off her precision-point groundstrokes, and defeating Vinci 7-6, 6-2.

Pennetta is the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open, and she is the player who has performed at the most majors (49) before finally winning one. The popular Italian also took fans and the media by surprise when she retired from the sport during the trophy ceremony. Pennetta will play in at least two more tournaments this year, and then she will leave the world of professional tennis. (I'll have a lot more to say about that at another time.)

The tennis world was expecting history to be made at this U.S. Open, and it was. It just wasn't the history people assumed would be written. Two Fighting Italians stole the show with their friendship, and with their beautiful volleying, lobbing and stylish, clever games, And one of them--the Fighting Italian--wound up holding the trophy. The outpouring of warm and loving messages from her peers-- which Pennetta said surprised her--is a testament to the on- and off-court delight that is Flavia Pennetta.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Brava, Flavia!--U.S. Open champion

Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.
Sophia Loren

For several years, Flavia Pennetta has been known on this blog as the Queen of Fed Cup and as one of a core group of Fighting Italians, which also includes 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, and newest member Camila Giorgi. One of the toughest competitors on the tour, the Italian star may be known for her amazing Fed Cup performances, but her story is much greater than that. And as of today, her story includes a chapter about how she won the U.S. Open.

And while shock seemed to be one of the dominant reactions of the week, it wasn't mine. For the last few years, I've thought that Pennetta could win the U.S. Open, and were it not for the presence of Serena Wiliams (whom Pennetta has competed well against, but not well enough), I would have thought the Italian player's chances to win were even greater.

And this is where the story gets "only in pro tennis" interesting. Pennetta, the 26th seed, would have faced world number 1 Williams today, but that matter was taken care of by her close friend of 20 years, Roberta Vinci, who upset the presumed U.S. Open champion in the semifinals. That set up a final between two Italians--the first ever in a major. It also set up a match between two players who are over 30, a first in the Open Era. To make the occasion even more dramatic, it should be noted that both players have held the ranking of number 1 in the world in doubles. And, as mentioned, they are longtime friends and even former roommates.

People were expecting drama: Serena Williams, had she won the title, would have also achieved the Grand Slam. That was not to be, but the Italian drama was about as good as it gets.

Before the match began, commentators were discussing whether Vinci could come up with any game after garnering instant fame yesterday in her upset of Williams. Rain caused the Thursday night semifinals to be postponed until Friday, so Vinci didn't have much time to "come down" after her huge win. But it was she who came out with an aggressive game, while Pennetta played safe shots and took few chances.

In the fifth game of the first set, with the players tied at 2-all, Pennetta had break opportunities. She needed seven of them to get the job done, but getting the job done did more than get her a break--it loosened her up. She finally hit her signature backhand down the line, followed by an ace, followed by a successful drop shot. It was a strong hold of serve.

Vinci, using her backhand slice and rushing the net, also held, then broke back when Pennetta double-faulted on break point. Pennetta, at this point, returned to a position of passivity, and also began making more errors. But both players continued to hold, forcing a tiebreak.

It was then that the match turned around. Pennetta got a minibreak, lost it, then got it back. At this point, she was playing it so cautiously, she seemed to just be waiting and hoping for Vinci to make errors. But then she lifted her game just a little, hit the ball a little harder, and won the tiebreak 7-4.

It wasn't quite all Flavia after that, but it was close enough. A different player in the second set, Pennetta became more aggressive and paid more attention to ball placement. She went up 4-0 before Vinci could even get on the scoreboard. But then she was broken. Vinci held, and it looked for a moment that the second set could also be a real contest, but Pennetta would have none of it. When Vinci served at 2-5, 0-40, her life-long friend took the tournament on her first match point.

For fans like I am, who want to see tactical, graceful, geometric, artistic tennis, the match was a total treat. Between them, Pennetta and Vinci can do it all. We got slices, wonderful lobs, angled drop shots, volleys and half-volleys, and also some very good serving. The Italians, as they always do, put on a great show.

I always wanted to be different. I always wanted to be first.
Miucccia Prada

In winning the 2015 U.S. Open, the 33-year-old Pennetta became the oldest woman to win a first major, and also the player who performed at the most majors (49) before finally winning one. She is also the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open. Pennetta, who--with Gisela Dulko--won the 2011 Australian Open doubles title--said that her victory today was "a dream come true."

We all retire one day. If we want to, if we don't want to.
Donatella Versace

After making her speech today, as the microphone was being taken from her, the new U.S. Open champion asked to have it back so she could say one more thing. Pennetta then announced her retirement from professional tennis. She'll play a few more tournaments this year, and then she'll be done. Those close to her were expecting her retirement, but it was a bit of a shock to some people that Pennetta announced it right after accepting her trophy.

To me, it seemed just right. She knows she's leaving the sport (a huge loss for us, and I'll have plenty to say about that at another time), and she decided to go out in style. That's what Fighting Italians do. And they leave you in tears, and smiling, and shaking your head, and yelling "Grazie, grazie!"

Friday, September 11, 2015

Never, EVER underestimate a Fighting Italian

For several years now, a tiny corner of my mind has sheltered a belief that Flavia Pennetta could win the U.S. Open. Not a destiny thing, like I thought about Marion Bartoli and Wimbledon, but more of a glimpse at possibility. She now has an opportunity to do just that, only first, she'll have to get past....Roberta Vinci?!

It was a day of total carnage at the U.S. Open. Scheduled to be played last night, the  women's semifinals had to be moved to today because of the rain. When the matches were rescheduled, their order was reversed, and--as I discussed with a friend today--that rearrangement might have made a difference in today's outcome.

Flavia Pennetta, the Queen of Fed Cup (now sharing her reign with co-queen Petra Kvitova, whom Pennetta conveniently removed from the U.S. Open quarterfinals), came to New York with a 3-1 record against Halep, and quickly became the number 2 seed's worst nightmare when they faced off today in Arthur Ashe Stadium. This is nothing new: the 33-year-old Italian is comfortable in the role of "worst nightmare."

Halep couldn't handle the pressure (how many times have I written that in the last several months?) as she competed against a player who just about never beats herself. It took Pennetta, the 26th seed at the Open, just under an hour to crush Halep 6-1, 6-3. It was a confident and efficient performance that resulted in 23 winners and only 16 unforced errors. No one moves as well as Halep, but Pennetta repeatedly flummoxed the Romanian by blasting forehands and then cleaning up at the net. It didn't help that Halep's demons were practically dancing on the tramlines while she played.

That was an upset, of course, though not a stunning one, since Pennetta came in with such a good record against Halep and the Italian plays her best tennis at the U.S. Open. The upset was yet to come.

Returning to my second paragraph--the matches were reset in reverse order, so Pennetta's countrywoman, Roberta Vinci, came onto the court in Ashe Stadium after Pennetta had beaten Halep. The Italians, like the Czechs, give life to one another on these big occasions. The unseeded Vinci was undoubtedly inspired by what Pennetta had just done. She played world number 1 Serena Williams without fear, and with a good deal of guile. And while Vinci's performance will be noted for the considerable doubles skills the Italian put to use, what was remarkable was how well Vinci was able to return Williams' serve. Vinci kept herself in the point, and was then able to create problems for Williams to solve. Many of those problems involved the 32-year-old Italian's superb backhand slice.

Williams has looked vulnerable throughout the tournament, but that isn't unusual. She's the kind of champion who works her way into a major, and the common wisdom is, if you don't take her out in the first week, she's unbeatable. This time around, Bethanie Mattek-Sands took a set off a her, as did her sister, Venus, in the quarterfinals. But none of that foretold what would happen today.

Williams needed to win the U.S. Open in order to achieve the Grand Slam (and hey, commentators and writers, it's not the "Calendar Year Grand Slam"). She had already locked in her second "Serena Slam," winning four majors in a row, and was on the verge of doing what no WTA player had done since Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988. But a Fighting Italian stood in her way.

This match will be deconstructed until kingdom come, but the simple answer is this: Williams was tight, with so much on the line, and Vinci, following the "nothing to lose" formula--and inspired by her countrywoman's very recent upset over the world number 2--simply "played her game"--and a little extra. Sport is cruel, and while no one (including me) expected this to happen, it did.

For those of us who have been following Williams for years, Vinci's serving for the match at 5-4 (after failing to break Williams) appeared to mean relatively little. How many times have we seen someone serve for the match against Serena, only to have Serena break her, and then go on to win the match with a win and a break and another win? Countless. Even when Vinci reached 40-0 on her serve, I thought Serena would turn things around. But she didn't. Vinci was committed to winning at this point, and her final half-volley was a testament to how much she believed in her own game.

Both Pennetta and Vinci have been ranked number 1 in doubles--Pennetta with Gisela Dulko, and Vinci with Sara Errani (who was Pennetta's doubles partner in the U.S. Open). Both have won majors in doubles. Both have been instrumental in leading Italy to its four Fed Cup championships. Pennetta leads Vinci 5-4, and they are 1-1 in hard court matches. This is the first time that either of them has reached a major final. This occasion marks the first time that two Italians have competed in the U.S. Open final. It is also the first time in the Open Era that two players over 30 have competed in the final. Despite all the dashed expectations about this tournament, it turns out that this final is also a historic occasion.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

Flavia Pennetta
round 1--def. Jarmila Gajdosova
round 2--def. Monica Niculescu
round 3---def. Petra Cetkovska
round of 16--def. Sam Stosur (22)
quarterfinals--def. Petra Kvitova (5)
semifinals--def. Simona Halep (2)

Roberta Vinci
round 1--def. Vania King
round 2--def. Denisa Allertova
round 3--def. Mariana Duque-Marino
round of 16--def. Genie Bouchard (25) (walkover)
quarterfinals--def. Kristina Mladenovic
semifinals--def. Serena Williams (1)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Halep hangs with the elders

Simona Halep, a mere 23 years old, was the last woman to fight her way into the U.S. Open semifinals today. The other three are top seed Serena Williams, and Italians Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta, who are 33, 32 and 33, respectively. The win didn't come easily for Halep, who--arguably--had some help from Mother Nature.

The Romanian star's opponent was the always-formidable Victoria Azarenka, who has attacked this U.S. Open in a way that has made me think of Australian Open Vika. Halep played close to flawless tennis and won the first set 6-3, but then wavered a bit as she faced the elevated game of Azarenka. By the middle of the second set, both Halep and Azarenka--who make no attempt to hide any of their on-court emotions--were in and out of various frenzies. I was kind of hoping the deejay would cue up "Poker Face."

Halep is an obvious perfectionist who becomes impatient with herself over the slightest perceived flaw. Vika is--well, Vika. These two match each other in intensity, and they matched each other in groundstrokes in today's match. Azarenka took the second set 6-4, and went up a break in the third. It looked, for a moment, like the former U.S. Open runner-up was going to take control of the set, but Halep broke back. Serving at 2-1 with game point, Halep got what may have been just the break she needed: It began to rain.

When the players came back, the Simona Show commenced. And Halep's Romanian fans, who could barely be heard in the previous set (and were not heard at all, and apparently not in attendance, in her previous matches), penetrated the stadium with their trademark cheer, "Si-Mo-Na! Si-Mo-Na! Halep got her serve back on track and cleaned up the errors. She would win the set 6-4, and would wind up with an impressive 40 winners and 19 unforced errors.

After the match, Azarenka remarked that she was a bit surprised by how hard her opponent was hittng the ball. Flavia Pennetta, who will be Halep's next opponent, maintained that Halep hits the ball harder than Azarenka. Of course, the Romanian's greatest asset is her movement, both speed and footwork, but she has made an obvious effort to put more power into her groundstrokes.

Pennetta reached the semifinals by defeating 5th seed Petra Kvitova. Kvitova has looked really good throughout the tournament, but today was an especially hot and very humid day, and the sun was so bright on one end of the court, it was causing all kinds of problems, and not just with serving. Kvitova won the first set, Pennetta won the second, and by the middle of the third, it appeared that the Barking Czech was doing the best she could to just stay on the court.

Kvitova suffers with asthma, which is triggered by humidity (she has also suffered with chronic respiratory infections), and she is currently recovering from mononucleosis. Playing at the U.S. Open has never been her strong suit, largely because of the humidity issue. If you are feeling ill and exhausted and vulnerable, one of the last things you need to see when you look up is a Fighting Italian, and Pennetta is the original Fighting Italian.

Pennetta is also the Queen of Fed Cup, but Kvitova has become the second reigning Queen of Fed Cup. I couldn't help but wonder, while I was watching the match, what the dynamics would have been if this were Fed Cup competition and not the U.S. Open. No problem for Pennetta, though. She soldiered through the sun, the heat, the sweat, and the occasion, to reach her second U.S. Open semifinal, with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.

In yesterday's quarterfinal, the heat also marked the end of Kiki Mladenovic's run. Mladenovic was cramping, and by the third set, she was in real trouble. Vinci defeated her 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. Vinci reached the quarterfinal when she got a walkover from Genie Bouchard in the round of 16. This is the first time since 2010 that the Italian has been unseeded at a major, and this is the first time she has ever reached a semifinal at a major. For her efforts, she will next face off against Serena Williams.

It's an interesting semifinal draw, even if you take away the age factor. There are two Italians remaining, which is probably not what anyone expected (though you would have been wise to consider that one Italian might still be around). The first and second seeds are there, but their opponents are the unseeded Vinci and the 11th-seeded Pennetta. Halep is playing extremely well but is still vulnerable to making patches of errors, which appear to be generated--to a great extent--by her perfectionistic pique toward herself.  Pennetta is over that sort of thing in her own career, is tough as nails, and represents real danger if the Romanian star struggles.

As for Vinci, her U.S. Open run might be the icing on the cake, and the cake is many-layered and beautiful. The former doubles world number 1 has always had a lovely game, and while it's doubtful that anything she does can pose a threat to our world number 1, it's nevertheless a fine achievement that Vinci has reached the semifinals. (It should be noted that Pennetta is also a former doubles world number 1.)

As for Serena--she beat Venus and has two more to go. Halep is, of course, favored to be her opponent in the final (assuming Serena winds up there, of course), and after today's masterful performance against Azarenka, she is probably highly favored. But be it Halep or Pennetta--when Serena looks across the net, she will see a dedicated fighter.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

16 women standing after Act 1 of a drama called the U.S. Open

Statue in Straus Park, on New York City's Upper West Side
I'm sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned house (or an air-conditioned coffee shop) watching the U.S. Open, and I feel exhausted. Just from watching.

First, there were all the early upsets--Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Carla Suarez Navarro, Karolina Pliskova, Lucie Safarova, Timea Bacsinszky, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Alize Cornet all fell in the first round. By the end of the second round, Garbine Muguruza and Caroline Wozniacki were gone. Several players have suffered on court from the excessive heat, and there has also been a good bit of illness going around.

Every major has its share of drama, to be sure; this one has a huge share.

Surviving the heat and the germs, somehow, is Petra Kvitova. Go figure. And surviving everything else is Genie Bouchard.

Who wrote this script?!

There has been plenty of drama on court. Johanna Konta's upset of Garbine Muguruza was exciting, in that Konta has shown so much potential for so long. The match was also notable for Muguruza's failure to perform well on a big stage. She can perform well, but is still a puzzle of inconsistency.

Likewise, Petra Cetkovska (the "other" Petra)--whose career has been terribly marred by injury despite her grace and talent--rose to dramatic heights to defeat Wozniacki, the 2014 runner-up. And then there was Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who needed nine match points to put away Danka Kovinic. That was a highly entertaining match, and maybe my favorite so far, though it competes with what we saw today between Vika Azarenka and Angelique Kerber.

Azarenka had to fight with everything she had to hold off Kerber. I forget who it was, but after the match, a commentator remarked that many of this year's most exciting matches had one thing in common--Kerber was in them. The quality of the tennis was very high, and Azarenka's 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 victory included 50 winners. There wasn't much between the two opponents, though: Both served well, returned well, and volleyed well, though Azarenka came to the net much more.

The crowd's enthusiasm for the two-time Australian Open champion will dim somewhat in the round of 16, however, because in that round, Azarenka will play Varvara Lepchenko.

Of course, the biggest drama of all took place yesterday when Bethanie Mattek-Sands took a set off of Serena Williams. Mattek-Sands (imagine what her career would have been like if she hadn't sustained all those injuries) played extremely well in the first two sets, and didn't play badly in the third, despite the 6-0 result. Williams, by the way, has dropped the first set in the third round of the last three majors, all of which she would go on to win.

Williams' next opponent is countrywoman Madison Keys who upset (a somewhat ill) Aga Radwanska. If Williams wins, she could very well play Venus Williams in the quarterfinals.

Something to make note of: Former champion Sam Stosur has been given the same "What's your name again?" treatment in this tournament that she was given the year she won it. Flying softly under the radar seems to suit the Australian.

The round of 16 includes four players from the USA and two from Italy. The other ten players represent ten different nations. Serena Williams was the only USA player to make the round of 16 last year. Flavia Pennetta, Genie Bouchard, Ekaterina Makarova, and Vika Azarenka all made it to the 2014 fourth round.

All eyes will be on the Williams-Keys match tomorrow. The other one I recommend is the one to be played between Makarova and Kiki Mladenovic. If both players are in form, it could be highly entertaining.