Saturday, September 27, 2014

Kvitova wins Wuhan, qualifies for Singapore

Li Na couldn't be on the court to win the Wuhan Open, but she must have been pretty pleased that her friend, Petra Kvitova, could get the job done. Kvitova defeated Genie Bouchard 6-3, 6-4. Kvitova had to serve for the match twice, after Bouchard won a tense game when the Czech star served at 6-3, 5-3. In winning the brand new Wuhan title, Kvitova also became the fourth player to qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore.

Speaking of Li, Kvitova said: "... I know everybody wished to have Li Na here standing with us, but we will remember her with this trophy. I'm just glad she's happy now; I hope she's going to be happy for the rest of her life."

Also winning a title in Wuhan were Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta. They defeated Cara Black and Caroline Garcia 6-4, 5-7, 12-10 in the doubles final. They have reached two finals before (Eastbourne and the U.S. Open(, but this was the first time that Hingis and Pennetta have won a title as a team.

In Beijing: Kirsten Flipkens, Bojana Jovanovski and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are already out in the opening round.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Asian swing already filled with drama

The Asian swing of the WTA tour has begun, and who knew that this post-U.S. Open period was going to be so filled with big news? The biggest news, of course, is the retirement of Li Na, which came right as the tournament in her home city, Wuhan, made its debut.

When something like the retirement of Li Na occurs, it's easy to forget that anything else is going on. I certainly haven't thought about much else, tennis-wise. But there is more news:

Victoria Azarenka withdrew from Wuhan and announced that her season is over. Azarenka missed much of this season because of foot and knee injuries, and says that she has been pushing herself too hard and needs to make a full recovery.

Karolina Pliskova broke her 2014 finals curse. Pliskova lost three finals this year, but this weekend, she defeated Varvara Lepchenko to win the Korea Open in Seoul. And for Lepchenko--it was her first WTA final.

Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki--two women who are pursuing serious comebacks--were the last two players standing in Tokyo. Ivanovic won the title.

Monica Niculescu won the Guangzhou title.

Victoria Duval announced that she is now cancer-free.

Ashleigh Barty announced that she is leaving the tour indefinitely, and did not give a reason for her action.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The bird that sticks out has flown: Li Na retires from tennis



The Chinese proverb is a warning to all about the consequences of not conforming: The bird that sticks out always gets shot. "Be the bird that sticks out," Li Na countered, and she was--and is--the bird that sticks out, spreads its wings and soars above the dreary expectations and phony restrictions below her. In a world--and not just a sports world--where there are so few role models for girls, Li--throughout her career--has demonstrated courage and authenticity, and has done so with charm, candor and a deliciously mischievous wit.

Li announced her retirement from professional tennis today, citing recurring problems with both knees. The 32-year-old's announcement was not a surprise, but the reality of her retirement affects tennis fans all over the world, and especially in Asia. Largely because of Li, Asian tennis is now a major factor in the women's tour.

The WTA icon's career spanned 15 years, and was frequently punctuated by huge highs and devastating lows. As a little girl, she played badminton, and when it was suggested she use her backhand skills in tennis instead, her family and community didn't know what tennis was. She did make the change, though, and became involved with the Chinese national tennis team. In 2002, she left the team to work on a degree in journalism. At the time, some reports stated that she left because the national tennis team would not let her choose her own coach; others stated that her departure was due to the strictness of the coaching system.

Li returned in 2004, and in 2006, she married Jiang Shan, who was her coach for much of her career. Two years later, Li left the national team for good and she also parted ways with the state-operated sports system in her country. This was a major step, in that it meant that she could choose her own coaches and trainers and would also be responsible for her own expenses. It also meant that 8% of her winnings would go to the state, as opposed to 65%.

Plagued by injury throughout her career, Li suffered from problems with her knees, her back, her rib, and her ankle. All athletes get injured. but Li went through a period in which she could not sustain any momentum because of injuries. To make matters worse, the Chinese star became known for choking away big matches, and for sometimes not even seeming to be fully present during big matches.

Late in her career, Li would hire Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, and he went about not only improving Li's fitness and her game, but doing what he could to counter her self-defeating beliefs. According to Rodriguez--and Li has affirmed this opinion in several interviews--Li had trouble believing in herself because, in her formative tennis years, she had been given only criticism, and no praise or encouragement.

But even with all the problems Li faced, she used her abundant talent, personal strength, and incomparable personality to emerge as an international symbol of all that is good about sport. She won two majors, the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open (while saving a match point in the third round). She was the Australian Open runner-up twice, in 2011 and 2013. Li won nine singles titles and two doubles titles, she was a member of the Chinese Fed Cup team for many years, and she was a member of the Chinese Olympic Team in 2000, 2008 and 2012. Li's highest singles ranking was number 2 in the world.

Statistics, however, just don't provide an accurate picture of Li Na, and what her career has meant to women's tennis, and to Chinese tennis, in particular. She really did "open the door" for Chinese players to emerge as significant members of the tour, in both singles and doubles. Li Na was the first Chinese player to win a WTA title, the first Chinese player to reach the top 10 and the first Asian player to win a major. Twice, she has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Known by her countrywomen and -men as Big Sister Na, Li has also been called The Great Wall of China by opponents who could not penetrate her defensive strategies. Her precision-point and powerful backhand can easily be viewed as a standard for the women's game.

I remember a time when Li had not yet mastered the English language, and her press conferences were unintentionally funny because she answered every question "yes" or "no." Later, when she became fluent in English, her on-court interviews and press conferences featured either blunt, often brutal self-criticism, or hilarity of the sort that left me wiping tears from my face, I had laughed so hard and for so long. (Li and Jelena Jankovic used to be doubles partners, and one can only imagine what those conversations were like.)

"Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing," Li wrote in her book, Li Na: My Life. I have thought about that belief a lot, about what it has probably meant to Li and her career, and even about what it has meant to my own life. There is something so fully human and open about Li that fans all over the world were drawn to her; she freely talked about the types of struggles that all us face in one way or another.

Jiang Shan, Li's husband, and the subject of many of her jokes, became a personality in his own right during the course of Li's career. Li ultimately decided that it was better for their marriage for him to be her hitting partner and not her coach, and she kept up a string of anecdotes that included everything from his annoying snoring to his fear of her well-known credit card shopping rampages.

With all her joking, Li also made it clear that Jiang's support made it possible for her to go through everything she had to go through in order to succeed on the tour. When she won the Australian Open, she thanked him for being such a nice guy. "Fix the drink, fix the rackets...." And, she added--as only Li could--"also, you are so lucky--find me."



It's almost impossible to pick one's favorite Li Na moment. Her acceptance speech at the Australian Open trophy ceremony is considered a comedy classic, but there are other memorable quotes:

"People in China say 'If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate your children, also send them to New York.'"

On what inspires her: "Prize money."

The first of her Australian Open thank-you mentions: "Max, agent, make me rich. Thanks a lot."

"I know when so many people ask where I'm from, I say Wuhan. They say small town. Not so many people. Just like 10 million."

When asked by Rennae Stubbs if she would name her rackets if she won in Melbourne: "I have eight rackets. If you want, I call them Li Na One, Li Na Two...until Li Na Eight."

No review of Li Na's career would be complete without a mention of the bizarre final she played against Victoria Azarenka at the 2013 Australian Open. In the second set, Li rolled her ankle, and though she had it taped, it would affect her for the rest of the match. But that wasn't all--in the third set, she fell down and cracked her head. And while the occasion itself was far from humorous, Li made it hilarious when she cracked up during the brief neuro exam upon being asked to follow the physio's finger and to answer questions about her orientation. At the 2014 tournament, when asked to comment on her preparation, she quickly replied, "Special. Not falling down."

Nike, one of Li's longtime sponsors, has already announced it's Be the Bird That Sticks Out campaign to honor the retiring Chinese star. This is a fitting tribute to the woman who wore a shirt bearing the Chinese characters for "My heart has no limits" at her post-Australian Open press conference this year. It won't be easy for fans to say goodbye to one of the most beloved champions the WTA has ever produced.

I leave with you with one final piece of Li Na wisdom (video no longer available for embedding).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Respect your elders

What began as a trend on the WTA tour is now a theme: The "veterans" are still around and they're kicking your ass. And in the recent case of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Venus Williams, they're kicking each other's asses. Lucic-Baroni is the latest of the "whatever happened to?" players who has played her way into the spotlight, starting with her U.S. Open run to the round of 16.

The 32-year-old Lucic-Baroni won the Australian Open title with Martina Hingis in 1998, when she was just 15 years old. The year before, the Croatian player had won the first WTA tournament she had ever entered, the Croatian Bol Ladies Open. Lucic-Baroni defended that title the following year.

In 1999, Lucic-Baroni reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. And then, she just faded away. Not that she lost interest or became physically hindered: Lucic-Baroni was dealing with a history of child abuse, financial problems, and all the terrible things that accompany those issues.

In 2007, Lucic-Baroni returned to the tour, and in 2012, she made it to the third round of Wimbledon, upsetting 2013 champion Marion Bartoli along the way.

At this year's U.S. Open, Lucic-Baroni began by beating formidable new Spanish star Garbine Muguruza. But that was just the warm-up. The Croatian player went on to upset 2nd seed Simona Halep in the third roundm byt she then lost a three-set match against Sara Errani in the round of 16.

It was a very emotional run for Lucic-Baroni, since it was the best showing she'd had at a major since her 1999 Wimbledon run. But who among us thought that she'd follow her Flushing Meadows moment up with her first singles title in 16 years? I didn't. But that's just what she did. Lucic-Baroni defeated top seed Venus Williams in the final in Quebec City. In doing so, the Croatian player set a new record--formerly held by Kimiko Date-Krumm--for the longest time gap between singles titles.

Williams is 34, Lucic-Baroni is 33. (Serena Williams, who won the U.S. Open, is also 33.) Venus Williams recently remarked, when asked about her age, "According to Kimiko, I have another decade." True. Date-Krumm, who retired from an excellent career somewhat early and then returned to the tour to do some impressive showing off, is 43. "Some of the players," she said last year, "their mothers are older than me."

29-year-old Jelena Jankovic's career has been revived, to some extent; last year, she returned to the top 10. This year, she made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open and the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. 32-year-old Flavia Pennetta reached the semifinals of the 2013 U.S. Open and the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open, as well as the quarterfinals of the 2014 U.S. Open. 29-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova--unpredictable at any age--reached the quarterfinals of this year's French Open (she's a former champion).

Doubles is another matter. The great Martina Hingis recently came within a hair of winning the U.S. Open doubles title (with Pennetta).

Older is not necessarily "better," but older is definitely to be feared. It's no longer a surprise when an older player--especially one who has already had a great career--breaks through for a second time. Sam Stosur is 30; Li Na is 32. They could retire from the sport soon, or they could both win more majors.

Given my personal history as a late bloomer in many categories, I am enthralled with the new culture of age on the WTA tour.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lucic-Baroni wins everything in Quebec City

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who had an emotional showing at the U.S. Open, beat top seed VenusWilliams 6-4, 6-3 today in Quebec City to win the title. This is Lucic-Baroni's first title in 16 years. She and partner Lucie Hradecka also won the doubles title. In the final, they defeated Hradecka's former partner, Andrea Hlavackova, and Julia Goerges.

In Hong Kong, top seed Sabine Lisicki won the title when she defeated 3rd seed Karolina Pliskova 7-5, 6-3. However, Karolina and her sister, Kristyna, won the doubles title.

And in Tashkent, Karin Knapp won her first WTA singles title. Knapp defeated top seed Bojana Jovanovski 6-2, 7-6. Aleksandra Krunic and Katerina Siniakova won the doubles title.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My U.S. Open top 10

New York Public Library Lion
Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 U.S. Open occurrences:


10. Are we in Melbourne?: It doesn't generally happen at the U.S. Open, but the heat rule had to be applied on several occasions, making play difficult for everyone, and causing semifinalist Peng Shuai to endure what appeared to be a pretty scary heat illness incident.

9. Swiss Miss just misses: Martina Hingis, who--with Jana Novotna--won the U.S. Open doubles title 16 years ago, came very close to winning it again. She and Flavia Pennetta made it all the way to the final, in which they were defeated by the 4th seeds. In the course of their run, Hingis and Pennetta took out seeds number 5 and 3.

8. Mission accomplished: In winning the U.S. Open, wheelchair doubles team Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley won the Grand Slam. In addition, Kamiji won the U.S. Open singles title (and also the 2014 French Open).

7. Giving youth a bad name: Just when you think it's safe to head back to the court, there's Kimiko Date-Krumm, ready to give you a lesson. Younger players haven't broken through in a really big way for a while because they keep getting tripped up by their elders. And then there's the comeback Japanese star, who--with partner Barbora Zahlavova Strycova--made it to the U.S. Open semfinals in doubles. The took out the Chan sisters and they upset 2nd seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. Date-Krumm will be 44 in three weeks.

6. Just add Sania and stir: Sania Mirza and her Forehand of Fire teamed with Bruno Soares and won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title. This is Mirza's third major mixed doubles title. She no longer plays singles because of the damage done to her wrist by that incredible forehand, but she has continued to excel in doubles.

5. What did I do to upset you?: Down they went, one seed after another. Only three of the top eight seeds played in the round of 16, and only one (Serena Williams) was left to play in the quarterfinals. 2nd seed Simona Halep was taken down in the third round by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 3rd seed Petra Kvitova lost to Aleksandra Krunic in the third round, and 4th seed Aga Radwanska went out in the second round, a victim of Peng Shuai.

4. The best show in New York: That would be Aleksandra Krunic, a player whom ESPN commentators had never heard of, which means they don't watch Fed Cup matches (kind of interesting, since the USA's Fed Cup captain is also a major commentator, but what do I know?): Krunic's Fed Cup doubles exploits with Jelena Jankovic, who she acknowledges is a mentor, have taken Serbia dramatically into victory.

In Flushing Meadows, the rather slight young Serbian player put on a big show of athleticism, speed, serving, returning, court poise, and even a little Radwanskan trickery. It was an absolute joy to watch her, and she was just as notable in her interviews as she was on the court. Krunic came close to taking out Victoria Azarenka, in what was a memorable match, but Azarenka's toughness and experience ended the Serb's run. Nevertheless, Krunic--at least for me--was a major highlight of the 2014 U.S. Open.

3. Awesome times two: They both met unfortunate fates in their semifinal matches, but Ekaterina Makarova and Peng Shuai had great runs at the Open. Makarova, always a danger at a major, broke through to the semifinals for the first time, taking out both Genie Bouchard and Victoria Azarenka in the process. Peng put on a service clinic, going 40 games without dropping serve. She showed the exit to Aga Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, Lucie Safarova, and Belinda Bencic. Against Caroline Wozniacki, she had some unexpected drama when heat illness overcame her and she staggered off the court and on again in a hopeless attempt to keep competing.

2. New dominance--same country: Who says the Russians are finished? Not only did Makarova make it to the semifinals in singles, she and partner Elena Vesnina won the doubles championship. It was a dramatic match, and the Russian pair dropped the opening set to Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta, the unseeded veterans who fought their way through a tough draw. Makarova and Vesnina have now won two majors together.

1. Hear. Her. Roar.: Nike just about always does well by Serena Williams, but this time, the effect was especially appropriate. Williams was dressed in an oh-so-Serena leopard print, and she took to giving the crowd a little cat roar after her match victories. Katy Perry's "Roar" became the top seed's U.S. Open theme song, and Williams had plenty roar about. She didn't have any particular problems with her draw, and in both the semifinals and the final, she easily dispatched the estimable Ekaterina Makarova and the "new and (quite) improved" Caroline Wozniacki--both in straight sets.

This was Williams' sixth U.S. Open championship; she won her first one in 1999. She has now won 18 singles majors. Unable to get past the round of 16 in Melbourne, Paris and London, the champion really did save the best for last, proving--yet again--that you can never, ever count out Serena Williams.