Saturday, October 21, 2017

Never mind the stats--it's the WTA Finals!

Some fans are looking at the red and white groups in Singapore and seeing the White Group as "loaded" since it is made up of Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Venus Williams, and Alona Ostapenko. They have a point. Among them, the group members have won ten majors, and three of them have held the number 1 spot.

Meanwhile, the Red Group features Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki, and Caroline Garcia. Halep is the current world number 1, and Wozniacki is a former number 1. None of them has won a major, though there are four runner-up spots represented in the group (two each for Halep and Wozniacki).

So yes, "on paper," the White Group appears dominant. But this is the WTA Finals, and odd things happen. Two years ago, a very odd thing happened: A player who had won only one of her three round robin matches got to the final and won it. That was Aga Radwanska. We didn't think we'd see something like that again, but we did--the very next year. In 2016, Dominika Cibulkova went 1-2 in round robin play, reached the final, and won the whole thing.

I like to look at the WTA Finals as a blank slate, regardless of the draw. The one factor that I do think is relevant is fatigue. It's the end of the season, and players are tired and vulnerable to injury. Who knew we wouldn't see Jo Konta in Singapore? And who thought we would see Caroline Garcia? The former is dealing with a foot injury, the latter went crazy on everyone and won Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. This kind of twist is part of what makes the WTA so endlessly fascinating.

The matches will be played on indoor carpet, so all concerns about the elements have been removed. However, unlike most indoor carpet courts, this one has been deemed by the players to be especially slow.

Who has the pressure? Well, they all do, in one form or another, but--as usual--Halep may have the most. The new world number 1 could make a grand exit from the 2017 season if she wins in Singapore. Last year, she went 1-3 in round robin play. Halep, Pliskova and Muguruza, by the way, are the only repeats from 2016. And Ostapenko, Svitolina and Garcia are all making their WTA Finals debuts.

White Group lopsided record: Pliskova leads Muguruza 6-2
Red Group lopsided record: Svitolina leads Wozniacki 3-0

Friday, October 13, 2017

Battle of the Sexes--a bad idea, but an entertaining film

It took a while for Battle of the Sexes to reach my community, so I only just saw it. I wasn't really sure I wanted to see it, since I was very turned off by the event when it occurred. The film brought back all of my distaste for the event, too, though it has quite a bit of entertainment value.

Not long ago, John McEnroe offended anyone with a brain by suggesting that Serena Williams would be ranked in the 700s on the ATP tour. Not too many years ago, Tim Henman wandered among ATP players, asking what the top women's rankings would be in the ATP, and every single player he approached took the bait. Because ATP players are no different from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world believes that stronger and faster (i.e., male) are "superior," therefore, men are the "real" athletes.

Comparing women's tennis with men's tennis is ridiculous, but any time women come into their own in sport or any other enterprise, there is a rush to "prove" that they are "inferior" to men. When Billie Jean King and her cohorts first demanded to be paid as real professionals, they were met with hostility by the ATP. In the film, Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman, tells them that if they start their own tour, they will be tossed out of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA). That is an accurate retelling of history; the women who founded the WTA risked everything.

Kramer persists as the enemy throughout the film, but the reality was that most the ATP players were disgusted by the idea that female players thought they should be paid as real athletes. One of their leaders, in fact, was Arthur Ashe, though historians have conveniently omitted this aspect of Ashe's activism from his biography.

When the Battle of the Sexes took place in 1973, I was dismayed. Part of my disapproval was that the event promoted the idea that men's and women's tennis are comparable. But that wasn't the only thing that bothered me. There was also the fact that bigotry toward women was considered "funny." Bobby Riggs, though he almost certainly didn't believe that women were really inferior, was willing to do anything--even exploit the nation's "ha-ha--those crazy women's libbers" attitude toward bigotry--to make money.

In Battle of the Sexes, I'm A Male Chauvinist is seen on signs and on t-shirts worn by some of the men. Try to imagine those same men wearing shirts that said I Am A Racist or I Hate Gays. They may well have hated non-whites and gays, but they were forbidden by the constraints of the society to say so in public. The really horrible part of this phenomenon is that nothing has changed: Bigotry against women is still something people make jokes about, including within the world of professional tennis.

The strength of Battle of the Sexes is its casting. The wonderful Emma Stone gives a thoughtful performance as King, capturing both the great champion's insecurities and her cheekiness. Steve Carrel is perfect as the one-of-a-kind Riggs, a gifted, retired athlete who turned hustler to support his gambling habit. When the actual battle finally occurs, toward the end of the film, the tennis match is quite exciting, and turns Battle of the Sexes into a high quality sports film.

Alan Cumming is a believable Ted Tinling, though the film omits Tinling's obsession with dressing Rosie Casals. A more serious omission is the role that Larry King, Billie Jean's husband, played in the founding of the WTA. The forgotten feminist, King is again forgotten in Battle of the Sexes, in which Austin Stowell portrays him as the supportive and ultimately betrayed husband, but he was much more. He was upset by the unfair way in which women were treated, and he introduced his wife to feminism and encouraged her to believe that she could do anything she aspired to do. Larry King was an integral part of the founding of the WTA.

Sarah Silverman is quite entertaining as Gladys Heldman, the woman who collected $1 from each of the Original 9 in order to found the WTA. And one of my favorite little touches in the film was the casting of Elisabeth Shue--an avid tennis player and fan--as Priscilla Riggs, Bobby Riggs' wife.

I was especially taken with Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser with whom King became romantically involved. Riseborough plays Barnett as a manipulative seducer masquerading as an admiring free spirit, which made nice foreshadowing for what eventually occurred: In 1981, Barnett filed a palimony suit against King, resulting in King's losing millions of dollars in endorsements.

Tennis fans will undoubtedly appreciate Jessica McNamee's portrayal of Margaret Court as smug and judgmental. And while the screenplay implies that King accepted Riggs' offer to play the Battle of the Sexes because Court had lost a less-publicized match to him and because he offered a $100,000 purse, King once said that what really made her feel compelled to accept the offer was the fact that Court had curtsied to Riggs when he presented her with a bouquet before their match. The curtsy is shown in the film, but is never mentioned.

My hope is that when people see Battle of the Sexes, they leave, not angry over the way women were treated in the 70s, but furious over the fact that things haven't really changed that much. And I hope that those who view the film develop an understanding for just how brave Billie Jean King and the Original 9 were.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Caroline Garcia and the flight from Wuhan to Beijing

When we first saw Caroline Garcia six years ago, we sat up and took notice as she led Maria Sharapova 6-3, 4-1 at the French Open. Garcia, who was playing as a wild card, was experiencing her first main draws on the tour. She lost that match, but she was quite impressive. So many times, though, we see young qualifiers and wild cards who stun us with what they can do, then fade into the top 100, or find a good home in the top 50.

Garcia appeared to be going in one of those directions, and her main problem, as far as I could tell, was the one that plagues most young players who have trouble reaching their potential--she lacked belief and confidence. The Frenchwoman, like others before her, was so anxious about playing before her home crowd that she asked not to be put on a show court at the French Open.

Then some things happened that changed the course of Garcia's career. One of those things was her wildly successful pairing with Kiki Mladenovic in doubles. They won four titles, including the French Open, and they were the runners-up four times, including at the U.S. Open. Garcia ended the doubles relationship this year because she wanted to focus on her singles career. Unfortunately, that decision triggered the ire of the extremely touchy Mladenovic, who proceeded to trash Garcia publicly.

Winning a major in doubles put Garcia into the elite winners’ circle, and getting a taste of that must have agreed with her.

Along those same lines, the Frenchwoman emerged as a major force in Fed Cup, both with Mladenovic, and as a singles competitor. I’ve written before that it seemed to me that former Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo practically breathed fire into Garcia during Fed Cup ties, turning her young charge into a warrior. One could do much worse than having Mauresmo directing your fate: At the 2013 Wimbledon event, she pulled out some tricks to get Marion Bartoli to calm down; in Fed Cup play, she knew what to do to get Garcia pumped up.

And then there was the back injury. Garcia had to miss part of the 2017 clay court season because of this injury (prompting more phony outrage from Mladenovic). She had a tough rehab, and later said that going through that made her more determined than ever to take her game to a higher level.

Since returning, the Frenchwoman has reached at least the quarterfinals in all but two of the events she has entered. A week ago, she won Wuhan, a Premier 5 event. Along the way, the unseeded Frenchwoman, ranked number 20 in the world, knocked out former world number 1 Angie Kerber, Dominika Cibulkova, and Ekaterina Makarova. Garcia defeated an on-fire Ash Barty in the final.

That was quite an accomplishment, but Garcia wasn’t quite finished. She went straight to Beijing, a Premier Mandatory event, and today, she won that, too. This time, Garcia knocked out the formidable Alize Cornet, 3rd seed Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, and—in the final—2nd seed Simona Halep. Halep, in fact, had just become number 1 in the world, so Garcia has that to add to her resume.

Garcia is the first player to win Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. In a season in which we have seen Alona Ostapenko amaze us, Garbine Muguruza mightily impress us, Svitolina get closer and closer to something big, and both Halep and Kvitova return to form, here comes Caroline Garcia in a late-flight perfect landing, right into the top 10. The Flying Frenchwoman, whose post-match celebrations are charming in their animated originality, is really taking off.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Watch your language! How commentators demean tennis

A couple of years ago, an article about the French Open carried this headline: The Top Five Players Who Stepped Up to the Plate at Roland Garros, But Struck Out. The use of a baseball metaphor to talk about just about anything is ridiculously common in the United States. Football metaphors are also very common, and other sports metaphors are also frequently used.

I dislike the idea of constantly using sports metaphors to describe everything from political processes to the weather. Such overuse mirrors an obsessive preoccupation with sports, a misconception that the entire population can relate to sports, and an obvious lack of language skills.

But what I especially dislike is the use of sports metaphors to describe tennis. I have two main objections. First, it’s very poor metaphor construction, though what can you expect form a culture that likes to say “you’re comparing apples with oranges”? Comparing apples with (remember, we compare “with,” not “to”) oranges is really lazy metaphor construction, since they’re both edible fruits, and even approximately the same size.

I’m reminded of the hilarious book Titters, which contains the fake endorsement: Makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte! Only that, of course, was an example of making fun of stupid metaphors.

My other objection is more important: Constantly using other sports to describe tennis turns tennis into the stepchild that tennis fans know so well. If you watch a match on television, you’ll hear “near the finish line” (running), “off the tee” (golf), “counter-puncher” (boxing), “swing and a miss” (baseball), “and de-fense” (football, where it exists, unfortunately, because of cheering considerations). If you’re watching the ATP, you’ll hear commentators begin sentences with “If he were a batter” or “If he were a boxer”

If you tune into a football, basketball or baseball game, you’re not going to hear commentators use metaphors involving volleying, serving, slicing, or playing a love game. No one will say “Game, set match.”

Language reflects culture, but it also directs it. Just as commentators calling female players “women” and not “girls” will eventually get people to actually see them as women, leaving other sports out of tennis language will direct people to see tennis as a “legitimate” athletic entity, and not the stepchild of sports.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Kimiko Date leaves professional tennis, and leaves an indelible mark on the sport

Kimiko Date retired from professional tennis for the second time today. A former top 10 player with a great deal of guile and athleticism, Date retired the first time in 1995, not long after gaining the top 4 position. She said that all the traveling had just become too much for her, and she wanted to be in one place and have a new life.

She got one, too. Date married (she has since divorced), and her husband--having never seen her play tennis--encouraged her to return to the tour. She started playing in Asian ITF events in 2003 and won all of them. That was enough to convince her to stick around. In her second career, Date made a new name for herself by becoming the second oldest woman in tour history to win a title (Seoul, 2009), and the oldest player to beat a top 10 opponent. The latter feat she executed twice: She beat both Dinara Safina and Sam Stosur in 2010.

A natural left-hander who played right-handed, Date entered the top 50 in her second career, making it as high as number 46 in the world. In 2004, she ran the London Marathon.

During the first half of her career, the Japanese star reached three major semifinals. In the second half of her career, she played quite well, and served as an inspiration to many people, including me. Her many injuries finally caught up with her, though. At the beginning of this season, she had a knee cartilage transplant, and has not been able to move adequately since.

Date won a total of eight WTA titles, including the prestigious Pan Pacific event in Tokyo (1995). She decided to retire in Tokyo, at the Japan Women's Open. She was defeated by Aleks Krunic today in the first round, and that marked the end of her career. A few years ago, Date observed that some of the players on the tour had mothers younger than she. Now, at age 46, she can look back on what has to be one of the most fascinating careers in sports. She was a joy to watch and will be missed by many.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

My U.S. Open top 10

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

10. I see you waving from up there!: While we were watching the action at the U.S. Open, something else happened--Garbine Muguruza became the world's number 1 player, succeeding Karolina Pliskova. Pliskova, last year's U.S. Open runner-up, went out in the quarterfinals, leading to an opening of that number 1 slot. There were several women with the potential to become number 1, but once the numbers were crunched, it turned out to be the two-time major champion from Spain who got the job, and it does "feel right" to have her there.

9. Saving the drama for the last act: So much attention has been lavished on the final four women all being USA players, it's easy to forget what happened in junior competition. Both finalists, CoCo Gauff and Amanda Anisimova, are also from the United States. Anisimova won the title in a match in which she cruised until it came time to close--it took her twelve match points to do it.

8. And Sveta wasn't even there: Shelby Rogers and Dasha Gavrilova played the longest women's match in the history of the U.S. Open. The second round match went on for three hours and 33 minutes (ten minutes longer than the one played by Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza in 2015), and the victory went to Rogers--7-6, 4-6, 7-6. Rogers is no stranger to big stage upsets, so the outcome wasn't really a surprise

7. A winning combination: Top seeds Martina Hingis and Jamie Murray won their second mixed doubles major title together; they also won Wimbledon this year. Hingis holds a total of seven mixed doubles titles.

6. Now that's more like it: Five-time major champion Maria Sharapova, who has had a terrible time with injuries since her return from a 15-month suspension, finally looked like herself at the U.S. Open, and it was a relief to see that. In one of those strange twists brought about the draw, the 2006 U.S. Open champion and 2nd seed Simona Halep met in the first round. Sharapova won the beautifully played match in three sets. She would go on to lose to the clever and on-fire Anastaija Sevastova in the round of 16, but with some more match play, who knows what the Russian star can do?

5. Many shelves required: Martina Hingis won her 24th and 25th major titles at this U.S. Open. She won the mixed doubles title with Jamie Murray, and the women's doubles title with Chan Yung-Jan. Counting her one Hopman Cup title, Hingis now has 119 professional tennis trophies, which is an amazing feat. It is especially amazing when we consider that it was hardly a smooth path she had to take to reach this level of achievement.

4. The miracle that keeps on giving: Petra is back. Not only is she back, Scary Petra played in Flushing Meadows, and she was a sight to behold. (And, given the cooler and drier conditions at this year's U.S. Open--her asthma didn't get triggered.) If we hadn't known better, we'd have thought we were watching Wimbledon. Having expertly knocked off Jelena Jankovic, Alize Cornet, Caroline Garcia, and world number 1 Muguruza, the Barking Czech's run ended when she was defeated in the quarterfinals by Venus Williams. It was a great match, and Kvitova had a great run. I wish it had gone on longer, but given the circumstances, it was amazing that it happened at all. And let's not forget that Kvitova still doesn't have all the feeling back in her left hand. Just imagine, when she does.

3. The natural order of things: Martina Hingis and Chan Yung-Jan had won six titles this year before they entered the doubles competition in Flushing Meadows as the second seeds. They have now won their first major together, and they made it look so easy. Top seeds Ekaterina Makarova were upset in the third round, which was a surprise, and which made it that much easier for Hingis and Chan to advance to the final and win the tournament.

2. Red, white and blue all over: It's been 36 years since the finalists in both women's singles and junior singles were all from the United States, but this year, that phenomenon was repeated. There were also five U.S. women in the round of 16, and four in the semifinals. And all this occurred even in the absence of Serena Williams. Fed Cup should be interesting in 2018.

1. Flashing that trophy smile: Sloane Stephens began the year ranked number 957 in the world. She'd been out for eleven months, rehabbing from foot surgery, doing commentary for Tennis Channel, collecting shoes for those in need, and conducting a personal restaurant tour of the country. When she returned to the tour, she didn't waste too much time. Stephens made it to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati. She entered the U.S. Open ranked number 83 in the world; that alone was quite an accomplishment.

Despite her considerable talent, Stephens, in her earlier days on the tour, developed a reputation as somewhat of a slacker. But little by little, she grew into that talent, winning the Washington tournament in 2015, and then, in 2016, elevating her status by winning Charleston (she also won Auckland and Acapulco that year). For those who are historically inclined, that should have been a clue, since Charleston has always tended to be a star-maker tournament.

Now, Stephens is the holder of one of the four most beloved trophies in the sport. Like Garbine Muguruza, the 24-year-old Floridian possesses a fluidity that can make winning look easier than it is. In the final, she defeated close friend Madison Keys, whose formidable forehand got her to the last round, and will undoubtedly take her to more very big stages. It will be interesting to see how the unguarded--and sometimes goofy--Stephens takes to celebrity; she may be too unaffected to let it bother her. One can hope.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sloane throws a party in the USA

So I toss the ball up
They're playin' my song, the butterflies fly away
I'm hittin' my serve like "yeah"
I'm crushin' returns like "yeah"
I got my score up, they're playin' my song
I know I'm gonna be okay
 It's a party in the USA!
Today's final began with all the promise that was heralded when the draw came down to two rising stars from the United States--Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. Both players made it to the final after undergoing serious injury rehab. Stephens was out for almost a year following foot surgery, and Keys had to have two wrist surgeries (and then injured her shoulder). 

Both players held easily to start the match, but Stephens grabbed the first break to go up 4-2. From the start, it was clear that Stephens understood that it wasn't wise to try to outhit Keys, but that she could flummox her by changing the ball pace and direction. She also did it without making any unforced errors. At 3-5, Stephens held a set point, but was unable to convert it. On her second set point on Keys' serve, Stephens was victorious when Keys hit a return long.

Stephens held for the first game of the second set, then broke Keys with a passing forehand. An immediate break from the player who won the first set is a psychological weapon of considerable power, and Stephens' aim was true as she held for 3-0, then broke again when Keys double-faulted in the next game. Stephens remained fluid and graceful, as though she played in these kinds of matches every day, when--in fact--it was her first major final appearance.

Stephens then went down 0-40 (the first break points she had provided Keys) on her next serve, but skillfully got herself out of trouble. Within moments, it was 5-0 and Stephens had a championship point. She wasn't able to convert it, and she also wasn't able to convert the next one, which Keys saved in the only dramatic rally of the match, up to that point.

Keys held a break point, but couldn't convert that. The two went after each other with some extremely wide angles, and Stephens wound up with a third championship point. This time, she was the recipient of a Keys ball that went into the net, and it was over, 6-3, 6-0. Then, after what may have been the longest hug in the history of net hugs, Stephens broke into a tearful grin and greeted an admiring crowd. 

Stephens began the year ranked barely in the top thousand, and she was ranked number 83 when she entered the U.S. Open. Keys was somewhat of a favorite to win, but in this match, she never really found an opportunity to display her admirable skills. Maybe her leg bothered her, maybe the occasion got to her, maybe she was just flat. Stephens easy accuracy and strategic acumen definitely bothered Keys. Stephens hit ten winners and made only six unforced errors.

It was a very emotional ceremony, party because the two women are such close friends; Stepehens even said that she wished it could have been a draw. It's probably just a matter of time, though, before Keys catches up with her friend.