Thursday, October 23, 2014

Farewell, Li Na

The reason I really liked Li Na is the same reason I really liked Mary Pierce. I can't remember who she was playing (Conchita Martinez?) the year she won the French Open, but Pierce was serving, and the camera zoomed in on her. As part of her serve motion preparation, Pierce held the ball closer to her face as she surveyed her opponent, and her hand was shaking. That's it. That's why I liked her – because she showed that even as she was en route to doing something huge in her career, she was nervous. Just like I would be, or anyone else. You never saw the shakes in Li Na – not like that. It would show more in her game. She'd be using her deep groundstrokes to hold off Victoria Azarenka or Serena Williams, and then it was like she realized how close she was to winning, and then all the wheels would fall off. This isn't to minimize the greatness of her career, which she ended last month after enduring years of worsening knee problems. She is the first Asian ever to advance to a grand slam quarterfinal, and the first to win a Grand Slam. Li is known for her independent streak – she left the Chinese national team to gather her own training team. It wasn't popular then, but when you come home with a French and Australian Open trophy in your hand, that'll sway the public opinion pretty decisively. She finishes her career with more than $24 million in winnings and endorsement money and nine pro titles. This year, her last year, she won the Australian and became No. 2 in the world. But the show of humanity even as she pursued the heights of her career is what tends to move a fan base. Sure, Serena will go down as one of the greats of the game, but she never shows that humanity on court, that thing about her that makes you realize she's just like you on the court sometimes. And she doesn't have to – there's a place in history already for her, and for Pete Sampras. But when someone like Li Na retires, there tends to be a sentimental place, too. The other thing about Li and Pierce is that they did what they did long after they were supposed to have been able to do it. Maybe it's getting older, or having kids, but when you see Li Na snagging majors into her thirties, it becomes far more impressive in a personal way than, say, the Eugenie Bouchards of the world. Not that there's anything wrong with them. But the Bouchards are for the kids. The Lis are for the grown-ups.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Here come the boys!

First, let me say this: Why didn't anyone stop that assault on Chatrier today? Don't they have tournament organizers out there? Just because she's Serena Williams doesn't mean she gets to just bludgeon nice people like Sara Errani like that. Heavens. I know I said Errani had no chance, but I didn't mean she didn't have a chance at winning more than one game. I am sure Maria Sharapova is really liking her chances now because she has had no luck against Serena already. I need a sarcasm font. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Serena wins in two, and that Sharapova will hold serve exactly twice. I've been saying this for years, but this is what's great about men's tennis. The top is so deep and talented, and the semifinals have an added element of suspense because only two of the big "four" (I don't think Murray counts yet. Do you?) are here. Who doesn't love Roger Federer but we know that if he had advanced, the second semi would barely be worth watching. The point is that both of these matches are up in the air. Especially the one between Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Djokovic actually has a clay-court win over Rafa this season, and Nadal was looking pretty rough in his first few matches, but now looks like he's in cruise control. Djokovic hasn't had an easy path himself, even from the beginning. I mean, I like Philipp Kohlschreiber, but Djokovic losing a set to the journeyman with the sourpuss is not a show of dominance. So I don't know. I'm still leaning toward Nadal because this is his playground. And then there's Jo-Jo Tsonga and David Ferrer. Ferrer in four. If this were an event other than the French Open, I'd think Tsonga would take it, but having that added pressure of playing in front of his home crowd might tighten him up a bit. We shall see.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The main course ... is coming

You have to hope that Sara Errani doesn't read her own press. Here she is, in the semifinals of the French Open, the tournament in which she made the final last year. And not one person in the know, or out of the know, is picking her to win today's match against Serena Williams, even though the world No. 1 looked a bit spotty in her quarterfinal match. (Basically, she took a set and a half off from her match against Svetlana Kuznetsova and still won.) And even if she herself is brimming with confidence, it is true that it would take a truly unusual event for Errani to win even a set in this semi. There's just nothing she can do. Actually, there is, but when all is said and done, I don't think that even Tonya Harding would recommend it. The real match of the day figures to be between Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, which will be viewed on mute in my house because I have an infant and a two-year-old, and I value their sleep far more than they do. It's one of those matchups that the women's game sorely lacks -- one where the opponents are equally matched. Almost. At the beginning of the tournament, I chose Sharapova to win this match. But now I'm not so sure. There are three things about Azarenka that are intangibles. One is her stubborn refusal to lose, a quality that Sharapova and Serena both have. The other is Azarenka's understanding of the injury time-out. And lastly, there is her very own good-luck troll is the stands -- Redfoot Bluefoot Right Foot Left Foot. Sorry. Something about that Redfoo guy puts me in Seuss mode. Seriously, I'm thinking of going with Azarenka after all because her game has a variety that Sharapova's lacks. Normally, Maria can hit through almost anybody, but it's going to be tougher when you face someone who can match your power and also change the pace on you. But Sharapova has handled those attempts by opponents well. At least she did in sets two and three of her quarterfinal against Jelena Jankovic (is that a comeback brewing? Hope so ...). I'm torn. At the beginning of this paragraph, I was going Azarenka, but now I don't know. Should be a great match at least. Now Friday. Rafa v. Nole. Now THAT will be a match not to miss. Still trying to figure how that one will go. More on that one later. P.S.: Leonardo DiCaprio is at the French Open. I swear, nothing is hotter than a hot guy who likes tennis. If he shows up to a doubles match, I am leaving my husband.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Your guessz is as good as mine. Nay, better!

This year was supposed to be my year. I was going to win a Racquet Bracket draw and win a trip to a Grand Slam. And I learned some things from the travesty that was my NCAA bracket. This time, no research. No looking up head-to-heads. No checking records on clay. None of that. The plan was to fill out each match with no more than ten seconds of thought. Couldn't do any worse, right? Ri-ight. It all started with Venus Williams. Now I'm not blind. I certainly wasn't picking her to go very far in this tournament (or in her career, but more on that later) -- I figured she'd go down to Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, but I thought she had a round or two in her. Yeah. No. She put up a heckuva fight, as many have noted, even with her back problem, along with the autoimmune disease she's dealing with. But at the end of the day, she dropped yet another first-round French Open match to Radwanska's sister, Urszula. (It's funny, because most people if given the opportunity would drop the silent 'z' from a name. Nuh-uh. Not the Radwanskas.) The question is how long Venus is willing to go on with these sorts of results. I keep hearing talk about her trying to hang in there for the 2016 Olympics. That's insane. She shouldn't have gotten the singles spot last time and she really thinks that in three years, she'll be able to make a case against the likes of Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Jamie Hampton? Nope. She can't really believe that either. And the fact that Serena Williams, who will win this event unless she gets injured, is still willing to play doubles with Venus here says to me that Venus is going to quit soon, and she wants to end her career with her sister by her side. If Venus is playing the French Open next year, I will drink this nail polish sitting on my desk. No chaser. Still, not a draw breaker. I was still feeling pretty good about my brackets and France. Even took some French lessons from Serena's last couple winner's speeches. The women are always in flux, but my men's picks were solid, I thought, even if I didn't follow the seeding all the way. Perfectly conceivable, I figured, that Nadal could squeak by Djokovic in the semis and face Tomas Berdych in the final, because Berdych can beat Roger Federer. Right? Absolutely. The problem is that Tomas Berdych CAN'T BEAT GAEL MONFILS! Seriously, the last time Monfils did anything of consequence was like five years ago. Out of nowhere, he takes down the tournament's fifth seed? And I have to say, for a change, Monfils showed some control and managed to keep his athleticism on display without doing anything stupid. Well, he had some dunce cap moments (I'm thinking set point in the third set), but just not as many as usual. Although I'm probably not going to France on this bracket, it's nice to see Monfils playing well again. But is it too late for him? Tommy Haas would probably say no. As would Rafa Nadal, who basically came up with the goods today at the very last second against Daniel Brands. Why is it that certain players have huge matches at a major out of nowhere, then return to nowhere after showing just how good they can be? Here's hoping that doesn't happen to Brands, because he's got game. One more thing: Did anyone else not even give Caroline Wozniacki a chance in France to make it past the in-form Laura Robson? OK, I hesitated for, like two seconds before I picked Robson. Then Woz loses just five games in an annihilation? Nah, she won't make it past Kuznetsova, but still. Maybe all is not lost with this one.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

I'm just saying ...

1. If you're the Tennis Channel and you're going to insist on hiring Ashley Harkleroad to do your match commentary, don't put her with someone equally weak, like Brett Haber. It's bad enough I have to watch Victoria Azarenka win another title, but I have to also have to do it to the soundtrack of those two tennis-gossiping like Sophia and Dorothy from The Golden Girls. And let's just say it. What on earth does Ashley Harkleroad know about top-level women's tennis competition? I'm being serious. Basically, her claim to fame (besides Playboy, which is another diatribe entirely) is almost beating Maria Sharapova that one time. Apparently, all of her knowledge comes from reading Yahoo! stories, because she doesn't talk much about tennis. Well, I have an idea. Why not hire me? I can read the Internet, too, and rehash the Williams sisters' Indian Wells controversy from A DECADE AGO. For heaven's sake. 2. Speaking of rehash, I am still a little bitter over Azarenka's antics in Australia, but damn, is her game holding up. See, Victoria, you don't have to resort to gamemanship to win matches. She managed to hold her nerve, and her serve, quite nicely against an erratic Serena Williams. One thing Azarenka has that no one else in the women's game seems to have anymore is variety, and in time, I will come to appreciate this fully after I get over this "medical time-out" nonsense. 3. Speaking of medical time-outs, Juan Martin del Potro served out a win at Rotterdam with a piece of tissue stuck up his nose due to a nosebleed. I'm not saying that a lot of other players couldn't take a lesson from this and man the hell up sometimes. Yes, I am. 4. Rafael Nadal's back in tennis. He's had some struggles against a couple of (way) lower-ranked players. Roger Federer noted as much when discussing his nemesis' comeback. I believe his exact quote was: "I was surprised he lost a final against a player ranked outside the top 50." This was, to be fair, before Federer lost to Julien Benneteau. But Benneteau is #39 in the world, so ... 5. The last time Esther Vergeer lost a match was 2003. That's ten years. Vergeer announced her retirement from tennis this week. I'm not a close follower of wheelchair tennis, but it's hard to believe that no one else could even challenge her in all those years. I'm going to go with the idea that she was just that dominant. That sort of win streak has got to take an amount of mental strength that I'm not even familiar with. Good luck to her -- and anyone else in the field in which she chooses next.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Who's rooting hard for Li Na right now? THIS GIRL!

So it's been about 14 hours since the conclusion of the Victoria Azarenka/Sloane Stephens match, and I gotta say, I'm still a little pissed off. In case you didn't see it, Azarenka had a little trouble closing out the American teen, and when she failed to serve it out at 5-3, she called a medical timeout for a troublesome rib and left knee. Because it was a double injury, she got nearly ten minutes off-court, effectively icing Stephens, who was to serve next and was broken. In that final game, she showed no signs of problems with movement and in her on-court interview, never even mentioned being hurt. Or in her ESPN interview after that. In fact, the first thing she said was that she almost choked that set away and implied she needed a minute (or 10) to settle her nervous ass down. Which leads us to the question: WTF? Now, immediately after, some analysts seemed willing to consider the idea that Azarenka didn't know exactly that what she did was abuse of the rules. How to say this best? Um, that's crap. Mary Jo Fernandez diplomatically called it a "veteran move." Later, in her press conference, she tried to tell reporters she had a legit rib injury that made it hard to breathe, and just didn't understand reporters' questions. Oh come on now. All of a sudden, fifteen minutes before you're in front of a mic, you have not one, but two injuries flare up on you just as you're serving for a Grand Slam final and it doesn't spring to mind immediately after, when you're interviewed? Everyone knows that injury time outs are for injuries, not mental lapses. Foosball is for people with mental lapses. (And let's get this out of the way: Even despite Azarenka's stunt, you have to be mentally strong enough to overcome your opponent, no matter what they pull. Stephens is young, and this experience, along with many others, will make her stronger. It's not Azarenka's fault she couldn't hold serve there. It was Stephens'.) Now this doesn't rise to Justine Henin's retirement in the Aussie final against Amelie Mauresmo to me, but I lost a good deal of respect for Azarenka last night. She's so ridiculously talented that she could have taken care of that match on skill alone. And I don't even think her goal was to get Stephens off-balance -- that timeout was strictly taken for her mental benefit. But champions don't pull cheap stunts like that. Not the ones we can't forget 50 years later. Speaking of 50 years later, hopefully, this will lead to a rule change that keeps players from pulling bush-league stunts like this at will. Just off the top of my head, I'd suggest taking a challenge review from a player for every timeout they call in a set. It's not perfect, but give me time. I can come up with something better. Bottom line: The beauty of tennis is that it's a thinking man's game. It's not like football -- which involves strategy, don't get me wrong -- where you can blow a whistle and try to ice a kicker. It's in the rules in that sport, and that's fine. In tennis, there is no sideline coaching (ahemWTAahem) and there are no time outs permitted because your racquet suddenly weighs 50 pounds. You're nervous? You have to either figure it out yourself or suffer the consequences. Oh, I forgot the third option. You can fake two injuries that no one will ever be able to prove you do not have while you regroup. Not cool, Azarenka. And neither is that sidekick of yours. Am I the only one genuinely annoyed by this Reddoof character? (That was intentional.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Live Twittering for Women's Semis!

That's really all there is to say at this second, except this: I'm picking Li Na and Victoria Azarenka (but am rooting hard for Sloane Stephens!).