Sunday, May 22, 2016

French Open Preview, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Tossup Tennis

There are 128 players in the French Open draw in each singles division this year. But let's talk about the people who aren't playing for a second, because that list is really interesting.
Because we've got:

  • Roger Federer out: He's been plagued by an injury apparently caused by his toddler. He recently had a knee surgery and his tentative attempts at a clay warmup were discouraging. Too bad, because it could be argued that Federer could have been the favorite here, what with Rafael Nadal still trying to find his sea legs, Novak Djokovic taking an early loss on clay, Andy Murray playing it solo and defending champion Stan Wawrinka meeting mediocrity at every turn. 
  • Gael Monfil out: A virus was his undoing, only days after he released proof that he is as close to Superman that we have on this planet.
  • Maria Sharapova out: On, um, medical leave? Never one to draw attention to himself, Russian Fed Cup Shamil Tarpischev called the situation 'bad' for Sharapova. But anyway, this is a big loss on the women's side, because Sharapova actually has won this thing before, and her absence leaves a massive void in the women's draw.
  • Caroline Wozniacki out: Bad ankle. Another big hole in the women's draw. 
  • Belinda Bencic out: although she's out hitting the next day on social media. OKkkkkkkkaaayyyyy. 
Now with that out of the way, let's deliberate on the players who are left and what obstacles they face. Let's start with the men's draw:

  • This was a first for me -- finding a seeded player I had literally never heard of: Lucas Pouille at No. 29. 
  • Also had some Throwback Thursday moments when I realized, based on this draw, is that the following people are still playing professional tennis: Viktor Troicki, Mikhail Youzhny and Dmitry Tursunov. So you're saying they have a chance? No. Not really. No.
  • Tomas Berdych is playing Vasek Pospisil in the first round. Ernests Gulbis and Andreas Seppi. Troicki is playing Grigor Dmitrov.

The ladies?

  • This was a second for me -- finding a seeded player (or two) I had literally never heard of: Daria Kasatkina at No. 29 and Jelena Ostapenko at No. 32.
  • Let me just say now that this tournament is gonna be a free-for-all for the women. We've got Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in the mix in the same part of the draw, but pure chaos everywhere without some solid seeded players.  
  • Two first-rounders that could be fun: Francesca Schiavone v. Kristina Mladenovic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni v. Daniela Hantucova

Friday, May 13, 2016

The breakup heard 'round the courts

The clay-encrusted buildup to the French Open continued last week with Simona Halep winning the Madrid tournament. She was really happy about this, as you can see here. With that low number in front of her name, it appears she was quite lucky to advance. Other favorites, such as Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova, sputtered out of the tournament pretty quickly. It was the first big tournament win for Halep in a while, so ... wait, what? She lost already this week in Rome, in the second round?
Speaking of stalled momentum, Rafael Nadal, who's been looking more like himself on clay this season, lost in the semis of Madrid to Andy Murray. Makes you wonder if Nadal's ready for the big boys yet, even on the clay. Last week, I thought he was. This week ...
Murray, though, had a pretty good week (he lost in the final to Novak Djokovic), but most of the Murray-centered chatter was about his coaching situation. He announced that he was breaking up with Amelie Mauresmo because of time constraints that limited her travel.
Whatever the reason for the end of this coaching relationship, let's just consider that even women don't hire women coaches. And the second this partnership was announced, critics said things like, "Hmm, that was a weird choice," they meant, "Dude. You're a dude. Hire a dude." Even I must concede that I thought the pairing was odd, but because of Mauresmo's issues as a pro.
Now this partnership didn't yield Murray a bunch of major titles, but under Mauresmo's watch, Murray settled into a steadiness on court. He still had his infantile bursts, but he was at his most consistent so far with Mauresmo, winning the matches he should have won, and even claiming big-deal victories (Rafa on clay, for one). I still think it's ironic as hell that a player who was known for a long time for losing her mind in high-pressure situations became a coach who could instill peace into another player.
But the best thing about this partnership is that it broke with status quo and in a way, allowed Murray to say something about women players that old-school tennis tournament organizers are obviously unwilling to say. Murray hired a woman to do a traditional man's job because he looked at what she could offer as a coach.
That's a big deal in a sport that clearly still struggles with gender equality.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

It's dirt season!

It's not been the friendliest of stretches for Rafael Nadal, but he has somehow found his groove again. Naturally, it's on clay. Nadal's about to go into the Madrid Masters tournament this week with three straight tournament wins, including this last one in Barcelona. I finally had a chance to check it out and wow, is Kei Nishikori looking good right now. 
But so is Nadal. He's hitting the ball with authority and not hanging back in the first row of stadium seats to return serve. One other thing: Nadal is still a great defender, but it looks like he's being more judicious about the balls he tries to run down. This isn't a bad thing. It's probably going to be better on his body, but the other advantage is saving your strength to keep yourself in points you can actually win. 
The draw is out for Madrid and right now, Roger Federer is at home thinking, "Of course. Of course, I'm the one coming back from injury and I'm the one who probably will get Nadal in the quarters while he's playing better than he has in a year. Of course." Now, Nadal has been showing some real improvement in his last three tournaments, sure, but I'd like to see what happens if he gets a chance to play Novak Djokovic here. (He's the top seed and in the other half of the draw.)

Other stuff worth mentioning:
  • So Nadal's been in the news for other reasons lately, too. Of course, with the recent buzz around Maria Sharapova and her failed drug test, (her hearing is in June annnddd she's still training pretty hard according to her social media accounts, so ...)  talk about doping always seems to circle back to Nadal and he's actually asking for his doping results to be made public. It probably is a pain in the ass to fall under suspicion when you've never failed a drug test. What I would like to see, though, is a list of every supplement Nadal and all the other players are taking, because there are probably certain meds out there that aren't on the banned list, but still offer some advantage. I, unlike this dimwitted former French sporting official, would never accuse anyone of anything without proof, but as a fan, I'm curious.
    How about that lady, though? There are some cases in which using the word "probably" is OK. "It's probably going to rain." "I'll probably be home in time for dinner." Et cetera. However, "Rafa Nadal probably got busted for doping and that's why he took so much time off back in 2012," during a TV interview? Not a great idea. Not. Just not. 
  • Serena Williams is not playing Ma-- ... OK, but more importantly, I need someone to explain the twerking scene to me in that Beyonce video. I'm not saying that she is not legit working it, but, like, what does it mean? Like, what does Beyonce's album mean? Does it not mean anything? Am I overanalyzing this? Probably, right?

Thursday, April 07, 2016

State of the game

Back up north, I played this one clay-court tournament a lot. Because there were never many women in the singles draw, all I basically had to do was win one match before I came up against the top seed. Let's call her Emma, because that was her name. Anyway, she was a pretty big girl, a lefty. So we're playing and I send yet another cream puff across the net and the next thing I saw was her closing in and unfurling into this forehand she hits for a winner past me. This image is forever stamped into my brain because it kind of scared me a little bit. Maybe it was her sheer size and that she was moving toward me, or maybe it was the knowledge that I couldn't do that. Now, I have played, and still play, against big dudes who hit ground strokes right at my face at the net and are imposing in other ways and generally nothing scares me. I don't know what it was about that forehand, but it was the only time I felt like a deer in headlights on a tennis court.
I only mention this because I can imagine it's how Svetlana Kuznetsova felt this weekend playing in the Miami Open final against Victoria Azarenka. I mean, good god. It's pretty safe to say she's back to pre-injury form and then some. I certainly expected Azarenka to come back and pick up immediately where she left off when she returned from that long layoff last year. But it took her a while to rediscover her confidence, but obviously, she has. It's great for the game. I'm gonna whisper this because I don't want to offend anyone, but she's a ... a better all-around player than Serena Williams. Better ball striker, better variety, better tactics. Movement? Push. Even if you don't agree with that assessment, you have to agree that it's about time that a strong and consistent foil to Serena emerged. There have to be contenders to make the game interesting (not totally sold on Angelique Kerber. Does she ever play only two sets? Why does everything have to take forever with her?), and Azarenka looks like she's gonna settle in to that role well.
Speaking of making the game interesting, a brief word about Novak Djokovic. To borrow a term from a longtime womens tennis sponsor (which I'm sure he'd love), he's come a long way, baby. Like, I still remember when he was pulling out of matches left and right and everyone was calling him soft. Now he is the undisputed king of mens tennis. Everybody's getting caught in the buzz saw, including Kei Nishikori this weekend in the Miami final. And this is someone who is thought to be a major contender. Oy. These men need to step up their game against Novak, or they'll be up for a pay cut.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Therapy with TWA: Equal pay

Whoo boy. Now that the air has cleared a bit, let's attempt to unpack this debate over equal pay on the pro tennis tour. We've got some old-man tennis organizer Raymond Moore talking about women being on their knees, we got Serena Williams saying in essence, "Excuse me?" We also got Novak Djokovic saying that old man is kind of right because a lot of people love watching men's tennis, and we got Serena again reminding him that the women's' U.S. Open final sold out before the tournament started because Serena, and we got Andy Murray holding his newborn daughter and saying to Novak, "C'mon mate ...," then we got Djokovic kind of apologizing. We got Roger Federer saying that we have to consider a tournament's history (??) but yeah, equal pay, yay!
So ... what's the right answer here? I've written about this before, but given the context of how this round of the equal-pay debate started, it's worth restating and expanding. As your average American woman who works a regular job, I'm a bit more concerned about the fact that in this country, women make 79 percent of what men make. In Florida, that number is up to 85 percent -- and that's regardless of men and women handling the same workload on the same job. Now that is nonsense.
With that in mind, it's hard for me to really outraged about this particular debate for the reason I've referenced before. Women don't play best-of-five-set matches. I believe that only Billie Jean King and Venus Williams are the only players I've heard of who are in support of this. Svetlana Kuznetsova, who beat Serena in three tough sets this week in Miami, says it's impossible, that a woman's body can't hold up to five sets. But she's in favor of equal pay because male players can get married, have kids. She can't. That's a interesting argument I hadn't thought about. If you are a woman player and you want to get married and have a child, you need to take a year off -- at least. If you wanted to breastfeed your child, that's a change in lifestyle, basically, that would fly in the face of your training. (Incidentally, this is why those in the equal-pay debate outside of tennis say that women should be paid less, because they take time off to have children.)
Kuznetsova is proposing compensation for making that sacrifice, which I can't agree with. It's a choice she made. Maybe no one laid bare the lifestyle she was going to take on when she was 13, 14 years old. But she knew it by 19, by 20. What she's suggesting is a sort of hazard pay for being a woman, and while that sounds great just because I'm a woman, in principle, it makes me cringe a little bit. I know I don't want to be treated special because I'm a woman. I want to be treated the same.
So I have to stay with my original thoughts from almost a decade ago (whoa, I've been doing this for a decade?!!!?). It's great that the Slams are offering equal pay, as are a lot of the top-tier tournaments. But if women aren't willing to go five sets, then I'm not very passionate about this particular debate. I've got my own equal-pay issues.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

IW review: That Nadal celebration

Admittedly, I didn't get to catch the entire Rafael Nadal/Alexander Zverev match last night. When I turned it on, Nadal was down 5-3 and it was deuce and I was like, "Oh, here we go with the next round of 'Is Rafa done?' stories on my Yahoo page ..."
I guess I just missed this epic miss on Zverev's match point, but his eyes were in full saucer mode by the time I turned it on. As much as I root for Rafa, I felt bad for the kid. Anyone who plays tennis would. It's one of those things -- losing a match while standing at the precipice of victory -- that stings like a mofo for a while, but it can focus you. True story: I once lost a league match in which I was up 5-1 in all three sets. True damn story. I also didn't lose another league match that season. So not the end of the world for young Alexander.
That was probably also a pretty big win for Nadal. He's been on the struggle bus lately, but to his credit, when Zverev began flagging, Nadal stepped up and made him play. I am perplexed by the new celebration mode by Nadal. Is that a buzz saw or squeezing out of a tight spot?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Family reunion

If you haven't read Venus Williams' essay about why she's taking the court today at Indian Wells for the first time in 15 years, do it.

You done? OK, let's talk.
There's actually not much more to say. She says it pretty well, doesn't she? What she gives right now to the Indian Wells debacle is perspective. Even I, at some point, have at least thought to myself: "Oh, come on. Get over it already."
But Venus was 20 years old when grown-ass adults began yelling at her in the stands, watching her sister's match. Serena's on the court, winning the tournament, hearing the same thing, at 19 years old.
The average person might not have recovered from that incident at that age by having a successful career. Folks have wilted under a lot less than that. But somehow, it would appear that the both of them managed to use this incident to make them stronger. And now, having processed through that day to now release that hurt and rejection to come back to the same tournament?
For years, the likes of Chris Evert and other big-name pros have encouraged Venus and Serena to come back, effectively placing the onus on them for bringing the ugliness to a close. In a way, today will do that, but let's be clear: They had every right to take exactly however long it took to get past this. If they never went back, it was their right. If this were a false narrative, you wouldn't stay away for so long ... and then go back. It's been a process for them and fortunately, they had each other throughout.
Venus says in her essay that for her, it's all about the tennis. OK, but when her career is over, this essay will be evidence that she and Serena are giants in the sport for other reasons that actually are bigger than tennis.
Play at IW starts at 11 a.m. and Venus has got the day session against Kurumi Nara and Serena's got the night match against Laura Siegemund.