Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TWA's Cincy wrap

I know this isn't a popular opinion, but is anyone as surprised as I am that Angelique Kerber had a shot at being the No. 1 player in the world this weekend? 
Kerber is a fine player, no doubt. But her lack of one fallback weapon was her downfall in Cincinnati on Sunday. *Time out: Yes, I also recognize that she just won the silver medal in Brazil and might be a tad tired, and I recognize that she played that match under the weight of knowing that all she had to do was win it and she would be the best player in the world. What I am about to note is still true regardless of all of that. Time in.* It's clear that Karolina Pliskova, at least this week, had some huge groundstrokes that Kerber was literally fighting off on her knees. A valiant effort, but when Kerber faces off against power players who are hitting their targets, it totally takes away her game, which is the ball-machine approach -- get everything back. She's very good at that. It's why she beat Serena Williams in Australia. Serena wasn't ready to work that hard, but when your opponent plays the way Plishkova did, and you don't have a backup plan, well, you get handled pretty efficiently. 
Having said all of that, big-ups to Kerber for showing up after the Olympics and advancing to the final. Same to Andy Murray. There are times in pro tennis when the dominant player of the time stumbles, even briefly, and leaves a small window of opportunity. Many times, there isn't anyone able to step in and take advantage. With Novak Djokovic on the sidelines right now, the opportunist is Murray. He has made himself the player to beat right now, and although he also lost in the Cincinnati final Sunday, to Marin Cilic, he should feel very good about his chances at the U.S. Open (in less than a week!). 
Another major development in Cincinnati was the first tournament for Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza -- with new partners. Hingis had Coco Vandeweghe and Mirza's new partner is Barbora Strycova. (Now, sizing up these new partners is a push. Both Coco and Strycova have huge chips on their backs, but due to sheer age, I'll say Strycova's is bigger.) Naturally, they both ended up in the final, and if you were lucky enough to be in Cincinnati, you saw what seemed to be a tight match with Mirza/Strycova taking the title. If you weren't, you had to follow some live-score website to find out who won. 
Which is going to bring me head-on into my rant-o-the-week. Again. Most tennis fans who play play doubles. Why is it so hard to get doubles on TV? I'd watch it. The folks on Twitter on Sunday moaning about not being able to see this match anywhere would watch it. What's it going to take to get doubles the love it deserves. Rafael Nadal just won Olympic gold, if your answer is "big names." Martina Hingis is one of the best doubles players around, if your answer is "dubs is boring." If you're reading this, I am about to embark on a crusade to get doubles on TV more often. All I need is a good hashtag, because everyone knows that nothing gets done anymore without a good hashtag. So let's brainstorm bombard the networks with some pressure, all right?! Seriously, though, I'm gonna need some help because all I got right now is #makedoublesgreatagain, which is obviously a nonstarter.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Rio wrap: Waxing on sauerkraut, socks and why the Olympics matter

It’s more than three days after the conclusion of the Rafael Nadal/Juan Martin del Potro throwdown classic, and I am still laid out on the floor in sheer ecstasy and exhaustion. Not literally, but wow, did the Olympics offer up some great matches. It was a little scary for those of us who saw the early exits of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic and thought

I know I said that the fact that many of the guys decided to bail on Rio made the men’s draw boring. But, for the first time in TWA history, I must admit that I was wrong. It’s because of the likes of Nadal and del Potro mostly. Nadal, who is still struggling with his wrist, came to the Olympics anyway. (There is a decent chance that this is because he might call it a day before 2020, due to his issues with injury.) He left with a gold medal in doubles (with dream dubs partner Marc Lopez.). Del Potro is also finding his way back after a long layoff, and I would say he did just OK. Seriously, I hope he keeps up the fine form.
It’s important to play for your country, even though it’s just sports. Do you wonder why Venus Williams, even though she was sick with a virus, still threw her hat in the ring for mixed doubles? Just because she was hanging around anyway? No. She in all likelihood had no idea who Rajeev Ram was (although she probably knew he was no Jack Sock), but it was important, so she tried one more time and became one of the most decorated tennis players in Olympic history, earning a silver medal.
Their attendance at the Games illustrates one thing. The Olympics still matter. It sure as hell matters more than your average tournament. Oh, jeez, nice job, John Isner, winning Atlanta or whatever he played instead of the Olympics. And I know it’s poor form or just outright rude to point this out, but Isner is not going to win the U.S. Open. If he wins the U.S. Open, I’ll eat my writing hat and top it with mustard, sauerkraut and baked beans. And I will Snapchat that thing like nobody’s business.
Anyway, the Olympics are important. Let’s resume that conversation in four years, when the American No. 1 dodges Tokyo. In other very important Olympic business:
1.       Gold medalist Bethanie Mattek-Sands, I would like a pair of your socks.

2.       Gold medalist Usain Bolt, I would like your warmup shirt.

3.       Gold medalist Andy Murray, I still think your attitude stinks sometimes, but you are earning quite the reputation lately of performing under pressure. Remember, I believed in you when nobody did!
4.       OK, I threw the slightest bit of shade – it was just a shadow really -- on Monica Puig the other day. She deflected that shade with her new piece of jewelry. Seriously, what a gutsy tournament. She took every scalp she encountered and earned Puerto Rico its first gold medal. Ever.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Sometimes you play the Olympics. Sometimes the Olympics play you.

It's a good thing it rained in Rio yesterday -- it put the brakes on the seemingly neverending beatdown on the top players in the world. OK, Novak Djokovic's loss was a big deal, but he lost to a sleeping giant. Serena Williams losing to Elina Svitolina? Say what now? Five double faults in one game?! Pardon? A basic inability to return serve down the stretch?!!! A colossal upset for sure, but unlike the folks over at ESPN Tennis, I don't think we're talking about a sea change in women's tennis, unless we really think that Svitolina or Monica Puig (who beat the living crap out of Garbine Muguruza, by the way) are going to win the U.S. Open and bundle Williams into retirement. I mean, come on. Really.
One unexpected benefit to this rash of upsets is a repopulation of the mixed doubles draw. Venus Williams is back in, with Rajeev Ram, Nadal is pairing up with Muguruza and Bethanie Mattek-Sands has got Jack Sock. Heck, if you don't have to play a third set, but a tiebreaker, why not, right?
But anyway, who the heck knows what's going to happen in this tournament now. Nobody would have believed that Rafael Nadal has more of a chance to win the Olympic gold (in singles and doubles) than Djokovic at the beginning of this tournament, or that Madison Keys has a better shot now than Serena, but here we are. And no complaints, because we have some great matchups in the works: Nadal is playing Gilles Simon, Juan Martin del Potro is playing Daniel Taro, who took out Sock in the first round of singles, and Andy Murray against Fabio Fognini, Svitolina v. Petra Kvitova, and Angelique Kerber v. Johanna Konta, just to name a few highlights. And no, I would not even pretend to know how this all shakes out.

Monday, August 08, 2016

All aboard the Rio Olympics struggle bus!

So many ridiculous things have happened since the Olympic tennis tournament began that it's like, "Where do you start?" Let's start in reverse chronological order, I guess:

1. Juan Martin del Potro, everybody. OK, like everyone else, I am blown away that he beat Novak Djokovic in the first round in Rio, but I am struck by something else. If not for injury, what would we be saying about del Potro right now? Three slams? Four? From my couch, Djokovic played well, but del Potro was thumping winners from everywhere and he was moving great for a big guy.
This just goes to show that being stuck in an elevator with no contact with the outside world for 40 minutes is also not bad match prep.
2. Does goes the Williams sisters. The first inclination here is to blame Venus for this, because she's not well. But she didn't look that bad in the Williams sisters defeat at the hands of Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova. But based on my (yes, limited) knowledge of doubles, I wonder two things about the sisters and their doubles game: (a) Why wouldn't Serena play the ad side? I always thought the better player takes the ad side for the advantage in big points. No offense to Venus, but Serena's returns are far more reliable in general. (b) Why are we letting Serena play the net? Her volleys and movements up there are often stilted. Lots of men's teams have both players starting deep and maybe that's something they ought to consider.
3. That's not all for Venus. If you follow me on Twitter, then you know how I feel about the game of Kirsten Flipkens. To summarize: I once played in the USTA sectionals for my team up north. My second match was against this person who hit moonballs left and right. It was annoying, and as I would say later (making sure she was in earshot of course) "not tennis." Well, of course, it is tennis, and of course, she did beat me, and of course Flipkens is crafty as hell and that's annoying and maybe not considered to be "fair" in some circles. But she did win and she did it on guile. Not to minimize Venus' role in all of this -- she had almost one thousand opportunities to end games in that match and failed about half the time. I didn't know she had been ill until after match, which might explain why she didn't bring her current form to Brazil. Considering her physical limited, she has to get props for bringing it as she did, but yeah, not enough.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

The women's journey to gold

OK, so the women's draw actually has people I've heard of in it. I know that a lot of people think that women are the drama queens in tennis, but this might be a good time to point out that they're not the ones dodging the Olympics because of mosquitoes. They pack their deet and move on. Just sayin'.
So (rubbing hands together enthusiastically), let's see our draw possibilities!

That arrow toward the bottom of the draw is the 'Are You Kidding Me?' match of the first round. I mean, how are you supposed to pick a winner between Genie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens? It's like a battle between dashed hopes and low expectations.
But anyway. Obviously, Serena looks to be the favorite in almost every tournament she plays. But. Her second-round match is probably against the reigning drama queen of tennis (unless Jelena Jankovic is around) Alize Cornet. Cornet has had some big-time success against Serena, so this is not a gimme. And she is likely to pitch a fit about something, so definitely should be entertaining.
Other possible matchups of note: Caroline Wozniacki v. Petra Kvitova. I would normally expect a straightforward win by Kvitova, but she's been shaky lately. Wozniacki hasn't been playing either, so who knows? I picked Kvitova, but who knows. Then there's Venus Williams v. Lucie Safarova. This will be a good match and although Venus has been dropping philosophical science and kicking butt, I think this could be tricky for her because Safarova is capable of stringing wins together. She hasn't done it much lately, but as much as Venus has been playing, this could be a situation.
The bottom draw has a ton of possibilities for the finals, but Johanna Konta and Agz Radwanska are my picks for navigating it. Radwanska is likely to advance on guile and in watching Konta against Venus a couple weeks back, she has got a lot of game -- big serve, big groundstrokes, good brain. So we'll see.
The doubles should be good, too. Martina Hingis has Timea Bacsinszky as her partner and they've got a good shot at the semis against Caroline Garcia and Kristine Mdladenovic, two really strong dubs players. Top half: the Williams sisters (as the top seed some sixteen years after they first played in the Olympics, by the way. Crazy) look to have a good chance to advance to see Russians Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarava.

The men's journey to Olympic gold (with way fewer passengers)

So, I just finished filling out the men's draw for the Rio Games, and let me tell you, that was one big bag of subparsomeness. Going through the first round was so boring that I had to abandon the coffee mug in favor of shoveling spoonfuls of coffee grounds into my mouth just to stay awake. That's what happens when many of the game's best decide to stay home for the Olympics.
The good news is that there's just enough left to be interesting in the later rounds. Let's take a look at what we've got:

You know, one thing that's unbelievable to me is the idea that you can have so few heavy hitters in an Olympic draw and still find Novak Djokovic playing Juan Martin del Potro in the first round. Pardon? I get it -- it's random. But talk about a tough draw for both guys. My heart roots for the injury- and talent-laden del Potro, but reality is trending toward Djokovic.
Another interesting first-round match is Marin Cilic v. Grigor Dimitrov. I don't doubt that Cilic will win, but it should be pretty entertaining at least.
Man, didn't Rafael Nadal look so cute, cheesing away as the Spanish flag-bearer during the opening ceremony last night? He decided last-minute to come to Rio, but with lingering injury issues, I'm not sure he can repeat his gold-medal run from 2008. I've got him in the semis, but Borna Coric or David "Pocket Rocket" Goffin could easily change that. But at least it's good to know that the best player in his country is proud to represent in the biggest sports gathering in the world. (Oh, hey, not talking to you at all, John Isner.)
Assuming Djokovic actually does get out of the first round, it's hard to see him losing to anyone but Andy Murray, who just regulated throughout Wimbledon. Murray has a much easier draw as well. Cilic or Kei Nishikori could be a challenge, too.
The men's doubles draw is out, too. This is really where you miss a team like Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. Still, this is an entertaining draw. I could see Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert squaring off in the semis against Djokovic and Nenad Zimonjic and in the bottom half, Nadal and Marc Lopez (who is an awesome doubles player) against Vasek Pospisil and Danny Nestor.
Next post up: the women, who unlike the men, actually showed up to Rio in good number.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Team No-Olympics checks out!

Well, the hits keep coming for the Rio Olympics, don't they. Has there ever been a Games in history in which people were falling all over each other to miss the plane?
Even though tennis is fairly new to the Olympics, it seemed to start taking more of a priority among the game's stars. "Seemed" is the operative word here. Because this time, it's taking a back seat to the likes of the Zika virus, a smattering of injuries and the U.S. Open. That's right, a tournament they have every year is taking priority over THE OLYMPICS.
Quick disclaimer: There is every chance the Rio Olympics are going to be a giant disaster. We've got a mosquito-borne illness that leads to birth defects in babies. We've got the threat of terrorism. We've got reports that athletes are staying in the Motel 6 instead of the Olympic village because the place has plumbing that is leaking like a sieve.
Having said all of that, there are still enough athletes willing to take the chance because it is THE OLYMPICS. But some of the people who are missing it might surprise you. Let's discuss them now:

1. Roger Federer: Federer announced this week that he just can't, guys. He's actually sitting out the rest of the year because of this nagging knee injury. I just read a Rolling Stone story about how Federer is in the twilight of his career and I can't help but be amused by this talk. Mark me: Federer is still a legit threat in men's tennis -- when he's healthy. And he is usually healthy. But, anyway.
2. Belinda Bencic: She would have joined Federer on the Swiss team, but she has decided to focus on the U.S. Open. Yes, the U.S. Open begins, like, two weeks after the tennis event in Rio. That's a tight turnaround. But here's what's blowing my mind here. Bencic's doubles partner would have been Martina Hingis. MAR. TINA. HINGIS. You would basically be guaranteed a medal, and probably the gold, assuming Hingis doesn't have the same lackluster results she did at Wimbledon. With a huge advantage like that, you walk away?
3. Nick Krygios and Bernard Tomic: Of course. Of course. Rebels gonna rebel.
4. Dominic Thiem: How about this for a fun fact: The country of Austria is essentially begging Thiem to go to the Olympics. The editor of one of the country's largest newspapers wrote an open letter asking Theim to change his mind, but the kid won't do it. Theim says his priority is also winning a major. Kids today. No respect for the Olympics.
5. John Isner: I'm not sure if you knew this -- I'm not quite sure I realized it -- but John Isner is the highest-ranked American male in the world right now. He's saying he won't play the Olympics because it doesn't offer ranking points, so he's focusing on events in the U.S. leading up to the last Slam of the year. Right hand: 100 points. Left hand: Gold, silver or bronze medal. Ohhhhhkay, then.
OK, fine. Yes, players should get ranking points for playing in the Olympics. But to choose to play some average warm-up events instead of attending the most anticipated athletic events in the world is questionable. Ranking points are great, but where exactly do you keep those on your mantle when your career is over?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

LEAGUE WATCH: Crisis of confidence

There was a time when high-pressure mixed-doubles matches geeked me out. I used to get on the court in 9.0-level matches knowing I was the worst player on the court AND I LOVED THAT FEELING. I knew I'd get the most shots and I was ready for it. I was like Scrappy Doo. Remember him?

That was me. And most of the time, I did well enough to pull out the win. It was usually quite close, but yeah, we'd win.
Last weekend was a different story. I played my second 8.0 match of the season, and unlike most of the recent lopsided losses I've taken, I actually ended up in a close match. My partner and I jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the first set, only to have our opponents pull even at 4-4. There was a minor development that happened at 4-1, though. When I say minor, I mean that my son, who had decided to go hit some tennis balls on the wall on a 98-degree afternoon in Florida, developed a case of heat sickness. My husband, who was playing on the other court tended to him, and I checked on him in the bathroom at the first changeover chance I got. He had a serious case of diarrhea, but otherwise was more coherent than he apparently was a few minutes earlier. He told me to come check on him in 5 or 10 minutes. That boy. What a sweetie.
Anyway, if I'm honest, the biggest problem wasn't my son getting sick. I knew he was OK. But remember what I said about knowing I was the worst player on the court and loving that pressure? I literally did not want to hit a ball for fear of messing up. I have never had that feeling while playing tennis. Have you? I doubted every swing of my racquet, and kept hoping for double faults, or for my partner to jump in front of me to hit a ball coming right at me.
We lost, of course. That'll happen when your inconsistent opponent gives you an easy sitter midcourt that the old Naf would have hit right at the net person, but that this Naf returns the favor with a spinny forehand that lands about four feet long.
What's happened to me? Good question. Sure, I haven't been playing much. My work schedule has limited my tennis considerably. And if my husband and kids aren't at the courts, then I don't want to be, either. That's how strapped for time I am these days. So maybe I just need to play more. What I do know is that I've lost all belief in my game. I don't know how to get it back. I guess I'll keep hitting the courts, waiting for my swagger to return.
Any ideas from anybody? I am open to the idea of hypnosis at this point.