Saturday, December 31, 2016

This Week with TWA: Retirement and rumination

We'll keep this last entry of the year short. I mean, there's not much to see anyway, and 2016 has in general been the type of year you want to drop-kick into oblivion. So have a great New Year, and ... what? Oh, I just checked my Twitter! We got some things to discuss!

Petra Kvitova: Apparently, 2016 decided to truly unload in the month of December. With it came reports that Kvitova was attacked by a thief who got into her apartment, and her left hand had been cut as she tried to defend herself. That is the terrible news. The very good news is that she's had a successful first surgery on the hand and she's recovering nicely. For once, tennis is not the most important thing here. What Kvitova went through must have been emotionally traumatized and all we can really do is hope she recovers both physically and mentally from this. And also that the bastard who did this to her is apprehended eventually.

Ana Ivanovic retires: Before we get to this, let's give a shout-out to one trend perfected in 2016: the coy social media announcement. Lots of pro players took to it this year, for varying reasons. Most of them used Twitter and Facebook to announce coaching changes (Rafael Nadal, Milos Raonic, who used it a lot for this), Maria Sharapova (to preview a press conference about a failed drug test and suspension, but NBD you guys! See you next year!!) Bethanie Mattek-Sands (for a Facebook Live chat about nothing at all), Victoria Azarenka (pregnancy announcement) and now this.
Ana Ivanovic unfortunately might go down as one of the game's underachievers. She never really seemed to recover from the biggest win of her career -- the French Open in 2008. If it wasn't injury, it was unexpectedly dropping early-round matches in majors. But her talent, especially where her forehand was concerned, cannot be denied. She came into the game as one prong of the Serbian attack on tennis (with Jelena Jankovic and some dude named Novak Djokovic) and can boast wins over many top-tier players. It might appear to be an unfinished career of sorts, but best of luck to Ivanovic. Please don't join the Tennis Channel as a commentator.

Serena Williams is engaged: Look, I'd never heard of this Alexis Ohanian before yesterday, either, but this is almost certainly better than Drake. No offense against Drake, but ... he needs to find himself. Seriously, though, back to Serena, who also announced her engagement on her fiance's baby, Reddit. Can anyone doubt that any children produced by this pairing might create the world's first superhero nerds? Crushing calculus and crime in one fell swoop! Good luck, Serena!

Fast Four: I guess I was hoping I could end this year without a rant directed at the tennis powers-that-be who are trying to destroy tennis. But then I read this story about the Hopman Cup trying out this Fast 4 match format. This is barely even tennis. You have to win four points to win a game. No-ad scoring. Four games to win a set. Play a tiebreaker at 3-all. This is just an exhibition, so this isn't the end of the world. But they're only doing it in doubles, and that's crap. Once again, everyone wants to get doubles off the court. There's going to be an exhibition in Sydney with the same format, and it just figures that there's one participant talking about how great it is:

Yeah. The tennis purist.
You know, if you're going to give me half a match, I'm gonna want half my money back.
*wallet drop*

Thursday, December 22, 2016

LEAGUE WATCH: The Law of Average

When last we left ... well, me during "League Watch," I was hoping to salvage an erratic season by winning the remainder of my matches and dragging my record for the year to at least .500. At the time, I was off of the mid-mark by a match, with four matches left in the season. I figured it would help if I could play all of those matches, because clearly I needed all the help I could get.
Shortly after my post, it became impossible to play them all because, due to work obligations, I had to ditch a match I had been scheduled to play. So that sucked a little bit. Still, though, there were three matches remaining, and if I could win two of them, I still had a shot. But if I could finish the season knowing I at least played well at some point, then it wouldn't be a total wash. Just a partial wash. 
So. Onward to the next match on the schedule, against the second-placed team in the league. (There are three. We are the third-place team.) So the way this particular league works, there are three doubles matches and in lieu of a third set, a third-set tiebreaker is played to determine the winner if needed. Our team had lost each match played this season 1-2, and all the deciding matches were done in a tiebreaker. It's fair to say, then, that we've had some unlucky bounces as it were. It's been that kind of season for me, too. I've felt so close to regaining form, and mostly confidence, only to stumble at the end. 
Back to the match. For once, I knew both of my opponents. One of them was a decent 4.0 and looks exactly like Tracy Austin. That has nothing to do with anything, but seriously. Just like her. I also knew that she had a tendency to double fault under pressure. The other woman is this short lady with excellent form and is probably the most consistent 3.5 I have ever played. I felt confident head-to-head against her, though, and her partner. 
Here's the thing. Doubles doesn't really work like that. And even if it did, "feeling" a way is different from "performing" in a way. My partner and I actually were down in the first set 1-4 and pushed it back to 4-all before giving up the set. That really frustrated the hell out of me, which doesn't happen. I usually have a short memory on the court, which is super helpful if you're playing poorly. Not that night, though. I think all the close calls I'd been having finally caught up and I started the second set colder than a polar bear in Alaska eating an ice-cream cone. And that locked me up. My poor partner. She must have been swearing me off by then. She'd probably already rehearsed the speech she was going to give my captain about how she couldn't ever play with me again "because she ... was allergic to Prince racquets! Yeah, it's not that she sucks!" 
Then we got down 5-2, and I started connecting with shots again. I stopped hitting my returns into the net and started hitting decent groundstrokes and strategic lobs. Why? How? No idea. None at all. And then we were receiving at 6-5 with Tracy Austin serving and giving us all the double faults we could want in a game and somehow we lost the game. And then we lost the tiebreaker after being ahead in that as well. 
I was pretty frustrated with myself. We had all the ingredients -- a good partner, two opponents who were melting down, and if it were a boxing match, we would have had them on the ropes. All we needed was one more thing -- me. I didn't need to do anything special. I just needed to make the shots I was supposed to make and I did it about 50 percent of the time.
Yes, we have a theme here.  
The next match was on our "home" courts and I had played with my partner before. But she greeted me tonight with interesting news: She hadn't played in three weeks, and she left her racquets at home. Nope. Don't know how you can do that. But it was a good thing our home court has a pro shop. 
Our opponents, were, ... So have you ever warmed up with someone to start a match, and they're tagging the ball, hitting these great strokes and you have to start thinking strategy sooner than you'd like because you have to figure out how you're even going to get the ball back? And then when the match starts, they play nothing like they warmed up? Yeah, that. But still they were good enough to keep the ball in play. 
But the first set went easier than we thought and we won it pretty easily. But then the second set was not as kind. We started slowly, which was a bad thing, because my partner began struggling with an injury and it was obvious to our opponents, unfortunately. It became clear to me that winning the match was going to be a challenge given the situation, and maybe that's why I felt great playing for once all season. I was serving well and I was relaxed but focused. This. This was the feeling I'd been hoping to capture all season. Yeah, it showed up in a match I wasn't going to win, but YAS! 
And yas, we lost. BUT. Our team, once again, pushed to all three courts going to a tiebreak, finally won two of them! We won a match! Could we win another? No, because we couldn't field enough players for our last match.

Oh, well.
So,  to summarize, I ended the season with the worst record I think I've ever had, and I ended it playing one of the best matches I had played. What does that mean? Do I need to convince myself before every match that I'm going to lose in order to play the way I know I can? That sounds dumb and I hope it's not the answer because I know I don't have the mental fortitude to play those types of head games with myself. So, in the offseason, I guess I'll hit the courts to try and figure it out. 
Which, it should never be forgotten, is the fun part.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Official 2016 TWA Yearbook

I know what you're thinking. You read that post title and think: "Why on earth would I want to remember anything about 2016?"
I'm with you, sister. (Or brother.) Still, 2016 actually was pretty good to the sport of tennis and to some of its stars. Let's take a look back at the best and worst of the year that we shall speak not of after this post.

Head of the Class: Inspired by Serena Williams' recent essay, I am not going to pick a male or female head of the class. But we have male and female co-winners for this category because both of these athletes achieved Sisyphean feats. I'm speaking, of course, about Angelique Kerber and Andy Murray. Kerber started out the year by winning the Australian Open. She won the Australian Open by beating Serena Williams. Despite a slight nosedive in results after that, she rebounded nicely to make the Wimbledon final and then win the U.S. Open. The other interesting thing she did this year was to start the season ranked No. 10 and end it ranked No. 1. Not bad, not bad.
Murray has spent the last several years as the runt of the Big 4 litter. "Is he at the top of game?" "Where at the top of the game?" "Is he ever going to be the Big 3?" "Is he going to get soft after having a kid?" These sorts of questions. Some people don't really dig questions about the value of their successes and they tank under pressure. Andy Murray won Wimbledon, a gold medal at the Olympics, the U.S. Open and the year-end championships. After losing to Novak Djokovic in Australia and France, he came back to exorcise that demon in London last month and became the world No. 1 in the process. Not really how runts act, right?

Most Inspiring Player: Juan Martin del Potro. His is the ultimate rise, fall, and rise again story they make sports movies about. If they made a movie about del Potro's career, non-tennis fans would roll their eyes and say, "Come on, now. Really?" Yes, really. del Potro really shook the tennis world in 2011 when he beat Roger Federer in the final to win the U.S. Open and had been sidelined with injuries ever since. He really did emerge again at the Olympics, beating Novak Djokovic in the first round, and Rafael Nadal to advance to the gold-medal round. Then he just won the Davis Cup for Argentina by winning an epic match, coming back from a 2-set deficit against Marin Cilic. And that was just 2016. So really the only question left is: "Who's gonna play del Potro?"

Most Popular: Maria Sharapova. Very popular these days. She's been all over my Twitter feed lately because SHE'S BACK! WOO!! Despite a drug ban that sidelined her for a year, everyone is so excited for her return. I am not that excited because I think she caught a break for gaming the system, but, hey. That's not a very popular opinion. 

Most Likely to Succeed: I am still putting my paper on Garbine Muguruza, who won the French Open this year, and then sort of lost her way. Like, she left the map. Should she find her way back, though, I think she's a more likely candidate than Karolina Pliskova because she can mix up her game a little better. In June, I might have added Lucas Pouille to this list, but talk about leaving the map. It's harder to make a dent in the men's game with inconsistency, a lesson young Milos Raonic has learned. He managed to clean up his game this season and almost snagged Wimbledon. Even though he lost, he showed that he is capable of kicking up much chaos. The only question I'd have is about his coaching situation. He retains John McEnroe, kicks him to the curb. He retains Carlos Moya, kicks him to the curb. After his best season ever. OK ...

Most Likely to Succeed ... at Something Other than Tennis: We're lookin' at you, Little Nicky Kyrgios. After receiving some behavioral warnings throughout 2016, the ATP placed Krygios on the sideline, but not before giving an interview declaring that he's prefer basketball. Kyrgios is a special talent, no doubt, but it's clear he's not happy on a tennis court. It's pretty unlikely he took the ATP's suggestion of therapy, so that begs the question: How long would you do a job that made you miserable?

Fifth-Year Seniors: One of the biggest questions of 2016 will undoubtedly be "What about Roger and Rafa?" Both are a bit long in the letterman jacket if you understand my meaning, and both are struggling with injuries. Maybe a better question is: "Will the Big 4 involve both of these men in 2017?" I think the answer is no. Top 10 maybe. And maybe just Federer. He's always had the most economical style and even though he's older than Nadal, he's physically the fresher of the two. Now, Nadal's own run at the Olympics shows that he can still be a serious threat. Plus, I feel that his loss of dominance against Murray and especially Djokovic, has messed with his confidence. 

That Student Who Skates Through the School Year, But Aces the Final Exam: Dominika Cibulkova. Yes, I made a category just for her, but come on -- you all know/knew that student. It's almost not fair, is it. Some people put in the hard yards, gain a reputation, come to expect certain things of themselves. And then they play Cibulkova in the year-end championships and she beats you.
Seriously, I hope Cibulkova can win a major next year. It's going to be a lot harder now, though. I mean, she's short, but everyone sees her now.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Therapy with TWA: Gender equality, Serena Williams, equal pay and the WTA

This week, I read Serena Williams' open letter to women, published in The Guardian. It resonates particularly now because of Hillary Clinton's loss in the U.S. presidential election, I think, although she doesn't address the race. In it, she does encourage women to "dream big" and wonders why she is considered one of the greatest "female" athletes of all time, while Roger Federer, say, isn't identified by gender. She also raises the fact that women are paid less for doing the same work that men do -- even her.
Her letter is an important one, and she does raise a strong point: Why can't we throw gender out of the window when discussing achievement? It's a good question, and the answer is the same when you replace the word "gender" with "race." It's because we're not there yet. We are not equal, and there is actually importance now, still, in using those distinguishing identification factors. What Serena Williams has done in her career is still so unusual, so deep into uncharted territory that it needs to be noted that her accomplishments were done by a woman. Not as a way to minimize her work, but more as a way to inspire. I think one day, Williams' accomplishments will stand alone with no gender asterisks necessary. Right now, in a world where a woman who was far more qualified to lead lost an election to a man who, it could be argued, was the least qualified to lead, we need to remember who Williams is, because the same girls who saw the way the election went down are bearing witness to the unprecedented career of Serena Williams. So, for now, I'm OK with her accomplishments being linked to her gender. For now.

This week, I also took the time to do something I had been meaning to do for some time. I watched the annual State of the Tour "fireside chat" (no fireside present) with Steve Simon and some of the other leaders of the WTA to discuss their plans for the year. A lot of it is exciting stuff -- expanding its reach throughout Asia and Europe, raising its digital game, announcing an agreement to stream tour matches starting in 2017 (although this part is apparently on hold) and a dramatic rebranding of the WTA, along with a commitment to quality in the tour's content. Simon also spoke in vague terms of easing the tournament schedule. All of this sounds great, and really should have been happening some years ago.
The room was full of journalists, and they asked a lot of questions. Some of them were kind of ridiculous, such as the idea that focusing on going digital would leave print readers behind. It was sort of like listening to someone ask, "Well, Steve, I've been a caveman all my life. I don't really want to use electricity ..." But when pressed about the schedule situation, Simon kept his language vague and hinted that there were many moving parts involved in shortening the calendar.
That was going to be the closest anyone got to pushing Simon on comments he's made previously regarding his ideas on keeping players healthy, including this idea of going to no-ad scoring in matches, to make them go faster.
Steve Simon, meet Serena Williams. Serena, Simon. Because what Simon has suggested is not equality at all. It is the very acceptance of inferiority. Well, that is, until I hear the ATP Tour CEO start talking about men shortening matches. Or, when men start getting on-court coaching. I've discussed my disgust with both of these ideas already. But with this open letter she's written, I wonder if Serena's taken it to Simon. I wonder if, when considering gender inequality, if she weighs this on-court coaching idea that's available to women only for reasons that have never been clarified. Would she really play a no-ad match on one court in the Miami Open while Rafael Nadal is playing a standard three-setter one court over?
Serena's speaking to a larger point, I know, when it comes to gender. And I know that women in the workplace literally go pound-for-pound in duties and workload and are paid less for it. Is that happening in women's tennis? No. When you bring no-ad scoring and coaching rules that are different for men and women, that is the essence of inequality. It's giving in to the idea that no, we're not the same. Is that what Steve Simon means to imply? Is Serena Williams OK with that?
Serena, meet Simon. Simon, Serena.

Friday, November 25, 2016

This week with TWA: Some falls and a rise

In the spirit of Thanksgiving (at least here in the U.S.), it's a great time to express gratefulness -- and a bit of shock -- about how well men's tennis has stood up despite the absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Not to say they are not missed. But the ATP Tour finals really showed me something. Not just that Milos Raonic is likely the real deal, despite the occasional presence of that Koozie. Even without Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, there's still plenty of promise in the likes of Dominic Thiem and other young guns who are cutting their teeth against the best in the world. 
But they're not quite ready yet. So let's go back to Murray and Djokovic. When the tour finals began, I didn't expect much out of Djokovic. Given his recent results and struggles with injury, you just got the sense that he was here because this tournament was a big deal, not because he was ready to win it. Then he showed up and handled Raonic and demolished the rest of the round-robin field. (Which, sorry, wasn't that hard. I mean, look at Murray's draw!) It was starting to look like the old routine, where Djokovic assumes the role of buzzsaw. And even though Murray dominated the second half of the season, he had found himself lacking when it came that one opponent -- the same guy he had to play for the year-end world No. 1 title.
Not this time. Murray handled business against Djokovic and that's great for tennis. Because now, anything can happen when they face off. And when you bring back the experience of Federer and Nadal, it will bring back some of the weight and consistency missing from the Top 4 this year. 

One thing I love about the ATP finals is how much love doubles has always gotten. This might be the first year, incidentally, that the winners of the doubles tournament are completely unheard of to me. If you want to talk about changing tides, then I guess it's time to concede that the likes of Nenad Zimonjic and Daniel Nestor are no more. They were nowhere near this tournament. The Bryan Brothers were, though. It could be me, though, but in their semifinal match against Henri Kontinen and John Peers, it looked like doubles tennis is starting to take the same turn that singles has taken, especially in the men's game. I'm talking about the rise of the power game. Maybe I missed it, but even men's doubles used to involve some guile and strategy and maybe that's what the Bryans came to do, but more often, the points ended up with a massive overhead or a crushing down-the-line return off of a meh serve. 
Of course, if I'm not completely delusional, that would be terrible for doubles. I guess there's always mixed?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Therapy with TWA: The rage edition, featuring the United States and he We Speak Not of in This House.

I don't have time for this, OK?
I decided this year, of all years, to do NaNoWriMo again because of this project I'm working on. I want to see if it's got legs, if I can develop it. I have a full-time job. Kids. Husband. I got a tennis blog. I have to play tennis. I have things to do.
But I find I can't write anything else right now, and I know why. It's because I have to Get This Off My Chest.
Last Tuesday, the U.S. held its presidential election. You probably haven't heard about it. It's a very small affair. Anyway, this guy won. Usually, it's the guys who win, so that's expected. But this guy. This guy ran a campaign on hate and fear -- and he won. This guy. This guy thinks that women can have abortions the day before their due dates. I've had babies. They will basically walk out at that point. Crawl. Roll. Whatever. This guy. This guy wants Muslims to sign up to a national registry. You know who else wanted an entire religious group to register? Hitler. This guy. This guy is facing trial for starting a fake school. This guy thinks it's OK to get out of paying taxes. (Can I not pay taxes?) He's an advocate of grabbing a woman by her genitalia. This guy. This guy's wife says he was peer-pressured into saying things about grabbing women by their genitalia by a dude who got fired from his job for standing next to This Guy. This guy. THIS GUY.
This guy beat a woman with an email scandal. This woman. Her name is Hillary Clinton. (Her name can be uttered here. I don't know if she plays tennis, but she is in the TWA Hall of Fame. She lost and came out in the fiercest pantsuit I've ever seen.) This woman has seen more humiliation than someone at her status might ever have witnessed, and a good amount of it at the consequence of her husband's actions, who was president. This woman was the first First Lady in recent memory to take on a major initiative. She got shot down, but she tried. This woman. This woman was a senator. I met this woman the first time she mounted a presidential run. She went to the bathroom and when she came out, there were a bunch of fangirls waiting for her outside, and she took pictures with all of us. This woman was secretary of state when America finally nabbed Osama bin Laden. This woman got blamed for an international incident. It was all this woman's fault. This woman. You want to talk about qualified? This woman was the most qualified person to run for the office of president. Experience. When you apply for a job, they want to know: Are you experienced? Do you know what it takes to do this job? That's true if you apply to Taco Bell. If she applied for Taco Bell, they would tell her she could run everything at Taco Bell.
But this woman? She lost to the cashier at Taco Bell. The racist one who spits in your Taco Supreme.
This is all very distressing, I know. Or maybe it's not. It depends on your perspective. For me? Very distressing.
I've been trying to find solace on the tennis court. I played last week after the election and it was OK. It was 1.5 hours I didn't think about the effect on This Guy on my life. It was two days removed from the day I went from feeling like a citizen to feeling like a target. Have you ever walked down a street, wondering if the pedestrians you passed didn't really want you there, could legitimately swing on you? No? Oh, how nice for you.
I follow a lot of tennis writers and publications. One of them has been particularly jarring lately. Her name is Courtney Nguyen. I want her job. She covers the WTA and she kicks ass at it. I wanted to believe in tennis as my refuge from This Guy, but then Courtney began tweeting, both before and after the election:

I was with Ben. It's gonna be fine, Court! But then it wasn't.

I don't want Courtney Nguyen's job. She gets to interview U.S. citizens who thought it was OK to elect this guy as president because of their BOTTOM LINE! What. Like, honestly, what. If you're reading this, please follow Courtney's work on social media. Follow her and tell her you have her back. You'd better not do anything other than that. If you see something, say something. On the courts and off. If you see something, SAY SOMETHING. Also Grace Min and Jamie Hampton and all the tennis players who are bold enough to say something because they see something.
If I ever find out about a tennis player who voted for This Guy, I would just ask why. Because Your Guy? Your guy thinks I live in the inner city and that my life is terrible because I'm dodging bullets on the way home. Here's how my kids are growing up:

All right, well those two always make me feel better. 
It's not my intention to bitch about this for four years. I'd rather do something to ensure this guy doesn't hurt too many people and that this never happens again. A lot of people right now are pleading for some Understanding. I think that's a good point. We all need to understand the consequences of our action -- and our inaction. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

This Week with TWA: "Nasty Women," Andy Murray and the ATP Finals

It's been a nutty week. Last Tuesday, our country elected a Cheeto Satan to be president. I have more to say on that, but I need to breathe first before I hit send on that post.
Let me tell you something. When you find that you are basically in hysterics for an entire week and find it difficult to hold it together, there's really only one cure for that. Well, playing tennis, yes. But if you can't play tennis, it's better to watch pissed-off individuals play at least.
Which brings me to the Fed Cup. OK. I don't think I've done this yet, but it's time to officially induct Barbora Strycova into the TWA Hall of Fame. I already told you guys that Strycova does NOT CARE. She will fight you, as Kristina Mladenovitch now knows.

Strycova really didn't have a reason to be mad here -- it was the right play. But still. And then she basically strapped Karolina Plishkova onto her back and carried her to victory. This is why I want Barbora Strycova to be my doubles partner.
The bottom line: Fed Cup had some great matches and it came down to the doubles, so that was great to watch. I want to really love Fed Cup, but they need to fix it so that everyone can realize how great women's tennis is. Well, except Steve Simon, who runs women's tennis. But I guess he's going to need convincing.


Now, you know that I hate to brag. Actually, I love to brag. It's my superpower. But I remember mentioning on this blog a little bit ago that Andy Murray was going to win majors and be a top-tier player. Of course, at that point, he was having a little trouble keeping the whole package together, as it were.
But I was right. Despite the buzzsaw that Novak Djokovic was for much of this year, Andy Murray has emerged as the world's No. 1. Before I talk about how screwed he got for the round-robin portion of this event, we need to pause and appreciate this. Murray is not Roger Federer. He does not have the grace about the court. You don't look at Murray and get the sense that he is a natural. He has had to work hard to be this good. Yeah, yeah, everyone works hard. But at this time in men's tennis history to emerge as a No. 1, with the Djokovics, Federers, Nadals, Stan Wawrinkas -- and the young guns -- nipping at your heels? This is huge for Murray and it's well-deserved and I told you so.
Now let's talk about how Murray got screwed in the round robin.

Even though Djokovic is having a hard time in these matches, his draw is easily the best. The most anyone else in his section has done is a Grand Slam final. One. Poor Murray draws Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori? It's a running theme here in the States, but I think you have to consider the idea the system is rigged.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

LEAGUE WATCH: The battle for .500

I might have mentioned in passing my subpar record and play in league tennis this year. But, as I noted more recently, my results have started to look up a bit. And when I say "bit" you should know that that is exactly what I mean.
I've rarely played two matches this season with the same person, but I have in the past two matches. The first of these two matches was against two really strong players who probably played a little above their rating. This is a 7.5 combo league, a thing I'd never heard of before moving to Florida, but anyway. So one player was a 4.0 and the other a 3.5.
We got our clocks cleaned pretty good in the first set and I had a strategical thought that I conveyed to my partner: Maybe she should lay off the net for a while. Lord knows I always should lay off the net. She was more comfortable up there, but her volleys were not exactly point-enders, so our opponents always were able to retrieve them and stay in the point. I thought it would improve our chances if she played the baseline. But I could tell she was obviously not comfortable with that, so I let it be. "We're here to have fun," I told myself. "Don't put any pressure on anybody."
And even I didn't want to be at the net, I stayed there, too. Same reason. No big deal. It's fun!
Although we competed better in the second set, even building a lead at one point, we lost the set and the match.
Have you ever noticed how you're never more retrospective in life as you are on the drive home after a league match? Everything is so much clearer than it was just 10 minutes ago. Well, this drive was no different. Why didn't I press my partner to stay off the net? Why the hell didn't I stay off the net? I've pulled my own net card a thousand times in a match and done my damage from the baseline. Why didn't I do it, then?
The answer came to me right at a red light. I had taken this "no pressure" approach a little too far. See, I had felt earlier in the year that I was too wound up, too worried about winning these matches, and it made me careful. So I decided that I would focus on having fun above all things, hoping my game would loosen up and I would play well. But now I was putting such little pressure on myself that I was apparently willing to stand at the net and botch volley after volley -- all in the name of not being too worried about winning. Yes, you can say it. That is straight-up stupid. But this was the problem. My inner Scrappy was making occasional appearances in matches, but I was muting her by not wanting to worry about winning.
So how do you fix such a stupid problem? For me, the solution was twofold: Stop beating myself with inertia and -- and this is going to be the fun part -- set a goal. Set a desire. And my goal is not to be afraid to try to win. My goal is to play to win, too. So now I'm going to be happy and have fun playing tennis and I am also going to compete.
But how do you put a metric on such a goal? That answer came later, when I had to endure the endless mocking from my husband, ("Have you ever won a match out here?" "Are you going to the kitchen? Maybe you'll find your backhand in the cupboard.") having lost again. He was looking at his USTA record on the website, which prompted him to look at mine, which I really didn't want him to do. I knew what it was. I had won some, but I had lost even more. I had always prided myself on finishing seasons with a winning record. Now? Two matches below .500.
With four matches left in my season, it's time to put a metric on this goal. I am going to finish the season at .500 or better. And, it was going to start, oh, two days after making this decision, as it turned out.
Due to some communication issues, our next match sneaked up on a lot of people on our team and a couple couldn't play at the last minute, so instead of playing again in two weeks, it was on RIGHT NOW. When I got there, our captain informed me I'd be playing against one of the best players in the county. Yes! Let's get this party started!
I was ready to go, but it seemed my racquet wasn't. Yeah, it was my racquet's fault that we almost got bageled in the first set. I got to play with my partner from last time, and I was still doing the same stupid thing from the last match -- just sitting there at the net, botching volleys. Toward the end of the first set, though, I told my partner I was getting off the net. But I didn't tell her to back off, which I considered, but then something happened. When I got out of her way, she began rushing in and finishing off points. Not all of them, but she was obviously far more comfortable up there. And I was more comfortable back at the baseline. That adjustment basically got us the second set. Now it was on to the tiebreaker, because in Florida, they don't play a third set. Yes, this is terrible, but we'll move on somehow.
We were a few key shots away from winning, but in the end, we lost 10-5, I think. It was a little frustrating, because obviously, once you get that far in a match, you feel you have a chance. But during that revelatory drive home I mentioned, I realized two things: There's still time to make my goal and that I shouldn't be afraid to change things up. Some people, myself included, stay at the net because they feel they should. It's how you play doubles. But tennis is a lot easier to play when you put yourself in a comfortable position on the court. Like so many things in life, we make it harder than it has to be.
So, with that in mind, and more of a focus on strategy and making my goal, I'm starting to feel a bit more Scrappy again. And you should know that when I say "bit," it is exactly what I mean.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

This Week with TWA: Top 5 moments from the WTA Finals

Well, the WTA Tour Finals went down exactly the way I expected it.
Said no one. Like, no one.
Dominika Cibulkova won the WTA Tour Finals on Sunday. OK? You got it? No? Me neither! This one's gonna take a while.
This year-end tournament was Threat Level Insanity. It was like the U.S. presidential election 2016 shenani-aster. Except in all good ways. Let us count those ways:

Dominika Freakin' Cibulkova: First of all, there can't be too many other players at this tournament who lose twice, yet still advance to the sudden-death stage only to win the whole thing. Let's just get that hat-tip out of the way. Now, I called Cibulkova a Minion-sized player on Twitter, but she has always been one of my favorite players because she gives tiny tennis players like myself a lot of hope. Except she has to work really hard, which is kind of a bummer. Not only does she have to be fit, she has to have impeccable timing to get the drop on almost anyone else on the court. It is not easy to hit the ball at the top of the bounce every. single. time, or at least every time she successfully executes a shot. A big part of her game is taking time away, and it's just a second or two, but it's part of what had Kerber (and the rest of her opponents this week) scrambling all over the place. It's maddening.

Anddd, the loser, but still champion ...: I know a lot of people like Angelique Kerber. I like her. She's got grit, she works hard and she is the legit World No. 1 right now. But even as she earned that title, I always considered her a stopgap No. 1 at best. This tournament proved that, and the final match really shined a spotlight on this. Cibulkova played great defense and served well, too, but she offered up enough short balls that Kerber should have been able to step in and apply pressure. Instead, she's the one being pulled around the court. In her 20-minute offseason, she needs to develop the kill shot.

Svetlana Kuznetsova goes full Alize Cornet: Kuznetsova has always been my favorite Russian from that first post-Kournikova batch. She's not flashy, no drama, just a meat-and-potatoes tennis player. She's had periods of wild inconsistency, but at her best, she is a threat. She was a real threat to Johanna Konta last week and took her spot in the finals at the last minute. I thought she'd have nothing left to make a real run, but that was, to put it mildly, not accurate. She made a semifinal run to the tour finals, but not without a little sacrifice.

There are a couple of things to love about this. First, the theories bandied about by the female commentator. "She's feeling heavy on the court?" Pardon? Like, what?!!
It turned out that Kuznetsova's explanation about this moment was that her hair kept getting in her face and distracted her. OK. Makes sense. I guess my first inclination would have been to ... I don't know, ... tuck the problematic hair into my ponytail holder? But that's just me. There are about four other ways to solve the problem, and Sveta goes to the most time-consuming and permanent one. Oh-kay!
On the next changeover, Kuznetsova was sobbing like Vera Zvonareva. This is really all the evidence you need that the season is too long. We've got players having mini-episodes and losing critical thinking skills during matches, guys!

The return of Santina: Even though Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza did not defend their championship, they are still a very entertaining team to watch. The reason they ended their partnership in the first place was because they weren't getting the wins they were used to, and I guess losing here is just confirmation. But big-ups to Mirza, who was not really much of a doubles player when she started out, but has developed pretty well, learning a lot from Hingis and is now the best doubles player in the world. And she's getting the cream of the crop for partners so far, too. Barbora Strycova is not the friendiest person on tour, but she doesn't come for friends. She comes to clean up on the court. Hingis? Hingis is drawing Coco Vandeveghe. I would just submit she is not exactly battle-tested.
Anyway, the rest of the doubles tournament was also great to watch. Elena Vesnina is another one of those "clean up on aisle D" types and she and Ekaterina Makarova came away with the title, which again, was a bit of a surprise. Which fits in perfectly with the rest of the tournament.

What the Halep?: I have this feeling that the Simona Halep/Darren Cahill breakup is coming soon. Sure, I could be wrong, but perhaps the person most poised to pose a real challenge in this post-Serena season was the one behind her in the rankings most of the season -- Halep. And yet? Lackluster Slam appearances, barely registers a blip in Singapore. I'm far from an insider, but Cahill is a high-quality coach. People under his tutelage tend to get consistently better, or poof! Done! Has Halep maxxed out her potential? Maybe it's just that the long season took its toll. But she clearly needs to assess how badly she wants to challenge for No. 1, because right now? Yeah, this is the time.

Singapore: You know, since I've gotten the Tennis Channel back, I've been watching a lot more tennis. Duh. I know, but one other thing I've noticed is that I might be the only one watching the tennis. The stands at these late-season tournaments have been almost completely empty. That's questionable to me. Everyone's sitting around debating what we should do about the long season. Should we shorten matches? Replace tiebreakers with riveting rounds of rock-paper-scissors? Maybe we just have fewer tournaments. I have to think some of these events are operating at a loss. The money they pay in electricity just to get the party started must be exorbitant compared to the spectators. They might just consider having people bring candles to the matches if they're going to keep having tournaments that 10 people attend in person.
OK, with that off my chest, man, that crowd in Singapore loves themselves some tennis! Every match had enthusiastic fans. They didn't appear to be sellout numbers, but there was some life in the place. You want to fix tennis, Steve Simon? Maybe just give tennis to the people who want it?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

This week with TWA: Serena, Rafa and Sveta on fumes

Last week, the other shoe fell for Rafa Nadal. I guess we all knew there would be consequences from his decision to make an Olympic run, which turned out to be incredible for fans and Spain. Now he's shutting his season down due to injury. Again. I hate to be that guy -- the one who's ready to set the retirement clock for Rafa. But when was the last time he was able to complete a season without missing at least one major? Although it was nice to see the opening of his new academy in Spain last week, attended by the biggest rival of his career -- the Fed. But ... is that some sort of sign? That he's trying to move on? He doesn't have permission to move on! No one approved this! OK, deep breathing. *clicking my heels* Rafa will come back. Rafa will come back. Rafa will come back ...
*clicking faster*
I'm not as worried about Serena Williams, who also pulled her own card on the season last week. That means she won't be around for the year-end championships, which led to some things happening that we'll get to in a second. Chris Evert gave her annual obit on Serena's career this weekend, citing her broken-down body and the aura of invincibility being gone. I can't imagine that's true. Evert has more access to players, so it's hard to dispute, but really? Players no longer fear Serena? Hm. I don't dispute the injury build-up -- that would actually be impossible. It seems that Serena's problem lately is more in the head, though. And some time off might straighten out those issues as well as the shoulder. We've just been here too often with her -- thinking she's gonna call it a day, that she's not interested anymore, blah blah blah. Then she busts out four majors and we shove the obit back to Evert for revisions. Rinse, repeat.
Which brings us to the WTA Tour finals in Singapore. (OK, that didn't bring us here, but this is where I want to go next, so ...) The field of eight singles players included Johanna Konta ... until the day before matches started. Svetlana Kuznetsova was able to qualify by winning in Moscow at the 25th hour. Now I've got no issue with Sveta, but more with the WTA on this one. I hate to keep dumping on the WTA on account of the lecture a couple weeks about the CEO who is under the belief that the best way to draw tennis fans is to have players play as little tennis as possible. So I will keep this rant short. What's hard about setting a cutoff date date for qualifying for the tour finals? I guess I had assumed there was such a thing, and yes, I know what happens when you assume. But now I also know what happens when you can qualify for the finals until the day before the thing starts. A complete mess. I figured that with Sveta on fumes, Konta might get her shot on court anyway, but that appears to be quite inaccurate, considering that she's already beaten Agz Radwanska.
This is the part in therapy when the counselor would say: "Now, say something nice about the WTA." OK. Despite the absence of anyone except one person in the singles draw who has won a Slam this year, it is an impressive lineup and at least the matches will be competitive. Exhibit A: Angelique Kerber v. Dominica Cibulkova. The tennis so far has really been high quality. It'll get a complete wrap-up in next week's post.

Quick hits:
Juan Martin del Potro won a tournament, everybody! With his win at the Stockholm Open, he's back into the top 50, where no one will be happy to see him, especially if they like winning. Jack Sock had a good tournament, too, but he was left flailing after half of del Potro's groundstrokes.
Maria Sharapova has been removed from the WTA rankings because of her drug ban, which has been upheld but shortened. Just until she returns next April and has played three tournaments. No matter. I'd imagine she'll enroll at MIT next to whittle away the time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Therapy with TWA: Nick Kyrgios

OK. You might have heard a little bit about Nick Kyrgios' performance at last week's tournament in Shanghai. If you haven't, here's a video highlighting his "level" of "play."
At first, those in the tennis know felt that the $16,500 fine first levied on him was a bit weak, but then yesterday, the ATP brought the hammer down. It fined him an additional $25,000 ... and ended his season. Kind of. Kyrgios was banned from the sport for eight weeks. He will be allowed to return one day before the Australian Open. This is the ATP saying to Nick:

Even more merciful still, the ATP has offered to reduce the ban to three weeks if he would submit to psychiatric care. Nick's statement is like, "See y'all in 2017," so I guess that's a no.
So it's time for us to talk about Nick. In a profile the New York Times did about Kyrgios, he tells the writer that he doesn't know his racquet head size, and it appears he knows little about the strings he uses. The best tennis players in the world are almost always students of the game and its history. Roger Federer. Rafa Nadal. Serena Williams (and she wasn't always). But if you want to do something well, you learn about how to do it, and who before you has done it.
Kyrgios has said he doesn't like tennis, that he'd rather be playing basketball. Why doesn't he just play basketball? Seriously, I'm asking. I have no idea.
The temper doesn't bother me so much. First, it sort of flies in the face of the idea he doesn't care. Also, we loved John McEnroe for being a jerk on the court. It gave tennis an extra dimension. For some reason, tennis has this reputation of being a "gentleman's" sport. We wave off our accidental winning shots. We shake hands when it's over. But most people I know don't feel very gentlemanly about tennis when they're playing. They are trying to win. And unless you're dealing with a complete jerk, it's almost universally understood that any anger displayed is meant inwardly, not at your opponent. (Unless you think Novak Djokovic was really mad at Roberto Bautista Agut over the weekend in Shanghai.) Yelling at fans is wrong, though, and inexcusable. They literally have paid to sit there and listen to you yell at them.
The larger sin for most, including me, is this nonsense about not giving it a good effort during a match. There are two things that irritate the hell out of me when I see it on a tennis court I am occupying. 1. Cheating. Because just don't even bother if you're going to cheat. 2. Showing a lack of effort, or showing that you're just not interested in our match. Then leave. I've got other things to do, you've got other things to do, and I think I'm decent enough that you could stop looking at your cell phone for a second. On the pro level, this sentiment must be emphasized by a thousand. People are paying good money to watch you play. Your opponent wants to play well and likely is trying to improve his lot in the rankings. This is not a situation where your laziness/lack of concern/whatever your problem is is affecting only yourself.
Kyrgios is uneducated about his sport. He's rude. He bails out of matches and says terrible things to people. All of that is true. Here's why I'm willing to give him a few minutes to settle down: He's a kid. He's 21. And he's a male, so it's a given that mentally, he's really, like, 15. For some reason, we expect our athletes, even the young ones, to be fully formed when they emerge onto the scene. This is probably because they are physically strong and most likely able to do things that we can't do and that's something we can see plainly. So when they show an incomplete or malformed personality, we just can't believe it. But they are undergoing a maturation process, like any other human. Among the things he needs to assess -- the main thing really -- is whether he wants to play tennis. If the answer is no, well then, That probably would solve about 100 percent of his problems.
There's hope for Nick. Back in the day (like seven years ago), there was this player. Let's call him Novak Djokovic, because that is who I am talking about. He was tagged by top analysts of the game as an up-and-comer, with a megaton of talent. There was one problem, though: He bailed out of matches faster than I dodge mowing the lawn, even after he won a major. He was known for showing little effort, or just quitting, claiming some niggling injury. A lot of people wondered if it was going to be his lack of effort that kept him from realizing his full potential. We know the answer to that question now.
Ultimately, this suspension will be good for everyone. Tennis fans want to see blood for Kyrgios' behavior and Kyrgios needs to do some thinking. I'm genuinely curious to see what a couple months off will do for him.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This Week with WTA: The rage edition, Vol. II, starring Maria Sharapova

Honestly, I didn't expect to go off as much as I did on Steve Simon in the last post, but he had it coming. But I have more to rage about. One more small development this past week in tennis was the final verdict on the Maria Sharapova suspension. Now, if you want to talk about special snowflakes, let's talk about Sharapova.
Her drug ban was shortened by the ITF to 15 months, down from two years. I have to confess that the response to this was not nearly what I would have expected. Sharapova's rock-of-ages sponsor Head released a statement that included the word "congratulations." To their player. For a drug ban that she is serving out. Confused yet? No? Let's continue. This way please.
Sharapova also reacted as though this was a victory and is now pushing back at the ITF, threatening legal action. About a drug ban that she is serving. For taking a banned drug that she definitely took. OK.
We could go there for sure about meldonium, and what it really did for Sharapova. If this drug was taken because she has concerns about heart disease that runs through her family, as she initially said, then what is she going to take now? Surely not a Bayer aspirin like other humans.
It's confounding to me that one would not only celebrate the shortening -- not the elimination, now -- of a drug ban of which you are guilty, but then get aggressive and threaten the tennis ruling parties that be. I am assuming that she and her team are operating under the assumption that few people are actually going to bother to read these findings. So I decided to read the ITF's ruling myself, instead of relying on news stories about it. It can be found here, and the parts that are in English are very, very interesting. It's also very long. But here are some takeaways that blew my mind. I took some screen caps and highlighted the salient points because I care about you and your time:

Oh, yes. Cause for celebration. Sure!

That's right. Put the sound speakers right over in that corner.

Do we have enough balloons?

We're gonna need alcohol, too! Yay to all of this!!

Hey, girl! We met at Harvard this summer, right? Save a seat for the lawyers! And the Head sponsors! Party. Is. Over. Here.

Woot! ...?

I sort of understand the reason the ban was shortened. If Sharapova had known that meldonium or mildronate was a banned substance, she would have stopped taking it. I do believe that, because she would have been stupid not to.
But the fact that she took it and never really told anyone about it is suspicious. OK, so she never told any of her doctors since 2013-ish that she was taking this drug because no one asked?!! Raise your hand if you've ever been to the doctor and filled out those arduous forms. Have any of those forms ever not asked you what drugs you are taking? If none of her doctors ever asked her what drugs she was taking, then her doctors are worse than any doctor I have ever visited. I have trouble believing this could be true.
You can deduce a lot from this document, can read between the lines one way or another. What you can't dispute is the part of this document that is agreed upon by all involved. Maria Sharapova was taking this drug long after it was prescribed her, and she didn't tell anyone, except two people, that she was taking it. If you have a heart or diabetes problem and you are an athlete, and you have a team, that team should know and understand your physical limitations -- and any medication necessary to curb it, along with side effects. I would be similarly find it odd if Venus Williams took meds for Sjogren's Syndrome and told none of her people about it.
We will never know for sure why, of the battery of 30 drugs she started out taking with her doctor in Russia, she chose to continue taking three, one of which was meldonium -- even after she ditched the doctor. We will also never know why, once she made that call, she chose to keep it to herself, especially if she was taking it for its prescribed purpose. (For the record, I don't think she was taking it for its prescribed purpose.)
You can draw conclusions, though, such as the idea that this is really Sharapova's fault. It's not on her team or her manager. It's on her. She chose not to tell anyone.
Having read that document actually makes me more confused. Why is Sharapova celebrating and wanting to fight this? And why on earth would you threaten to keep this going? Because if I were her, I would really not want people pursuing this any further. It is not a cause for celebration. Well, there is one thing to celebrate if you really wanted to draw one thing out.
Yay, technicalities!?

This Week with TWA: The rage edition, Vol. I, starring WTA CEO Steve Simon

I've been wondering lately if I'm actually becoming a curmudgeon. Is this what happens to people when they get old? Do they get more conservative about subjects they used to think they were flexible about? When they see change coming down the street, do they yell, "Get off my lawn!" when two years ago, they might have just jumped up and joined in? Maybe.
I'm just throwing that out there as a possibility, but I really think that if I had heard some of the talk I'm hearing from tennis officials five years ago, I'd have the same reaction. The first problem I have that needs to be addressed: What the hell, Steve Simon? What the actual hell.
This guy is the new CEO of the WTA and he doesn't appear to like tennis. That is a deduction I think I can back up, so hold on.
The WTA already irritates me with this coach-on-court thing that the men don't do. I've railed on this already, so I won't dwell again. Now the man running women's tennis is talking about no-ad scoring and other ways to shorten the match, like super tiebreakers. The average women's match is already, like, an hour. Simon's thought process is that people have short attention spans, and tennis needs to accommodate that.
This is so ridiculous and unreasonable that I just can't even. It locks up my brain when I try to even with this. When I read these comments from a person running a professional tennis organization, I have to wonder if he is just not that smart, or if he doesn't like tennis.
Because there is one small detail that this man is missing, and that is that not everyone will like tennis. I hate baseball. If you made baseball last just an hour, I would still turn on tennis. So why on earth would you try to change the bones of your sport to attract people who don't care about your sport? That would be like me going out and getting plastic surgery so I could look like Beyonce in the hopes that it would draw the eye of Jay-Z. Jay-Z couldn't give a crap about me, and I'm OK with that. Why is tennis, as a sport, so insecure?
It is also similar to having a test group with non-tennis fans about what might make them like tennis. It would go something like this with Simon at the helm:

Simon: So what would it take for you to like tennis?
Test group person: Well, the court is a nice size. But maybe if it were, I don't know, a wood surface?
Simon: OK, OK, go on.
Test group person: And what if the net in the middle became two nets -- one on each side of the court, and also on a pole.
Simon: I like it. Keep going!
Test group person: And then you could make the ball bigger, and more orange and take off the fuzz
Simon: OK. We've got a good foundation here!

At least tennis players have enough sense to think this is stupid. Rafael Nadal nailed it perfectly when he said that matches that are shorter are not as memorable. Can you imagine that Venus Williams/Karolina Pliskova match at the U.S. Open going to a super tiebreaker?! "Yes, ladies, great tennis, but come on, can you wrap it up, please? We've got Andy Murray waiting to come out." Are you kidding me?
Apparently, no. Peter Bodo over at Tennis magazine wrote another interesting story that highlights this very issue. Apparently tennis officials all over the place are freaking out about millennials. You know what? Seriously, screw millennials and screw changing a truly excellent sport to please them. I want to know why everyone is trying to figure out millennials. A good chunk of millennials are literally still living with their parents and I don't care what an entire generation of maybe 30-somethings have to say about anything yet.
Tennis should not hate itself as much as it does. Simon should realize what he's inherited with the WTA. Right now, you have who is going to turn out to be the best women's tennis player in the world and SHE'S PLAYING RIGHT NOW. You have young talent from several continents who are shaping up to form some great rivalries and there are still veterans (Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Agz Radwanska just off the top of my head) still competing at high levels. One of them is currently No. 1 in the world. Simon has a winning deck and he doesn't know how to play his cards. He's looking ahead at people who don't know he exists instead of looking at the tools he has to build the future. If he thinks the future of women's tennis is a damn super-tiebreaker, he's either not very smart or he hates tennis. He is trying to get the attention of a potential fan base at the risk of alienating what he has.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Off court: Serena, Colin and the right time

Because I am an editor by profession, my very first response to Serena Williams' note on Facebook regarding police violence was one of surprise that her grammar game was not as on point as her serve. But that was fleeting, especially when you consider that the lack of gloss on this statement reflects the emotion with which it was written.
Serena's concerns about her nephew and the police is coming from the mouth (phone) of a woman who has represented the United States five times at the Olympics and numerous Fed Cup ties. But she's an athlete and we like our athletes to keep their noses out of social commentary and into their profession. This is why people are losing their damn mind over Colin Kaepernick, and they will grumble about Serena as well, should she keep her promise: "I won't be silent."
Here's the thing about the Kaepernick situation that just gets under my skin (pun kind of intended). Kaepernick goes to a football game and kneels during the national anthem. Many people ask him why, and he tells them. And instead of talking about the thing that's bothering him, they talk about respecting the flag, and the anthem.
The flag is a symbol. It is multicolored fabric. It doesn't have feelings. When a quarterback doesn't salute the flag, the flag doesn't start crying. So let's not worry about the flag so much.
The national anthem is a beautiful song. A lot of people think it's too complicated and the range ridiculous, but I like it. I wish I could sing it better. The anthem is full of words that bring to mind vivid imagery of war and the reward for being the last one standing. The national anthem, which is called “The Star-Spangled Banner” and is derived from a poem written by Francis Scott Key, actually has four verses. Here is the third verse:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Not so pretty anymore. So I'm not really worried about the feelings of the national anthem, either.
A lot of people are saying, essentially, “OK, sure, I guess you have a point, but this is not the time or the place.” This is another way of saying, “Athlete, shut up.” Because if anyone really thinks that this country is going to set a time to talk about what's happening in this country, well, they'd be waiting a long time.
The fact is that athletes are held in high regard in this country, rightly or wrongly. We make exceptions for them all through their academic careers so they can keep their eyes on the (Heisman) prize. Last year, on a college campus, a student activist went on a hunger strike to protest perceived racism, and he barely registered on the life radar. The football team on that same campus told the administration they would not take the field until these concerns were addressed and heads rolled immediately. That's how important we make our athletes.

But when they have something to say, and they're aggressive about it, we've got big problems, don't we? All of a sudden Kaepernick is weak and ineffectual AND he's a jerk. He's saying the right thing at the wrong time. But there will never be a right time. I hate going to the dentist. But if I don't go, my teeth will rot right out of my mouth. For me, there is no right time to go to the dentist. There will never be a right time for the hard work our country has to do. But athletes, though? They roll out of bed at 5 a.m., and they probably hate every second of it. They work hard and often to be the best athletes they can be. Five o'clock in the morning is not the right time for them to get to work, I would imagine. But they do it.
In that way, the likes of Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick are more prepared to start this conversation than we are.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

In defense of variety

I just happened to catch the Agz Radwanda/Caroline Wozniacki match in Tokyo last week and for some reason, I had a delayed reaction to something I've known for a while. It's the lack of variety in the pro tennis game.  It's hard to play the way Radwanska does, which is probably why you don't see too much variety in the game right now. It's especially hard on the body -- every time I see Radwanska play, she's got tape somewhere else on her body. (Once again, this

doesn't really help.)
This isn't rocket science, but it is kind of sad. Think about the young guns, both men and women, who can legitimately say they rely on more than power. Coming up empty, aren't you?
But, for one shining moment, there was Justine Henin. She could match Serena Williams in power, and was a great shotmaker and point plotter. She also didn't last long. There was (is) Martina Hingis, whose guile was enough to drive her opponents crazy -- until they figured out all they had to do was hit through it.
I'm not minimizing their success -- but the actual reign of that success, and the career longevity -- is certainly shorter than power players. It could be that Radwanska is now finding that as well. Even though she was able to win the first set against Wozniacki, she started getting pushed around by Woz, who is something of a tactician on the court as well, but can also flatten out her strokes and seems to be working on her serve.
Seeing the lack of variety is a bad thing for tennis, for the record. It's not because I don't like watching power players, because, like, who doesn't? But it sure does make for boring tennis, watching players do the same thing against each other over and over again.
At least there is still a small place for variety in tennis -- doubles, where Hingis continues to dominate.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

LEAGUE WATCH: Back on track?

As I've noted here a few times, I've been struggling lately with my game, specifically with confidence. Because no one has come forward with any magic potion to restore my swagger, I've been forced to come up with answers on my own. At the time of the last League Watch, I had lost four USTA matches in a row. (If you include last season, it gets much worse.) Since then, I've gone 2-1, with another league set to start tonight. So not bad. My inner Scrappy Doo is plaintively whining -- a good sign. I've not discovered some special cure-all for my game, but I'm focusing on a couple of things that might help you if you're having some issues, such as:

1. Play more tennis. This sounds very easy, but if you have a high-demand job and a family by chance, it is very for tennis to lose a spot on your schedule when things get tight. That happens, sure, but if you are forsaking tennis for your job, remember this: When was the last time your job served you out of trouble in a tiebreaker? Exactly. Making time to hit with someone at least once a week is a small change for me, but has given me the freedom to work on my shots and has paid dividends already. Previously, I had been playing one day a week -- my league match. This is a bad plan.
2. Pick a target. This is embarrassing to admit, but in my recent bad patch, I was so worried about hitting the ball that I had forgotten to focus on where I wanted to hit the ball. This is Tennis 101, and I used to think I was fairly good at this. It took a practice set with my husband to remind me that if I wanted to win a point, I needed to get after that dodgy backhand of his. Choosing to focus your energies on where to hit in the court helped me to stop worrying so much about my swing (which is perfect anyway, amirite? Trust me, I'm right).
3. Just settle down and have a good time. This is a First World Problem you have. If you're not having fun playing tennis, don't play. I was not having fun, mostly because I was losing and not playing well. So there are a couple of ways to solve this problem. You can stop playing tennis or you can improve your game so you can resume having a good time on the courts.

D'oh! I gotta get some new grips on my racquets for tonight. I guess the only thing left is to Keep Calm and Get Scrappy.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Therapy with TWA: Is 3 better than 5?

Because I cannot contain my nervous energy during high octane matches, like the U.S. Open men's final, I consulted the tennis-mad population on Twitter to vent/discuss/analyze/discuss fuchsia. Ben Rothenberg, a tennis writer for the New York Times (nope. Not at all jealous. Not one bit.) began tweeting out his support for men playing best-of-three set matches at all times. He's pretty consistent -- he's been ringing this bell all year round. The idea is that playing less tennis can help ensure a quality match and protect the health of the players. It's generated some traction, because many tournaments outside of the Slams have a best-of-three format. 
Who wouldn't want tennis players to have fewer injuries and play high-quality matches late into a major tournament? I want that! And as much as I trend towards bucking most stuffy tradition, I can't do it here. Most of it is sheer selfishness. I want to see heavyweights like Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic play tennis for five sets. Hell, I'd like to see a five-set match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. 
That's the other wing of this best-of-three argument -- that the women don't have to do it. We're wading into the territory of a previous therapy session, so I'll just say that yes, female professional players should be able to do best-of-five easy, given that current matches, especially early rounds, only last about an hour. 
Rothenberg is right about one thing, though -- tennis players are having a hard time holding up physically. Just ask Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, etc., etc., etc. But what really gets me about this whole debate is that if you want to ensure quality matches and healthy players, you don't need to alter match formats. You need to alter the tennis season. Because it's too damn long! 
There are tournaments all year round. If you are an up-and-comer, you play these tournaments to improve your ranking. Then you go into majors running on fumes. If you are a top-lever professional, you know you have to play the Slams. Then there are the top-tier events, such as Miami, Indian Wells, Rome, that you get fined for missing. The first Slam of the year is in late January. The year-ending championships are in November. Sure, you're training in between, but where's the down time? When do you get to recover, safe in the knowledge that you can also maintain your ranking?
Let us consider the schedule of newly crowned U.S. Open champ Wawrinka. What's he been up to this year? Glad you asked because this handy-dandy table can tell us.
Stan started his season the first week in January and has played at least one tournament a month since. Fifty-one matches, and it's only September. You might argue that his body seems OK with this -- he just won the U.S. Open. But look at the inconsistency. He wins Chennai and loses early in the Australian Open (by his standards) in the fourth round.
And then there's Djokovic, the world No. 1. If you're world No. 1, you gotta hit the courts to keep that ranking. And he's been faithful -- 62 matches to date. Unless he shuts it down due to injury, there will be more because it's only September, everybody.
What's the answer? Even to a tennis junkie, it's obvious that the season needs to be shorter. How do you do that without pissing off all the rich people who pay for these tournaments and want to make that paper? Well, that's the hard part, and the part for which I have no answer.
But you know who does have an answer, or even a say? Tennis players. Remember back in the day when the doubles players sued the ATP? I think a legal fight might be the only thing that causes the tennis powers that be to stop and consider that a season that is essentially year-round is a bad idea.
So the best-of-five v. best-of-three debate is a premature one. First, take care of the larger issue at hand.

That's the end of your therapy session and that'll be $75. I accept PayPal.

Monday, September 12, 2016

U.S. Open: Over and out

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
Roger Federer couldn't go to the U.S. Open this year. Rafael Nadal should have beaten Lucas Pouille, right? Andy Murray would have made the semis if it weren't for Kei Nishikori. What's left for men's tennis, the casual fan might have asked. Can it survive?
Yes, it turns out. The men's final between Novak Djokovic (remember that name, MLB announcer guy. I think he's going to be somebody one day) and Stan Wawrinka lived up to the hype of such a big stage, even if most of us thought that one of those names would have been Murray. The match ended up being a masterclass in fearless tennis and clean ball striking. And I think we can add Wawrinka to the list of things that were built to last. He was almost ousted from the tournament in the third round, and left no match under the eight-hour mark. I'm sure that has to be right. Wawrinka went into a match against an opponent who had three walkover/retirement wins, and at the end of the day it sure wasn't Wawrinka calling for the trainer. And he did all of this wearing fuchsia. Now that is some tennis with attitude, people.
The most important takeaway from this match, though, is that men's tennis is going to be just fine. American men's tennis? Well, we're going to need to discuss that one at a later date.
OK, everyone. Back to your regular sleep patterns. Until Australia, that is.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

U.S. Open: Greatly exaggerated

Yes, I know Angelique Kerber is the new world No. 1 and the new U.S. Open champion. It still bugs me a little, but I think I realize why.

(Who hits a forehand like that?)
And this.

Also this.

Kerber wins ugly. It definitely isn't pretty. But she won the point in these freeze frames. No effortless power on one or both wings. No shut-it-down serve to get out a tight spot. (That lefty swinger out wide is not bad, though. But it's ugly. Just saying.) Commentators keep going on about Kerber and Agz Radwanska's ability to hit a tennis ball almost in a sitting position. That baffles me. Do they teach that in tennis class now? That's ugly and there's a more economic way to blunt power and keep yourself in a point, a fact that former professionals ought to be aware of. Hi!
Here's my coping problem. I want my world number ones to be dominant and indisputable. Not invincible, but able to withstand an attack. Like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Steffi Graf, or even early Martina Hingis. Justine Henin. Like Serena Williams, who, despite her age is still a No. 1 contender for maybe the next couple of years in my book. She's still a force. You can discard anyone who has such a deep bag of tricks, plus sheer power.
Is Kerber a force? No. Can she consistently withstand various challengers? Sure, she edged Karolina Pliskova yesterday, but could she do that again next month?
The work ethic is why you can't argue with Kerber's new ranking. She wins ugly. But she wins. She does this because she works hard. Here's a portion of a story from the WTA website about what Andrea Petkovic had to say about Kerber in 2011:

Fifteen of 18 matches lost. There aren't a lot of pro players that could survive that type of drought with their confidence anywhere in shouting distance. What kind of fortitude must it take to come out and take beating after beating before coming out of that tailspin? These paragraphs right here says all that you need to know about why Kerber is the highest-ranked player in the world now.
And yet, she doesn't excite me about the future of women's tennis. Sorry -- she just doesn't. Kerber is post-Serena, but she's 28. There's the likes of Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza waiting in the wings. Some players have a work ethic and ridiculous natural talent.
At best, I would consider Kerber a stopgap No. 1, between Serena and either Serena again or the next dominant player. She isn't likely to have a long reign, or add the spark that women's tennis desperately needs right now outside of Germany. (Kerber v. Pliskova was a great final, but I'd watch a men's match any day still.)
So to dramatically appropriate a line from "The Dark Knight," Kerber isn't the world No. 1 that we need right now. 
But she's the No. 1 she deserves.

Friday, September 09, 2016

U.S. Open 2016: The future is ... now?

Look. Don't play the injury card. Worse yet, tell your coach not to play the injury card. Tell him to not speak of it ever. (OK, maybe for the tell-all at the end of your career) You're out there, aren't you?
I'm not saying Serena Williams wasn't really injured throughout a good chunk of this tournament. Doesn't make much sense to lie about something like that. But that is straight-up whack to bring that up after a huge upset against an inspired Karolina Pliskova (or any other player) who just played her ass off. Just don't. I remember when Justine Henin pulled that nonsense when Amelie Mauresmo beat her to win Wimbledon back in the day, and it was just as weak then. You lost. It's fine, it really is. Just move on. Don't try to asterisk your opponent's win.
OK. Got that off my chest. Let's move on.
One of the most impressive things about Pliskova's win is that she struggled with her nerves and somehow overcame them. It was pretty obvious -- all those double-faults she tossed up at key moments was a good indication. But then she swallowed it and hit her way through it. That type of mental game is the difference between her and someone like Petra Kvitova or Garbine Muguruza. And I kinda think she's going to win the U.S. Open.
That's not shade on Angelique Kerber, who made me revise my opinion of her game a bit. I thought she and Caroline Wozniacki would have a much closer match because neither of them have any big weapons that will win them easy points. What they do both have is stamina and the ability to run down any ball, which they did. But Kerber was able to unfurl that forehand down the line a bit more than Wozniacki did with her backhand (and she waited until she was down in the second set to start busting that out for some reason).
Kerber's the new world No. 1, and most of me still finds that a little fluke-y. (Nope, not a word. Already checked.) But you cannot deny that woman's work ethic. She works her ass off on the tennis court and although I still wonder if she can maintain the top ranking until, say, mid-2017, she does deserve it now.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

U.S. Open: One long night

True confession time: Shortly after sending this tweet

I remember nothing else. I wouldn't call it falling asleep as much as losing consciousness, but I did not ride and/or die. I still don't know what happened between Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro. No spoilers! Kidding. I'm sure I'll find out momentarily when I check out today's schedule.
What I do remember is watching Serena Williams take out Simona Halep under circumstances we've seen before, and it doesn't always go her way. There she was, cruising, and then suddenly in the second set, she was not cruising. Big ups to Halep for offering a stiff challenge in that set. Now, social media went a little nuts last night after a commentator said Halep smiled too much after winning the second set. It's not the smiling that lost her the match, but she obviously let up off the gas after the second set, as though it was more than she expected just winning a set. That is the head thing I'm talking about. Halep obviously showed she can hang with Serena, physically. Mentally, too, for a set. You need two sets, though.
There was one minor development during the day session. Andy Murray got beat! By Kei Nishikori! The guy I said would win majors, just not now! I believe I might have been mistaken. Still awaiting a block of time to watch this one, so I can't say much but !!
Alrighty. Women's semis tonight. Serena and Karolina Pliskova. Hmmmmm. This is tricky because Pliskova has a great serve. Serena is a pretty good returner, though. Still, Serena is showing that she can dig deep in this tournament, even in tight spots, so I'll give her a 60 percent chance of winning. Pliskova clearly also has balls of steel (see Williams, Venus, fourth round, U.S. Open 2016). I think it'll be a great match.
I'm not gonna call Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber. Sometimes, you just have to pop some popcorn and watch some tennis and hope they're done by midnight because I'm clearly now an old lady who can't stay up much past the ending of The Tonight Show. Sigh.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

U.S. Open: Well, that tennis was (not) special

You got all amped after you saw the Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams matches over the weekend, right? You were probably like, "It just can't get any better than this! We got Lucas Pouille, Gael Monfils, Angelique Kerber, Roberta Vinci, Novak Djokovic and Jo-Jo Tsonga! This is gonna be ...
... the biggest tennis letdown ever. Here's hoping Vinci, Tsonga and Ana Sevastova heal up, which is most important. Second most important is griping about such a balloon-popper of a tennis day at the U.S. Open. Obviously, it's not the fault of the players that their bodies cannot hold up consistently over a 17 1/2-month season. I'm gonna take the higher road here and not rant about the silliness of how the tennis season is set up, but there is likely a TWA therapy session coming up on this very topic.
Let's instead take a look at what's ahead, and hope for better days and also hope that all banana peels are promptly picked up in the players' quarters. The last thing we need is another injury.
Ana Konjuh and Karolina Pliskova: A TV commentator pointed out that you don't see a lot of young guns advancing deep into tournaments anymore, so Konjuh is a complete anomaly right now. Pliskova's had a good summer, and at 24, she's basically a spring chicken compared to just about anyone in the top 10. I'd give the nod to experience, but Konjuh seems to offer more variety in her game, which can defuse power well. So I'm going to live on the edge here and pick no one. (See what I did there?)
Kei Nishikori v. Andy Murray: Way back in the day, I predicted that Murray would win majors. It took a lot longer than many people thought, but here he is, a favorite to win the tournament, even as the second seed. I believe Nishikori also has the game to win majors, and as with Murray, it's going to take a little longer than most people think. Nishikori has been impressive, especially in handling Ivo Karlovic's serve in the previous round. But Murray's on a different level right now and he'd have to take quite the dip for Nishikori to even pick up a set here.
We got Serena Williams v. Simona Halep: I'm going Serena unless some emotional self-sabotage takes place during this match. Everyone's talking about how great Halep's playing right now. I don't see anything different. She's always had a solid game. The problem is her head, and if she really believes she can beat Serena, well, then, we have a problem. I don't think she has the weaponry, so this one is up to Serena.
Oh my god Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro: I want you two to drop and give me five sets and a tiebreaker, stat!