Monday, August 29, 2016

Better watch yo' mouth! (But I'm talkin' about French tennis!)

Here's a little something for the Today I Learned file. Today, I learned that if you're a French tennis player, you should not express an opinion. Three such brazen players -- Kristina Mladenovic, Benoit Paire and Caroline Garcia -- were suspended by the French tennis federation for complaining about some aspect of the Rio Olympics. Apparently, Paire complained about the lack of ranking points (a sentiment expressed by several other players and one that's not exactly wrong). Mladenovic and Garcia complained because they didn't know that they needed to be wearing the same colors because they were playing doubles. Mladenovic went on a Twitter rant after they lost, seeming to blame officials for not letting them know about the clothing requirement. Two things: How is it that every other team appeared to know about this? Either that, or they didn't take it to Twitter. Also, I wondered when I first read these tweets if I'd be reading them if Mladenovic and Garcia had won. In other words, did it seem that Mladenovic venting because she lost? (Yeap. Pretty much.)
Still, suspending players for saying bad things? Naturally, the royal "we" here at Tennis With Attitude does not like this. It's one thing if you're saying something racist, sexist or untrue about another player. But blowing off steam after a loss should not bring down such a heavy punishment. The same has happened to Hope Solo, the U.S. soccer player, for calling the Swedish players cowards because they didn't play to win at the Olympics. Yes, boneheaded thing to say. But Solo has been accused of much worse and has not incurred this level of punishment. These guys are about to get more heavily penalized for poppin' off by their respective governing agencies than supergenius Ryan Lochte is for stirring up an international incident while he was drunk.
Let's just let that marinate for a second, and then calm down and stop suspending people because they said silly things.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

U.S. Open 2016: The men's draw (or Why Not Be Seeded Fourth?)

Must be nice to be Novak Djokovic. You work hard, become a post-Federer/Nadal machine and then just when there's the slightest vulnerability (a bad wrist, for example) that might be at the heart of you being bundled out of the Olympics early, you end up in this top-heavy draw and you have what appears to be a very hard path just to the semifinals. Even Rafael Nadal, seeded fourth has got a smoother-looking draw than you. And on top all of that, there's a donkey cheese shortage that has severely curtailed your training.
Just kidding about the last part, although someone should really make sure Djokovic's supply remains secure. He's going to need it over the next two weeks. 

First up is Jerzy Janowicz, who has a nice game but his head game is a touch sensitive. But then you get perhaps Martin Klizan. SEED. Low seed, but still. Then maybe John Isner or Richard Gasquet. SEED. Marin Cilic. SEED. Jo-Jo Tsonga. SEED.  That's just through the quarterfinals. Djokovic will see a megaton of potential landmines just to advance through the first week. 
Having said all of that, I believe he will do that. Maybe only that. Curious to see how he looks after that first round. 
At the bottom half of this half is Milos Raonic. This weekend, one of his coaches, John McEnroe, said he would not be working with Raonic during the Open, and it must have been in part because of the criticism he took on because of his concurrent duties as commentator for ESPN during Wimbledon. It was a distraction. I'm not a fan of this arrangement either, but honestly, I think it's a worse offense when it involves coaches of female players during non-Slam events. I have gone there before, so I will digress. But it was a good call on Mac's part, and also, it appears that Raonic is a quick study. He's taken all of that net advice to heart and between McEnroe and Carlos Moya, Raonic is on track to be a threat. With a shaky Djokovic looming, this could be his chance to strike.

Here's my bottom half of the draw 
and I know what you're thinking. You might even be right. Yeah, I'm still thinking of Juan Martin del Potro's fine performance in Brazil and yes, that came virtually out of nowhere. There is no real evidence to back up a semifinal showing from him at the U.S. Open. But I will say it again -- if del Potro had been remotely healthy since he upset Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final in 2009, the men's tennis landscape would have more of a South American flair to it. And it looks like he's healthy again. He's unseeded here, but do I think he can beat Diego Schwartzman, Steve Johnson, David Ferrer, Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka or Nicolas Kyrgios? Um, yeah. Yep. This could totally backfire, but I'm putting some eggs in the del Potro basket. 
I will also be leaving some of those eggs for Andy Murray, of course, because I believe he will win the U.S. Open. He is the steadiest of the Big Four right now (one, Roger Federer, is missing). 

First round matches worth blocking out some time at work for: 
Fernando Verdasco v. Stan Wawrinka: Like, really? I guess really, then. Unfair draw for both guys.
Feliciano Lopez v. Borna Coric: A wily veteran vs. an upstart kid who just beat Nadal. Hm. Hmm.
Radek Stepanek v. Gilles Simon: Just because Stepanek reminds me of Dracula. Will his tennis career never die? Does he have a reflection? Are you sure??
Dustin Brown v. Milos Raonic: Should be entertaining. One-sided, but entertaining. 
Djokovic v. Janowicz: For Djokovic's sake, here's hoping that wrist is at least serviceable. 

U.S. Open 2016: The women's draw (or What You Get for Being a Top Seed These Days)

The most bizarre things seem to happen to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, am I right? There was the Kim Clijsters incident, the Sam Stosur incident, the Roberta Vinci incident. And now, coming off a shaky appearance at the Olympics and a lingering shoulder problem, Serena gets Ekaterina Makarova in the first round this year. That would be the same Makarova who beat Serena at the Australian Open a few years back.
Even with an injury, it is still difficult not to pick Serena, but her draw is very, very hard. 

It's full of dangerous people. Well, OK, to  be honest -- these people who wouldn't be so dangerous for Serena, but given the venue, it's now dangerous. It will take the world's best sports psychologist to figure out how it is that the place where you won your first major becomes the biggest minefield of your career, but that is what we have here. There's possibly Ana Ivanovic in the third round, Stosur in the fourth, or Yaroslava Shvedova. That's before the quarterfinals. I think she'll beat Makarova, but if her shoulder is still a concern, then a deep run could be a problem for her.
Here's the bottom half:

This is a really big opportunity for Madison Keys. She is in a doable section of the draw, and if she's able to take advantage and have a deep run, that would set her clear apart from the rest of the U.S. female hopefuls. She'd potentially be playing almost every single one of them if she wants to advance -- Alison Riske in round 1, Madison Brengle in round 2 and Coco Vandeweghe in round 3. Keys has blinked in big matches, but she is getting close to being a consistent challenger, and maybe beyond. This tournament could be big for her. 
Now Angelique Kerber? It really does depend on whether she can survive the drama onslaught she'd face against Alize Cornet if they both win their first-round matches. Seriously, though, if Petra Kvitova is playing well (one never knows), she'd be the most likely to advance out of that draw, not Kerber. 
Another dangerous player here is French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, whose head is clearly heavier, having earned a crown. She's flamed out of most tournaments early since her win. If she can stop the nosedive, she could go very far in this tournament, too. Or she could go ahead and get her clock cleaned by Monica Puig again. 
There are a few first rounds matches that should be good: Williams/Makarova and Keys/Riske, but also Johanna Konta vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Francesca Schiavone. And then there's what I'll call the Battle of the What-Could-Have-Beens between Julia Georges and Yanina Wickmayer. Like, two or three years ago, that would have been a popcorn semifinal. 

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.