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?