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.