One person’s entirely personal list of intriguing first round US Open women’s matches. - UBITENNIS
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One person’s entirely personal list of intriguing first round US Open women’s matches.

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Please excuse the cut-and-paste, but here’s the same intro I used for the men’s draw, as what follows is the same but for the WTA:

 

Herewith follows an explanation of why I’d focus on these first round matches were I at the US Open on Monday. I will, in fact, be there on Tuesday, and will report on what I end up seeing. Big Four tournaments being what they are, of course, with 128 draws in both the women’s and the men’s, some of these matches will take place on Tuesday.

I’ve inserted the players’ rankings next to their names, all as of August 25th; to my mind this should be done for all tennis draws. If the ITF et al really want to grow the game (what a silly phrase, that), it’s just perverse to not provide the casual fan with this basic info about a match-up right next to each player’s name.

Anett Kontaveit vs Lucie Safarova

The 21 year old Kontaveit finished 2016 at number 110. She’s now #29. She won Gstaad (clay) over Kiki Bertens and has obviously shown great progress this year, in which she’s 41/14.

Safarova, 29/16 in 2017 and 30 years old, is working her way back from a lingering leg injury. The left-handed half of the Team Bucie doubles team (with Bethanie Mattek Sands, out with her horrible injury at Wimbledon), Safarova is a veteran player with a solid singles cv, including being the losing finalist at the 2015 French Open (lost to Serena Williams). Yes, she’s concentrated more on dubs since her highest singles ranking of #5 in 2015, but she’s posted solid results recently as she regains a spot higher up, most recently beating Cibulkova and Makarova in Toronto (hard court) before succumbing to Sloan Stephens in 3 sets.

If you read my piece on the men’s draw you know there’s a theme running through this year’s US Open: youth vs (errrr…) maturity. This match is yet another example of just that.

Evgeniya Rodina vs Eugenie Bouchard

Two players who’re very close in the rankings, plus Bouchard’s well-documented travails both on the court and the locker room, means there’s a lot at stake in this contest. Bouchard is 13/17 on the year, Rodina 18/25. Should Bouchard take this? It depends on which Genie Bouchard shows up, and whether or not she can stay intent the entire match; she’s had a few this year that she’s let slip out of her grasp, and dramatically.

Madison Brengle vs Kirsten Flipkens

Another battle between closely ranked players, with the same kind of pressure: on the opposite side of the net there’s an immediate threat for both players. Brengle is playing in front of an American crowd, which is a plus, but she’s slipped from her best-ever ranking of 35 (in 2015). Flipkens is 27/20. Brengle is of the grinder variety of player, Fliipkens more of a piercing-shot, jab-and-parry type. In their h2h the Belgian is up 2/0 with a win this year at ‘s-Hertogenbosch (6/1 6/2, on grass where her style of play is favored). The other win was in 2015 on hard court, and with a closer scoreline (6/4 6/3). There’s a chance for either to move ahead while putting a close rival back a step; as I said, pressure.

Christina McHale vs Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Like Madison Brengle, McHale is playing on a home court, and even more so as she grew up in nearby northern New Jersey. McHale’s a fighter, though she’s not in the same weight class of hitter as the Russian, is only 20/24 this year, and has lost all 4 matches she’s played against Pavlyuchenkova. Meanwhile Pav is 30/18. I expect something of a fight, and a partisan crowd, but a win for the #19 seeded Russian.

Francesca Schiavone vs qualifier

Because it’s Francesca Schiavone. Period. Full stop.

I’d watch her serve against an out-of-date phone book. If I knew how to write “joie de vivre” in Italian I’d do it, because no one brings more joie de vivre or joie de combat to a tennis court. To crib from an article I once read about Al Green: Francesca Schiavone everyone, Francesca Schiavone!

Naomi Osaka vs Angelique Kerber

Osaka is the 19 year old kind-of-phenom from Japan (though she did not grow up there), a 5’11” power player who tips the playing-style-balance-beam to the aggressive side, not so defensive. She’s still more of a story waiting to happen, though she’s recorded 2017 wins over Anastasjia Sevastova (#16), Lauren Davis (#27), Shuai Zhang (#34), and Venus Williams (!) (#17 at the time).

Kerber needs no introduction. The WTA’s hot hand in 2016, she evidently found being #1 harder than the journey there. She’s not taken a title in 2017, and has recorded some not very positive losses. She’s the defending US Open champion from last year. Kerber should certainly win this match – how she handles Osaka will be a window into her current mental status – but hoisting the trophy in 2 weeks is far less certain.

Monica Puig vs Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

The hard-hitting Puig stunned everybody, including possibly herself, when she took the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics against….Kerber. Given Puig’s match cv up until then it’s not surprising that she’s found it hard to continue that kind of success. Puerto Rico’s favorite WTA player is 15 of 17 for 2017, with a ranking that is well down from her career high of 27 (September 2016).

Lucic-Baroni is (yet another) senior player who’s making waves on tour. Her 2017 Australian Open semi-final run was the start of it all, coming as it did after years of being away from tennis and a tumultuous childhood career. 2017 includes wins over many notable players – Pliskova, Radwanska, Bertens, Sharapova, Safarova, and Kontaveit – as well as some lesser results, but no one can say they want to play her, especially on a hard court.

Puig owns this h2h 2/0, with a 2016 win at Indian Wells (hard) and a 2014 victory in Strasbourg (clay), which was so early in Lucic-Baroni’s comeback that it carries less weight. I noted this match because of Puig’s Olympic win and search for similar form ever since, and Lucic-Baroni’s admirable backstory and determination to return to the tour. Worth mentioning is that Puig will likely have some crowd support from New York’s Puerto Rican community.

Anna Konjuh vs Ashleigh Barty

For once it’s youth versus slightly-less-youth among my match picks; Konjuh is 19, Barty 21. Barty, however, is in the second chapter of her career, having left tennis to play pro cricket for a time. It wasn’t designed to be a sabbatical, a temporary break from the game, but that’s what it turned out to be when she decided she missed the tennis courts and returned to the tour.

They’ve never played, both of their careers are on the upswing; Barty is 32/12 in 2017, while Konjuh is 22/17. They both made the 16’s at Wimbledon, Barty won her first main tour title this year (Kuala Lumpur), Konjuh was a finalist in Auckland. The ranking disparity means less here than first meets the eye.

Sloane Stephens vs Roberta Vinci

Is there a type of player Stephens would less like to start off against than Vinci, who won’t give the big, flat-hitting American two balls in a row that are the same? I doubt it.

Stephens is making her way back from foot surgery and a general lack of match toughness; still, she beat Safarova, Kerber, and Kvitova at the recent Rogers Cup in Toronto, and repeated the wins over both Safarova and Kvitova in Cincinnati before losing in the semis to Halep.

Vince famously made the final of the US Open in 2015, beating Serena Williams in the semis, where she came up against Flavia Pennetta, her roommate from their junior tennis days. Vinci is a crafty player, and left-handed, and will give Stephens little of the pace she likes and as much resistance of the Italian artistry flavor as she can; once again there is a big age difference, as Vinci gives up 10 years to the 24 year old Stephens besides having a losing record this year (10/18).

Should Stephens come through? Sure. Would I place really big money on it? No. I’d wager small money though, if it were appropriate (it’s not). Can Stephens continue her uptick in confidence and consistency?

Maria Sharapova vs Simona Halep

Far and away the weirdest first round match in memory. If you’re reading this and not in front of a screen for this match tonight, and don’t know the background, we have to consider revoking your Tennis Fan Club® membership.

 

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Iga Swiatek’s Ultimate Reflection: From Rome Heartbreak To Breakthrough Triumph

Iga Swiatek ultimate reflection has taught us the physiological demands of being an athlete.

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Iga Swiatek’s life has changed over the last few years and now the world number one reflects on the defeat that defined the success that followed over the last few years.

 

Picture the scene. It was the 15th of September, 2020. The world was continuing to go through a traumatic time with the COVID-19 Pandemic six months in and tennis had just restarted a few months earlier in America.

A young 19 year-old called Iga Swiatek had just burst onto the scene having dominated the ITF tour and also conquered Grand Slam juniors. The Pole had won Roland Garros doubles with Caty McNally and followed that up by winning Wimbledon in singles.

Swiatek’s transition to the main tour was taken to like a duck to water as she reached her first final in Lugano in 2019 in April. That was followed by a decent showing at Roland Garros, reaching the last 16 before being demolished by former champion Simona Halep.

However at a young age, Swiatek had showed she can compete with the very best and more success was predicted for the Pole in the future.

Although nobody would predict was about to follow over the next few years with Swiatek eventually winning two Roland Garros titles and becoming one of the most dominant world number one’s in recent history.

Before we get to tennis domination, Swiatek had to go through what every athlete has to go to and that’s defeat.

It was in the Italian capital right before Swiatek’s first Grand Slam title in 2020 that the Pole suffered a massive setback as she would lose the most significant match in her career.

On the 15th of September 2020, Iga Swiatek went out in the first round to Arantxa Rus 7-6(5) 6-3.

A shocking defeat for Swiatek, who had high expectations for Rome and was looking to build some last minute momentum before her favourite Grand Slam of the year.

It was a career defining defeat for Swiatek though as she would win Roland Garros a few weeks later, claiming her first of three Grand Slam singles titles so far.

Three years later, Swiatek returned to Rome as the world number one and as defending champion ahead of her second Roland Garros title defence coming up in Paris.

In the Italian capital, Swiatek gave the ultimate reflection of that defeat to Rus that changed her career:

“Well, it wasn’t easy honestly. It was pretty tricky part of my career. I mean, I just started, but career,” Swiatek reflected on after her 6-0 6-0 demolition of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

“Well, this match, I remember it like a pretty traumatic one. She played, like, high balls. It really worked here on this slow surface. I couldn’t manage that properly. I was making a lot of mistakes. I didn’t feel really well.

“Then I remember we had some serious talks with the team on what to change and how to, like, reset, what I should do to feel a little bit better. I came home to practice, and that period of time wasn’t, like, easy at all. I also probably had some expectations because it was clay and I knew that I can do better. Yeah, it was really, really hard.

“Even when I came on Roland Garros, I remember just being on the Jean Bouin before the tournament, practicing there. I literally had the talk with Daria if it makes sense to continue everything because I felt so bad. I felt like, I don’t know, my expectations were just pretty high. I felt really bad on court. Always tense and stressed, even when I was practicing.

“I was able to kind of just really, really reset and let it go. I remember I was practicing I think with Kiki Mladenovic. We made a bet, me and Daria, if I’m finally going to have one practice that is going to be without any drama. I don’t remember what’s bet was for, but I remember it was about not having drama on practice, just playing one practice that is going to be calmer than most of my practices, but this is the goal.

“Since then, I managed on this tournament to kind of let everything go. Honestly, when I played my first rounds in Roland Garros 2020, I thought I played so bad that I can’t go lower, so I’m just going to play and see how it goes. Then I won couple of matches. I was like, Okay, what’s going on? Why am I suddenly winning?

“I managed to keep that till the end of the tournament. That’s why my win last year on Roland Garros felt much more special, because I felt like I’m in the right place. In 2020 it all felt like it’s like a big coincidence that I’m even here in the final of Roland Garros, for example. It was a tough time for me.

“Looking overall, I wouldn’t say that my 2020 season was good. I would say I only played well on Roland Garros. I don’t even know why, so… I’m pretty happy that I, like, worked through that experience and actually understood that lowering expectations, just letting everything go, was honestly the key. I tried to repeat that throughout all these years.”

Swiatek’s answer to a question about a defeat that defined her career shows her maturity and world-class talent on and off the court.

A teenager to identify her vulnerabilities and weaknesses is not easy let alone bringing people in to work on solutions.

Swiatek’s Roland Garros victory in 2020 was the start of a few years of success but almost ended in dramatic fashion having gone through stress throughout the tournament.

However it was a blessing in disguise as the Pole was able to identify long-term solutions for problems that relate to stress for the future as well as creating an environment that proves that she can still win the big tournaments.

Now Swiatek is stronger mentally than she ever has been, who knows if she’ll win a fourth Grand Slam title in Paris this year but the formula has been set for future success.

Swiatek’s ultimate reflection has taught us that the Pole is well on course to dominate the sport and create a legacy for many other young athletes on how to diagnose psychological problems.

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The sorrows of the young Sinner

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How strong is Jannik Sinner really? How the renaissance of Italian tennis deflated in Rome…

 

By Ubaldo Scanagatta

What could have been a memorable fortnight in Rome, despite some questionable scheduling and court quality, was hampered not only by the dire weather but also by the Italian players, who didn’t live up to the expectations. For the first time since 2019 no Italian, man or woman, featured in the quarterfinals. 

Jannik Sinner had reached the quarter finals one year ago, where he was defeated by Tsitsipas (76 62). In 2021 Lorenzo Sonego had an outstanding run to the semifinals, putting away Thiem and Rublev, and was only halted by Djokovic. Matteo Berrettini made it to the quarterfinals in 2020, where he lost to Ruud. 

Have we been overly trumpeting a Renaissance of Italian tennis in these years?

If we delve into the matter, we cannot really blame Matteo Berrettini for missing Internazionali BNL d’Italia two times in a row because of an endless string of injuries, neither can we criticize Lorenzo Sonego and Lorenzo Musetti for losing in straight sets against Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 5 in the world and one of the best clay specialists, a two-time winner in Montecarlo, finalist in Roland Garros 2021 and Rome 2022. And Marco Cecchinato, while brushing away Bautista Agut, flashed glimmers of his heyday, namely 2018-19 when he reached the semifinals in Paris and a peak ranking at No.16.

Sonego even had two setpoints in the second set, which he didn’t play so brilliantly. Musetti had snatched a break in the second set but let the Greek back in before fatally dropping serve in the 12th game, just like in the first set. When the points get tight, the gap between the top players and the others suddenly widens.

There is no doubt that the great disappointment came when Jannik Sinner unexpectedly lost to Francisco Cerundolo. Throughout his young career the Argentinian had already beaten three top ten players (Ruud, Rublev and Auger-Aliassime) and is a tough hurdle to clear on clay, but the way he disposed of Sinner in the last two sets with a double 62 was discomforting.    

A great disappointment because expectations were immense, considering that in the three Masters 1000 he played this year he had reached one final (Miami) and two semifinals (Indian Wells and Montecarlo).

 Djokovic and Alcaraz, were the first two favourites for the title. But Sinner was rated as a third pick. And once Alcaraz and Djokovic were most unexpectedly ousted from the tournament he appeared as a likely winner. Also because Tsitispas hadn’t got off to brilliant start of clay season; Ruud had been struggling even more and Medvedev had never won a match in this previous four participations in Rome. 

So is Sinner really as strong as here in Italy we say he is? Only Einstein could answer: it’s all relative.

Of course he’s a strong player. And it’s likely he’s going to stay in the top 10 for a long time. Much longer than Panatta, Barazzutti and Fognini did. Probably also than Berrettini, who has already been in the top ten longer than the three I mentioned, though helped by  favourable circumstances, like the frozen rankings due to Covid.

How strong is he? Well, it depends on who we compare him with. If we look at his birth certificate, we cannot but think of Carlitos Alcaraz and Holger Rune.

Well, perhaps we have a little exaggerated, spurred by patriotism and craving for a true Italian champion, who has been missing since Panatta. Because the results achieved by Alcaraz, a Major and 4 Masters 1000, as well as No. 1 of the ATP ranking are quite different. It’s true that Jannik has beaten him on 3 occasions out of 6, at Wimbledon, Umag and Miami, not to mention the epic match at the US Open when he lost in 5 sets after having a match point. But this simply means that Alcaraz suffers his game, his powerful hitting from the baseline. In this sense there’s not such a huge gap, but many other aspects have to be taken into account.

Which are Jannik’s limits, compared with the current No. 1 in the world? Alcaraz is a much more complete player in terms of touch and finesse, natural gameplay fluidity, explosiveness of shots, physical strength, athleticism and variety of recovery skills and, therefore, unpredictability, tactical ductility, from serve and volley which he sometimes executes persistently, as he did against Medvedev, never looking like a fish out of water at the net) to marathon runner resilience. He can mix up powerful serves and kick serves, continuously varying angles and spin. His dropshots are completely natural. Jannik’s tennis, instead, often gives the impression of being robotic, even though he has made great progress in the last year.         

I have often said that Jannik Sinner resembles Ivan Lendl, because Ivan’s philosophy was centred on work, work, and work, but he definitely wasn’t endowed with the same natural talent as John McEnroe. Yet he won more than McEnroe and this must be the hope, the goal of Sinner and his team.

Rune is a much more natural talent than Jannik. And it’s not only his mentor who says this.  He’s more complete, he serves better, he lands drop shots with greater ease, he can alternate powerful groundstrokes and changes of pace…like Big Cat Mecir. He plays a clever tennis, instinctive at times, but also well-reasoned.

He has already won a Masters 1000, and he’s ahead of Jannik. He’s got a big personality, though sometimes he comes up with unpleasant behaviour on court. He quite reminds me of McEnroe. People just would wait for Mac to meltdown. It will be the same with Rune. The way he put away Djokovic, in spite of the match interruption due to rain which probably cost him the second set, proves his mental qualities. He had displayed the same qualities when he beat Sinner in Montecarlo.

He has achieved goals which Jannik has just got close to. Jannik seems to be often hampered by injuries. He’s not a natural tennis player, he’s not a natural athlete. But his desire to succeed is so impressive that he will overcome these shortcomings.

Alcaraz lost to Marozsan, but before losing he tried everything. He snatched a 4-1 lead in the tiebreak of the second set, which he ended up losing 7-4, because he too is young and can suddenly have lapses. But he battled away and tried to change tactics, whereas Jannik seemed flat and just gave in, without finding the strength to react and fight back.

Sinner is young too, and sooner or later he’s going to get through these situations. But he has to find his way. Many are the features of his game he has to work on: his serve, his volleys. His ultimate breakthrough is still to come.      

Translated by Kingsley Elliot Kaye  

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The Madrid Open Men’s Final Was Three Sets Of Sheer Excitement

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Image via https://twitter.com/MutuaMadridOpen

Winning is the ultimate key for Carlos Alcaraz or any tennis player.

 

Three sets in a non-major match just make winning more exciting for everyone other than the loser, even though Jan-Lennard Struff can take solace this time. After all, he was just a lowly “Lucky Loser.”

Struff actually took Alcaraz out of his game all the way until the Spanish 20-year-old finally came up with back-to-back love service games to secure a long 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory on Sunday in Madrid.

BREATHING EASILY DIDN’T COME EARLY FOR ALCARAZ

It was only then that Alcaraz could breathe easily against Struff’s amazing power and ability to win key points at the net.

Struff actually out-Alcarazed his foe until the end appeared to be in sight. The big German seemed to have an answer for everything Alcaraz could come up with until those last two service holds by the newest adult member of tennis greatness.

Alcaraz simply showed the packed house his true greatness and will to win. The young man was the true gem in the Madrid ATP Masters 1000 event.

ALL THE WAY WITH A BROAD SMILE

Alcaraz appeared to do it all with a broad smile on his young face. Three sets just made it more exciting for everyone other than the loser.

Alcaraz seems to enjoy the extra practice time when he needs it. And he needed it to turn back a 33-year-old opponent who played his heart out until the end.

He was outhit and outplayed, but when it came time to end things, Alcaraz was ready for the challenge.

ALCARAZ DID WHAT HE DOES BEST

Struff didn’t do anything really wrong. Alcaraz just did what he does best. Win.

The usual one-sided wins by Alcaraz, of course, are supreme fun for his growing number of fans. But at times like Sunday, Alcaraz appears to need to keep the pressure on until the clutch time comes. Otherwise, the fans might start celebrating too early.

After all, they already are in Rafa Heaven. What are the fans supposed to do if their two greats, Alcaraz and Rafa Nadal, have a showdown in Paris?

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.

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