Monday, July 03, 2017

W.1- This is Us

You never know, good or bad, what life may have in store. The Williams Sisters are but the latest example.

It probably says a great deal about the coverage of women's tennis in the U.S. that the predominant (only, really) stories the week heading into Wimbledon centered on things that had little to do with actual tennis. At center stage were Serena Williams' nude pregnant (Demi Moore-style) on the cover of Vanity Fair, the irrelevant puff-of-smoke story that popped up after John McEnroe called Serena the "greatest female tennis player" ever while hawking his latest book (by the way, why aren't these "quality comparisons" in tennis simply treated like those in boxing, when the "best pound-for-pound" fighter is often declared, but no one ever sees fit to wonder whether a great welterweight champion might be able to be beat the #700th-ranked performer in the heavyweight division? The sport would be wise to consider such distinctions in order to avoid still more discussions that veer off course from the actual topic, such as just how great a player such as Serena is in the context of *all* of tennis history) and, unfortunately, the news that Venus Williams was involved in a June auto accident at home in Florida in which there was a fatality, and that she's being sued by the distraught family of the victim.

Perhaps finding a bit of respite from her off-court worries, Venus opened play on Day 1 one year after reaching the semifinals at SW19 for the first time since 2009. Facing Elise Mertens, a blowout loser to Williams in Paris, Venus took a quick 3-0 lead, but the Waffle held tough and took things to a tie-break. Williams led 4-1, and 6-3, but ultimately took five set points to put away a 9-7 TB win. Mertens led 2-0 in the 2nd, but Williams surged ahead 5-3. She failed to convert on three MP attempts before a brief rain delay, but finally closed out the win on MP #5 (w/ a put away at the net, naturally), winning 7-6(7)/6-4 to record her 82nd career Wimbledon match win in her 20th appearance at the tournament. She's just four wins from tying Serena for third on the all-time women's list at SW19.

After the match, Williams attempted to get through a press conference, though she wasn't able to really address the accident (she wasn't issued a citation, but was judged to be at fault). After a few questions, one to which she noted that you can "never prepare for everything in life," as she was obviously trying to hold back her emotions regarding the continuing ordeal, calling it "devastating" and saying it has left her "speechless." According to reports, she hasn't really even talked about the situation with members of her tennis team. As the questions were put on hold, she remained silent with her face rested in her palm, then began to wipe away tears beneath her visor. "Maybe I should go," she ultimately suggested. And she did, though she returned later to answer a few more question.

And, thus, the whole Williams saga continues to add chapter after chapter. Some brilliant, some unfortunate. Some exhilarating, some tragic. Legendary talent, social and sport-related change once took center stage when it came to the Sisters, but their perseverance has become the predominant through-line in their lives. Daughters of divorce, the survivors of a murdered sister, the objects of racism and sexism (and, in some instances, "sports ageism," as well), the respective victims of a career-threatening disease and a life-threatening sudden health crisis, and the managers of lives that have taken place both in and out of the spotlight pretty much from the very start. Now, as both edge closer to 40, having spent over two decades in the sport, while one readies to experience the truly life-changing moment of becoming a mother, the other deals with the sadness and, likely, very human feelings of guilt that she has to be struggling to know what to do with while avoiding being consumed by them, and trying to push forward while also not wishing for it to appear as if she's being disrespectful to the suffering of a grieving family with which she'll now be tied in the aftermath of a horrible moment that both sides will always struggle to make sense of, though there is really no "master key" to unlocking any "reasons" for a coincidence that turned catastrophic.

As with most things in most lives, nothing is ever truly easy, and with great happiness comes pockets of tremendous misery. The trick is finding the way to slip through the cracks between the two, never being overwhelmed by either end of the emotional spectrum of existence.

While they've lived their lives both representing and standing apart from those around them, the Williams Sisters are, for lack of a better word, "us." Their highs and lows are just like those of everyone else, only exponentially more public as well as impactful, for them and all those aforementioned people they represent and stand apart from. They're not just at the center of a "tennis story"... they're at the center of an oh-so-very human story.

The past week has only served to prove it to be so yet again. And likely not for the last time, either.

...the race for the "First Victory" at this slam turned into a "two-horse" (and nearly three) battle in the early hours of the 2017 Wimbledon. Beatriz Haddad Maia, one of the most improved players on tour this season, held a commanding lead on wild card Laura Robson, and looked to be a sure thing as the first player to advance to the 2nd Round. The Brazilian was up 6-4/5-2, serving up 40/love, but had a difficult time closing out the Brit. While she was struggling to finally get off the court, China's Wang Qiang managed to begin her own attempt to serve out her match against Chang Kai-Chen, and finished off the Taiwanese player for a 6-3/6-4 before Haddad reached her own finish line, becoming the first woman to reach the 2nd Round at this Wimbledon. Moments later, Haddad finally defeated Robson, winning 6-4/6-2 on her fifth MP. Not long afterward, as she'd been "waiting in the weeds," up a set and 5-1, for Haddad and Chang to be broken and allow her to potentially steal away with the "FV" honor, Madison Keys returned to action by becoming the third player to advance, knocking off Nao Hibino 6-4/6-2.

...determining the "First Seed Out" turned out to be just as tight a contest, as two of the four oldest women in the main singles draw teetered on the edge of oblivion on Monday.

#31 Roberta Vinci, 34, took an early 4-1 lead in the opening set against Kristyna Pliskova, only to see the Czech get things back on serve and then take an 8-6 TB. She then led 5-2 in the 2nd, as well.

Meanwhile, #26 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, the 35-year old who opened the season by reaching the AO semifinals (her first such result since doing so at Wimbledon at age 16 in 1999), was facing off with Germany's Catarina Witthoeft. Witthoeft took the 1st set 6-3, and things were knotted at 4-4 in the 2nd. Lucic held for 5-4 and took a love/40 lead in the following game. She eventually got the break, took the set at 7-5, and led 5-0 in the 3rd. But then it all fell apart. Witthoeft stormed back and broke the Croat to take a 7-6 lead.

As Witthoeft served for the match, Pliskova attempted to break Vinci to finish off a straight sets win. While Witthoeft was forced to save a BP, Pliskova took a commanding love/40 lead on Vinci's serve and narrowly edged out the German at the "finish line," taking out the Italian 7-6(6)/6-2 moments before Witthoeft closed out Lucic-Baroni 6-3/5-7/8-6. It's the Croat's second straight 1st Round exit at SW19, and her fifth in the last eight years. She's 11-11 in MD Wimbledon matches, and just 5-9 since that '99 final four run. Vinci's loss makes it five times that a vaunted Italian Quartet member has been the "FSO" at Wimbledon since 2010. This is the first time Vinci has been such a victim (all four countrywomen have now served time in the role), though this *is* the second straight slam at which she was the first seed to exit, having lost in the 1st Round in Paris to Monica Puig a little over a month ago.

Meanwhile, following in the footsteps of fellow 37-year old Venus, Francesca Schiavone won her 18th career match (18-16) at Wimbledon in her 17th appearance in the event, defeating another thirtysomething, Mandy Minella of Luxembourg, 6-1/6-1.

...Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina were the overall form players of the clay court season, though neither ultimately won Roland Garros. But they *did* face off in two memorable matches in Rome (in the final, where the Romanian rolled her ankle) and Paris (in the QF, where the Ukrainian squandered a 6-3/5-1 lead, twice served for the match and had a MP). They had potentially tricky 1st Round opponents on Day 1, but both found a fairly no-mess way through.

Svitolina, who'd hinted that a lingering ankle injury might lead to a Wimbledon withdrawal a few weeks ago, faced off with Aussie Ash Barty, while Halep got qualifying Kiwi Marina Erakovic. I'd actually picked Barty to pull off the upset in my original predicitions, and she *did* put up the biggest fight in these two matches. While Halep rebounded from her match play-heavy exit at Eastbourne (two three-setters in one afternoon) to win 6-4/6-1, Svitolina saw Barty serve for the 1st set before the Ukrainian ultimately claimed a 7-5 win. She led 3-2 in the 2nd when rain interrupted play, and things eventually went to a TB when play resumed. Svitolina held multiple MP on both Barty's and her own serve before finally winning 10-8 to close out the 7-5/7-6(8) victory.

...I maintained coming into this event that, while she'd yet to win a grass match this summer in her ongoing return from a springtime wrist injury, Dominika Cibulkova's form wasn't so "off" that she still couldn't gather things together for a successful second week run in her defense of her QF result from a year ago. As was the case at the AELTC in '16, the Slovak's fight is her greatest asset, and it once again proved true today in her 1st Round match against Andrea Petkovic.

After splitting the 1st two sets, the veterans battled back and forth in the 3rd. Cibulkova gained an early advantage, but the German pushed things back to center as the deciding set was extended. Serving at 7-6, Cibulkova fell behind love/40, got back to deuce, but was broken anyway, then broke Petkovic at love a game later. After falling behind love/30 there, after a Petko fall on the baseline (she seemed okay... whew!), Cibulkova got to MP (#5 on the day), staved off a BP, then finally saw the end of the match when a Petkovic forehand failed to clear the net on the Slovak's sixth MP, giving her a 6-3/3-6/9-7 win.

...Day 1 saw a handful of returns. Two-time champ Petra Kvitova, a week past her Birmingham title run, showed her nerves at the start, hitting three DF and being broken by Johanna Larsson in her first service game. But the Czech rebounded to win 6-3/6-4. While Kvitova's history at this event from 2010-14 (SF-W-QF-QF-W) speaks well for her being "favorite" at this slam despite it being just her third tournament back from career-saving hand surgery, her recent SW19 results have been at bit lacking, as she fell in the 3rd and 2nd Rounds the last two years. After being just 3-3 overall on grass those two years, Kvitova has now won six straight on the surface in recent weeks.

I *did* pick Kvitova to reach the final at this Wimbledon, but the physical stresses of a consistent two-week run so early in her comeback (though she *did* win five matches in a week in Birmingham, which is a very good sign) caused me to avoid picking her to win her third title. Instead, I went with the "horse on the outside" -- CoCo Vandeweghe -- to claim the crown. Of course, I have to admit that I pretty much decided I was going to pick Vandeweghe to win Wimbledon after she had a generally better-than-expected clay court season, and then the coming aboard of former SW19 champ Pat Cash as coach only added fuel to that fire. I kept hoping for one great pre-Wimbledon result to further fertilize the notion of a win here, but she had an early stumble at Rosmalen (losing to Witthoeft holding a MP), then looked great in Birmingham before ultimately pulling out with an injury. Hopefully, her health won't make that pick *totally* ridiculous, as her potential draw -- including Barthel, Mladenovic, Wozniacki/Kontaveit and Ka.Pliskova before the semis -- already makes things hard enough.

Returning to slam play the All-England Club was former finalist Sabine Lisicki, who fell to last year's unluckiest SW19 player (remember the tennis ball underfoot vs. Radwanska?) Ana Konjuh, 6-1/6-4. And in just her third match back from having baby Leo, two-time Wimbledon semifinalist Vika Azarenka overcame a slow start vs. CiCi Bellis to win in three sets. A nervous first service game and an early 1-for-9 stat on BP opportunities for the Belarusian saw Bellis take the 1st set, but Azarenka got a break on chance #10 to go up 2-0 in the 2nd, and saw the force and rhythm of her game carry her through to the end, winning 3-6/6-1/6-2 to win her first SW19 match since 2015.

...former SW19 finalist/current nefarious karma carrier Genie Bouchard opened well with a 6-1 1st set win over Carla Suarez-Navarro, but then the Spaniard turned the tables on the bad-mouthing, often logic-challenged Canadian to win 1-6/6-1/6-1. Poor, Genie. Or not.

...and, lastly, Roland Garros champ Jelena Ostapenko, who last week in Eastbourne won a match (vs. CSN) in which she won fewer points than her opponents, then lost one (vs. Konta) when she won more, on Monday posted her second career Wimbledon MD victory, defeating Aliaksandra Sasnovich (6-1/1-6/6-3) to record her tour-leading tenth (tied with Venus, with Karolina Pliskova at nine prior to her 1st Round debut at this week) slam MD win of 2017. The former Wimbledon junior champ is surely more comfortable on this surface than she or anyone would have said she'd be on the red clay in Paris, and her whirlwind few weeks haven't seemed to have dulled her spirit and go-for-it game style in Eastbourne or, now, London. If she can find her way into the second week, look out.

Maybe by then even the ESPNers will have learned how to pronounce her name...

APPARENTLY ON DAY 1: Jelena Ostapenko -- or should I say Jelena "Ostenpenko?" -- has added an "n" to her name. At least Chris McKendry seems to think so on ESPN. I guess two "n's" just aren't enough.

(I mean, seriously, this is on the level of Hannah Storms' oddball transformation of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to "Jo-Wilifred" Tsonga before someone apparently pointed it out to her after about a year of (what should have been) an embarrassing lack of attention to detail. The Latvian's name isn't all that tough.)

...and, finally... for what it's worth, since by these picks may already look even worse than they probably did in their original time frame. A couple Round of 16ers lost today:

#14 Muguruza d. #32 Safarova
#19 Bacsinszky d. #7 Kuznetsova
#3 Ka.Pliskova d. #20 Gavrilova
#24 Vandeweghe d. #5 Wozniacki
#10 V.Williams d. #27 Konjuh
#13 Ostapenko d. #26 Lucic-Baroni (x)
#11 Kvitova d. #6 Konta
#2 Halep d. Bellis (x)
#14 Muguruza d. #19 Bacsinszky
#24 Vandeweghe d. #3 Ka.Pliskova
#13 Ostapenko d. #10 V.Williams
#11 Kvitova d. #2 Halep
#24 Vandeweghe d. #14 Muguruza
#11 Kvitova d. #13 Ostapenko
#24 Vandeweghe d. #11 Kvitova

Oh, and here are the "lost" Backspin awards from Weeks 25 & 26.

2005 #10 Patty Schnyder, SUI (Ant.Serra-Zanetta/ITA)
2006 #28 Sofia Arvidsson, SWE (Birnerova/CZE)
2007 #30 Olga Puchkova, RUS (Vesnina/RUS)
2008 #30 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK (J.Zheng/CHN)
2009 #23 Aleksandra Wozniak, CAN (Schiavone/ITA)
2010 #5 Francesca Schiavone, ITA (Dushevina/RUS)
2011 #22 Shahar Peer, ISR (Pervak/RUS)
2012 #16 Flavia Pennetta, ITA (Giorgi/ITA)
2013 #5 Sara Errani, ITA (Puig/PUR)
2014 #17 Samantha Stosur, AUS (Wickmayer/BEL)
2015 #24 Flavia Pennetta, ITA (Diyas/KAZ)
2016 #25 Irina-Camelia Begu, ROU (Witthoeft/GER)
2017 #31 Roberta Vinci, ITA (Kr.Pliskova/CZE)

2009 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS (L: Cetkovska/CZE)
2010 Chan Yung-Jan/TPE (L: Schnyder/SUI)
2011 Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN (L: O'Brien/GBR)
2012 Samantha Stosur/AUS (L: Suarez-Navarro/ESP)
2013 Lesia Tsurenko/UKR (L: Arruabarrena/ESP)
2014 Elena Vesnina/RUS (L: Mayr-Achleitner/AUT)
2015 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (L: Kontaveit/EST)
2016 Daria Kasatkina/RUS (L: Duval/USA)
2017 Wang Qiang/CHN (L: Chang/TPE)

2006 Meilen Tu, USA
2007 Hsieh Su-Wei, TPE & Olga Govortsova, BLR
2008 Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, ESP & Eva Hrdinova, CZE
2009 Viktoriya Kutuzova, UKR
2010 Kaia Kanepi, EST
2011 Alexa Glatch, USA
2012 Sandra Zaniewska, POL
2013 Petra Cetkovska, CZE
2014 Michelle Larcher de Brito, POR
2015 Petra Cetkovska, CZE
2016 Mandy Minella, LUX
2017 Petra Martic, CRO
[2017 slams]
AO: Elizaveta Kulichkova, RUS
RG: Marketa Vondrousova, CZE
WI: Petra Martic, CRO

TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): x
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Petra Martic/CRO def. #1q Aleksandra Krunic/SRB 3-6/7-6/7-5
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): x
FIRST VICTORY: Wang Qiang/CHN (def. K.Chang/TPE)
FIRST SEED OUT: #31 Roberta Vinci/ITA (1st Rd. - lost to Kr.Pliskova/CZE)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: Abanda, Sabalenka
LAST BRIT STANDING: 1st Rd. wins: Konta, Watson
IT ("??"): x
ZOMBIE QUEEN (TBD at QF): Nominee: Witthoeft (1st Rd. - down 0-5 in 3rd vs. #26 Lucic-Baroni)
June 26 official: Eastbourne DC Dominika Cibulkova loses opening match to WC Heather Watson; 4 LL's win MD matches (one LL vs. LL match-up); LL Tsvetana Pironkova advances to 2nd Rd. w/ 1st Rd. bye when Petra Kvitova withdraws, gets 2nd Rd. win
Day 3 observed: xx

All for Day 1. More Tomorrow.


Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

From the comment section on the other post:

Hey all! All is well at Backspin Academy/HQ... well, aside from no-account communications companies who lie for two weeks about doing "diagnostics" and saying that the problem is on "their end" before finally sending someone out to look at things (he just got notified of any issues TODAY) and he discovers that a squirrel (I suspect) ate through a wire. So I guess it wasn't on their end, after all, huh?

Anyway, thanks for checking in, and sorry I couldn't respond to any of this during the past week or so (but I did finally get back online with some make-up posts this evening).

Thanks Colt! I think you're now an official honorary member of the Backspin staff (though I think you were probably that already). ;)

I wouldn't have gotten Ani (and you didn't give me a chance to get 50% right this time). :D

I was right with you on Barty and Bellis maybe getting upsets today. Very impressive from Svitolina to win in straights, and Vika is just going to take time. But her win over Bellis and that win the other week after saving MP speaks well to where she might be by the end of the summer.

I actually went full-in (for no good reason) on Ostapenko in Eastbourne, though I didn't really think she'd win. I've been very impressive with how she's come back, though. She gives no ground to her success (so far), and seems to have the attitude after winning a slam that players SHOULD have.

I went with Martic as the Wimb. Q-Player of the Week, probably largely because of that final win over The Bracelet. ;)

I wish I'd seen that Haddad stat about a Brazilian in the 2nd Round. I'll have to use that on Wednesday.

And I'm heartened, at least, that my taking-a-chance SW19 champion pick (CoCo) is on the Colt Challenge (another new name!) final list for potential Wimbledon winners. Though she's got a scary draw. Maybe she and Pat Cash will see it as a challenge.

Mon Jul 03, 09:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

I think you'll see CAroline pass the fourth round this year - and why not all the way (if no rain problems that is) she has the game for it. Her hitting partner has done a great job like making her shoot more aces. Can't remember her making 7 aces in one match before and 2 of them in the same serve game one on a second serve. Optimistic in beating Pliskova in the quarterfinal - well hope is always there.

Tue Jul 04, 03:30:00 AM EDT  
Blogger colt13 said...

Welcome back. I think you have to give the comeback award to yourself.

Tue Jul 04, 03:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...


Tue Jul 04, 07:30:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Galileo Sutherland-west said...

I saw the Barty match live. The Aussie should have won it. She didn't quite close it out and Svitolina won it with a bit of luck here and there. She was dominated in the early parts of the first set and was extremely fortunate to sneak it 7-5. It would be deliciously ironic if she were to make her maiden slam SF at this major. In a sort of Sylvia Farina Elia way.
[Cue old Ben Kenobi saying now theres a name ive not heard in a long time]

Wed Jul 05, 07:41:00 PM EDT  

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