Sunday, March 11, 2018

To Be Swell and Dare Not Dwell in Indian Wells

Hmmm, timing?

Sort of like trying to do a "mid-tournament" Indian Wells update at the close of the 2nd Round, only to see it start to rain in the California desert and the next-to-last scheduled match to be completed suddenly stopped, and the final late night contest become, at best, a "late, late night" one... and then both ultimately get shoved onto the *Sunday* slate?

Yeah, like that. Grrr.

But, hey, did you hear that Tiger Woods is back?

Of course, Serena Williams, back after a 404-day absence -- which included motherhood, a(nother) brush with death, and a wedding -- will take a bit of time to round into shape. But her Indian Wells wins over Zarina Diyas and Kiki Bertens did little to dissuade anyone from the notion that it's just a matter of *when* and not *if* it will happen during the 2018 season. A serving of strawberries, cream and slam #24 would surprise no one. Well, that is, unless she manages to hit stride even earlier in Pa-... nah, we can't act as if Serena is a superhero, no matter how much she often resembles one.

Next up for Serena: naturally, a meeting with Venus on Monday.

Of all the returning-to-action stars at this event, none looked as immediately ready to go as Victoria Azarenka. But that's for good reason, as her custody fight for 15-month old Leo has been the thing keeping her off court rather than injury, recovery or rehab. As she's shown in her social media posts (in between pics and vids of her growing son), she's been on the practice court quite often. In her first match since last Wimbledon, she was aggressive and downed Heather Watson (the last person she defeated, in last summer's SW19 3rd Rd.) in straight sets. Aside from one long-winded hold late in the 2nd, it was quite a impressive debut for a player who hasn't played a match in nearly seven months. Azarenka has also joined up with countrywoman Aryna Sabalenka to form a fairly-intense doubles duo in Indian Wells. They've already knocked off Sloane Stephens & Genie Bouchard.

Vika was supposed to face Stephens again in the final scheduled 2nd Round singles match on Saturday night, set to start after the match with that Roger Federling guy had concluded. But, naturally, it started to rain in the desert mid-way through the 2nd set of the men's match and pushed everything even *deeper* into the night. Especially on the *East* coast. Especially on a night when the clocks are moved one hour *ahead* and 2 a.m. is suddenly 3 a.m., and so on. And then, at just before 1 a.m., which would soon be 3 a.m. at Backspin HQ in another hour, the match was finally pushed back to Sunday (along with the still-to-finish Kerber/Makarova match, with the Hordette up a set).


Hence, this is *almost* a complete 1st and 2nd Round update, I guess.
With the tour schedule winding back around to the U.S., Bannerettes used the occasion to roll out some of their best results. It started with teenager Ashley Kratzer knocking off #1-seeded Kateryna Kozlova in qualifying, and has continued with big wins from Jen Brady (def. Mihaela Buzarnescu), Amanda Anisimova (def Anastasia Palvyuchenkova), Caroline Dolehide (def. Dominika Cibulkova), Danielle Collins (def. Madison Keys) and, in a "Friday Night Special," Sachia Vickery's upset of #3 Garbine Muguruza.

In Vickery's first event as a Top 100 player, she got the biggest win of her career, becoming the second straight Muguruza opponent to come from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the Spaniard. In Dubai, Muguruza twice held a break lead vs. Dasha Kasatkina in the 2nd set and had three MP in the TB, only to lose it 13-11 and then "wander off" while the Russian ran away with the 3rd. Against Vickery, she led by a set and 3-0, and had six points for a 4-0 lead, but she failed to convert any, and saw Vickery storm back and level the match. Back-to-back DF in game #4 of the 3rd handed Vickery a 3-1 lead, and she never looked back. Muguruza, as per usual, seemed, umm, something less than interested in Sam Sumyk's coaching advice during a changeover visit late in the match. The guidance of Conchita Martinez, added to the Mugu team but still not the "#1" coach, always seems to level and bring out the best in Muguruza, while the Sumyk-Garbi dynamic always appears to be ultra-tense and problematic. One wonders what the hold-up might be for the "flip" to officially occur.

Of course, Muguruza seems to use the bulk of her schedule as a tune-up for the slams, where she far more often resembles the sometimes-spectacular player we all know she *can* be when properly motivated. So, I guess as long as her major results are where she wants them, the cover-your-eyes moments everywhere else are "tolerable." Until they no longer are.
Needless to say, my interest in Naomi Osaka's fortunes were significantly piqued a few months back when she brought aboard the suddenly-free Sascha Bajin as coach. As I said in the Prediction Blowout, "powerful and with more personality than consistency at the moment, Osaka is a diamond that could prove to be HUGE if someone can find a way to polish her game to its potentially shiniest form. It may never FULLY happen, but Bajin, in his first solo coaching gig, now gets a chance to help make it happen. If Osaka can 'pinish,' their teaming could prove to be one of the biggest stories of 2018." It has continued to be one of the most lightly-discussed, but possibly most intriguing storylines of the season. It only became more so during the first week in Indian Wells.

One of the key advances necessary for Osaka's career to take an upturn was always her ability to be more consistent, which is surely tied into her not allowing negativity to slip into her thought process. If Bajin, after years of working with the likes of Serena, Vika and Caroline Wozniacki, has used that experience to find a way to manage to help begin a changing of that process with Osaka it could be a *huge* deal, and there certainly seems to already be something different about her. Her quick leads in both sets over Sharapova were impressive, but what was even more so was how she held on and claimed both after the Russian had twice leveled things at 4-4. Even Osaka noted how in the past she'd likely has been unable to halt either slide. She's blown so many leads in the past, keeping her from some large wins, so this development would be big step.

Osaka finds herself in a section of the draw where she will next meet Vickery, with the victor facing the winner of Vandeweghe/Sakkari for a spot in the quarterfinals. Of note, maybe, Osaka defeated CoCo at the U.S. Open in 2015 in their only previous meeting.

Meanwhile, Sharapova's loss (her third in a row, something which has hasn't happened since 2003, to drop her to 5-4 on the season, after she'd finished '17 on a 10-3 run) was accompanied by a coaching change, as she parted ways with Sven Groeneveld, who'd been with her for four years, and stayed around during her suspension. On Tennis Channel, Lindsay Davenport theorized that the move sounded to her like something a player might do if, after a hard stretch, she'd decided to "give it one more go" with a new coach before ultimately then having to make a decision to walk away from the sport if things don't turn around. She could very well be correct, if only because the Russian's main issue since her return has been her ability to stay *on* the court more than the notion that she couldn't climb back up the rankings. Almost a year since her first comeback match, she's still positioned outside the Top 40. The more she's been able to play, the better she's looked, and she even won a title last fall. But due to a series of injuries (often with her forearm) she hasn't been able to consistently string together tournaments, let alone victories. Her ability to regain the skills to finish off the sort of comeback that *didn't* happen this week vs. Osaka aren't really questioned. But she can't do it if she can't stay on the court.

If former coach Michael Joyce (2004-11) was free, the split with Groeneveld would surely make one wonder if a "let's-get-the-old(er)-band-back-together" might be in order. But Joyce joined the Johanna Konta camp last December. Although, considering the Brit has compiled just a 6-6 mark in '18 in WTA tour matches, including her 2nd Round I.W. loss to Marketa Vondrousova, maybe that situation *doesn't* have as long a lifespan as one might think. Of course, that's not to say that an occasional case of "coach pilfering" doesn't happen on the WTA tour, as it surely has... with one of the more recent, headline-grabbing ones coming when Sam Sumyk suddenly left the Azarenka camp for the Genie Bouchard team back in 2015.

Of course, that didn't work out all that well. For either of them. And while the Canadian *did* finally win her case vs. the USTA last month, she still hasn't gotten off her downward spiral *on* the court. She lost in the 1st Round in the desert to Sachia Vickery 6-3/6-4, and the New York Times has reported that her fast slide down the rankings is making it difficult for her to hold on to sponsors, as well.

Meanwhile, another former Sharapova coach, Thomas Hogstedt (2011-13), was last seen with Ekaterina Makarova. I *suppose* he's still with her. But, you know, as far as WTA coaching carousel goes, it's an almost hourly chore trying to keep things straight.

Oh, in case you were wondering, that '03 losing streak, which was actually *four* overall defeats by the then 16-year old, looked like this:

Australian Open: lost to Klara Koukalova 6-4/7-6(6)
$75K Midland: lost to Shenay Perry 6-4/6-3
Indian Wells: lost to Samantha Reeves 6-3/1-6/6-0
Miami: lost to Els Callens 7-6(3)/6-1

Three months later she won Wimbledon at age 17.
On the ITF circuit in Week 10, Marta Kostyuk's remarkable 1st Quarter has been on once again in the $60K challenger in Zhuhai, China, although this time the ending didn't go according to script. The 15-year old Ukrainian, after reaching the final without losing a set (def. Ula Radwanska in the 1st Rd., then Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the semis, lost to Waffle Maryna Zanevska in a 6-2/6-4 final, falling to 17-3 overall in 2018. The teen's season had already included a qualifier-to-3rd Round Australian Open run, $60K challenger title and her Fed Cup debut.

Brit Gabriella Taylor picked up her third challenger title of '18, winning the $25K Mildura title with a 6-0/6-3 win in the final over Pastry Sherazad Reix, extending her winning streak to ten matches and improving her season record to 17-1 (22-1 dating back to her final 2017 calendar year event back in December). She's won four of her last five ITF events. Taylor also claimed the doubles title, taking it with Katy Dunne. Taylor defeated Dunne in the semis en route to her singles crown. Also in Mildura...

Hey, JD.

Meanwhile, in her first event since publicly acknowledging her relationship with new Budapest champ Alyson Van Uytvanck, Waffle Greet Minnen (#1090, though she was as high as #263 in '16 before playing in just seven events in '17) picked up her fourth career ITF singles title. She defeated the #2, #7, #4 and #3 seeds in succession, including Bannerette Quinn Gleason in a 2-6/6-2/6-4 final. Van Uytvanck lost to Yulia Putintseva in three sets in the 1st Round in Indian Wells.

As far as the juniors, China's Zheng Qinwen picked up her first career Grade 1 title in Nonthaburi, Thailand. The 15-year old defeated Japan's Yuki Naito 6-3/3-6/7-5. Zheng, who'd previously reached a G1 final in Germany last June, will now become the latest girl from China to climb into the junior Top 15, joining Wang Xinyu (#3) and Wang Xiyu (#7) on Monday as the impact of the "Li Na Generation" is likely only beginning to be felt.
Rebecca Marino wasn't in Indian Wells this week, but so what? This is a very good piece about her from Tennis Channel...

It actually coincides quite well with Pam Shriver's post this week of some artwork from her daughter...

Has Alona Ostapenko finally found her jumping-on point for the 2018 season? Latvian Thunder opened her Indian Wells schedule by winning a three-setter over Belinda Bencic. With Johanna Konta ousted in her section, the quartet of Ostapenko, Petra Martic and Marketa Vondrousova/Aryna Sabalenka will produce a quarterfinalist.

I'm liking the red-and-black adidas outfit, too.

And the Fila color schemes debuting this week are nice.

But that opinion may change after I've seen about twenty other players wearing the exact same thing over the next few weeks.
Defending Indian Wells champ Elena Vesnina got her mural! And it at least somewhat resembles her -- I think the mouth makes it so -- which is never a given where those murals are concerned. I mean, who can forget the Chris Evert mural that looked like Steffi Graf?

And Elena, after losing the 1st set, won her opening match against CiCi Bellis, too, which was a necessary (but, honestly, not expected) development.

Here's the unveiling of the "Steffi Evert" (or "Chrissie Graf") mural...


1. Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Petra Kvitova def. Yulia Putintseva
There she goes again. Kvitova's 14th straight win was a doozy. She trailed Putintseva 4-2 in the 3rd, and won despite 18 (!!) DF, and 78 UE's to go along with her 66 winners. Of course, the WTA saw fit to announce that the (official) 3:17 running time of this one made it the "longest WTA main draw match of the year." Come on, it's bad enough that they refuse to take note of Fed Cup matches when discussing the season's "longest match," but now they're trying to needlessly confuse people even more by differentiating such a "listing" from one that includes slam matches, too. It's a completely pointless act to call this the "longest WTA MD match" while ignoring the 3:45 marathon that occurred in the Australian Open between Simona Halep and Lauren Davis.

2. Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Sachia Vickery def. Garbine Muguruza
Oh, Garbi. Oh, Sachia!

3. Indian Wells 1st Rd. - Victoria Azarenka def. Heather Watson
Game #7 of the 2nd set was an 18-minute, dozen-deuce hold from Vika.
4. Indian Wells 1st Rd. - Belinda Bencic def. Timea Babos 1-6/6-1/7-6(4)
Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Alona Ostapenko def. Belinda Bencic 6-4/3-6/6-1
after saving a MP at 5-4 in the 3rd vs. Babos, Bencic wins in 2:23 to record her first victory since defeating Venus in the AO 1st Round. But then Ostapenko showed once again that the Swiss' late 2017 run in WTA 125 & challenger events doesn't necessarily mean she's *back* quite yet.
5. Indian Wells Q1 - Ashley Kratzer def. Kateryna Kozlova
The 19-year old, the '17 USTA national champ, takes out the #1 Q-seed. After losing the first four games of the match, she won eleven of the next twelve.
6. Indian Wells Q2 - Monica Niculescu def. Roberta Vinci
"Alien (forehand slice) vs. Predator (backhand slice)."

7. Indian Wells 1st Rd. - Aliaksandra Sasnovich def. Magda Linette
The Belarusian trailed 5-2 in the 3rd, then 2-0 in the deciding TB, before winning in 2:58.
8. Indian Wells 1st Rd. - Sofya Zhuk def. Alize Cornet
The 2015 Wimbledon junior champ notches her first WTA MD win (and, no, that doesn't mean she *also* won a previous slam MD match). She followed up with another win over Magdalena Rybarikova.

HM- Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - Aryna Sabalenka def. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2017 I.W. finalist Sveta, in her first match of the season, exits early. With the result, she'll give up the #1 Russian ranking to Dasha Kasatkina.

It's never not a good time to remember Bud Collins...

Bethanie is almost back... and it looks like we'll be seeing *twice* as much of her in Miami.

1. Indian Wells 1st Rd. - SERENA WILLIAMS def. Zarina Diyas
Sorry, Zarina. It had to be *someone* who drew the short straw.

2. Indian Wells 1st Rd. - NAOMI OSAKA def. Maria Sharapova
With this one, Osaka added Sharapova's name to a list of '18 victims that already included Mladenovic, Barty, Kontaveit, Siniakova and Vesnina. Also, make a mental note about this win...

3. Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - NAOMI OSAKA def. AGA RADWANSKA
But also remember that *this* beat-down is how Osaka followed up her big 1st Round win. By the way, Aga, though she did win two matches in each of her first three events in '18, has now lost three straight for the first time in three years In 2015, it was Venus-Sveta-Maria who took her out. This time it's been Petra-DashaK-Naomi doing the deed.
HM- Indian Wells 2nd Rd. - KAROLINA PLISKOVA def. Irina-Camelia Begu
Hours after Simona Halep had taken out Kristyna, Karolina fell behind 5-1 in the 1st to another Romanian. Begu twice served for the set, holding a 40/15 lead at one point. Then Pliskova turned it into a Fed Cup match.

The editing job on this video of Wimbledon role models is genius...

"Four Billboards Outside Indian Wells, California"...

NOTE: When this happened, Amanda Anisimova was still three and a half years away from being born.

I'll have an additional special Backspin post on Sunday -- one that I've talked about doing for a while now, and finally got things together to do this week.

All for now.


Blogger jo shum said...

I really do miss the trio, Serena, Vika and Maria. Star power. Just not the same without them.

Of late, Osaka is an interesting one. Very composed in the Maria's match and her press conference. Think if she plays this way consistently , top 10 by year end

Sun Mar 11, 09:41:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Hey, Jo! Long time, no see... err, read. Hmmm, Vika comes back, and you're back (so that's the recipe!). Nice to hear from you. ;)

It certainly is great to have a full field. It's been a while.

Side note on Osaka: unlike ESPN, at least TC is paying a little attention to Osaka, and hasn't made some Potteresque pact to never utter Bajin's name.

Sun Mar 11, 11:55:00 AM EDT  
Blogger colt13 said...

A bunch of likeable stuff there-the Bud Collins clip, the Vinci quote, and extremely young Venus, and Serena.

US kids have been impressive so far. Mostly on the Dolehide train. She has the Serena body type, the Serena serve, and that's it. I like her game, but the backhand will be a liability against the best players. For now.

Stat of the Week-8- The number of career titles for Marion Bartoli.

I admit, I have an ego. But this is one of the times I hope I am wrong. With so many other comebacks of note that last year's IW finalists in Vesnina and Kuznetsova didn't even rate as a big storyline, we have another in Bartoli slated to comeback in Miami.

The optics on her comeback don't look good. 4 1/2 years away don't make you stronger and faster. So look at it this way-would you pick her against the power of Sabalenka? The grit of Cibulkova? Or the slice of Niculescu? I would not. The problem is that there are better versions of each in Ostapenko, Svitolina, and Radwanska.

As somebody that has already had success as a commentator, can you really see her grinding it out of the ITF Tour? And that is what she will have to do. Number 1's like Clijsters, Davenport, Hingis, etc get the wildcards. Similar Top 10 players like Zvonareva, Schnyder, Vaidisova, and the rest have to grind it out.

The other subplot to her WC is her past with the FFT. Possibly water under the bridge, but actually more likely she gets one as a former Wimbledon champ, than to the French. The other reason why? Of her 19 career finals, only 2 were on clay-0 titles.

Since we are already into March, give her six months. But after that, don't be surprised if she makes a change, whether that means commentating, or coaching.

Sun Mar 11, 02:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, I'm of a similar mind regarding Bartoli. Just not sure about it. It might be a case of her decision to come back largely being influenced by her previous health issues, and just being *able* to play again is more important than her results/success. If that's the case, it might be just a matter of how much patience she has for the slog when she could easily take another route.

(I might take her over Cibulkova, at least in the Slovak's current form.)

Sun Mar 11, 03:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I remember seeing that Wimbledon video but I didn't bother to play it because I couldn't get past the irony. It is great, though.

Hey Jo--nice to see you!

Sun Mar 11, 05:21:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Haha - I thought that might be the case! It was at least part of the reason why I tried to describe it, I think. "(Nudge, nudge)... Go ahead, just take a look at it." :D

Sun Mar 11, 07:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

Hello guys! Been a while as I have been a little busy since my son is born 2 years ago. But when Vik's plays I make some effort to watch replays. ;). Too bad she lost. But I will be looking for Serena-venus match though. Interesting to see if Serena can still the winning record.

Sun Mar 11, 09:22:00 PM EDT  

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