No. 1 and No. 2 in women’s Oz final


MELBOURNE, Australia – Battling their nerves and casting aside the untimely memories of other opportunities not taken, No. 1 Simona Halep and No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki reached the Australian Open women’s singles final Friday.

For Wozniacki, the heavy favorite against unseeded Belgian Elise Mertens, the nerves came when she served for the match in the second set. She flinched.

“I got really tight at 5-4. Couple of double faults. I thought after the two good first serves I said, ‘Calm down, it’s all good.’ And all of a sudden it wasn’t good any more,” said Wozniacki, who nevertheless got the second set into a tiebreak and won the match 6-3, 7-6 (2).

“I think that’s the one that’s been most disappointing to me throughout my career. I’ve had many bad losses, many great wins. That’s one of the ones that hurt extra because it was going into the finals of a Grand Slam. I felt like I was playing better on the day. I felt like it was my time to get there,” Wozniacki said of the 2011 semifinal against Li Na of China.

Wozniacki served for the match in that one, but ended up losing.

” I think that’s why it hurt extra that I lost that day, especially with being one point away. I think if you ask any player, they always have one or two matches that they’ll think back on that hurt extra.”

Mertens will jump into the top 20 for the first time on the strength of her effort in Melbourne. Wozniacki will look to get back to No. 1.

As expected, a close battle

Halep was facing a player much like herself in Angelique Kerber of Germany. But there was one big difference: Kerber has the experience of winning a Grand Slam in her muscle memory. Halep’s memories are of having those opportunities, to win a major or get to No. 1, and letting them slip away.

For her, the nerves moment came when she served for the match in the third set.

Halep’s second serve wobbled in at 66 mph, and after a momentous rally – at 26 shots, the longest of the match – Kerber broke her to stay alive.

Halep was up a set and 3-0 against 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open last spring, and flinched then. She’d be forgiven if those thoughts went through her head anew. Which they did.

But she hung tough. She didn’t wait for Kerber to wobble when the German had two match points of her own at 6-5 in that set. Halep went after it, and she was rewarded.

“I try to hit the ball. Not to be scared that I am two match balls down. And I think I played pretty well those balls. I was not afraid of losing, so maybe that’s why I was– I won those balls, and then I got the confidence back that I’m still alive and I can do it,” Halep said.

The start of the match did not presage a barnburner. Halep was up 5-0 after just 13 minutes, winning 20 of the first 25 points. Kerber then won 12 of the next 13 to get herself into it.

But Halep took the first set. After that, it was a two-woman sprint to the finish line, with a few side trips along the way.

Both players were more fearsome when they were trailing than when they were leading. And in the end, Halep’s higher level of willingness to pull the trigger on bigger shots, while Kerber contented herself with defending when she was ahead, won it for her.

Winners, winners everywhere for the winner

Halep had 50 winners and 50 unforced errors in the match – big numbers for anyone. And especially big numbers for her.

“I cannot believe, actually,” Halep said. “But I was aggressive. I had this in my mind, and I wanted to finish the points quicker, but was not that easy with her. She’s moving very well.”

The Romanian didn’t remember ever hitting that many winners in a match. “And I hope is not the last,” she said, smiling.

Despite the ankle issue Halep has been managing since she rolled it in the first round, And despite having a three-hour, 45 minute marathon against American Lauren Davis, won 15-13 in the final set after saving two match points, she had the fresher legs in the end.

That was a little surprising, considering Halep had spent 3 1/2 hours more on court during the tournament than Kerber did.

But Kerber’s 2018 season has started with so much winning – at Hopman Cup, in winning the tuneup event in Sydney the week before the main event. So she was a little short in that area.

It especially showed on her serve. The German doesn’t use her legs nearly as much as she should on the serve. But by the third set of this match, she wasn’t using them at all even if she was running every ball down with her very big heart.

“I think when I was warming up this morning I was feeling okay. … Of course I was not physically, like, on my 100 per cent because I played so many matches before,” Kerber said. ” Now you can say maybe it would be better to not (play) Sydney or whatever, but, I mean, I get so (much) confidence from Sydney from the last few weeks, so you never know what’s happen if I’m not winning Sydney, if I’m in the semis here.”

All those possibilities down to two

The list of contenders in the field to start the tournament, players who had a legitimate shot at a deep run in the women’s draw, was a lengthy one.

It included US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza, Ostapenko, and 2017 finalist Venus Williams. And yet, in the end, it is the two top-ranked players in the world who will fight for the title Saturday night.

The final four were the best players, on form, going into the semifinals. Kerber and Mertens, who both played Hopman Cup, were 14-0 and 11-1 coming in to Thursday. Halep was 10-0, winning the title in Shenzhen, China to open the season. Wozniacki was 9-1, losing in the final in Auckland. 

Week off pays dividends

Billie Jean King has been around all fortnight, as the tournament celebrates the 50th anniversary of her Australian Open title. She will hand out the previous trophy to a first-time Slammer Saturday night. Will it be Wozniacki?

In the end, the two players who didn’t play a tournament the week right before the Australian Open were left standing. Both also saved match points early on in the tournament, making the rest of the fortnight a bonus.

And now, those two will play for major stakes on Saturday.

The winner will be the No. 1 player in the world on Monday. And the winner also will pack her first Grand Slam singles trophy in her carry-on luggage when she leaves town.

The last time that happened at the Australian Open was in 1980, when Hana Mandlikova (later an Australian citizen) defeated Aussie Wendy Turnbull.

Halep, Kerber handle big hitters in Aussie quarters


MELBOURNE, Australia – On this day, at least, the great movers outfoxed the big hitters.

And so world No. 1 Simona Halep and former No. 1 Angelique Kerber will square off in an Australian Open semifinal on Thursday that may well turn out to be the defacto final, without taking anything away from the two other contenders.

Kerber had a surprisingly easy time of it with No. 17 seed Madison Keys, dispatching the 22-year-old American 6-1, 6-2 in 51 minutes.

Keys, one of the most powerful servers in the game, didn’t tally a single ace. Much of the credit for that must go to Kerber.

The German lefty, who turned 30 during this tournament, arguably is playing as well as she did in 2016 when she won two majors and made the final of a third. Actually,  she might well be playing even better.

“She takes time away, especially with her forehand down the line. So what might be considered a ‘safe ball’ against some people isn’t, because you know you’re going to be on the run. And she will come forward, and she just does a really good job of balancing getting every ball back but also putting you in a bad position,” Keys said.

“I think she definitely played one of the more aggressive, probably more aggressive than any other time that we have played each other. I mean, she was coming forward. She was hitting winners. I really didn’t have an answer for anything today.”

After a roll, Halep on a roll


As for Halep, who began her Australian Open campaign by rolling her ankle in her first-round victory, the road may have had more challenges than she had hoped for. But she made it.

Her effort against No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova in a 6-3, 6-2 win was, in some ways, a mirror image of Kerber’s effort against Keys.

Halep won twice as many points when returning Pliskova’s big serve as Pliskova did returning hers.

No. 2 seed Wozniacki, after an early-morning win over Carla Suárez Navarro, will face unseeded Elise Mertens in the other semifinal.

Pliskova who briefly was world No. 1 last year, doesn’t move as well as Keys. But she’s a little older and perhaps still a little better with the shot selection under duress. She also is more outwardly calm on the court, although Keys is making good strides in that area.

But as with Keys against Kerber, the Czech also had no answers against Halep. She got off to a roaring start, winning the first three games. And then … pffffft.

“I think she just plays always good against me, so I don’t know where is really the problem. So I need to change something maybe for next time. … I don’t think I was playing that bad after (going up 3-0). We were just going through the rallies. I think she’s reading my game pretty well,” Pliskova said.

“My serve is not that effective on her. She returns pretty well. She’s strong on the backhand side. I think there is couple of, you know, moments and points where I can for sure play better.”

Kerber a bad matchup for big-hitter Keys

Pliskova said that Halep just likes her game – even in practice. She said the Romanian likes her pace, uses it to her advantage. And she doesn’t hit it hard herself, which makes the Czech have to try to create the pace herself. “She just use my (pace). Then in the end, I’m the one who is running,” she said.

Keys looked poised for an even deeper run here. But she ran into a full-form Kerber, against whom she has taken just two sets in what is now eight consecutive losses.


“I know I’m good from the defense, and this is what makes me strong also that I know that I can run, that I can bring a lot of balls back. But on the other side I know that I have to try to improve my game, as well. I know that I can play aggressive. I show this so many times during my practices. Now I just try to do it also during the matches,” Kerber said. “I think this is what was the goal for this season, and I try to improving it in every single match.”

The head-to-head between Kerber and Halep was heavily weighted towards Halep early on. But the two met five times during Kerber’s golden 2016 year – once in Fed Cup, once at Wimbledon, twice during the North American hard-cour summer, and then at the WTA Tour finals in Singapore at year’s end.

Halep managed just one victory, in the semifinals in Montreal.

They haven’t played each other since.

This is, by a long way, the biggest occasion in which they have faced each other.

Madison Keys no longer under the radar


MELBOURNE, Australia – If American Madison Keys wasn’t often mentioned among the major contenders for the Australian Open women’s singles title, it was an error of omission, not commission.

The 22-year-old US Open finalist should be in the conversation for every Grand Slam on the basis of her talent and resumé. But she’s basically been MIA since that day at Flushing Meadows last September when she was beaten by her friend Sloane Stephens in the all-American final.

Keys has returned for 2018 looking in tip-top physical shape and, most importantly, with a healthy left wrist.

And with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 8 seed Caroline Garcia of France Monday, the No. 17 seed is in the quarterfinals.

Were she in the bottom half of the draw, you’d have to make Keys a favorite. But she’s in the loaded upper half.

Loaded bottom half

Only one of Keys, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, No. 1 Simona Halep and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova (the latter two if they win later Monday) will be an Australian Open finalist.

The American played just one match the rest of the way after that US Open effort – a loss to countrywoman Varvara Lepchenko in Wuhan, China 10 days later.

She began the 2017 season late after having wrist surgery in October, 2016, after making the WTA Tour Finals. And she missed last year’s Australian Open.

Keys then had a second procedure to remove scar tissue shortly after losing early at the French Open. And in Wuhan, she felt pain in that wrist again. So she took the time to get it right.’

“I think the biggest thing for me is I’m just really enjoying myself out on the court, and I obviously missed a lot of tennis last year and wasn’t playing well at the beginning of the year,” Keys said. 

“I realized once I just let things happen and trusted myself and just played my game, good things were happening and good outcomes were happening. So I just keep focusing on that and not putting as much pressure on myself.”

Good draw in Melbourne

Keys lost in the first round of Brisbane to open the season, a three-set loss to the equally rusty Johanna Konta. She’s had a very manageable draw so far in Melbourne – and she didn’t have to play Konta, her scheduled third-round opponent, after the British No. 1 lost early.

But the performance against Garcia was good enough to set off the bells even if Garcia thought she missed the boat on this one.

“I don’t think she was unplayable. Nobody is unplayable. She did a good performance, but mine was below what I can do – what I must do to beat her,” Garcia said during her French-language media conference. “My serve wasn’t up to it. Against a girl like that, I didn’t make enough first serves. I couldn’t play my game. All my matches since the beginning of the tournament were pretty average.”


The loss in the US Open final was a tough one to get over. Keys was helped by running into Kim Clijsters almost immediately after leaving the court. Clijster can relate absolutely; she didn’t win her first Grand Slam title until her fifth title.

Her own coach, Lindsay Davenport, had some of that experience as well when she played. But it’s all part of the learning curve, and Keys’s curve is getting steeper the closer she gets to the top.

“Obviously making a first week for the first time, everything is very overwhelming. I feel like being more consistent about making second weeks and having runs has helped me manage the moment. But more than anything, it’s just focusing on the match in front of me and not thinking about, oh, I could make the final. It’s more I have a quarterfinal and that’s what I need to focus on and not look past that,” she said. “The more I have been in the situation, the better I have become at doing that and not looking at the draw and doing all of that.”

Davenport advice well-followed

If you’ve ever watched the on-court coaching consults with Davenport permitted during the regular WTA Tour events, you’ve noted a common refrain. 

Davenport is always telling her to stay in the point, not pull the trigger too early, and wait for the right ball to pounce on with all of her power.

Keys has been listening.

“I’m feeling really good. I feel like I’m playing just solid, consistent tennis. And I think today was a good example of that. I think I served well. I think I returned well. But I don’t think I played unbelievable. I think I just played really solid and smart,” she said. “And I wasn’t going for unbelievable shots and things like that. I just was waiting for the right ball. Then trusting that I was going to make the right decision when I finally had the opportunity to go for it.”

Next up for Keys is Kerber, who survived a frustrating, scream-inducing three-setter against the unique and uniquely enjoyable Hsieh Su-Wei of Taipei.

Hsieh had a nice run at the French Open a year ago and got a lot of attention with her French cheering section (she lives in Paris with her French boyfriend) and her ever-present smile as she dissected her opponents on the red clay. 

Shealso has been ranked No. 1 in doubles and has won Grand Slam titles.

Near-exit turns into nice run

After losing the first set of her first-round match 0-6 and going on to win 8-6 in the third, the 32-year-old upset Garbiñe Muguruza in the second round and Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, before meeting Kerber.

Hsieh’s game – all angles and drop volleys and unexpected on-the-rise, flat groundstrokes – is relatively easier to execute against a bigger hitter who might not move as well or handle the off-pace shots as deftly.

Against Radwanska, and then Kerber Monday, it’s a challenging, energy-consuming exercise because of the increased number of balls the opponent will get back. By the middle of the second set, blowing her nose on changeovers, the needle on Hsieh’s tank began heading towards empty.

A year ago, Kerber might have shuttled herself right out of the tournament the way she was playing. A year later, she dug in and kept the intensity up to finally pull it out.

Keys v Kerber a Kolossal Klash

The German is 6-1 against Keys, much of that record produced against the “old” Keys, the one who wouldn’t stay in many rallies long enough to impose her game. That record includes victories at the 2013 Australian Open, the 2016 Olympics in Rio and and WTA Finals in Singapore at the end of that season.

Now, against a Keys with a healthy wrist, a Keys who’s really enjoying her job right now, the story may be quite different.

Then again, after a year that felt like a season-long hangover from her breakthrough exploits in 2016, that last part may be true of Kerber as well

Kerber wins the Fissette sweepstakes


If it feels like a lot of players are looking for new coaches this offseason, you’re not imagining things.

And certainly Wim Fissette was at or near the top of the list of experienced top-level coaches who would be in demand.

Fissette worked with Johanna Konta in 2017 and helped her have the best season of her career. He also has worked with Simona Halep and, before that, Victoria Azarenka and the great Kim Clijsters.

Former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber of Germany struck early, and sealed the deal.

Kerber announced on Twitter Thursday that she had parted ways with longtime coach Torben Beltz and will work with Fissette in 2018.

Tough 2017 for Kerber

Kerber was always a legitimate, but slightly fragile No. 1. Her credentials to hold that spot were indisputable. But there always were several players hovering who threatened it, and the pressure visibly weighed on her through the season.

In the end, Kerber had to match her 2016 this past season to keep the spot. And she couldn’t do it.

At the moment, she is ranked No. 21. And after the Tokyo event in late September, won just one match the rest of the way (a first-round victory over Naomi Osaka in the first round of Beijing).

She has defeated Osaka twice since the shocking first-round loss at the US Open. But that was cold comfort during a season in which she really struggled.

Kerber has 340 points to defend during the Australian swing to start the 2018 season (including a fourth round at the Australian Open). And she has half-a dozen players right behind her in the rankings.

Fissette and Konta never seemed to have a meeting of the minds. But the Brit’s results were impressive until injuries hit late in the season.

Whether or not a coaching change will revitalize Kerber’s career remains to be seen. It’s always a crapshoot. And Beltz and Kerber accomplished some great things together.

But you can’t swap the player. So the coach is the one who typically pays the price.

On her fourth try, Halep becomes No. 1


Simona Halep would have been forgiven if her reaction after beating Jelena Ostapenko Saturday in Beijing were one of relief.

Instead, it was pure joy.

Okay, maybe there was a little relief mixed in there somewhere.

The momentous victory meant that on Monday, the 26-year-old Romanian officially will become the No. 1 ranked player on the WTA Tour, for the first time in her career.

She will be the first Romanian, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour, to rise to the top spot. She also will be the fourth in less than six months. Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza have all owned the top spot since March.

Halep, like Pliskova (and Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic before them), ascended to the top spot before winning her first major title.

A bumpy road straightens out in Beijing

For Halep, older than all but Kerber, it was a long time coming.

Three times over the last four months, Halep was one victory away from claiming the top spot. The first three opportunities – in the French Open final against Ostapenko, at Wimbledon, and in Cincinnati – hadn’t gone well.

This time, she somehow put aside the accumulated pressure, the nerves, and the failures. She went to the line, and served it out as though it were the first set in her first-round match.

Even if she admitted her legs were shaking before that last point.

“I still say the toughest moment on court was the French Open final. It was the first opportunity to be No.1 and to win the first Grand Slam. I was devastated after that match. Then I just kept working. I said it’s going to happen one day, I just have to get on court and work harder, which I did,” Halep said afterwards, on a podcast on the WTA Tour website. “Darren (coach Darren Cahill) always told me that if you keep working you can do it. So today I did it after so many tough moments.”

That Halep is a good enough player and athlete to become No. 1 – especially in this era, when that top sport is so very much up for grabs – was rarely in question.

In a year of up-and-down results, of players reaching great heights only to stumble a few steps down the hill the following week, she was as capable as anyone.

But for her, compared to some, all the cylinders need to fire.

Coach Anabel Medina Garrigues came out when Ostapenko was down a break in the second set, remind her of Halep’s “situation” and telling her to stay with her. She won eight straight points after that. But Halep was able to kill the momentum and go on to victory. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

You just had to look over to the other side of the net Saturday to see Ostapenko. The 20-year-old from Latvia rode an insouciant confidence and the resultant ability to hit screaming winners to a French Open title.

That title came, as it happens, against the more well-rounded and experienced Halep.

For Ostapenko, the challenge will come when that confidence isn’t where it is now, and when opponents begin to figure out how to exploit the weaknesses in her game.

At times, Halep her own worst enemy

For Halep, the challenge so often has been to overcome herself.

Her humanizing self-doubt, a combination of cultural and personal, has meant that “her day”, as she referred to it on court Saturday, has only come at age 26.

“First place is the mental strength. The game I always had. I was there close many times, 2014 in Singapore. But the mental part I was not very close. This year for sure is the best way that I’ve been on court. The attitude now I’m happy about it. I’m not ashamed anymore,” she said on the WTA podcast. “I could not control my nerves, I could not control myself. And I was talking too bad to myself. I don’t deserve that because I’m working hard and I just have to appreciate myself more.”

It took a few turning points.

The first may well have come when a frustrated Cahill briefly said goodbye after Miami.

The affable Aussie, who has coached a youngster (Lleyton Hewitt) and an oldster (Andre Agassi) to No. 1, had reaching a breaking point.

After the French Open, Halep said, she had a psychologist who made a difference. There also was another man, a Romanian, with whom she worked at home.

“I really want to thank them because they showed me what I need to improve and what I have to change to be better on court, which I did it and credit to them, she said.

And then, there was the match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open – a very tough first-round draw for both, and a win for Sharapova.

“After the match, I talked to Darren and he told me my serve was s**t and that’s why I lost the match. So I said okay, if that’s the only one thing I can improve to beat her, then I work for it,” she told the WTA

Beefed up serve, lessons learned

Halep said she’s been out on the court hitting serves an hour a day. And the improved velocity this week in Beijing is the reward for all that work.

She crushed Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the third round.

But despite all the fuss made about it – one comparison was made to Rafael Nadal’s serving velocity when he won the US Open in 2010 –the serve wasn’t new territory.

We can recall a few years ago, when she first got on the top-player radar in 2014, that her serving velocity easily got up to the 105-107 mph range.

It was a matter of getting back to it, with the increased experience to be able to keep the velocity up without sacrificing location and consistency.

Back then, Halep already was a master at changing the direction of a hard-hit ball – taking a cross-court shot down the line with her backhand, more specifically.

Before that final game, Halep looked slightly nauseous. It’s hard to even fathom the thoughts that were rushing through her head.

Halep looked slightly nauseous before she went out to serve for the match and the No. 1 ranking. But she did it with aplomb. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

But in those final points against Ostapenko, she showed all of those skills. She sent her younger scrambling from corner to corner until the Latvian was in positions from where it was impossible to pull the trigger. She hit big serves out wide to take control of the points. With one final forehand down the line, and a leap in the air, she had done it.

WTA on-court celebrations

The WTA Tour made a big to-do about the accomplishment immediately after the match.

They had CEO Steve Simon and president Mickey Lawler and all the tournament officials ready to trot out on the court for a photo opportunity. They had a beautiful No. 1 made of flowers ready – a tribute Halep hugged as if she didn’t want to let it go. They had the tribute video all prepared for the giant screens.

The various suits came out for a photo op with the new No. 1 after the win. A nice touch would have been to add the members of Halep’s team on hand. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

There was an element of potential jinx to all of that advance preparation. You wonder if Halep saw the WTA executives hanging around and knew exactly what they were there for.

But it was a rare moment when an accomplishment could be immediately and publicly celebrated.

First true No. 1 celebration of 2017

The other occasions over the last year when a player became No. 1 weren’t nearly as neat and tidy, tailor-made for an instant tribute.

Garbiñe Muguruza, who was supplanted with the Halep victory, ascended to the No. 1 spot after her fourth-round exit from the US Open when Karolina Pliskova failed to defend her finalist points from the previous year with a loss in the quarterfinals a few days later.

Pliskova became No. 1 on the second Tuesday at Wimbledon when Johanna Konta defeated Halep in the quarterfinals. Pliskova had gone out in the second round.

Angelique Kerber became No. 1 again last March when Serena Williams withdrew from Indian Wells and Miami, citing “bad knees that didn’t allow her to train.” Of course, it turns out there was a much better reason.

A year ago at the US Open, Kerber became No. 1 for the first time after Pliskova defeated Williams in the semifinal – before Kerber even took to the court for her own.

This time, it all came together as one.

One more step for Halep

But there’s no time to celebrate. Halep still has a job to do.

She will meet an in-form Caroline Garcia in the Beijing final Sunday to win her fourth Premier Mandatory-level title.

In the absence so far of a Grand Slam title on her resumé, Premier Mandatory titles are Halep’s biggest efforts to date.

On the other side of the net, another milestone is in the works.

Garcia, whose season began with some Fed Cup drama and more back woes, has been surging.

She won Wuhan (a Premier 5 event) last week. And she was able to keep the momentum going and the energy up during a grueling week in Beijing.

On the WTA Tour this year, that has been a rare ironwoman streak. That it comes so late in the season is even more impressive.

Garcia survived a three-hour, 21-minute marathon against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals Friday and backed it up with a straight-sets win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s semifinal.

Sunday will be Garcia’s fifth straight day on the courts. But the end goal is within reach: a win would put the Frenchwoman into position to earn the final singles qualifying spot in Singapore for the first time in her career.

(All screenshots from WTA.TV)

Federer, Bouchard to hit Hopman Cup


There’s still a long way to go in the 2017 season.

But let’s talk about the start of 2018 already, shall we?

One of the first events of the year is the Hopman Cup exhibition, a long-standing event held on the west coast of Australia in Perth.

This year’s dates are Dec. 30, 2017 to Jan. 6, 2018. There’s usually a rocking New Year’s Eve party involved, too.

The biggest thing about the 2017 edition was that it was where Roger Federer began his comeback, after six months away. 

It was a perfect choice – matches against quality opposition, but with no pressure, to gauge his form. It worked out well for him a few weeks later in Melbourne at the Australian Open.

The good news in Perth this year, as the event announced the field on Wednesday, is that Federer is back.

That was actually the event’s first official announcement, all the way back in June. And it’s a major coup with no less than three ATP Tour events – Brisbane, Doha and the Maharashtra Open in Pune, India (formerly the Chennai tournament) no doubt vying for Federer’s $ervices.

Joining Federer on Team Switzerland will be Belinda Bencic, the 20-year-old who has had injury issues of her own. So this time, it will be her comeback.

Bencic has won just one match all year on the WTA Tour. And she was sidelinedwith a wrist injury from early May, until her return at an ITF event last week.

Federer did have an epic – a 7-6 (1) 6-7 (4) 7-6 (4) loss to his occasional practice partner Alexander Zverev.

But Switzerland didn’t actually win; France (Richard Gasquet and Kristina Mladenovic) defeated them in the round-robin portion and won the whole thing.

France isn’t among the eight teams for 2018. Neither are Great Britain, the Czech Republic or Spain – all of which took part in 2017.

Joining Federer and Bencic will be Zverev and Angelique Kerber for Team Germany.

Zverev played with Andrea Petkovic last year; this will be Kerber’s first appearance in Australia.

As well, Canadians Vasek Pospisil and Genie Bouchard will team up. Bouchard played with countryman Milos Raonic back in early 2014 – shortly before Bouchard’s big breakout result at the Australian Open.

Bouchard teamed up with Pospisil the following year in 2015. She defeated Serena Wiliams there, and then reached the Australian Open quarterfinals a few weeks later.

Russia’s Karen Khachanov will team up with Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Bouchard and Pospisil faced Serena WIlliams and John Isner at the Hopman Cup three years ago.

For Australia, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daria Gavrilova will represent.

David Goffin and Elise Mertens will play for Belgium

For the USA, Jack Sock and Coco Vandeweghe will fly the flag.

And, last but not least, Naomi Osaka and Yuichi Sugita of Japan fill out the field.

Switzerland, USA, Russia and Japan will be in Group B. Canada, Germany, Australia and Belgium will be in Group A, for round-robin purposes. They’ve already made the schedule, so fans can pick and choose what matchups they want to see well in advance.

Canada plays during the Sunday, Wednesday and Friday day sessions.  Federer will play Saturday (vs. Japan), Tuesday (vs. Russia) and Thursday (vs. the USA) evenings. 

That means Nick Kyrgios, the top Aussie, won’t be there.

But it’s a pretty interesting field nonetheless, with plenty of high-profile players on both sides.

The format is two singles, and then mixed doubles. Last year, they used the “Fast Four” format for the mixed.

Halep to try again for top ranking


Will Simona Halep be third time lucky on Sunday?

Already this year, the 25-year-old Romanian has had two opportunities to reach the elusive No. 1 singles ranking on the WTA Tour. But she couldn’t get it done.

If she defeats Garbiñe Muguruza in the Cincinnati final, she’ll finally do it.

“It’s the third time. It is either lucky or is just an experience again. So we will see,” Halep said after defeating wild card Sloane Stephens in the semifinal Saturday.

At the French Open, just a few games away from defeating unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the final and taking over top spot, she faltered. At Wimbledon, she was just two points away against Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals. But she faltered again.

Surprisingly, Halep and Muguruza have not met in more than two years, since Stuttgart, on indoor clay in 2015.

“I want to win it. “So if it’s gonna be just to win a match and to get it, it’s going to be more special and nicer for me. Everyone can get to No. 1 now. The ranking is close. So depends on anyone,” she told the media in Cincinnati. “But I am so close. I really want it. So we will see.”

Fresh slate at the top

If Halep gets it done, it will complete an astonishing – and likely unprecedented  – week in which every single one of the No. 1 rankings in tennis will change hands.

Rafael Nadal is assured to be the new No. 1 on the men’s singles side. Finland’s Henri Kontinen will be No. 1 in men’s doubles. And Lucie Safarova will be the new woman atop the women’s doubles ranking on Monday.

Five possibilities, down to one

Karolina Pliskova, taking over for Angelique Kerber, had been No. 1 for the last month.

It certainly seems as though tennis karma is dictating that Halep join the club.

Nadal (last in 2014) and Kontinen (for many weeks this season) have been No. 1 before. For Safarova (and Halep) it will be the first time.


At the beginning of the week, there were five WTA Tour players with the potential to end up in the top spot, depending on results in Cincinnati.

But a lot of things had to fall into place. Most of the scenarios involved the current No. 1 Pliskova losing early; Halep was the most likely possibility, if Pliskova didn’t hold onto the spot. She basically had to go two rounds further than Pliskova.

The Czech righthander lost in the in the semis to Muguruza. So for Halep, that now means winning the tournament. 

But if she doesn’t, she will find herself just five points behind Pliskova, in the No. 2 spot. If it doesn’t happen Sunday, it surely will happen at the US Open, right?

Halep has quarterfinalist points to defend (430) in New York. But Pliskova lost to Kerber in the final (1,300 points). And the other contenders will continue to have a say.

Kerber is dropping

Speaking of Kerber, who spent 14 weeks at No. 1 this year, she will fall all the way to No. 6 after the Cincinnati tournament. With those 2,000 points for winning the US Open hanging over her ranking, she may fall further.

This, it seems, is what parity looks like.

But for some reason, neither Halep nor Pliskova is getting the same kind of criticism that other former No. 1s – Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Amélie Mauresmo, to name three – received for acceding to the top spot without having a Grand Slam title on their resumé.

Karolina Pliskova the new WTA No. 1


WIMBLEDON – When the women’s singles draw was made at Wimbledon last Friday, there were five women who theoretically could be ranked No. 1 on the WTA tour at the end of the fortnight.

Karolina Pliskova, wherever she is right now, is the last one standing.

The moment Great Britain’s Johanna Konta defeated Simona Halep in their quarterfinal Tuesday, the 25-year-old Czech became the 23rd woman to hold the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour.

She will officially take over the crown – which has proven a rather weighty one in recent years when Serena Williams hasn’t been wearing it – on Monday.

If it seems as if Pliskova backed into it, perhaps she did. The storybook ending would be to win Wimbledon, and become No. 1. Instead, she was upset in the second round by Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.

But any time you accomplish something like that, the rest are just details.

Pliskova is the first Czech woman to be ranked No. 1. When Czech-born Martina Navratilova first got to the top of the rankings right around this time in 1978, she was already representing the U.S.

The accolade comes halfway through a season during which the only consistent thing on the WTA Tour was … inconsistency.

Amidst all that, Pliskova has had a very solid season. That’s evidenced by the fact that she’s currently atop the leaderboard in the race to the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore in October.

Over the last 52 weeks (which are the results on the computer at any one time that determine the current rankings), Pliskova has won four titles. She has made two Grand Slam semi-finals, and has nine victories over other top-10 players.

No. 1 without a major

The fact that she has made it without yet winning a major title has become, if not commonplace, no longer rare. Players like Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Amélie Mauresmo (who later erased that blemish on her resumé) have done it before her.

A lot had to happen for Caroline Wozniacki to take over No. 1 after Wimbledon. None of it did, but just to be in the conversation again is big after her dip in form of recent years. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

When the draw came out, Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki both had a slight shot at being No. 1 at the end of Wimbledon.

But they would have had to win their first major title, for one thing.

Once Pliskova won the warmup tournament in Eastbourne the day after the Wimbledon draw, those two were eliminated from contention. 

Kerber had a shot at staying No. 1. But she had to reach the Wimbledon final. She lost a tough one to Garbiñe Muguruza on Manic Monday.

And then, there were two.

Halep’s destiny in her own hands

Halep has Wimbledon quarterfinal ranking points as well as the points she won from winning Bucharest right after Wimbledon a year ago dropping off the computer on Monday. Still, she needed “only” to reach the semi-finals here to finally get to No. 1. And she gave it everything she had, but went down to Konta Tuesday evening. 


It’s the second consecutive top-spot disappointment for Halep. At the French Open, she would have become No. 1 had she defeated Jelena Ostapenko and won the title.

That would have been the perfect storybook ending – winning your first major title, and earning the No. 1 spot at the same time. 

Halep was two points from beating Konta and finally doing it Tuesday. It wouldn’t have mattered if she got no further in the tournament; she would have left London with the No. 1 ranking.

The Romanian must be questioning a whole lot of things, at the moment.

It seems the weight of trying to grab that crown might be almost as significant as wearing it.

The dethroned Kerber has spent a total of 34 weeks at No. 1, not all of them consecutive. That’s the 12th-most of the 23 No. 1s in history.

It’s more than Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams combined, as amazing as that may seem. And she may well be back before too long to add to it.

Bouchard backs up Sharapova win with Kerber upset


Beating Maria Sharapova Monday night backed up Genie Bouchard’s words.

Backing it up with an upset over world No. 2 Angelique Kerber of Germany Wednesday night backed up her deeds.

The 23-year-old Canadian got a lot of help from Kerber, who retired from the match down 6-3, 5-0 with a hamstring problem. She said she felt it on the second-to-last point. Kerber visibly pulled up on what turned out to be the final point, not even attempting to go after Bouchard’s return.

Before that, Kerber served seven times, and failed to hold serve … seven times. That wasn’t the hamstring. 

The German never even earned a game point; Bouchard was 7-for-9 on break-point conversions as she posted a second consecutive bravura performance. 

Kerber attributed the defeat to a number of factors.

“It was a little bit difficult to get in the match and finding the rhythm. She plays actually not bad. She plays good,” Kerber told the media in Madrid. “(Bouchard) was going for it. She hits the ball really fast.

“Still, I mean, yeah, I couldn’t find the way because it was, yeah, different. The conditions are little bit different than the last days. But that’s not the excuse, so …”

It was clear once Bouchard earned an opening break in the second set that Kerber just wanted to get it over with. She opened that second set with a double-fault and by the time it was 0-2, she was rushing between points as though she still had a shot at making the Madrid early-bird special.

Wind, cold – not Kerber’s night

Kerber calls for the trainer at 3-6, 0-5. It was a brief episode before she pulled the plus. (Screenshot: TVA Sports)

Whatever she was feeling physically, she knew she hadn’t taken the court with enough to try to come all the way back. So she pulled the ripcord.

There was a certain irony in Kerber retiring without giving Bouchard the benefit of a legitimate victory.

For as many things as Bouchard is criticized for, she rarely has pulled out mid-match during her career. She’s had her share of nagging injuries, too. But she’ll usually stick it out.

This is the first time the Canadian has posted three consecutive victories since January in Sydney, Australia. There, she defeated Shuai Zhang, Dominika Cibulkova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – all fine players, all in straight sets. She lost in the semis to eventual champion Johanna Konta.

These victories in Madrid somehow feel a lot more significant, don’t they?

The win over Alizé Cornet in the first round broke the string of losses that had weighed down Bouchard’s shoulders like a pair of 50-pound barbells. Her dramatic victory over Sharapova was a watershed moment both physically and emotionally.

Winning record vs. Kerber

Bouchard certainly had reason to have some confidence going in.

She defeated Kerber both at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2014, when Bouchard was playing her best tennis. But the Canadian also prevailed in Rome a year ago, 7-5 in the third set, when nothing was going particularly right for her and everything was going swimmingly for Kerber.

Bouchard now will face No. 8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia in a late-night quarter-final Thursday (not before 9:30 p.m. Madrid time, 3:30 p.m. EDT, after Rafael Nadal vs. Nick Kyrgios at 8 p.m.).

They have not played each other for nearly three years. Kuznetsova won both previous encounters; they neatly bookended the Canadian’s big run through the French Open and Wimbledon in 2014.

Where have you been?

The more popular musings in the wake of Bouchard’s victory questioned where the 2014-vintage tennis has been the last two years.

The unspoken implication there – the wagging of the virtual finger – is that Bouchard wasn’t trying hard enough, not working hard enough. All neatly buttressing the prevailing narrative that she’s more about social media and photo shoots than tennis.

Most should know better. The level Bouchard demonstrated over the last two night in Madrid has everything to do with getting a measure of confidence back. It’s not as though she hasn’t been trying to win and play top tennis. More than many other players, the 23-year-old’s game demands that confidence level because of its high-risk, fairly one-dimensional nature.

Bouchard spoke to that in her press conference.

“I think mentally not being in the right place, allowing outside voices kind of in, allowing the pressure to get to me. You know, quite a few things here and there that just affected me at different times over the past couple of years,” she said.

The evidence is there that some gym work has been paying off. There seemed to be little hangover from the tough physical battle against Sharapova Monday night. Bouchard’s feet were almost dancing. She looked so eager; she was seeing and seizing opportunities to step in and make a play earlier than she has over the last few months, when nerves and an abject lack of confidence often turned those size 9 1/2 Nikes into feet of clay.

Bouchard looked for every opportunity to move forward and take control Wednesday against an opponent who clearly didn’t the heart for the fight on this night.

Bouchard’s second serve has improved kick to it and is proving highly effective on the clay. And having coach Thomas Högstedt back after he was absent for several tournaments seemed to have helped coalesce her game plans during the last two matches.

She will move up to No. 54 with the victory. It’s first time her ranking has headed in the right direction in quite some time. If she can defeat Kuznetsova, she could rise as high as No. 40.

“It’s been a long, hard road for sure. Like I said, this is three matches. I want to do 50 more this year,” Bouchard said. “It’s a long road ahead of me, as well.”

WTA Rankings Report – May 8, 2017


Serena Williams remains No. 1 in the rankings this week. But that will be it for a long while.

With her first-round win in Madrid Sunday, Angelique Kerber already has surpassed her effort in the tournament a year ago, when she lost in the first round to Barbora Strycova.

Williams has significant points coming off her ranking from her Rome title, and later the French Open final and her Wimbledon win.

So Kerber will regain the top spot, and she’ll extend her lead. No. 3 Karolina Pliskova is not winning matches and the rest are far behind.

Get ready for another long stretch with the German in the top spot, unless someone finally steps up in a major way.

Players on the upswing

Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP):
No. 6 ————> No. 4 
(It’s a brief jump for the Spaniard, who will drop back to to No. 6, and maybe further, next Monday after her first-round loss in Madrid)

Johanna Konta (GBR):
No. 7 ————> No. 6
(The career high will also be brief for the Brit, who also lost in the first round in Madrid).

Things haven’t been great for Konta since winning Miami.

Ana Konjuh (CRO):
No. 33 ————> No. 29
(Career high for the 19-year-old)

Kristyna Pliskova (CZE):
No. 58 ————> No. 48
(The lefty joins her twin sister in the top 50 after Prague final)

Mona Barthel (GER):
No. 82 ————> No. 56
(From the qualifying to the title in Prague)

Natalia Vikhlyantseva (RUS):
No. 77 ————> No. 70
(A career high, and a moment with her idol)

Francesca Schiavone (ITA):
No. 100 ————> No. 77
(Wonderwoman continues to amaze at age 36)

Madison Brengle (USA):
No. 91 ————> No. 81

Sara Errani (ITA):
No. 102 ————> No. 90

Players on the downswing

Simona Halep (ROU):
No. 4 ————> No. 8
(The fall should be brief for Halep, whose points as Madrid champion dropped but can be re-earned this week)

Madison Keys (USA):
No. 10 ————> No. 13
(Out of the top 10, a first-round stumble in Madrid this week, and finalist’s points in Rome falling off)

A new coach, a late start, and some wrist issues are making 2017 challenging for Keys. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Samantha Stosur (AUS):
No. 19 ————> No. 26

Sorana Cirstea (ROU):
No. 64 ————> No. 83
(Down, but Cirstea made good on a wild card into Madrid offered by the owner, fellow Romanian Ion Tiriac. She upset Anastasia Pavlychukenkova in the first round)

Louisa Chirico (USA):
No. 69 ————> No. 128
(The 20-year-old New Yorker has won just one match in seven tournaments this season – a first-round win over Schiavone at Indian Wells).

Taylor Townsend (USA):
No. 116 ————> No. 134
(The USTA Pro Circuit events in April, a boon for her in the past, turned out to be a bust this year)

Players defending points this week

Serena Williams – 900 points

Madison Keys – 585 points

Garbiñe Muguruza – 350 points

Irina-Camelia Begu – 350 points

Svetlana Kuznetsova – 190 points

Timea Bacsinszky – 190 points

Barbora Strycova – 190 points

Misaki Doi – 190 points

For the complete WTA Tour rankings picture, updated May 8, click here.