Kerber wins the Fissette sweepstakes

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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

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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.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaBIVVpHjq6j3tSyxwTE-8Q

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.

Halep
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
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.

Halep
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

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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.

Hopman
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

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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.

Halep

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

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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.

Pliskova
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. 

battle

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

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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

Genie
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.

Genie
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

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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).

rankings
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.

Mommy Serena: your new No. 1

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It’s a temporary anomaly, the result of a 52-week ranking system that rewards big performances and lets them hang around awhile.

But today, April 24, 2017, Serena Williams is once again is the No. 1-ranked player on the WTA Tour.

The 35-year-old, who announced (sort of) that she is expecting her first child with fiancé Alexis Ohanian last week, hasn’t played since the Australian Open in January. Obviously, she won’t play any more this season.

Current No. 2 Angelique Kerber of Germany had the ranking points from her title a year ago in Stuttgart fall off the computer Monday. She will earn at least some of them back as the Stuttgart tournament is played this week.

After a first-round bye in the 28-player draw, the 29-year-old will re-take the top spot – if she wins two matches and reaches the semi-finals.

Don’t we all Google search “My name number one” from time to time? Serena knows what’s going down. (Snapchat)

If she doesn’t do it this week, Kerber is perfectly positioned to do it during the rest of the clay-court season. A year ago, she lost to Barbora Strycova in the first round of Madrid, Eugenie Bouchard in the first round in Rome, and Kiki Bertens in the first round at the French Open.

Anything she does will improve on that, and should give her a nice cushion before she has to defend her 2016 Wimbledon final.

Is anyone else even close?

The next player in line is Karolina Pliskova, but she’s nearly 1,000 points behind Kerber. The 25-year-old Czech has room to move during the clay-court season, but she is defending more than 650 points during the grass-court swing.

After that? Dominika Cibulkova (no. 4) and Simona Halep (No. 5) are another 1,000 points behind. Halep posted big results last spring and summer, including victories at both Madrid and Montreal. That’s nearly 2,000 points right there, in two events, that she must defend just to stay where she is. Because of that, the Romanian is an unlikely candidate to make a move.

Cibulkova, who withdrew from Stuttgart with an injury sustained in practice, also has significant results from 2016 to match: a final in Madrid, a win at Eastbourne on grass, a quarter-final at Wimbledon.

One horse race, for now

What we’re saying is that, for the foreseeable future, Kerber will have a lock on the top spot.

With the best female player in the world now officially on the “inactive list”, the best thing that could happen in the women’s game would be a dogged battle for the No. 1 spot she is vacating. That won’t happen.

No doubt the WTA Tour will try its best to promote its next generation of players. Good luck in that quest. In practical terms, the narrative queue is ready and waiting for the returns of two former champions with motivation to burn: Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

There’s no way either will challenge for No. 1. But they will supply the most compelling storylines over the next few months – unless someone really steps up.

Fed Cup weekend – Preview

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There are a lot of big names missing this weekend (why should the women be any different than the men, when it comes down to it). But the Fed Cup weekend still will have good tennis on offer.

No. 2 France, No. 3 Germany and No. 4 Netherlands all were eliminated in the first round. So the top-ranked Czechs (without any of the players who earned their country that top rank) are the only seeded squad left among the four.

Unfortunately, the ITF’s Davis Cup/Fed Cup live stream service went dark at the end of 2016, just as the WTA Tour’s service did. The contract with Perform expired, an ITF spokesperson told Tennis.Life, and they haven’t managed to get a replacement up yet. The one-time $60 (US) annual payment entitled viewers to all the Davis Cup World Group and playoff ties, and nearly all of the Fed Cup World Group I and II. It was a great service. Unfortunately now, to see these matches, it’s a scramble. In Canada, for example, the Canada-Kazakhstan tie isn’t even being shown on Sportsnet, the network that owns the Davis Cup/Fed Cup broadcast rights. They are airing it on their streaming service.

The live scoring page is here.

World Group I semifinals

Belarus (1) vs. Switzerland (1)
Venue: Chizhovka Arena, Minsk, Belarus
Surface: Hard, Indoor
Start times: 6 a.m. EDT (Saturday); 5 a.m. EDT (Sunday)

Here are the nominations. Click on them to access the Fed Cup page with all the information you’ll need.

Missing for Belarus, not unexpectedly given she hasn’t yet returned from maternity leave, is Victoria Azarenka. But Azarenka is on hand to cheer on her teammates this weekend in Minsk.

Olga Govortsova, a veteran, has to be riding a wave of confidence after winning the $80,000 ITF event in Florida last week. She didn’t get the call, though. Aryna Sabalenka, 18, will play No. 2 singles on Saturday.

USA (1) vs. [1] CZE (1)
Venue: Saddlebrook Resort, Florida, USA
Surface: Clay, Outdoor
Start times: Noon EDT (Saturday); 11 a.m. EDT (Sunday)

Here are the nominations. Click on them to access the Fed Cup page with all the information you’ll need.

Missing for the U.S.: Venus and Serena Williams, Madison Keys
Missing for the Czechs: Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Barbora Strycova and Lucie Hradecka – the entire squad that defeated the French to win the Fed Cup last fall.

Marketa Vondrousova, the 17-year-old who won her first WTA Tour title in Biel, Switzerland last week, was tapped to play No. 2 singles – at least on Saturday. She’s making her Fed Cup debut.

The Americans, even without the big guns, appear to be a close-knit team – all the fun they’re having, chronicled by the USTA on its social media channels, makes them look like a model of togetherness in the context of modern women’s tennis.

World Group I Playoffs

[1] France (2) vs. Spain (0)
Halle André Vacheresse
Roanne, France
Indoor clay

France: Kristina Mladenovic, Alizé Cornet, Pauline Parmentier, Amandine Hesse (Missing: Caroline Garcia, Océane Dodin. Read this for more)

Spain: Sara Sorribes Tormo, Silvia Soler Espinosa, Olga Saez Larra, Maria José Martínez Sánchez (Missing: Garbiñe Muguruza, Carlá Suárez Navaro, Lara Arruabarrena)

[2] Russia (1) vs. Belgium (1) 
Small Sports Arena “Luzhniki”
Moscow, Russia
Indoor clay

Russia: Elena Vesnina, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daria Kasatkina, Anna Blinkova

Belgium: Elise Mertens, Maryna Zanevska (A Polish player, newly Belgian), Alison Van Uytvanck, An-Sophie Mestach (Missing: Kirsten Flipkens)

[3] Germany (2) vs. Ukraine (0)
Porsche Arena
Stuttgart, Germany
Indoor clay

The tie will be played at the Porsche Arena, where in theory the qualifying for next week’s WTA Tour Premier event should be going on. At least the players involved in both will get used to the stadium court. The first round of Stuttgart qualifying will take place on the two supplementary courts next door in the Hanns-Martin Schleyer-Halle. Eight matches per court, per day. The same thing occurred when Germany played Serbia in a Fed Cup playoff tie in 2013.

Fed Cup

Germany: Angelique Kerber, Laura Siegemund, Julia Goerges, Karina Witthoeft (Missing: Andrea Petkovic, Annika Beck)

Ukraine: Elina Svitolina, Lesia Tsurenko, Olga Savchuk, Nadiia Kichenok

[4] Netherlands (1) vs. Slovakia (1)
AEGON Arena
Bratislava, Slovakia
Indoor clay

Netherlands: Kiki Bertens, Richel Hogenkamp, Cindy Burger, Arantxa Rus (Missing: Michaella Krajicek)

Slovakia: Kristina Kucova, Jana Cepelova, Rebecca Sramkova, Daniela Hantuchova (Missing: Dominika Cibulkova)

World Group II Playoffs

[1] Italy (2) vs. Chinese Taipei (0)
Circolo Tennis Barletta
Barletta, Italy
Outdoor clay

Italy: Sara Errani, Jasmine Paolini, Martina Trevisan, Camilla Rosatello (Missing: Roberta Vinci, Camila Giorgi, Francesca Schiavone)

Chinese Taipei: Ya-Hsuan Lee, Chieh-Yu Hsu, Chia-Jung Chuang , Ching-Wen Hsu (Missing: Yung-Jan Chan, Hao-Ching Chan, Hsieh Su-Wei)

[2] Romania (1) vs. Great Britain (1)
Tenis Club IDU
Constanta, Romania
Outdoor clay

Constanta, on the Black Sea, is Simona Halep’s hometown. The start time for Saturday’s matches was pushed back an hour, announced Friday, because of tough weather in the area. (At 5 a.m. Saturday there, the temperature was 2C (minus-3 with the wind chill. Brrr.)

Romania: Simona Halep, Irina-Camelia Begu, Sorana Cirstea, Monica Niculescu

Great Britain: Johanna Konta, Heather Watson, Laura Robson, Jocelyn Rae (Missing: Naomi Broady)

[3] Australia (2) vs. Serbia (0)
Kristalna Dvorana Sports Hall
Zrenjanin, Serbia
Indoor hard

Australia: Daria Gavrilova, Ashleigh Barty, Destanee Aiava, Casey Dellacqua (Missing: Samantha Stosur)

Serbia: Aleksandra Krunic, Nina Stojanovic, Ivana Jorovic, Dejana Radanaovic (Missing: Jelena Jankovic)

[4] Canada (1) vs. Kazakhstan (1)
Uniprix Stadium
Montreal, Quebec
Indoor hard

Canada: Françoise Abanda, Bianca Andreescu, Katherine Sebov, Gabriela Dabrowski (Missing: Genie Bouchard, Aleksandra Wozniak)

Kazakhstan: Yulia Putintseva, Yaroslava Shvedova, Galina Voskoboeva, Kamila Kerimbayeva.

 

Also going on this week are the Group II Europe/Africa playoffs, in Siauliai, Lithuania.

WTA Tour Rankings report – April 17, 2017

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The big news on the women’s side is that, despite the fact both are idle this week, Serena Williams will return to the No. 1 spot next Monday.

Angelique Kerber will drop the 470 points she earned by winning the big Stuttgart event (again, like the men, the points will drop off a week before the players have a chance to defend them).

That means Serena, who has played just two tournaments over the last 12 months other than the four Grand Slams and the (non-counting) Olympics – Rome last May and Auckland in January – will again be the top female player on the planet.

For now, Kerber remains at the top. She needs to make the semi-finals in Stuttgart next week (i.e. win two matches) to get it back.

Today is also the entry deadline for the French Open. The player who did herself the most good last week was 36-year-old Francesca Schiavone, whose victory in Bogotá put her right at the cutoff. So the 2010 champion should be straight into the main draw. American Irina Falconi, conversely, took herself right out of the main draw and will have to qualify after she failed to defend her title in Bogotá.

The top 108 players in the rankings (notwithstanding players with injury-protected rankings) are straight in.

 

Big jumps

Lara Arruabarrena jumps 6 spots, to No. 59 (Bogotá semi-finalist)

Anett Kontaveit jumps 25 spots, to No. 74 (Biel finalist)

Anisimova
Amanda Anisimova makes a big jump

Aliaksandra Sasnovich jumps 12 spots, to No. 96**

Francesca Schiavone jumps 64 spots, to No. 104 (Bogotá champion)

Sara Errani jumps 11 spots, to No. 110

Marketa Vondrousova jumps 116 spots, to No. 117 (Biel champion) **

Olga Govortsova jumps 43 spots, to No. 147 (Indian Harbour Beach ITF champion)

Amanda Anisimova jumps 170 spots, to No. 309 (IHB finalist) **

**career highs

Big drops

Sílvia Soler-Espinosa drops 38 spots , to No. 156

FALCONI, IRINA drops 62 spots , to No. 165 (won Bogotá last year)

New career highs

Elise Mertens – No. 66

Sara Sorribes Tormo – No. 82

Veronica Cepede Royg – No. 108

Players defending big points this week

There are no WTA Tour events this week, because it’s a Fed Cup week. So no opportunity to defend the points won last year in Stuttgart and Istanbul.

Buyukakcay, who was the surprise winner of her home-country event, is in a terrible slump at the moment – hardly in good form to even try to duplicate the feat. Without those points, she drops 70 spots in the rankings. Luckily for her, the deadline for the French Open entry is today and at No. 107, she should squeeze in.

Angelique Kerber – 470 points

Laura Siegemund – 330 points

Cagla Buyukakcay – 280 points

Petra Kvitova – 185 points

Agnieszka Radwanska – 185 points

Danka Kovinic – 180 points

 

(For the complete WTA Tour rankings picture, click here)