Coaching carousel continues as Ostapenko, Taylor part

PARIS – The first coaching change of the fortnight came when Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit parted ways with coach Glenn Schaap right in the middle of the French Open.

It turns out it wasn’t the only one.

Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 Roland Garros champion who went out in the first round this year, has split with amiable Aussie coach David Taylor.

Tennis.Life is told it’s unrelated to the early exit but is a mutual split. Their agreement ran through the French Open, and they’re parting ways.

Already, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim has written that Taylor will become Madison Keys’s new coach, although that has yet to be confirmed officially.

It was announced during the French Open that Lindsay Davenport, who has been part of Team Keys on and off for the last several years, has stepped aside as Keys’s main coach.

And earlier in the clay-court season, Keys parted ways with another coach, Dieter Kindlmann.

The American has spent the last few weeks basically flying solo, and you can’t argue the very good result in Paris.

Ostapenko’s coaching crew

Ostapenko, who turned 21 Friday, has gone through some personnel over the last year.

The Latvian had Spanish Fed Cup captain Anabel Medina Garrigues in her corner a year ago, and the two combined to capture Ostapenko’s first Grand Slam title in Paris.

It was always presented as a short-term gig. But Medina was there through the season.

Reports were she wanted some sort of guaranteed situation and, when that wasn’t forthcoming, decided to accept the Spanish Fed Cup position instead.

Since then, the 35-year-old has returned to the court in doubles, finally healthy after struggling with a shoulder injury for 2 1/2 years.

As well, last summer, Ostapenko briefly had longtime WTA Tour physical trainer Scott Byrnes working with her.

That didn’t last long. Byrnes began working with Genie Bouchard a few months ago.

Five-month stint

Taylor came on board at the beginning of 2018, although it was only for a certain number of weeks, and he didn’t actually, physically join Team Ostapenko until the Australian Open.

In between coaches, Ostapenko has had hitting partner/coach Andis Juska there.

Ostapenko

And, of course, there is her original coach, mother Jeļena Jakovļeva.

What’s next? No doubt there will be another coach in place during this key part of the season with Wimbledon, the big U.S. hard-court tournaments and the US Open coming up.

Ostapenko will fall out of the top 10 with the early exit in Paris, down to No. 12.

She’s not entered in any grass-court events until the week before Wimbledon, at Eastbourne.

Keys will make her grass-court debut next week in Birmingham.

Speedy, steady Stephens wins Miami Open

MIAMI, Fla. – To pick apart the weaknesses in French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko’s game, you need a few specific skills.

You have to be consistent, and willing to change up the pace and spin to throw off her rhythm.

You have to be fast, to run down enough laser shots to lure her into going for a little too much. And you have to be aggressive on serve return, to make the 20-year-old Latvian pay for those 66 mile-an-hour serves that beg to be punished.

Most of all, you have to be able to shake off the large numbers of winners that she will hit, win or lose, hot or not.

American Sloane Stephens, herself a Grand Slam champion at the US Open last summer, did all of those things.

She hit just six winners, and made a lot of errors. But she exposed the holes in Ostapenko’s game with her legs and her patience, winning the Miami Open final 7-6 (5), 6-1 Saturday.

“I knew that I was just going to have to run a lot of balls down. The way that she plays is she has a very aggressive style, and sometimes you can’t outhit her or outrun her. You just kind of have to accept that she’s going to hit some really great shots. I think that’s what I did best today,” Stephens said.

“When she was hitting great shots, I just was, like, Too good, and moved on. I think that’s what helped me kind of get through that breaker. I just accepted that some good shots were going to be hit and just didn’t harp on it too much.”

It is the second-biggest title of Stephens’s career after the momentum win in New York. Both have come on American soil. In fact, four of Stephens’s six titles have come in the U.S. She won in Charleston in 2016 and in Washington, D.C. in 2015.

Notably, Stephens has made six finals in her career – and won the title every time.

Too many errors, not enough winners

Ostapenko hit 25 winners. But she made 48 unforced errors – 29 in the first set alone, more than enough to give Stephens the set just on her errors alone. 

She’s always going to make errors. But if the winners number approaches the errors number, Ostapenko is in her comfort zone. On this day, she was not.

“I’m playing the worst tennis ever,” Ostapenko moaned to coach David Taylor when he came out for an on-court consult with his charge already down a set and 4-1. Actually, she was not. Stephens simply had the tools to disarm her.

The Latvian was very gracious at the net afterwards, and in her trophy presentation speech. For her, the months after the French Open title have featured some bumps in the road.

But at this Miami Open, Ostapenko defeated No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 9 Petra Kvitova in straight sets. And she won all five tiebreaks she played. She also withstood a hearty challenge from American qualifier Danielle Collins in the semifinals.

The inexperienced Collins was somewhat of a gift draw at that stage of the tournament. But she had momentum on her side, and even had a set point against Ostapenko in the first set.

“Comparing to the other matches I watched her play this week, she was moving really well. She was changing the pace. She was serving sometimes kick, sometimes going for it. I think she’s a great player,” Ostapenko said.

“Sometimes I was going aggressive when I didn’t have to. In the first set it was working pretty well. Then some moments I think I was  – I stepped a little bit back. I had to step forward, like, in the court to play the balls in the court so take away time from her, which I didn’t, so probably that’s why I lost the match.”

Finally in the top 10

Stephens, who needed some time after that US Open win six months ago to rest, process, get healthy and reload, certainly wasn’t ready in Australia two months ago. But she hould find this title gives her wings going into the meaty part of the schedule.

“I made sure after Australia I got in the best shape possible. I really just focused on myself and made sure that I was the best version of me,” she sad. ‘Whatever people said, whatever, it is what it is, but now I’m here and I have this beautiful trophy, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me, so I’m just going to walk with my head high and, you know, embrace it.”

Stephens will need wings, given her predilection for home soil. But at the same time, she has everything to gain. The 25-year-old didn’t even start playing until Wimbledon last year, after foot surgery. She has just 11 computer ranking points to defend until the Rogers Cup in Montreal, in August.

There’s a fair gap between No. 10 and the top players; for example, she’s more than 1,000 points behind No. 8 Venus Williams. But there is a move to be made, and Stephens’s game can translate well to clay.

She has played the French Open five times, and four times she reached the round of 16. Each time, she lost to a player who was no worse than the No. 6 seed. And all four of those players were either former French Open champions or finalists.

Next up, the Volvo Car Open

Ostapenko hasn’t entered any events until Stuttgart, the last week of April.

But Stephens will immediately head to Charleston, where she won the tournament (and the Volvo) the last time she played it in 2016.

As the No. 4 seed, Stephens will have a first-round bye, and a few days to regroup. She’ll meet the winner of a match between Bernarda Pera and Jana Cepelova in the second round.

Now, of course, the US Open champion will arrive in Mercedes, as the brand’s new ambassador. 

(Screenshots from WTATV)

Ostapenko through to Miami final

MIAMI, Fla. – A reigning Grand Slam champion smacked down American Danielle Collins’s sky-high dreams Thursday night.

And so 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia will meet another reigning Grand Slam champ, US Open titleholder Sloane Stephens, in a rather unexpected Miami Open final Saturday.

“I saw the match yesterday against Venus, many down-the-lines from the backhand side, so I was expecting a very tough match,” Ostapenko said in her on-court interview after a 7-6 (1), 6-3 victory.

The first set alone took exactly one hour.

“She had a set point in the first set, but I was fighting very hard, and I think it helped me a lot,” Ostapenko said.

Ostapenko dry spell finally broken

The out-of-nowhere French Open title last June was a hard act to follow in the intervening months.

Ostapenko survived a nail-biter she probably should have lost to Canadian qualifier Françoise Abanda in the second round at Wimbledon on her way to a very respectable quarterfinal finish there a month after her French Open run.

And she teamed up with Canadian Gabriela Dabrowski to win the doubles title in Qatar last month.

OstapenkoBut Ostapenko’s only other career singles title was at a lower-level WTA tournament in Seoul, Korea last fall.

The rankings of the players she defeated in that event hovered between No. 71 and No. 155.

So reaching the final in Miami is a confidence builder.

It also will buffet her ranking against the potential carnage of an early loss at Roland Garros, when she returns to defend her title.

“Of course I was working on my mentality more, because I need my confidence and to be more consistent,” she said. “Because sometimes I was playing one match amazing, the next one not that great. Now, I’m playing more consistent.”

Having Aussie coach David Taylor in her corner for this swing, even with a surprisingly early loss to Belinda Bencic at Indian Wells, has seemed to be a major plus. 

Ostapenko

Taylor is offered sound advice on the coaching consults. And better still, Ostapenko is reactive, interactive and seemingly receptive.

Career-high ranking with a win Saturday

Ostapenko
Still a career-kickstarting run for Collins, who can leave the ITF circuit behind with her her new ranking status.

If she can defeat Stephens, the Latvian would rise to a career-best No. 4 in the rankings.

Stephens finally jumped into the top 10 this week, for the first time in her career. Win or lose, she will check in at No. 9.

The final will be played Saturday at 1 p.m. – the last women’s final at the Key Biscayne site before the tournament moves inland for 2019.

It may be not a minute too soon.

Ostapenko and Collins got a late start, and it was midnight by the time they finished. An issue with one of the big lighting standards delayed the men’s quarterfinal match played before theirs.

Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric were about an hour and 15 minutes late getting started (Zverev prevailed, 6-4, 6-4). Collins and Ostapenko didn’t start until 10 p.m.

(Screenshots from WTATV)

Long shot Collins to meet Ostapenko

MIAMI, Fla. – The Miami Open women’s event kicked off with Japan’s Naomi Osaka knocking off her all-time favorite player, Serena Williams.

Fast-forward a week, and Williams’s big sister Venus suffered the same fate in the quarterfinals.

Venus had little left in bowing out to Danielle Collins in a shocker, a 6-2, 6-3 win in which the neophyte broke the Williams serve four times.

March has been Collins’s “Hello, world” month with her efforts at Indian Wells, and now in Miami, a few hours’ drive from her hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I think all young American girls idolize and look up to Venus and Serena. You know, growing up I watched so many of their matches, and I could really relate to them, just their upbringing. I didn’t have an easy upbringing. I didn’t come from a super-wealthy family, and I wasn’t at the country club every day playing in the little tennis camps with the other little kids. A lot of times I was at public courts playing against adults and asking people to play with me,” Collins said. “I think they kind of went through the same thing, and so that really resonates with me a lot.”

Collins takes it step by step

Collins is one of a rare breed that not only went to college and played tennis – but graduated, with a degree in media studies from the University of Virginia.

She was ranked No. 162 going into the Australian Open in January, where she lost in the final of qualifying after not having played a warmup event.

Collins earned about $65,000 in 2017 in raising her ranking from No. 299. That doesn’t even come close to covering expenses.

But since returning to home soil she has capitalized on the opportunities she has created for herself.

First, Collins won one of the new Oracle Challengers, in Newport Beach, Calif. in late January. She earned $24,000 for the title. But more importantly, she gave herself a big leg up on the chance to earn a wild card into the Indian Wells singles main draw. The best American finisher in the two new events would win it. And in reaching the quarterfinals of the second leg, the week before the main event, she clinched it.

Collins
Collins received her Indian Wells main-draw credential in a ceremony with tournament director Tommy Haas during the Challenger event. She got to the fourth round. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Best-dressed in Miami

Collins took that, and turned it into a fourth-round effort. She defeated Madison Keys along the way, before losing to Carla Suárez Navarro.

In Miami, Collins did it the hard way. With no wild card, she fought her way through the two rounds of qualifying. And then, she fought through a trio of three-setters (against Coco Vandeweghe, Donna Vekic and Monica Puig) to get to Venus.

(On an unrelated note, a player who comes to a big tournament wearing a fresh-looking Lulu Lemon outfit for the first round is thinking big. That company should immediately sign Collins up as an ambassador and pelt her with free gear. She looks like a younger version of the legions of tennis-club ladies for whom Lulu Lemon is the clothing of choice).

Collins
If you can’t be best, be best-dressed. But so far, Collins also has played her best tennis in Miami. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

She has gone 18-3, and already has earned more at the Miami Open alone than she had in her entire professional career up to this week. It’s a game-changer.

Williams less than gracious

In the quarterfinals Wednesday night, Collins’s 37-year-old opponent was clearly diminished by several marathon matches coming in. She played her worst match of the Indian Wells – Miami swing. And she wasn’t too gracious afterwards. 

Williams lost to Daria Kasatkina in the Indian Wells semifinal in a hugely entertaining match that went nearly three hours. The young Russian played creative, lights-out tennis. But Williams couldn’t give the 20-year-old a lick of credit. Rather, she attributed the defeat to the number of errors she herself had made.

Venus didn’t have much more to say about Collins, although she did greet her with a gracious smile at the net when it was over.

“It was unlucky for me. I don’t think it was my best night of tennis, but, I mean, there wasn’t a shot she couldn’t make. So that was just, you know, of course one of those days,” Williams said. “I mean, she played very well and aggressively, and she went for every shot and it landed. I mean, there’s going to be some days where they don’t land, but that wasn’t today.”

But that’s just one side of the court. As much as Venus visibly did struggle, Collins was charting new territory.

She was in a pressure-packed situation, at a major event, playing before the biggest gathering of friends and family she had ever enjoyed. And she was on television, and in a stadium filled with people. Not to mention she was playing a legend. And it was windy.

It was the biggest match of her professional career so far. And Collins’ ability to keep her composure, to barely stutter as she went on to a straight-sets victory, was the most impressive part of the win.

And it will serve her well going forward.

Miami result a game-changer

Collins’ ranking will be just outside the top 50 on Monday even if she loses in the semifinals. If she beats Jelena Ostapenko, she would be somewhere around No. 35.

That effort ensures she’ll be straight into all the Grand Slam events, and be close to being straight in to all the other big tournaments of the season. There’s some guaranteed income attached to that – some $200,000 even if she loses in the first round of the majors alone.

And that means, if she’s as smart as she says she is, she will have the means to invest in herself to become an even better player.

It’s a long way from the courts in Roehampton last June, when she lost in straight sets in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying to 21-year-old Rebecca Sramkova of Slovakia, ranked No. 152 to her No. 164.

Bollettieri, the guardian angel

Collins’ college degree and public-parks story will get a lot of play over the next few days and weeks. But with her, as with so many players who get to the pro level, there were breaks.

In her case, it was Nick Bollettieri. The legendary tennis guru saw her ability and gave her an opportunity she couldn’t afford, to train at the IMG Academy at age 15. She parlayed that into a full ride at the University of Virginia.

It was the only move at the time, because Collins was hardly a standout junior. She never came close to the junior Slam level; her career high junior ranking was … No. 430.

Other than one great run at a low-level ITF event, she played little at the national or international level. Her only appearances came via wild cards, such as the two she received for the Eddie Herr, which was hosted at her home academy.

Focus on education

Collins took the college opportunity and time and used it to become a better player, one who could compete at the world level. And unlike most of the players who go the college route, she didn’t spent her summers and school breaks playing ITF tournaments.

Even after she won the NCAAs the first time in 2014 (she won them again in 2016), she didn’t do the expected and turn pro.

“I didn’t really have second thoughts, to be honest, because, you know, it cost over $50,000 a year when you’re out of state to go to University of Virginia, and I was really happy going to college and being on a team and being in the classroom, and I really wanted to get a degree.” she said. “I knew when I was going to go to college I was going to finish it out.”

The fact that Collins had so little junior and pro experience before setting out as a full-time pro a year and a half ago makes her results this year even more astonishing. She still hasn’t even been graced with a mug shot on the ITF website.

Between Feb. 2012 and May 2016 – more than four years – she played just two pro events. Actually, make that two pro matches.

Collins received wild cards into the qualifying in New Haven and the main draw at the US Open in 2014 by virtue of being the NCAA singles champion. She lost to Su-Wei Hsieh in New Haven, and took Simona Halep to three sets in the first round of the US Open.

After that, she didn’t play a pro event for nearly two more years.

Whether the American can take that next step, and compete against the best in the world week after week after week, is what she’ll find out about herself in the coming months. Because she will now have those opportunities.

Early meeting with Ostapenko

Interestingly, when Collins did play girls who are now near the top of the WTA rankings as a junior, she fared well.

Collins first played the Eddie Herr in 2009, shortly before she turned 16. She won three qualifying rounds and then met 15-year-old Daria Gavrilova, currently ranked No. 26.

She lost in a third-set tiebreak.

Two years later, a week short of 18, Collins met a precocious 14-year-old from Latvia in the first round of that same event.

Despite her tender years, Ostapenko’s junior ranking was already high enough that she was straight into the draw, while Collins needed another wild card.

Collins won, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

(Photos from the 2011 Eddie Herr courtesy of Colette Lewis/Zoo Tennis)

She doesn’t remember much.

“We were on a clay court. We had a lot of long points. I won the match. So that’s all I can really remember, to be honest,” she said.

The two have not met since.

As Ostapenko was winning the French Open early last June, Collins also was winning a title. Except hers was a $25,000 ITF event in Bethany Beach, Delaware.

They will play late tonight in Miami for the chance to reach the finals of one of the biggest tournaments of the season, outside the Grand Slams.

New coach for Jelena Ostapenko

There hasn’t been much news about French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the English-language media since the end of her breakout 2017 season.

The only standout piece of information was the departure of the coach who helped her get to No. 7 in the world, Anabel Medina Garrigues.

Medina Garrigues was named captain of the Spanish Fed Cup team. And she couldn’t do both jobs.

Ostapenko’s social media has been full of the events she’s been to, awards she’s received and a lot of sponsor activities.  

But Thursday, a story did appear in the Latvian media that sheds some light on what her early-season plans are. And it includes the announcement of a new coach.

Sportacentrs.com, which bills itself as the “biggest sports portal in Latvia”, has a story that includes quotes from Ostapenko and her mother and coach, Jeļena Jakovļeva.

A lot of well-deserved awards came Ostapenko’s way at season’s end, after she won the French Open and finished the season No. 7. (Instagram)

In it, it’s announced that Ostapenko will work with experienced Aussie coach David Taylor for 15 weeks in 2018.

In other words, Taylor (who worked with Samantha Stosur for many years, and also Naomi Osaka) will only be present for the bigger events.

(Google Translate being what it is, we’ll leave it to native Latvian speakers to get into the fine details in the story).

If we read it correctly, Taylor won’t join her until the start of the season. And in the meantime, Andis Yushka continues to work with her.

Ostapenko is scheduled to go to Thailand then Shenzhen, China and Sydney before the Australian Open. She likely will be the No. 7 seed.

In the story, there are definitely a few indicaators that life has changed for Ostapenko, in the wake of her 2017 success. 

Sponsor-filled offseason

Ostapenko

For one thing, mother Jakovleva indicates that preseason training is being compromised somewhat because of all the sponsor obligations.

Via Google Translate: “There is less time for workouts and free time, because we cannot say no. This week, we have to go abroad three times, so the training is *breaking out*. We have a coach from Australia waiting here. This is the first year, everything is new, so it is understood how to do next.”

Another interesting tidbit is the bit about Team Ostapenko having expanded in a major way. There’s now the coach, a fitness trainer, a physio, her manager, hitting partner and her mother.

That’s a big payroll, and a lot of extra things to deal with, and a big crew to travel around with as 2018 gets under way.

Fed Cup a question mark

Ostapenko also is not yet committing to playing Fed Cup for Latvia in February. 

“I want to represent Latvia, but let’s see when the tournament will come closer,” she said.

Photo shoots, awards galas and sponsor obligations have filled an already short preseason for the 20-year-old. (Instagram)

She has been a faithful participant in Fed Cup the last three seasons.

The February Europe/Africa Group I event will take place just a few hundred miles away from her home, in adjacent Estonia. 

The other interesting quote out of the story is that Ostapenko said she thinks she has a very good serve; she only needs more confidence in herself.

The 2018 season is going to be fascinating to watch, as Ostapenko works to avoid the “sophomore jinx” that has knocked a lot of players back down, after an initial breakthrough.

The road to the top of the WTA is rarely a straight line.

It’s a road that many other players before her have navigated, with varying degrees of success.

But it’s hard to bet against her.

(If you can read Estonian, and see any discrepancies between the rudimentary Google Translate version and the original, please bring them to our attention).

Singapore WTA Tour Finals wrapup

In the end, the WTA’s season finale in Singapore was a microcosm of the season on the women’s circuit.

One day, a player looked like a world beater.

The next day, she looked as though she didn’t belong anywhere near the top.

Poor followed very good and was followed by average in the order we came to expect in a topsy-turvy 2017.

But in the end, it was the two most seasoned players who came through.

Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams handled the almost-unplayable slowness of the Singapore court. They handled the round-robin format that seemed to stymie some of the younger players so programmed to the regular elimination format. 

And if Wozniacki held up the big trophy at the end, it was Williams who continued to write the story of the season.

The 37-year-old didn’t win the Player of the Year award – even in this season, you really had to win a major to get that one. But she deserved it.

A renaissance season for Venus

That Williams will finish No. 1 in prize money for 2017 speaks to her results. Among the players in the top 100, Williams played fewer weeks this year than anyone not sidelined with longer-term injuries (Stephens, Keys et al) or a suspension (Sharapova).

Williams’s longevity, her unquenchable and ongoing thirst for the fight, and her willingness to leave it all on the court despite the challenges she deals with continued in the season finale.

The tennis, mercifully, improved throughout the week. Perhaps the court sped up a little with regular use. Perhaps the players gradually adjusted to it. But in the end, the surface was a significant sidebar.

It allowed Wozniacki, a premier defensive player, to have the time she needed to do what she does best. And yet, even the 27-year-old Dane felt the urgency to finish off some points more quickly than she might have otherwise.

It’s been a long season.

The surface also hurt Williams, who found herself in some marathons earlier in the week and by the second set of the final, had simply run out of legs.

Disappearing doubles

On the doubles side, the decision last year to ditch the round-robin format used in singles and adopt a single-elimination format for the eight qualifying teams relegated it to a footnote for the week.

Had it not been for the retirement of Martina Hingis (who along with partner Yung-Jan Chan was eliminated in her second match, following her confirmation that this would indeed be her swan song), it might have passed virtually unnoticed.

For the four teams eliminated in the first round, the notion of working all season to get to Singapore, to fly all the way to Singapore, and to play just one match is a little unfair. 

But it was made necessary by the fluctuating crowd support in Singapore. 

The first edition in 2014 was a huge success on the attendance side. And while the WTA Tour kept the attendance figures on the down low in the intervening years (the numbers are not even available for 2016), they cut early-week day sessions. They cut the legends’ event. They reduced the “Rising Stars” component to a regional Asian event that also passed unnoticed.

(Remember 2015, when 22-year-old Caroline Garcia, already ranked No. 35, was considered a “rising star”? A little crazy. But a final between Garcia and Naomi Osaka that year certainly had more marquee value than this year’s finals between … Priska Nugroho and Pimrada Jattavapornvanit, and Megan Smith and Ya-Hsin Lee.)

Singapore results and grades

Singapore

[1] Simona Halep
Grade: C-

In her first round-robin match against Garcia, she looked like a world beater. It was Halep’s first match as the new world No. 1, and she played the part to perfection.

In her second, against Wozniacki, she won just two games. In her third, against Elina Svitolina, she won just seven games and was eliminated. 

She finishes the season ranked No. 1. But she didn’t finish it playing like a No. 1. Her challenge in 2018 will be to marry up those two concepts.

[2] Garbiñe Muguruza
Grade: C

The WTA Tour Player of the Year, the Wimbledon champion, didn’t finish her season the way she wanted to.

She began the week well against overwhelmed Singapore rookie Jelena Ostapenko. But then, it unraveled with a desultory loss to Karolina Pliskova. The defeat at the hands of Williams was a bruising one. Still, it was a straight-sets loss.

The Spaniard has the mien and posture of a champion. But there’s something missing. It seemed as though she might be the one to come through and take a firm grasp on the top spot, in this window of opportunity caused by the absence of so many champions. But it didn’t happen. It’s an ongoing mystery.

[3] Karolina Pliskova
Grade: B

With one-week coach Rennae Stubbs on board, the on-court coaching consults definitely took an uptick – especially for non-Czech speakers. Pliskova had already co-opted Barbora Strycova coach Tomas Krupa for 2018, so it can go no further. But hopefully some of the other players in Singapore will give it some consideration, because Stubbs, a great athlete who mastered the entire court during her career, has something to offer.

Pliskova looked like a world-beater against a rusty Williams in her first round. In her second, against Muguruza, she looked great again. But then she was crushed by Ostapenko in what essentially was a meaningless match (beyond the money and ranking points). At 25, with plenty of experience behind her and in her second tour of Singapore, Pliskova definitely should have handled that “dead rubber” match with more aplomb. 

[4] Elina Svitolina
Grade: C

Svitolina gets some slack because it was her first appearance at the Tour Finals. The players have to arrive early, do a lot of media and promotion. The entire routine of a tournament is completely turned upside down. The week before the matches actually begin must feel endless.

She was thrashed by Wozniacki in her first match. But she fought valiantly and played some very good tennis in her marathon loss to Garcia in her second match – arguably the match of the tournament. 

But it was clear at that point that she’d had enough. Faced with the possibility that she wasn’t yet out of contention for the weekend after that match, her attitude and words suggested she’d just as soon not even entertain that notion. That’s not what you want to hear from one of the eight best players in the world.

[5] Venus Williams
Grade: A+

In the absence of her sister Serena, you wonder how different this season would have looked without Williams’ throwback effort.

She created the spark in Singapore that was missing with the rest of the field (And that, despite a desultory and somewhat disrespectful effort in her press conferences; those on hand were only doing their jobs, and had travelled a long way to do them).

For the 37-year-old to win the whole thing would have been a storybook ending. It couldn’t quite happen. But in the end, she wasn’t the best player on the week. So it was fitting.

[6] Caroline Wozniacki
Grade: A+

Wozniacki won the biggest title of her career in Singapore. And it was a perfect marriage of surface and playing style.

The commentators were gushing with praise about how she was playing her best tennis ever. But if they paid more attention to her on a day-to-day basis, they might revise that. The Dane has been playing excellent tennis all year. If she fell a little short in most of her tournament finals, she nonetheless made eight of them this season. And she improved her ranking from No. 19 at the start of 2017 to No. 3 at the end.

The muddy court was ideal for arguably the best defensive player in the game. But it was her veteran’s ability to adjust her tactics to take best advantage of it that won her the title. Wozniacki took advantage of the opportunities that did present themselves in points, and added a little more when she needed to.

[7] Jelena Ostapenko
Grade: C

Of all the players in Singapore, Ostapenko’s 2018 season is going to be the most fascinating.

Her win at the French Open, while well-deserved, was aided by the inability of some of her colleagues to seize their moment. With her inexperience, and insouciance, she had no such baggage and was the last one left standing.

But even on the Singapore court, the weakness of her serve cost her. When Williams pounced on her second delivery with impunity later in their round-robin match, the carefree ability to hit winners took a hit. And the surface hurt her in the same way it helped Wozniacki; the winners were harder to come by. And when a player used to hitting those winners isn’t getting them, they try to add even more. And that led to errors.

Only in her final match did Ostapenko exhibit that insouciance again. But there was nothing at stake for her; she was going home regardless. That was telling. Again, as with Svitolina, it was her first trip.

As well, coach Anabel Medina Garrigues wasn’t there, having left to take the Fed Cup captaincy in Spain. A calming influence, Medina Garrigues can take some credit for that French Open victory. The next coach is going to have a tough act to follow.

[8] Caroline Garcia
Grade: A

The last to qualify for Singapore by virtue of back-to-back wins at big events in Wuhan and Beijing (and an injury to main competitor Johanna Konta), the WTA Tour Finals were a coming-out party.

Of all the Singapore rookies, she was the only one who clearly lived the experience to the fullest – win or lose.

Smiling, talkative, a battler on the court, perhaps the time is now for the French player of whom so much has been expected. She let her game flow for much of the week, and it was a beautiful thing.

Given how much tennis Garcia had played in the late stages to get there, her resistance through all those hours on the court was impressive. The three best matches of the week all had her on one side of the court.

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.

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)

US Open Day 4 – What to watch

NEW YORK – A marathon, 87-match singles spree caught up on Tuesday’s rainout, so the US Open is back to normal. At least for a few days.

And on Day 4, it’s Rafa and Roger time, as both play their second-round matches.

Whether they’ll rotate day and night session on Arthur Ashe for as long as both are in the tournament is too soon to predict.

But Federer has the late-afternoon slot against Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny. And Nadal has the late-night session against New York-born Japanese player Taro Daniel.

Neither figures to struggle. But you never know.

The men’s and women’s doubles, as well as the mixed doubles, also get under way today. The doubles might have begun Wednesday but for the catchup on the singles side. So the schedule is full.

Some of the players who playd their first rounds Wednesday will have to play again today. On the men’s side, with the best-of-five, that’s more of a factor.

Among those players are Juan Martin del Potro, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov and Gaël Monfils.

Women’s Matches to Watch

[12] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) vs. Sorana Cirstea (ROU)

watch

Ostapenko has generally been fairly quiet out there since her surprise win at the French Open. Although she did have a decent run at Wimbledon. But her North American summer hasn’t amounted to much.

Cirstea should not be an unsurmountable obstacle. But you never know. On the plus side, upsets have meant that there isn’t a single seeded player potentially in Ostapenko’s way until the quarterfinals. So watch out.

Cirstea crushed qualifier Lesley Kerkhove in the first round, despite a rather comprehensive (and unusual) tape job on her right arm in practice leading up to it.

watch

Yanina Wickmayer (BEL) vs. [Q] Kaia Kanepi (EST)

This is a matchup between two former top-15 players, who have fallen on more difficult times.

The 27-year-old Wickmayer, currently at No. 129, was No. 12 in the world when she was 20. Kanepi, who has struggled with Guillain-Barré syndrome and mononucleosis the last few years, was ranked No. 15 just five years ago, after a (relatively) late surge up the rankings.

She’s currently at No. 419. And she had to use a protected ranking just to get into the qualifying.

It’s a great opportunity for both.

Daria Kasatkina (RUS) vs. Christina Mchale (USA)

Kasatkina, still 19, had a great run this past April in winning the Har-Tru event in Charleston. But since then, she has struggled, no doubt in part because of an ankle injury. She lost first round in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome (there can always be a hangover exhaustion effect after a young player does such a big thing, and hers lasted the clay-court tuneup season). 

She didn’t play between the French Open and Wimbledon, and hasn’t won back-to-back matches since.

As for McHale, she’s 25 now. And it’s been five years since she broke into the top 25 right around this time. She’s ranked No. 63 and it might be time for a good result, so close to where she grew up.

Men’s Matches to Watch

[6] Dominic Thiem (AUT) vs. [WC] Taylor Fritz (USA)

The new father has his entire extended family with him in New York, and the group effort was effective in a comprehensive first-round win over veteran Marcos Baghdatis.

Thiem is a different customer. And though he’s not renowned for his hard-court efforts, he had no trouble at all in dismissing another wid card, Aussie Alex de Minaur, over two days to reach the second round.

[31] Feliciano Lopez (ESP) vs. Fernando Verdasco (ESP)

Former doubles partners, friends and longtime foes, the two veteran Spaniards meet again on, as it happens, Court 13.

Both lefties, they go at it in completely different ways as Verdasco is a fairly stubborn baseliner, while Lopez is much more of an all-court attacker in a very non-Spanish way. 

Surprisingly, they’ve only played eight times – and never at a Grand Slam. And only once since 2013. There’s no pattern from their meetings as both have beaten each other on the various surfaces. 

Superficially, this is also a highly attractive matchup. But you didn’t read that here.

watch

[7] Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs. Andrey Rublev (RUS)

Rublev is one of the less-heralded young guns. But he’s on his way just the same. 

He’s left to carry the torch for the 4 Slam tennis academy as his countryman and training partner Karen Khachanov was upset in the first round. And he’ll bring plenty of fire to this match against Dimitrov.

If Dimitrov were in the bottom half of the draw and not the top, you’d give him a ghost of a chance on a deep run in this tournament. As it is, most likely will make his seeding and get to the quarterfinals. But he has to get through Rublev first. And that’s easier said than done.

The Women’s quarterfinals – what they said

WIMBLEDON – With the help of the Centre Court roof, all four women’s quarterfinals were completed Tuesday.

One was played outdoors on No. 1 Court. Two were played under the roof on Centre Court (one ending with the scream of an overeager British fan).

And the last one began on No. 1 Court, and was completed three hours later under the roof.

The two women’s singles semi-finals, to be played Thursday, are set.

No. 6 Johanna Konta of Great Britain is the highest seed remaining. She will play No. 10 Venus Williams.

quarterfinals

The other semifinal will feature 2015 finalist Garbiñe Muguruza, seeded No. 14 against the fairy tale of this fortnight, Slovakia’s unseeded Magdalena Rybarikova.

Here is what they said.

[6] Johanna Konta (GBR) def. [2] Simona Halep (ROU) 67 (2) 76 (5) 64

Konta: “I guess to be in the semifinals of my home Slam, and to do that in front of a full Centre Court, I mean, it’s pretty, pretty special. I think the level of tennis that both of us played today, it was just a tremendous match. … I feel very happy with how I was able to maintain my level throughout the whole match, and really just tried to stick very closely to how I felt I wanted to play out there, and did that kind of through the thick and thin.”

Halep: “I think was a great tennis. Both of us played a good level. I was very close, again. In the tiebreak maybe I could serve better and stronger a little bit. Then in the third set, the serve game that I lost was a little bit tough to still believe that I can break her because she was serving pretty well. … I think everything was okay. Many positives from this match. And she played really well, so she deserves to win.”

[10] Venus Williams (USA) def. [13] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT)

quarterfinals

Williams:  “I know she had to be feeling confident. She played a great match. Not a lot of errors. I never played her. Watched her. Didn’t really know what to expect. The grass, of course, changes the game. So just a lot of factors. I was really happy to come out on top. … ”

Ostapenko: “She was playing good today. She was serving well. I think I didn’t start the match very well. I was missing a little bit. But, yeah, she was serving really well. It was very tough to break. Because of that I had more pressure because I had to keep my serve. … It was also a good match today for me. … I had kind of, like, some pressure because, as I said, she was serving really well today. She started the match good. She made a lot of aces. But, yeah, I was not, like, feeling nervous. I just couldn’t really play my best today.”

[14] Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP) def. [7] Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) 63 64

Muguruza: “I’m very happy and very pleased also with this match, because obviously Kuznetsova is a very tough opponent. We all know she has been and is a great player. I managed to play a good level during all the match. I earned the victory. … Before I was more emotional. You know, I was showing more emotions on the court. Now I’m trying to handle it better. I think that’s experience. Like I said before, the year I made final here, I felt like I was a completely different player. Now I maybe feel more solid mentally, going out there knowing what to do. I think it’s with experience and the years.”

Kuznetsova:  “I think in the start I had some options on her serve. I had love-30, 15-40, couldn’t turn it around. Then I just lost silly break, quite fast one, the first set. Then it was again everything even. Second break in the second set, it’s pretty simple. But these small moments, small chances really matters a lot. I think Garbiñe recovered very good today. She defend very good.”

[PR] Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) def. [24] Coco Vandeweghe (USA) 63 63

Rybarikova: ” I just recently played ITFs in Surbiton. I was thinking that I was nervous more there than today. I have no idea how come I was that calm. Obviously I was nervous, but I was not like I would shake. Sometimes I can get really nervous and really tight. But this match I was quite positive. I was saying to myself, if I’m not going to make this serve, I still can break her because I had a lot of chances before so I can still make. If not, then I have third set. I was still up. So you still have to believe. Somehow I was not nervous. But I don’t understand it quite well, but that happened. … Always some player who surprise. Now I was lucky to be me. Yeah, I’m really grateful for that.”

Vandeweghe: “That’s why Grand Slams are the hardest tournaments. They’re over two weeks and you have to play well for two weeks. … I think (Rybarikova is) playing the best tennis of her career right now. She’s won a lot of tournaments. And she’s playing really well. She’s in the semifinals.”

Ostapenko unimpressed by Team Giorgi

WIMBLEDON – Color French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko highly unamused with some of the antics from opponent Camila Giorgi’s support group, during in her third-round match Friday.

Ostapenko won the match 7-5, 7-5, coming back from 3-5 and 2-5 in those sets, to move into the second week. So that was the best revenge.

But the business coming from Team Camila? Well, she wasn’t too impressed.

“I mean, her box was quite loud. That was a little bit, like, disappointing because the court, the atmosphere here, I really like to play here. Everyone is, like, very nice,” she said. “My box, of course, was supporting me as well. But, yeah, couple of times they were, like, shouting before my serve. That’s why I got a bit disappointed.”

The behaviour would be kind of funny, except this is a group of professionals at a major event.

“I was just trying to focus on my game and to be on the court. It was just before my serve, somebody started to cough. I think it’s a little bit, how you say, unsportsmanlike. You’re in such a high level, and the tournament like Wimbledon, a Grand Slam, I think people have to understand where they are,” Ostapenko said.

The Latvian thought it might have come from father Sergio.

Giorgi
Papa Giorgi might be a little special. But he has a truly awesome mane of hair. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.life)

“I mean, the people who are in her team, they’re probably very close to tennis. They probably have to understand how to behave during the points or before the serve,” she said.

At 25, Giorgi is five years older than Ostapenko.

So you’d figure her people might have this down by now. 

I couldn’t, how to say, I couldn’t not hear it. It was just before my serve, after first serve and before second serve. That was pretty disappointing, yeah.” Ostapenko said.

Papa Giorgi, definitely unique

Sergio Giorgi is a fairly infamous figure around the tennis. And if the coughing was the thing Ostapenko noticed Friday, there’s usually more.

Here’s Papa during Giorgi’s battle against Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland earlier this year, in the first round of the Australian Open. Giorgi lost 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.

No doubt his nose was really itchy, right?