When the top women hit up …

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WIMBLEDON – Unlike the men on the ATP Tour, the top women don’t practice together nearly as much as they could – or should.

Why? Well, it’s partly a matter of non-necessity. There aren’t too many coaches on the men’s side who are still young and spry enough to practice with their players with any degree of usefulness. So the men need each other more.

Carlos Moyá, who coached Milos Raonic last year and now is with Rafael Nadal, is one obvious exception.

The number of former players of varying abilities in their 30s and 40s coaching female players greatly outdistances their counterparts on the men’s side. 

hit upSo the top women most often choose to hit with the coaches, or with male hitting partners.

It’s lower maintenance. And they can spend all of the practice time working on the things they want to work on, without having to be concerned with whether the other player also is getting to work on what she needs to address.

If they can find guys who can hit flatter and mimic the groundstrokes in the women’s game, they’re in good shape. Often, though, especially with the serve, it’s hard for the men to duplicate.

Two top-10 women hit up

So when two top players do take the court together, and seem to have a really fun time while they do it, it’s a rare treat.

That was the case when Simona Halep and Svetlana Kuznetsova had their “championship hit” at Wimbledon, just before the tournament began.

Here’s what it looked like. The smiles are priceless.

It’s a tricky business, as it so often is with the women. There are some players (no, no names) who tend to treat a rival player as little more than a hitting partner on the practice court. The 411 on those players tends to get around pretty quickly.

hit upSometimes they’ll keep them waiting while they endlessly talk to their coaches. Or they won’t feed the ball as cooperatively as they should.

Most often, you’ll see the women sit on completely separate benches and not address a word in each other’s direction during a one-hour practice. (It happens on the men’s side, too, but not nearly as often).

That’s not all of them, of course. Some of the women are actually friends “in real life”. And some are friendly enough that they’ll at least pull their chairs together and chat during water breaks.

But it’s such a different world from the men. And not always in a good way.

Female cooperation not encouraged

When you see Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka practicing, or Rafael Nadal and Fabio Fognini, or Federer and young Alexander Zverev, it’s a huge treat for the fans who have a chance to watch.

How much would fans enjoy Serena and Karolina Pliskova practicing together? Or Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. Or Angelique Kerber and Jelena Ostapenko, say. 

It’s a hard trend to go buck, though, especially as it seems to be institutional. And, on some levels, it’s often encouraged by some coaches who aren’t necessarily top-level technical instructors. Those coaches want to ensure they remain essential to the players they’re working with. Oh, and the parents often have a say, as well.

Even within a country, there’s often competition to be that nation’s No. 1. And that leads to an atmosphere where the players don’t want to give anything away – even to their countrywomen.

It’s the wrong approach, of course. If your mindset is to be the best in your country, you’re not getting the bigger picture. And if there are only a few WTA-level players in a country, they could help each other get better to take on the world – not just each other.

But as they say, it is what it is.

Genie Bouchard’s Madrid run ends

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After three consecutive victories, each one momentous for Genie Bouchard in its own way, it wasn’t surprising she had a letdown in the Madrid Open quarterfinals Thursday night.

That the 23-year-old Canadian came up against a nearly impeccable performance from Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova only added to the challenge.

Bouchard came out on the wrong end of a 6-4, 6-0 defeat which ends a run that could end up changing the direction of her season.

There were a few warning signs during an indifferent second set that wrapped up in a flash, despite a rain delay. But for the moment, considering how different the circumstances were from similar sub-par efforts over the last few months, it was hopefully just a consequence and not a return to the past.

Kuznetsova’s final stats were intimidating: 28 winners, just seven unforced errors. The numbers were about evenly split between the two sets.

Bouchard’s legs had little of the spring they had during her victories over Maria Sharapova Monday and world No. 2 Angelique Kerber Wednesday. Her post-match handshake had nothing of the intense eye contact, either.

And it couldn’t have been because the match against Kerber had taken much out of her physically. But the visible lack of energy didn’t help as she tried to track down what Kuznetsova was dealing up. Often, Bouchard was caught flat-footed; occasionally, she stumbled.

Kuznetsova’s brand stands apart from most of the other women on the WTA Tour. Most hit the ball very flat; Kuznetsova’s ball is heavy, with a lot of spin. And she has quick enough hands to be able to pull the trigger on a straight-out winner when she sees the opening, without appearing to expend much additional effort on the swing.

Coach Thomas Högstedt came out after the early break of serve in the first set. He assured Bouchard that while Kuznetsova had gotten off to a good start, her level was going to drop.

It’s a reliable go-to play for Högstedt during these on-court consults. But in this case, he predicted incorrectly. It never happened.

Bouchard had a small sliver of an opening at love-30, as Kuznetsova served for the first set at 5-4. But even that only came about after a couple of lucky breaks, including a let cord.

Once Kuznetsova saved that, she rolled.

“I played quite a good game,” Kuznetsova said afterwards. “I was a little bit not returning so well, and in the second set I played better.”

Bouchard didn’t earn her first break point until she was already down two breaks herself in the second set. Kuznetsova took care of a quality service return with a forehand winner from way behind the baseline.

Madrid
No extended eye contact for Bouchard after this handshake. Short and sweet from both parties.

The Canadian’s pace of shot in the second set was definitely lacking. She clearly had already made up her mind that it wasn’t going to be her day. And there was evidence to support that contention. But unlike the previous matches, she didn’t keep her competitive level up until the very last ball.

She also was far more agitated than her opponent during a fairly lengthy rain delay, when she was already down 0-4 in the second set. That likely spoke to her state of mind. If anything, a break like that can slow a hot player’s momentum, so it should have been welcome.

It had appeared the roof over the Caja Majica was closing. But when the rain came, the players had to wait until it did actually did close before resuming play. It took several minutes.

In a wide-open field, Kuznetsova is quietly making a case for herself as a French Open contender. She began the week ranked No. 9. If she can defeat No. 14 seed Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals, she would move all the way up to No. 5.

Kuznetsova was 19 when she won the 2004 US Open. She was 23 – Bouchard’s age – when she won at Roland Garros in 2009. It seemed then that there could be plenty more to come.

As consistent as she has been around the top of the game, as relatively injury-free as she has been, the Russian has never won another major. She may yet have another deep run in her, though.

Meanwhile, Bouchard exits with a long sought-after dose of confidence.

With her win over Kerber, she also will leave having finally risen in the rankings. Bouchard could have squeezed back into the top 40 with a win Thursday. Instead, she’ll settle for a rise of six spots, to No. 54, and can hope for more next week.

Unlike much of the season, Bouchard won’t wait weeks – or even a month – to get back on court. Her ranking wouldn’t grant her direct entry into next week’s Premier 5 tournament in Rome, which has eight fewer main-draw spots than Madrid. So she will have to take her chances in the qualifying.

Armed with some Madrid momentum, that task suddenly became a little less daunting.