Wozniacki reveals rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis

Caroline Wozniacki’s 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Elina Svitolina Thursday night in Singapore eliminated her from the WTA Tour Finals, and ended her 2018 season.

But the 2017 champion had far more significant news to discuss at her post-match press conference.

Wozniacki revealed that she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after the US Open.

“In the beginning, it was a shock, just you feel like you’re the fittest athlete out there – or that’s in my head, that’s what I’m known for – and all of a sudden you have this to work with,” the 28-year-old Dane told the media in Singapore.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disorder in which the immune system attacked the synovium – the lining of the membranes that suround the joints in the body.

Women are more likely than men to get it. But according to the Mayo Clinic’s website, Wozniacki is far younger than the norm, which averages between 40 and 60 years of age. She also doesn’t smoke and she’s (obviously) not overweight, two more groups susceptible to contracting it.

Trouble in Montreal

Wozniacki told the media that she suffered from fatigue after Wimbledon. And one morning during the Rogers Cup in Montreal, she couldn’t lift her arms up over her head.

She lost her first match in Montreal in a third-set tiebeak to Aryna Sabalenka. And she retired after losing the first set of her first match in Cincinnati against Kiki Bertens.

It’s a disease that alternates flareups with periods where those who have it feel just fine. And that is what has been happening to Wozniacki, who is taking medication and undergoing treatment to manage it.

“I think I didn’t want to talk about it obviously during the year because I don’t want to give anyone the edge or thinking that I’m not feeling well, but I have been feeling well. You learn how to just cope after matches,” Wozniacki said.

“Some days you wake up and you can’t get out of bed and you just have to know that’s how it is. But other days you live and you’re fine. You don’t even feel like you have it. … It’s something that now I’m happy that I’m done with the season and you can just kind of control it a little bit more and figure out a plan how to control it even better in the future.”

Slow summer, successful fall

The Dane finished the season well in Asia, despite being eliminated in the round-robin segment of the Tour Finals.

She didn’t drop a set in winning the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing earlier this month.

It was an encouraging victory in ways that went far beyond the result.

Wozniacki said her physician said that what limitations there might be are up to her, and that a lot of it came down to positive mental attitude. Which Wozniacki has no shortage of.

“Obviously winning in Beijing was huge. It also gave me the belief that nothing is going to set me back. I’m going to work with this and this is how it is, and I can do anything,” Wozniacki said.

“I know there are a lot of people in the world that are fighting with this, and hopefully I can be someone they can look up to and say if I can do this, then they can too. And you just kind of have to get together and pull each other up.”

Wozniacki sits at No. 3 in the rankings, and only Naomi Osaka (who lost her first two round-robin matches) has a slight chance of bumping her down before the end of the season.

Singapore Day 1 is full of surprises

When you get the top eight players in the world this season – well, eight of nine, with the absence of the injured Simona Halep – it’s hard to consider any loss a true upset.

That’s valid even if the winner is seeded lower than the player she defeated. Because in the big picue, they’re all top-10 players.

Still, the opening night at the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore Sunday did produce two … surprises.

First up to open the event, in its last go-round in Singapore, China were No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and No. 6 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.

Two factors were working against Svitolina coming in. The first was that her head-to-head against Kvitova was 1-7. And after Svitolina defeated the Czech in their first career meeting in Cincinnati in 2014, Kvitova has dropped just one set in those seven victories.

The second issue was that second half of the 24-year-old’s season has been a struggle. The Rome champion couldn’t cement her spot in the final eight until the very last minute.

surprises
Kvitova had to feel confident coming into her match with Svitolina. But she wasn’t steady enough. The zing on the serve didn’t seem there, and she had seven double faults in a 6-3, 6-3 defeat.

Svitolina surprises

The stat sheet might have been a bit of a mess, but Svitolina came out at the top end of a 6-3, 6-3 score that gets her tournament off to a great start.

“Winning this match definitely gives me lots of confidence. I want to take this as one to go forward, and for all those people and haters that were saying that I don’t deserve to be here and I’m, you know, not good,” Svitolina told the media in Singapore. “Until the next match, I can really enjoy this win.”

Players don’t often bring up the abuse they get on social media, unless specifically asked about it. But Svitolina brought up the haters.

Her Instagram account is inexplicably full of nastiness on a regular basis. Some might be because she’s struggled to win matches lately, so the gamblers are on her. Some of it is because while she’s not Russian, she’s close by. But it boggles the imagination to think anyone could have that much hate for this charming , hard-working pro.

For Kvitova, who can be brilliant one day and error-prone the next, it was a matter of being more the latter.

 

Calf-strapped Pliskova beats Wozniacki

In the Sunday nightcap, Karolina Pliskova was all over defending Singapore champion Caroline Wozniacki.

The 6-2, 6-4 victory, a score that makes it look closer than it felt, was made more respectable at the end by Wozniacki’s trademark never-quit work ethic.

“Especially against Caroline, you really have to beat her because she’s not gonna give you anything much. Although she was missing pretty much everything in the first set, in the second set she played much better, and I had to really fight for it. I was just happy that I close it,” Pliskova said.

surprises
Pliskova had “The Positive Woman”, Aussie Rennae Stubbs, in her corner in Singapore Sunday.

Pliskova, who had her right leg wrapped from just below the knee down to mid-calf, was as solid as could be.

She saved all 10 break-point chances against her own serve, and converted on 3-of-10 on Wozniacki’s serve.

“I had some break points, and I didn’t make it, and so I was getting a little bit frustrated with myself. I was, like, ‘Maybe that’s the time to call her, the positive woman,’ Pliskova joked about Aussie Rennae Stubbs, who is back in her corner this week and apparently into 2019. “And she was actually positive, as always. She said, ‘Look, you’re still break up,’ which was true, actually. So I didn’t panic and I closed it.”

This was another rivalry that was technically tilted in favour of the runner-up, who was seeded No. 7 to Wozniacki’s No. 2.

Although after Wozniacki took their first three meetings (all in three sets), they’ve been trading the honors back and forth.

After not meeting for three years, the two met six times in 2017, the most recent of which came in the Singapore semifinals a year ago. Wozniacki won that one on her way to the title.

That was the last time they played each other.

More match tough

surprises
Wozniacki got off to a rocky start, and didn’t have enough time to right the ship before Pliskova closed it out.

If there was a connecting thread between Pliskova and Svitolina, it was that because both only qualified a few days ago, they have played plenty of tennis over the last few weeks.

That was not the case for Kvitova and Wozniacki, who wrapped up their spots earlier.

Kvitova last played in Beijing three weeks ago. And she has played just three matches since the US Open. Wozniacki played a full three-tournament Asian swing, and ran through the field without dropping a set to win the Premier Mandatory in Beijing (although she didn’t have to defeat anyone inside the top 20).

But that was more than two weeks ago. And she went home in between.

surprises
Simultaneous coaching consults for Svitolina (Andrew Bettles) and Kvitova (Jiri Vanek) during their Singapore opener Sunday.

Pliskova believes the last-minute play is a net positive even with the rushed arrival and limited time to get over jet lag, or even to practice on these specific courts.

“You always feel better by coming on the court by having a lot of matches in the last few weeks. So I feel like that’s important, but not only with me but I think with everybody. It’s true that when Domi (Cibulkova) won, she was playing until the last moment, (Caroline) Garcia, (Svetlana) Kuznetsova, too,” Pliskova said.

“There is a lot of indoor tournaments the weeks before, so you can really get used to it here, and the matches can really help you to get the confidence back from just playing. Knowing you have to play three matches can help, too.”

Pliskova and Svitolina will meet on Tuesday, preceded by Kvitova and Wozniacki.

The Czech holds a 5-2 head-to-head, going all the way back to 2011. But Svitolina has won the last two.

Svitolina woozy

There reportedly was a scary moment during Svitolina’s press conference, where she had to leave the room for a brief period after suffering what was described as “lightheadedness”.

WTA Tour Finals: an event at a crossroads

(All screenshots from WTAtv).

Miami crowd crosses line in Wozniacki-Puig match (updated)

MIAMI, Fla. – It was midnight, and the fans who stayed after the lengthy match between  Miami favorite Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Haase were clearly, well, heartily refreshed.

But world No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki says the often-unruly Miami crowd crossed the line during her match against Monica Puig.

Actually, make that a number of lines.

Here’s part of the statement Wozniacki put out Saturday, after she lost to Puig 0-6, 6-4, 6-4.

“During the match last night people in the crowd threatened my family, wished death upon my mom and dad, called me names that I can’t repeat here and told my fiancé’s niece and nephew (who are 10 years old) to sit down and shut the f*ck up. Meanwhile, security and staff did nothing to prevent this and even accepted this to take place.

“I hope the Miami Open chooses to take this seriously because it’s a horrible example to set for the next generation of tennis players and fans.”

Puig
According to Wozniacki, her supporters during the match against Puig suffered through the dark side of fan partisanship – including a pair of 10-year-olds. (WTATV screenshot)

Tough crowd at best of times

The Miami crowds are not known for being particularly sporting when a Spanish-speaking player is on court. And the 8 p.m. start time for evening sessions and the resultant late hour for the second matches just exacerbates that.

Puig, born in San Juan, Puerto Rico but raised in Miami, is the perfect storm.

Chair umpire Marija Čičak tried to control the unruly mob, to no avail. And she clearly didn’t hear the worst of it.

Many fans were applauding Wozniacki’s errors, which isn’t sporting but hardly unique to this city.

At one point, Wozniacki complained about the crowd making noise during the point.

“How many times did I tell them already?” said chair umpire Marija Čičak – who is the woman you want out there for this situation, because she is strict.

The crowd booed Wozniacki for even daring to ask the umpire to intervene, then cheered her next error.

But even Cicak gave up eventually.

“I know it’s very exciting, but if you could keep (it) to the end of the point. Thank you,” she said late in the third set. But the tone was resigned, the face discouraged.

Again, not ideal, but not that unusual.

Tennis players get a completely unacceptable level of online threats, bullying and unprintable insults at a matter of course. Most often, they come from the bettors after they lose a match they were favored to win.

But it’s rare that you hear of these things going on in broad daylight (so to speak), in public, where everyone can hear them and see them. People who make death threats and yell at 10-year-olds, as Wozniacki claims occurred, tend to fall on the cowardly side.

And there is not much even tournament security can do in a situation like this – even if they confront a fan accused of such behaviour, it’s a “he said, she said” situation.

Tournament director James Blake put out the following statement.

Puig

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Wozniacki hitting partner Venturino Thibault stated on Twitter that incidents indeed were reported during the match. He reiterated that it was a shame the tournament did absolutely nothing.

Thibault later clarified to Tennis.Life via Twitter that the more serious threats made to her supporters were not reported during the match. He was referring to the situations that affected Wozniacki during the match – unpleasant, but not something not seen from time to time on a tennis court. Calling a player unprintable names isn’t harassing children.

Wozniacki isn’t shy about complaining about perceived injustices. And when it comes to rules, she often has a very valid point. But there’s no doubt it all affected her in this match.

Puig, the big-moment player

Conversely, it buoyed Puig, who showed at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that the thrives on the big stages. If there were more big stages, her ranking would be a lot better than its current No. 82.

From a high of No. 27 18 months ago, Puig is down to No. 82 and probably needed a big “home” moment to get on a roll. But even she wouldn’t have wanted it to be this way.

Wozniacki, who is a part-time Florida resident herself, has nothing against Puig. In fact, the two are friendly and she noted that in her statement. She also wished her luck for the rest of the tournament.

But it seems the Miami fans will not be on the Dane’s Christmas list, even if it’s a tournament where she has consistently done well with three quarterfinals, a semifinal and, a year ago, a finals appearance. She lost to Johanna Konta.

Luckily for Wozniacki, with all the other points she has earned, she’s not in danger of losing her No. 2 spot in the rankings despite failing to defend all those points.

At worst, she would drop to No. 3 – and then, only if Garbiñe Muguruza wins the whole thing.

The question is, will the tournament act upon her plea? It’s a very difficult thing to police. Perhaps having someone who can address the fans in Spanish – sternly, in Cicak-type fashion – and threaten expulsion to those caught in those types of behaviors might help. The trick is catching them, though.

Especially late into a Friday or Saturday night, when the booze is flowing, and the inhibitions are shed just a little more.

(Screenshots from WTATV)

First Slam – and top spot – for patient Wozniacki

MELBOURNE, Australia – No matter how the Australian Open women’s singles final ended Saturday night, one player was going to be devastated.

And the other would be over the moon, hugging Daphne.

It was a gripping match with umpteen changes of momentum. There was some great play, and some nervous play. After two weeks of a tough physical grind, the heat and humidity that lasted into the night was a factor.

No one in Rod Laver Arena or watching at home knew who the winner would be until the final moments. That no doubt included the players themselves. So the elation and the disappointment were only magnified by the suddenness with which it came upon them.

In the end, it was Caroline Wozniacki, 12 years into a hugely successful career that was lacking just that one piece of hardware, who earned the Daphne Akhurst Trophy as the newly crowned Australian Open champion.

And it was Romania’s Simona Halep who must continue to believe that her time to be a Grand Slam champion will also come one day.

Wozniacki

The 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4 victory took two hours and 49 minutes. And if the tears the rarely emotional Wozniacki displayed in victory will be remembered so, too, will the grace shown by Halep as her tennis heart suffered a couple more nicks.

“She was better. And she was fresher. She had actually more energy in the end,” said Halep, who had a well-deserved cry afterwards but was more than composed by the time she came in for her press conference.

Back to No. 1 – with a twist

Wozniacki had spent more weeks than anyone as the No. 1 ranked player in the world – 67 – without winning that elusive first major.

Of all the narratives in tennis, the notion that a player’s career, one that includes all that time in the top spot and 28 titles, could be a disappointment by any measure might be the most ludicrous one. And yet, it has persisted.

But now, Wozniacki has firmly shut the door on it. You would hope.

“Honestly, I think that’s one of the most positive things about all of this. I’m never going to get that question again. I’m just waiting for the question, When are you going to win the second one?” she said. “Right now I’m just happy I have this one, and I’m going to really enjoy this moment.”

Not only is Wozniacki now a Grand Slam champion, she also will be back in the No. 1 spot on Monday – exactly six years after the last time she held that spot.

“I think it’s pretty incredible, and I think I need to take it in, realize what happened. I’m usually not an emotional person. So for me to start shaking and crying on court was pretty different for me,” Wozniacki said during one of the multiple live television interviews that followed the trophy ceremony.

“I knew today was either going to be an incredible day, or a day I was going to be really sad leaving the court. It was my day today.”

Second chances maximized

Both women saved match points to get to this final, meaningful showdown.

Wozniacki was almost out – should have been out, really – in the second round to Croatia’s Jana Fett. Somehow, from 5-1, 40-15 down in the third set she came back to win. It takes some luck, sometimes.

Wozniacki

Halep nearly packed her bags twice.

Against Lauren Davis in the third round, she saved match points and won it 15-13 in the third set after three hours and 45 minutes. And then, in a blockbuster of a match against 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the semifinals, she escaped again and won it 9-7 in the third set.

That was another gruelling two hours, 20 minutes’ worth of wear and tear on a body that was already battered, after Halep rolled her ankle in her first-round win over Australian wild card Destanee Aiava.

Her determination in getting all the way to the end seemed to presage that perhaps, just maybe, this might be her time, in her third Grand Slam finals attempt.

But to somehow decide who deserved it more, of the two women, is a debate for which there was no answer.

“I obviously feel very sad for her, but at the same time, you know, I’m very happy for myself. I can only imagine. But I didn’t want to think too much about how it would feel to win before the match because that’s like in case I don’t, it’s going to hurt even more,” Wozniacki said. “I’m sure she’s – it must be hard for her right now.”

Great start for Wozniacki

Wozniacki began the match looking every bit like a player who was going to go after the win, in a way she never had before.

But it lasted only a set, and after that, it was Halep, down in the score, who emerged the winner.

“After the first set, I just was out. I don’t know what happened. No energy, no power. But then I just said that I have to hit all the balls, and then I could take the second set,” Halep said. “I came back in the third set, but when I had to serve for 5-3, the gas was gone, so I couldn’t make it. It’s a bit sad.”

Most of the points followed a similar pattern. Whichever player was able to get the other moving from corner to corner by changing the direction of the ball and going down the line got the advantage in the point. In the first set, Halep was doing most of the running. In the second, Wozniacki was the one defending. And that was out of necessity for Halep; given how she was feeling, she knew that she didn’t have the fuel to run her way to the title.

Wozniacki

The heat and humidity meant that the rule for the women players allowing a 10-minute break before the third set, subject to one of the players making the request.

Wozniacki said it was Halep who asked for me. That wasn’t surprising, since the Romanian appeared to be close to cramping, and barely managed to serve the set out.

“I wasn’t going to take it, I thought maybe I can keep pushing on and she’ll be more tired than me,” Wozniacki said. “But once she did I thought, it could be good, to resettle, refocus.”

Halep wasn’t sure it helped.

“Was really good when I was staying in the air-conditioning in the locker room. But I feel that was a little bit too much and maybe cut me a little bit. But I needed it for the breathing, for the head, because I had headache during the match,” Halep said.

Physical battle to the end

Both took medical timeouts. For Halep, at 2-3 in the second set, it was more of a medical issue as she had her blood pressure checked and dealt with a headache and dizziness.

Wozniacki

In the third, it was Wozniacki who had some tape applied below her left knee.

There were only three breaks of serve in the first two sets. By the third, survival time, there were six breaks in the first eight games.

After a fortnight in the heat, six previous matches, and with all that was at stake, it’s asking a lot for two players to produce their best tennis.

They didn’t, but they gave everything they have and all of their heart and desire.

“I was thinking, If I am tired right now, I know one of my strengths is my speed, obviously my fitness, I know she’s tired, too, so… Every time I was like, Oh, I can’t do this anymore, I’m exhausted, and we were playing all these crazy long rallies, I was thinking, Okay, I’m looking over there, she looks a little tired, she must be feeling the exact same way or maybe more tired than me,” Wozniacki said.

And in the end, on the final two points, it was Wozniacki’s well-polished defence and determination that won her the two biggest points of her life.

Heart kept beating, body wore out

And in the end, it wasn’t Halep’s nerves, or her mind, that got the best of her, it was her body.

“I felt ready. But the body was not ready because I had so many long matches. The muscles were tired. The feet were not good enough. But mentally I was ready. I feel that I can face any challenge. And I can play against anyone. I can win against anyone. But just sometimes is not how you want because you cannot physically do it,” she said.

Halep wanted to hit more winners, as she did against Kerber. She wanted to come to the net more. But the body wouldn’t allow it. Considering she practiced little more than 15 minutes a day the entire tournament because of the ankle – just enough to make sure she kept feeling the ball, the tennis was there.

“I‘m leaving Australia with many good thoughts and many positive things because what I’ve done these two weeks I never did, me, in the past. So it’s okay.”

Halep won’t be headed to the WTA Tour event in St. Petersburg, Russia next week, as scheduled. She’ll head home, have a series of MRIs not only on the ankle, but also on her feet. Her right foot, especially, has a swollen tendon and she said that also was causing her a lot of pain.

Wozniacki also is entered in St. Petersburg. There’s a pretty good chance that she, too, will take a pass and bring Daphne home.

 

No. 1 and No. 2 in women’s Oz final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As expected, a close battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winners, winners everywhere for the winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All those possibilities down to two

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

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

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

Week off pays dividends

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

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

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

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

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

Halep, Kerber handle big hitters in Aussie quarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a roll, Halep on a roll

hitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerber a bad matchup for big-hitter Keys

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

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

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

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

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

They haven’t played each other since.

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

Halep does the double in Shenzhen

As an opening act for her 2018 season, world No. 1 Simona Halep couldn’t have asked for better.

The 26-year-old Romanian not only won the singles title at the Shenzhen Open, she also added her first career WTA Tour doubles title.

Halep defeated No. 6 seed Katerina Siniakova 6-1, 2-6, 6-0 to take the singles title.

And then she returned to court with doubles partner Irina-Camelia Begu to take a second title on the day in a 1-6, 6-1, [10-8] comeback effort against the No. 1 seeds, Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova.

(The matches had to be played indoors, with the fans getting a refund, because of inclement weather. The alternative would have been to postpone to Sunday, when the forecast wasn’t that much better, and greatly compromise the ability of some of the participants to get to their event this week).

“After the first set I was not cool at all. I just wanted to win the match and I did everything I could. I want to thank Begu for inviting me to play doubles. It was a pleasure and a great week. It’s the first time in my life that I have won both titles. It’s a great feeling,” Halep said.

Halep’s only other doubles final came at the Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2016. There, she won the singles title, defeating Angelique Kerber in the final. But she and fellow Romanian Monica Niculescu fell to Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in the doubles final.

The rare double, and still No. 1

It was the first time since the Bogota tournament in Feb. 2009 that the two singles finalists also found themselves pitted against each other in the doubles final.

With the singles victory, Halep also retains the No. 1 singles ranking. That also means she will be the No. 1 seed at the Australian Open.

At the beginning of the week, both Garbiñe Muguruza (who was just 40 points behind to start the week) and Caroline Wozniacki both had a shot at taking the top spot away from her.

As it happened, the three all were playing different tournaments.

Muguruza fell in her first match in Brisbane, victim of full body cramp.

Wozniacki had to win both her quarterfinal and semifinal matches at Auckland on Saturday because of the inclement weather. She will play the final a day later than scheduled, on Sunday.

She would have had to win the title, and have Halep go no further than the Shenzhen quarterfinals, to become No. 1.

Still, Wozniacki will move up to No. 2 regardless of Sunday’s result.

The last time the Dane was No. 2 was in October, 2010. After that, she went on a run at No. 1 through the 2012 Australian Open.

(Photos courtesy of the Shenzhen Open)

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.

WTA Rankings Report – Oct. 30, 2017

With the awarding of the big-lot points from the WTA Tour Finals, the year-end rankings begin to take serious shape.

And guess what? Caroline Wozniacki, at No. 19 at the beginning of the 2017 season, will end it at No. 3.

It has been awhile since the former No. 1 has been up in that lofty perch. But winning the Singapore event will give a player a huge boost.

It also, a year later, can hurt if you don’t back it up. Ask Dominika Cibulkova and Angelique Kerber about that one.

There is still tennis to be played, and points to be won as a dozen women compete in the second-tier tournament in Zhuhai, China this week.

Kristina Mladenovic is the top seed there.

Other than the changes in the top 10, there are almost no other rankings moves until you get below No. 50. That’s because there were no other WTA-level events going on. To earn points, players had to hit the ITF circuit.

On the Upswing

rankingsCaroline Wozniacki (DEN): No. 6 —————> No. 3

Mihaela Buzarnescu (USA): No. 89 —————> No. 72 (the 29-year-old PhD continues her late-season run towards her best-ever year-end finish with a win at the $100K event in Poitiers.

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (SVK): No. 181 —————> No. 132 (the former top-40 player wins the $80K in Macon)

Anna Kalinskaya (RUS): No. 168 —————> No. 149

Belinda Bencic (SUI): No. 192 —————> No. 163

Yafan Wang (CHN): No. 196 —————> No. 166

Bibiane Schoofs (NED): No. 227 —————> No. 197

Victoria Duval (USA): No. 306 —————> No. 239 (A final in Macon should get Duval into Australian Open qualifying)

 

On the Downswing

rankingsElina Svitolina (UKR): No. 4 —————> No. 6

Lauren Davis (USA): No. 47 —————> No. 50 (if Davis has any year-end top-50 bonus clauses in her contracts, she’s on red alert)

Oceane Dodin (FRA): No. 71 —————> No. 85

Pauline Parmentier (FRA): No. 82 —————> No. 91

Kayla Day (USA): No. 130 —————> No. 144

Asia Muhammad (USA): No. 136 —————> No. 153

Sofya Zhuk (RUS): No. 139 —————> No. 177

 Players defending points

Catherine Bellis – 80 points

Beatriz Haddad Maia – 80 points

Risa Ozaki – 80 points

Kristia Ahn – 48 points

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

 

Halep to try again for top ranking

Will Simona Halep be third time lucky on Sunday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh slate at the top

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

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

Five possibilities, down to one

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

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

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

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.