There is Serena – and then there are the rest

WIMBLEDON – There is no way of knowing if Serena Williams’s path to the Wimbledon women’s singles final might have been interrupted along the way, had so many of the top players in the women’s game not been shocked out of the tournament so early this year.

But the way she has been playing, who’s to say she might not be standing in the exact same spot?

Williams didn’t have to face Elina Svitolina, or Madison Keys, or Coco Vandeweghe, or Caroline Wozniacki. The high seeds and big servers that looked to be obstacles when the draw was revealed two weeks ago, fell by the wayside before they got to her.

But in defeating No. 13 seed Julia Goerges 6-2, 6-4 on a day when the much-improved German shows few signs of succumbing to first-time Slam semifinalist nerves, the 36-year-old mom made a statement.

She’s here to win it, in only her fourth tournament back after pregnancy, childbirth and a host of complications in the aftermath.

And it feels like every day, with every match, she’s getting fitter and better.

Favorite or underdog? Serena can’t decide

the restWilliams is the favorite to win the tournament. And some had her as the favorite even before it began. The lady herself is allowing herself to be impressed with what she’s accomplished so far.

“It’s like, ‘C’mon guys, this is pretty awesome’. To hear people say, ‘Oh, she’s a favorite. Like, the last 16 months, I’ve played four tournaments, and was carrying another human half that time. It’s interesting,” she said. “But when I wasn’t a favorite, I was kind of upset about that. It’s like, ‘C’mon, what can make me happy?’ Have to figure out which I prefer.”

There was a different look about Williams when she headed out to Court 9 to warmup for her match, around 11:30 a.m.

It all looked fairly typical. Williams had on a skirt, as she usually does during a pre-match warmup to better simulate what she wears during matches. She didn’t take any volleys, which is typical.

She was silent – as was everyone on her team – save for a few instructions to hitting partner Jarmere Jenkins. 

But Williams barely missed. She hit the ball much harder than she often does, and the sound coming off the racket would have intimidated any opponent, had she been nearby to hear it.

That’s what she took to the match court. And despite a hiccup when she served for the match – with new balls, no less – she was nearly flawless.

Pulled out her very best – again

“I don’t know what I expected from this tournament. I just expected to win a match, then win the next match. Whenever I go out there, I just try to win my match. That’s literally all I do,” Williams said. 

“I don’t know what my toughest match was. I mean, obviously against Camila (Giorgi), she played really, really well. She pushed me and won the first set against me. But today was tough, as well. Like, I think every match has its challenges. I don’t think any of them have been easy. Each one I have to kind of adjust to.”

the rest

Goerges said she was proud that Williams had to pull out her best to beat her. 

“Overall I think she knew how to win that match by her experience, and I didn’t have that stage in my career yet. I’m looking forward to getting there another time and getting more experience,” she said. “But overall I’m not frustrated about the way I hit. I think that she steps up her game. Yeah, it’s a big word, which is ‘respect’ towards me that she brings her “A” game in a lot of important moments.”

Kerber stands in the way of No. 8

the rest

Of all the possible opponents who managed to scratch their way into the second week, perhaps Angelique Kerber is the most prepared, on form and experience, to take Williams on.

the restKerber easily dismissed first-time Wimbledon semifinalist Jelena Ostapenko in the first semifinal.

The 6-3, 6-3 score probably makes it seem closer than it was; Kerber was a willing and able accomplice in Ostapenko’s mission to defeat herself with errors.

It was just the right tactic, although not that many players have the tools to execute it.

Still, it was a great tournament for Ostapenko, as it was for Goerges.

The last time Williams played Wimbledon, in 2016, she also faced Kerber. The American won it, but it was a tight, competitive final.

Williams was all the more motivated because the two had squared off in the Australian Open final less than six months before.

And in that one, it was Kerber who won in three sets to earn her first career Grand Slam title.

Attacking that second serve

What we remember most about that Australian Open final was how Williams was looking in the warmup to practice attacking what was, then, Kerber’s biggest weakness: her second serve.

Then-hitting partner Robbye Poole tried with all his might. But he couldn’t duplicate the feebleness of Kerber’s second delivery.

And, in the end, that was a big key to Kerber’s victory. Williams just wasn’t able to give that second serve the pummelling it deserved. And that allowed Kerber to hold serve a bit more easily than she should have.

Ironically, Kerber’s second serve is a lot better, 2 1/2 years later. So is the rest of her game. But even if she has become a much better attacker, she will still need to rely on her defense if she wants to defeat Williams on Saturday.

“She’s always going out there to win the matches. I think it doesn’t matter against who she is playing. She’s trying to (play) like she played the years before where she won the big matches. Now for sure she had a lot of big confidence, especially after the matches she won here already,” Kerber said of Williams.

“She knows the feeling to (go) out on this stage where you are in the finals, especially here. She won here I don’t know how many times. … Yeah, she’s a fighter. She’s a champion. That’s why she is there where she is now.”

Serena Williams and the Amen Corner in Wimbledon semis

WIMBLEDON  – It is most definitely not the semifinal lineup most expected.

But you bet against Serena Williams at your peril.

The top 10 women in the world dropped out of Wimbledon, one by one.

Most dropped out in the very early going.

Maybe they wanted it too much. If there’s anything that unifies tennis players, it’s how much they love this tournament and how badly they want to win it.

(We’ll put a caveat there for the French and other players from clay-court nations at Roland Garros. But even they, generally speaking, seem to consider Wimbledon the wonderland of tennis, this magical place where everything is different and so civilized and wow, being Wimbledon champion would just be something else).

As the last four women standing take the stage, Williams is the lowest seed at No. 25.

And it is only by the grace of the All-England Club that she is seeded at all.

But as the last 10 days have gone by, Williams’s tennis has gotten better and better. And you can see her getting fitter practically by the day.

And the hunger is evident.

So it is Serena and the “Amen Corner” of the women’s draw – the No. 11, No. 12 and No. 13 seeds – who will vie for a spot in the final Saturday.

[11] Angelique Kerber (GER)
vs. [12] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) 

Amen

They are nine years apart in age, and nine years apart in professional experience with Kerber having turned pro in 2003, Ostapenko in 2012.

But even though both have been around long enough, they have never met before. What a place for an introduction.

And so there are no priors with which to gauge how this match might go. But despite the baseline of both being relentless baseliners, it remains a match of intriguing contrasts.

Kerber, who is now rounding into form after a significant but understandable dip in form following her accomplished season in 2016, has added some oomph to her retrieving game.

Ostapenko is all oomph. The dynamic here is whether the German can retrieve enough balls to force Ostapenko into errors. As well, it’s about whether she can be more aggressive than she typically is on serve return – especially on second-serve return – to put pressure on Ostapenko’s superlative second shot.

Kerber’s second serve, if improved some, remains the most attackable part of her game. There are no questions about whether Ostapenko will give that shot what it deserves. 

[25] Serena Williams (USA)
vs. [13] Julia Goerges (GER)

At 29, and in her 15th year as a pro, Georges has known ups and downs.

After being in the top 20 all the way back in 2012, she finished outside the top 50 four straight seasons until last year. And this year, she put her toes in the waters of the top 10 for the first time in her career.

Williams and Goerges met for the first time just a month ago at the French Open, after not having played each other since 2011.

In only her third tournament back and her first in more than two months, Williams posted a surprisingly routine 6-3, 6-4 win. The only down side to that win was that it was the match in which Williams injured her pectoral muscle.

That forced her out of her next scheduled match, against Maria Sharapova.

The Unlikely Eight look for Wimbledon SF spots

WIMBLEDON – The women’s game is unpredictable these days.

That’s a reality, although the reasons for it depend on your point of view.

It could be parity, and a general rise in overall level that makes more upsets possible. It could also be a corollary to that – that there are numerous very good players, without many true champions in the game at the moment.

With the absence of an indisputable champion in Serena Williams for close to a year and a half, the contrast with the rest of the field is stark.

Perhaps so many of the women wanted to win Wimbledon so badly, their nerves got the better of them, in some cases.

Whatever the reason, and it’s probably a combination of a few factors, here we are.

Draw doesn’t shake out as planned

Here is what the women’s singles quarterfinals looked like on paper, when the draw came out.

We bear in mind that Williams, seeded No. 25, was always a dangerous wild card. Victoria Azarenka, another former No. 1 who has Grand Slam titles on her resumé, also looked to do some damage.

unlikely

But with the top 10 seeds all long gone – many in shocking fashion – here are the matchups Tuesday.

There were injury concerns with Williams after the French Open, where she pulled out before a scheduled match against Maria Sharapova with a pectoral injury. But as she has played her way into form during the fortnight, who would bet against her reaching the final now?

But first, a stern test against an inscrutable opponent in the Italian Giorgi.

Williams is 3-0 against Giorgi. Their last meeting came in the first round of the 2016 Australian Open. Since then, Giorgi has fallen down the rankings and picked herself right back up.

She plays the same game against everyone she plays. So Williams knows what she’s going to get.

Unseeded Cibulkova lets racket do the talking

unlikely

There was a fair bit of pushback from Cibulkova before the tournament.

Wimbledon’s decision to award Williams a seed meant Cibulkova, who would have been seeded No. 32, ended up unseeded and therefore vulnerable to a tough early draw.

The Slovak ended up with a friendly draw – in terms of the seeds she faced. Cibulkova defeated No. 22 Johanna Konta, who has been struggling. Then she upset No. 15 Elise Mertens, who was never really considered a serious contender and also has been struggling some in 2016.

No. 1 seed Simona Halep was eliminated by Hsieh Su-Wei. And then Cibulkova defeated Hsieh.

Now, she faces 2017 French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko.

The Latvian had the “worst” happen in Paris, where she lost in the first round in defense of her title. But with that rather heavy rock having fallen off her back, she is having a great Wimbledon.

“In this tournament, she seems to be in the right mood. Yeah, she’s playing aggressive. She’s playing with no fear. She just going for it,” Cibulkova said of Ostapenko.

Williams – Ostapenko final?

Despite all the bigger names in the women’s game (other than Williams) being out long ago, there is one rather appealing potential final matchup that could still happen.

unlikely
Serena v Ostapenko in the final? Could happen.

And that is with no disrespect meant to the others, all fine players but with much lower profiles with the more casual tennis and sports fans.

Ostapenko has had a good draw: wild card Katy Dunne, Kirsten Flipkens, qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko (who upset Maria Sharapova), and Aliaksandra Sasnovich (who upset Petra Kvitova in the first round)

The way has, in part, been cleared for her. And she has taken full advantage of it.

Can you picture a Serena vs. Ostapenko women’s singles final?

They have never met; Ostapenko’s rise came while Williams was off on maternity leave.

It would be a heck of an introduction on Saturday.

Of course, that likely means the final will be Cibulkova vs. Julia Goerges.

Because that’s the kind of Wimbledon it’s been.

Coaching musical chairs as Schaap joins Team ‘Penko

When the tennis world descends upon Wimbledon, there are going to be several new coach-player pairings to look out for.

And on the women’s side, it’s truly a game of musical chairs.

Just weeks after Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit announced she was moving from Glenn Schaap to a three-month trial with Brit Nigel Sears, Schaap already has a new gig.

Tennis.Life has learned that the 50-year-old from the Netherlands, who also has worked with top-five players Dinara Safina, Nadia Petrova and Jelena Dokic during his career, has joined Team Jelena Ostapenko on a trial basis.

And, after Ostapenko ended things with another veteran coach, Aussie David Taylor, Taylor moved on to American Madison Keys.

There had been talk a few weeks ago that this would happen, never officially confirmed. but the Taylor-Keys pairing is reportedly already in London and practicing in preparation for Wimbledon.

After a long run with Samantha Stosur, Taylor worked with Naomi Osaka last year.

Schaap
Taylor and Ostapenko seemed congenial enough a few months ago at Indian Wells, but he was gone by May. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Not a secure gig

Ostapenko won the French Open last year but was shocked in the first round this time around. She has yet to settle on a solid, permanent coaching situation in her young career even if her mother, who is a tennis coach, is always on hand.

Taylor joined Team ‘Penko in Australia. But he didn’t last four months.

A year ago, Anabel Medina Garrigues was on board as the Latvian took Paris, but she didn’t return in 2018.

Coaching carousel continues as Ostapenko, Taylor part

New coach for Sock

Schaap
Sock has been scuffling mightily so far in 2018. Perhaps the addition of Knowles for Wimbledon might settle things down. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Keys and Ostapenko are not the only ones who will have a new voice in their ear at the third Grand Slam of the season.

American Jack Sock, who wrapped up 2017 in such impressive fashion but who has struggled to an incredible degree in 2018, also has a new consultant, is on board.

Mark Knowles, who joined Team Raonic last year at this time, after Raonic parted ways with Richard Krajicek, is on board.

Sock took late entry into Eastbourne this week. And with wild cards already attributed to Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, he’s the top seed in the qualifying.

Sock had long worked with Troy Hahn and, recently, with former USTA head of men’s tennis Jay Berger.

Fish in Sock’s corner in Houston

But Berger has a new gig at a club in Florida, and the 25-year-old American has been scrambling a bit on that end.

Schaap
Keys had two coaches at the beginning of 2018 – and then none – as the amiable Taylor comes on board. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Surprisingly, it’s not an unusual time of the season for coaching changes to happen.

A year ago at this time, there were also a lot of new faces.

Meanwhile, Canadian Genie Bouchard, whose own coaching situation has been rather rambunctious the last few years, should have veteran sage Robert Lansdorp with her as she plays her first-ever Wimbledon qualifying next week.

Lansdorp, 80, has been with Bouchard in Europe through practice at the Mouratoglou Academy, through to her attempt to qualify at the WTA event in Birmingham last weekend.

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.