Nishikori’s new coach is a “Beast”

After an 11-year relationship with coach Dante Bottini ended this year, Kei Nishikori has turned to a very familiar face as he takes on the next phase of his career.

The Japanese star turns 30 just as the 2020 seasons begins.

And longtime Tour player – and fellow IMG Academy regular – Max Mirnyi will be his new coach.

Mirnyi, 42, retired as a player just over a year ago after a long career during which he reached No. 1 in doubles and earned 53 titles.

But earlier on, he also was a fine singles player. The Minsk, Belarus native reached No. 18 in the world back in 2003.

And he’s someone Nishikori has practically grown up with at the IMG Academy.

Mirnyi
The addition of Mirnyi will keep Nishikori’s off-season routine exactly as it is. Mirnyi, like Nishikori, lives right near the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

A longtime Sarasota, Fla. native, Mirnyi also trained at the academy for years.

Somewhere after his retirement, The Beast turned into a munchkin. (ATP Tour website)

So it should be an easy transition.

And after a career during which Nishikori has been one of the rare players not to hop on the coaching carousel, that comfort level makes it easy for the two to begin work and settle in quickly.

Nishikori is recovering from a procedure to remove bone spurs from his elbow.

The injury made for a tough 2019 season, although he expects to be reach for the ATP Cup in a little over a month.

Mirnyi
After 11 years with Bottini (seen here with the rest of Team Nishikori at the IMG Academy a year ago), the Japanese star has turned to Max Mirnyi as he hits the 3-0 mark and tries to return to form in 2020. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Mirnyi, nicknamed “The Beast” because of his huge stature (despite his bio on the ATP Tour site, above), has long been considered one of the brightest men in tennis, and a stand-up human being.

He has a degree in International Law from Belarus State University.

And he has served as a goodwill ambassador to the UN in Belarus, as well as being involved with UNICEF and children’s rights.

According to the Kyodo News, longtime mentor Michael Chang will remain on board. Chang has never been a full-time coach, but has travelled to the bigger events to offer advice and support.

He and Bottini appeared to make the “coaching tandem” set up work like a charm.

Mirnyi one of many coaching changes

Mirnyi
A year ago, Kyle Edmund was working with Fredrik Rosengren at the IMG Academy. Twelve months alter, Rosengren is in Dubai with Karen Khachanov. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The cast of characters at the IMG Academy this off-season is going to have a significantly different look than it did a year ago when Tennis.Life stopped in.

Then, Brit Kyle Edmund was going through the paces with Fredrik Rosengren.

A year later, Rosengren is part of Team Karen Khachanov.

And instead of being in Florida, he’s in Dubai.

Rosengren and Edmund parted ways shortly after that pre-season training block.

In February, Rosengren announced he was retiring from the tour to spend more time with his family.

Mirnyi
Khachanov, who was in the top 10 earlier this year, is training with Rosengren in Dubai. (Khachanov Instagram)

The two had been together a year and a half.

Edmund reaching his career-high ranking during that period.

The 2019 season was a major struggle for the Brit after that, although he rallied to finish it well. But last month, Edmund had said he was “open to a reunion” with Rosengren.

That won’t happen now. Khachanov’s Instagram announcement mentioned that he will continue to work with his day-to-day coach, Vedran Martic.

So perhaps a more part-time arrangement is what convinced Rosengren to get back to the grind.

Mugu back with Conchi

On the women’s side, Garbiñe Muguruza has gone back to a happy place, in the wake of her parting with longtime coach Sam Sumyk.

Muguruza, who like Nishikori is managed by IMG’s Olivier Van Lindonk, will work with former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez in 2020.

Martinez was on board in 2017 when Muguruza won her second Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. But unlike Nishikori’s situation with Bottini and Chang, the two-coach setup with Martinez and Sumyk didn’t appear to flow quite as smoothly.

And by March 2018, Martinez was out of the picture. After that, she worked with Karolina Pliskova.

A walk on the ATP side for Pliskova

Meanwhile, Pliskova went over to the “other side” – i.e., the ATP Tour, to recruit her new coach.

She chose Dani Vallverdu, who began his coaching career as a hitting partner/coach with longtime friend Andy Murray.

Mirnyi
Dani Vallverdu will be getting his first taste of the WTA Tour as he will work with Karolina Pliskova in 2020. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Since then, Vallverdu has worked with Tomas Berdych, Grigor Dimitrov and Stan Wawrinka.

Dimitrov splits with coach Vallverdu

“Karolína is a great player and I’m looking forward to working with her to help her reach her goals. WTA is something new for me, but I like challenges,” Vallverdu said in a statement on Pliskova’s website.

Pliskova also has added Olga Savchuk, a 32-year-old former doubles player from Belarus who retired at the 2018 US Open. 

Savchuk has also proved impressive in her first steps as a television commentator – in English, no less. She was with Pliskova in Zhengzhou this fall, where the Czech won the title.

Savchuk, who had a long career in singles and doubles, is a popular figure on the women’s tour and will join Team Pliskova in 2020 on an official basis. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

More new-old faces for 2020

The coaching carousel always has been in constant motion during off-seasons.

But this year, it feels as though it has sort of started to spin all season long as players become increasingly impatient for quick results.

In other news, Russian Natalia Vikhlyantseva has hired former ATP Tour player (and current Russian Fed Cup captain) Igor Andreev as her personal coach.

Simona Halep will reunite with longtime coach Darren Cahill in 2020. But the two began the new season a little early, as the Aussie was back in the saddle at the WTA Tour Finals in Shenzhen.

Halep and Cahill to get band back together for ’20

Promising young American Amanda Anisimova got a jump on the competition for those same, few, familiar faces when she pulled off the biggest coup so far.

The 18-year-old is working with longtime Justin Henin and Li Na coach Carlos Rodriguez in the off-season and at least through the Australian summer. Unless they truly don’t click, the association will become permanent.

New coach for Anisimova: Carlos Rodriguez

The coaching flavour of the month, Sascha Bajin, went from Naomi Osaka to start the season, to Kristina Mladenovic – and now, to promising Ukraine teenager Dayana Yastremska.

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Всем привет! Я очень рада поделиться с вами новостью о том, что в сезон 2020 я вхожу с новым тренером Сашей Бажином! Мне очень-очень приятно, и я очень рада что мы начинаем наше сотрудничество, это будет очень интересная и впечатляющая работа. Я уверена, что он поможет мне добиться исполнения моих амбиций. Очень жду начала нашей предсезонной подготовки, и уверена, что у нас все получится! Усім привіт! Я дуже рада поділитися з вами новиною про те, що у сезон 2020 я входжу з новим тренером, Сашою Бажином! Мені дуже дуже приємно, і я дуже рада почати наше співробітництво, це буде дуже цікава і вражаюча робота. Я впевнена, що він допоможе мені домогтися виконання моїх амбіцій. Дуже жду початку нашої предсезонної підготовки, і впевнена, що у нас все вийде! Hello everyone! I am very happy to share the news that I am starting 2020 season with the new coach! I am extremely happy, and I am very excited to start our collaboration as it is going to be very interesting and impressive work. I am confident that he can help me in achieving my ambitions. Super excited for the beginning of our preseason preparation and I am confident that everything works out! @bigsascha @radio_shark_fm

A post shared by Dayana Yastremska (@dayana_yastremskay) on

Angelique Kerber, who’s had quite the coaching carousel all on her own the last few years, split with Rainer Schuettler and announced last week that she had hired Dieter Kindlmann (who has worked with Maria Sharapova) as her new coach.

Marion Bartoli and Jelena Ostapenko, who had an energizing run through the final part of the WTA Tour season indoors in Europe, will extend their collaboration into 2020.

Some scheduling issues remain, as Bartoli has broadcasting commitments. But their association was a big hit.

Old friends Marion Bartoli and Jelena Ostapenko formed a really positive partnership in the waning weeks of the 2019 WTA Tour season. (Screenshot: WTAtv).

Julia Goerges announced Jens Gerlach as her new coach last month.

More news to come on the coaching front

So things are falling into place, slowly but surely.

But there are several players out there who appear to be looking for coaches, but who still have not officially announced any moves.

(If we’ve missed any news – Tweet at us and we’ll add it).

-Naomi Osaka

-Fabio Fognini

-Grigor Dimitrov

-Stan Wawrinka announced the end of his association with Yannick Fattebert, who was with him during the period when Magnus Norman was off the tour and remained a co-coach.

-Kyle Edmund had worked with fellow Brit Mark Hilton after Rosengren departed. But Hilton has joined Team Dan Evans. He looked to be set, on a planned trial run with experienced coach Franco Davin (Gaston Gaudio, Juan Martin del Potro, most recently Fabio Fognini).  But Davin appears to be working with the relatively obscure Ecuadorian Emilio Gomez this off-season. So … to be determined. 

-Kristina Mladenovic

Four No. 1s – all in a row in Toronto (video)

TORONTO – If you got to the Rogers Cup early enough – and it seems not that of the fans do, even on a holiday Monday – you were in for a treat.

Not one, not two, not three – but former world No. 1 practicing side by side on the four main practice courts.

Right in front was Venus Williams. Next to her, sister Serena.

Then Karolina Pliskova, who was practicing with Elina Svitolina.

And on the end, the one closest to where the fans who didn’t have posh privileges could watch, was the most recent of them at the top spot, Naomi Osaka.

Osaka and Pliskova both have a shot at regaining the No. 1 spot in the rankings, depending on how things shake out this week in Toronto.

Here’s what it looked like.

And here’s Pliskova doing All-Access media stuff on Sunday, talking about Simona Halep winning Wimbledon, among other topics.

Pliskova out of Fed Cup final

The U.S. vs. Czech Republic Fed Cup final, with all the notable absentees on the American side, was headed towards a mismatch.

But that matchup got a little bit tighter Saturday as Czech No. 2 Karolina Pliskova bowed out with the calf issue that was visible during last week’s WTA Finals in Singapore.

“Already in Singapore there were days when I felt pain even when walking and I felt terrible. But I didn’t attach much weight to it. I was looking forward to the final very much, but after the examination my start is not possible,” Pliskova wrote on social media.

“I’m really sorry about that. Our team is strong enough!”

If you add Pliskova’s absence to the relative lack of form shown by Czech No. 1 Petra Kvitova this fall, you would think the U.S. team of neophytes, led by Alison Riske, would like their chances a little better even if they’re on the road.

Reduced U.S. roster for Fed Cup final

But the Czechs are deep.

Even if those two didn’t play at all, the other members of the squad (No. 31 Katerina Siniakova and No. 33 Barbora Strycova, both incredible doubles players as well) are still ranked higher than the top American, No. 35 Danielle Collins.

Barbora Krejcikova, who with Siniakova will finish as the co-No. 1 ranked doubles player in the world, was named to replace Pliskova.

That only makes their doubles team stronger (if it comes to that), while freeing up the clever Strycova to play singles.

Calf muscle tear for Pliskova

Pliskova
Despite the tight wrap on her right calf, Pliskova got to the semifinals in Singapore.

The Czech website tenisovysvet.cz reports Pliskova was diagnosed with a muscle tear.

From the very first day in Singapore, Pliskova had her right calf tightly wrapped. And from what she wrote, the pain was significantly more than appeared on the court, where she wouldn’t have wanted to give her opponents an edge.

It had been yeowoman’s work to even qualify for Singapore. The Czech took a wild card into an event in Tianjin, China after the Premier Mandatory in Beijing. And then she flew to Moscow to play there before a combination of wins and losses by other aspirants finally guaranteed her qualification.

Despite the injury, Pliskova had a great week. She won two of her three round-robin matches, succumbing only to eventual champion Elina Svitolina (in three sets). It was enough to qualify for the semifinals.

She won the first set 6-0 against Sloane Stephens in that semifinal. But the Czech had squeezed every step she could out of that leg, and Stephens ended up prevailing in three.

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).

Singapore WTA Tour Finals wrapup

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

One day, a player looked like a world beater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A renaissance season for Venus

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

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

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

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

It’s been a long season.

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

Disappearing doubles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore results and grades

Singapore

[1] Simona Halep
Grade: C-

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

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

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

[2] Garbiñe Muguruza
Grade: C

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

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

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

[3] Karolina Pliskova
Grade: B

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

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

[4] Elina Svitolina
Grade: C

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

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

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

[5] Venus Williams
Grade: A+

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

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

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

[6] Caroline Wozniacki
Grade: A+

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

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

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

[7] Jelena Ostapenko
Grade: C

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Caroline Garcia
Grade: A

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

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

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

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

On her fourth try, Halep becomes No. 1

Simona Halep would have been forgiven if her reaction after beating Jelena Ostapenko Saturday in Beijing were one of relief.

Instead, it was pure joy.

Okay, maybe there was a little relief mixed in there somewhere.

The momentous victory meant that on Monday, the 26-year-old Romanian officially will become the No. 1 ranked player on the WTA Tour, for the first time in her career.

She will be the first Romanian, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour, to rise to the top spot. She also will be the fourth in less than six months. Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza have all owned the top spot since March.

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

Halep, like Pliskova (and Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic before them), ascended to the top spot before winning her first major title.

A bumpy road straightens out in Beijing

For Halep, older than all but Kerber, it was a long time coming.

Three times over the last four months, Halep was one victory away from claiming the top spot. The first three opportunities – in the French Open final against Ostapenko, at Wimbledon, and in Cincinnati – hadn’t gone well.

This time, she somehow put aside the accumulated pressure, the nerves, and the failures. She went to the line, and served it out as though it were the first set in her first-round match.

Even if she admitted her legs were shaking before that last point.

“I still say the toughest moment on court was the French Open final. It was the first opportunity to be No.1 and to win the first Grand Slam. I was devastated after that match. Then I just kept working. I said it’s going to happen one day, I just have to get on court and work harder, which I did,” Halep said afterwards, on a podcast on the WTA Tour website. “Darren (coach Darren Cahill) always told me that if you keep working you can do it. So today I did it after so many tough moments.”

That Halep is a good enough player and athlete to become No. 1 – especially in this era, when that top sport is so very much up for grabs – was rarely in question.

In a year of up-and-down results, of players reaching great heights only to stumble a few steps down the hill the following week, she was as capable as anyone.

But for her, compared to some, all the cylinders need to fire.

Halep
Coach Anabel Medina Garrigues came out when Ostapenko was down a break in the second set, remind her of Halep’s “situation” and telling her to stay with her. She won eight straight points after that. But Halep was able to kill the momentum and go on to victory. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

You just had to look over to the other side of the net Saturday to see Ostapenko. The 20-year-old from Latvia rode an insouciant confidence and the resultant ability to hit screaming winners to a French Open title.

That title came, as it happens, against the more well-rounded and experienced Halep.

For Ostapenko, the challenge will come when that confidence isn’t where it is now, and when opponents begin to figure out how to exploit the weaknesses in her game.

At times, Halep her own worst enemy

For Halep, the challenge so often has been to overcome herself.

Her humanizing self-doubt, a combination of cultural and personal, has meant that “her day”, as she referred to it on court Saturday, has only come at age 26.

“First place is the mental strength. The game I always had. I was there close many times, 2014 in Singapore. But the mental part I was not very close. This year for sure is the best way that I’ve been on court. The attitude now I’m happy about it. I’m not ashamed anymore,” she said on the WTA podcast. “I could not control my nerves, I could not control myself. And I was talking too bad to myself. I don’t deserve that because I’m working hard and I just have to appreciate myself more.”

It took a few turning points.

The first may well have come when a frustrated Cahill briefly said goodbye after Miami.

The affable Aussie, who has coached a youngster (Lleyton Hewitt) and an oldster (Andre Agassi) to No. 1, had reaching a breaking point.

After the French Open, Halep said, she had a psychologist who made a difference. There also was another man, a Romanian, with whom she worked at home.

“I really want to thank them because they showed me what I need to improve and what I have to change to be better on court, which I did it and credit to them, she said.

And then, there was the match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open – a very tough first-round draw for both, and a win for Sharapova.

“After the match, I talked to Darren and he told me my serve was s**t and that’s why I lost the match. So I said okay, if that’s the only one thing I can improve to beat her, then I work for it,” she told the WTA

Beefed up serve, lessons learned

Halep said she’s been out on the court hitting serves an hour a day. And the improved velocity this week in Beijing is the reward for all that work.

She crushed Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the third round.

But despite all the fuss made about it – one comparison was made to Rafael Nadal’s serving velocity when he won the US Open in 2010 –the serve wasn’t new territory.

We can recall a few years ago, when she first got on the top-player radar in 2014, that her serving velocity easily got up to the 105-107 mph range.

It was a matter of getting back to it, with the increased experience to be able to keep the velocity up without sacrificing location and consistency.

Back then, Halep already was a master at changing the direction of a hard-hit ball – taking a cross-court shot down the line with her backhand, more specifically.

Before that final game, Halep looked slightly nauseous. It’s hard to even fathom the thoughts that were rushing through her head.

Halep
Halep looked slightly nauseous before she went out to serve for the match and the No. 1 ranking. But she did it with aplomb. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

But in those final points against Ostapenko, she showed all of those skills. She sent her younger scrambling from corner to corner until the Latvian was in positions from where it was impossible to pull the trigger. She hit big serves out wide to take control of the points. With one final forehand down the line, and a leap in the air, she had done it.

WTA on-court celebrations

The WTA Tour made a big to-do about the accomplishment immediately after the match.

They had CEO Steve Simon and president Mickey Lawler and all the tournament officials ready to trot out on the court for a photo opportunity. They had a beautiful No. 1 made of flowers ready – a tribute Halep hugged as if she didn’t want to let it go. They had the tribute video all prepared for the giant screens.

Halep
The various suits came out for a photo op with the new No. 1 after the win. A nice touch would have been to add the members of Halep’s team on hand. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

There was an element of potential jinx to all of that advance preparation. You wonder if Halep saw the WTA executives hanging around and knew exactly what they were there for.

But it was a rare moment when an accomplishment could be immediately and publicly celebrated.

First true No. 1 celebration of 2017

The other occasions over the last year when a player became No. 1 weren’t nearly as neat and tidy, tailor-made for an instant tribute.

Garbiñe Muguruza, who was supplanted with the Halep victory, ascended to the No. 1 spot after her fourth-round exit from the US Open when Karolina Pliskova failed to defend her finalist points from the previous year with a loss in the quarterfinals a few days later.

Pliskova became No. 1 on the second Tuesday at Wimbledon when Johanna Konta defeated Halep in the quarterfinals. Pliskova had gone out in the second round.

Angelique Kerber became No. 1 again last March when Serena Williams withdrew from Indian Wells and Miami, citing “bad knees that didn’t allow her to train.” Of course, it turns out there was a much better reason.

A year ago at the US Open, Kerber became No. 1 for the first time after Pliskova defeated Williams in the semifinal – before Kerber even took to the court for her own.

This time, it all came together as one.

One more step for Halep

But there’s no time to celebrate. Halep still has a job to do.

She will meet an in-form Caroline Garcia in the Beijing final Sunday to win her fourth Premier Mandatory-level title.

In the absence so far of a Grand Slam title on her resumé, Premier Mandatory titles are Halep’s biggest efforts to date.

On the other side of the net, another milestone is in the works.

Garcia, whose season began with some Fed Cup drama and more back woes, has been surging.

She won Wuhan (a Premier 5 event) last week. And she was able to keep the momentum going and the energy up during a grueling week in Beijing.

On the WTA Tour this year, that has been a rare ironwoman streak. That it comes so late in the season is even more impressive.

Garcia survived a three-hour, 21-minute marathon against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals Friday and backed it up with a straight-sets win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s semifinal.

Sunday will be Garcia’s fifth straight day on the courts. But the end goal is within reach: a win would put the Frenchwoman into position to earn the final singles qualifying spot in Singapore for the first time in her career.

(All screenshots from WTA.TV)

US Open pics: Bouchard and Pliskova

NEW YORK – We rarely keep track of the score in practice sets. The hope is that players might actually be working on tactical things, and not concerning themselves about the scoreboard.

(That doesn’t happen in the few days before a Grand Slam, of course. They’re just playing. Or, you know, every often. But hope springs eternal).

But we’ll note here that Canadian Eugenie Bouchard had her way with Karolina Pliskova during a 45-minute hit Saturday at the US Open.

Every little bit of confidence helps, right? Bouchard – even when she was winning a lot of actual tennis matches – rarely came out on the good end of practice sets against other players.

The practice might have been better attended except for the fact that it was nowhere to be found on the posted practice schedule. Still, some fans found it.

And Bouchard was more in demand for autographs then the top-ranked player in the world afterwards. That’s the bizarre world she inhabits, still, even as her ranking dropped two spots to No. 76 on Sunday.

She sits between Veronica Cepede Royg of Paraguay and Francesca Schiavone, for whom this is likely to be the final US Open.

Here’s what they looked like out on a back court, with the workers taking down all the banners from the just completed Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day activities as they hit.

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.

Karolina Pliskova the new WTA No. 1

WIMBLEDON – When the women’s singles draw was made at Wimbledon last Friday, there were five women who theoretically could be ranked No. 1 on the WTA tour at the end of the fortnight.

Karolina Pliskova, wherever she is right now, is the last one standing.

The moment Great Britain’s Johanna Konta defeated Simona Halep in their quarterfinal Tuesday, the 25-year-old Czech became the 23rd woman to hold the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour.

She will officially take over the crown – which has proven a rather weighty one in recent years when Serena Williams hasn’t been wearing it – on Monday.

If it seems as if Pliskova backed into it, perhaps she did. The storybook ending would be to win Wimbledon, and become No. 1. Instead, she was upset in the second round by Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.

But any time you accomplish something like that, the rest are just details.

Pliskova is the first Czech woman to be ranked No. 1. When Czech-born Martina Navratilova first got to the top of the rankings right around this time in 1978, she was already representing the U.S.

The accolade comes halfway through a season during which the only consistent thing on the WTA Tour was … inconsistency.

Amidst all that, Pliskova has had a very solid season. That’s evidenced by the fact that she’s currently atop the leaderboard in the race to the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore in October.

Over the last 52 weeks (which are the results on the computer at any one time that determine the current rankings), Pliskova has won four titles. She has made two Grand Slam semi-finals, and has nine victories over other top-10 players.

No. 1 without a major

The fact that she has made it without yet winning a major title has become, if not commonplace, no longer rare. Players like Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Amélie Mauresmo (who later erased that blemish on her resumé) have done it before her.

Pliskova
A lot had to happen for Caroline Wozniacki to take over No. 1 after Wimbledon. None of it did, but just to be in the conversation again is big after her dip in form of recent years. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

When the draw came out, Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki both had a slight shot at being No. 1 at the end of Wimbledon.

But they would have had to win their first major title, for one thing.

Once Pliskova won the warmup tournament in Eastbourne the day after the Wimbledon draw, those two were eliminated from contention. 

Kerber had a shot at staying No. 1. But she had to reach the Wimbledon final. She lost a tough one to Garbiñe Muguruza on Manic Monday.

And then, there were two.

Halep’s destiny in her own hands

Halep has Wimbledon quarterfinal ranking points as well as the points she won from winning Bucharest right after Wimbledon a year ago dropping off the computer on Monday. Still, she needed “only” to reach the semi-finals here to finally get to No. 1. And she gave it everything she had, but went down to Konta Tuesday evening. 

battle

It’s the second consecutive top-spot disappointment for Halep. At the French Open, she would have become No. 1 had she defeated Jelena Ostapenko and won the title.

That would have been the perfect storybook ending – winning your first major title, and earning the No. 1 spot at the same time. 

Halep was two points from beating Konta and finally doing it Tuesday. It wouldn’t have mattered if she got no further in the tournament; she would have left London with the No. 1 ranking.

The Romanian must be questioning a whole lot of things, at the moment.

It seems the weight of trying to grab that crown might be almost as significant as wearing it.

The dethroned Kerber has spent a total of 34 weeks at No. 1, not all of them consecutive. That’s the 12th-most of the 23 No. 1s in history.

It’s more than Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams combined, as amazing as that may seem. And she may well be back before too long to add to it.

Battle for WTA No. 1 is on

ROLAND GARROS – It’s been a long time since a battle for No. 1 on the women’s circuit didn’t involve someone named Serena.

But at long last, in Williams’ absence, there are challengers to the spot that for a couple of years has belonged to the consistent Angelique Kerber.

It’s not that Kerber hasn’t fully deserved to be ranked No. 1. The computer doesn’t lie. But if Williams – inarguably the best female player on the planet – isn’t going to be there, there should at least be a knockdown, drag out battle to replace her.

So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s as though it took the pressure off for Williams to be around, because there was no downside to not being able to overtake her. But as Williams played very little in 2016, and even less in 2017, the opening has been there. 

Kerber has been the only one so far to step up and take it.

As of Thursday, though, the battle is on. If Karolina Pliskova defeats Simona Halep to reach her first French Open final, she will be the new No. 1 next Monday.

If Halep beats her, and goes on to win the title, she would become No. 1.

Kerber helped make all this possible by going down in the first round to Ekaterina Makarova in Paris. That, and other recent early exits, dropped her once unassailable points total to being within reach of the rest.

How will that No. 1 pressure affect this semi-final? We’ll soon find out.

The other women’s semifinal Thursday will see No. 30 seed Timea Bascinszky take on unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. That’s the birthday matchup; Bacsinszky turns 28 on the day, while Ostapenko turns 20.

“Coming into this tournament, there were a few people who told me, you have to be in the final to be No. 1. I was, like, there is no chance I make final here,” Pliskova said after her quarterfinal win over Caroline Garcia of France Wednesday.

Pliskova was not unaware of the stakes, though. She also was aware that the same prize is also at stake for her opponent.

“Now it’s close, but it’s close and it’s far, as well, because I’m playing against somebody who I would say one of the best girls on clay,” she said. “It’s not like you’re going to get it for free, you know. She’s playing also for being world No. 1, what I know, I think.”