Ramos and Adams meet again in Croatia

The ITF finally got around to issuing a statement in support of its longtime chair umpire Carlos Ramos late Monday.

But it may well be making another statement by maintaining his next planned umpiring assignment.

Ramos, 47, is set to be one of the two chair umpires for the Davis Cup World Group semifinal tie between the USA and Croatia, set to begin Friday in Zadar, Croatia.

And, indeed, an ITF spokesperson confirmed to Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press that Ramos remains assigned to work that tie.

The Spanish- (and French-) speaking official from Portugal has chaired many high-profile Davis Cup ties, including Spain vs. Great Britain earlier this year and the Spain-Serbia quarterfinal last year.

On one side will be Croatia. On the other side will be the USTA, whose president and CEO Katrina Adams stood firmly behind Serena Williams in the wake of the events during Saturday’s women’s singles final.

Avoided social media

Journalist Miguel Seabra, a former umpire and fellow Portuguese who has been Ramos’s friend for decades, wrote in Tribuna Expresso that Ramos received hundreds of messages of support from friends, colleagues, players and former players.

Wisely, he avoided social media, and didn’t walk the streets in New York the next day.

Ramos wouldn’t answer specific questions about the incident, with rules preventing officials from doing so. (It might have been helpful, in this case, to have a pool reporter talk to him Saturday after the match, to at least lend some balance to a very one-sided situation. But it is what it is).

“I’m doing well, considering the circumstances,” he told Seabra. “It’s not a pleasant situation, but there’s no such thing as “à la carte” umpiring.”

Ramos and Adams, reunited

Ramos’s presence in the chair might make it a little uncomfortable for USTA president Adams, who normally would enjoy her camera-friendly front-row seat as she cheers on the American team.

In Adam’s eagerness to stand behind Williams last weekend, she essentially threw the umpire under the bus and all but said he was sexist.

She spoke to ESPN the following day, and had this to say.

“It’s a give and take on the court, when you’re talking about what’s transparent, or what’s judgment. A judgment call from the umpire. I would say that (Saturday) night it was unfortunate. We have to have consistencies. Because when you look at what the woman – in this case, Serena – is feeling … We watch the guys do this all the time. They’re badgering the umpire on the changeover, and nothing happens,” Adams said, inaccurately.

A private conversation among millions

And then, Adams told interviewers that Williams was not aware of the large microphones on the court. Nor was Williams aware, she said, of the routine practice of showing clips of goings-on during changeovers, after returns from commercial breaks.

“For Serena, she carried on maybe a little further than what she should have. It was on the changeover, she didn’t expect for it to be on camera, or on air at all. And so that was a conversation between she and him that was then publicized, was on air. And then she got penalized for it, in his judgment, of being abuse,” she said.

So, the former longtime WTA Tour doubles player said Williams believed she and the umpire were having a private conversation – in a Grand Slam final, with 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium, microphones all around the cout, and networks broadcasting the match live around the world.

“All about gender equality”

(Click below to see the interview)Adams

“There’s no equality when it comes to what the men are doing to the chair umpires, and what the women are doing. And I think there has to be some consistency, across the board, at every level of officiating,” Adams said. “I’m all about gender equality. And I think when you look at the situation, is there conversations that will be imposed in the next weeks?  We have to treat each other fairly and the same. And I know what Serena did, and her behaviour, was not welcome. It could have been a line where it should have been drawn.

“But when you look at Carlos, or the umpire in this particular situation, it’s a ‘judgment’ (Adams used air quotes) call, to give that last penalty, because she called him a thief. They’ve been called a lot worse.”

In Adams’ insistence that the male umpires “communicate” differently with men”, she could certainly point to an incident earlier in the tournament involving Nick Kyrgios. But that’s a rather small sample size. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

When the interviewers questioned her contention that that the code violation had been assessed merely because Williams called Ramos a “thief”, Adams did admit that Ramos “took a lot.”

“It’s a situation for him to say,  ‘Hey, we’re getting out of hand here, let’s tone it down, or I’m going to have to … I think it would have (defused the situation). I think it’s a bond that they have in the communication, the way they communicate, and maybe not understanding that they can have that same conversation with the women. Because they have it with the guys all the time.”

Adams a two-term president

Adams, who turned 50 a few weeks ago, reached a high ranking in singles of No. 67 as a player. She was a top-10 doubles player who reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 1989. And then, she accepted a job as a USTA national coach, and retired.

She was one of the commentators when the Tennis Channel first saw the light of day 15 years ago. The enterprising but under-experienced Adams admits she pushed her connections with her friends Venus and Serena, then top-two players in the world, to get her foot in the door.

She has a lot of titles: President and CEO of the USTA. Chairperson of the US Open. Chairperson of the U.S. Fed Cup team. Executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program. Chairperson of the ITF’s Fed Cup committee. Board of directors member for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Vice-president of the International Tennis Federation (one of three under president David Haggerty).

She also chairs the ITF’s new “Women in Sports” committee and the ITF’s Joint Media Commission.

Adams was a USTA vice-president in 2011-12, and a director-at-large on the organization’s board of directors from 2005-2010.

In January, 2015, Adams became the first former player, first African-American and the youngest person ever to become the president of the USTA. She succeeded Haggerty, who went on to the big job with the ITF.

Adams
As the only two-term president in the USTA’s history, the only African-American and the only former player, Adams’s influence has far surpassed that of her many predecessors, some of whom are depicted on this rather eerie wall of plaques on Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Two years later, she was re-elected to an unprecedented second term. That term ends at the end of 2018.

It will be interesting to see what her next move is, and how the accomplished Adams manages the criticism she has received for her impassioned but factually flawed defence of her friend Williams.

First up, of course, the very good chance that she will come face to face with Ramos this weekend in Croatia.

Adams
Breaking the typical protocol, chair umpire Carlos Ramos was not acknowledged at the start of the trophy ceremony. Given the mood inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was a wise move. Ramos was escorted off the court by tournament referee Brian Earley).

Serena vs. Ramos: drama at the US Open

NEW YORK – The gap between social media and real life was glaringly evident Saturday night, when Serena Williams essentially bombed out of the US Open final against neophyte Naomi Osaka.

The virtual truth, as always, was cut and dried on one side or another.

The truth, as always, had multiple shades of gray.

If you’re a Serena fan, you defended her to the death. If you don’t like her – and she’s one of the most polarizing figures in sport in part because she’s one of the most famous and accomplished, while being a strong African-American woman – you slammed her unapologetically.

Williams lost her cool and couldn’t regain it in the heat of the moment. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos, whose track record shows he’s one of the few not reluctant to apply the rules of tennis as they should be applied, did his job.

They were two intractable forces that, when they collided in a major final, led to what happened Saturday night. 

It may not have been the most unpleasant finish to a Grand Slam final (Williams owns that one, too, against Kim Clijsters back in 2009). But it was up there.

“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”

What set Williams off, and what she never fully recovered from, was the coaching violation called against her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, early in the second set.

It was only the first step of the penalty process: a warning.

But it struck a nerve with Williams. And given her history, you can completely understand where she was coming from.

Throughout her brilliant career, Williams has always been dogged by suggestions that she “cheated”. Her detractors want to think that because she’s a strong, fabulous, muscular female, she must be getting there by artificial means. And yet, Williams is tested often, and has never come up positive. Over 20 years. But the campaign persists.

She is also one of the few women not to avail themselves of the on-court coaching option available during regular WTA Tour events.

Serena drama means high ratings for ESPN

But in the heat of the moment, Williams made an illogical leap. As far as we know, she’d never been called for Mouratoglou sending along signals before. Which doesn’t mean it’s never happened. All the coaches do it – Mouratoglou included. And he admitted during a live interview shortly afterwards that he had. He knows that there’s a camera on him, so there wasn’t much point in denying it.

What’s more, Williams may well have seen him. She referred to Mouratoglou giving her “the thumbs up”, which may have been what she saw from her vantage point, or how she chose to present it to the chair umpire. But however clearly she saw it, the advice was something she immediately began to implement.

Still … a coaching violation is against the coach, not the player. It doesn’t matter if the player saw the signals or heard the advice (or whatever form it takes). It is not an accusation of cheating against the player.

But Williams would not be dissuaded.

On the next changeover, Ramos did his very best to defuse the situation, to assure Williams that he was not, in fact, accusing her of cheating. She seemed satisfied.

drama

But somewhere, in her head, she seemed to think that meant the code violation, and warning, were rescinded. Which would prove relevant later on.

Shortly after that, Williams sabotaged herself with an impressive trashing of her Wilson racket. Williams had been up a break in the second set at 3-1. But she double-faulted twice in that game to surrender the break.

Second code violation: point penalty.

Williams pleaded ignorance on that one, thinking it would only be a warning. 

“This is unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems,” she said to Ramos. “You need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching. You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand what’s right for her. You owe me an apology.”

And then … it got ugly

After Osaka held for 4-3, Williams went back at Ramos on the next changeover.

“I explained that to you (the non-coaching). For you to attack my character.  … You’re attacking my character. You owe me an apology. And you will never, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar,” Williams said.

And she wouldn’t let it go.

“When are you going to give me my apology? You owe me an apology. SAY IT. Say you’re sorry. … Then don’t talk to me. How dare you insinuate that I was cheating?”

And then, the coup de grâce.

“You stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too,” she said.

And that was enough. Ramos assessed another code violation. Which, given it was the third, now came with a game penalty.

The common narrative out there was that she was unfairly docked a full game  merely for calling Ramos a “thief” – when many other (male) players have done far worse, with far more four-letter words. (Williams, a notorious potty mouth, showed remarkable restraint in that regard considering how angry she was).

But to cherry-pick that argument is to ignore that most often, the unacceptable language comes as a first violation. Therefore, a warning. Or, at worst, a second violation for a penalty point.

Had Williams not already had two strikes on her, it would have been the same for her.

Rarely does it escalate to a being the third violation. If it does, and the chair umpire assesses a violation for umpire abuse (which they almost always will), it would be a game penalty – for any player.

Williams was not singled out in this regard.

Calling the referee

drama
(Brian Earley and Donna Kelso were also the officials for Williams’ 2009 semifinal default against Kim Clijsters).

Williams called the referee and the supervisor, Brian Earley and Donna Kelso, to plead her case after the game penalty.

She then pulled out the heaviest artillery.

“This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair.  To give me a point – to lose a game for saying that, is not fair. It’s really not. You know how many other men do things, they do much worse than that,” she told them, near tears. “There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things, and because they’re men, it doesn’t happen to them.

“Because I’m woman, you’re going to take this away from me?  You know that’s not right. I know you can’t admit it, but you know it’s not right. I get the rules, I’m just saying it’s not right. … And it happened to me at this tournament every single year that I played, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

On the final changeover, just before Osaka was to serve for the match at 5-4, Williams returned to the corner of the court to have another go with the officials. Her longtime agent, Jill Smoller had already been there to plead Williams’ case. Which is extraordinary in itself.

Williams agent Jill Smoller (far left) had her say with the tournament officials during the eighth game of the second set, which was followed by one last visit from Williams.

The sexism argument

The first argument put forth by many of Williams’ defenders was that the coaching rule is not universally applied, and so is unfair. That may be true. But it’s also a rule. And Ramos is known to apply it unlike many of his colleagues who prefer to avoid the confrontation. He even docked Williams’ sister Venus for it at the 2016 French Open.

The other is that it was a blatant case of sexism.

There are plenty of arguments to be made for everyday sexism in all walks of life. Tennis is hardly immune.

But if you’re going to try to make that argument in this case based upon the fact that Williams is a woman and Ramos is a man – or that men wouldn’t get the same sanction in the same situation – you’re not on solid ground.

Just because Williams pulled that out – both on court, and in her press conference afterwards – doesn’t make it fact.

If there were multiple examples of women abusing chair umpires in far less vulgar fashion than the male players, and yet being excessively penalized in relation to them, you could build a case.

But it rarely happens. The women argue, but it almost never escalates to this point. Williams stands nearly alone in that regard. So there really aren’t comparables.

The only argument she could make would be that she was unfairly singled out, personally. But there’s no history with Ramos in that regard. Williams even conceded during her press conference that he “has always been a great umpire.”

And nothing Ramos Saturday night did was out of line with how he chairs every match he works. You could see that he did his best to try to calm Williams down.

But at a certain point, when a player is accusing you of things you didn’t do (such as “attacking her character”), is calling you both a liar and a thief and demanding an apology multiple times when you’ve done no wrong, there’s a line that gets crossed.

By the above definition in the Grand Slam rulebook, Williams crossed that line. A few times. 

Unfortunately, because Williams already had two code violations, the penalty was severe.

Williams was on a losing track

On a stormy night, Naomi Osaka is a Grand Slam champion

Williams, seeking to make history with her 24th major title, denied that opportunity at Wimbledon back in July by Angelique Kerber, was losing.

Not only was she losing, she was being beaten by a better player on the day. There’s a distinction there, in that if Williams were beating herself, she would have every hope that she could turn it around by simply playing better, playing to her legendary level.

drama

But that’s not what was happening. In fact, Williams was having to change her game. She was having to try Plan B and Plan C to try to find something what would hurt Osaka. The 20-year-old major final rookie was playing flawless tennis. She was earning it.

We’ve all seen Williams when she’s behind, and fighting with everything she has to try to come back. It’s loud. It’s even desperate at times. She is the toughest competitor the women’s game has ever seen. There is simply no one in her class.

But this isn’t the same Serena as before she had Olympia. Even she admits it; if she had to put a number on it, she’d put it at 50-60 per cent.

So she doesn’t have the same tools to fight with – not at the moment, at least. And that has to be a source of frustration for her as well. She knows exactly what she’s capable of doing at full Serena-strength. But she’s not quite sure she’s got at this particular stage of her career.

And after two weeks of fighting through some of the most challenging weather ever at the US Open, winning six matches and dealing with all of the other distractions, she was tired. And she couldn’t keep her cool.

Kindness to Osaka

The trophy ceremony was as awkward as they come.

Most of the fans in the largest crowd in tennis probably didn’t even fully understand what had happened. Ramos’s announcements largely were drowned out by the noise inside a closed-roof Arthur Ashe, and the very vocal Serena fans were causing a ruckus.

To her credit, Williams reached out to Osaka at the net with it was over, and gave her a big hug. She also tried to quiet the crowd down to give Osaka her due. And she was comforting on the stage when the 20-year-old was overcome with understandable emotion after all that had come before.

So Williams did what she could. 

But the drama was all of her own doing. And as agent Smoller led the inappropriate applause in the press conference room when Williams was done saying what she had to say, she has no one to blame but herself.

The fines, in the end, turned out to be a rather manageable $17,000 US, $10,000 of which was for the verbal abuse. The racket smash cost her $3,000, and Mouratoglou’s coaching moves the other $4,000.

It could have been (probably should have been) much worse. In fact, it has been worse. 

Flashback to 2009

Williams was fined $175,000 following an investigation after the 2009 US Open semifinal, which featured her pointed threats towards line umpire Shino Tsurubuchi.

Tsurubuchi had called her for a foot fault, on a second serve, when she was two points away from defeat.

(Note that the same two officials, Earley and Kelso, were also on court for that one. They look a lot younger 🙂 )

The fine ended up being cut to $82,500 after Williams committed no further infractions over the next two years. 

In that instance, Williams also received a point penalty, to put her down match point at the time. The subsequent advance towards Tsurubuchi earned her the game penalty – and gave the match to opponent Kim Clijsters.

Here’s the statement she put out the day after that one.

“Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don’t agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly. I would like to thank my fans and supporters for understanding that I am human and I look forward to continuing the journey, both professionally and personally, with you all as I move forward and grow from this experience.”

(Screenshots from ESPN/TSN)

On a stormy night, Naomi Osaka is a Grand Slam champion

NEW YORK – The reverberations of an unfortunate and most dramatic Saturday night at the US Open will last well into the beyond.

But it’s important not to relegate the most important to the inside pages.

Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old who was born in Japan, raised on Long Island and tennis-educated in South Florida, is the US Open women’s singles champion.

And she soundly defeated Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion and her childhood idol, to win it.

There was so much more. But that’s for another space.

Osaka played and competed in her first major final as though she had her omnipresent ear buds still in her ears. Somehow, she was able to completely shut out the loud crowd noise under the roof – and the major distractions emanating from the other side.

She played as though it wasn’t a big occasion – the biggest of her career. She played as though the greatest female player of all time wasn’t across the net. 

Poised, confident, flawless

It was a remarkably poised, confident performance at the end of an impressive fortnight. And along with the trophy and the huge check, it will catapult Osaka into the top 10.

“I mean, it doesn’t really feel that real right now. I think maybe in a few days I’ll realize what I’ve done,” Osaka said during the general press conference that was the last stop on an extensive media tour after the victory.

“Right now it just feels, like, I don’t know. Aside from the fact there’s a lot of press in this room, it feels just like another tournament,” she added.

champion
It was hard to find a happy face after this US Open final, full of drama and discovery and conflict.

“I feel like she was really, really consistent. I think her game is always super consistent. And I felt like she played really well. Like I said, she made a lot of shots. She was so focused. I think, you know, whenever I had a breakpoint, she came up with some great serve,” Williams said. ” Honestly, there’s a lot I can learn from her from this match. I hope to learn a lot from that.”

No. 20 seed last one standing

It was a women’s tournament full of early casualties. In the very first match on the very first day, the official opener on Louis Armstrong stadium, No. 1 seed Simona Halep was beaten in straight sets by Kaia Kanepi of Estonia.

Osaka was quietly going about her business on the Grandstand and out on Court 17. She lost just seven games through her first three rounds. And then, she was under the radar no more. Osaka survived a tough one against another 20-year-old, Aryna Sabalenka, who was the form player coming in. And after she dismissed 2017 finalist Madison Keys in such impressive fashion in the semifinals, there was room to hope she could handle Williams’s power well enough to at least make it an entertaining final.

She did so much more than that. If it felt, before it happened, that it was mostly up to Williams, it ended up being primarily up to Osaka. Which must have been a serious shock to Williams.

champion
There was a WHOLE lotta noise on Arthur Ashe Stadium, so Osaka found a little safe place.

Osaka served beautifully. She handled Williams’s second serve well. Crucially, she handled the important points well. She did everything well – especially finding a way to shut out all the noise.

“I think I was able to do that because it was my first Grand Slam final. I felt like I shouldn’t let myself be overcome by nerves or anything, and I should just really focus on playing tennis because that’s what’s gotten me to this point,” said Osaka. “So, yeah, I just thought, like, no matter what happens outside of the court, for me, when I step on the court, it’s just about tennis.”

Coach Sascha Bajin said during the ESPN broadcast that his charge was extremely nervous. But although we still know little about what makes Osaka tick,  we do know this: the nerves, the fatalistic thoughts that she may not play well, are such an integral part of her being as a competitive tennis player, she may not even let them faze her even on this big night.

Emotions flowing

Osaka’s reaction on court after one last error from Williams, when she had won the title, was to slide her visor down over her face. 

She was greeted at the net by a big smile and a big hug from Williams who, to her credit, did her utmost in the aftermath of all the drama to at least try to ensure that Osaka’s first Grand Slam win would be a good memory. 

champion

“I felt at one point bad because I’m crying and she’s crying. You know, she just won. I’m not sure if they were happy tears or they were just sad tears because of the moment,” Williams said. “I felt like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam’. I was like, ‘Wow, I definitely don’t want her to feel like that.’ “

There were plenty of emotions on that court in the aftermath from both women. Osaka said she was trying to process it all, and couldn’t attribute them to winning, to feeling sad for her idol losing as she chased history, to all the drama, or to what the triumph might mean to both her career, and to her entire family.

“I just feel like I had a lot of emotions, so I had to kind of categorize what was which emotion,” she said.

Oblivious to the magnitude

champion

Few have ever been in Osaka’s situation – never mind at that age. So it’s impossible to even fathom how this introverted, remarkably childlike young lady could take it all in and handle it. She just did.

Maybe a few days from now, it will all hit her. Her innocence and insouciance is probably making the enormity of it only a theory, for now. 

When she goes back and looks at the video – if she does – she’ll see all the drama that went on around her. It was drama she insisted she really didn’t hear, partly because of the noise of the crowd and also because of her own determination to stay on her own side of the court.

Maybe she won’t even grasp what an impressive feat it was until she gets into that position again and has something to compare it with. And there’s no reason to think she won’t.

At this point, Osaka may not even grasp how incredibly difficult it is to do what she did. She just did it. It’s just something she did. No biggie.

The most emotional moment may well have been just before she hugged her lookalike mother Tanaki after she made her way up to see her friends and family.

Mom, by all accounts far more outgoing and expressive than her daughter, tried to stay composed. But as she neared her daughter – when she first made eye contact with her – she just dissolved into tears. (She wasn’t the only one).

champion

A coach-player relationship that worked

The talented young player with great power that had yet to be harnessed has blossomed, with the help of an inexperienced coach who turned out to be the perfect choice. The raw ore morphed into a polished product capable of performing that way on the biggest stage.

There is so much more to come for Osaka. Not all of it will be good. A lot of it will seem like too much. The expectations that weren’t there before will now be laid upon her strong shoulders. Everyone in Japan is going to want a piece of her.

And, as it happens, Tokyo is her next WTA Tour stop. 

So there will never be a moment this pure, this innocent. You hope she can, in her own iconoclastic way, find a way to enjoy it to the fullest before the avalanche hits.

(Screenshots from ESPN/TSN)

Legend takes on upstart in US Open women’s final

NEW YORK – Even as she was trying to close out her semifinal match against Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka was using a potential meet-up with the legendary Serena Williams in the final as motivation.

And she got there, in impressive fashion.

And so, during a US Open in which the WTA Tour’s top 10 were, collectively, not up to the task, it is the No. 20 seed against the upgraded No. 17 seed for the title.

And somehow, it feels right.

Osaka made a big splash last March, when she ran through the field at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. It was a huge victory – her first and, still, only title – and one she might not have been ready for. 

But these things happen when they happen. Six months on, after an impressive run in New York, she seems better equipped to handle what may come.

“Of course it feels a little bit, like, surreal. Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam. Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it,” Osaka said after the win over Keys. “At the same time I feel like even though I should enjoy this moment, I should still think of it as another match. Yeah, I shouldn’t really think of her as, like, my idol. I should just try to play her as an opponent.”

legend

Easier said than done, as Williams’s run to the final has been equally impressive. She’s not yet back to the best Serena, as her daughter Olympic turns one. But it has been close enough. And given the state of the women’s game at the moment, it has been more than enough.

“My mom said it takes, like, a full year to kind of get back. I’m at a full year now. But I’m also playing a sport professionally. The emotions and expectations and all the other stuff that you add on top of it, it’s a lot, you know. I just feel like I’m definitely not there. Even my body is different. Like, I actually weigh less than I did before I got pregnant, but it’s distributed differently now,” Williams said.

“I’m still waiting to get to be the Serena that I was, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be that physically, emotionally, mentally. But I’m on my way. I feel like I still have a ways to go. Once I get there, I’ll be able to play even hopefully better.”

Williams is looking for that record-tying 24th major title. As serendipity would have it, Margaret Court won her 24th and final major title exactly on this day, 35 years ago, at the US Open. It was held at Forest Hills then, and played on grass.

Serena thought she might get it at Wimbledon, but she was denied by Angelique Kerber.

But Kerber was a different opponent. She didn’t serve as hard, or hit the ball as hard. Plus, she was already a Grand Slam champion and had been ranked No. 1 in the world.

A new world for Osaka, citizen of the world

For Osaka, this is all new territory. And it’s the culmination of a turnaround this year, after a 2017 season in which she was below .500.

The addition of Sascha Bajin, the longtime hitting and confidante of Serena Williams who was getting his first shot at a coaching job, proved a stroke of genius.

At this level, there aren’t a ton of technical changes – or even significant tactical changes – that are made. The players’ games are what they are. And so on the itemized list of coaching qualities, the personal rapport between player and coach has never been more key. The rest is hardly rocket science.

Bajin, a loyal, likeable fellow, has been around big-time tennis long enough to know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. During his years with Serena, he got a close-up view.

And as a younger, less stern, highly energetic coach who also can keep up with his player on the hitting side, he has proven to be a huge positive.

One thing that has started happening is that Osaka is serving hard again.

We remember the first time we saw her play, more than three years ago at a small ITF event in Granby, Quebec, right after Wimbledon.

She was playing Laura Robson, who won Wimbledon juniors as a 14-year-old and has been a cautionary tale for too much, too soon ever since. Robson had hip surgery a few months ago.

But what we’d forgotten from that match was just how hard Osaka used to serve. She was blowing them past Robson. And at times, she’d come close to nailing a center line umpire – which made her apologize and giggle every time.

Coaches’ press conference

Bajin held his own press conference after Osaka reached the semis.

There’s no doubt he can be of serious assistance to Osaka against Williams. Because he knows his former boss so well – probably better than anyone she has ever worked with, with the exception of her parents and Patrick Mouratoglou.

“I think they really are different people, because the only similarity they have is that they kind of have the same hair – big hair,” he said, smiling. “I believe that they kind of want to play the same, you know. They are very powerful, big serves, big hitters, both of them. But even on court, Serena is very aggressive, you know, and Naomi, I have to push her to get a fist pump out of her. … I’m working very hard, and we are all, in the team, working hard to make sure that Naomi one day might own the court like Serena.”

Here’s Osaka 2 1/2 years ago, playing her first-round qualifying match in Charleston. Emotions on full display.

First meeting in Miami

It was the (bad) luck of the draw that Osaka’s first match after that Indian Wells win was at another big tournament in Miami against … Serena. Williams’s ranking was still down in the nether regions, and Osaka’s desert result hadn’t yet kicked in. So despite the 32 seeds in the Miami draw, both were unseeded. And they were drawn against each other.

Finally, Osaka was playing her idol. But Williams was a shadow of herself that day and it was, all in all, awkward. Osaka won 6-3, 6-2.

“I kind of wanted to impress her,” said Osaka. “I just wanted to make her say ‘Come on!’ one time, and I think she did, so I’m really happy about that.”

Williams was so chapped about the whole thing that she went out the exit from the stadium court, through the hallways leading outside – and straight into a waiting SUV and off she went.

It was only her second tournament back after a maternity break.

“It was good that I played her because I kind of know how she plays now. I mean, I was breast-feeding at the time, so it was a totally different situation. It was what it was,” Williams said. “I mean, hopefully I won’t play like that again. I can only go up from that match.”

All about carpe diem

Will Osaka seize the day? Coach Bajin says she “really craves the big stage”. Cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium, with more than 23,000 on hand, is the biggest stage there it.

“It’s really cool that I was able to play her so early (in Miami). Of course, I feel like since the circumstances were so different, I’ll be able to see, like, how she changed and stuff. I think that experience was really good for me,” Osaka said.

For Williams, chasing more history but in a far better place physically than she was a few months ago, it will very much come down to nerves. As she turns 37 in a few weeks, those match nerves become more of a factor. That’s true of every player, not just Williams.

She has been pushing back these younger rivals for years now. And there’s nothing like a player technically young enough to be your daughter poking the beast with the understandable, “I’ve been watching Serena since I was a little girl” types of quotes. 

But she’s getting more of her inspiration from her own journey.

“I got a little emotional out there (after the semifinal win) because last year I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital. I think I was on my fourth surgery by now. What is today? I was on my third surgery. I had one more to go still. To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row. Like I said, this is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still,” She said.

“I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future. That is super exciting for me.”

On this date in 2001

It was also 17 years ago today that Venus and Serena Williams met to contest the US Open final.

It was a Saturday night final, the first one.

The major schedule change to prime time was effected precisely because the two American sisters (and Jennifer Capriati) were in contention. And there was expectation that it would happen many more times over the years.

It was a purely American change, because it meant the final would be played in the middle of the night across all of Europe.

Venus won that one. Since then, she won three times at Wimbledon. But other than those triumphs on the grass, that was the last time she won a Grand Slam title. It’s crazy, when you think about it.

The all-Williams final at the US Open happened again the follow year. Serena won it. And it has not happened since.

Since then, the primetime final was moved back to 4 p.m.

2018 us open – Day 5 preview

NEW YORK – The third round begins, and the cool change has arrived.

After scorching temperatures led to a non-record, but still considerable number of retirements, it’s significantly cooler on this first Friday.

On the plus side, the temperature is expected to hold steady in the mid 70s. On the minus side, it will be cloudy all day and we could see our first rain of the tournament.

And it remains, despite the cooler temps, extremely humid.

That won’t affect the play on Arthur Ashe Stadium or the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, which have retractable roofs. But it could impact all the other matches going on around the grounds.

The way the radar looks, though, it seems like Queen’s may be on the outer edge of a pretty significant band of precip, so we might well escape the worst of it.

Lahyani chastised, but on the job

The USTA finally came out with a press release that made sense Friday morning, as it acknowledged that veteran chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani overstepped his job description Thursday during the Nick Kyrgios match.

Lahyani won’t be suspended or penalized. He’ll continue to do his job – and he’s good at his job. But we’re likely to see a chastened version on the courts today.

Mo

There’s a big third-round match tonight on the big stadium. Everything else today is a bonus.

There are eight third-round clashes on the men’s side today – third-round encounters that, in theory, have the seeds finally meeting each other.

But only three of them have gone according to form.

On the women’s side. only two feature seed vs. seed: Mertens vs. Strycova, and the all-Williams clash.

Three women’s matches to watch

[16] Venus Williams (USA) vs. [17] Serena Williams (USA)

The machinations and calculations involved in upgrading former champion Serena Williams’s seeding at this US Open ended up backfiring.

We don’t know for a fact – these were top-secret deliberations – that they gave Williams the No. 17 seed to avoid bumping her big sister Venus out of the top 16.

But the way the draw shook out, they end up meeting in the third round.

Had Serena Williams maintained her original seeding of No. 26, she would have faced one of the top eight seeds – the top two of which are already gone after two rounds).

Instead, she faces her sister for the 30th time in their careers. 

Serena holds a 17-12 edge

They last met at Indian Wells this year, where Serena was returning to action for the first time in singles since her maternity leave. Venus won that one. Before that, they met in the 2017 Australian Open final – the last tournament before Serena’s leave. 

As Venus jokes, it was “two against one” in that one, won by Serena 6-4, 6-4 with baby Olympia already more than a twinkle in father Alexis Ohanian’s eye.

2. [3] Sloane Stephens (USA) vs. [WC] Victoria Azarenka (BLR)

Azarenka has looked very good through her first two matches. She dropped just three games in rolling over No. 25 seed Daria Gavrilova in the second round.

Stephens, the reigning US Open women’s singles champion, had to come back from a set down to prevail over qualifier Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine in the second round.

On any other day, this would be the spotlight women’s match. 

But it may well still be a very good one. Azarenka still holds a 3-2 edge. But she had the misfortune of running into Stephens at both Indian Wells and Miami earlier this year. And Stephens won both of those.

3. [18] Ashleigh Barty (AUS) vs. [Q] Karolina Muchova (CZE)

Muchova caused a pretty major surprise late Wednesday night (early Thursday morning) as she took down No. 12 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain.

Muguruza because increasingly agitated as that match went on. Muchova, ranked just outside the top 200 coming in, became increasingly at ease after a nervy start to the biggest match of her young career.

The matchup with Barty will be a very different one. And it should be one tennis purists will really enjoy.

Barty is one of the few higher-ranked players on the WTA Tour with a genuinely varied game, full of imagination and with a willingness to hit all the shots and come to the net on a regular basis.

Muchova has similar skills and mindset, even if her pro game is still in its relative infancy.

They get the Grandstand court, which is far less intimidating than cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium.

For Barty, getting a qualifier in the third round is a great break. For Muchova, the question will be whether she’s able to put aside her career win and keep her head down and her mind uncluttered for her next assignment.

Three men’s matches to watch

The Slam star power is definitely on the women’s side in Friday’s schedule. But there remain some compelling men’s matchups well worth a look – with a distinctly Canadian flavor.

1. [25] Milos Raonic (CAN) vs. [WC] Stan Wawrinka (SUI)

The former US Open champion Wawrinka needed a wild card to get in this year, as he makes his way back from two knee surgeries.

He’s back in the top 100 now, so that won’t be an issue going forward. But over the last few weeks, his level has been far closer to the top-five performer he was for several years.

As for Raonic, also beset by injuries if not of the same severity, he’s also a former top-five player. And a Grand Slam finalist at Wimbledon two years ago.

Here in New York without coach Goran Ivanisevic, whose wife is expecting a baby, he was better in his second round than he was in his first round. And his serve is working.

Wawrinka holds a 4-1 lead in their head-to-head. Raonic won the last one – a five-setter in the fourth round of the 2016 Australian Open. But that was more than 2 1/2 years ago; a lot of water under the bridge since then.

2. [3] Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs. [31] Fernando Verdasco (ESP)

Verdasco pulled off a tough one against Andy Murray in the second round. And he saved some energy when doubles partner Vasek Pospisil, who pulled up a little broken the day after his night-match loss to Rafael Nadal, begged off the doubles.

While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are getting all the attention – with the potential quarterfinal clash between the Swiss and the Serb already highly anticipated – del Potro is definitely under the radar.

It has been nine years since he won his first and, so far, only Grand Slam title here. 

Del Potro is 4-1 against Verdasco, with their two best battles coming on very fast indoor hard courts. The courts at the US Open this year are … not that fast. 

3. [5] Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs. [28] Denis Shapovalov (CAN)

We’ll see what the 19-year-old Canadian has left, after an emotional win over his “brother” Félix Auger-Aliassime in the first round, and a nerve-tinged marathon over veteran Italian Andreas Seppi in the second round.

Shapovalov has burned a lot of physical and mental energy in getting this far. But on the plus side, he’s at the tail end of this summer period where he had to defend both a Masters 1000 semifinal, and a Grand Slam fourth round on the rankings tally.

He’s already largely done that, mitigating any potential drop in the rankings by at least getting credible results both in Canada and in New York.

Against Anderson, the 2017 US Open finalist he’s meeting for the first time, he can at least enjoy shorter points. And on a cooler day. On the downside, Anderson’s big serve will test the young Canadian’s inconsistent return game.

The big South African survived a five-setter of his own in the first round, against American Ryan Harrison. 

Frantic Friday at Wimbledon – Choices, Choices, Choices

It was Friday the 13th. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that a few wacky events took place at Wimbledon.

But what transpired, from 1 p.m. when John Isner and Kevin Anderson walked onto Centre Court until 11:05 p.m., when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked off with unfinished business, was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Chapter 5 is called Choices, Choices, Choices

WIMBLEDON – We’ll have to assume, for the sake of argument, that there was no way for the All England Club to get special dispensation from the Merton Borough Council to break curfew – just this once.

Because a 1 a.m. finish for Djokovic vs. Nadal Friday night into Saturday would have been a better solution for all concerned.

The winner of the match could have slept in Saturday, perhaps had a light hit, a lot of treatment. And then, on Sunday, play the final.

As it is, one of them had to play late Friday, relatively early Saturday – and again on Sunday, where he will face the equally exhausted Kevin Anderson.

Anderson spent over 11 hours on court from Wednesday through Friday, just in two extra-time matches against John Isner and Roger Federer.

11:03 p.m.: the end

choices

If the All England Club had the option somehow, and didn’t exercise it, it did two of its illustrious former champions a disservice.

As it was, they returned to the court just 14 hours later to finish where they left off Friday night, when Djokovic squeezed out the third-set tiebreak to lead two sets to one.

The decision to start their semifinal – which kicked off around 8 p.m. because of the length of the Anderson-Isner marathon – under the roof was up to the referee, Andrew Jarrett.

It made sense, because there wasn’t going to be much daylight left, and better to take the time to close the roof and get the air-conditioning systems adjusted during the break after the first match.

It was going to have to happen anyway at some point, and time was precious.

The decision to resume on a beautiful, sunny Saturday with the roof closed was also Jarrett’s. Except, if both players agreed to play “outdoors”, with the roof open, at what is an outdoor tournament, it could have been changed even if it wasn’t a hard and fast rule.

One wanted to, one did not, is the general consensus although there’s no official confirmation from any of the parties involved at this point. 

No. 1 Court option not an option

There certainly is precedent at Wimbledon for a men’s semifinal to be played on No. 1 Court.

We tend to forget all the years when rain played havoc with the schedule, often threatening to prevent the tournament from finishing on time. And a couple of times, it actually did.

But as former finalist Andy Roddick pointed out Friday night on Twitter, he’s been there.

Once he was moved over to finish. On the second occasion, he played the entire match there.

Roddick celebrates after beating Mario Ancic on No. 1 Court on the second Friday of Wimbledon 2004.

Both times, he won, and ended up losing to Roger Federer in the final.

But Djokovic vs. Nadal in 2018 is not Roddick vs. Ancic, or Roddick vs. Johansson a dozen years ago.

No offense to those two fine players.

There was virtually no chance in Hades the tournament would move Nadal and Djokovic to No. 1 Court to finish their match.

Beyond the television considerations, the players likely would have both raised a ruckus.

It would have eliminated the roof-or-no-roof choice, though.

Had the second semifinal featured, say, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, you can speculate it might have been a different story. Had the women’s final not featured Williams, it might have been another story again.

Maybe.

The women pay the price – again

The way the schedule panned out, part of it no one’s fault, is a tough one for the men.

But it’s an even tougher one for the women.

Seven-time champion Serena Williams and two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber will reprise their 2016 final.

choices
Serena Williams beat Angelique Kerber in a final women’s final in 2016, the last time Williams played. They started on time.

Except they had no clue when they would play. They couldn’t be sure when to eat, when to warm up, when to do anything.

And that was especially key because of the lack of a fifth-set tiebreak for the men.

At precisely 1 p.m. Saturday, when they were due to walk on Centre Court with their flower bouquets, Nadal was just wrapping up the fourth set against Djokovic.

Didn’t it seem as though we were beyond this back in the 1990s, when they finally did away with the facetiously-named Super Saturday at the US Open?

For a couple of decades, the women were an afterthought. They were the white creme between the two Oreo cookies as CBS dictated they be scheduled between the two men’s semifinals on the second Saturday.

Mercifully, that finally ended.

Serena and her sister Venus had everything to do with this when, back in 2001, it was decided that they could headline a night session with their significant star power.

The end of CBS’s longstanding contract as the event’s main broadcaster also allowed for more flexibility.

And then, the fact that someone finally decided that having the men play best-of-five sets on the Saturday, and come right back on the Sunday afternoon and play another best-of-five sets for a major title didn’t make for optimal tennis.

Well, maybe they considered that. Maybe.

Super Saturday to the max

The epic moment in Super Saturday history came on Sept. 8, 1984. Every match went the distance and every player on court that day was a champion.

First off was a legends’ match that began at 11 a.m. when Stan Smith defeated John Newcombe. Ironically, CBS had requested that extra match because the previous year’s Super Saturday had featured three blowouts.

Then came the first men’s semi: Ivan Lendl defeated Pat Cash 3–6, 6–3, 6–4, 6–7 (5–7), 7–6 (7–4). (Thank goodness for the fifth-set tiebreak).

Then, finally, the legendary Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova came on to play the women’s singles final.

Navratilova won that one, 4–6, 6–4, 6–4.

Then, closing in on 7:30 p.m., bitter rivals John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors finally took the court for the second men’s semi.

McEnroe won that one, 6–4, 4–6, 7–5, 4–6, 6–3. It all ended at 11:16 p.m.

Women’s doubles also a casualty

With Nadal and Djokovic taking priority on Centre Court, one of the other finals was bumped off.

Of course, it was the women’s doubles final between Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova and Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke.

choices

They had been scheduled after the women’s singles final and the best-of-five sets men’s doubles final.

That’s long enough to wait (and with the men’s doubles also not having a deciding-set tiebreak, who knows how long).

But with the change, they have been relegated to “Court to be determined – not before 5 p.m.” status along with the far less consequential legends match featuring Thomas Enqvist, Thomas Johansson, Tommy Haas and Mark Philippoussis.

So they don’t know when they’re going to play. And they don’t know where.

It’s thin soup. Even given the extraordinary circumstances, you feel somehow that the tournament could have made better choices.

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.

Wimbledon ’18: Women’s singles draw analysis

WIMBLEDON – How to even begin to project a possible champion on the women’s side, when four of the top eight seeds have yet to even reach a Wimbledon quarterfinal in their careers?

That’s why predictions are a fool’s game, although it can be fun to be wrong as long as you can laugh at yourself, and weren’t foolish enough to wager on the outcome.

The only two former Wimbledon champions among the two eight are reigning queen Garbiñe Muguruza and No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova, who won it twice. They are also the only two to even reach the final.

One player (No. 1 Simona Halep) made a semifinal. Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina and Caroline Garcia have never gone past the fourth round. Sloane Stephens has made one quarterfinal, and big-serving Karolina Pliskova has lost in the second round five straight years.

Meanwhile, there are three former champions (Venus, Serena and Maria Sharapova) and three former finalists (Angelique Kerber, Genie Bouchard, Vera Zvonareva) outside that group.

Jelena Ostapenko, Victoria Azarenka, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Samantha Stosur all have Grand Slam titles on their resumés.

So what to make of it? 

Let’s dive in.

Potential third-round matchups

With Serena Williams, Sharapova and others seeded in the 20s, the big-time clashes will start early.

*[1] Simona Halep vs. [30] Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
*[15] Elise Mertens  vs. [22] Johanna Konta
*[12] Jelena Ostapenko vs. [24] Maria Sharapova 
[8] Petra Kvitova vs. [26] Daria Gavrilova

*[3] Garbiñe Muguruza vs. [26] Anett Kontaveit
*[14] Daria Kasatkina vs. [17] Ashleigh Barty
[11] Angelique Kerber vs. [18] Naomi Osaka
[6] Caroline Garcia vs. [27] Carla Suárez Navarro

*[7] Karolina Pliskova vs. [29] Mihaela Buzarnescu
*[9] Venus Williams vs. [20] Kiki Bertens
*[13] Julia Goerges vs. [23] Barbora Strycova
[4] Sloane Stephens vs. [31] Shuai Zhang

*[5] Elina Svitolina vs. [25] Serena Williams
*[10] Madison Keys vs. [19] Magdalena Rybarikova
[16] Coco Vandeweghe vs. [21] Anastasia Sevastova
*[2] Caroline Wozniacki vs. [32] Agnieszka Radwanska

In 11 of those 16 matchups, the lower seed has at least a decent chance to pull off the upset (those with asterisks).

That, of course, assumes all of them go according to form and make their seeding through the first two rounds.

Potential quarterfinals

[1] Simona Halep vs. [8] Petra Kvitova (or Sharapova)
[3] Garbiñe Muguruza (or Barty) vs. [6] Caroline Garcia (or Kerber)
[4] Sloane Stephens vs. [7] Karolina Pliskova (or Azarenka, or Venus)
[2] Caroline Wozniacki (or Radwanska, or Vandeweghe) vs. [5] Elina Svitolina (or Serena, or Keys)

See? There’s just no way

First-round matchups to watch

[12] Angelique Kerber (GER) vs. [Q] Vera Zvonareva (RUS)

These two are only a little more than three years apart, and both are former Wimbledon finalists. But surprisingly enough, they have never met.

Zvonareva had been off the Tour for awhile, as she married and had a baby. And that coincided with the period where Kerber rose to the top of the game. But still, it wasn’t as though Kerber was playing low-level ITFs when Zvonareva was around.

This will be the 2010 finalist’s first Wimbledon in four years.

[Q] Genie Bouchard (CAN) vs. [WC] Gabriella Taylor (GBR)

After toughing out three victories as she took part in qualifying for the first time, Bouchard ended up with a very kind draw for her first-round match.

Taylor, a 20-year-old ranked No. 182, won her first two matches on grass this season in Surbiton. She defeated countrywoman Heather Watson and Hungary’s Fanny Stollar back to back. Since then, she has lost three consecutive first-rounders.

Taylor defeated Bouchard’s countrywoman, Katherine Sebov, in the first round of the Wimbledon juniors in 2014. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

She played the junior Wimbledon event three times, and the women’s qualifying event four times. But this will be Taylor’s first Grand Slam main draw – of any kind.

[18] Naomi Osaka (JPN) vs. Monica Niculescu (ROU)

Niculescu, 30, has one fourth-round effort at Wimbledon on her resumé. That was 2015, and it’s one only two occasions where she has made the second week of a Grand Slam (the other was the US Open in 2011).

Her iconoclastic, funky game of slices and net rushes could frustrate the hard-hitting Osaka on grass. Or the Japanese player could just swipe it away. Either way, it will be fascinating to watch.

analysis

Niculescu’s problem is that she has very little play since Miami, and only one grass-court match, this week at an ITF event in Southsea.

Osaka’s problem may be an abdominal injury. She played Nottingham and Birmingham, but retired in her second-round match there against Dalila Jakupovic.

[6] Caroline Garcia (FRA) vs. Belinda Bencic (SUI)

Bencic is still only 21. But doesn’t it seems as though she’s already lived four tennis lifetimes?

The former No. 7 clawed her way back to a decent ranking when she returned from injury in September of 2017. In fact, she won 15 straight matches (with the loss of only one set) at the 125K and ITF level to close out the season.

And then she went to Hopman Cup and defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Osaka and Coco Vandeweghe (and all four of her mixed doubles matches with her scrub partner Roger Federer).

But since then, she’s not won two matches in a row. And she retired early in the second set of her last match, against a 25-year-old ranked No. 281.

We spotted Bencic out at the qualifying supporting her friend Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine, so she’s still the same fabulous person she ever was.

Garcia has never done particularly well at Wimbledon, even though she’s such a great athlete you’d think she could do well on any surface. So it’s an opportunity for both.

[10] Madison Keys (USA) vs. Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS)

These two are good pals, both having spent time training down in Boca Raton, Fla. They teamed up for doubles at the Australian Open a couple of years ago. And Keys has even played mixed doubles at Wimbledon with Tomljanovic’s boyfriend, Nick Kyrgios.

analysis

It’s what Mary Carillo would call “Big Babe Tennis”, with both hitting hard, and both actually being able to serve.

Tomljanovic is slowly getting her big serve back after shoulder surgery. But that’s a tough first-rounder for both.

The Serena factor

After all that discussion and debate, Serena Williams ended up seeded No. 25.

That means that in her first Wimbledon in two years, she cannot meet any of the top eight seeds until the third round.

But as previously discussed, there are plenty of trap doors in the draw before then – some of them more dangerous than many of the top eight.

In this case, the first round is an “ease your way in” one against Dutch qualifier Arantxa Rus. But the rest of Serena’s section isn’t half bad, with the very vulnerable Elina Svitolina her potential third-round opponent.

After that, she could be looking at Keys in the fourth round. But that’s if she gets there. Williams developed a pectoral muscle injury at the French Open, doing double-duty in singles and doubles despite not having played in two months.

Venus and Serena are not playing doubles at Wimbledon.