Halep and Cahill end coaching relationship

In a move that definitely comes out of left field, the highly successful coaching-player relationship between world No. 1 Simona Halep and Aussie coach Darren Cahill is over – at least for next year.

Cahill wrote on Instagram that the decision was his.

“After much thought and discussion, and many years with 30 plus weeks on the road away from my family, I’ve decided to take a 12-month break from coaching to be home more for support as our children enter important stages of their lives with the final year of high school, sports and college preparations all becoming more time consuming,” he wrote.

It means that Halep is on a coaching search. And in that, she has plenty of company as so many top players are also picking over the same pool of candidates.

Madison Keys, Genie Bouchard, Angelique Kerber and Jelena Ostapenko are just a few of the better-known names looking for fresh starts with new guidance.

Short break turned the tide

The 26-year-old Romanian had worked with various coaches, including Wim Fissette and Victor Ionita. But it was the arrival of Cahill that eventually paid dividends as she ascended to the very top of the game.

Halep ended 2018 with a back injury, but she also ended it as the year-end WTA No. 1 for the second straight season.

Not that there weren’t bumps in the road.

Notably, Cahill took a break after the Miami tournament in 2017, after Halep lost the third set 6-2 to eventual champion Johanna Konta in the wake of this startlingly honest on-court coaching consult.

It may have been just the wakeup call she needed. And there aren’t many coaches that would walk away from a gig with a top player.

Cahill had seen enough improvement during their time apart that he was ready to return by Madrid, less than two months later.

Reunited in Madrid

 “I just felt that it was like a shock, because I lost the coach. So I have just to improve in this way, because he never had something to complain about my game and about the work that I do, because I’m working. But just with my attitude. I knew that is the only one thing that I have to change to have him back.” Halep said at the French Open.

“But just with my attitude. I knew that is the only one thing that I have to change to have him back. So I work hard, and I changed.” 

It didn’t pay off right away. Halep had disappointments in the 2017 French Open final against Jelena Ostapenko, and again at the 2018 Australian Open against Caroline Wozniacki.

That elusive first Grand Slam title was finally earned in Paris this spring. And no doubt it’s the first of many.

But in 2019, Halep will have to take the next steps in her career without Cahill.

Tribute to Halep

Cahill
After more than three years together, Halep and Cahill finally broke through for that first Grand Slam title in Paris this year. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

“Her understanding, personality, work ethic, generosity and professionalism made it a pleasure to stand by her side as her coach. She’s a young woman of total class and someone I respect greatly which is something more important than any result achieved,” Cahill said.

“Basically, I had the dream job and I want to thank her for making it that way, and the opportunity to work with someone so talented and dedicated.”

Cahill remains with ESPN as an analyst, and will be at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open for the network.

WTA Tour says farewell to Singapore (photos)

The WTA moved its season-ending event – the crown-jewel event of its season, and its biggest revenue generator – to Asia for the first time in 2014.

It was clearly a “follow the money” move, as so many decisions by the women’s tennis association have been in recent years.

At the time, the WTA said it had received “expressions of interest” from 43 cities. Singapore was chosen over finalists Tianjin (China), Monterrey (Mexico) and Kazan (Russia).

Then-CEO Stacey Allaster said the event represented 35-40 percent of the tour’s net operating revenues. And that the deal was worth more than the $14 million US a year it generated during the three-year stint in Istanbul.

The prize money for the first year in 2014 was upped to $6.5 million, as Allaster said it would rise more from there over the length of the deal.

That didn’t really happen, to any significant extent. It was raised to $7 million in 2015 – and remained at that level for the rest of the Singapore stay.

farewell

(2010: Doha; 2011-13: Istanbul; 2014-18: Singapore; 2019- : Shenzhen)

The offer from Shenzhen, where the tournament will move next year, will double the prize money to $14 million.

Photos from 2014

It was a happier, more innocent time. 🙂

We covered the inaugural event in 2014, which seemed to create a fair amount of engagement in the city and was spectacularly well put on by the organizers.

(The players were: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and, in her career-making 2014 season finale, Genie Bouchard. There was a significant amount of star power for this one, with some of the most high-profile and popular players in recent years).

Here are some of the pics from that year.

Yes, there are a lot of photos of Bouchard. That was the main reason for being there, as the lone Canadian journalist. But there also are photos of the scenes, the other players and the activities.

Scenes:

Players:

In the press room:

Genie Bouchard – with Halep, Williams and Ivanovic:

The attendance was impressive – announced at 129,000 for the first year. That was a bit misleading, as the WTA’s report at the time indicates that number was for fans attracted “to the Singapore Sports Hub during the 10 days of tennis, entertainment and business.”

The actual match attendance was put at “more than 93,000” through 14 sessions, including three reserved for the “Rising Stars” event featured the first couple of years. That’s an average of 6,642 per session, with the final being the last of four sellouts, at 9,986 fans.

Attendance numbers well-spun

Attendance for the second edition in 2015 was announced at 130,000, but over 18 sessions. While it was difficult to judge the fullness of the stands with the dark lighting, sources on site indicated that they weren’t nearly as full as the first year. 

That’s not unusual, as the first year was impressive. And in any event of this nature, the novelty is more likely than not to  wear off by Year 2 in an area of the planet without any sort of established tennis tradition.

farewell

For 2016, the WTA Tour didn’t announce any official attendance figure. 

In 2017, the WTA announced attendance as 133,000, over only 11 sessions with no legends, and the straight-elimination doubles draw.  By those numbers, the event would have had 11 sellouts, plus another 23,000 fans attending the experience. Might be a little … optimistic.

This year, there’s been no number announced although, as we laid out here, there were plenty of good seats available for every session.

WTA CEO Steve Simon, in his season-ending press conference last week, said he expected a record.

“I think that you can see that through this year we will have record attendance again. I believe it will exceed last year’s 133,000 people. You have seen it the first few nights at the event. You have seen it in the evolution of the fans here,” Simon said.

Law of diminishing returns

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from Singapore is that a five-year stay helps create, as Allaster said when the venue was announced, financial stability. But in a country without an established tennis fan base – the type of fan base you need to fill an arena for a week or more – it’s a challenge to keep an event growing.

The players who would attract the less-than-diehard tennis fans – notably, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – have not been annual attendees.

Williams played only once in Singapore – the first year in 2014, when she defeated Halep in the final.

farewell

Sharapova qualified in 2014 (exiting after the pool stage) and 2015 (undefeated in the round robin, but out in the semifinals to Kvitova). But she hasn’t played since.

The challenge with the new 10-year commitment in Shenzhen, China will be the same – except double.

Shenzhen has double the population base to draw from. And it’s also near several other large population hubs. And it does have somewhat more of a tennis tradition with annual WTA and ATP Tour events held there.

Halep does the double in Shenzhen

“The largest and most significant WTA Finals deal in the 45 years since the WTA was founded and promises to take the event to a spectacular new level,” Simon said when the deal was announced.

A 10-year commitment

The prize-money pool will double, to $14 million in 2019.

The deal, according to Sports Business Journal, is reportedly worth close to … $1 billion. That’s $100 million a year, or more than seven times the reported value of the deal in Istanbul five years ago even though the prize money is “only” doubled.

Simon told the New York Times the deal was actually worth in excess of that figure. But that number includes the reported $450 million to be spent on the new indoor arena to be built, which the WTA won’t actually own, “and other real-estate elements”. Simon also said that the share of the WTA’s total revenues generated by the event is now less than that 35-40 per cent figure stated a few years ago by Allaster.

It’s a number that stretches credulity, on the face of it. Let’s just say it’s right up there with he WTA’s $525 million, 10-year live media rights and production deal with beIN and Perform, and the 25-year, $3 billion deal between the ITF and the Kosmos Group for the “new” Davis Cup.

(After the first two years of the five-year deal with beIN, the rights in the U.S. have switched over to the Tennis Channel for 2019).

The new arena in Shenzhen won’t be ready in time for the inaugural edition in 2019.

Farewell Singapore, hello Shenzhen

The main priority, though, is that the WTA be able to create a lasting, significant tennis tradition in new its home.

The WTA couldn’t confirm that the annual WTA stop in Shenzhen, which takes place just two months after the Tour Finals, would survive. So it may have to find another home in Asia (or Australia, for that matter) for a tournament amidst a tricky time within the game.

The ATP Tour is planning a team event beginning in 2020. And that tournament looks to taking place in several venues where there are currently joint WTA/ATP events. Among the possibilities are Perth (where the Hopman Cup is in danger). Also being considered are Brisbane (well-attended by the top WTA players) and Sydney, the week before the Australian Open.

Shenzhen is so far away from North America and Europe that it’s not going to be able to count on hordes of women’s tennis fans making the long, expensive trip. So it’s going to have to find its market around that part of China. That was, of course, also true in Singapore.

There are enough people in the area; that’s for sure. The challenge will be get them to the event, and keep them coming.

Simona Halep out of Singapore

Less than 24 hours after leaving Moscow to fly to Singapore, Simona Halep is officially out of the World Tour Finals.

The herniated disc that scuttled the last six weeks of the Romanian’s season, including the Asian swing, simply will not allow her to complete.

It is an announcement that catches no one by surprise. But it’s unfortunate for the WTA’s crown jewel event that its No. 1 player will not be taking part.

With Halep out, Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands will make her singles debut in Singapore.

Bertens needed to make the semifinals this week at the WTA Tour event in Moscow to qualify on her own merit. But she lost in three sets to Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the second round Wednesday, in her first match. And so the eighth and final spot went to Karolina Pliskova.

Pliskova also lost her first match in Moscow Thursday, rather more expeditiously. Qualifier Vera Zvonareva thrashed her 6-1, 6-2.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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On my way to the #WTAFinals, can’t wait to be back in #VisitSingapore again. Thank you @TurkishAirlines for getting me there safely and smoothly!

A post shared by Simona Halep (@simonahalep) on

 Final field set with Kerber at the top

The final eight (subject to any other bumps and bruises) will now be as follows. Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber will be No. 1. She’ll be followed by US Open champion Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, Australian Open Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens, Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Bertens.

The event begins Sunday.

Halep out of Moscow before she begins

Here’s the official (and comprehensively complete) press-release quote from Halep.

“Unfortunately, after much discussion with my team and doctors, I have made the decision to withdraw from the WTA Finals in Singapore. “I wanted to finish 2018 on a high after such an incredible year, but sadly my back injury hasn’t healed the way we hoped it would and I need to put my long-term health first,” she said.

“I’m sad I won’t be able to play the fifth and final edition here in Singapore, but I’m confident this is the right decision and will do everything I can to be back fighting for my place at the WTA Finals next year. Singapore is a special city and I’m sure the fans will enjoy seeing some fantastic women’s tennis this week.”

Bertens reached Singapore in doubles a year ago, with Johanna Larsson of Sweden. They were the No. 8 seeds. In the rapid-fire eight-team knockout format that replaced the round-robin format implemented earlier in the Singapore stay, they reached the final before losing to Andrea Sestini Hlavackova and Timea Babos.

Alternates also set

As of now, subject to any more withdrawals, the two alternates would be Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia.

Sevastova is still completing in Moscow this week. The No. 5 seed is to play Zvonareva in the quarterfinals Thursday afternoon. If she wins that match, she would ease past Sabalenka in the points race and become the No. 1 alternate.

The rules for the WTA Tour Finals, updated Sept. 18, are fairly strict in terms of players who qualify having to attend and/or play.

There are no provisions in the rules for being excused because of injury, with a $125,000 fine assessed (see page 2 of the rulebook section).

But that fine is waived if the player fulfils all the mandatory media commitments. So you can understand why Halep would at least travel to Singapore, rather than have to try to schedule off-site makeup commitments before next year’s event that would be at a location the WTA Tour decides, and at the player’s own expense.

Halep out of Moscow before she begins

It was, on the face of it, extremely optimistic that Simona Halep would be able to play in Moscow this week.

After a short period of treatment and rehab for the herniated disc that scuttled her Asian swing, the plan was to change things up before the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore.

Halep had been eliminated in the pool portion of the year-end final the last three years. So why not try something different? She wanted to get some match play in closer to the event.

But in the end, Halep’s back was still causing her pain. And so after traveling to Moscow over the weekend, she announced her withdrawal Tuesday.

“I hope first to be able to play here because I really want to, because I’ve been here already for three, four days, getting ready for this tournament. I have great memories and I would really love to play here,” Halep said in a conference call Tuesday.

“But if I’m not able to play here then I’m very doubtful that I’ll be able to play Singapore because it’s very fast, so I don’t know now. But for sure I’ll take a decision for my health first.”

(More from Halep’s call here).

After a first-round bye, the Romanian would have played Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round. Lucky loser Valentini Grammatikopoulou of Greece replaces her.

The immediate question, of course, is whether Halep will even try to play in Singapore next week.

From what she said during the call, that seems questionable, at best.

If Halep can’t go, it’s a bit of an anticlimactic end to a great season. Regardless, Halep will finish as the year-end No. 1, albeit with just three titles – in Shenzhen, Montreal and her maiden Grand Slam title in Paris.

And in that case, the final-week qualifying drama for Singapore would be moot.

Alternates on high alert

The three remaining contenders for two spots – Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Kiki Bertens – would all make the final eight.

Since the latter two had to make fairly deep runs in their tournaments this week to make it as it stands – only to fly halfway across the world immediately afterwards – no doubt they are awaiting an official announcement.

Bertens and Pliskova play their second-round matches in Moscow Wednesday.

Maneuvering and scrambling for final Singapore slots

Even if Halep does give it a go, the player left out of the running would still have to travel there as an alternate. But it would take the incentive out of playing this week.

If the Romanian does shut down her season, Elise Mertens of Belgium would be the second alternate. She squeezed past Anastasija Sevastova by five ranking points in the new standings Monday.

Mertens, who reportedly is on a coaching trial with Aussie David Taylor, also appears to be far from healthy.

Coaching trials, Part LXV: Konta and Zavialoff

She retired in her quarterfinal match against Su-Wei Hsieh in Tianjin with an arm issue. And on Tuesday in Moscow, Mertens lost in straight sets to Johanna Konta.

Konta is on a coaching trial of her own with Dimitri Zavialoff.

(Photo from Simona Halep’s Twitter feed)

Elbows, wrists, back – it’s all happening

No body part is being spared in the final month of the WTA and ATP Tour seasons.

Within 24 hours, three top players have been affected – by three different areas.

For David Goffin, it’s bad enough that he has ended his season.

And No. 1 Simona Halep might not be far behind.

Goffin, a Belgian would have been the star attraction in the Antwerp ATP tournament.

But his right elbow injury has or will cost him Tokyo, Shanghai, Antwerp, Basel and Paris as he contemplated a late run to quality for the ATP Tour finals.

Goffin stands 13th in the live rankings for London. But with two Masters 1000s and two 500s still on his schedule, he had to think he’d have a shot, if healthy.

The diagnosis is a bone bruise. Goffin wrote on social media that it would take at least a month to heal. And so he has to call it a year.

That’s going to deal a blow to Goffin’s ranking, as he had been defending titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo, Basel, Paris and the final at the ATP Tour finals. He will surely drop out of the top 20.

It’s not the only bum elbow to emerge this week.

Earlier this week, during his first-round match, Canadian Milos Raonic had some treatment in the left elbow area. Although he has gone on to win his first two matches in Tokyo leaning more heavily on his perfectly adequate slice backhand.

elbow
Raonic, who pulled out of a public practice with Stan Wawrinka the Sunday before Tokyo started, has gotten through two rounds. But he’s on elbow watch.

Earlier this year, it was a bad elbow that compromised the first half of Nick Kyrgios’s season.

Ostapenko wrist since before Seoul

For Jelena Ostapenko, a left elbow issue contributed to an embarrassing double bagel at the hands of Qiang Wang in Beijing Tuesday.

It was the first 6-0, 6-0 drubbing the 21-year-old Latvian has ever suffered – even going back to her junior days at the ITF level.

At 0-6, 0-5, having signalled she needed the trainer on the previous changeover, Ostapenko had some treatment on the elbow before Wang readied to serve for the match. It was, obviously, much too late by then.

elbow
Ostapenko came on court with her left wrist taped. It didn’t appear, outwardly to affect the power of her shots. But it’s an injury that has been getting worse through the Asian swing.

The elbow would not have physically affected the serve and the forehand, both just as problematic in a fairly disastrous outcome. But it would have been on her mind. 

Ostapenko said afterwards that she started feeling it back home in Latvia, the week before the tournament in Seoul two weeks ago. The original diagnosis was inflammation, and Ostapenko has been on “very strong painkillers”.

She continued to play, through, through Seoul and a first-round singles loss and two doubles matches in Wuhan, and then first-round win in Beijing over Magdalena Rybarikova.

“I feel it already since a couple of weeks. I thought it was going to be better. Unfortunately today in the warmup, I already started to feel it … After Seoul it got much worse. Unfortunately now I’m feeling it a lot. I couldn’t really play my game because of my wrist also.” Ostapenko told the media in Beijing.

She came into the press conference with a brace on her left arm.

“I thought maybe during the match, when I get warm, it will be better. And I was trying to play until the last point because I really don’t like those retirements during the match,” she added. “Once you go on court, you probably have to complete the match.”

On the hopeful side, Ostapenko has not yet officially withdrawn from a planned participation in the Hong Kong tournament next week.

The list of players who have been compromised by wrist injuries over the last few years need not be reiterated here.

Back woes sideline Halep

For Simona Halep, the back issue that first flared up in Wuhan went from muscle to bone and made it impossible for her to continue during her first-round match against qualifier Ons Jabeur in Beijing.

After losing the first set 6-1, she had to stop.

“The muscle is better, the muscle of the back. But now I started to feel (Saturday) in the bones. All body was really contracted. I couldn’t play,” Halep told the Beijing media after the retirement. 

She said she felt it in the practice before the match, and from the get-go in the match.

And when the Romanian returned home to have an MRI, the news wasn’t great.

Halep announced she has a herniated disc. 

Halep had no more tournaments scheduled before the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore.

But she has less than three weeks to heal up, and make another trip down to Asia to try to compete. It seems optimistic, at best.

Halep hasn’t won a match since defeating Aryna Sabalenka in the Cincinnati semifinal in mid-August.

She had a great run on the US Open leadup, winning Montreal and reaching that Cincinnati final. But she became the first No. 1 to lose in the first round during the Open era, falling to Kaia Kanepi.

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.

Simona Halep a Grand Slam champion, at long last

PARIS – There can be no remnants of doubt, or regret for previous opportunities lost, when a childhood dream finally comes true.

There can be only joy.

And so, a joyful Simona Halep held the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen aloft for the first time, a first-time Grand Slam champion as she won the French Open Saturday.

Her smile illuminated Court Philippe-Chatrier, as she overcame a set-and-a-break deficit to triumph over No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

“It’s a special moment. I was dreaming for this moment since actually I started to play tennis. It’s my favorite Grand Slam. I always said that if I’m going to win one, I want it to be here,” Halep said.

When Halep was a set and a break down in the second set, she thought to herself, “It’s lost.”

Another chance gone, her fourth in a major final and third in Paris, to break the Grand Slam ice. So the Romanian told herself to just enjoy the moment.

Halep

And then the switch flipped

Until then, Stephens was controlling many of the points. She was breaking them open with winners and defending beautifully whenever she needed to. And then, Halep changed the game.

HalepShe hit closer to the lines. She hit harder. And she came forward to hit a few swing volleys.

And after she put away the second set, she kept it up.

It was then that all the hard work in the first set paid off.

Stephens looked to be dancing on top of the clay, as she always does when she’s playing her best tennis.

But if it seemed effortless, the reality was that she had to work hard, run hard, to take that first set.

And halfway through that second set, as Halep’s legs clearly had several more kilometers in then, Stephens’s level dropped. Her feet no longer danced. She appeared to be starting to feel it physically.

“She raised her game, raised her level. Not much you can really do about that. I competed the best I could, and the better player won the match today,” Stephens said. “Not very many players ever get to a Grand Slam final. So the fact that I have won one and been in another final in such a short period of time, I’m very optimistic and very pleased with myself. I’m not satisfied, but I am proud of myself.”

By the time Halep was two breaks ahead in the third set, she may well have been past any negative thoughts from a year ago, on the same court.

On that June day 12 months ago, the Romanian led unseeded 20-year-old Latvian Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break. But Halep played not to win, but hoping that the inexperienced Ostapenko would lose.

And Ostapenko wouldn’t lose.

“When I started to win games, I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it,” Halep said. “So I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed. I could make more things on court, and that’s why I could win.”

Turning a difficult history around

Last year, Halep slept poorly before the match against Ostapenko. This year, she slept well. 

Still, the timelines of last year’s final and this year’s final were always in the forefront of her mind.

With the help of a sports psychologist, Halep has come to terms with the fact that her mind may always be her greatest foe when it comes to aspiring to her greatest triumphs.

Halep

The secret may have been not to try to eliminate what cannot be erased, but to find ways of accepting it, embracing it somehow, and overcoming it that way.

And all that hard work on her “best” weakness paid off on Saturday.

The point at 3-0 in the third set, a break point to put a double break in the bank, was the clincher. Halep’s legs got her to the drop shot, a backhand smash earned her the break. 

“I remember last year – I had last year and this year in my mind all match – when, at 3-3, I think, in the third set, she hit the net and the ball was going, like, five meters out and came back to my court. So I remember that,” Halep said. “I said, if I did this point, so has to be mine this match. I was confident after that.”

Different words from Coach Cahill

Coach Darren Cahill, the Aussie whose stern talk to his charge during the Miami Open last year during a coaching consult – and short-lived resignation – seems to have helped put Halep on the champion’s road, had the same advice for Halep before her first three major finals.

HalepHe told her that getting to the final was a big deal, and to just enjoy it.

This time, Cahill had different words. 

“You’re going to take it. You’re going to go on court and just thinking you have to take it, not waiting for the opponent to give it to you,” Halep said. “So he gave me confidence, and he put a little bit pressure on myself that I have to go there and win it. So maybe that’s why I won it, and it worked.”

It takes a top-shelf coach to understand that, for this fourth final, a little pressure was something that would work for Halep this time, not against her.

And if she didn’t take his advice in the first set, the 26-year-old put it resolutely into action to catch up – and then to cross the finish line.

For awhile now, Halep had been part of an accomplished but oft-maligned club, that of players who have been ranked No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam.

Amélie Mauresmo of France was in that club, before she finally got on the board. Neither Dinara Safina nor Jelena Jankovic ever won one. 

Caroline Wozniacki happily ripped off that scarlet “S” (for Slamless) when she defeated Halep to win the Australian Open in January.

And now, Halep has done it as well. Better still, she did it while ranked No. 1.

Halep

Nice, round numbers make it fate

The title comes exactly 40 years after her countrywoman Virginia Ruzici won Roland Garros, at age 23.

Ruzici, now a Paris resident, is Halep’s manager.

The title also comes exactly 10 years after Halep won the junior French Open girls’ singles title in 2008, and became the No. 1-ranked junior in the world.

She had, with one exception, been mostly a third-round loser at the junior Slams, although she had won numerous lower-grade titles.  

But Halep lost just one set in taking that 2008 title, to countrywoman Elena Bogdan in the final. And then, as French Open junior champion and world No. 1 junior, she ended her junior career.

This victory in Paris won’t end her pro career. In fact, it may well be a new beginning.

For there will no longer be any doubt – whether external, or in the recesses of Halep’s mind – that she’s good enough to win a Grand Slam title.

Now, she’s done it.

“I kissed (the trophy) many times to be sure that it’s going to stay in my heart forever. It’s heavy, it’s beautiful. And always when I was seeing the pictures with it, I dreamed to have it, to touch it,” Halep said. “And now it’s a special moment and I’m really happy that it’s mine.”

(Screenshots from FranceTV Sport)

Halep vs. Stephens a study in contrasts

PARIS – For Sloane Stephens, it seems to have all come so easily even if appearances are, more often than not, very deceiving.

For Simona Halep, it all has seemed such a struggle at times – mostly an internal struggle as she wrestles with the consequences of greatness.

But the one whose path seems more effortless was the No. 10 seed at this French Open. And the one who has battled so hard is the No. 1 player in the world.

And yet, it is Stephens who owns a Grand Slam title, won last year in her homeland as the unexpected culmination of a nearly year-long break because of a foot injury.

And it is Halep, a finalist a year ago, who seeks the elusive first Grand Slam title of her career. 

This is the fourth major final she will play, the third on the red clay in Paris.

Will the third time be the charm?

“I think I’m pretty calm on the court all the time, I’d say. I don’t get too up, too down. But I think that it has helped me in finals, but, yeah, it’s not something I really focus on,” Stephens said Saturday, before the big event Sunday at 3 p.m. Paris time.

“Well, for sure, I’m a little bit different because I have more experience. I’m more relaxed about this situation. But, you know, you never know. Every match is different, and I cannot expect anything for tomorrow. I just expect myself to give everything I have and to try to play my best tennis,” Halep said. “It’s nice that in 12 months I have played one more final in Melbourne. So I feel good. I feel great in this position. Hopefully tomorrow I will be better than previous ones.”

When Stephens gets to the final of a tournament, she wins. Literally. She always wins. She is 6-0 in her career when she gets in that position.

Against Halep, she has not been that successful. Although it has never been in a final.

Halep and Stephens last met in the semifinals in Cincinnati, just before the 2017 US Open. Halep took that one easily, 6-2, 6-1.

Head-to-head favors Halep

Of their seven meetings, the American has won just two.

Both came in the space of a month in 2013, when she defeated the Romanian in the second round of a small tuneup event in Hobart the week before the Australian Open. And then she defeated her again in the first round in Melbourne.

Both, at the time, were unseeded. 

Stephens had been ranked just inside the top 40 before those two events. Her run to the semifinals in Melbourne vaulted her into the top 20 and set the stage for outside expectations that, until last year’s triumph at Flushing Meadows, were never quite met.

Halep was just inside the top 50. A few weeks later, she fell out before she battled her way back.

Stephens
Halep practicing on Court 18 before the start of Roland Garros. Little did she know that, despite being the No. 1-ranked woman in the world, she’d end up relegated there for a big match in the second week. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Since then, Halep has won four straight meetings between the two.

She defeated Stephens in the fourth round in Paris four years ago, on her way to her first major final. And she has beaten her three times since then. All three came on hard courts in the U.S., notably in the semifinals of Cincinnati last summer as Stephens was making her red-hot run through the American summer hard-court circuit.

But that head-to-head doesn’t mean much to Halep.

“I don’t want to think about that because, as I said many times, it’s a different match, different situation. Both of us will be ready to give everything we have,” she said. “But I believe in my chance. I believe that I have the game to win the match. But you never know. I just want to wait and to see how it goes.”

Injury break changed everything

Someone once said of Stephens that the (relative) burden she must bear is how good a tennis player she is. She knew early on that she could take the court, under any conditions, against most players and beat them on talent alone.

But to win the big titles, to get to the weekends of tournaments, you have to get past equally talented players.

And it was unclear whether the gifted American was prepared to pay the price – day after day after day of grinding it out in practice and fighting for every point – to hit those heights. The effort, the commitment, seemed to ride a wave at times.

Losing nearly a year of her career, after foot surgery and rehab, certainly allowed for a plenty of time for reflection.

“After not playing for 11 months, it’s some great results. I’m really pleased with that. Obviously a lot of hard work went into it, a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs. A lot of emotional, like, you know, ‘Am I ever going to be the same? Am I ever going to play good again at a high-enough level? Am I a protected ranking? ‘

“There were so many things that went into it. And I think now I’ve kind of – I have matured a little bit and have recognized the opportunities when they have been presented. I think the most important thing is that I have taken those opportunities and done a lot with them.”

Even after Stephens won the US Open and didn’t do much the rest of the season, as she processed the triumph and recovered from the physical toll it took on her after so long away, people asked those same questions again.

Perhaps, because of that glorious talent, those questions may always be asked when she doesn’t win.

But Stephens seems well-equipped not to dwell too long on the expectations of others.

No. 1, and No. 1 in the U.S.

Regardless of the result, Halep has secured her No. 1 spot through this tournament. A victory could extend her lead over No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki to more than 1,200 points going into the grass-court season.

And regardless of the result, Stephens will become the No. 1 American for the first time in her career.

With two women named Venus and Serena lurking at the top during Stephens’ entire career, that wasn’t really an option and may not even have been a thought.

Win or lose, Stephens will rise to a career-best ranking of No. 4.

Venus Williams had been at No. 9. But even though she was a surprise first-round loser, she will remain there.

Serena Williams will jump from No. 451 to No. 185 with her effort in Paris, cut short in the fourth round because of a pectoral injury.

Madison Keys, the good friend Stephens defeated in the semifinals in Paris, will remain at No. 10.

Halep and Kuznetsova hit practice (video)

MIAMI, Fla. –  From the looks of things on Wednesday, you would probably want world No. 1 Simona Halep as your permanent practice partner.

Because during her time on court with Svetlana Kuznetsova, feeding volleys and overheads, she just didn’t miss.

When that happens, you get some pretty good cardio on the other side in addition to honing your strokes.

Kuznetsova (no slouch herself), followed up the long volley exchanges (one of which is seen below) straight to the overheads. She got her workout.

Halep, after a first-round bye, opens her Miami Open campaign against lucky loser Océane Dodin.

Dodin, who has been dealing with vertigo for more than a  year, has been in and out of the scene. She lost in the first round of the Australian Open to Genie Bouchard.

The luckiest loser

Dodin was the No. 7 seed in qualifying. The top three seeds made it through, and seeds No. 4 through No. 6 lost in the first round.

But whether she knew for sure sure she was getting into the main draw as a lucky loser, the Frenchwoman retired after the first set of her second and final round of qualifying to American Alison Riske Tuesday. The reason was an ankle injury. She lost that set 6-1.

Halep
Dodin only lasted a set in her final-round qualifying match because of an ankle injury. But she had a miraculous recovery overnight and won a marathon first-round match against Cepede Royg. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Then – a miraculous recovery.

Dodin managed to defeat Veronica Cepede Royg of Paraguay 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3 Wednesday in the first round of the main draw – two hours and 12 minutes, it took – to advance to the meeting with Halep.

(You really shouldn’t retire in the qualifying and then be allowed to play in the main draw. But that’s a debate for another day).

As for Kuznetsova, the 32-year-old Russian only began her 2018 season last week at Indian Wells after left wrist surgery in the offseason. She lost her first match there to Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

Seeded No. 18 in Miami, her first opponent will be Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.

Halep

Nastase’s Fed Cup appeal reduces sanctions

Tennis legend and former Romanian Fed Cup captain Ilie Nastase appealed the sanctions heaped on him by the International Tennis Federation in the wake of last April’s behaviour during a tie against Great Britain to an independent tribunal.

And he ended up with a lighter sentence, but also a lighter wallet.

The list of Nastase’s transgressions was long that weekend. It included a racially insensitive comment about Serena Williams’s (then unborn) baby. Not stopping there, Nastase also made inappropriate, sexually suggestive comments to Great Britain Fed Cup captain Anne Keothavong.

Added to that, the 71-year-old also made abusive and threatening comments to a British journalist. And then, there was the inappropriate behaviour on court during the actual matches. The arbitrator considered those the most serious.

All of his targets (including the journalist) were women with the exception of tie supervisor Andreas Egli.

The original suspension handed down by the ITF banned Nastase from “acting in an official capacity” at any ITF-related events for three years, through Dec. 31, 2020. Nastase also was denied access or accreditation to any ITF events through Dec. 31, 2018. He also was assessed a $10,000 fine.

After hearing the case, an independent tribunal called Sport Resolutions fattened the fine by another $10,000. But it reduced the length of the suspensions by eight months each.

Now, those dates are April 23, 2020, and April 23, 2018.

Timely decision during Fed Cup week

NastaseThe timing of the release of the decision on an appeal filed last Aug. 11 is … interesting.

This week, the Romanian Fed Cup team is hosting Canada in its World Group II first-round tie. The tie, which is taking place Cluj-Napoca, Romania is the Fed Cup team’s first tie since that dramatic weekend last April.

As a result, all of the participants, mainly the Romanian players, will have to react to Wednesday’s decision. It’s a week when they should be focusing on winning and advancing to a World Group I playoff tie.

The hearing took place in London on Dec. 13, with Nastase accompanied by four lawyers (three of them women). 

He had two witnesses, one of them his lifelong friend Ion Tiriac. For the ITF, Andreas Egli, the ITF supervisor for the tie, also was heard.

Denials and “mitigating circumstances”

If you read the complete decision, the language Nastase used towards Egli, and the implied threat that he wouldn’t get out of the country, are pretty shocking.

And, as outlined in that decision, Nastase continued to deny he said certain things. Or, he claimed he said them in a different language than he did. And then when that was challenged, the Romanian said he couldn’t remember what he said.

It sounds like it was quite a hearing.

The suspension did not prevent Nastase from attending any ATP, WTA or even Grand Slam events, which don’t fall under the ITF’s jurisdiction. And while some annual invitations were rescinded, he did attend his great friend Tiriac’s tournament in Madrid.

Nastase even was involved in the trophy ceremony when fellow Romanian Simona Halep won the title last May. Which was awkward, although seemingly not for his countrywoman. He also showed up at the ATP Tour event in Bastad, Sweden.

The French Open declined to send him an invitation to his favorite tournament. Wimbledon also took a pass.

He’s really, really sorry

In his concluding remarks to the panel, Nastase expressed “what the Tribunal considered to be genuine remorse for his conduct and said in substance that leaving his beloved sport on such a note would be very difficult personally and would constitute a black mark on his career that he wishes were not there.”

The Tribunal believed the words were genuine and sincere. But it, but could not “excuse behaviour that is not acceptable according to the applicable standards and especially unworthy of someone who has been the number one tennis player in the world, among other accomplishments.”

Tiriac testified that Nastase “is not a racist person, as evidenced by his actions over his long career.” 

It’s hard to fathom that Nastase would make an appearance in Cluj-Napoca this weekend. But you never know.

Florin Segarceanu is currently the Fed Cup captain.