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.

First Slam – and top spot – for patient Wozniacki

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wozniacki

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

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

Back to No. 1 – with a twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second chances maximized

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

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

Wozniacki

Halep nearly packed her bags twice.

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

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

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

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

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

Great start for Wozniacki

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

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

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

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

Wozniacki

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

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

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

Halep wasn’t sure it helped.

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

Physical battle to the end

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

Wozniacki

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart kept beating, body wore out

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No. 1 and No. 2 in women’s Oz final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As expected, a close battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winners, winners everywhere for the winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All those possibilities down to two

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

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

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

Week off pays dividends

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

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

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

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

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

Halep, Kerber handle big hitters in Aussie quarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a roll, Halep on a roll

hitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerber a bad matchup for big-hitter Keys

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

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

hitters

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

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

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

They haven’t played each other since.

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