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RG18

CZECH-IN TIME: PLISKOVA OUTLASTS SAFAROVA, PREPARES FOR SHARAPOVA

Saqib Ali

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Jane Voigt

Karolina Pliskova is on a dangerous path. She didn’t choose it for herself, either. The women’s singles draw donated it to the Czech Republic’s sixth seed. Nonetheless — and on one day — she did her job well, advancing to the detriment of her compatriot Lucie Safarova, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. 

Next for Pliskova is Maria Sharapova, a two-time Roland Garros champion. Farther down the road could be Garbine Muguruza, the 2016 champion or, if we get out our binoculars, Angelique Kerber or Simona Halep next week.

Wait one second. Projection at a Grand Slam is like buying future stock options. They could pay big bucks or empty your pockets.

For now, Pliskova can rest easy. She has a guaranteed berth in the third round and a day off on Friday. It’ll be time to recover, rethink strategies and tactics, and polish her liquid-like serve that connected for 13 aces against Safarova. Early in the match, however, Pliskova’s aces were not as much of an asset, as Safarova barreled out to a quick start.

“When she’s at her best, she’s so dangerous,” said the on-air commentator for Tennis Channel. “She gets Pliskova on the defense.”

The defensive posture, though, morphed into an aggressive and precise pattern from Pliskova after she broke Safarova to close the second set.

“The game on 5-4. She helped me quite a lot to get the set,” Pliskova said to the press. “[Those] were the first couple of mistakes which she did actually, I think, in a row. So I was able to break pretty easily.”

The scales had tipped decisively by that point.

“I felt like she was a little bit tired and she was doing more mistakes in the end,” Pliskova added.

Appearing in only her seventh main draw at Roland Garros, Pliskova’s best result was scored last year when she advanced to the semifinal and then lost to Simona Halep. In all of Pliskova’s other appearances in Paris she had not advanced beyond the second round. Therefore, on paper, Safarova was the more experienced of the two on Thursday.

Safarova was the runner-up to Serena Williams at the French Open in 2015. Additionally, Safarova has won five Grand Slam doubles titles: Roland Garros with Bethanie Mattek-Sands in 2015 and 2017; the U.S. Open with the same partner in 2016; and the Australian Open in 2015 and 2017 with Mattek-Sands. However, this season for Safarova has been plagued by illness. She missed Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid.

The lack of matches also could have been one of the reasons Safarova’s play dipped and unforced errors mounted in the second and third sets.

“I know maybe if I do the second set, physically probably she’s not feeling the best right now because she’s not having many matches,” Pliskova said. “But, yeah, that’s what happened in the third. I felt better and, I think, she was struggling a little bit physically.”“She’s one of the best doubles players,” the Tennis Channel commentator said. “You’d think she’d make her way to the net more.”

That bit of strategic advice wasn’t in the cards for Safarova, though. Pliskova pounded her forehand side, pinning her to the baseline. At other moments, she’d send a crosscourt forehand or a down-the-line backhand whizzing past Lucie, leaving her flatfooted and without recourse.

“Anything half-hit is coming back from Pliskova with a little bit of interest,” the commentator said.

This is Pliskova’s sixth consecutive major where she has been seeded in the top 10. She first reached the top 10 in 2015 and seems destined to remain there as a threat to those who stand across the net from her. On Saturday that woman will be Maria Sharapova, who defeated Donna Vekic on Thursday, 7-5, 6-4.

Pliskova’s serve will be vital against the Russian. Last year Pliskova led the WTA in aces, whacking 452 over 68 matches. Aces and a high percentage of points won off first and second serves will keep Sharapova from implementing a strategy that will probably concentrate on forcing the Czech side to side and forcing her to come toward the net. One thing you can be sure of, though: Both women will compete at their highest levels for that day. It sounds corny and naive. However, as fans it’s all anyone can ask of them.

Image source – Jimmie 48

 

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RG18

NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.

At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)

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RG18

WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.

“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.

Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.

Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.

We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.

Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.

The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.

More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.

Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.

Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.

2018 Roland Garros - 24 May

Both Images taken from – Jimmie 48

Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.

In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.

The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.

The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.

In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.

We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.

 

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RG18

Testigos de la grandeza

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.

Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)

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