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RG18

DELAYED BY A DOZEN YEARS

Saqib Ali

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Mert Ertunga

It was exactly 50 weeks ago that I went to a women’s ITF $60,000 tournament in Hodmezovasarhely – try to pronounce that three times – after the French Open ended. The small town in Hungary was about a two-hour drive south of Budapest. Ana Bogdan and Danka Kovinic were the top two seeds and the field also included Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, whose comeback attempt after four years (2011-2015) of retirement was shifting to higher gear.

Facing Schnyder in the first round was an unseeded player from Romania named Mihaela Buzarnescu. She was ranked No. 374 in the WTA at that time. She had never entered the top 100 prior to that point in her professional career, which began back in 2004. It did not help either that she had battled injuries throughout her years on the tour.  

Her latest physical woes involved her left knee on which she had two operations, one year apart, that kept her off competition through large chunks of time during the 2014-2016 period. She was only able to enter the main draw of the Hodmezovasarhely tournament thanks to the Special Ranking rule that took into account her long-term absence due to injury.

I watched Buzarnescu dominate Schnyder in that first-round match. She won 6-3 6-1, and trust me, it looked even more lopsided than the score indicated. That was just the beginning. Buzarnescu lost only one set on her way to the finals, where she also routed the second-seeded Kovinic, 6-2 6-1, to win the title.

There was no stopping her for the remainder of the year. She went on to amass six more ITF titles and skyrocketed up the WTA rankings, ending the year at No. 57. Her rise continued this year — she reached the finals of two WTA events (Hobart on hardcourt, Prague on clay), and arrived at Roland Garros ranked No. 33.  

It’s about time that people familiarize themselves with her. If you need to know why, look no further than this week at Roland Garros.  

Fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina, Buzarnescu’s victim on Friday, may have fallen into that trap herself.

She admitted after the match that she was not familiar with her: “I didn’t know much about her because she raised really quickly.  I watched little bit video of her playing, so I knew little bit what to expect.”

She also gave her opponent credit more than once, saying that she was playing “great tennis” and “really, really, on the ball.”

Svitolina also noted that she “couldn’t find her rhythm” a couple of times. I would argue that Buzarnescu would not let her find it. But before I get into the details of the match, let’s remember what makes Svitolina such a tough player.

The 23-year-old Ukrainian is a solid baseliner with sound technique on both sides. She possesses a quick first step that helps her chase and retrieve well-struck balls by her opponents. Her forehand has more variety in terms of the amount of spin she can add to the ball, while her backhand is flatter, more of a drive shot. She does not have one big weapon, so to speak, but she has the ability to accelerate the ball on both wings. One shot that lags behind the overall quality of her game is her second serve. It does not have much pace and can sometimes land short in the box.

That second serve was one part of the reason for Buzarnescu’s 6-3 7-5 win over her, but let me emphasize, only one part.

The reality: Buzarnescu not only suffocated Svitolina on her second serves with aggressive returns, but also crushed any shot she could hit on or inside the baseline, thus stifling any game plan Svitolina may have concocted prior to the match with the intention of controlling the rallies.  

Buzarnescu confirmed that point in her post-match press conference, but added that is her usual style of play:

“I only wanted to be aggressive and wait for the good shots and just go for it, play angles and move on, move on in the court.  Because, otherwise, she would just take advantage of every short ball that I was hitting. […] I was just trying to play the same as before and not trying to change.”

That, she did.

When you are a high-IQ** player riding on a mountain of confidence, and you possess a plethora of skills to embellish your shotmaking abilities, turning thoughts into actions becomes as easy spreading warm butter on a soft baguette.

** Buzarnescu, for the record, speaks four languages (Romanian, English, French, and Spanish) fluently and has a Ph.D. in Sports Science – but does not care to be called “Doctor,” she affirmed.  

Let’s start with her returns on Svitolina’s second serves. Time after time, Buzarnescu stepped inside the baseline and pounded returns for winners (one example: 3-2, second set, the 15-15 point). If she did not get the winner, she would stretch Svitolina off the court so far that on the next shot, she would either hit the winner to the open court or finish the point at the net by taking the floater in the air (see the first point of the 5-3 game in the first set, and the first point of the 5-4 game in the second set, for an example of each).

Let’s continue with her 1-2 punches on her own service games. I would venture to say that Buzarnescu gave a clinic on how to properly execute the winner after a first serve that gives you the advantage off the gate. She would serve, sense that Svitolina was going to struggle to return it, and move immediately up to the baseline, all within a second. Once her expectations were confirmed and the return would land short, she would move another step or two inside the court and unload her winner. Her first one came at 3-2 in the first set, in the 0-15 point.  

She had two more of those in that game alone and finish with 11 clean 1-2-punch winners (more than one clean winner on 1-2 punches per serving game). That is not counting the slew of other 1-2 punches where Svitolina barely got the second shot back to avoid the clean winner, but still had to helplessly watch as Buzarnescu pounded the winner on the next one or forced her to scramble more.

Mihaela’s well-oiled machine malfunctioned twice, the first instance coming in the third game of the second set on her service game. She made three forehand unforced errors and a double fault in that game to lose her serve and fall behind 1-2. But Svitolina could not confirm the break and lost her serve in a contested game with five deuces. Svitolina did, by then, firmly sink her teeth into the match, and the rest of the set featured some high-quality points.  

Svitolina began to do a better job of getting her returns deep and was engaging Buzarnescu in longer rallies. She also attempted a drop shot or two to change pace, but she could not seem to get the upper hand, until the Buzarnescu machine experienced its second – and last – malfunction.  

Following a 4-4 game that featured a double fault and three unforced errors by Buzarnescu on her serve – and ending on a blown overhead –Svitolina got a chance to finish the second set on her serve.

That 5-4 game had a bit of everything. By that time, Svitolina was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Buzarnescu and managed to somewhat halt the Romanian’s assault.  

Buzarnescu stuck to her guns. She went after Svitolina’s second serve again and finished the point with a forehand volley to go up 0-15. In the 30-30 point, Svitolina was able to pin Buzarnescu back to the baseline for a few shots – a situation that *should* favor her. Yet, it was still Elina who cracked first and missed the forehand in the net, because she felt forced to take risks during rallies to stop Buzarnescu from stepping inside the baseline. Allow me to elaborate on that for a paragraph.

Rallying amid the threat of having a winner shoved down your throat at any time is a bit like trying to complete a task in under 60 seconds with someone standing next to you and constantly reminding you how many seconds you have left. You will mess up even if the task were something you have done many times before under 60 seconds. Considering how many winners and hard shots to the corners Buzarnescu had produced up to that point, every shot she hit in that rally must have felt to Svitolina like that person standing on your side and nagging you about how many seconds you have left. Under that type of stress, you will mess up. That is comparatively what happened to Svitolina when she slammed what appeared to be a routine forehand into the net. It was a direct result of trying to put more power into her shots to keep Buzarnescu behind the baseline.

There is nevertheless a reason why Svitolina is ranked No. 4 in the world. She was able to get past the disappointment of that forehand error and come up with two well-placed first serves in a row to grab the next two points and earn a set-point opportunity.

She hit another fine serve that landed on the outside corner of the service box and got the return she wanted from Buzarnescu. It was short, inside the service box, one that Svitolina would probably put away 9 out of 10 times.  

Then disaster struck.

I am not sure what took place inside Svitolina’s head at that moment. First of all, she did not move forward quick enough, and when she did finally move, she ended up being off-balance and trying a bizarre-looking drop shot that you could easily tell was a last-second decision.  

How disastrous was it? The drop-shot attempt literally “dropped” at the bottom of the net! It is the kind of an error that would make any skilled player wish they could instantly beam away and disappear.

Unfortunately for Elina, it came on a set point, and unfortunately for her, she never recovered from it.

The match ended two games later on two backhand unforced errors in succession by Elina, knocking her out of yet another major in which she must have surely fancied her chances to reach the semifinals for the first time in her career.

I would, however, advise any reader to avoid putting too much focus on the set point missed by Svitolina, because that would be an injustice to how much Buzarnescu deserved to win this match. She was the proactive player dictating rallies and going for her shots (31 winners total), and ultimately, the better overall performer on the court.  

I will finish with one last example of how clutch Buzarnescu was. She served four aces in the match, three of them on game points in the first set and the other at deuce, 2-2 in the second, a game in which she had just saved four break points. That ace gave her her first game point, enough for a hold.

Not bad for a player who, in the juniors, was considered in the same caliber as Caroline Wozniacki, Vika Azarenka, and Aga Radwanska, the ones she called “my generation” in her post-match talk. That was 12 years ago when she was a top-five junior in the world.  

Those others moved on, but Mihaela got stuck, largely because she immediately had to deal with a shoulder injury that sidelined her for six months:

“So that’s when I kind of lost some sponsors that I had.  And when I came back, it was not so easy with the coming. And then, of course I didn’t have the same results as before.  And it was not easy to continue, because I just went to 114 in 2011 and 2012 when I stopped. So, yeah, it was really tough time.”

The struggle lasted for about a dozen years. Now, at 30 years old, she finds herself in the fourth round of a major, along with other big names and nothing seems to be out of reach: “I’m really, really happy that I was able not to give up.”

She will not need to prepare for that ITF tournament in Hodmezovasarhely that takes place in less than two weeks. This is not 2017 and ITF tournaments are no longer on her agenda.  

Instead, Buzarnescu has to prepare for a match against Madison Keys in the fourth round of a major.

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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