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KEYS D. OSAKA: A LEARNING MOMENT BETWEEN TWO PRODIGIES

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

It’s hard to believe that Madison Keys is still only 23 years old… and that yet next year will be the tenth anniversary of her devotion to tennis.

The young American who became a professional athlete at the precocious age of 14 has been on the radar as the next major champion for the stars and stripes for years. That is an incredibly impressive feat in an era when the WTA has purposefully limited the number of professional events that can be played by players under the age of 18. Many don’t remember this now, but Venus and Serena hastily turned professional in the mid-1990s in order to escape such limitations on their early careers. The WTA age eligibility rule was introduced to protect young athletes from parents who could take advantage of a prodigy’s ability to be a breadwinner. The rule was designed to avoid burnout from the rigors of the tour. Keys, similar to the Williams sisters, did not play many junior tennis events because she was already playing on the WTA Tour.Osaka’s career, on the other hand, has been more typical of modern prodigies. She has only been a professional since 2013, but in 2018 Osaka has blossomed, reaching new heights after shocking the world to win her first WTA Tour title at Indian Wells. A fun trivia fact from that title run was that it was one of the first trophies she had ever won in her LIFE, let alone her tennis career. Before linking up with her current coach, Osaka’s level of play could be hot or cold depending on her mood with not much room for an “in-between.” Her streakiness was featured in the third round of the 2016 U.S. Open, where Osaka and Keys played a tight match many heralded as a preview of slam finals in the future.

Keys on that match:

“I think the first time we played was U.S. Open, and I think that’s just a match that, you know, I was lucky to be able to scrape through that. But even seeing how she raised her level in the second set was, you know, a lot different from the last time we played each other, so you can tell that she’s definitely getting better and better and making smarter decisions. So I think luckily I’m still a little bit older, so pulled out the veteran moves today.”  

Keys and Osaka are framed as having similarly powerful games, but there are subtle differences both could learn from the other. Osaka is an artist of a powerful game laced with precision and angles, while Keys depends on high-octane strokes that are linear in nature, similar to her mentor Lindsay Davenport.

In their Roland Garros meeting on Friday, though, Keys defended well from the back of the court and used patience to her advantage. Those are the skills that took Naomi Osaka from a rising star to a Premier Mandatory champion. Will they have the same effect on Keys, who is searching for her first major on a surface that has newly embraced various power hitters in the last decade? Only time will tell, but know this: Keys wants it all.      

After defeating Osaka, who is three years her junior, Keys did indeed sound like a veteran of a 20-year career. She gave high praise to Naomi’s general attitude and ability to compete when down in the scoreline. Keys was up a set and a break in the second before Osaka broke her at 5-4 to even the match and then force a tiebreak. In that breaker, Osaka held a 4-1 lead and later set points before Keys turned the tide.

Osaka, in a change for herself, did not feel deflated by the blown lead. Instead she said, “I just thought to myself that, even if I lose, I don’t want to have any regrets or anything, and I want to try to keep fighting until the last point. I feel like there was a moment where maybe the me from before, the younger me, would have just accepted that I was losing. But now I’m not sad, because normally I would be very sad at this point. But I’m just looking forward to the next tournaments and the next matches I can play, because I feel like this match taught me a lot.”

These young women are learning to trust the process and may they reap the rewards they sow.

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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