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Search Engines — Alison Van Uytvanck and Garbine Muguruza

Matt Zemek

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HowToHighFive.com via Twitter

The possibility and reality of tennis, in all their tenuousness and glory, are attached to the idea that on any given day, a player who might not be having the best season can wake up and play at a very high level, derailing a more credentialed opponent.

This is what happened at Wimbledon earlier this year, when Alison Van Uytvanck played spirited and sublime tennis to dethrone the reigning Wimbledon champion, Garbine Muguruza. Given that Muguruza’s two best majors have been Wimbledon and Roland Garros, the loss — at the time — seemed likely to usher in a period in which Muguruza would struggle. She did win Cincinnati last year, but that tournament was shaken and tossed about by rain and a highly imbalanced schedule. (This year, the two Cincy finalists, Simona Halep and Kiki Bertens, failed to escape week one of the U.S. Open. Cincinnati is generally not reliable as a U.S. Open indicator if viewed through the prism of the past four tennis seasons.)

Muguruza has played better at the majors than at other tournaments, and at the majors, she plays well on the natural surfaces, poorly on hardcourts.

Sure enough, the Spaniard has failed to find form since her disappointing loss to an inspired Van Uytvanck.

Now, in the WTA’s Asian autumn, both Muguruza and the player she lost to at Wimbledon are trying to find a jump-start to their tennis. They are in search of an engine which can roar with potency and effectiveness. These are “search engine” tennis stories, and they are converging in China.

Muguruza was not happy with a 6-0, 6-4 win over Ekaterina Makarova in Beijing on Monday. In the first set, Muguruza dished out a bagel, but she still hit only one winner against nine unforced errors. Makarova simply fell out of the wrong side of the bed, crashing into a performance in which nothing went right. Makarova also hit just one winner in that first set but coughed up 18 unforced errors, making only 35 percent of her first serves. It was one of those days for Makarova. Muguruza was not especially sharp. The two-time major champion — like any accomplished athlete — would like to win by dint of her own excellence, not as the result of an opponent’s struggles. She spoke after the match about her desire to find her best tennis. Searching for an engine, indeed:

The fact that Muguruza was not pleased with her straight-set win should not be seen as surprising. It also shouldn’t be seen as a negative. This is a player with a high ceiling who knows she is leaving something on the table, and shouldn’t. She is trying to motivate herself and tell herself that current results aren’t meeting her standard. That is an appropriate response to a difficult year on tour. Something would be wrong if Muguruza DIDN’T show visible frustrations on court, even in victory.

What is worth noting here is that as we shift to Van Uytvanck, Muguruza might inwardly wonder why her form in Beijing didn’t rise to a higher level against Makarova.

Recall that a week ago in Wuhan, Muguruza mashed Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-0, surrendering as many games as she did against Makarova. Given that Garbine was able to turn the tables relative to Wimbledon against AVU, she might have felt that she was about to go on a roll and rediscover her best tennis. Avenging a stinging loss often feels good for an athlete, and while this is pure speculation, I’m sure that a part of Muguruza is wondering why a decisive win over Van Uytvanck didn’t translate into a steady improvement in form. With time running out in the 2018 season, it should not be hard to see why Muguruza might be anxious and a little impatient.

Now let’s focus on Van Uytvanck.

The outlook is not pretty since Wimbledon, when the Belgian made the round of 16 and Manic Monday. In the summer and autumnal hardcourt seasons on two separate continents, AVU has won only one main-draw match, in Montreal against 18-year-old Sofya Zhuk. Some draws have been difficult, such as Muguruza in Wuhan, but when given a better draw — Jamie Loeb in the first round of Cincinnati — she got injured and had to retire in the third set. It has been a Murphy’s Law second half of the season for AVU, who lost in Beijing to Katerina Siniakova on Monday. Siniakova is an erratic player, but one who has managed to dig out a number of tough wins in prolonged matches. Professionals have to get to a point where they can win those scratchy matches, and Van Uytvanck is immersed in a battle to figure out that particular problem.

AVU can’t worry about losing to the likes of Muguruza. That will happen. Before getting to a point where she can beat Muguruza again, Van Uytvanck has to regain trust in her game… which is what Muguruza is trying to do in her own context.

Two women whose paths keep intersecting are united in their search for a new and powerful engine. Garbine Muguruza and Alison Van Uytvanck don’t inhabit the same levels of talent and credentials, but they do share the basic realities which apply to professional tennis players at all levels.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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Stephens and Bertens Have Reason To Smile At The WTA Finals

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Whereas the WTA Finals White Group offered a clear favorite — Caroline Wozniacki — and a likely second choice, Petra Kvitova, the Red Group was more complicated.

This half of the WTA’s year-end championship tournament in Singapore placed four players on relatively equal — and uncertain — footing.

There was a strong case to make FOR and AGAINST each player advancing to the semifinals and enjoying a productive week in Singapore.

Angelique Kerber, with her defensive skills and a past appearance in the championship match of the WTA Finals (two years ago against Dominika Cibulkova), was a natural fit for the slower playing surface in Singapore. On the other hand, her coaching situation is now uncertain after the split with Wim Fissette, documented here at Tennis With An Accent. She had also not done much since her Wimbledon title.

Kiki Bertens has been playing high-quality tennis for most of the past few months. On the other hand, she was new to this event and wasn’t sure until late last week — when Simona Halep pulled out — that she would qualify for the final eight. She would have been the first alternate had Halep played in Singapore. That is not an easy position for any athlete — these professionals crave certainty and the ability to plan ahead.

Naomi Osaka has been — alongside Aryna Sabalenka — one of the two best players on the WTA Tour since late August. On the other hand, she was also new to the WTA Finals and did not feel 100-percent healthy late in Beijing, where physical discomfort seemed to affect her in a loss to Anastasija Sevastova.

Sloane Stephens — like Kerber — plays great defense and therefore figured to enjoy the slower courts in Singapore. She, like Kerber, had also not overplayed in September, leaving her fresh for this tournament, whereas Bertens and Osaka had played a lot more tennis over the past two months. On the other hand, Stephens rarely plays well in Asia and had been coming off another typically mediocre Asian swing. This was also her first WTA Finals appearance as a top-eight qualifier. She was second alternate in 2013.

Bottom line: You could look at this group and all four players and easily see any of them winning, or any of them losing. Bertens and Osaka were the in-form players, but they were newcomers to this event. Kerber and Stephens had the playing styles to match the slower court speed, but were not in top form.

Bertens and Osaka had logged a lot of miles in recent weeks, while Kerber and Stephens were looking for a spark. Kerber carried the extra baggage of her coaching situation… but Elina Svitolina is also in an in-between place relative to her coaching arrangement, and that didn’t seem to bother her in a convincing win over Petra Kvitova a day earlier in Singapore.

So, who had a clue how the Red Group would unfold?

The first day of Red Group play in Singapore — Day 2 of the WTA Finals — was a natural extension and product of the uncertainties this group brought to the court.

In both matches on Monday, the outcome was totally up for grabs early in the third set, with no clear linear flow of play. In both matches — much like Day 1 in the White Group — the Red Group’s foursome immersed itself in complicated service games, veering between sublime and mediocre play. These matches weren’t classics, but neither were they ugly slogs. They defied easy analysis. They involved late-set plot twists (more than the White Group openers) and a lot fewer consolidated service breaks. What was gained in one moment was lost minutes later.

Through all the chaos and the variations in quality, two entertaining and well-fought matches naturally split the difference between the in-form players and the struggling players.

In the first Red Group match on Monday night, Stephens halted Osaka in three sets. In the second match, Bertens’ terrific second-half surge in 2018 continued with a comeback win over the still-sluggish Kerber.

These matches felt like 50-50 prospects coming in, which is why Monday’s wins have to be especially satisfying for the winners, both newcomers to the WTA Finals.

Whereas Stephens generally expects to play well at the U.S. Open and Kerber has her happy place at Wimbledon, this environment doesn’t hold the same weight of expectation. Bertens and Osaka — both riding the wave at the high points of their respective careers — could not say, entering Singapore, that they knew what to expect. They didn’t.

No one did.

Monday’s matches reflected as much, with Osaka getting broken three times by Stephens in the first set, then finding her backhand in the second set — especially to the deuce corner — only to then lose the plot in the third in the face of Stephens’ renewed consistency and impeccably good defense.

The nightcap was even wilder, with Kerber storming through the first set, only to lose focus at key points late in the second. The third set was one of the most unusual sets of tennis played anywhere in 2018, with seven straight breaks of serve to start the set, followed by a hold for Bertens in Game 8 from love-40 down.

Bertens served out the match moments later to create a drama similar to the one in the White Group: The two major champions of 2018 which are located in the Red Group, Osaka and Kerber, will play in Match 2 for WTA Finals survival. This is akin to the White Group second match between Wozniacki (another 2018 major champion) and Kvitova, a five-time tour winner this year who figured to play Wozniacki in the winner’s match, not the loser’s match, on Tuesday.

The results of the first two days remain entirely fitting for the WTA Finals, an event drenched in unpredictability over the past several years: As soon as Simona Halep — the most consistent player on tour this year — pulled out, these Finals were left with a lot of inconsistent players, Kerber being the least inconsistent of the larger bunch but still carrying questions to Singapore.

Two days, four matches, four results — they have all underscored the reality of WTA inconsistency. They have produced interesting, layered tennis, but consistency is the last word one would apply to the theater of competition thus far. The three 2018 major champions in this field of eight will all play for survival, not to clinch a semifinal spot, in their second matches over the next 48 hours.

Everything feels uncertain this week in Singapore, which is exactly why these first-match wins for Stephens and Bertens should offer both players considerable cause for elation.

Sloane and Kiki know, however, that as their matches showed on Monday, nothing at the WTA Finals remains in place very long.

Let’s see what the second matches do — in both groups — to shake up this tournament even more.

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WTA Finals — Things Are Looking Up For Svitolina and Pliskova On Day 1

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Petra Kvitova won five titles in 2018 and generally feels very comfortable indoors, where her clean ballstriking isn’t subjected to wind and her body isn’t subjected to the extreme summer heat which has often gotten in her way in the past.

Caroline Wozniacki had just won the Beijing Premier Mandatory championship and had all the momentum she could have wanted entering Singapore.

If you polled any 10 tennis fans or commentators about the White Group at the WTA Finals, it is hard to imagine anyone not picking Wozniacki to advance from the round-robin stages into the semifinals. You might have received some split verdicts on Kvitova, with Karolina Pliskova possibly receiving some votes as a semifinal participant.

The one player who didn’t figure to rise at this tournament from the White Group? Elina Svitolina.

You know, the player who just ditched her coaching team.

The player whose body has gone through a lot of changes this year.

The player who still put together solid results this season — obviously enough to make the WTA Finals again — but never looked like a championship contender since Roland Garros.

Yeah, THAT player.

Year-end championship tournaments — for both the WTA and the ATP — generally involve at least one player who enters the event ready for the season to be over. This is not a negative commentary on the athlete as a competitor; it is merely a reflection of the complicated and often overwhelming circumstances which surround competition. At least one athlete is either going through too much upheaval, or has played too much tennis, or has struggled to find the sweet spot in terms of rhythm or tactics or poise, or all of the above.

If you were to ask anyone who has followed the WTA in 2018 about the White Group player most likely to be eliminated in the round-robin segment of the WTA Finals, only one choice made the most sense: Svitolina.

Guess what? She cleanly defeated Petra Kvitova to kick off the festivities in Asia.

On a first day of the WTA Finals in which both matches took on similar dimensions, Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova both scored what would generally be viewed as upsets. They stopped Kvitova and Wozniacki to immediately upend the White Group balance of power. They didn’t even need three sets to do so — both won in straights, and both by a margin of 12 games to 6. Svitolina won 3 and 3, while Pliskova won 2 and 4.

When one remembers that sets won and lost, plus games won and lost, decide tiebreakers if the round-robin standings become messy, the decisive nature of Svitolina’s and Pliskova’s victories give them added leverage heading into their second matches.

The flip side of that reality: Wozniacki and Kvitova — the two favorites to advance to the semis in most eyes once the two groups were revealed in Singapore — won’t meet to decide the group champion. They will instead meet for survival. The loser will not be able to do any better than 1-2 in the three-match round-robin portion of the tournament. That might be enough to advance, but with the bad math created by Day 1’s results, that is not something to count on.

The common thread uniting these two matches — other than their identity as upsets — is that in both cases, one player won a majority of crunch-time points.

Consider this from Svitolina’s victory, adding that deuce points weren’t counted as part of this tweet:

Then turn to the nightcap on Sunday in Singapore and note that Wozniacki went 0 for 10 in break-point chances against Pliskova, including two not converted when Pliskova was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set.

Especially in the case of Wozniacki against Pliskova, you are not going to see too many matches in which a returner of Woz’s caliber is denied that many times on break points without a single conversion. “One of those days” and “small sample size” do apply. There is no need to fight the notion that these results had a degree of randomness to them.

Nevertheless, it remains that at the WTA Finals, Day 1 in 2018 continued the theme discussed here in our Tennis With An Accent scene-setter for the tournament.

The 2017 tournament provided a 2-and-2 win for Pliskova in her first match of the week in Singapore. That win came against Garbine Muguruza. That was as unexpected as this win was against Wozniacki. Svitolina over Kvitova isn’t as surprising if only because Kvitova hasn’t done as much on tour compared to Wozniacki in recent months. Nevertheless, Svitolina’s diminished game and uncertain coaching situation hardly supported the idea that she was ready for a breakthrough in Singapore.

The WTA Finals remain unpredictable. Day 1 set a tone in the White Group. We will soon see if the Red Group cuts in a similar direction.

One person’s advice: Don’t think for a second you know which way this event is going to go. The player most people expected to thrive at this tournament, Wozniacki, will play Kvitova on Tuesday not to ascend to the top of the group, but to merely stay in contention for the semifinals.

Yup — that sounds about right, given how the WTA Finals have unfolded in recent years.

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2018 WTA Finals Reminder — Seeds Don’t Show Where The Road Leads

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

If you followed the WTA Tour to a reasonable degree in 2018, you know that the tour is deep, balanced, unpredictable, and filled with players who have been brilliant in short bursts but haven’t dominated the tour for three- or four-month segments, let alone the whole year. The most consistent WTA player of 2018 is a player who won’t compete in the upcoming WTA Finals: Simona Halep. The only player who stands particularly close to Halep in terms of consistency is Angelique Kerber, who joined Halep in the Australian Open semifinals and made a number of quarterfinals at important tournaments in the first half of 2018 before winning Wimbledon in July.

Kerber knows as well as everyone else in Singapore that when these WTA Finals begin, seeds mean nothing except for the fact that they separate the halves of the draw (1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, 7 and 8 being split into separate halves). Carry that point of awareness into this tournament… and remember that recent WTA Finals have also served as a warning to anyone who feels secure in predicting this event in Asia.

The last WTA Finals with a “normal” championship match was 2014. Serena Williams entered as the top seed and favorite. She left as the champion after defeating Halep in the final. Yet, even in that year, the No. 8 seed — the player who participated in the tournament as the eighth-place finisher in the WTA Race To Singapore and was not injured or otherwise displaced by the first alternate — made the semifinals. That was Caroline Wozniacki back then.

In two of the next three years since that 2014 year-end championship for the WTA, No. 8 seeds have returned to the semifinals: Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2016 and Caroline Garcia last year. Being the eighth member of the field in Singapore has hardly meant an early dismissal in the round-robin stages.

Try this fact on for size as well: In each of the last three WTA Finals (following Serena’s triumph in 2014), the winner has come from the bottom four seeds: Agnieszka Radwanska in 2015 (No. 5), Dominika Cibulkova in 2016 (No. 7), and Wozniacki last year (No. 6). Last year, none of the top four seeds even made the final. Only one — Karolina Pliskova, who is back in this year’s edition — managed to get as far as the semifinals, and most observers probably felt that Pliskova was herself a surprise semifinalist despite a No. 3 seeding.

I would be willing to guess that if I asked a bunch of tennis pundits whether Pliskova or Garbine Muguruza would make the semis last year in Singapore (once the WTA Finals groups were announced), most would have predicted Muguruza. Remember, Garbine had won Cincinnati and lost at the U.S. Open only because Petra Kvitova (who is a 2018 WTA Finals participant) played a spectacular match to beat her in the fourth round. Pliskova was convincingly beaten by CoCo Vandeweghe in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

I won’t say “no one saw it coming,” but few people expected Pliskova to dismantle Muguruza by a 6-2, 6-2 scoreline to start round-robin play in 2017. That result sent the Spaniard on a downward course, ultimately out of Singapore before the semis arrived.

The WTA Finals — over the past three iterations — achieved what the 2018 WTA season has similarly done: Both this tournament and the 2018 WTA Tour have wiped out the significance of high seeds.

Kerber won Wimbledon as a No. 11 seed. Naomi Osaka won the U.S. Open as a No. 20 seed. Sloane Stephens reached the Roland Garros final as a No. 10 seed. Only the Australian Open — with No. 1 Halep against No. 2 Wozniacki — went according to form, and both players had to save multiple match points to get to the final. Wozniacki could have been out in round two, Halep out in round three, but they survived and changed their stories in 2018 with remarkable fightback efforts.

This is all prelude to the revelation of the two groups for the 2018 WTA Finals.

One group — the Red Group — will have Kerber, Osaka, Stephens, and Kiki Bertens, the beneficiary of Halep’s pullout this past week due to her injury.

The other group — the White Group — will have Wozniacki, Kvitova, Elina Svitolina, and Pliskova.

On paper, one would think that the White Group will elevate Wozniacki and Kvitova (the higher two seeds in that foursome) to the semifinals. Svitolina has noticeably struggled this season and either lacks a solid plan or needs time (in the coming offseason) to implement it. Pliskova is a solid quarterfinal-level tour player, exactly what a player who finishes just inside the top 8 figures to achieve, but she has not improved her game in 2018. Kvitova, playing indoors where she is comfortable, figures to Czech-mate her countrywoman when they play.

That is on paper, however. WTA Finals tournaments have shredded a lot of paper in recent years.

The Red Group isn’t predictable on paper, so there is no need to overturn any conventional wisdom… because there IS no conventional wisdom to start with.

Kerber could be refreshed by a not-too-taxing autumn swing. She has not overloaded herself with matches, unlike Osaka, who has shown good form but carried a lot more on her plate in recent months. Stephens — as usual — did not do well in the tournaments following the U.S. Open, but she is well-known as a player who plays poorly at a few events and then soars at the next. If she does well in Singapore, no one should be surprised. Finally, Bertens might be the No. 8 player in the field relative to the 2018 WTA Race to Singapore, but the second half of the season has been filled with victories and career breakthroughs. She is a dangerous player, akin to Garcia as the No. 8 seed last year.

The WTA Finals are about to begin. Seeds offer no real indication of where the road leads at the year-end championship of women’s tennis.

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