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Siniakova Quietly Walks Along The Path

Matt Zemek

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Eric Bolte - USA TODAY Sports

Katerina Siniakova is not making front-page headlines, but not everyone can. The front page of a blog site or a newspaper lack the space to handle “Page 5” events. The top stories in any theater of activity necessarily crowd out the third-tier developments.

However, this doesn’t mean third-tier developments should be ignored. This doesn’t mean that third-tier stories aren’t important and laden with legitimate news value.

These kinds of stories matter to the public, which deserves to know about events beyond the front page. These stories also matter to the people who create them — in this case, the athletes who take tangible steps forward in their young careers.

Katerina Siniakova is not Aryna Sabalenka or Naomi Osaka. She is not taking the WTA Tour by storm. She is not redefining tennis as we know it. She is not creating hopes among fans that she will be part of the next great rivalry which defines women’s tennis in the 2020s. She is doing none of those things… but again, not everyone can. Not everyone will. Stardom is, by its nature, reserved for a select few. If stardom was pedestrian, it wouldn’t be so publicized. If global fame was ordinary, it wouldn’t command so much attention.

Siniakova is not forcing the world to focus on her tennis — that’s what Sabalenka and Osaka are doing right now in Beijing at the China Open. However, after defeating Aleksandra Krunic on Tuesday, Siniakova has booked a spot in the round of 16 at a Premier Mandatory tournament. This is only the second time she has made the R-16 at a Premier Mandatory event. Such is the growth pattern for the Czech. She has clearly raised her floor in 2018 — this has undeniably been a season of evolution and progress for the 22-year-old.

Siniakova has learned lessons this year about the art of competition. She won third sets 8-6 and 9-7 to make the third round of Wimbledon. She won a 7-5 third and and a third-set tiebreaker at the U.S. Open to make the third round there. All in all, Siniakova — who entered 2018 with four match wins in the main draws at major tournaments — won seven matches in main draws at majors this year alone, nearly double her career total. She never made the fourth round at any of the four majors, but she reached the third round in three of them. She had reached the third round only once in 13 previous main-draw appearances at majors.

Last week in Wuhan, Siniakova dismissed Caroline Garcia, the defending champion, from the tournament, winning two tiebreakers, one of them in the third set. She then excused Garbine Muguruza from Wuhan, winning two more tiebreakers. Siniakova is not the portrait of relentless consistency — that’s what Sabalenka and Osaka are doing — but she has clearly learned how to fight through rough patches and tight scoreline situations this season.

She has made tangible improvements in how she copes with stress and the voices in the head every tennis player — every athlete — must conquer in order to be successful. She is not stopping the tennis community in its tracks, but that’s okay: She is moving forward along the road the professional athlete must travel, and at 22, a continued growth curve — in which each year brings the kind of progress 2018 has brought to the table — will put her in a very good place when she reaches age 24 and 25.

Katerina Siniakova isn’t a headline-making star, but she is moving a young career in the right direction — steadily and over the course of a full season, not just in the autumn swing.

That is progress. It isn’t front-page news, but it is news — and very much worth sharing.

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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Tennis With A Romanian Accent — On Simona Halep

Tennis Accent Staff

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

This is a Romanian translation of a TWAA piece on Simona Halep earlier this autumn.

Ramona Toderas, whom you can find on Twitter here, translated the piece for our Romanian readers.

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Simona Halep – cea mai importantă jucătoare din 2018

Dacă Caroline Wozniacki ar fi câștigat Turneul Campioanelor, ea ar fi putut fi desemnată jucătoarea WTA a anului 2018. Naomi Osaka și Aryna Sabalenka au fost două dintre cele mai remarcabile staruri ale sezonului, două jucătoare tinere care și-au pus amprenta pe circuitul WTA. Cu toate acestea, dacă ar exista un titlu de Cea Mai Importantă Jucătoare a anului în WTA, acesta ar putea aparține doar unei singure jucătoare: Simona Halep.

Angelique Kerber a câștigat cel de-al treilea titlu de Mare Șlam al carierei – depășindu-le pe Victoria Azarenka și pe Li Na – după ce a câștigat primul ei titlu la Wimbledon. Într-un context mai larg din istoria tenisului, nemțoaica a făcut un sezon 2018 memorabil, unul încărcat cu o semnificație istorică puternică. Nu este ca și cum jucătoarele menționate mai sus nu au făcut lucruri importante în 2018 … dar anul lui Halep a fost mai mare.

Nu, nu a fost vorba atât de mult de abilitatea de a-și asigura poziția de număr 1 în clasamentul WTA la sfârșitul anului pentru a doua oară consecutiv, deși este și acest lucru unul mare în sine.

Nu a fost vorba doar de câștigarea primului ei titlu de Mare Șlam la Roland Garros, unde a fost atât de aproape de câștig de două ori în anii precedenți.

Nu a fost vorba doar de abilitatea de a ajunge în semifinale în 8 din primele 12 turnee ale anului și în sferturile de finală la 10 din 12 turnee, înainte ca accidentările să îi pună capăt prematur sezonului asiatic.

Nu a fost numai faptul că Halep a jucat în cele mai bune și mai memorabile meciuri ale anului – fie în semifinala de la Australian Open împotriva lui Kerber, fie în finala AO împotriva lui Wozniacki, fie împotriva lui Sloane Stephens în finala de la Montreal.

Nu a fost doar acest moment în care Halep a stat în fața fanilor săi români, într-o perioadă în care țara ei trece prin atâtea turbulențe politice și are nevoie de surse de inspirație pozitivă:

Nu a fost NICI MĂCAR unul din aceste lucruri izolate care a făcut ca anul lui Halep să fie atât de important. A fost tocmai faptul că 2018 combină toate aceste elemente într-un pachet profund semnificativ.

Halep a fost cea mai consistentă jucătoare din WTA (cu Kerber aproape), într-un an în care consecvența le-a evitat în mare parte pe cele mai bune jucătoare de tenis din lume.

Halep, alături de Serena Williams sunt singurele două jucătoare WTA care au jucat în două finale de Mare Șlam în acest an.

Realizările lui Halep, în special la Roland Garros, l-au dus pe antrenorul ei Darren Cahill la un nivel superior al excelenței în tenis. Omul care a antrenat superstarurile din ATP, cum ar fi Andre Agassi și Lleyton Hewitt, poate acum să spună că a condus una dintre cele mai strălucitoare jucătoare ale WTA peste limitele proprii și a consacrat-o în panteonul campionilor mari. Acesta este de asemenea un aspect istoric rezonant al sezonului lui Halep din 2018.

Halep a avut toate aceste realizări în 2018 după o performanță mai puțin impunătoare la Turneul Campioanelor din 2017. A fost ușor să ne îndoim de capacitatea lui Halep de a atinge în cele din urmă următorul nivel, deși a încheiat anul 2017 ca nr. 1 mondial. Jucătoarea care a învins-o pe Halep în finala de la Australian Open – Wozniacki – știe bine ce înseamnă să fii număr 1 mondial fără un titlu de mare șlam. Halep a reușit să câștige meciurile mari din 2018 numai după ce a făcut față suferinței unui atlet care a fost oprit de fiecare dată în momentele uriașe ale carierei.

Elena Dementieva nu a câștigat niciodată un șlam ca jucătoare de simplu. Dinara Safina nu a ajuns de asemenea niciodată în această situație. Nici Helena Sukova, care a fost inclusă în International Tennis Hall of Fame la începutul acestui an datorită performanțelor sale la dublu.

Anul 2018 pentru Simona a adus gustul dulce al nectarului pe care numai un titlu de Mare Șlam îl poate oferi. Victoria lui Wozniacki a fost, de asemenea, un moment cathartic și important. Primul titlu de Mare Șlam câștigat de Osaka ar putea deveni important în contextul tenisului japonez și ar putea deveni și mai important dacă cariera lui Osaka va decola, așa cum mulți se așteaptă să se întâmple.

Pentru moment, însă, în lumea în care trăim, capacitatea Simonei de a da României o lumină de speranță în mijlocul tuturor dificultăților este ceva care are o rezonanță și o putere unică. S-au spus multe despre incapacitatea și / sau refuzul lui Halep de a vorbi împotriva lui Ion Țiriac și a lui Ilie Năstase, două vestigii – să spunem cu blândețe – cu o viziune diferită asupra lumii.

Pe măsură ce închid acest articol, nu voi încerca să dezbat această problemă, adică să cântăresc dacă decizia Simonei de a aborda acest subiect este una înțeleaptă sau nu. Aceasta este o conversație diferită pentru o altă dată.

Ceea ce SIMT să spun cu încredere este că: Din cauza realizărilor lui Halep în 2018, aceasta se pune într-o poziție – în 15-20 de ani de acum, când discuția despre Țiriac și Năstase se va estompa – să fie următoarea voce de conducere în sportul românesc. Țiriac are 79 de ani, Năstase 72. În 15 ani nu vor mai fi în centrul mișcărilor de putere din cultura sportivă din România. Halep va avea o vârsta de 40 de ani.

Wozniacki, Osaka, Kerber – toate au făcut lucruri extrem de importante în circuitul WTA în 2018. Cu toate acestea, Simona Halep a construit un sezon care ar putea câștiga mult mai multă semnificație în contextul mai larg nu numai al istoriei tenisului sau al istoriei sportului, ci istoriei lumii.

După cum a spus un om pe nume Nadal: “Vom vedea, nu?”

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Agnieszka Radwanska Gave Tennis a Vivid Visualization of Variety

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Women’s tennis is in a very good place these days. Quality, depth, youth, competitive chops — they exist in abundance on a WTA Tour which has made the notion of an “easy draw” almost unheard of in 2018. Within this environment, Agnieszka Radwanska has found it hard to endure. That’s no criticism of her. Every athlete has a different shelf life, and Radwanska — who won her first WTA Tour title in 2007 at the age of 18 — enjoyed more than 10 years in the big leagues. That’s not exactly a brief career, even if Radwanska ended it on Wednesday at the age of 29.

Radwanska was a fixture in women’s tennis this decade, a regular presence in the sport’s most important tournaments until very recently. She never did chase down the major title Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep nabbed, but her legacy will be much greater than any attempt to bean-count tournaments won or lost.

Radwanska — playing in the late-career golden age of Serena Williams — picked the wrong time to be a thriving professional tennis player in the heart of her prime. If she had been born a few years earlier or later, she might have had better chances to win more of the most prestigious tournaments in the sport. As it is, she still battled Serena well in her one major final, the 2012 Wimbledon championship match which went to a third set. Radwanska was still relevant in 2016, making the Australian Open semifinals before Serena played her best tennis and defeated Poland’s 21st-century tennis star.

A 2015 WTA Finals champion and a five-time Premier Mandatory/5 winner, Radwanska — once the World No. 2 player at the height of her powers — did more than merely survive on tour for roughly a decade. No, she didn’t quite conquer the sport and lay it at her feet, but she made a very comfortable place for herself on a tour which did not play the way she played.

Radwanska carved out her own path, a reality which should serve as a lesson to younger players today.

Yes, Angelique Kerber drop-shotted Serena to death in the Wimbledon final. Yes, Magdalena Rybarikova made an out-of-nowhere run to the 2017 Wimbledon semifinals. Yes, Timea Bacsinszky has reached the Roland Garros semifinals. There are terrific practitioners of all-shot excellence in women’s tennis who have used their deft touch and clever play to achieve well… but Radwanska is the foremost exemplar of this way of being. She got more mileage out of it than her peers who tried the same approach.

Ultimately, Radwanska is the best embodiment in modern women’s tennis of how far variety can carry a player in what is often a cookie-cutter sport.

Women’s tennis is very healthy, as I noted at the start of this piece. Yet, when considering how it could become even better, an answer which always rises to the surface of consciousness is the addition of more variety into rallies.

So many women’s tennis matches put the ball on a string. Forehands and backhands, hit hard and consistently and well, from two players who move laterally just behind the baseline, create powerful and involving exchanges. The drama is considerable and the intensity unmistakable… but are the two players using the best, most direct route to winning a point? Not all the time. When two players are on the same level in terms of talent or the present day’s form, it makes sense to want to trade punches and see if your strength is stronger than your opponent’s strength. The natural and sound logic behind that approach is obvious: If you can break down your opponent’s strength, you win every important battle in a match — the tactical battle, the mental battle, the physical battle. If you are on even terms with another player and you think your strength can win the day, sure, go for it. That’s smart.

When variety comes into the picture is when the other player is more talented or — if not necessarily TALENTED — physically imposing. When you know another athlete has a higher ceiling of skill and potential and is demonstrating the capacity to actualize said potential, you can’t go blow for blow with that superior game. You, as the opponent, have to find ways to disrupt that superior game and get the better athlete to hesitate, doubt and overthink.

Tennis, like baseball, is a sport played with a stick the athlete swings in order to hit a ball hard. In baseball, the old saying is that “Good pitching stops good hitting.” Pitchers try to throw pitches at speeds and locations which cause talented hitters to hesitate, doubt, and overthink. The hitter who is comfortable will hit the ball hard and squarely. The hitter who is uncomfortable will still hit the ball, but not on the sweet spot of the bat. A hitter aspires to hit the ball very long or very hard, if not both. A good pitcher causes hitters to hit the ball short distances, generally on the ground, and with very little velocity.

It is much the same in tennis. How can a player hit shots the opponent will struggle to handle? How can a player cause her opponent to make more errors, or to hit short balls which can be turned into winners? How can a player turn a ferocious hitter into a hesitant, error-spraying machine who is completely off balance?

Variety — that’s how.

Not feeding pace — that’s how.

Angles — that’s how.

Taking the ball early to deprive the opponent of extra time in which to retrieve a shot — that’s how.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the queen of court craft, studied and developed those arts to near-perfection. Her low and deep knee bends enabled her to quickly and accurately redirect a screaming return of serve hit right at her. The quickness of the redirection deprived the opponent of time to reset after hitting that go-for-broke return. Radwanska turned her opponents’ power against them.

Radwanska realized better than most that on a tour loaded with powerful baseline hitters who loved the ball-on-a-string nature of traditional diagonal rallies and patterns, an ability to change speeds and create angles would get those hitters out of their strike zones. Radwanska used all of a ball to shape her shots. She used a fuller arsenal of speed variations and placements than most. She incorporated net play into her game more than most.

What was the result of this constant offering of variety? Radwanska made a lot out of a career which regularly lacked an imposing serve. To be more precise, few players in recent memory got more out of an assortment of tennis skills which did not include a particularly effective serve.

So many players — men in particular, but women as well — fit into the category of players who need their serve to be effective in order to win matches. A broader layer of players don’t necessarily need their serve to be great, but they do need to hit a very hard, flat assortment of groundstrokes in order to feel they are in control of a match. If their powerful shots aren’t finding the mark, they don’t have a Plan B.

Agnieszka Radwanska never ran into that problem. Despite a serve which constantly limited her margin for error, she attained World No. 2, battled Serena for a Wimbledon title, and produced an outrageously successful career.

This is how far variety can take a tennis player. Young tennis players can learn a lot from Aga.

If young players can learn an enormous amount from your career, your legacy in the larger run of tennis history is substantial.

This is what the name “Radwanska” will continue to mean 20, 30 and 50 years from now.

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Darren Cahill Writes a Story of Evolution and Elasticity

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Great coaches in any sport certainly have a few things in common, but when I compare tennis coaches to coaches in other sports, I usually keep coming back to basketball.

Why is this?

American-style football involves mass-scale organizational skills and a lot of delegating to assistants who help the operation go forward. This isn’t to say that delegating and teamwork aren’t part of tennis coaching staffs, but 53-man NFL rosters and 85-man college rosters are very different beasts compared to tennis player management.

Baseball gets into hands-on intervention in players’ situations. Managers must tightly manage pitch counts and engineer matchups within games. They are immersed in each game — their imprints are all over the little plot twists which comprise a baseball game in ways that tennis coaches aren’t, at least at the major-tournament level. American football, baseball, and also hockey are so much about who plays — and how often — and in what combinations. Those sports distance themselves from the solo-athlete arena of tennis.

Of the various team sports I study, basketball is the one which most closely resembles tennis in terms of the relationship between the coach and the athlete.

Like hockey, basketball is 5-on-5, but unlike hockey, basketball involves a much smaller rotation of players during a game, often less than half of the players who rotate in and out of a hockey game. When the NBA basketball playoffs arise, it is relatively common for only seven or eight players to play extended minutes (more than 20 in a 48-minute game). Yes, there is in-game coaching, unlike tennis. Yes, coaches are intervening in the action and trying to create favorable matchups, unlike tennis.

Yet, so much of the battle in basketball comes down to a coach’s ability to get the most out of one or two great players and find ways to build a small supporting cast around the superstar or two stars.

Is this not what Steve Kerr, for example, has done with the Golden State Warriors?

Mark Jackson, Kerr’s predecessor, had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green on his roster in 2014. That team did not win a single playoff series. Kerr stepped in the very next year and won 67 of 82 regular-season games, giving Golden State the best record in the league and a world championship.

The talent was already there. It took a person to get through to those two shooters — Curry and Thompson — and enable Green to figure out how to blend with them. As soon as the right person arrived as a teacher, a very small group of athletes took off.

No, basketball isn’t a solo-athlete sport — it is a team game — but it comes very close to tennis in some ways.

With this being said, Darren Cahill — whose partnership with WTA No. 1 Simona Halep ended this past week due to a desire to spend more time with family — is in many ways the Gregg Popovich of tennis.

Why this comparison and not a comparison to other great professional basketball coaches in recent years?

Here is the explanation:

Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has shown a constant ability to adjust to players… and enable players to adjust to situations. A few details shine through in Popovich’s career which magnify that statement.

Popovich won his first NBA title in 1999, his most recent in 2014, a 15-year span. He has therefore remained relevant and able to exist in the constraints of the present moment. Industries can and do change over 15 years, so an ability to adapt is an absolute necessity for high-quality longevity, as opposed to a short burst of three or four years when a coach simply has the best players and can ride that wave. Succeeding over 15 years requires something more. Popovich has shown that.

What emerges more precisely in Pop’s prosperous basketball journey is that he has mentored athletes in their very early years, their mid-career primes, and their late-career years.

Popovich coached a very young Tim Duncan to the 1999 NBA title. He coached Duncan as an old-man athlete to the 2014 NBA title. Duncan won that 2014 championship just after turning 38, which Roger Federer will turn next August.

Popovich coached a very young Tony Parker to the 2003 NBA championship. He was there with Parker 11 years later for the 2014 title run with the Spurs. Manu Ginobili was in his prime with the Spurs in 2003. He played until age 40 under Popovich’s guidance.

The one other particularly defining aspect of Popovich’s career is that he was able to win in different ways. The first four NBA championship teams Pop had with the Spurs were defense-first teams which focused on relentless pressure and robust effort in rebounding the ball. It’s not as though the Spurs de-emphasized rebounding or effort in the latter years of the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio, but they did become an offense-first team which played at a faster pace, tried to win games with scoring, and paid new attention to 3-point shooting. Pop readjusted his priorities and gave his aging players more freedom on offense, changing the way his team normally played. Basic principles didn’t leave the picture, but the change freshened the minds and bodies of the older Spurs, who continued to win large numbers of games and remained a foremost contender for NBA titles.

In these details, one can find some strong connections with Darren Cahill’s coaching career.

First of all, Cahill won a major title with Lleyton Hewitt at the 2001 U.S. Open. He won a major with Simona Halep at the 2018 Roland Garros tournament. That 17-year gap is similar to Popovich’s 15-year run with titles at both ends of that time span.

Much as Popovich won with very young, middle-aged (in an athlete’s terms, not a biological human being’s terms), and old athletes, Cahill did the very same thing. He won big with a young Hewitt. Then he won with an old, late-career version of Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open. In 2018, he won with the 26-year-old Halep at the French Open, one year after guiding her to year-end World No. 1, which Halep replicated this season.

Cahill took on three very distinct challenges and met them all. It’s not so much that he won major titles with three different players; it’s that he won titles with three different players at three very distinct stages of experience and understanding. THAT is the more specific connection with Popovich which stands above everything else.

Another potent and important detail: Cahill won with players on both the ATP and WTA Tours. In that sense, he crossed a bridge from one form of tennis to another, akin to Popovich winning with one style in the first decade of this century and then with a noticeably different style in the second decade of this century. (The Spurs’ reinvention occurred in their 2010-2011 season.)

Richard Williams, Marian Vajda, Toni Nadal, Tony Roche, and Paul Annacone have won larger amounts of major titles as tennis coaches. That makes them a lot like Phil Jackson, who has won several more titles than Popovich. Jackson, though, hitched his wagon to superstars to win his titles: Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson won because he knew how to make use of the overwhelming athletic abilities of the men who were the best players in the NBA when in their primes. That applied to Jordan in the early 1990s, Shaq circa 2000, and Kobe in 2009 and 2010.

Popovich did have great players, but his great players were not takeover artists who physically dominated their opponents the way Jordan, Shaq and Kobe did. Popovich cultivated players who played blended games and had to problem-solve to succeed. That’s the Cahill way, which emerged in players who either weren’t very tall, couldn’t serve huge on a consistent basis, or both.

Hewitt’s rise to major-tournament glory at age 20 in late 2001 is — viewed through the lens of the Big 3 era — a relatively rare achievement. Agassi’s productive endurance and headline-generating resilience into his age-35 season felt like an astounding feat at the time. Cahill squeezed that out of Andre. The idea that Halep would ascend to the top of the sport and cement that rise with a major tournament championship was something plenty of tennis people always thought was possible, but no one could have known for sure. It wasn’t exactly — to borrow a basketball term — a slam dunk. Yet, Cahill got Halep over the threshold.

Cahill isn’t a wandering nomad the way Wim Fissette is. I compared Fissette to another basketball coach at Tennis With An Accent.

Cahill walked a lot of miles with a few players and enabled them to reach their potential. He won with youngsters and oldsters and athletes in between. He won at the very start of this century and was still winning in 2018 before he took this break from coaching.

Gregg Popovich set a very high standard in basketball. Darren Cahill’s coaching quality is worthy of a comparison with the sage of San Antonio.

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