Coco Gauff & the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule

The talent & star power of fifteen-year-old Coco Gauff is undeniable.

There are maybe five or six tennis players who are truly household names. Now, when I say “household name”, I mean a name that doesn’t require any introduction or commencement of their Grand Slam titles or Weeks at No. 1. Household status belongs to only a select few, players like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova.

After her Cinderella runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, Coco Gauff is already one of those names.

Call Me Coco

However, arriving alongside her crossover success is scrutiny of the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule by tennis analysts & media alike.

The WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule is a core element of the WTA’s Player Development Program, which aims to “promote and enhance players’ career fulfillment, safety, and well-being.”

As the rule states, “A 15-year-old may play up to 10 professional events (WTA & ITF Women’s Circuit), WTA Championships (if she qualifies), plus Fed Cup.” However, as a player grows older, the number of tournaments they are eligible for increases.

In light of Gauff’s recent success, many have called upon the WTA to revise the Age Eligibility Rule or do away with the regulation altogether.

Lindsay Davenport argues that the Rule limits Gauff’s ability to climb the rankings and win titles, citing a 17-year-old Martina Hingis’ 1997 season to support her case. Similarly, Martina Navratilova contends that the rule unnecessarily piles more pressure on the young American to produce her best results within her limited tournament appearances. Lastly, some argue that the Rule robs fans of the chance to view one of their favorite players in action (and, after all, tennis like all sports is about the fans).

However, we can’t lose sight of why this Rule exists: to protect young players.

Consider Andrea Jaeger, who vaulted to the top of the sport at the age of 16. She reached the 1983 Wimbledon Final by beating Billie Jean King 6-1, 6-1 only to succumb to Martina Navratilova 0-6, 3-6. The reason for the shockingly lackluster performance? Emotional fatigue. The night before the match, Andrea’s notoriously controlling father locked her out of her apartment due to an argument from practice. Ultimately, Andrea had to rely on Navratilova’s help to convince her father to let her back in.

Andrea Jaeger

Consider Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon at the age of 17. She seemed destined for a fruitful career, only to retire three years later due in order to escape physical and financial abuse from her father. It was only after fleeing to Florida and rediscovering her love of the game with a new coach that she returned on tour, returning to a Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open at the age of 35.

Consider Jelena Dokic, whose years of mental abuse by her father led to her changing her nationality not once, but twice, and caused her to miss the middle section of what could have been a storied career.

The tennis world seems to be in agreement that Coco’s parents aren’t your usual tennis parents. Even Andrea Jaeger has taken note, observing in the WTA Insider podcast, “I’ve seen some interviews with her parents and they seem really well adjusted.”

However, it’s impossible to alter the Rule à la carte for Coco, a player who seems adjusted and ready for primetime, without simultaneously making players with less stable teams & families vulnerable.

When asked about her opinion on the issue, Coco admits, “I definitely understand why the rule is there; it’s to protect the player.” When pressed further on whether she’d play more, she explains, “Even if the restrictions weren’t there, I wouldn’t play as much as the older players do, just because I am still trying to develop my game and train.” “I would obviously play more than the [current] rules state, but I don’t want to over-do it because I’m still fifteen…”

While we all want more Coco, it is extremely important to find a happy medium that allows these young players to play while instilling further safeguards protecting these same players from potential abuse.

A Thorough Analysis & Predictions: 2019 US Open Women’s Singles

A year ago, entering the US Open, I wrote about how the stakes were as high as ever for the usual suspects on the WTA Tour.

Serena was seeking to tie Margaret Court’s elusive record by claiming her first Grand Slam post-pregnancy. Maria Sharapova was attempting to redeem herself following her doping suspension. Halep was looking to cement herself as the undisputed leader of a tour increasingly defined by parity. Former Grand Slam Champions Kerber, Kvitova, and Muguruza were seeking to re-establish themselves amongst the game’s elite.

After one revolution around the sun, many of these narratives remain intact. If anything, several new wrinkles have arrived.

Firstly, we’ve got the arrivals of several newcomers, led by World No. 1 & 2, Naomi Osaka & Ashleigh Barty who enter this year’s championships with the experience of lifting Grand Slam hardware.  Furthermore, we’ve got the likes of even younger WTA rookies Bianca Andreescu and Sofia Kenin knocking on the door to the podium. Last, but not least, we’ve got the cloud of last year’s final hanging over the entire tournament.

Enough of introductions. Let’s dive deep into the matchups that the draw gods have given us.

First Quarter

20180908 Serena Williams v Naomi Osaka - Day 13
September 8, 2018 – Naomi Osaka in action against Serena Williams in the women’s singles final at the 2018 US Open.

If Naomi Osaka is feeling any nerves heading into her first attempt at defending a Grand Slam title (or any achiness in her knee for that matter), her draw is exactly the kind that could expose those anxieties.

Entering the first title defense of her career, earlier this year, at Indian Wells, Naomi threw the pressure off, explaining that she didn’t perceive the task as a title “defense” but more as an opportunity to win another title. However, after bowing out in the quarterfinals to Belinda Bencic, she admitted to feeling nervous.

Crippling anxiety has been a recurring theme for the young Japanese this season. After bowing out early in Madrid (again, to Belinda Bencic–take note), Naomi explained that the desire to secure top seeding at Roland Garros got to her. Even after claiming the top position, her nerves attributed to her sputtering loss to Katerina Siniakova in the third round of Paris. In her post-match presser, she explained that she has been thinking too much about “the calendar-year Grand Slam…

If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it is that Naomi holds only the highest of expectations for herself. While these expectations give her the motivation necessary to reach the pinnacle of the sport, they can also send her reeling for months on end.

In an open letter to fans before the North American hardcourt swing, Naomi claimed to have rediscovered a love for the sport. Judging solely from her on-court demeanor in Toronto and Cincinnati this seems to be true. This revelation becomes all the more interesting when you consider the fact that last year Naomi penned a similar letter before pummeling her way through the field at Flushing Meadows.

However, this year, the situation is much different. Naomi is a two-time Grand Slam champion, World No. 1, and the uncomfortable circumstances of last year’s certainly linger.

Furthermore, Naomi’s draw pits her against many in-form players who will be swinging freely. Her first round opponent, Anna Blinkova, recently reached the quarterfinals of New York’s other tournament, the NYJTL Bronx Open, claiming a bagel set versus the tournament’s top seed, Wang Qiang, before taking a bow. In the second round, she could face Magda Linette, who, at the time of writing this article, is slated to play in the final of the Bronx Open on Saturday. Beyond that, she could face the tour’s newest superstar, Coco Gauff, in round three and if she is to move on to the fourth round she could face the player who has repeatedly had her number this season, Belinda Bencic. Also lurking in her section are Marie Bouzkova (recent Cincinnati semifinalist), Julia Pegula (2019 Washington, D.C. champion), and Annett Kontaveit, who recently beat Maria Sharapova in a three-set thriller and pushed Ash Barty to the brink last week.

The bottom half of this quarter is helmed by Kiki Bertens, who has firmly entrenched herself in the Top 10 after surging into the game’s elite at the tail end of last year. However, the only blemish on the Dutchwoman’s resume in the past year has been a deep run at a slam. She seemed primed to make a deep run in Paris only to be sabotaged by an untimely gastrointestinal virus. Unfortunately, her preparation for Open has been less-than-ideal, posting a 1-2 record on North American hardcourts (losing to Bianca Andreescu and Venus Williams respectively). However, her draw is more than manageable with the strongest competition she will have to face being slumping No. 9 seed Aryna Sabalenka who takes on former two-time US Open Finalist, Viktoria Azarenka in the first round.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Bertens

Second Quarter

Halep

The second quarter provides two of the more interesting sections of the draw.

The top half is led by fourth seed, recent Wimbledon champion, and Romanian superstar, Simona Halep, and is bookended by breakout sensation, 2019 Rogers Cup Champion, and Romanian-born Canadian, Bianca Andreescu.

Despite retiring in her quarterfinal match against Marie Bouzkova in Toronto, due to an Achilles injury, Simona looked to be playing near her highest level during her titanic tussle against eventual Champion, Madison Keys, in Cincinnati.

She’s got the draw to make the second week, however, lying in wait will likely be Bianca Andreescu. Bianca will be riding a surge of momentum following her second seemingly out-of-nowhere run this year, claiming the title in Toronto and defeating the likes of Kiki Bertens, Karolina Pliskova, and Serena Williams in the process.

Ironically. it was after a hitting practice with Simona Halep in Toronto in 2017 that the young Canadian gained the confidence necessary to pursue a career in the sport (and look how successful that has already turned out). Should the Halep-Andreescu match up come to pass, it will be interesting to see who emerges the victor. It could signify the limits to Bianca’s potential (if she has any). Destiny seems to be on her side, but logic tells me that Simona still has the edge in that matchup.

While the top half is dominated by two marquee headliners, the bottom is an ultimate duke-out. With

It is led by fourth seed and recent Wimbledon champion, Simona Halep and is bookended by a section containing five grand slam champions with eight Grand Slam titles between them. Sloane Stephens. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza. Only one will make the fourth round. The projected prize for the sole survivor of the bloodbath? A date with Petra Kvitova.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Simona Halep

Third Quarter

US Open Pliskova.jpg

Eagerly seeking to remove herself from the WTA’s shortlist of slamless No. 1’s, Karolina Pliskova leads this quarter of the draw. While the Czech’s big serve and booming groundstrokes make her a logical pick to win Wimbledon, the US Open has been the site of her biggest success. In 2016, she reached the Final by beating the sisters Willams in succession and seemed poised to raise the trophy before Kerber’s forehand down-the-line turned the tide of the match. In the ensuing years, she’s reached two quarterfinals and looks to build upon a solid season in New York.

Karolina leads the WTA’s hardcourt power rankings and she has a manageable draw. Nearby Karolina’s name on the drawsheet are Bernarda Pera and Jamie Brady, players who have experienced recent success during the Summer hardcourt swing. Additionally, she could face former Top 10 player Carolina Garcia, reigning French Open open Finalist Marketa Vondrousova, 2011 US Open Champion Sam Stosur, or a resurgent Johana Konta.

The other half of this section is led by recent Wimbledon semifinalist Elina Svitolina. However, her draw can be considered brutal at best. She opens against junior standout Whitney Osuigwe and could have to face the likes of Venus Williams, San Jose Champion Zheng Saisai, gold-medalist Monica Puig or big-hitting rookie Dayana Yastremska. The other side of this section lies recent Cincinnati champion and former US Open finalist, Madison Keys, and Sofia Kenin who made back-to-back Premier Mandatory semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Karolina Pliskova

Fourth Quarter

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While the fourth and final quarter is led by No. 2 seed, reigning Roland Garros Champion and recent World No. 1, Ashleigh Barty, all attention in this section falls upon the titanic match-up of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

With twenty-eight Major titles between them, the duo remains the tour’s premier rivalry (albeit a one-sided one) even fifteen hours after the first matchup. Their first-round face-off will undoubtedly sell out Arthur Ashe.

While Serena is coming off of back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Sharapova is coming into the match with a 2-3 record since returning to tour from injury in Mallorca. However, despite all signs pointing to an outright beatdown, I think this match might be Maria’s best chance to beat Serena in fifteen years. Serena enters the match with a bad back and boatloads of pressure given the circumstances of last year’s final whereas Sharapova has nothing to lose. While I don’t think Sharapova has the form or fitness to win the tournament, I think she’s got the hunger necessary to exploit any and all nerves Serena might face upon returning to Ashe for the first time since “the incident”.

Beyond Serena & Maria, spoilers include the crafty Su-Wei Hsieh, giant-killer Karolina Muchova, 2018 semifinalist Anastasia Sevastova (who seemed to crumble under the pressure of being ten points away from attaining a Top 10 ranking in recent weeks), and former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

Flying under the radar is Ashleigh Barty, who only weeks ago was the No. 1 ranked player in the world. In-form players she could face include Camila Giorgi (recent Washington, D.C. and Bronx Open finalist), Maria Sakkari (who has secured three top 10 wins in as many weeks), and a resurgent Lauren Davis. Also sitting in this section is 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, however, she seems to be out of sorts since returning to bottoming out in the second round of Wimbledon.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Ashleigh Barty

SEMIFINAL PREDICTIONS

Halep d. Bertens

Pliskova d. Barty

 

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Halep d. Pliskova

Willpower as a Weapon

We are in the midst of another jaw-dropping run by Canadian phenom, Bianca Andreescu.

Never before have I seen a player imbue so much panache in her game. 

She’s got it all. She’s got power. She’s got placement. She’s able to run down just about every ball. She owns every shot in the book (and I mean every shot–she very rarely hits the same shot twice). 

She’s been thrown the gauntlet of draws in 2019 and she’s thrown the gauntlet back, amassing a 38-4 record as she heads into Sunday afternoon’s Rogers Cup final versus Serena Williams. 

Despite all of those weapons, I’d say that the biggest of them all would be her unparalleled willpower. 

Bianca comes to win. End of the matter. Time and time again this year, we’ve seen this will to win carry her over the finish line versus the cream of the crop on the WTA Tour.

Wozniacki. Venus. Muguruza. Svitolina. Bertens. Pliskova. Kerber (twice). Andreescu has claimed the scalps of each of these WTA veterans this year, collecting a 6-0 career record versus Top 10 opponents in the process.

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The force of her willpower is so strong that it seems to take the racquet out of the hand of her opponent–no matter who is on the other side of the net. In Friday’s quarterfinal match versus Karolina Pliskova, her presence intimidated the Czech into submission. Following her second consecutive win over Angelique Kerber in Miami, the typically cool German was clearly unsettled, calling Andreescu “the biggest drama queen ever” while shaking hands at the net.

However, that’s not to say that the strength of her willpower doesn’t lead to her detriment. She seems to have a tendency to ignore when her body has called it quits, racking up a recurring shoulder injury in the process.

Andreescu Injru

I see a lot of parallels between her and the immensely talented Argentinian, Juan Martin del Potro. Del Potro has often been described to have “a heart as big as his forehand” (his comeback run to the 2016 Olympic Final has to be one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking runs in recent tennis history). While del Potro has tasted tennis’ ultimate glory, hoisting the US Open trophy in 2009, he has also stomached the pain of missing many years due to injury. 

In terms of a career, I think Andreescu’s willpower is a weapon that will undoubtedly lead her to Grand Slam glory in the future. However, I also fear it can affect the longevity of her career if not harnessed by the right team.

Where in the World is Jelena Jankovic?

As the US Open Series begins, I want to call attention to the mysterious and silent disappearance of a WTA veteran and former US Open Finalist, Jelena Jankovic, from the Tour.

Eleven years ago, the Serbian star was at the height of her career. She reached the 2008 US Open final–losing to Serena Williams in a highly competitive and entertaining two-setter. A couple of months later she secured Year-End No. 1. 

Jelena US OPen

Unlike her contemporaries Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina, Jelena never wilted from the extra attention that came with reaching the summit of the sport. In fact, Jelena thirsted for the show courts, commercial deals, and packed press rooms; she lived for the limelight.

While she remained in the game’s upper echelon for the next two subsequent seasons, her all-around consistency never put her in the position to vie for Grand Slam glory again.

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Joining the notorious club of “Slamless World No. 1s”, many tennis experts chalked up Jelena’s deficits to her defensive-oriented game. Compared to fellow ‘Slamless No.1’, Caroline Wozniacki, who spent the better part of a decade refusing to adjust her game, Jelena made adjustments almost immediately. Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Jelena gained sixteen pounds of muscle (yes–sixteen) in order to imbue more power into her relatively week serve and trademark down-the-line shots. However, the extra bulk proved to work to her detriment, hampering her agility so significantly that she failed to make a deep run at a Slam again until 2010. 

If anything, her hamartia (or fatal flaw) proved to be her mentality. Too often Jelena would take herself out of matches by berating her box or chastising the umpire. These problems became obvious when she suffered a two-season slide in 2011. When she reemerged in 2013, her melodramatic nature remained. Unsurprisingly, that season would be her last Top 10 finish.

It is interesting to note that when Jelena began her decent in 2014, a mini-rivalry emerged between her and a player who carried similar critiques from tennis pundits: Simona Halep. A future “Slamless No. 1”. Simona too was criticized for her passive tendencies and for headcase nature. When the pair faced off five times between 2013 and 2015, it was the Romanian who emerged victorious on every occasion. While it may not have been apparent at the time, this quintet of matchups signified the divergent journies these two players would embark upon. While Simona has famously exorcised her mental demons and gone on to win not one, but two Grand Slam singles titles, Jelena has faded into obscurity.

In 2018, after 56 consecutive appearances in Grand Slams (the third-longest streak in the WTA record books and sixth-longest streak across both tours), Jelena announced that she’d be skipping Melbourne in order to rehab a back injury. Moreover, after going winless since July of 2017, she admitted that she had been contemplating retirement.

Jelena Fall 2.jpg

After undergoing an eye procedure later that year, Jelena seemed poised to formalize these plans. She sent an invitation to journalists to a press conference in Rome–the site of her two most notable championships. In fact, her close friend and sometimes double partner, Andrea Petkovic, alluded to the announcement in a farewell message recorded in Charleston (on a side note: if you haven’t viewed their annual Charleston media day interviews, I highly suggest taking a peek–they’ll leave you in stitches). However, in the end, the event was called off, seemingly when the announcement of hometown darling, Roberta Vinci, announced that the tournament would be the site of her retirement (remember, Jelena is not one to be upstaged.)

Since, the former World No. 1 has vanished without a trace. The only mentions of her in the news have been the sale of her Rancho Santa Fe mansion for $13.5 million. 

However, after going radio silent, the former World No. 1 has reemerged on social media, posting photos and videos from a mysterious vacation— offering no indication of any preparation for a return to the WTA Tour.

As it stands, Jelena is one of two active players (without the surname Williams) who hold at least four wins over Serena. Additionally, she’s one of six active players who have ever claimed Year-End No. 1. However, she is also the only Year-End No. 1 without a Slam.

Whatever the outcome may, given her tenacity & outspoken nature, the story of Jelena Jankovic deserves a louder ending than one that fades into obscurity within the annals of Tennis History.

A Thorough Analysis and Predictions: Australian Open Women’s Singles

wozoz1

While the tennis off-season is the shortest of nearly all professional sports, for the avid tennis fanatic, those ten weeks can feel unbearably long. I’m sure the players feel otherwise, with only a couple weeks to rehab their bodies before they resume their training. Nonetheless, the dust has finally cleared and the players are ready to vie for Grand Slam Glory once again.

Since my last preview, it feels like many of the storylines we’ll watch unfold during the fortnight remain unchanged. Serena is still in pursuit of Grand Slam trophy No. 24, Sharapova & Azarenka are still looking to recharge their comebacks, while Simona is looking to solidify her dominance over the tour.

Let’s preview this year’s draw:

FIRST QUARTER:

ozhalep

It must seem like déjà vu all over again for Simona Halep. Entering last year’s US Open, Simona seemed unstoppable, compiling a 9-1 record in seven days (that’s a “slam-and-a-half’s worth of matches). Somehow, Kaia Kanepi didn’t get the memo and blew the World No. 1 off the court in straight sets in the first round.

Somehow the draw gods have tapped the two to tango in the first round of the year’s first major again. However, the parallels to year’s Open don’t stop there. Like last year, the Sisters Williams have been drawn in her proximity. She’s projected to face Venus in round three and Serena in round four.

Last year, Simona’s herculean effort to reach the final was one of the most memorable Grand Slam runs this century, surviving a sprained ankle and two marathon matches to only to falter during the last hurdle in the final (being sent to the hospital after suffering from dehydration–no less). This year, she doesn’t look primed to replicate the same success. Recovering from a herniated disk, Halep has only played three matches since the US Open and enters the tournament short on match-experience. While coming in with low expectations might mean that she’s able to swing freely, something tells me that the question marks concerning the strength of her back will hold her back.

All in all, I’d say this section is Serena’s for the taking. She could face a re-inspired Eugenie Bouchard in the second round (who loves to step it up for big matches). Additionally, in the fourth round, she’s likely to face her sister Venus. Nonetheless, Serena looks fitter than ever and will be the favorite against whomever she faces.

In the bottom half of the draw, sit Karolina Pliskova, Daria Kasatkina, Gabiñe Muguruza, and Camila Giorgi. Karolina and Camila enter the Happy Slam looking hot, with Karolina opening her season by winning Brisbane and Camila ending 2018 with a title in Linz. Conversely, Dasha and Garbiñe come into Oz with question marks hanging over their heads, bottoming out during their AO tune-ups.

Whoever wins the third round match between Karolina and Camila, I expect will reach the quarterfinals. However, if they face Serena in that match, I don’t think either will prevail. Last year, both Karolina and Camila faced off against Serena in the quarterfinals of a Slam after having built up some serious steam during their first four matches. In the end, they both lost.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: S. Williams

SECOND QUARTER:

20180908 Serena Williams v Naomi Osaka - Day 13
September 8, 2018 – Naomi Osaka in action against Serena Williams in the women’s singles final at the 2018 US Open.

In this section of the draw lie three players carrying great expectations heading into the new season. First and foremost is Naomi Osaka. Since becoming a star overnight with her controversy-ridden upset over Serena Williams in the US Open final, Naomi has handled the pressure well. She hasn’t shrunken from the big stage like most first-time Grand Slam champs, reaching the finals of Tokyo, semifinals of Beijing, and, most recently, the semifinals of Brisbane. Osaka is no fluke and she’s out to prove it.

Last year, Naomi was proud to reach the fourth round in Australia. It was the first time that she had ever gone past the third round at a major in five attempts. Slated to face then-newly-minted World No. 1 Simona Halep, who had just survived a nearly four-hour marathon against Lauren Davis (on a sprained ankle, no less), Naomi seems primed to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Instead, she sprayed balls wildly and Halep coasted to victory in about an hour. In the past year, Naomi has undergone a complete transformation, developing into a cool, calm, and collected competitor who’s able to temper patience with power. I firmly believe that this reformed attitude and gameplan will inevitably lead her to more Slams in the future–if not soon.

Her draw certainly suggests that she’s primed for a deep run as well. Opening against World No. 83 in the first round, her first challenge comes in round three, against either former World No. 1 & two-time Australian Open Champion Victoria Azarenka or junk-baller and giant-killer Hsieh Su-Wei. She handled her projected fourth round opponent Anastasia Sevastova well in Brisbane, showcasing her superior serve and newfound problem-solving abilities.

Her other potential fourth round opponent is Qiang Wang, who is another player carrying great expectations heading into 2019. Surging at the end of last year, amassing a 23-6 record after the US Open (reaching three finals),  she was declared by many to be the successor to Li Na’s legacy. However, in 2019, she’s only played one match thus far, a loss to Alison Riske en route to the final of Shenzhen.

This quarter of the draw is headlined by Elina Svitolina, who sit in the bottom half. By winning the WTA Finals last year, she finally put the rumors surrounding her sudden weight loss to rest and reignited questions surrounding her Grand Slam hijinx. While Wozniacki was able to leverage the momentum earned from her WTA Finals win in order to finally get the Grand Slam hoodoo off of her back, I don’t expect the same from Svitolina this go around. She lost her opening match to a red-hot Sasnovich while attempting to defend her title in Brisbane and her draw poses her against a couple players who could exploit the nerves she has to be feeling. She opens up against an in-form qualifier and in the third round, she could face another WTA Finals champion, Dominika Cibulkova.

At the top of her section sit last year’s semifinalist, Elise Mertens, and the always dangerous Madison Keys. Mertens’ level seems to have hit its peak and she has yet to earn another signature win over a Top 10 player at a big event since her breakthrough triumph over Svitolina in last year’s quarters. On the other hand, Madison enters the event with no match play, being the only player to not participate in any tune-ups heading into OZ so as to rehab some lingering injuries. Last year, Madison Keys entered almost every Grand Slam with little match experience and was still able to reach at least the quarterfinals of three of them and I expect her to be a contender this time, nonetheless.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Osaka

THIRD QUARTER:

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If the second quarter of the draw is characterized by expectations, the third is defined by a battle between two generations. Can the veterans put the young-guns at bay?

The top section of the quarter is led by Petra Kvitova who seems to be in top form. Reaching the semifinals of Sydney (at the time of writing) and claiming the scalp of Angelique Kerber, Kvitova seems primed for a deep run.

Standing in her way is another surging player: Belinda Bencic. A former Top 10 player, Belinda’s past three seasons have been derailed by injuries resulting in a loss of confidence for the young Swiss. However, her stellar performance alongside Roger Federer at the Hopman Cup seems to have inspired her current run of form, leading her to the semis of Hobart this week (at the time of writing). Last year, Bencic entered the tournament on a streak, claiming to $125k titles and upsetting Venus Williams in the first round. Projected to go far, the weight of expectations bore heavily on the young Swiss and she bottomed out to Luksika Khumkhum 1 & 3 in the following round.

Whichever player survives to make the second week will face either red hot veteran Lesia Tsurenko or the explosive Aryna Sabalenka. While the former reached the Brisbane final last week, coming within two points of victory, Aryna is by far the more dangerous player. Aryna ended 2018 by winning Wuhan and starting this year’s campaign by lifting the trophy in Shenzhen (as the top seed, no less). At 20-years of age, she seems to possess enough maturity to control her explosive repertoire while also carrying enough naive confidence to feel like she should win every match she plays.

Only last year, she was laughed off the court by the Melbourne crowd for her grunts during her match against home-favorite, Ash Barty. This year, I think she’ll be cheered on by fans as she clobbers her way through the field in Melbourne Park. I foresee her becoming an unstoppable force in 2019.

Speaking of Ash Barty, she’s one of the challengers that will test defending champion, Caroline Wozniacki in the bottom half of this quarter. Ending her season by hoisting the biggest title of her career at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, Barty seems to have returned with a new, matured attitude. In fact, it has already paid dividends, already claiming the scalps of Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza.

 

Conversely, Wozniacki arrives in Melbourne to defend her title with a few questions hanging over her head. While she was finally able to exorcize her Grand Slam demons at last year’s Australian Open, the rest of her year was below-average until her title in Beijing. After that tournament, she revealed her recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Insisting that the condition can be managed, she recognizes that her energy levels fluctuate day-to-day and I don’t expect the conditions in Melbourne to be kind to her.

Beyond Barty, other challengers standing in her way include two Maria’s: Sakkari and Sharapova. I actually think that the former poses a greater threat in Oz than the latter. Sakkari comes into the tournament after an extremely successful run at the Hopman Cup alongside her childhood friend Stefanos Tsitsipas. Their win against Federer in mixed doubles will undoubtedly be a highlight of her season and hopefully inspire a run of form that lasts throughout the year. Conversely, Sharapova enters Melbourne on a low. Retiring against Sabalenka in Shenzhen after suffering a thigh injury that seeming left her immobilized, she seems further away from recapturing her top-level from than ever before.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Sabalenka

FOURTH QUARTER:

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Compared to the top three quarters of the draw, the fourth quarter is by far the most… boring. While the section is headlined by Angelique Kerber, the rest of the competition doesn’t seem ready to post much of a threat.

The second-highest seed, Sloane Stephens, enters this tournament with a 1-2 record and seems to be listless after her “break” from coach Kamau Murray. Similarly, Caroline Garcia has lost both of her matches to open the year.

The only players who can pose a threat have tricky openers. No. 9 seed, Kiki Bertens, opens up against American Alison Riske, who reached the final of Shenzhen last week while Julia Goerges faces off against another American Danielle Collins, who pushed Kvitova to the limits in Sydney last week.

This quarter is Kerber’s to lose.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Kerber

 

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTIONS

S. Williams d. Osaka

Kerber d. Sabalenka

 

FINAL PREDICTION

Kerber d. S Williams

 

The Changeover: The Uncomfortable Relationship of Garbiñe Muguruza and Sam Sumyk

Is there a more uncomfortable coaching relationship to watch in tennis right now than that of Garbiñe Muguruza and Sam Sumyk?

After watching their not one but two heated exchanges that went viral in Zhuhai this past week during the WTA Elite Trophy, I’d answer that with a de facto, “No.”.

The first made headlines when, in the middle of berating her coach, Mugurza snapped at a nearby cameraman: “Are you going to fucking bother me with a camera?”

 

The second was much shorter, with Sumyk pleading for her to calm down before storming off in fumes:

Sumyk: “Please don’t be upset.”

Muguruza: “But I’m not upset.”

Sumyk: “Fuck you.”

This isn’t the first time that the two have been caught in profanity-laced exchanges. For example, during a tense 0-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 win over American Christina McHale in Miami last year, Sumyk began the changeover with a threat: “Don’t tell me to shut the fuck up ever again.

Muguruza is one of the fiercest and most talented competitors of her generation, being the third-youngest Grand Slam champion and the youngest player currently holding multiple Grand Slam singles titles (defeating the Williams sisters in both finals, no less). She is known for her explosive game, which requires nerves of steel in order to execute.

Whereas when she was new on the tour, she was content with winning a few matches over top players, or a couple titles here and there, since she’s held herself to a much higher standard. In interviews, she’s been candid in admitting that winning is one of the best feelings there is because it validates the work. However, the pressure she puts on herself to win seems to make every match do or die.

More so, she’s known for maintaining this cold composure off court as well, calling it “the mindset of a champion”. (According to fellow head-case, Alizé Cornet, she’s the least friendly in the locker room.) Whereas after her breakthrough, she was known for her humility and down-to-earth persona, since tasting Grand Slam glory, she’s been characterized by a more pompous and dignified aura.

Sumyk’s resume isn’t too shabby either. He’s coached the likes of Vera Zvonareva, Eugenie Bouchard, and, most notably, Victoria Azarenka, leading her to two Grand Slam titles as well as the No. 1 ranking.

While Azarenka seemed to thrive off of his intensity, his other two students seem to have been crushed by his overbearing coaching method that requires total submission of the pupil. Vera Zvonareva reach her two Grand Slam finals after he joined Azarenka’s camp, whereas his stint with Bouchard only lasted six months, with the Canadian stating at the time: “It definitely wasn’t working. There were some big problems, and I just had to make a change.”

While Sumyk certainly deserves credit for coaching Garbiñe to her maiden Grand Slam singles titles at the French Open title in 2016, her results certainly dropped off of a cliff shortly after.

Yes, she did win Wimbledon the following year, but that occurred in Sumyk’s brief absence in order to attend the birth of his daughter. With former No. 2 Conchita Martinez taking over coaching duties, Muguruza notes that the change in pace and coaching style played a major factor in her unlikely victory at the All England Club that year. In fact, the change in temperament was so noticeable that official WTA correspondent, Courtney Mace Nguyen, noted “the look in her eye”, during her Wimbledon preview podcast.

Since that Wimbledon victory, she’s dropped to No. 18 in the rankings, posting a 33-20 record in 2018 alone.

I think the problem belies in a combination of Mugurza’s perfectionist nature and Sumyk’s coaching philosophy. In an interview with the New York Times before her 2018 Roland Garros semifinal encounter with Simona Halep, Sumyk admits: “When she’s suffering on the inside, I know it’s good.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Garbiñe lost that match to Simona, who had her own infamous on-court meltdown in Miami in 2017.

Simona too used to force herself to suffer in order to win. However, more often than not, that suffering forced her to lose many matches from a winnable position. In the end, Darren’s decision to dump his charge and forcing her to learn cold turkey ultimately proved successful in developing Simona into a No. 1 player and one capable of tasting Grand Slam glory.

While I don’t think that either Muguruza or Sumyk are fully to blame for the tenacity in their relationship, I also don’t believe that the partnership stands any chance of bearing fruit come 2019.

Why I’ll Never “Get Past” The US Open Final

It took me a long time to find the energy to write about what I witnessed from Row X (yes, there’s a Row X) of Arthur Ashe Stadium during the US Open Women’s Singles Final on Saturday September 8th.

By posting this reaction now, I’m probably beating a dead horse. However, at the same time, this is probably one of the most important topics to address in the sport of tennis this season—and mostly likely the next few to come.

During the fallout of “the incident” many things were said. And many fingers were pointed.

At umpire, Carlos Ramos.

At Serena.

At the US Open.

And at the tennis community as a whole.

However, I want to be clear: while what transpired on Saturday was unfortunate, it is by no means reflects upon the state of tennis or Serena for the matter. What it reflects upon is the state of society as a whole—it just so happened to transpire on a tennis court.

If you need a catch-up on “the incident” read after the break. If you don’t, scroll below.


The Set-Up

20180908 Serena Williams v Naomi Osaka - Day 13

Serena Williams was playing Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old half-Japanese, half-Haitian upstart in the US Open Final. While Serena was gunning for Grand Slam 24 (her first since her pregnancy), Osaka was looking to achieve a lifelong dream by lifting her first Championship trophy–and triumphing over her childhood idol no less.

Just eight weeks prior, Serena seemed destined for Greatness with her run to the Wimbledon final—only to be stopped in her tracks by an impenetrable Angelique Kerber. Heading into Saturday’s final, the Serena Express seemed to have shaken off the disappointment and primed to go all the way and tie Margaret Court’s record—firmly establishing herself as the undisputed best tennis player of all time and arguably the greatest athlete of all time.

The stakes were set, setting the stage for a tense match.

The Match

From the outset, the nerves were apparent. The fact that Osaka was playing some of the best and most carefree tennis since she pummeled her way to the Indian Wells title in March didn’t help much either. While Serena was pumped, she also appeared flat-footed and listless. Osaka had all the answers. She bulldozed through the first set in just over a half an hour. Serena committed 13 unforced errors compared to Osaka’s 4. She served at a measly 38% in contrast to Osaka who made astounding 73% of her first deliveries.

The second set is when things got dicey.

The Controversy

While trailing 40-15 in Osaka’s opening service game, Serena was issued a coaching violation by chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, after her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gestured for her to move forward from the stands.

Serena, who was already on edge given the fact that she was losing and certainly not playing her best and who has a reputation for never calling her coach, even during tour-level events where on-court coaching is permitted once per set, was set off. She briefly halted play in order to offer a few choice words to Carlos Ramos (“I am not a cheater”).

Serena Ramos 2As Serena should know, the rules clearly state that players may not attempt to communicate with their coach during a Grand Slam-level match—or vice versa. Every player on tour knows this. In this case, the penalty was issued due to Mouratoglou’s actions—not Serena’s. However, given the tense circumstances (being behind and not playing great), she took it personally.

 

After saving break point in her following service game and finally breaking Osaka’s serve (in a dramatic game that went several deuces) to go up 3-1, Serena looked on the cusp of one of her characteristic Houdini-like escapes. However, after going up 30-15 in her subsequent service game, with a chance to hold a commanding 4-1 lead, Serena threw in not one, but two, double faults, ultimately losing the game on an unforced error.

Understandably, Serena smashed her racquet on the ground—an action that, as every player knows, leads to an automatic code violation. This, being her second code violation of the afternoon, automatically generates a point penalty.

Somehow, in the hubbub of the changeover, Serena was unaware of this until the score was announced as Osaka stepped to the baseline when play resumed.

If the first violation conjured a spark in Serena, this violation ignited a full-blown a flame. Serena unloaded on a silent Ramos, reiterating that she “[has] never cheated in [her] life” and that Carlos owed her “an apology”. Again, in the heat of the moment, Serena failed to understand that the issue revolved around coaching—not cheating. She was putting words in the mouth of Ramos, which were simply never there.

When the match resumed, a red-hot Osaka was unfazed and not only leveled the score to 3-3, but immediately broke to lead 4-3—on the cusp of victory and on the cusp of realizing her dream.

To put it nicely, during the changeover, Serena let her emotions get the best of her. You can view the two-minute, one-way exchange for yourself:

Quite honestly, it echoed her dispute with chair umpire Eva Asderaki (“You’re unattractive on the inside. If you’re walking down a hallway and you see me, look away.”) Needless to say, it was difficult to watch.

When play resumed, Serena was issued her third code violation. This time: verbal abuse. The penalty? The forfeit of a game–now making the score 5-3 in Osaka’s favor.

While Serena insisted that she was given the code violation for merely calling the umpire a thief, that wasn’t the case. She received the violation for calling into question the non-biased integrity of the umpire, which directly violates ITF rules.

Calling for the tournament director to come onto court, Serena pleaded her case, insisting, “Many men have said far worse things on this court”.

What Serena’s said is true. In the amateur and early-pro eras of tennis, men like Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nasatse (nicknamed “Nasty” for short), and John McEnroe were famous for their tirades. This history of unruly behavior, particularly from men, is exactly why the code violation system is in place—and they have suffered for it as well.

At the 1990 Australian Open, John McEnroe was disqualified for menacing a line judge. Just last year, at the 2017 US Open, Fabio Fognini was suspended for saying things that can never be repeated in print to an umpire.

To compare two different eras of tennis history is comparing apples and oranges—and the statistics support it. Research from the NY Times shows that men have 62 code violations for verbal abuse since 1998 compared to 16 for women.

In the end, the tournament director informed Serena that the decision could not be reversed, and soon after it was game, set and match. Oska had won.

Needless to say, the trophy ceremony was awkward (at best). There was Serena breaking down on stage trying to convince herself “we’ll get past this”. There was Katrina Adams saying “this isn’t the result we wanted”. And lastly, there were Naomi’s tears.

Osaka Cry


The Takeaway

In the vacuum of the match, the violations that Serena was given were all warranted. Moratoglou admitted to attempting to coach his pupil. Serena did smash her racquet. And Serena did verbally abuse Albert Ramos while questioning his integrity as an official.

However, I sympathize with Serena because we don’t all have the privilege of living in a vacuum. As Serena said in her post-match presser, “I thought back to 2004…”, when the events on court were transpiring. While the sexism involved in the incident is questionable—it’s the effects of sexism that she’s faced in past instances, both on court and off, that surfaced during the match.

It’s an anxiety that disables one from being able to accurately recognize bias in the heat of the moment is the effect of racism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s the kind of insecurity that questions the intentions of those around you during every waking moment of the day. Do they see you for you–or do they see what’s on the outside first? It’s a feeling that some have the privilege of living without. It’s the kind of insecurity that Serena went through before our very eyes on that Saturday afternoon.

When Serena and Naomi cried while on the podium, I cried too. The situation was unfair for everyone involved—Serena, Carlos Ramos, Naomi, the fans, and the sport of tennis at large.

For a sport that has been the harbinger of so much social progress (being the only professional sport where women earn equal prize money on the highest stage, the only Olympic sport where men and women compete directly against each other, and one of the only sports that’s truly international and diverse), the sport looks backwards during moments like these. For the casual viewer, who might falsely characterize tennis as “elitist”, the events that transpired only legitimized this belief. Why would any kid feel comfortable with picking up a racquet if our sport is so consistently characterized with such exclusion?

There’s one thing that everyone inside or watching the event on Louis Armstrong have in common—Serena, Naomi, Carlos Ramos, the USTA, and the fans—that being a love of tennis.

As I said before, when Serena and Naomi cried while on the podium, I cried too. And that’s why I’m won’t get past this for some time to come.