Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017--the year of "Who would have thought...?"

I’m sure that there’s been another year when almost everything on the WTA tour got turned on its head, but I can’t recall when it was. This past year, however, will be a hard one to forget, as every imaginable “order of things” was overturned, with other surprises popping up all over the place. But it wasn’t about chaos—well, most of the time, it wasn’t. Rather, it was about turns of events that frustrated us, puzzled us, surprised us, delighted us, and sometimes made our heads spin.

Let’s start with the number 1 ranking. Angie Kerber did start with it, in the early spring, but her 2017 turned out to be as dismal as her 2016 was glorious. In 2016, the German star won two majors, reached the final of a third major, and won a silver medal at the Olympics. In 2017, she not only won no majors—she won no titles. And in two majors (one in which she was the defending champion), she went out in the first round. Kerber ends the season as number 21 in the world, which is the biggest drop in ranking for a number 1 player in the history of the rankings.

Karolina Pliskova was number 1 for a while, but lost the ranking to Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza, who won Wimbledon this year, felt more like a “real” number 1, but that didn’t last, either, because along came Simona Halep, who grabbed the end-of-year high ranking.

But what about Serena Williams? Well, she did what she has done from time to time throughout her career—she dropped out for a while. Her reason this time was a very nice one, too—she had a baby.

With Serena out for three-quarters of the season, a lot of titles were up for grabs. And like some kind of cellular phenomenon, who should step into the spotlight but Venus Williams? Venus was in two major finals, though she won neither of them. Nevertheless, her return to this level of professional tennis was one of the standout happenings of the season.

2017 marked a big change in how—or if—we watch tennis. It brought us two significant returns to the tour, two new major champions, and the end (at least for now) of a Fed Cup dynasty.

Here are my top 10 happenings of 2017 (and a bonus), in ascending order:

10. I waited months for this?: A year ago, the WTA announced that it was about to launch a wonderful, all-inclusive streaming platform that would be the best thing since Tatiana Golovin’s red drawers. In two weeks, we would learn more. Only we didn’t. Weeks went by, and we still heard nothing. Finally, CEO Steve Simon told us it was coming soon—be patient, it will be worth the wait. Only it didn’t come soon. It didn’t arrive until more than half of the season was over.

In the meantime, people were told to watch beIN Sports (the WTA had severed its contract with the first-rate Tennis TV, and Tennis Channel and ESPN retained few women’s events). For some of us, getting beIN Sports was next to impossible (if I had pages and pages, I would write about my own crazy-making beIN experience and how much money it cost me to get nothing). But even those who had beIN in their television packages made the unpleasant discovery that beIN didn’t care at all about showing women’s tennis, which was frequently preempted or cut off by football.

Finally, WTA TV arrived. Now, one would think, after all that time, it would have arrived in really good shape. But no. WTA TV arrived without an app. More important, it arrived with no platform for viewing it on a television screen via Apple TV, Roku, etc. It arrived as a really great, cutting-edge streaming platform—for 1997.

9. Kathy + CoCo = a great big trophy:
Kathy Rinaldi, working in her first year as USA Fed Cup captain, went all out: Her team won the 2017 championship! After former Captain Mary Joe Fernandez struggled for years to make relevant player selections, Rinaldi stepped in and made it look easy, a la Amelie Mauresmo. The USA got some help from defending champion Czech Republic, but Fed Cup competition is always difficult, no matter who plays. Take, for example, Team Belarus—minus Vika Azareanka—forcing the USA into a fifth rubber in the final.

For her part, CoCo Vandeweghe not only won all of her matches in the final—a rare feat—she is also the only player in Fed Cup history to go 8-0 for the entire season.

8. Saving the awesome for last:
Who would have thought that both Caroline Garcia and Julia Goerges would charge into the very end of the season and do amazing things? But pro tennis is like that: just when you think nothing much is going to happen, something huge happens right in front of you. Of course, it wasn’t as if the Frenchwoman and the German hadn’t given us some hints. They had both performed solidly all year. Goerges, in fact, had reached three finals. The problem was that she hadn’t won any of them.

But then, in October, Goerges won the Kremlin Cup, giving her her first victory in six years. In the meantime, Garcia did something extraordinary: She won Beijing and Wuhan back to back. She even went to the WTA Finals, and made it all the way to the semifinal round. The German with the lethal forehand, for her part, won the WTA Elite Trophy in Zuhai, defeating CoCo Vandeweghe in the final. 2017 was Goerges’ best year ever, and she ended it ranked number 14 in the world.

But that wasn’t all. Caroline Wozniacki, who had a great season and is back in the top 5, went to Singapore and won the WTA Finals.

Three to watch in 2018.

7. What a way to go!: Near the end of the season, Martina Hingis, for the third time in her career, retired from professional tennis. There is every reason to believe that this is also the last time. Hingis left as the number 1-ranked doubles player in the world, just as she was twenty years ago. She and her partner, Chan Jung-Jan, who, in October joined Hingis as co-number 1, were expected to win the WTA Finals, but were knocked out in the semifinals.

Hingis and Chan, who became a team in February, won nine titles, including the U.S. Open, and they were named Doubles Team of the Year. Hingis’s career is one of the most outstanding careers in WTA history.

6. It takes both feet and a lot of heart: Sloane Stephens began 2017 as number 957 in the world. That’s because she’d been rehabbing for eleven months from foot surgery. Stephens returned to the tour in July, and by the time the U.S. Open rolled around, she had bumped her ranking up to 87, and was looking really good. She looked so good, in fact, that she established herself as a threat at the event, taking out a number of very talented players with very different game styles. She defeated countrywoman Madison Keys in the final, and suddenly—having schlepped around for months in a cast—she was the U.S. Open champion.

5. Prenatal exercise is important: Serena Williams was pregnant in January of 2017, but before dropping out of the tour for a while, she stopped by Melbourne and won the Australian Open. Because she’s Serena Williams. The former world number 1, who was married in New Orleans a week ago, will be back in 2018.

4. It’s called Unstoppable for a reason:
Maria Sharapova, who was away from the tour for over a year because of a drug ban (or, as some of us contend, a cruel and out-of-control circus of prejudice and inconsistency), returned to the tour in April as a wild card in Stuttgart. Unfortunately, despite training intensely during her absence, she was physically vulnerable, and spent much of her return in an injured state. Nevertheless, she was back, and playing quite well--in some cases, better than she has played in a while. Assuming she gets past the injuries, she could add quite a note of interest to competition in 2018.

3. The Elegant Assassin mows the lawns: It was going to happen sooner or later, and Mugu chose “sooner.” Garbine Muguruza won the French Open in 2016 by defeating Serena Williams, and was stopped at the Wimbledon final that year by Serena Williams. In 2017, Serena wasn’t around, but Venus certainly was, and it was the older Williams—a five-time Wimbledon champion—who faced off against the Spaniard in the final. Muguruza defeated Williams 7-5, 6-0, and in doing so, became the first woman to defeat both Venus and Serena in major finals.

2. Who needs a seed when you have rhythm?: No one saw it coming, but when it came, it was a force of nature. Alona Ostapenko, the rubber-bodied, ballroom-dancing, perpetually mugging hitting machine from Latvia, had herself a high old time in Paris in the spring. Unseeded, and without one tournament win in her career, Ostapenko slam-banged her way through the field at Roland Garros, hit 299 winners, and won the French Open.
Photo by Daniel Ward

Ostapenko was fearless, and when she made an error, she made one of her expressive (read: hilarious) faces, shrugged it off, and kept going. Even during the latter stages of the tournament, when other relatively inexperienced players would have caved, Ostapenko remained fearless. And even against clear favorite and former finalist Simona Halep in the final, the Latvian just kept "dancing." Her game is raw; when it becomes more consistent and nuanced (and I assume it will), she might become truly frightening. A testament to her fearlessness—not to mention her all-surface acumen—is that she made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon a few weeks later.

Of course, it isn’t unusual for a young and gifted player to become less dangerous as others figure out her game and the pressure mounts. I suspect, though, that the Latvian (whose image now graces a postage stamp) may be immune to that sort of thing: Planet Ostapenko occupies its own place in the universe.

1. The Rock returns: In December of 2016, the unspeakable occurred. Petra Kvitova was viciously attacked by a knife-wielding criminal in a home invasion. The good news was that Kvitova fought off her attacker, whose intention was to slit her throat. The bad news was that she used her dominant hand to do it, and  wound up with multiple sliced tendons, ligaments and nerves. Every finger of her “money” hand was severely damaged, and it was unknown whether she would be able to play tennis again.

Kvitova underwent extensive surgery, and was told that it would be about three months before she could start rehab, and at least six months before she could play again. But five months after she had her surgery, the Barking Czech stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier, to the joy of the French crowd, her peers, and tennis fans all over the world. She even won her opening match, though she did not have full feeling in her left hand. In June, she did the seemingly impossible—she won Birmingham, still without full feeling in her hand. “I was still thinking it was not really normal what happened," the Czech star said in a WTA interview. “I couldn’t still believe it.”

I submitted a nomination essay for Kvitova for the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. Here is an excerpt:

I have thought a lot about what it must have felt like: knowing you could have died, knowing that your career hand has been sliced to the bone, knowing that you may never again stand on one side of a net screaming “Pojd!” and rendering other talented players helpless.

But Petra knew more than that: She knew that she had the strength—both within herself, and through the power of the spirit of those who admire and respect her—to transcend a truly horrific experience. That she did it so quickly makes the story even more glorious.

Yes, 2017 was an amazingly unpredictable year for the WTA, and many stunning things occurred. But none was as profound as the sight of Petra Kvitova holding a tennis racket and playing her beloved game.

And now for the bonus (what we call “lagniappe” in Louisiana)—They blinded me with science:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On a cool fall evening in Minsk, hot CoCo hits the spot

Today, CoCo Vandeweghe pulled off the rare Fed Cup hat trick: She walked away from the 2017 Fed Cup final with three wins--two in singles and one in doubles. Vandeweghe is a natural Fed Cup team leader. During the 2017 season, she went 5-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles. Today, she led Team USA to its first Fed Cup championship in 17 years.

In a year when the unexpected became the expected--over and over--it's not really that much of a surprise that rookie Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi, Vandeweghe and the entire USA team won it all. They had some help--defending champions and overwhelming Fed Cup giants Czech Republic showed up in the semifinals with neither its A or "other A" teams, making it much easier for the USA to advance to the final.

The USA has now won Fed Cup 18 times. The team did it today without Serena Williams, Venus Wiliams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, or Madison Keys. They did it without U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens winning a rubber. Vandeweghe and Shelby Rogers (who played in the deciding doubles rubber) took the team over the final hurdle.

But the USA story wasn't the only unlikely one. Also playing in the final was Belarus, a team that had never before reached a Fed Cup final, and a team which was missing its only star, Victoria Azarenka. It was hard to imagine Belarus getting to the final, especially since, in the semifinals, they had to play Switzerland. The Swiss team included its star, Timea Bacsinszky, and also recent Fed Cup wonder, Victorija Golubic. But Team Belarus got past the Swiss in five rubbers.

This weekend, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Aryna Sabalenka played their hearts out (Sasnovich, as a matter of fact, won a Fed Cup Heart Award for her exploits in the semifinals). Vandeweghe beat both of them, but each of them beat Stephens. The doubles rubber seemed a given, since Sabalenka, in particular, has limited doubles experience (and it showed), but it was actually more competitive than one would have thought. The second set was about as thrilling as a set could be, and the USA won it in a tiebreak, though Belarus held multiple set points.

The USA's opening 2018 tie will be against Netherlands, and if they win it, they will face either France or Belgium.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The lesson of Martina Hingis

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
I began following the WTA when I was a very young woman, and after many years—having lived through Chris and Martina, and Steffi and Monica, I felt burned out. I left the WTA behind, but I was lured back by Martina Hingis. Who was this other Martina that I heard about all the time? I had to find out.

It turned out that she was exactly what I wanted to see—a prodigy who could read the court like a complex story, and who relied on her way-beyond-her-years instincts. “Plays like Hingis” is now part of the tennis vernacular, and it refers to those players who see the tennis court as a kind of board game and can provide ongoing strategy to advance their games. Anna Chakvetadze was such a player, as is Dasha Kasatkina.

The young Hingis, however, had her problems. Her emotional maturity wasn’t as advanced as her tennis maturity, she had chronic foot issues (which she said were caused by her shoes), and then she had the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena, and several who followed them, used power to get around Hingis’s cleverness, thus rendering her less effective. I would rather watch a Martina Hingis (or a Patty Schnyder or a Simona Halep) over a power player any day, but tennis equipment changed, as did tennis culture.

Having undergone two foot surgeries, Hingis retired from pro tennis in 2003, at the age of 22. It was a surprising turn of events, despite what we knew about her struggles. But two years later, she made a crack at returning. It didn’t go well, so she confirmed her retirement. But then, in 2006, she made a very dramatic return by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australain Open, an event she had won three times. She also won her first-ever major mixed doubles title in Melbourne.

Hingis did so well in her comeback that she qualified for the WTA Finals. In 2007, Hingis again reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and for the second year in a row, she was eliminated by Kim Clijsters. Later that year, she would have to deal with injuries again, but she would also have to deal with something much worse: A cocaine metabolite had been discovered in a drug test she had taken that summer. The amount of metabolyte was so small, Hingis insisted that contamination was the cause.

The ITF responded by giving the Swiss star a two-year suspension (the “Katy Perry defense” was unknown at the time). Hingis responded by retiring from the sport. It was a sad, nasty occurrence, but one couldn’t blame her for just saying to hell with the whole thing.

Hingis returned to exhibition play and to World Team Tennis in 2010, and in 2013, she returned to the WTA tour as a doubles-only player, and she also did a bit of coaching. her third career has been a resounding success. She is currently ranked number 1 in the world in doubles, just as she was 20 years ago. And in closing that circle, this week, the great Martina Hingis retired from professional tennis. Again. And, we can assume, for the final time.

In her very lengthy career, Martina Hingis won five singles majors, and was seven times a runnerup. She won 13 doubles majors and was a runnerup on three occasions. Hingis also won seven majors in mixed doubles. She won 43 singles titles in her career, and has won 64 doubles titles; however, by the end of the week, that number is likely to jump to 65, as she and partner Chan Yung-Jan are very likely to win the WTA Finals in Singapore. The Swiss master reached the number 1 ranking in both singles and doubles, and she has won so many awards and broken so many records, I don't have the space to list them.

The 37-year-old Hingis, who is also an accomplished horsewoman, says that she knows she will continue to be involved in tennis. I wouldn't be surprised if she returned to coaching.

Many of us watched Martina Hingis grow up, and some of what we saw wasn't pretty. But she persevered--through emotional immaturity, to serious injuries, to a major change in the game that threatened to leave her behind, to a highly questionable drug ban, to the rigors of making two comebacks. She persevered. She accepted what she could do well and what she could no longer do quite as well as she once had. And though I don't usually use this metaphor, in Hingis's case, it's appropriate to say that she kept getting back on the horse.

Quick and clever on and off the court, Martina Hingis never really gave up--she just took breaks. Whether she was a teen phenom, a Spice Girl, a comeback wonder, or an enduring legend enjoying a late career zenith, she adjusted to the times, and believed in her talent. There is much to learn from Hingis's unusual career arc, and for that, we can be grateful. But we can be even more grateful that for two decades, we watched the Swiss Miss light up the tour with the brilliance of her tennis.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Never mind the stats--it's the WTA Finals!

Some fans are looking at the red and white groups in Singapore and seeing the White Group as "loaded" since it is made up of Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Venus Williams, and Alona Ostapenko. They have a point. Among them, the group members have won ten majors, and three of them have held the number 1 spot.

Meanwhile, the Red Group features Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki, and Caroline Garcia. Halep is the current world number 1, and Wozniacki is a former number 1. None of them has won a major, though there are four runner-up spots represented in the group (two each for Halep and Wozniacki).

So yes, "on paper," the White Group appears dominant. But this is the WTA Finals, and odd things happen. Two years ago, a very odd thing happened: A player who had won only one of her three round robin matches got to the final and won it. That was Aga Radwanska. We didn't think we'd see something like that again, but we did--the very next year. In 2016, Dominika Cibulkova went 1-2 in round robin play, reached the final, and won the whole thing.

I like to look at the WTA Finals as a blank slate, regardless of the draw. The one factor that I do think is relevant is fatigue. It's the end of the season, and players are tired and vulnerable to injury. Who knew we wouldn't see Jo Konta in Singapore? And who thought we would see Caroline Garcia? The former is dealing with a foot injury, the latter went crazy on everyone and won Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. This kind of twist is part of what makes the WTA so endlessly fascinating.

The matches will be played on indoor carpet, so all concerns about the elements have been removed. However, unlike most indoor carpet courts, this one has been deemed by the players to be especially slow.

Who has the pressure? Well, they all do, in one form or another, but--as usual--Halep may have the most. The new world number 1 could make a grand exit from the 2017 season if she wins in Singapore. Last year, she went 1-3 in round robin play. Halep, Pliskova and Muguruza, by the way, are the only repeats from 2016. And Ostapenko, Svitolina and Garcia are all making their WTA Finals debuts.

White Group lopsided record: Pliskova leads Muguruza 6-2
Red Group lopsided record: Svitolina leads Wozniacki 3-0

Friday, October 13, 2017

Battle of the Sexes--a bad idea, but an entertaining film

It took a while for Battle of the Sexes to reach my community, so I only just saw it. I wasn't really sure I wanted to see it, since I was very turned off by the event when it occurred. The film brought back all of my distaste for the event, too, though it has quite a bit of entertainment value.

Not long ago, John McEnroe offended anyone with a brain by suggesting that Serena Williams would be ranked in the 700s on the ATP tour. Not too many years ago, Tim Henman wandered among ATP players, asking what the top women's rankings would be in the ATP, and every single player he approached took the bait. Because ATP players are no different from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world believes that stronger and faster (i.e., male) are "superior," therefore, men are the "real" athletes.

Comparing women's tennis with men's tennis is ridiculous, but any time women come into their own in sport or any other enterprise, there is a rush to "prove" that they are "inferior" to men. When Billie Jean King and her cohorts first demanded to be paid as real professionals, they were met with hostility by the ATP. In the film, Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman, tells them that if they start their own tour, they will be tossed out of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA). That is an accurate retelling of history; the women who founded the WTA risked everything.

Kramer persists as the enemy throughout the film, but the reality was that most the ATP players were disgusted by the idea that female players thought they should be paid as real athletes. One of their leaders, in fact, was Arthur Ashe, though historians have conveniently omitted this aspect of Ashe's activism from his biography.

When the Battle of the Sexes took place in 1973, I was dismayed. Part of my disapproval was that the event promoted the idea that men's and women's tennis are comparable. But that wasn't the only thing that bothered me. There was also the fact that bigotry toward women was considered "funny." Bobby Riggs, though he almost certainly didn't believe that women were really inferior, was willing to do anything--even exploit the nation's "ha-ha--those crazy women's libbers" attitude toward bigotry--to make money.

In Battle of the Sexes, I'm A Male Chauvinist is seen on signs and on t-shirts worn by some of the men. Try to imagine those same men wearing shirts that said I Am A Racist or I Hate Gays. They may well have hated non-whites and gays, but they were forbidden by the constraints of the society to say so in public. The really horrible part of this phenomenon is that nothing has changed: Bigotry against women is still something people make jokes about, including within the world of professional tennis.

The strength of Battle of the Sexes is its casting. The wonderful Emma Stone gives a thoughtful performance as King, capturing both the great champion's insecurities and her cheekiness. Steve Carrel is perfect as the one-of-a-kind Riggs, a gifted, retired athlete who turned hustler to support his gambling habit. When the actual battle finally occurs, toward the end of the film, the tennis match is quite exciting, and turns Battle of the Sexes into a high quality sports film.

Alan Cumming is a believable Ted Tinling, though the film omits Tinling's obsession with dressing Rosie Casals. A more serious omission is the role that Larry King, Billie Jean's husband, played in the founding of the WTA. The forgotten feminist, King is again forgotten in Battle of the Sexes, in which Austin Stowell portrays him as the supportive and ultimately betrayed husband, but he was much more. He was upset by the unfair way in which women were treated, and he introduced his wife to feminism and encouraged her to believe that she could do anything she aspired to do. Larry King was an integral part of the founding of the WTA.

Sarah Silverman is quite entertaining as Gladys Heldman, the woman who collected $1 from each of the Original 9 in order to found the WTA. And one of my favorite little touches in the film was the casting of Elisabeth Shue--an avid tennis player and fan--as Priscilla Riggs, Bobby Riggs' wife.

I was especially taken with Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser with whom King became romantically involved. Riseborough plays Barnett as a manipulative seducer masquerading as an admiring free spirit, which made nice foreshadowing for what eventually occurred: In 1981, Barnett filed a palimony suit against King, resulting in King's losing millions of dollars in endorsements.

Tennis fans will undoubtedly appreciate Jessica McNamee's portrayal of Margaret Court as smug and judgmental. And while the screenplay implies that King accepted Riggs' offer to play the Battle of the Sexes because Court had lost a less-publicized match to him and because he offered a $100,000 purse, King once said that what really made her feel compelled to accept the offer was the fact that Court had curtsied to Riggs when he presented her with a bouquet before their match. The curtsy is shown in the film, but is never mentioned.

My hope is that when people see Battle of the Sexes, they leave, not angry over the way women were treated in the 70s, but furious over the fact that things haven't really changed that much. And I hope that those who view the film develop an understanding for just how brave Billie Jean King and the Original 9 were.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Caroline Garcia and the flight from Wuhan to Beijing

When we first saw Caroline Garcia six years ago, we sat up and took notice as she led Maria Sharapova 6-3, 4-1 at the French Open. Garcia, who was playing as a wild card, was experiencing her first main draws on the tour. She lost that match, but she was quite impressive. So many times, though, we see young qualifiers and wild cards who stun us with what they can do, then fade into the top 100, or find a good home in the top 50.

Garcia appeared to be going in one of those directions, and her main problem, as far as I could tell, was the one that plagues most young players who have trouble reaching their potential--she lacked belief and confidence. The Frenchwoman, like others before her, was so anxious about playing before her home crowd that she asked not to be put on a show court at the French Open.

Then some things happened that changed the course of Garcia's career. One of those things was her wildly successful pairing with Kiki Mladenovic in doubles. They won four titles, including the French Open, and they were the runners-up four times, including at the U.S. Open. Garcia ended the doubles relationship this year because she wanted to focus on her singles career. Unfortunately, that decision triggered the ire of the extremely touchy Mladenovic, who proceeded to trash Garcia publicly.

Winning a major in doubles put Garcia into the elite winners’ circle, and getting a taste of that must have agreed with her.

Along those same lines, the Frenchwoman emerged as a major force in Fed Cup, both with Mladenovic, and as a singles competitor. I’ve written before that it seemed to me that former Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo practically breathed fire into Garcia during Fed Cup ties, turning her young charge into a warrior. One could do much worse than having Mauresmo directing your fate: At the 2013 Wimbledon event, she pulled out some tricks to get Marion Bartoli to calm down; in Fed Cup play, she knew what to do to get Garcia pumped up.

And then there was the back injury. Garcia had to miss part of the 2017 clay court season because of this injury (prompting more phony outrage from Mladenovic). She had a tough rehab, and later said that going through that made her more determined than ever to take her game to a higher level.

Since returning, the Frenchwoman has reached at least the quarterfinals in all but two of the events she has entered. A week ago, she won Wuhan, a Premier 5 event. Along the way, the unseeded Frenchwoman, ranked number 20 in the world, knocked out former world number 1 Angie Kerber, Dominika Cibulkova, and Ekaterina Makarova. Garcia defeated an on-fire Ash Barty in the final.

That was quite an accomplishment, but Garcia wasn’t quite finished. She went straight to Beijing, a Premier Mandatory event, and today, she won that, too. This time, Garcia knocked out the formidable Alize Cornet, 3rd seed Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, and—in the final—2nd seed Simona Halep. Halep, in fact, had just become number 1 in the world, so Garcia has that to add to her resume.

Garcia is the first player to win Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back. In a season in which we have seen Alona Ostapenko amaze us, Garbine Muguruza mightily impress us, Svitolina get closer and closer to something big, and both Halep and Kvitova return to form, here comes Caroline Garcia in a late-flight perfect landing, right into the top 10. The Flying Frenchwoman, whose post-match celebrations are charming in their animated originality, is really taking off.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Watch your language! How commentators demean tennis

A couple of years ago, an article about the French Open carried this headline: The Top Five Players Who Stepped Up to the Plate at Roland Garros, But Struck Out. The use of a baseball metaphor to talk about just about anything is ridiculously common in the United States. Football metaphors are also very common, and other sports metaphors are also frequently used.

I dislike the idea of constantly using sports metaphors to describe everything from political processes to the weather. Such overuse mirrors an obsessive preoccupation with sports, a misconception that the entire population can relate to sports, and an obvious lack of language skills.

But what I especially dislike is the use of sports metaphors to describe tennis. I have two main objections. First, it’s very poor metaphor construction, though what can you expect form a culture that likes to say “you’re comparing apples with oranges”? Comparing apples with (remember, we compare “with,” not “to”) oranges is really lazy metaphor construction, since they’re both edible fruits, and even approximately the same size.

I’m reminded of the hilarious book Titters, which contains the fake endorsement: Makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte! Only that, of course, was an example of making fun of stupid metaphors.

My other objection is more important: Constantly using other sports to describe tennis turns tennis into the stepchild that tennis fans know so well. If you watch a match on television, you’ll hear “near the finish line” (running), “off the tee” (golf), “counter-puncher” (boxing), “swing and a miss” (baseball), “and de-fense” (football, where it exists, unfortunately, because of cheering considerations). If you’re watching the ATP, you’ll hear commentators begin sentences with “If he were a batter” or “If he were a boxer”

If you tune into a football, basketball or baseball game, you’re not going to hear commentators use metaphors involving volleying, serving, slicing, or playing a love game. No one will say “Game, set match.”

Language reflects culture, but it also directs it. Just as commentators calling female players “women” and not “girls” will eventually get people to actually see them as women, leaving other sports out of tennis language will direct people to see tennis as a “legitimate” athletic entity, and not the stepchild of sports.