Lighting the Olympic Cauldron & Upsets in Tokyo — Conchita Martinez from the Hall of Fame — Must-click women’s tennis links

The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, July 27, 2021

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Tennis Typhoon in Tokyo

The weather isn’t the only thing heating up at the Tokyo Olympics — the tennis, and upsets, are too. I could also give a dissertation on Tom Forster and the last week of American women’s gymnastics, but that’s why we have Jessica and I simply cannot wait.

Anyways, back to the tennis.

Marketa Vondrousova, who controversially used her protected ranking from nearly a year and a half ago to gain entry in Tokyo over compatriot Karolina Muchova, knocked out one of, if not the favorite of the Games.

I was going to write about Ash Barty’s shocking first round exit or the plethora of the second round upsets — that saw Aryna Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek and Petra Kvitova all fall, but this one takes the cake.

Hot take, but this may be the biggest shocker of the entire Games. Not only was Osaka basically the entire face of the event, she made history as the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron.

Rumblings began to surface when Naomi was due to be in action on Day 1 of the tournament, but she was moved off the schedule. Then, we didn’t see her with Team Japan. I couldn’t do anything but beam with pride when she gathered the torch and made her way up to light the cauldron. There was so much significance in the moment, Helene Elliott putting it best:

Japan native Naomi Osaka, the first woman from her country to win the singles title at one of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments, lighted the Olympic cauldron, the traditional beacon that shines throughout the Games. It was a touching moment and rich in significance: Her mother, Tamaki, was shunned by her family for marrying a Black man, Haitian Leonard Francois, and the family left Japan when Naomi was 3 years old. For Osaka to be given a role of such honor embodied what Bach meant when he cited the “unifying power of sport” and the value of diversity in strengthening bonds both global and personal.

The lighting of the cauldron is a significant moment, especially for the host country and active athletes rarely are the ones to do it. Naomi is the face of Japan’s present, but also tennis’ — and sports’ future. A blended athlete not afraid to use her voice is exactly what the Olympics stand for.

As for future Olympics, I, as well as many others, can think of two tennis players that could steal the show in Los Angeles:

Speaking of the Opening Ceremony, it featured three female tennis players bearing the flag for their countries: Czech Republic, Latvia and Paraguay.

As far as the play at Ariake Tennis Park, it’s wide open in the Round of 16:

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is playing some baller tennis in her first three rounds and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her leave Tokyo, a place she’s done extremely well on Tour in the past, with a medal. Garbine Muguruza is also a name that can do damage once she gets the ball rolling and many people aren’t talking about her this week, which is how she likes it. Another player not making too many headlines — Barbora Krejcikova, who’s perhaps the hottest player on Tour.

In the bottom half, I can see Karolina Pliskova continuing her fine form following her Wimbledon runner-up finish. Paula Badosa shows up for the big tournaments, so she’s perhaps on my radar to emulate a run similar to Monica Puig in 2016. Vondrousova played some super great tennis to knock out Osaka, but will it she have enough momentum after such a big win? Unsure.

Because all of you (read: none) asked for my predictions and because they’ve been soooooo spot on, I’ll go out on a limb here and say:

Gold: Karolina Pliskova (Editor’s note: not so much!)
Silver: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Bronze: Garbine Muguruza (over Paula Badosa)

This will go either really well or really, really, really poorly. No in between.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Tokyo marked the goodbye to the career of Kiki Bertens, who captured 10 WTA singles and doubles titles, apiece, vaulting to No. 4 in the world.

For some Olympic reading:

  • My must-read of the week: how Alison Riske put herself in Tokyo contention before injury and COVID nearly derailed that, but still getting her lifelong dream accomplished.

  • Though they’re both already out, Greg Garber covered what Olympic glory would mean for Iga Swiatek and Naomi Osaka.

  • Garber also detailed the eight Gold medalists in modern Olympic history, in case you didn’t know.

  • The Czech squad gaining inspiration and momentum from each other and the athletes in the Olympic village.

  • Without Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka at the helm, Belinda Bencic is leading the Swiss charge in Tokyo and she’s totally okay with that.

The post-Wimbledon European clay season continued this weekend with more first-time WTA titlists:

  • Danielle Collins captured the Palermo Ladies Open with a straight-set win over Elena-Gabriela Ruse, last week’s champion in Hamburg. Erin Routliffe and Kimberly Zimmerman won their first WTA title as well, taking the doubles crown over Natela Dzalamidze and Kamilla Rakhimova.

  • In Gdynia, Poland, Maryna Zanevska knocked out Kristina Kucova in two tight sets to win the BNP Paribas Poland Open, a week after reaching her maiden WTA quarterfinal in Lausanne. The doubles title went to Anna Danilina and Lidziya Marozava, who won over Kateryna Bondarenko and Katarzyna Piter.

Both Collins and Zanevska had massive ranking jumps, putting Collins closer to a potential US Open seeding.

Victoria Azarenka and Naomi Osaka are some of the IMG stars to promote the inaugural IMG Future Stars Invitational, a 12&U tournament in Athens, Greece next April to earn a wildcard into the Eddie Herr Junior International tournament, while learning more about the potential road of a professional player.

Credit One Bank will be the new main sponsor for the WTA 500 in Charleston, replacing Volvo Cars USA.

After appearing in some items as “Elina Monfils,” Elina Svitolina says she’s sticking with her maiden name the rest of her professional career.

Add this to the “Shrine of Satisfaction:”

Tweet of the Week

Because I forgot to mention her in the Five at The IX alums in Tokyo last week, I’m shouting out Luisa Stefani, who captured her maiden Olympic victory with teammate Laura Pigossi. She also gets to face off against Novak Djokovic in the opening round of mixed doubles.

Five at The IX: Conchita Martinez from International Tennis Hall of Fame induction

STAN SMITH: Conchita, you won medals at the Olympics as well. What was that like for you?

CONCHITA MARTINEZ: Is the same feeling. I was one of the girls that liked to play for my country a lot. I mean, I played many Fed Cups and many Olympics. I mean, that was, of course, once in Barcelona, ’92, the most special because they’re in your hometown. Very special to win medals, for sure.

Q. Conchita, you mentioned there were some younger players going in before you. You started wondering a little bit. Did you ever have any doubt that this day would happen? When it did happen, was it relief?

CONCHITA MARTINEZ: Yeah, yes, I had doubts. I had doubts. I was nominated, I think this was my third time. Third time lucky. I was nominated against some recently, I don’t know, retired or some other ones that probably won more than me, so I was like, Oh, maybe this year is going to be impossible if I’m running against these players.

Yeah, you start doubting a little bit. Years went by. I didn’t know. I didn’t know really. I think this was my last chance to get inducted. I think it was like that. The rules kept changing.

STAN SMITH: The rules have changed a little bit, but could have been.

CONCHITA MARTINEZ: So, yeah, I had some doubts. I was nominated many years, years ago. So years went by. Finally I’m here.

I’m relieved. I’m very, very grateful and humble, very honor to be finally inducted and to share this moment with everybody. So it’s nice.

Q. What changes do you want to see or expect to see for the future?

CONCHITA MARTINEZ: First of all, I hope everything goes back to normal a little bit because, let me tell you, this past year and a half has been really, really tough on players, us traveling together, all these bubbles, long trips, not being able to have your families with you and stuff. I think that’s really hard. So hopefully the world changes for the better and we’re going to go back to normal without this COVID, although I think it’s going to stay a little bit longer with us.

But I think the WTA is healthy. I mean, it has great champions there, I mean, players that are playing really good. It was nice to see Ashleigh Barty winning Wimbledon, Pliskova in her second final. I don’t know. I mean, I think we have a lot of younger players, exciting moment for WTA.

Hopefully it’s going to continue that way.

Q. The state of the women’s game and the men’s game. The men’s game is top-heavy with players, the women’s game there’s dozens of players that could be No. 1, 2 or 3. Where do you think the state of the game is now?

CONCHITA MARTINEZ: I think this year has been a little bit of a strange year. There’s been some injuries here and there. I mean, of course Halep also couldn’t defend her title in Wimbledon this year. Some injuries here and there. New Grand Slam winners, Krejcikova, for example, winning the French Open. Younger players that are coming up for sure.

I think it’s a little bit up and down, the women’s side. You see a lot of players that are winning different tournaments. But I think we’ll see what happens with Serena, if she’s going to be able to make it at the US Open. I think it’s getting harder and harder for her.

But it’s good to see a lot of young players playing good tennis and winning different tournaments also. So it’s…

Q. You were both such unique players yourselves. Now you’re coaching players who maybe play a little bit different than maybe you played in your prime. Is the coaching role a surprise to you in how you approach it in any way in this era, this kind of game playing a little bit differently?

CONCHITA MARTINEZ: Well, yeah, I mean, but you have to understand the way they play. You have to adapt to the player that you’re coaching at the moment.

Then Garbine is a very complete player as well. She’s very aggressive. I’m trying to introduce a little bit of the slice here and there because I think it’s very important that players have variety, that when they need to do something different and Plan A doesn’t work, that they have Plan B or C.

That’s a little bit difficult because especially in the women’s side, they play very flat, very hard, not much variety. That’s something that we work on. I ask her, like, to go to the net a little bit more because she has a great reach. With those powerful shots, I mean, I think she can do well there. She did really well at the Australian Open last year with that.

All of these things, trying to work on. But, yeah, you have to adapt as a coach and try to take the best from them or make them better.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer

Written by Joey Dillon