The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Lindsay Gibbs, April 9, 2019
Madison's shining moment — link round-up — and insights from the official WTA Insider
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Hello, friends. We’ve got another fabulous Tennis Tuesday here for your enjoyment today. In our interview section, the wonderful Courtney Nguyen — otherwise known as the Senior Writer for WTA Insider — joins me to review all of the action in the tennis season thus far, and look ahead at clay season.
You’re really going to love her insight. I guarantee it.
But first, how good was it to see Madison Keys back in the winner’s circle this week in Charleston? I have missed her forehand. I have missed her serve. I have missed her smile. And, I have missed the public play-by-plays about her friendship with Sloane Stephens, one of my favorite WTA friendships in the land.
This week, Keys finally got her first win over Stephens in the quarterfinals, defeating the 2017 U.S. Open champion 7-6(6) 4-6 6-2. They giggled when they hugged at the net, and I was obsessed with her explanation of that conversation.
“She was explaining why she hasn’t responded to my Instagram direct messages the last couple of days,” Keys said, according to the Post and Courier. “Apparently, she gave it up for Lent. So she wanted me to know why she hasn’t been responding.”
I love them.
But Stephens wasn’t the only major champion that Keys toppled this week. She also beat French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the Round of 16, and Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki in the final.
It’s been a long 20 months since Keys won her last WTA title. Since then, she’s battled wrist and knee injuries, struggled with her confidence, and changed coaches. But she’s reunited with a coach she worked with earlier in her career, Juan Todero, and things seem to be clicking for her at a good time.
This Week in Tennis:
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Anna-Lena Grönefeld and Alicja Rosolska won doubles in Charleston.
In Monterrey, Garbine Muguruza won the singles title after Victoria Azarenka retired in the final, and Americans Asia Muhammad and Maria Sanchez took the doubles crown.
Hopefully Azarenka’s injury isn’t serious. She looked great in route to the final, taking out Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.
New WTA Insider Podcast, this time with Madison Keys.
This is a phenomenal on-court coaching visit, and Ben Rothenberg is right: Hire more female coaches.
Here are nine takeaways from Wozniacki’s great week in Charleston.
CiCi Bellis talks to the WTA about her tough journey back from injury.
Jessica Pegula is back in the Top 100.
Pete Bodo looks at the parity in the WTA for ESPN.
I’m obsessed with this moment from Sloane Stephens, who said she was tired of f**king losing. Her surprised expression after she utters the cuss word during the presser is an instant meme.
Monica Puig had a great week, making it to the semifinals in Charleston. She said that meditation is the key to her success.
Serena Williams plans to play Fed Cup in a couple of weeks in San Antonio, Texas. Yay!
Big News: Naomi Osaka signs with Nike. Forbes has the details.
There are two smaller clay-court events this week: the Samsung Open in Lugano, Switzerland, where Belinda Bencic is the top seed; and the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota, where Jelena Ostapenko leads the pack.
Tweet of the Week:
Five at The IX: WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen
We’re at a great spot in the tennis calendar to take stock of the season so far, so I couldn’t think of a better person to interview this week than the WTA Insider herself, Courtney Nguyen. Nguyen was nice enough to talk with us about Keys’ big win, WTA critics, under-the-radar 2019 performances, and her players to watch during clay season.
GIBBS: I loved your interview with Madison Keys on the WTA Insider podcast. I remember watching her in Charleston back in her teenage years, when, let’s face it, she was still quite literally finding her footing on clay. What impressed you the most about Keys this week?
NGUYEN: The biggest thing was her composure. Madison’s talent and ability has never been questioned, but when it comes to how fares at any given tournament turns on how she deals with on-court adversity. With such a powerful game, one that can take the racquet out of her opponents’ hands, Keys constantly plays under the pressure of knowing the match is almost always on her racquet. So when things start to unravel, her frustration can take over and matches can spiral out of control quickly. Bad points turn into bad games, which snowball into bad sets and a bad loss.
That is not the Madison we saw in Charleston. She came into the tournament having taken precisely those kind of gut-crushing losses, in three sets to Mona Barthel in Indian Wells, and three sets to Sam Stosur. Against Tatjana Maria in the first round, Keys watched a commanding lead disappear, and she was a break down in the third. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she dug in and fought her way back. She did the same against her good friend Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals, a player against who she’s never one a set.
GIBBS: One of the narratives of the first quarter of the WTA season has been parity — each week we’ve seen a different winner. I know that you see this as a positive, as do I — there are so many phenomenal players right now, and it’s exciting to see so many stars shine. But why do you think so many fans and media members seem hell-bent on painting this parity as a negative?
NGYUEN: Am I going to get in trouble if I just say ‘laziness’? Look, for a sport like tennis, where there are a combined 5 tournaments a week, featuring over 80-100 players in action at any given time, I understand people might want short-cuts. When your sport is dominated by a handful of players, that’s a short-cut. Fans and reporters can just tune in to the big events where the big players play, don’t have to spend the time and energy to know 40 different players’ dossiers from soup to nuts, and just work off one small notebook, if I can say it like that.
I suppose that’s my slightly snarky answer, but I do also think it comes down to a philosophical understanding of who you are as a sports fan. If the only reason you watch sports is that you want to see “greatness” – whatever that means – and that to you means seeing someone dominate and kick everyone to the curb, then yeah, I can genuinely understand why parity bothers you. But if you’re like me, and you love sports because you love competition, pure and simple, I will just never understand this gag reflex at the sight of parity.
And I think it’s very noticeable that the tenor of the discussion changed the minute Roger Federer broke the same streak the ATP had going on their side. Prior to Miami, all I heard in the press room was “Wow, what a time for both tours, this is great, these new names are so excited.” Federer wins Miami to be the only two-time champion on the men’s tour and all of a sudden the “Well…is the WTA’s parity good for the sport” narratives started bubbling to the surface.
And might I just add: On the WTA Tour this year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a “random” champion amongst the biggest tournaments of the season so far. They may all be different names, but they all make sense.
GIBBS: Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, and Ashleigh Barty are (quite literally) the biggest winners of 2019 so far. But what other performance from the first 3 months of the year left a lasting impression on you?
NGUYEN: I’ve been really impressed by Karolina Pliskova, Belinda Bencic, and Hsieh Su-Wei. For Pliskova, she’s up to No.4 in the world now and only Bencic and Petra Kvitova have won more matches than her on hardcourts this year. She comes back to defeat Serena Williams at the Australian Open and then makes the final in Miami before losing to a pitch-perfect Ash Barty. She’s putting together the best start of the season of her career and yet no one is really paying attention. Her big serve is back online – she’s No.1 on tour in aces so far – and her partnership with Conchita Martinez over the last few months has clicked in a way that I didn’t really see coming.
As for Belinda Bencic, it’s just so nice to see her back to her winning ways. She was such a dominant junior and became the 1st in her generation – the famed Class of 1997, which includes Naomi Osaka, Jelena Ostapenko, and Daria Kasatkin – to break into the Top 10 as an 18-year-old, got sidelined by terrible injuries, and now she’s just beating everyone again.
And then there’s the slicing and dicing and overall outside-the-box-ness of Hsieh. Only Hsieh Su-Wei can play the game that she does – double-handed on both sides, lots of slice, seemingly no power yet, when she’s on, in full control of rallies – because only Hsieh Su-Wei thinks the way she does. She’s so unique in her personality and point of view, that her game actually makes sense. You could never – and would never – teach a young player to play like Hsieh, but watching her play so well this year has been appointment viewing. It’s art.
GIBBS: It’s time to turn our attention to the red clay. I know you keep up with clay-court power rankings. If possible, can you pinpoint two players — one established, one up-and-coming — that we should keep an eye on in the lead-up to the French Open?
NGUYEN: The thing I love about clay season is it has a little bit for everyone. Love court craft? Clay tennis is for you. Love to watch big hitters tee off? Welcome to clay.
So the established player I’d highlight is the reigning Queen of Clay, Simona Halep. On our clay power index, Halep has more than double the points on the No.2 player on the list, Kiki Bertens, and she’s a pleasure to watch on the surface. In a lot of ways, it felt like Halep was just trying to get through the hardcourt season to get to clay. Simona’s made the French Open final three of the last five years, winning last year. She now has a coach in place in Daniel Dobre, her body is fully fit, and she comes into clay with a lot of confidence, something we couldn’t say about the early hardcourt season.
The two young names I’m keeping an eye on during the clay season are Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu. Osaka isn’t exactly an up-and-comer, but on clay she might as well be. Just the mere mention of clay and Osaka’s eyes widen with trepidation. It’s not that Naomi Osaka can’t play well on clay, it’s just that she hasn’t learned how to yet, but as players like Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, and Karolina Pliskova have shown – let alone Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – if you can hit a big ball, you can be successful on clay.
It’s a much different story for 18-year-old Andreescu, who is comfortable on clay and has proven she can win on the surface. But it will be fun watching her game, built on equal parts power and variety, stack up against the game’s best in her first tour-level clay season. And, much like Osaka, there’s always the question of how a young player deals with the pressure of winning, as well as opponents’ improved scouting.
GIBBS: Finally, as much as I love the rising class of superstars on Tour, I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic lately. Do you think it’s likely we will see Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, or Maria Sharapova holding a trophy on the red clay this year?
NGUYEN: Ah, nostalgia. We nearly got a nice throwback just this weekend, with Victoria Azarenka playing in her first final since giving birth. It would have been a great story.
On red clay I think it’s a hard ask. First, for varying reasons, Serena, Venus, and Maria no longer play full schedules on the clay, giving them fewer bites at the apple. Sharapova counts the clay as her best segment of the season so far, but she’s been sidelined by a shoulder injury and is racing the clock to even be ready for Stuttgart, which begins in two weeks. Serena is scheduled to play only Rome ahead of Roland Garros. Venus has made just one quarterfinal on red clay since 2012.
In a season of unprecedented parity, only a fool would write anyone off. But one trend we’ve seen so far this year: it’s not just that we’ve seen 16 different champions, it’s that many of them are skewing young. The veterans are having a tough time keeping their hold on the tour.