The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Stephanie Livaudais, January 7, 2020

Australian Open warm-ups begin as bushfire infernos rage | Must-click links in women's tennis | Interview: Sania Mirza readies for comeback

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Australian Open warm-ups begin as bushfire infernos rage

Happy New Year from The IX! I’m excited to be back with more Tennis Tuesdays for you, because there’s a lot to catch up on as the 2020 tennis season officially kicked off Australia this week, under the thick haze of the bushfire inferno that has ravaged the country for weeks and amid a bubbling turf war between the men’s and women’s tours.

At the height of summer Down Under, the tennis kicks off every season in Australia and the APAC region – and this year will apparently be no different, despite major air quality concerns, not to mention the surreal reality of engaging in something as seemingly frivolous as sport while the country burns nearby.

Denis Kudla, a player training in Melbourne – where the Australian Open will be held in just a few weeks – described to Ben Rothenberg from the New York Times being unable to inhale and exhale fully without coughing due to the heavy smoke. “You could play, but who knows what damage we’re actually causing to ourselves? It can’t be good,” Kudla said. 

Determined to carry on like normal, tournament contingency plans are already in place: Melbourne is bracing for smoke during the Open, and will plan to close the roofs on three courts to create an air-filtered environment. In the case of extreme conditions, the Open could even be delayed, although it’s not expected to get that bad. In an unprecedented move, a Challenger event near Canberra last was moved 600 km away to Bendigo as the air quality rendered the tournament unplayable. 

Players, who’ve largely been expected to shut up and carry on, have lashed back in solidarity. Led by Nick Kyrgios, the ATP’s favorite villain and a native of Canberra, the Australian capital which recorded the world’s worst air quality, players pledged a wave of donations for bushfire relief causes. That seemed to finally pressure Tennis Australia into action, announcing a combined “Rally For Relief” event, a format that had previously raised funds for Haiti earthquake and Queensland flood victims. 

The on-court solidarity between men’s and women’s players is always refreshing to see, but even more so now as tensions rise between the two tours in a turf war over the ATP Cup’s infuriating takeover of the Aussie Swing at the expense of WTA events – a storyline largely overlooked in light of the more pressing bushfire concerns.

Yet another new men’s-only group competition, the ATP Cup is staged over multiple cities in Australia, which has already edged out longtime women’s or combined events: Hopman Cup, a beloved combined event that just last year pitted Serena Williams against Roger Federer in a mixed doubles classic, was replaced in Perth by ATP Cup. The men’s tournament in Sydney, formerly a combined event, was also replaced by the ATP Cup, while the women’s event was punted off to Adelaide. But that’s just as well, because it’s even worse in Brisbane, where the WTA Premier event is taking place alongside ATP Cup: the women’s first- and second-round matches are relegated to the outer courts (despite a stacked draw including six of the world’s Top 10 and seven Grand Slam champions) while the stadium is occupied by – who else? – ATP Cup group stage matches.

“I think it’s kind of a respect thing,” said former US Open champion Sloane Stephens. “We just weren’t in the conversation to even be considered. It was what the ATP wanted, they got what they wanted, girls to the side, that’s kind of how it always is. So I think it’s unfortunate but we play and we do what we do and, hopefully next year, there will be some adjustments.”

“We’re playing a Premier here and when you have a lot of the girls in the Top 10 that are playing here, and they’re all playing on side courts, it’s not the greatest look.”

[Tennis Australia recommends all donations for bushfire relief go to the Australian Red Cross – click here to donate!]

This Week In Women’s Tennis

With the 2020 season underway, these are the two major bits of tennis news you might have missed over the holidays: 

  • The ITF has cut live scoring for its lowest tier events, a move they hope will curb match fixing

  • The All England Club, which stages Wimbledon every year, appointed its first female CEO, Sally Bolton. 

The podcast that tore Tennis Twitter apart: No Challenges Remaining named their 10 most influential female players of the decade, and some unexpected names made the list.

On a related note, Serena Williams was named AP’s Female Athlete of the Decade. 

Linking Ben’s article again about player concerns about air quality in Australia as the country’s bushfires burn uncontrollably.

Dozens of WTA and ATP stars joined Nick Kyrgios in a donation challenge to benefit bushfire relief efforts in Australia. 

World No.1 Ashleigh Barty has pledged to donate 100% of her prize money from Brisbane to bushfire relief.

Massive stuff from Sam Stosur in Brisbane: the Aussie, who normally crumbles under the pressure of playing in her home country, stunned Angelique Kerber in the first round.

‘It’s not the greatest look’: More from Sloane Stephens, who said the scheduling in Brisbane – with women on the outer courts and men in the stadium – lacked respect.

Another huge upset in Shenzhen, where Kristyna Pliskova (World No.2 Karolina’s lower-ranked twin sister) took down defending champion Aryna Sabalenka. 

Meanwhile in Auckland, Serena and Caroline Wozniacki make an amazing doubles team, winning their first match together in straight sets.

Beyonce smelled expensive and beautiful, felt like I was in heaven’ – Naomi Osaka on meeting the queen during the off-season.

A great profile of the up-and-coming Rosie Sterk, 16-year-old from Scotland who’s gotten a lot of attention from the likes of Judy Murray. 

Mandatory listening: The Body Serve asks the question – how do we talk about Monica Seles

What a story from Taylor Townsend, who found out her mother had been stealing her prize money and endorsement earnings throughout her career.

From the fabulous Reem Abulleil: More promising Arab players than ever before are turning to college tennis in the United States as a lifeline with limited pathways to the pros back home.

Tweet(s) of the Week

You gotta know your strengths. 

Five at the IX: Sania Mirza

Over the offseason I reached out to Indian superstar Sania Mirza, one of the players that I’m most excited about seeing back on the court in 2020. The first woman from her country to win Grand Slams and formerly ranked World No.1 in doubles, Mirza stepped away from tennis in October 2017 and gave birth to son Izhaan a year later. Now, back to fitness, Mirza plans to kick off her comeback season next week in Hobart – read about her grueling journey back to tennis here, and check out some unedited excerpts below:

Q: What are your goals or expectations for 2020? What would a successful season look like for you?

MIRZA: Honestly no, I don’t have any goals or expectations. I think I’ll be really, really pleased if I’m able to make this comeback and get back to playing professional tennis again. And sure, once I start playing and I know my body is reacting and how emotionally I’m reacting, and how my son is reacting to the situation – because it’s a huge change for everybody to travel and be on the road with a baby, and for the baby as well. 

So you know, I think I’m extremely proud of where I am today, even just the fact that I’m able to put myself in a position to be able to compete at the Australian Open or before that. I feel extremely proud to be in this position, and hopefully I’m going to be able to do it. Anything that I achieve after this – I mean, I’ve won Grand Slams, I’ve been No.1 in the world, you know, I’ve done many things in my life that I had probably only dreamt of. 

If I’m able to achieve anything after this, even if that means winning just one single match, that’s a bonus for me. I will take it and be very proud of myself.

Q: Was it tough to take such a long break from the sport, being in the Top 10 at the time?  

MIRZA: No not really, I think it was the right time, to be honest, and I believe that everything happens for the best. And it was a conscious decision, it was not something like, it wasn’t really an accident where I was completely shocked about it. My husband and I had already spoken about it, and we were open to it. So it actually came as great news, to be honest.

Q: To what extent have other WTA moms – like Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka – inspired you in this comeback?

MIRZA: Yeah, I think that there are so many amazing athletes out there who are mothers and who are coming back. And why not, right? 

I mean, I know that being a mother or a father is a great privilege, but also being a mother is also physically pretty taxing, because your body goes through a lot to have the baby. And then after that, especially for the first couple of years of a baby’s life, the baby is more attached to the mother in many ways, you know, because that’s how the dynamic works.

 So I think it might be tougher, but I think if guys can come back to playing after becoming a father, why shouldn’t mothers? And I think that it’s pretty amazing, it’s really inspiring to see so many amazing athletes who are mothers today.

Q: Was it always the plan to eventually return to competition? Did you have any sort of timetable in mind?

MIRZA: My first goal right after I had the baby was to try and get healthy again, to try and get fit again. And then I thought, okay if I’m able to do that and my body is able to respond… and you honestly don’t know. 

[After surgery], after you have a child, you don’t know how your body is going to respond to training or even tennis, or anything really. Everything in your body is different. And I’ve had three surgeries before, and with the baby it was my fourth surgery, so it’s not like it was a brand new experience or anything. 

So I had to make the [decision to do things slowly] and with patience, and it was really one step at a time: I thought, okay first let me get fit, and then let me start hitting a couple of balls, and then I was like… you know, I thought that I would be able to come back in September, but that didn’t happen. And honestly, I could have really pushed myself to do that, but I didn’t want to because my body was not yet feeling great. 

So it’s just, I’m really taking it one step at a time, I wasn’t really putting that much pressure on myself. And I mean, with the revised rules it’s become really great for mothers to come back after maternity break because you get a couple of years to do it.

Q. In what ways would you say motherhood has changed you?

MIRZA: I think you realize certain kinds of love that there is, which I don’t think you really understand or know about when you’re younger, when you’re not a mom. I think that kind of love is an instinct. Sort of like affection or a feeling, that you get when you become a mom. Nobody teaches you that. 

And I want everything for my baby and more than I want for anyone else in the world, including myself. So I guess that is maternal instinct, that kicks in. So yeah, a lot changes, right? I mean, us tennis players are so used to thinking about ourselves that we forget. And I think it’s the most natural, sort of progression or change, that happens in a human’s life or in a mom’s life, to have that feeling and that selfless love for your child.

You just have all this patience in life to listen to words 500 times a day. He calls me ‘amma’ and so he says ‘amma!’ like 500 times a day. And it sounds great! It sounds amazing. Every time he says it it’s like he’s saying it for the first time. 

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Stephanie Livaudais, @Livaudais
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.