The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, November 24, 2020
Highlighting Two of Wheelchair Tennis' Best — Interview: Sloane Stephens Foundation's Sybil Smith — Must-click women's tennis links
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Diede De Groot and Yui Kamiji: A League of Their Own
Happy Tuesday, y’all!
With only a select couple of ITF tournaments playing these weeks, we’re officially in the offseason. I’m going to hope to start reviewing 2020 and previewing 2021 more closely.
I wanted to give you guys some info on players you’ve probably never heard of, but then I was viewing an Instagram story of player Grace Min, who tried out the wheelchair tennis court at the USTA National Campus with player Dana Mathewson. It had me thinking why is there never any love for wheelchair tennis?
With that said, I think it’s time to give some recognition to some of the top wheelchair tennis players in the world, specifically No. 1 Diede De Groot and No. 2 Yui Kamiji.
De Groot is currently No. 1 in singles and doubles, and because of COVID-19, only participated in the Australian Open, US Open and Roland Garros. The Dutch star lost her opening match in Australia, then captured the US Open title before losing in the Roland Garros semifinals. In doubles, she captured Roland Garros, and was runner-up in both Australia and the United States with compatriot Aniek Van Koot.
De Groot participated in her first ITF tournament in 2009, but she entered the Women’s rankings in 2012. In 2014, she broke through, raising her singles ranking from No. 34 to No. 9 thanks to 4 titles, including her first ITF 3 Series. Since then, she’s been a mainstay in the World’s Top 10.
Grand Slam glory finally reached De Groot’s hands in 2017 when she won the US Open with Kamiji. Throughout her career, she’s won eight singles Grand Slams, including US Open from 2018-2020. In doubles, she’s also won eight Slams and three-peated at the US Open from 2017-2019. She earned the “Career Grand Slam” at the 2019 French Open, when she also became the first player to win a Non-Calendar Grand Slam, holding the four at once over a period of two seasons. She has the Career Slam in doubles, but in 2019, completed the Calendar Grand Slam.
She’s won the NEC Wheelchair Masters tournament twice in each singles and doubles and she is also an eight-time World Team Cup champion.
De Groot finally reached the pinnacle of the ITF Wheelchair rankings on March 26, 2018 after capturing an ITF Super Series event in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her 2019 season was a career-best with seven singles titles and a 45-4 singles record, including winning her last 16. In doubles, she also captured seven titles and had a 29-2 record.
While the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics will be a monumental event for De Groot, who has a Gold medal on her mind. However, it may have an even bigger impact on Kamiji. At the 2016 Rio Games, Kamiji defeated De Groot for the singles Bronze medal, while De Groot added to her tally with a doubles Silver medal. In doubles, Kamiji lost in the Bronze medal match.
Kamiji has been on the ITF Wheelchair Circuit since 2007 and started her breakthrough up the tennis rankings in 2011, where she was simultaneously the No. 1 junior in the world and was among the Top 10 women. She made her Paralympic debut at the 2012 London Games, falling in both the singles and doubles quarterfinals. She called her London experience “life-changing,” and aims to leave the Games with two Golds.
On May 19, 2014, she achieved the No. 1 ranking, thanks to her NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters win, but won her first singles Grand Slam the next month at Roland Garros. In her career, she’s been a 24-time Grand Slam champion – eight in singles and 16 in doubles. She’s yet to reach a Wimbledon singles final, but has earned a Calendar Year Grand Slam in doubles in 2014.
In 2019, she compiled a 54-9 singles and a 19-10 doubles record, winning eight singles and four doubles titles. In 2020, she captured her fourth Roland Garros singles title, only dropping her first set of the tournament. She’s also a one-time singles and two-time NEC Wheelchair Masters doubles champion
Kamiji hopes that the Tokyo Games can “kickstart a social revolution in Japan,” which would be great to see, but I want it to go mainstream. Like Naomi Osaka, Kamiji is a well-known presence in Japan, where she’s viewed as one of the more recognizable para-athletes in Japan.
I would love to see more visibility on the Tennis Channel when it comes to wheelchair tennis. We only hear about the Grand Slam finals, but then again, when there’s barely any coverage of 48-time-Grand Slam champion’s Esther Vergeer’s 435-match winning streak, what more can be done?
ITF/Tennis Channel, make a deal for the rights of the Grand Slams, NEC Masters and a few ITF Super Series events. Showcase both singles and doubles finals, minimum. Ideally, I’d love more, but I’m willing to compromise for now. Create the narrative that these athletes are just as important and hard-working as their able-bodied compatriots…..because they are. There are too many replays of less-important (and sometimes more boring) matches to not start sharing a piece of the pie.
This Week in Women’s Tennis
The Tennis Integrity Unit announced a lifetime ban and $150,000 fine for Aleksandrina Naydenova on 12 counts of match-fixing activity and one count of failing to cooperate with investigators. Naydenova spent one semester at the University of Georgia before enrolling for another at the University of Arizona. She then turned pro, winning 10 ITF singles and 14 ITF doubles titles. She participated in the 2016 Australian Open doubles draw and peaked at No. 218 in singles and No. 95 in doubles. Following a career-best season that included two $25k ITF titles and a $60k ITF final, she was provisionally suspended on December 27, 2019.
Jade Lewis, a former New Zealand No.1 and collegiate All-American, identified herself as one of the victims in USAToday’s sexual misconduct investigation of LSU’s athletic department:
Lewis spoke out after her admission to dispute Julia and Mike Sell’s account of knowledge, while her parents have shared their dismay at the LSU administration. Lewis turned professional following her freshman season, but only a year on tour before returning to LSU. Because of her professional status (or because her expenses exceeded her winnings, of what transpired), she never rejoined the tennis team. However, she has shown some snippets on her Instagram hinting at a return to the court.
The WTA announced their nominations for Coach of the Year and Shot of the Year. My picks? Michael Geserer and Magda Linette’s Hua Hin slicer.
The WTA also announced a series of contenders for Match of the Year:
Simona Halep’s 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) win over Elena Rybakina in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Aryna Sabalenka’s 1-6, 7-5, 7-6(2) win over Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals of the J&T Banka Ostrava Open.
Naomi Osaka’s 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 win over Anett Kontaviet in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open.
Serena Williams’ 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Venus Williams in the quarterfinals of the Top Seed Open.
My pick? Halep’s epic in Dubai
Make sure to check out the WTA’s gallery of the 25 longest matches of the 2020 season, where ten hit the three-hour mark.
Carson Branstine captured the first two junior Grand Slam doubles titles with Bianca Andreescu in 2017, but after injuries and a transfer from the University of Southern California to the University of Virginia, she’s more than eager to take the NCAA tennis field by storm.
Congratulations, Storm Sanders! The Aussie announced her engagement and if you thought her name couldn’t get cooler……you’re wrong:
Joel Drucker gave us a great Throwback Thursday, revisiting Pam Shriver’s upset over Steffi Graf at the 1988 WTA Finals. It was only the third loss of the year for Graf, who won all four Grand Slams and the Seoul Olympics.
Naomi Osaka was a guest on the Young CEO Experience to discuss her recent ventures into entrepreneurship:
Serena Williams announced that her latest jewelry line is a mother-daughter collection called “Be My Side,” inspired by 3-year-old daughter, Olympia.
The WTA’s pick for November recipe is a Wheat Berry Fall Salad by Jennifer Brady, in case you were needing an idea for a (socially-distant, I hope!) Thanksgiving dish.
Tweet(s) of the Week
Happy (belated) Birthday to the icon and reason why the WTA is….well, here, Billie Jean King!
Five at the IX: Sybil Smith, Executive Director for the Sloane Stephens Foundation
Friendly reminder! SSF is hosting a “Wine with Sloane” fundraiser, partnering with Lifetime Vintage for a Zoom wine night. For 6 half bottles, it’s $250, but there are $25 tickets to be in the Zoom. All proceeds will go straight to the Foundation.
Joey: You’ve been a vital part of SSF since its inception. Can you describe the process of starting SSF and what you do on a day-to-day basis as Executive Director?
Sybil: My role as Executive Director varies from day to day. We are still a very small organization although we serve many children and families annually. I spend most days on calls with other non-profits building our network of partners and I maintain close contact with our partners at the Compton Unified School District to ensure we continue to provide safe, structured programming for our students. We’ve continued to build out our programs so each day is filled with developing tools and metrics for future initiatives.
Joey: Education has been a massive pillar in your parenting, which truly shone when Sloane earned her undergraduate degree while playing on tour. It’s also an extremely important piece of SSF’s foundation. What are ways you and SSF have been able to continue the work you’re doing when many districts are virtual learning or closing down after-school activities?
Sybil: When the pandemic started in March, we immediately brainstormed ways to maintain our connection with our students and families. We knew we’d have to make major changes in our approach in order to continue to provide resources and support. Our team worked diligently to pivot to virtual engagement for the kids on a daily basis. We took our entire summer programming online and although we had a smaller group, we had tremendous success engaging our kids online and ensuring they had an active, educational summer.
Joey: Obviously, because of COVID-19, there’s a lot less face-to-face interaction, but tennis is one of the most socially distant sports. How have you been able to best navigate the restrictions, especially in a place like Southern California where it’s been a hotspot?
Sybil: This has been a tough area for our team as we typically reach about 2000 students per year. Without on campus tennis, we’ve had to focus on a core group of students who had attended our program year-round prior to the pandemic. Right now, we have about 20 students who train on-campus daily following the rigorous Los Angeles city guidelines. We have students from one household on the same court, children only handle tennis balls with their names on them, and we utilize a couple of handy ball machines (Slinger Bags) that allow kids to get a lot of hitting in. It’s a bit tedious but imperative we follow the school district guidelines to ensure student safety.
Joey: You and Sloane have both broken many barriers in your own right as women of color. There’s certainly a gap for both women and BIPOC not only on the tennis court, but behind the scenes. From your point of view as an athlete, tennis parent and non-profit director, what are ways the ITF/WTA/USTA can best create pathways to bridge those gaps of opportunity?
Sybil: There are many ways to create these pathways. The first way is to truly have the desire to open these doors to women and BIPOC. Doors may open, but without proper support, guidance and a willingness to eliminate inherent micro aggressions against these groups, we fail.
Joey: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and who gave it? If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 18-year-old self?
Sybil: My mother always told me not to worry about what others were saying and doing and to focus on myself. This advice helped me keep my eyes on my goals and dreams and not allow anyone to deter me. It sounds simple, but as the only black swimmer in the pool for most of my swimming career, I sometimes struggled with being different. My mom’s words kept me confident and focused on being my best self, no matter what.