The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, March 16, 2021

COVID-19: One year later — Catching up with Kennedy Shaffer — Must-click women's tennis links

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COVID-19: One year later

First off, let me welcome Jessica Taylor Price to our staff at The IX! I’ve been a gymnastics fan ever since watching the 2012 Olympics and am so excited to see a new sport added to our lineup.

She already knows I would love a long-form on McKayla Maroney’s 2012 vault, but I’ll also take Aly Raisman’s 2016 floor routine as well. Oh, and a Chellsie Memmel interview PLEASE! I’ve been following her YouTube videos before she was even thinking about a comeback. Please give her a follow and stay tuned for some great content this year!

Now, here we are with a full year of COVID-19 under our belt. What a year. This is probably going to be a ramble, but honestly — hasn’t this last year been exactly that?

On March 10, 2020, the BNP Paribas Open cancelled their event as players were arriving because of a small outbreak in Coachella Valley. It was the first major sporting event to be cancelled because of COVID-19, but obviously more followed, including Wimbledon and the entire Asian swing. A year later, tennis is being played weekly, but a 2021 edition of Indian Wells is still up in the air.

The ITF and WTA circuits took a break from March through July, which was extremely needed as COVID-19 swept across the world. Cancelling these events definitely kept numbers of cases from rising even more. However, although there were successful Grand Slam events in the US Open and a postponed Roland Garros, there was an extremely large gap in available events for women to play — across both tours. It made sense for the WTA to go where the money was at when it created a large contingent in Asia, but from July through November, there were only 11 WTA events, including the US Open and Roland Garros. I truly hope alarm bells were going off in the WTA office on trying to construct a long-term, global future that truly embodies the diversity of the tour.

Availability for professionals has always been an issue, but without a guaranteed salary, how can they fund their career? Fortunately, because of the natural distance, numbers of those playing tennis is soaring. That means more players can coach at home, but what about those who want to compete? UTR has greatly stepped up to the plate and have made their presence in the industry with the unveiling of their UTR Pro Tennis Series Tour — a 3-year, $20 million initiative to benefit those ranked 200 and below, along with junior and collegiate players with a chance for high quality competition and a paycheck.

Now, the WTA has certainly had some high points throughout 2020, but the most notable, in my opinion, has been Tennis United, a digital show where they partnered with the ATP to discuss the game and have in-depth conversations with various guests in the industry. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Vasek Pospisil did a great job hosting the series, which won awards from the Leaders Sports Awards and SPIA Asia Awards. However, it’s time for more than just some YouTube videos or a few Tweets and Instagram comments. With the 2021 season already rolling out, I’m not sure what can be done for more on-court collaboration between the ATP and WTA, but each tour has their strengths and weaknesses that can balance one another out.

Now, we’re here a year later and there’s still so much uncertainty. However, there are more tournaments being played, and projected. There are fans in the stands, but obviously nowhere near the maximum capacity. Vaccine rollouts are ongoing and I truly think we’re nearing a new normal and — luckily for players — an end to bubble life. I hope all of the players can get the vaccine and amplify getting it. It’s important that they be leaders for their communities.

I’m famously overly optimistic and hope that the North American hardcourt swing will be the turning point where there will be no bubble, more fans and more accessible tennis. We’re all over this pandemic — it’s okay to admit that, but we’re nearing the finish line and can enjoy a lot more action following a little yellow rubber ball sooner than later.

If we’re in this same predicament a year from now, feel free to roast me on Twitter.

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This Week in Women’s Tennis

Garbine Muguruza continued her exceptional play this year by capturing the season’s first WTA 1000 event in Dubai. The Spaniard defeated Barbora Krejcikova in straight sets to seal her 8th career WTA singles title. In Guadalajara, Sara Sorribes Tormo won her first WTA singles title with a straight set win over wildcard Genie Bouchard.

It was a mighty impressive week from Bouchard, who made the Lyon doubles final last week, flew across the globe and began main draw play the following day. Bouchard is playing some solid tennis and would already be back in the Top 100 had it not been for a continued ranking freeze due to COVID-19. I honestly can’t wait for this freeze to be history and the rankings will reflect who’s actually playing — and playing well.

In doubles news, Alexa Guarachi and Darija Jurak captured the Dubai doubles title over Yang Zhaoxuan and Xu Yifan, both the biggest of their career. They did a Champions Corner with WTA Insider to discuss their short-term partnership and what clicked. In Guadalajara, NCAA alums Astra Sharma and Ellen Perez won their first title as a pair over Giuliana Olmos and Desirae Krawczyk.

Unfortunately, Kim Clijsters returned her Miami and Charleston wildcards due to her continued recovery from October knee surgery and a January COVID-19 diagnosis. The Hall of Famer is optimistic and eager about her continued comeback with more definite news in 3-6 weeks.

The Miami Open wildcards have been announced:

Laura Pigossi ralled from a 5-2 final set deficit to win the $25,000 ITF World Tour event in Pune, India. Also, here is a nice read on British player Emily Webley-Smith, who won the Pune doubles title and discussed her love affair with India.

I’ve followed Alexa Guarachi since her junior days — we graduated high school the same year. I then watched her play her way to the semifinals at the 2013 NCAA Singles Championships, which she references in her Doubles Dossier piece with WTA Insider. It’s a must-read to know more about the Floridian, who represents Chile and this week broke the Top 15 in the WTA Doubles Rankings.

Steve Flink is covering Women’s History Month for the USTA and profiled Peachy Kellmeyer, who is a key figure in the creation — and success — of the WTA.

I’m not going to pretend I know anything about cryptocurrency or NFT, but World No. 656 Oleksandra Oliynykova is auctioning off part of her arm to be tattooed in the form of NFT.

Chanda Rubin is one of the best commentators in the sport and I’ll gladly fight anyone on that. She spoke with the USTA’s Peter Francesconi about her broadcast career, life as a working mom and more.

World No. 38 Yulia Putintseva announced she had to have kidney surgery and aims to come back in time for the Miami Open.

Jewel Peterson was an All-American at USC and nearly broke the Top 200 as a pro. Nowadays, she’s continuing on her father’s legacy as a coach in Atlanta and discusses her career and working with Coco Gauff as a youngster to USTA’s Arthur Kapetanakis.

Mari Osaka, sister of Naomi who peaked at No. 280 in the WTA Singles Rankings, announced her retirement. She called tennis a “journey which I didn’t enjoy ultimately,” which was refreshing to see an athlete be so upfront.

Congratulations to Billie Jean King and Illana Kloss, who will be inducted into the USTA Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame.

Cici Bellis gets some practice time in on the red clay in her latest episode of My Tennis Life for

Tweet of the Week

TW: rape/sexual assault

Abby Owens played college tennis at LSU and revealed herself as a survivor of sexual assault by former football player Derrius Guice. She told her story to the state’s Legislative Women’s Caucus. Her teammate, Jade Lewis, also identified herself as a sexual abuse survivor by another football player, Drake Davis. LSU, including tennis coaches Julia and Michael Sell, failed these athletes.

Abby, thank you for coming forward and sharing your story. We see and hear you.

Five at The IX: Kennedy Shaffer

Last January, I sat down with Kennedy Shaffer, who is currently ranked No. 691. COVID-19 has put quite the pause on her career that was seeming upwards following a second ITF title in November 2019. A lot has changed since then!

She catches us up on the USTA and UTR events she’s been playing, as well as looking forward to the Volvo Car Open next month. Give her a follow on Twitter and Instagram.

Joey: Last time you checked in with us, you ended 2019 with your second ITF title just before the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you guide us through your 2020 and how COVID-19 has impacted your career? What does the rest of your 2021 look like?
Kennedy: My 2020 year involved an incredibly large amount of training. Due to the fact that I ended 2019 with a title, I was very much excited to build on that. I made some important changes in my life and felt as if I’d begun to set the stage for overall improvements in my level and my tournament results, however, COVID-19 very much derailed my match momentum. I understand that life as a whole was out on pause for so many people, but playing was my only source of income. Bills were still expected to be paid despite the fact that I wasn’t making money. So many things had to take a back seat in the face of merely surviving and limiting my own contribution to the spread of the virus. When things began somewhat opening back up again, I was able to continue training but unable to get anywhere or really get in to any events. I caught my first break at the 100k in Charleston where I was finally able to compete on the ITF level again. My biggest complaint—selfishly speaking—was the lack of opportunities for someone with my ranking here in the States. I say that knowing full well that we were in the middle of a global pandemic so I am merely speaking from a business perspective of being out of a job at that time. Any opportunity I might’ve gotten felt like the only one I’d get until who knows when so if I didn’t capitalize on it 100% then I was unsure of what my future might continue to look like.

As far as 2021 goes, the plan is simple. I will try to play anything in the States I can make the cut of so long as I can afford to get there. That’s the plan I’ve always had and this new year doesn’t appear to yet bring about any changes to that sentiment. 

Joey: You’ve been active playing in various USTA and UTR money tournaments. Can you talk about the process of figuring out when/where to play and how these tournaments have helped when there’s not many other opportunities?
Kennedy: The process of deciding where and what to play has been straightforward enough for me. When you struggle for money, money is certainly a motivating factor so I’ve no doubt searched for events that have decent payouts. If a tournament was close enough for me to get to without spending exorbitant amounts of funds all while offering good financial incentives, I certainly considered playing it. That resulted in me spending some time in Florida as I had a sister living there at the time who offered me a place to stay, thereby helping to cut overall costs. Events like these not only helped give players money to support themselves, but also matches needed to stay “in-tune” while there was a lack of pro-circuit events. It offered me a change to pay bills, play matches, and work through some personal demons I found myself experiencing throughout the off time.

Joey: COVID-19 has created a ranking freeze for the most part on the WTA Tour, but the ITF World Tour has nowhere near the amount of tournaments it usually holds. What do you think can – or should – be done to help the players ranked 250 and below?
Kennedy: The bitter individual in me sometimes wishes that there was a ranking cap on the ITF circuit events. It’s hard to see so many players ranked 100 something in the world take spots from someone ranked 600 something in the world at a 25k event, especially since there seems to be far more opportunities for those ranked inside the top #250 in the world. These are tournaments I was at the very least getting into qualifying draws whereas now I can’t even make the cuts for them. I understand that a higher ranking would get me in said events, however, it’s unfortunate to miss out on opportunities because of a lack of money and lack of chances to play my own tournaments so to speak.

Joey: You’ve been training out of the LTP Academy in Charleston for quite some time. Not only is the Volvo Car Open around the corner, but there’s a WTA 250 the following week and a WTA 125 scheduled in July. You’ve played the VCO once before and would have last year if not for COVID-19. Do you expect to play one or both? In what ways does the experience at the highest level help you moving forward? Kennedy: As far as the upcoming events in Charleston go, I can only hope and dream to play one or both. In the few times I’ve found myself around some of the game’s best players, I’ve found the experiences to be invaluable and insightful. Someone in my position is offered the opportunity to watch the manner in which professionals go about their days—whether that be in regards to the upmost care they take of their bodies or the way they interact with the fans or even the way they are amongst their fellow players. It sometimes feels as if the best of the best are these untouchable individuals that are so unlike the players on the ITF circuit and admittedly, it’s very refreshing to see that isn’t the case. They are people just the same and being around them at a more constant rate makes the gap between levels feel as if it’s not always as far as it seems.

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 18-year-old Kennedy?
: The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given certainly came from Ivan Lendl during a time in which I had the privilege to briefly work with him and learn from him. I remember him telling me that in his entire career, he could count on two hands how many matches he played that felt perfect. Being successful was not so much about feeling perfect or playing your best as it was finding a way to win on your average and worst days since those were likely to make more of an appearance. Though it was a simple message, it stuck with me always and is still a concept I use to guide my hand during whatever will remain of my tennis career.

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 Howard Megdal

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