The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, January 21, 2020

Serena dominates, Gauff KOs Venus as Australian Open begins | Is retirement looming for Sharapova? | Interview: Kennedy Shaffer opens up about the minor league struggles

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Tennis Down Under Continues

Preparation for the Australian Open concluded with the Adelaide International and Hobart International. World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty won her first title on home soil in Adelaide with a productive 6-2, 7-5 win over Dayana Yastremska, who was participating in her first Premier-level final.

In Hobart, Elena Rybakina continued her fine 2020 campaign by reaching her second final in two weeks. This time, she was able to secure her second WTA title by knocking out Zhang Shuai, 7-6(7), 6-3. The WTA spoke with Rybakina before the season and she has big goals for her season.

Australian Open Kicks Off

Before the tournament began, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova volunteered their time in the Australian Open’s Rally for Relief. All proceeds from the pre-tournament festivities will directly impact the relief from the bushfires that is still sweeping the nation. Nearly $5 million AUD was raised through tickets and donations and you can donate or learn more about the tournament’s initiatives here.

Day 1 saw defending champion Naomi Osaka and both Serena and Venus Williams in action. Osaka had a slight bobble in the second set but was able to overpower Marie Bouzkova, 6-2, 6-4. Serena looked determined to win Grand Slam No. 24 by beginning her tournament with a 6-0, 6-3 win over Anastasia Potapova, 6-0, 6-3. She next faces Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia in Wednesday’s night session.

Venus Williams and Coco Gauff had the most anticipated matchup between two unseeded players. Gauff built an early lead before Venus stormed back, but the 15-year-old sensation was able to capitalize on the big points for a 7-6(5), 6-3 victory. It was the second time in three Grand Slams where Gauff knocked out Venus in the opening round. There was plenty of conversation buzzing around the match, which was announced at the draw “reveal.” It reignited the argument of transparency; should all tournaments create the draw in front of the public instead of behind closed doors?

Day 2 saw Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova open their 2020 Grand Slam seasons, but most eyeballs were on Maria Sharapova’s match against No. 19 seed Donna Vekic. Sharapova, ranked No. 176 and needed to receive a wildcard to play in the main draw. Vekic started the match on fire and won the opening set, 6-3, as Sharapova began to find her footing. Sharapova then took a 4-1 lead, but her erratic serve and errors allowed Vekic to take the final five games and a 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Sharapova is expected to tumble down to No. 366 in the rankings following her third consecutive Grand Slam first round loss. Shoulder and arm injuries have riddled the five-time Grand Slam champion since she returned from her drug ban in 2017 and she hasn’t won back-to-back matches since the 2019 Australian Open. In her press conference, Sharapova was asked about 2021 and for the first time, she gave uncertainty into her tennis future.

If 100% healthy, Sharapova can test the game’s elite, but without consistent matches to gain rhythm, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the future Hall of Famer hang up her racquets. Andre Agassi was 27 when he dropped down to the Challenger circuit and rebuild his game and ranking, but Sharapova is 32. Time will tell if Sharapova will swallow her pride and take the steps to work her way back up, but her health is the biggest factor.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Check out this piece on a tennis player’s identity by rising coach Sandra Zaniewska, who guided Petra Martic to her career-best year last year and currently works with Alize Cornet.

ESPN’s Simon Chambers highlights 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki, who is playing her final professional tournament this week.

WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen summarized the 2020 WTA rule changes, highlighted by more schedule flexibility and a restructure of the year-end bonus pool reward.

ICYMI, Peter Bodo of ESPN ranks the WTA’s brightest rising stars and what to expect from the young crop in 2020.

Christopher Clarey of the New York Times profiles Coco Gauff and how much of a difference the American’s career has faced between her two wins over Venus Williams.

ESPN discusses the looming retirement questions that surround Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams and what they face in 2020.

Already armed with back-to-back quarterfinals, Danielle Collins is off to a positive start this year. Reem Abulleil talks with last year’s surprise semifinalist, who is finally feeling healthy following her diagnosis with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Doubles player Miyu Kato hilariously showed off possibly the biggest height differential in professional tennis:

Welcome back, Sania Mirza! The former Doubles No. 1 marked her return from maternity leave with a title at the Hobart International

Kristina Mladenovic opened up about finally achieving Fed Cup glory and her goals for 2020, which hopefully includes an Olympic gold medal.

The first full week of ITF tournaments ended this weekend. The champions of each tournament are listed below:

$25,000 Daytona Beach, FL, USA: Marie Benoit
$25,000 Malibu, CA, USA: Nadia Podoroska
$15,000 Cairo, Egypt: Cindy Burger
$15,000 Monastir, Tunisia: Victoria Muntean
$15,000 Antayla, Turkey: Nina Potocnik
$15,000 Fort-de-France, Martinique: Audrey Albie
$15,000 Cancun, Mexico: Sofia Sewing

Tweet of the Week
Kristie Ahn, who lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the opening round at the Australian Open, showed off the big crowd in the press room.

Five at the IX: Kennedy Shaffer

Kennedy Shaffer is a 22 year old professional tennis player from the United States. She competed for the University of Georgia, where she earned All-America honors and competed at the US Open Collegiate Invitational. Now, she’s competing on the ITF circuit and ended an injury-riddled 2019 by winning her second professional title of her career in Norman, Oklahoma. She opens up about preparing for the professional tour and navigating the high costs and quality of the minor leagues.

Joey: You are one of the dozens of collegiate alums on the ITF circuit. How did college tennis set you up for the professional tour?

Kennedy: I think college tennis prepared me for playing professionally because it taught me a lot about learning to play through adversity. Whether it was tough weather conditions, louder fans supporting the opposing team, or even the absence of your own game on that particular day, it really didn’t matter. You had no choice but to compete and do everything in your power to find a way to win. That’s something that I take with me into every match I truly believe a player’s ability to battle regardless of the situation is what separates the good from the great.

Joey: The ITF has tested different ways to “grow” the minor league circuit, but except for increasing $10ks to $15ks, there hasn’t been any changes to the prize money. What are your thoughts and what do you think can positively impact the structure?

Kennedy:I personally believe that people merely discussing the minor leagues is helping to “grow” the circuit. I know it’s a small step, but it’s a step at the very least. If players like myself or even the tournaments structures at the lower levels are talked about more, then we’re able to stay relevant. Relevance could be the key in our situation to bringing about more change. I’m sure I’m not the only player, but for someone like myself who struggles with finances, I would want there to be an increase in the prize money amounts.

Joey: Speaking of money, most players on the ITF don’t break even every week. What are ways you offset the high cost of the sport?

Kennedy: I’ll tell you I wouldn’t recommend sleeping in your car, as that’s something I’ve done before and hopefully will never have to do again. Normally when I travel, I always look for fellow players to share hotel rooms with. There have been times where we’ve squeezed up to 4 girls in a room in an effort to minimize costs. I also choose to drive far more than I fly because I’ve found gas to be much, much cheaper than paying for a plane ticket. Yes, driving is certainly time consuming, but road-trip expenses tend to be far less than airfare expenses.

Joey: Players briefly mention about what goes behind the scenes. Talk through a normal day for you during a tournament and during a training block.

Kennedy: During tournaments, I like to keep my off-court time as calm and relaxed as possible. Depending on how a match goes/how I feel I played, I might practice a bit later that day or spend the remainder of the day resting (particularly after a long, tough match). I might take a nap, read a book, maybe watch some Netflix while going through my recovery process. So much of a normal match day depends on the time and physicality of the match itself. During a training block, which I’m currently in the midst of, a typical day starts early with fitness beginning around 7:15 or 7:30. Then, I practice 9:00-10:30/11:00 and again from 4:00-6:00.

Joey: You ended 2019 with your second professional title. Do you have any specific goals for 2020?

Kennedy: Genuinely, the only goal is I have for 2020 is to stay healthy. 2019 was a tough year for me full of injuries and a right wrist surgery that caused me to stray far off the forward path I had been on. Gaining momentum only to have everything derail was one of the most challenging moments in my tennis career as a whole, so I’m really using this season to get my body right and focus on the process instead of the results. If the year goes well, then I’ll reassess and set more “number” or “outcome” related goals, but for now I find myself just wanting to be able to play.

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 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.