The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, March 23, 2021

Time to party in the city where the heat is on — Martina Navratilova previews the Miami Open — Must-click women's tennis links

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Bienvenidos a Miami

Main draw play at the Miami Open kicked off today, with three-time champion Venus Williams bowing out to Zarina Diyas in a tight two-setter. Qualifying was also completed today with Aliona Bolsova, a former collegiate player at nearby Florida Atlantic University, Sorana Cirstea and wildcard Hailey Baptiste among those earning entries into the main draw.

Historically known as the “Fifth Grand Slam,” the Miami Open is celebrating its second year held at the Hard Rock Stadium — home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. The tournament usually hosts over 360,000 fans throughout the two weeks, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, each session will see no more than 1,000 fans.

With that said, the player field is still mighty strong, as one would predict with the Mandatory distinction Miami holds. However, the ATP draw has been plagued with withdrawals, including those of the Big Three (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic), as well as the last-second withdrawal from Andy Murray. On the women’s side, only one big name won’t be making an appearance: Serena Williams. The eight-time Miami Open champion had to undergo oral surgery late last week and isn’t fit enough for such a quick turnaround.

WTA Insider previewed the tournament, where Naomi Osaka and Garbine Muguruza aim to continue their strong 2021 seasons with a first title on South Beach. Muguruza had her first WTA breakthrough as a wildcard in 2012, reaching the fourth round. For Osaka, it’s a return to the area where she and her sister, the recently-retired Mari, honed their skills. In her pre-tournament press conference, the Japanese star opened up about Mari and still labels her first win as her biggest.

However, never count out World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, who won the 2019 event en route to capturing her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros. Players like Simona Halep, Australian Open runner-up Jennifer Brady and Grand Slam champions Iga Swiatek, Sofia Kenin and Bianca Andreescu can also rise to the occasion and walk away with the trophy.

The draw could see Halep face off against Coco Gauff in the third round — the same round that Jessica Pegula could play Karolina Pliskova. Pegula is already 2-0 against the Czech and could she find even more 2021 magic at the site of a rival of her family’s NFL team? She’s my dark horse for the event, which is crazy to say since she’s ranked No. 10 in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen.

The top half of the draw is a bit more wide open, in my opinion. A handful of players can escape that half, but Barty, Aryna Sabalenka and Halep are the first names that pop out as the most likely to make a dent. Victoria Azarenka is a three-time champion and power hitters like Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova can destroy anyone on any day. As for the bottom half, you’d be a fool to bet against Muguruza and Osaka. Their match in Australia was razor thin and they’re playing the highest-quality tennis on tour, taking the top two positions on the Race.

The doubles draw was also revealed and the first matchup is the juiciest. Top seeds and reigning champions Sabalenka and Elise Mertens face off against Halep and Angelique Kerber. Miami usually brings out some really fun doubles pairings and this draw is just that.

There are many Five at The IX alums in the field and I can’t pinpoint a concrete winner like I can singles. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nicole Melichar and Demi Schuurs take their biggest title, but Gauff and Caty McNally show up big in the large events. The sentimental Joey would love to see Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova go deep as they reunite for King’s farewell tour. With this draw being unpredictable, I wouldn’t be shocked to see an unseeded duo make the final, or possibly take it all.

Enjoy the fun and sun from Miami and I leave you with this obvious gem:

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Daria Kasatkina continues to play well in 2021, capturing her second title of the year at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy in her native Russia. She faced compatriot Margarita Gasparyan, who had to retire in the second set due to a back injury. WTA Insider spoke with Kasatkina for an episode of Champion’s Corner and the former World No. 10 shared what was her turning point so far this season.

Leylah Fernandez became the youngest Canadian to win a WTA title since Helen Kelesi in 1988 when the 18-year-old lifted the Abierto GNP Seguros trophy in Monterrey, Mexico. The rising star continues to shine in Mexico, moving to to 7-1 in her lifetime in Monterrey and also reached her first WTA final last year in Acapulco. She didn’t lose a set all week, downing qualifier Viktorija Golubic, 6-1, 6-4, in the final.

In doubles, No. 1 seeds Raluca Olaru and Nadiia Kichenok edged out No. 2 Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria 2-6, 6-3, [10-8]. Kichenok collected her sixth WTA title as a result, while Olaru captured title No. 10. It was a great showing by the American duo, who have both done Five at the IXs and I hope 2021 brings them their first WTA title, as they are each 0-4 in finals. It’s long overdue. In Monterrey, Asia Muhammad, another Five at the IX alum, partnered with Caroline Dolehide to defeat Zheng Saisai and Heather Watson, 6-2, 6-3. It was the first WTA title for Dolehide, while Muhammad moves to 6-0 in WTA 250 finals.

If you read any of the links this week, it’s this essay by Venus Williams on equality for British Vogue. Her impact on tennis far surpasses

Two other must-reads this week come from the USTA’s Victoria Chiesa. She profiled Judy Levering, the first woman president of the USTA, as well as highlighting the rise in women officiating US Open finals. She spoke with Eva Asderaki-Moore (2015), Alison Hughes (2018) and Louise Azemar Engzell (2020), who all shared the importance of empowering the future of women in all facets of tennis, not just on the court.

Alex Macpherson sat down with Miami Open wildcard Ana Konjuh, who continues to persevere through four elbow surgeries before the age of 23.

COVID-19 may be on a decline worldwide, but Wimbledon is still being cautious for the 2021 event. The tournament is expecting a reduced fan turnout but continue to be flexible with the British government to avoid a second consecutive cancellation.

The Volvo Car Open formally announced the WTA 250 tournament that will be played the week following their main event. In the announcement, they shared that 2019 champion Madison Keys will be headlining the field.

Leylah Fernandez is at a career-high ranking following her Monterrey title, while finalist Viktorija Golubic and St. Petersburg runner-up Margarita Gasparyan rejoined the Top 100.

I love this random intersection of March Madness and tennis:

Jaws Spitfire Acquisition, a blank-check company backed by Serena Williams’ venture firm, Serena Ventures, is merging with a digital marketing firm Velo3D. The deal will put the combined company value at $1.6B. Yeah, that’s a B. In other financial news, Danielle Collins announced a partnership with Dynasty Financial Services, who is based in her native St. Petersburg, Florida.

Speaking of Serena. Thank you, Howard Bryant, for breaking your Twitter hiatus to share this gem of the GOAT:

In college tennis news, the University of North Carolina women are in the midst of their own record. They’ve won 35 consecutive matches, breaking their 2015 season, that included WTA pros Jamie Loeb and Hayley Carter. Already ITA Team Indoor champions, they are a near-lock for the NCAA team title in May — perhaps the only thing missing from UNC and coach Brian Kalbas’ resume.

Stats Perform, the exclusive data rights holder to the WTA, and Sportradar are teaming up to provide in-play odds and trading services to fans outside of the United States. While this certainly will help the WTA coup more casual fans, it opens up a conversation about 1. player betting and 2. the harassment players receive from bettors o a daily basis.

Former Top 100 ATP player Jeff Salzenstein, who has worked with various WTA players, sat down with the podcast this week. He shared insight about his career and his YouTube channel and online platform to teach tennis to the masses

Tweet of the Week

Karue Sell, hitting partner of Naomi Osaka, makes a fantastic argument about testing new ways of enhancing the sport while we’re adapting to a post-COVID future:

Five at the IX: Martina Navratilova

I got to sit in on a presser with Martina Navratilova, who helped announce that Tennis Channel will be the exclusive rights holder for the Miami Open. It’s the first time Tennis Channel will play every ball from the “Fifth Grand Slam.” She answered my questions about wildcards and Kim Clijsters, but gave some great perspective ahead of time. I hope to land her for a IX exclusive soon.

Q: Turning to the 2021 Miami Open, what are your observations of the tournament over the years, the evolution of the event? What are you looking forward to this particular year?

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Hopefully this year will be one of a kind in that we won’t have much of a crowd and hopefully next year it will be back to normal, but at least we get to play. Last year this was the second tournament that got canceled after Indian Wells. It’s happening. Hopefully Indian Wells may still happen at the end of the year. We’ll see about that. But the players, again, are happy they’ll get the opportunity. At least now they have the lay of the land on the facility.

I think tennis-wise for me I would have preferred playing at Hard Rock than Key Biscayne for one reason and one reason only: it’s less windy where we are now. It was always pretty swirly on the bay at Biscayne Bay. That way it’s better tennis for the players and for the spectators.

As far as what to expect, again, the players have gone through it. This is a big space. But they all have to adjust to changing conditions, changing situations, protocols. At Australia it was changing practically on a daily basis. They’re used to having to figure out what are the rules, how to make it work for themselves.

They can’t wait for the crowd to be there. You don’t know how much you have something until you miss it. Oh, my God, so different. I’m of course looking forward to seeing the crowd as well as the players.

Right now they’re just happy to be playing and making money and training and practicing, able to put that to work in the matches. I think practice, not knowing when the next tournament will be, that would have been hard last year. At least now it will be good to play, yeah.

Q: Two questions about wild cards. Kim Clijsters was expected to play, and now she’s announced she’s not. As someone who did come back late in your career, what is your assessment on what she did last year? What could she do when she does come back in 2021? And about the wild cards for the Miami Open, extremely global between (indiscernible) some really great juniors, players from the Philippines and the Czech Republic, Egypt. Who could you see make a big jump?

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: The sport has become much more international, so are the wild cards. It’s nice to see that we are very democratic when it comes to giving them out. So it’s a great opportunity for the youngsters to match up with the pros, then see where they stand with their games. You never know till you get on the court with a top hundred player, where exactly you stand.

But I have seen all of those players play. Sherif I saw in Australia, great story. Kostyuk has been around, some injuries, but she’s coming back. The Czech girl, I don’t know at all. Looking forward to watching them.

As far as Kim, what the future will bring, you never know. You may have potential. You see the potential in somebody. There’s so many aspects that go into making a champion, you never know how much they will evolve, and where is the final plateau. You make kind of big jumps when you’re younger. It comes in big spurts, the improvement. Then you kind of get to a level, and you can only tweak it a little bit, but you don’t have another big jump. You don’t know when that last big jump is, so it’s hard to predict.

As far as Kim is concerned, I only saw her play two games. She looked great, moving the ball around. But when you get older, it’s harder. She has been away from the game for a long time. What is she, 38? I have to Google her age, but it’s somewhere around there.

As I say, everything slows down as you get older except deterioration. It takes longer to get ready for everything, it takes longer for the legs to start moving to the ball. It’s not so much that you lose the speed, you lose a little bit, but for me, I literally had to make myself run for the ball. It’s like, Oh, dropshot, I better run. There’s that delay that didn’t used to be there when I was in my 20s. For somebody that depends on their speed as much as Kim Clijsters does, it may take her a little bit to get that instinctual reaction back when she’s playing a match.

Also when you do get injured, it takes longer to recover. That becomes a problem. So I hope that she gets the most out of her body, that the body doesn’t keep her back from achieving her best, wherever that is at the moment. I hope she gets to play. It’s really bad times for her when she tries to make a comeback, when the pandemic hits, and you can’t function normally. It’s tricky. But I hope she makes it back.

Q: Awhile back you spoke about it being an issue of your not having a coach for six years, but you also said it was a great decision hiring Renée Richards. Can you talk about what she brought to your game briefly, why that was a great decision for you?

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Well, I played by instinct. I wasn’t really taught how to play points. I don’t remember a coach telling me, You need to come in on that, don’t hit this. Pretty much the only instruction I had from my father as to how to play points was to not dropshot off the serve (laughter). If I ever did that, I would kind of look at him, if it worked, not look at him when it didn’t work.

I’ve learned on my own how to play the points, but also I had a limited game in that I didn’t have a topspin backhand. I could only slice the backhand. Managed to win two Wimbledons that way, but I really wasn’t thinking that much about constructing points, et cetera. I just totally played by instinct.

What Renée brought to my game was technique. She taught me how to hit a topspin backhand, improve my serve as well, start hitting forehand down the line. I was pulling it cross-court because of my grip. So we tweaked that a little bit.

Most of all what she brought was constructing the points, how to set up the points, where you know four shots later you’re going to hit a backhand volley to the open court because you hit the forehand deep, you did the cross-court short, then you come in down the line, then you put the volley away. It was just really opening my eyes how to construct a point. So, yeah, she was a great tennis mind.

Q: We’ve seen this tradition in women’s tennis that goes on of incredible voices for moving forward, social justice, obviously you and Billie, many others. For the American-based players, Naomi, Serena, Coco, Venus, Anisimova, it goes on. It’s far less so with the American men players, I won’t go down names. There’s a real difference in the approach. Could you talk about that a little bit, why that might be.

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Well, I don’t know how much of that has to do with male privilege, but perhaps a little bit would be there. Women have always been the underdogs. Even though we’re the majority, we had to fight for our seat at the table, whether it’s at work, at school, or on the athletic field. I think maybe that’s why we’re just switched on to that much more.

You see it with awareness and voice that Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff bring to the table at such a young age. I think it’s just phenomenal. We have to fight for more. I’m not putting men down for this, but it’s just a fact, they’re in positions of power, they don’t have to beg for a seat at the table, they get it automatically. Maybe a lot of that is embedded in that.

Because of the social injustice, women are much more attune to it. Therefore, they’re willing to take a chance and speak out about it. A lot of the players are willing to do that, but there’s many that don’t want to rock the boat, guys particularly. Who can forget Michael Jordan’s speech, republicans buy sneakers, too. It comes back to that.

I’m thrilled that the women players are leading the way still. We passed the torch to good hands.

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.