Serena won’t play this year, so who will be No. 1?

Kerber, Pliskova, Cibulkova, Halep and more

The great Serena Williams is pregnant now, and she will not play this year. Or the beginning of 2018. Or never. We won’t find out until the 35-year-old decides if she will want to stay at home, or get on the court to wrap up her career.

But that is a different discussion.

Now, the other very good WTA competitors will face off and will determine who will end the season at No. 1. It’s only April and they have a long way to go. But, outside of Serena, very few have played fantastic this year.

Here is the top 7 players who have a chance to gain, or to stay, at No. 1.

Angie Kerber
The current No. 1 has had a very tough year. Clearly, when she is feeling good mentally, she is so stable and aggressive. However, when she is feeling nervous in must-win situations, she backs up. There is no pressure, except in Germany, where the expectations run high. If she finds her balance, then she will win her third major. Perhaps at RG? Perhaps.

Karolina Pliskova
At times, she plays so good, with incredible power. But, at other times, her brain melts down. She reached the semis at IW and Miami, which was just fine, but then she went down against Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caro Wozniacki. Not bad, but not great. The now No. 3 almost won the 2016 US Open, but right at the end, she was not comfortable. She can snare No. 1, but in order to do so, she has to win her first major. Maybe on hardcourts at the US Open.

Domi Cibulkova
The No. 4 has improved a lot over the past three years. She may be small, but she is so strong and rarely gets tired. She has gone deep at all four majors. She did reach the final at the 2014 Aussie, but couldn’t grab it (against Li Na). She hasn’t done much this year, but soon, she will rise. Can she win a Slam? I doubt it.

Simona Halep
At times, she has been so close to winning a Grand Slam, but she has can’t put together a perfect two weeks. This year, the No. 5 has been really struggling, not because she is injured, but because her focus is through glassy eyes. In 2014, she reached the final at Roland Garros. She ran and ran and ran and was trying to exhaust Maria Sharapova, but in the last two games in the third set — over three hours — Sharapova went for it, while Halep just stood there and lost. The Romanian can reach the final at RG, and this time, she will win it for the first time.

Garbiñe Muguruza
The positive is that last year in the 2016 Roland Garros final against Serena, the No. 6 Muguruza was super aggressive and accurate. She won the title, she was so happy and smiled for months. Except she hasn’t won a tournament since then. Yes, she loves clay, but she gets injured a ton. If the Spaniard begins to feel healthy, she can get on a roll. For sure, she wants to win RG once again.

Johanna Konta
The Brit improves week after week and at Miami, she beat Halep, Venus and Wozniacki to win it. She was ultra-aggressive off both sides. In the past two years, the No. 7 has changed her outlook and if she continues upwards, she can win either Wimbledon and/or the US Open. But she has continue to improve her consistentency.

Aga Radwanska
There were many, many years that the Pole was ready to win a Slam, but for whatever reason, towards the end, her forehand and second serve were too weak to carry her to victory. Obviously, her backhand is fantastic, as is her wonderful speed and various shots. But, she has played poorly this season. The No. 8 does not seem happy, which means that unless she turns it around in rapid speed, then she will fall further.

Maria Sharapova in action at the 2015 WTA Finals

OTHER PLAYERS
The five-time Slam champion Maria Sharapova will return next week after spending 15 months suspended after doping. Yes, as she said, she messed it up, but she loves tennis and even though many players will crucify her, she still will try as hard as she could. The former No. 1 always will.

Another former champ, Vika Azarenka will come back in July after having her first child. She has been No. 1, and she will be once again. She is very intense and she has matured a great deal.
The No. 11 Caro Wozniacki is playing much better this year, but once she reaches the final, she gets very nervous. If she can take a deep breath, then maybe — and I mean maybe — the former No. 1 can finally win a major.

Davis Cup: The heroes, the young guys and the veterans

The top 5 from the Davis Cup quarterfinals

Nick Kyrgios
The 20-year-old led Australia in beating the US, knocking out the vets John Isner and Sam Querrey. He is much more comfortable in the Davis Cup than on the ATP World Tour, being aggressive and smart. The Aussies could actually win it all this year, but they need to bring back Bernard Tomic to help them. If he is actually playing, that is.  

David Goffin
The Belgium plays Davis Cup all the time, year after year. They beat Italy 3-1 Given that Goffin has improved a lot recently, maybe they can upset Australia at home and actually reach the final. Perhaps, if he can kiss the lines in September, that is.

Viktor Troicki
Yes, Novak Djokovic won his match, but Troicki was confident in singles and doubles. They whipped Spain. If the No. 2 Djokovic decides not to play right after the US Open ends, then Serbia has no chance to win the Cup again. They do not have enough great players to prevail without him.

All the French
The top 3 men couldn’t play because of injury, so France brought in a bunch of fine competitors. France has so much depth. Four players cracked England: Lucas Pouille, Jeremy Chardy, Julien Benneteau and Nicolas Mahut.

Lleyton Hewitt
The new captain was pretty brilliant, upsetting the Americans by helping Nick Kyrgios and Jordan Thompson. They were super solid, just like Lleyton was when he played, year-in and year-out.

Roger Federer vs Rafa Nadal in Miami final; Konta wins title

Roger Federer vs Rafa Nadal
It is pretty stunning that this year, Federer walked on court, stared at his backhand and said, “It is time.”

The 18-time champ knew that the only way he was going to consistent knock down the other top players (Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic) is to go more forward, meaning that he had to leap upwards, instead of being way back behind the court.

For many, many years, the lefty Nadal would just continue to pound into his backhand with his heavy topspin. Federer really didn’t know what to do. Once in a while, he would jump up and crack it down the line and hit some winners.

But Nadal didn’t care; he was pretty sure that, eventually, he would watch Federer grow angry. Then, he would become comfortable and settle in for the win.

At the start of this year, Nadal had won 23 matches against Federer, who won only 11. Believe it or not, in 2017, Federer hadn’t won a major against Nadal since 2007, when the Swiss had taken down the Spaniard in five sets at Wimbledon.

Rafa was only 20 years old then. But very quickly, he knew exactly what to do.

After that, Federer couldn’t understand why Nadal wasn’t going to chip and charge, or push the ball in the center of the court, or challenge his forehand. He just pounded and pounded and pounded till Federer’s grew frustrated in his one-handed backhand slice.

Nadal beat him at 2008 Roland Garros (on clay), 2008 Wimbledon (on grass), 2009 Australian Open (on hard courts), 2011 RG, 2012 Aussie Open and the 2014 Aussie Open. Rafa had beaten Roger six times in the Slams.

Now, Federer is 35 years and Nadal is 30.

In the summer of 2016, Roger was pretty hurt and, after he lost early at Wimbly, he called it a year. He was tired and his body was breaking down.

Fortunately, Federer got better, his knees were better, and he missed playing tennis. Enter Ivan Ljubicic, the former player and now his coach, really helped Federer. They practiced and practiced. When Federer was prepared to play again, he was ready to go. His phenomenal serve, forehand, return, the net, variety, lobs … Almost everything, except for his backhand.

But it was right there. Finally, Federer went on court in the final of the 2017 Aussie, and he shocked Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3. Nadal was up 3-1 in the fifth set, and we could tell that Federer was much more powerful and directed.

Six weeks later at Indian Wells, Federer crushed Nadal 6-2 6-3.
Now, Federer is incredibly confident once again.

But hold on. In Miami this week, he won two fantastic contests, but they were very, very long. He beat Tomas Berdych 7-6(6) in the third, and in the semis, he ended Nick Kyrgios 7-6(5) in the third. We would think that Federer is a little bit tired, no?

Look, Federer did get a day off. But on Sunday, if he is forced to get into the third set — let’s say after two hours— then Rafa will win. Nadal isn’t tired at all, as he easily whipped Jack Sock and Fabio Fognini.

Without a doubt, Nadal has to improve over the next few years because he hasn’t won a Grand Slam since 2014. Rafa’s backhand can be weak, and he doesn’t come into the net enough.

Regardless, Nadal is pretty pissed off and he wants to win a big event right now. He will run and run and run, and best Federer in three fun sets.

Johanna Konta d Caroline Wozniacki to win title
A couple years ago, it was hard to see Konta, now 25 years old ,reach the top 10, much less win a big event. She did today, out-hitting Caro 6-4 6-3. She is so powerful, so aggressive … and she rarely backs off.

Now the Brit is ranked No. 7. Perhaps this year, she can win a major, if she continues to improve. But, at Wimbledon when the pressure is on? We will find out in the next few months is she’s prepared for that accomplishment.

Wozniacki against Pliskova: Is Caro ready to win again?

Caroline Wozniacki vs Karolina Pliskova
Earlier this year, Caro and  Pliskova reached the final in Doha. Wozniacki had won the tournament before. In 2013 Miami, Woz overcame Pliskova in three sets here. The same goes, winning at 2014 Monterrey and Istanbul, also in another three sets. Pliskova was good back then, but she was very inconsistent and she grew frustrated with her game.

But in the past two years, Pliskova increased her speed. She will never be the fastest player, but this was a real improvement. But she hits the ball harder than anyone. That is why she is now ranked No. 3, and if she continued to improve, than she will become No. 1 someday. Soon.

This year, the former No. 1 Wozniacki is rising again — especially with her forehand and serve — but once she goes up against the very good women, she chokes a bit. More so, in the semis or finals against the top 10, she gets very nervous. Amazingly, Woz hasn’t won a big event since 2011, when she won Dubai, Indian Wells and Beijing. Now, it’s all in her head.

The good news is that Caro is finally getting aggressive. For sure, she is as steady as a rock and very rarely gets tired. In order to change when she was losing all the time, she need to see the light. She is on her way there, but it will be a months-long journey.

That is why Pliskova will attack immediately and go for the lines. If she is kissing the lines, she will win. If she does not, maybe Caro will break her down.

It’s a tossup, but Pliskova will out-stroke Woz at the end.
  
Roger Federer vs Tomas Berdych
The Swiss is totally locked in. It’s hard to believe that he is now nearly a reflection of his brilliant self from the mid-2000s. Players from that time must be wondering if Federer will continue to show real flashes of the player who dominated the sport a decade ago. Czech Berdych has gotten better in the past 10 days, but he still isn’t 100 percent yet. Take Federer is straight sets. 

Nick Kyrgios v Alexander Zverva 
Who would have thunk it? 

It is the quarterfinals of Miami, you know? Are the young guys ready to dance now? Perhaps they are. 

The 19-year-old Zverev is racing ahead, stunning Stan Wawrinka. The controversial but super powerful Kyrgios has played very well this month, and the 21-year-old will reach the top 10 very soon.

Two weeks ago at Indian Wells, Kyrgios beat the No. 20 Zverev 6-3 6-4. Maybe the German will change it up? Perhaps, but as good as Zverev is, he still needs to learn a lot of things. 

So does Nick, but he is a little older, and on court, smarter. Nick in straight sets.

Johanna Konta vs Venus Williams
Both women played two great contests on Wednesday:  Konta overcame Simon Halep in three dramatic — and very long —sets; Venus rushed towards the net frequently and bested the odd No. 1, Angie Kerber, in straight sets.
 
Last year, Konta beat Venus at the Aussie Open and Stanford. While Konta is in great shape now, still, she might be a big tired. If Konta goes right out of the gates, she will win in straight sets. If they go to the third set, Venus will break her down. If Konta can take down Williams, we predict she will reach the final of Miami for the first time.

American men have to step up now

The young American men are coming up fairly fast, but it is hard to know when the boys will win some major tournaments.

Players like Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe, Ernesto Escobedo and Taylor Fritz show great promise but they have a ways to go before advancing from the top 90 to 130 range into the impact player group

Forget about the Grand Slams right now — it is very early. Nobody knows if they are good enough to beat spectacular players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.  

Let’s look the veteran Americans, who are pretty good, but not good enough.

Way back when, the Americans dominated: Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. After they all retired, Andy Roddick was darn good, too. But that was the last one. In 2003, Roddick won the US Open. Since then, no Americans won it again.

Now, it is 2017, almost 15 years gone dry.

Currently, the American guys – John Isner, Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson and Donald Young – have not reached the semifinals at the Grand Slam. Ever. Even though he’s only 24, Jack Sock may be the U.S. man at No. 17, but he has also not shown the promise of rising Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios.

In fact, they haven’t won an ATP 1000.

Time to change?

On Sunday at Miami, the very young American Donaldson will face against the huge-hitter Canadian Milos Raonic. Sock, who reached the semis at Indian Wells. He is coming up, better and better, and will play Jiri Vesely

On Monday, John Isner will face the boy-wonder Zverev. Will the German show why he’s ranked the spots higher than the American?

Querrey has a legitimate shot against Roberto Bautista Abut.
The American vets do like Miami, so perhaps they can go very deep and possibly win it all?
Maybe, but they have to prove it.

NOTES
Bethanie Mattek-Sands is playing well again and she has a fine shot against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, but given that Lucic-Baroni played incredibly well by stunning Aga Radwanska, it will be a very intense contest.

Also on Sunday, Venus Williams and the 19-year-old Taylor Townsend will play against different foes and may face off in the fourth round. Venus is the favorite in that potential clash.

Tough one for Shelby Rogers, who has to play against No. 1 Angie Kerber.

Best Pix from 2017 Indian Wells by Mal Taam

Click here for a fantastic photo gallery by Mal Taam from ’17 Indian Wells’ BNP Paribas Open.

Mladenovic v. Halep set for Indian Wells

INDIAN WELLS. March 12 — A couple years ago, Simona Halep became No. 2. She reached the final of Roland Garros. There she was very close to her first Slam win, but Maria Sharapova stepped on the gas, winning to 6-4 in the third.

Halep had lost, and cried, but she believed that she could win at the Grand Slam.

She hasn’t yet. 

In 2016, she was on fire, racing around, hitting hard and crushing balls. She won Madrid, Bucharest and Montreal. But guess what? At the Slams, her head wasn’t into it.

She lost early at the Aussie and Roland Garros. At Wimbledon, she managed to go into the second week, beating Madison Keys, but she fell against Angie Kerber in two tight sets.

At the US Open, she reached the quarters again, losing another very tight match, going down to Serena Williams, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

She wasn’t quiet there.

Now she will face KiKi Mladenovic at Indian Wells.

As Halep said, “I’m here, and she’s here.”

Mladenovic beat her in Paris and Birmingham, but Halep topped her in three long sets at 2015 Cincinnati.

Mladenovic is rising, while Halep is struggling.

One way or another, at Indian Wells, it should be a classic.

Hantuchova is still there: Will she stay, or go?

Daniela Hantuchova plays a $25K. Photo: Mal Taam/MALTphoto

At the beginning of their careers, the younger players have to start at the ITF and USTA Pro circuits.  Everyone wants to reach the top pros, but you have to rack up some wins on the smaller circuits.

If you’re not winning titles at this level, at least you have to improve every year, so you could win more consistently. Some willmove on, while others are stycj there for a very long time.

If you’re not moving up the WTA/ATP level, you would have to decide: Do you want to stay, or do you want to go?

This week, in at the Morgan Run Women’s Open in Rancho Santa Fe/San Diego, three major players are still hanging on:
 
Michelle Larcher De Brito, a popular Portuguese  player who cracked the top 100. But she is now ranked No. 242.

The American Maria Sanchez,  who played at USC and was the No. 1 collegiate player throughout the 2011–2012 season. But, when she turned pro at the WTA, she was close to reaching the top 100, but could not.  Now she is ranked No. 414.

And believe it or not, the former No. 5, Daniela Hantuchova, is there at Morgan Run. The Slovak once reached the Australian Open semifinal. She won Indian Wells. She loves Southern California, but she is 33 years old and had a bad year in 2016. You know, 2015 wasn’t very good either.

Hantuchova breezed through the first round with a double bagel over Louisa Stefani. But, the rising top seed, Kayla Day, eliminated her in the second round 7-6(3), 6-1.

Hantuchova is ranked 245. If she is ready to retire, or is she thinking that ‘hey, Serena Williams is 35 years old, and she just won a major in January at the Aussie Open. If she could go it, maybe I can.’

Can she?

In a few weeks in IW, maybe we can see Hantuchova finds some wins and some peace of mind.

Pliskova, Dimitrov, Vandeweghe are on fire

The week of February 13

FED CUP

The Czechs once again won, with Karolina Pliskova crushed Garbine Muguruza 6-2 6-2. Without a doubt,  the No. 3 Pliskova  can a major this year. Perhaps at Wimbledon.

Photo: Mal Taam/MALTphoto

The Americans won fairly easy in Hawaii, cracking the Germans. The rising CoCo Vandeweghe won two matches, smoking the fine player Andrea Petkovic. USTA flap over playing old version of German anthem put damper on otherwise excellent American performance. Now the US has to face the Czechs at home in April. Will Serena and Venus play? Questionable.

ATP ACTION

Grigor Dimitrov, who won Sofia over David Goffin, says that the now No. 12 is exhausted, but he is thrilled that he finally was able to win Bulgaria.

The 19-year-old Alexander Zverev played outstanding tennis, beating Richard Gasquet in the final at Montpellier. He teamed up with his brother, Mischa, to take the dubs, too. Very soon, he will go deep at the Slams.

The 36-year-old  Victor Estrella Burgos won Quito, as the march of the 30-somethings continues.

THIS WEEK

Doha, Qatar

Believe it or not, Karolina Pliskova and  Garbine Muguruza could face each other in the third round. The Spaniard is hoping that the hard courts aren’t too fast. Three other top players — Angie Kerber, Aga Radwanska and  Dominika Cibulkova — are still in contention. Aga could face her good friend, Caroline Wozniacki , in the second round. They have had some marathons.

Rotterdam

Unfortunately, there aren’t any of the top 5-ers. But there are some fun players, like Mario Cilic, Dominic
Them, Tomas Berdych, Goffin and Dimitrov. Who wins? It’s likely Cilic, given that Dimitrov is exhausted.

Memphis

Memphis has struggled at times, but they are still there, which is admirable.  There are not many great teams, but good ones, like Ivo Karlovic, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson and … Bernard Tomic. Can you imagine if he wins the title? Where is the defending champ? See below …

Argentina

Kei Nishikori won Memphis many times, which he decided to go south, way south and now he is in Argentina. It must be about the $$$. There is on clay, which is just fine, given that he was won at Barcelona. This week, it’s Pablo Cuevas, David Ferrer (who is declining) and Pablo Carreno Busta.

Isner overcomes slow start to nail 2-0 lead

 

BIRMINGHAM, AL – Maybe what John Inser needed was a match within native South to find his big serve and groundstrokes.

Isner overcame a first-set loss and months of underachieving to defeat Henri Laaksonen in the second rubber of the US vs. Switzerland tie.

Isner returned is personal nirvana – the tiebreak – to dispatch Laaksonen in the fourth set. Isner found his stride with a 46 62 62 76 (1) victory.

The 6’10” American backed up an earlier victory by Jack Sook to give the US and expected early lead in the first-round World Group Davis Cup tie.

Even though he had no aces in the tiebreak, Isner cracked two service winners and watched as Laaksonen double faulted match point.

As usual, Isner’s biggest weapon is his serve and he put away 28 access, surpassing 500 in his Davis Cup career. As he turned around the match after a mediocre first set, the American had four aces in the last game of the second set.

As the first set fell away, the possibility of Isner less than stellar recent play must have crossed his and coach Jim Courier’s mind. Isner has only won two matches this year, exiting from the Australian Open in the second round. Except for an appearance in the Paris final in the fall, Isner has had less than spectacular results in the last half of 2016. During that time, he lost his standing as America’s top male player, which he had held for numerous years.

“I felt energized by this crowd,” he said during a post-match interview, citing the pro-American spectators who used a large drum and chanting to back their team.


Sock downs Ciudinelli in first rubber

The most trouble Jack Sock had in taking down Marco Chiudinelli in the first rubber of the US vs. Switzerland Davis Cup tie was grabbing a first-set break. It took the American six tries to seal the set.

The rest was smooth sailing.

Sock cruised with a 6-4 6-3 6-1 victory in the World Group first round. Dominating with his usual brand of punishing forehands and big serves, Sock battered the Swiss in the last two sets, repeating the pattern he has used to move into the Top 20.

In a turn of events, Sock has moved past long-time top-dog American John Isner. Now Sock played the No. 1 position in this tie, as his last six months has shown improvement while Isner seems to be slowly losing the edge in his vaunted power-serving game.

Of course, Chiudinelli’s place in the world of Swiss tennis has long been No. 3, slipping now down to No. 146. That makes  Henri Laaksonen, at No. 127, the top Swiss player here. But, hey, this is the Swiss B team with the last two men’s Grand Slam winners – countrymen Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka – being no-shows.

Sock clamped down on Chiudinelli beginning in the last game of the first set. At 0-30 Chiudinelli’s second serve bounced off the tape and barely missed the line, giving Sock three set points. Then the Swiss rattled off three straight service winners. Chiudinelli throws in another double but he bangs a punishing overhead to get back to deuce. It wasn’t until Sock placed a dying drop shot on the sixth break point that he grabbed the first set.

The American was off and flying, taking the first three games of the second set, breaking on his only break chance of the set. In the second game, Chiudinelli had to face a Sock service winner. He followed it up with a sloppy ground stroke. Sock easily took control of the game. Bolstered by the early break, Sock started feeling his game.

“I think I was a little hesitant at the beginning; maybe too conservative playing when obviously my game is to kind of play big and hit big forehands and be aggressive. … Then, when I was able to get the break it kind of made me able to play my game.,” Sock said. He agreed that he built some real momentum in the second set.

Asked about his success with drop shots, he added, “I think I hit them at the right time except for the 3-all game. I tried to hit it at deuce, which was idiotic.”

The Swiss complimented Sock, saying, “(I) struggle a bit with his heavy serve. Yeah, he had good serves at a lot of those moments. When I managed to get the ball back, he followed up with some good second shots.”

Sock sets the stage for what is predicted to be relatively easy first round. If the US wins here, it would face the winner of the Czech Republic/Australia tie. The Aussies took a 2-0 lead today as Jordan Thompson shocked Jiri Vesely and Nick Kyrgios was also a straight-set winner over Jari Satral.