Archives for May 2022

Iga Świątek is dominating, while Jessica Pegula is hunting

Iga Swiatek
Mal Taam/MALT photo

Who would have predicted that Iga Świątek has won 44 of her last 45 sets? She is more than consistent as this is an extraordinary run. Plus, she is also cracking both side to side, and going for the winners, almost immediately.

She has made few errors, and she can immediately move one to figuring out how to play the next point. Her return is lethal, and her first serve has improved a tremendous amount. She has won 2020 Roland Garros and now, she is a gigantic favorite to win this year.

Even if she loses a game or a set, she doesn’t panic at all. Last year, she wasn’t as steady here and there, but now the 20-year-old Poland is focused.

“I was saying from the beginning that for sure I’m going to reach a point where I’m going to lose a match, and it’s pretty normal. I have been losing matches in tennis for a long time,” said Świątek, who has now won 30 matches in a row.

“For sure the things we are doing right now are pretty extraordinary but I know in tennis that only one person wins at the end. I will be okay with that. For sure it’s not fun to lose, but I think it wouldn’t be different than any other loss that I had in my career.”

In the off-season she worked with her coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, who has long-time experience and he also knows that he has to be patient and understanding. Świątek is pretty young, but she really listens, and now, she is solid, on court and off.

“I think basically I changed some things, like I started being more aggressive and trying to be more proactive on court. That’s something that my coach really helped me to do,” she said. “But also, I think all the work we have been doing, even last season, it finally clicked somehow. Last season it was a year for me where I really gained so much experience. This year I feel like I’m using it the right way. I have this experience already, and I can just move forward.
So, I think it’s the physical work I have been doing but also with my psychologist, it’s the work of the whole team as well. I’m pretty glad that it clicks right now.”

American Jessica Pegula recently said that she loves the challenge on clay courts, even though it has taken her a long time to really get used to the dirt.

Up until the start of last year, she was up and down and  was out of the top 50. But then, she decided to hit the ball much harder and really go for it.

The 28-year-old reached the final at Madrid, falling to Ons Jabeur in three sets. You can see that she is surging each week. Currently she is ranked No. 11, and even if she loses, she just wants to play because she is addicted to sports.

“Look at [Roger] Federer,” Pegula said. “He could have stopped a while ago and nobody would have blamed him. He says he loves the sport. I feel like I have the same feeling. I’m very compassionate about it and I love to compete and I love the challenge and the grind of doing that.”

She has reached the third round at Roland Garros but she has never gone into the Round of 16. Next up for her in the third found is Slovenian Tamara Zidansek. In fact, even though Pegula has downed a lot of very good players this year, she also has yet to reach the semis at a Grand Slam. Maybe it is time.

“I definitely think I look more as, okay, this is a good opportunity for me to sneak through this section of the draw. Of course, you still have to win matches and stuff,” she said. “But to me, I think I like more playing that game in my head where it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a great little opportunity. Like, this person loses, I like playing this person.’ You see it kind of breakdown and then you try to work your way through. That’s really important, at least for me. I like looking at it but I don’t think I stress myself out about it. I think it’s more fun. It’s more, it’s how I set goals. I look at like chess.”

Danielle Collins, who defeated Shelby Rogers, can attack right off the service return. In January, she reached the final at the Australian Open. She does really like on the hardcourts, but two years ago at RG, she reached the quarters. Once again, if she plays fantastic, she can go even deeper…

Two former terrific players, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova, both lost. Are they really fading, or are the other young players are becoming even faster and more powerful? Each year, they are just filler…

Another one, the two-time Grand Slam champion, Simona Halep lost on Thursday and she said that she was hit with distractions. That can happen to a lot of people, but in a match, good players keep focused.

“I didn’t know how to handle it, because I don’t have it often. I don’t really know why it happened, because I was leading the match. I was playing well,” Halep said.
“But just happened, and I lost it. I couldn’t focus. After the match, was pretty tough. But now I’m good. I’m recovered, and I will learn from this episode.”

Naomi Osaka: Blazing new trails in tennis industry

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka is a champion on the court having won 4 major championships.

She has become a name that is familiar to all of us. Each of her Grand Slam wins has become an instant classic.

Osaka has always been her own person. Some would say that the timeless quote by Henry David Thoreau applies to her: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

She does in fact march to her own drumbeat. That is what the tennis community admires about Osaka.

The former No. 1 has throughout her career dealt with many challenges. She has faced them openly and honestly. Her innocence has been on full display for all of us to see.

Yet her resiliency continues to show her strength of character.

When Osaka burst onto the tennis scene some years ago, we didn’t know her. Now, that has changed. She is a champion both on and off the court.

She is one of the top 20 highest paid athletes in the world. It is safe to assume that she will continue to climb in the rankings.

Osaka played at Roland Garros but lost in the first round to American Amanda Anisimova. However, there is in my opinion a much bigger story about Osaka.

Osaka was until recently represented by the IMG (International Management Group).

She is now hearing the drum of independence and creating a strategy to achieve it. Osaka will be developing her own sports and talent agency. According to reports, she will be partnering with Stuart Duguid.

He is a former high-ranking staffer with the IMG. This talent combination is poised to make a big impact on the cross section of sports and entertainment.

The name of the company will be EVOLVE, spelled in capital letters.

Osaka told Sportico, “I’ve spent my career doing things my way, even when people told me that it wasn’t what was expected or traditional.”

She added, “I’m excited to start this with my business partner Stuart and our plan is to use the same approach we took in building my businesses authentically and strategically as a vision for this company.”

Osaka has business acumen that belies her age. She will become one of the few professional athletes to handle their business affairs.

Hard work, tenacity and self-confidence have been bridges that have strengthened her will to win tennis matches. It is also proving to be a formula for her off the court as well.

So, when we watch Osaka play tennis, we will also be watching a champion tennis player and an astute businesswoman. She is living history and breaking barriers each day. She goes about it with great integrity and fortitude.

Young girls of both races and all ethnicities see her as a role model. The next generation of athletes will point to her as the standard bearer.

Her future is bright and full of promise. She is defining her future and showing us a roadmap of her journey.

Osaka’s vision is clear, and the promise of success is ahead of her. There will be other athletes who will want to emulate what Naomi Osaka is doing. Will they be successful? Only time will tell.

There is one thing for sure that we have come to know about her and that is she has a strong belief in her talents. She has only just begun.

Let us congratulate and cheer Osaka on as we celebrate Asian-American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month throughout May.

James B. Ewers Jr. Ed.D. is the USTA Southern Diversity and Inclusion Committee Chair.

Carlos Alcaraz, Iga Świątek are favored at Roland Garros

Carlos Alcaraz

The 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz has been on fire this year. He has beat the best players, such as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and he is very powerful and intens

He can really bash the ball. He rarely gets nervous and he has hit some amazing drop shots. Alcaraz won his first round in Paris at Roland Garros.

His rapid rise to stardom is impressive, to say the least, winning the Rio Open, Miami Open, Barcelona Open and Madrid. Alcaraz, who was +400 a month ago is as short as +200 to win at Roland-Garros.

Alcaraz can sprint, and he smiles when he hits a winner. However, he has yet to win a Grand Slam, so the pressure is on.

Both Djokovic and Nadal also won easily on Monday. The Serb grabbed this Grand Slam twice, while the steely player Nadal has snagged it 13 times, definitely the best clay courter of all time.

Djokovic had a difficult year with being rejected from entering Australia because he wasn’t vaccinated and couldn’t play the AO. The No. 1 finally rose in Rome, winning the event, when his famous backhand was incredibly steady. He can smack his very good forehand, and he can return quite deep.

He and Nadal have played each other 57 times. Djokovic leads their head-to-head 29 wins to 28 losses, but Nadal has won many matches on clay. They might have face off in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Nadal is a slight favored, but Djokovic believes he can out-hit him, especially as Nadal continues to deal with his injured foot. 

There are other male players who have a shot to go super deep such as Daniil Medvedev, who won the 2021 US Open; Stefanos Tsitsipas, who reached the final at Roland Garros; Alexander Zverev, who has won a few big titles in the ATP 1000s; as well as Andrey Rublev, Casper Ruud and Jannik Sinner.

Can Świątek be stopped?
Among the women, the No. 1 Iga Świątek has now won 29 wins in a row. She is playing as good as she can, crushing anyone. She is, to be blunt, playing almost perfectly. The 20-year-old Świątek is a serious favorite at Roland Garros, which she did in 2020, when she won it. She is fearless and in the first round she won it 6-2, 6-0. She is a staying aggressive, with more initiative, going forward and attacking immediately.

Spaniard Paula Badosa has improved a lot this year, not only because she is very talented, but she is more match savvy. She has yet to win Slam, but the No. 3 in doing the hard work to make that happen.

Barbora Krejcikova is ranked No. 2, but she became hurt in February. So, French teen Diane Parry’s three-set upset of Krejcikova is not a huge surprise.

The Greek Maria Sakkari is so full-tilt, and she can play hour after hour. She can be shaky, but this year she came more tactful. She did reach the semis at Roland Garros, so she must be thinking that if she gets there, she can race into the final. 

Here are a few other women who can go deep, such as Simona Halep, who won it in 2018; the 20-year-old Amanda Anisimova, who just knocked off the four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka; the former No. 2, Aryna Sabalenka and the tough American Danielle Collins. Others are good young players who reached the 2021 US Open final are Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. Also players who have a good chance of reaching the second week with Jessica Pegula, Jelena Ostapenko, Belinda Bencic and Coco Gauff.

Novak Djokovic: ‘It could not be better going into Roland Garros’

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal

It took Serbian Novak Djokovic weeks before he came back into top form this spring. In Rome, he won the tournament, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-0, 7-6(5). The No. 1 has won 38 ATP Masters 1000s. He has also won 20 Grand Slams. He has had a tough year, but now, he is finally in the zone.

“Two days ago I played great. I have been building my form for the past couple of weeks and I knew that my best shape on clay usually comes around Rome, so it could not be better going into Roland Garros,” Djokovic said. Djokovic knew his form was improving through the final and, gradually, he exploited Tsitsipas’s backhand.

“I always believed that I could come back and win the match, and I stayed there even though a lot of things were against me in terms of how I felt on the court. Game-wise, physically I was just far from my best,” Djokovic said. “So, of course, in those types of conditions and circumstances, then you have to really work two times more than you normally would. I played a clay court specialist. I have to try to be optimistic and build, to Roland Garros and where I want to peak.”

With him being sidelined though the early part of 2022 due to not having been vaccinated for COVID-19, he practiced all the time. But, without match play the 34-years old gets irritated and frustrated. When he is on court, he can be lethal and so steady. But now he is in a better space and he is driving on the train.

His backhand might be the best ever, when he is almost perfect cross-court and also down the line, too. He can smack his very good forehand, and he can return quite deep. His eyes can focus, and he can be very thoughtful.

Djokovic is peaking, and at Roland Garros, he has a shot to win the tournament, assuming whether Rafa Nadal will be healthy. If they advance, the two legends will meet in the quarterfinals. The Spaniard stopped playing after Rome. He has won 13 Grand Slams at the French Open, and he has been clearly the best player ever in Paris, but if his legs or his sore back seize up, he might not be able to win it for the millionth time.

Another Spaniard, the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, is winning almost everything. He is so fast, he can bash the ball, and he can hit some amazing drop shots. He can sprint, and he smiles when he hits a winner. However, even though he won Barcelona and Madrid, he has yet to dominate the three-out-of-five set matches. He will, one way or another, but can he do it next week? Maybe in the first week, but in the second week? Possibly as long as he can be more consistent.

Here are a few players who can reach the second week including Tsitsipas, Taylor Fritz, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev, Casper Ruud, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and of course, Daniil Medvedev, who just returned to action.

The Italian final: Iga Świątek versus Ons Jabeur

Iga Świątek
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

Iga Świątek goes into the Rome final with 27 wins in a row. She is not only No.1, but now on the clay, she is crushing people day after day. Last year, who would have thought that she became not only very fast, but smarter. She can belt her forehands and her backhand, she can mix it up, and she can also return like a ghost.

In the semis in Italy, she totally crushed Aryna Sabalenka. She wiped her out 6-2, 6-1.

Świątek has won just one Grand Slam, at the 2020 Roland Garros, but she is now tied with Serena Williams, who also had 27 wins in a row. Świątek is not quite there — a long shot— because Martina Navratilova had 74 wins in a row back in 1984.

Who would have guessed that at the start of the year? Świątek is a little bit shocked. She has lost three matches in January and early February, against the now retired No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, Danielle Collins and Jelena Ostapenko. After that, she began to streak.

“I needed time to learn how to do that properly, how to use the streak or ranking to put pressure on my opponents. I feel like I’ve done that pretty well last season and this season at the beginning, just learning how to use it in a positive way,” Świątek said. “Last year when I had better ranking, it felt like it’s something that’s pressuring me down. This time it’s totally different. Also having Tomasz [Wiktorowski, a coach who worked Aga Radwanska for many years], who is so experienced, who has been working with top players already, it’s also really helpful. I feel like I can lean on them in that matter. I just wasn’t analyzing that much as I did in previous seasons, so it also helped.”

In the final, the rising Jabeur has finally improved a lot. The 27-year-old has been pretty decent, but she has been downcast. She does have a lot of shots, and she can run for a long time, but when she has a chance to bang it, she can become confused.

Then in April, she switched her approach and became so much more confident. She did more grinding, which helped her win in Madrid.
“Honestly I feel like I was playing better the other matches. Maybe today wasn’t the best,” Jabeur said. “Probably another test for me mentally, for sure. But to back up the performance from Madrid, it’s very important for me. It’s one of the reasons why I’m here, why I want to continue showing myself on the court. It’s part of maybe the journey. I told you I want to win a Grand Slam, so maybe I have to go through this to be able to win one Grand Slam. For now I’m doing it right. Different test from each match. Hopefully I can still continue.”

Świątek and Jabeur have played three times, with the Tunisian winning two times, and the Pole winning once.

Jessica Pegula to face Ons Jabeur in the Madrid final

Ons Jabeur
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

When Jessica Pegula was a kid, she thought about playing all sports: football, hockey or even tennis. She wanted to score or nail a winner, either way.

Her father, Terry Pegula, owns the NFL Buffalo Bills, and the NHL Buffalo Sabres. But ,she wanted to do play tennis and advance to a pro career. Eventually, the American joined the WTA, but while she was OK, she was not amazing on court — yet.

Up until the start of last year, she was so-so, out of the top 50. Year after year, she would win and then she would lost, early. But then, she decided to hit the ball much harder and really go for it.

She still isn’t perfect, yet, but she has improved a tremendous amount. The 28-year-old could have retired, and go watch hockey or football, but she wanted to fight on court.

Now she is in the final in Madrid, and on Saturday, she will meet the talented Ons Jabeur.
Pegula is ready to drive and she wants to practice confidently.

“Well, if I didn’t work, I’d be very bored. People don’t realize that, they’re like, ‘You don’t have to work.’ I’m, like, ‘What would I do all day?,’ ” Pegula said. “I just wasn’t wired like that, I guess. Growing up, I guess I was just wired differently where I always wanted to be successful, and whatever it was, I feel like it’s not just tennis, whatever I do off the court too, I want to be really good at it, I want to be the best at it, I want to work hard at it. But honestly I think I just love the sport. I just have a lot of passion for playing. Yeah, I love to compete and be out there. It’s so much fun for me, and I think at the end of the day most players that’s what they are playing for.”

There are some people who want to earn money — whether it be a modest or large amount of money — and a few people do not push themselves when they play the matches. They may look OK, but there are times when they are feeling good. Conversely, when they can start to lose, they check out.

“You see the top players, they’re not playing really for more money at the time. They have already made enough money. Look at [Roger] Federer,” Pegula said. “He could have stopped a while ago and nobody would have blamed him. He says he loves the sport. I feel like I have the same feeling. I’m very compassionate about it and I love to compete and I love the challenge and the grind of doing that.”

Yes it is a huge challenge but she is rising to it. She is ranked No. 14 and very soon, she could finally be in the top 10. This year she has knocked off some solid players. But besides Madrid, she has been up and down. In Dubai, Jabeur crushed her. Who will prevail on Saturday? Neither have won a WTA 1000. Someone will.

“We’re both, I think, going to be nervous,” Pegula said. “We’re both going to want to win. We’re going to go out there and compete and have a great match, I hope.”

Amanda Anisimova rising: step on the gas

Amanda Anisimova
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

American Amanda Anisimova is finally rising, and on Thursday, she out-hit huge hitter Aryna Sabalenka. She is only 20-years- old, and last year, she was erratic at best, but now, she is smarter, and as she grows, she is more alert. She is ready, she can hustle, and she can mix it up. She is currently ranked No. 33 and very soon, she will crack the top 30s

The American needs that. When you want to step on the gas, and you are secure, then you won’t be afraid constantly.

Then on Saturday, Anisimova beat Petra Martic in straight sets. Then she is picking up. She wanted to beat the very best players, and she was pretty close, but this season she has lost to Leylah Fernandez.

Look at the No.1 Iga Swiatek, who now has won 23 wins in a row. At the end of January, after she lost at the Australian Open, she put her head down and she kept coming. The last time she lost was to Ash Barty, who won the AO, and then out of nowhere, the Aussie decided to retire. That was a shocker, but she did, so then Swiatek went way up in the sky and has been almost perfect.

In the AO, Anisimova upset Belinda Bencic and Naomi Osaka. That was almost stunning. But now it is almost normal.

The American will face Victoria Azarenka on Monday, which will be two players who can bash the ball. The emotional Azarenka can look terrific, but she does get hurt on court a lot. However, early on, she is more consistent and patient.
The four-time Grand Slam champ Osaka is in there, and she totally loves playing the hard courts, and she actually likes clay. But, on grass, well, she is very honest in saying it is a challenge.

“I don’t feel like clay should be harder for me than grass. To me, grass is probably the most scariest thing. But, of course every year is a new thing, and there are new players that are coming up that are really, really amazing to watch,” Osaka said. “I don’t want to like think that it’s going to be that easy to go back to the quarters, but it’s something that I feel like I should be able to do, and I’m just going to keep working on it match by match.”

There are a bunch of players who have a chance to go pretty deep next week including Bencic, Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff and Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who has recently returned.