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Insider Notebook: The Strong Survive

Insider Notebook: The Strong Survive

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

PARIS, France – There was tennis at Roland Garros on Wednesday, where the bottom half semifinals and top half quarterfinals were set. Garbiñe Muguruza and Samantha Stosur will face off in the semis on Friday, while Serena Williams, Yulia Putintseva, Timea Bacsinszky and Kiki Bertens will battle it out on Thursday in the quarters.

Adapt and Survive: That’s the name of the game in this second week at Roland Garros, where weather continues to wreak havoc on the playing conditions. With the cold weather and damp air – thankfully there was no rain on Wednesday – players have had to adapt their games to battle through the slog. Some have done it better than others.

Kiki Bertens notched her 11th consecutive singles win with a 7-6(4), 6-3 victory over No.15 seed Madison Keys. The young American, playing in her first French Open Round of 16 was baffled by the heavy court, which mitigated her big-hitting weapons.

“The conditions today were definitely very heavy and slow,” Keys said. “So I think it favored her more than it favored me. But everyone had to deal with the conditions and try to figure it out, and I think she did a better job today.

“I was surprised by how many balls she got. I think part of it was just because the court was a little bit slower and my ball wasn’t doing as much. But I think she just kept continuously making me hit one more ball, one more ball, one more ball. I think I started going for things too soon, and she definitely took me out of my rhythm.”

No.8 seed Timea Bacsinszky has been the queen of adaptation throughout the fortnight, adjusting her game not only to her opponent but to the conditions. Her ability to problem-solve during each match has been the key to run back to the quarterfinals. She has yet to lose a set. On Wednesday it was No.9 seed Venus Williams who fell victim, as Bacsinszky won 6-2, 6-4 to earn her first win over the American.

Timea Bacsinszky, Venus Williams

“I struggled with my rhythm at the beginning,” Bacsinszky said. “I mean, the conditions, as you could see for the last couple of days, has been pretty tough. We’re not used to playing on such a heavy clay. She was playing really deep. I couldn’t really put my speed into the ball.

“After those two first games, I figured I might have to use my legs a little bit more. So I tried to tell myself, ‘Okay, I’ll move more or try to just push on your legs, anyway. It’s gonna turn around sometime. Maybe not right away.’ I didn’t know I would win eight games in a row.

“I was just focusing on playing deep and tried to mix also the rhythms with some slices, short balls, quick balls, balls with no spin, nothing, no power that she had to move into the court or maybe coming to the net. So I think variation was the key for me today.”

Said Venus: “The courts have been heavy all tournament. But there are some shots I went for, and they landed a lot shorter because the balls were so heavy. You know, you get in trouble with those short balls. Sometimes it’s hard to change the pattern of kind of how you have been playing all week, so the conditions are definitely heavy.”

Serena Williams

Serena Powers Through: One player who looked unfazed by anything on Wednesday was World No.1 Serena Williams. The tournament favorite needed just 62 minutes to beat No.18 seed Elina Svitolina, 6-1, 6-1. The match was previously scheduled for Tuesday before it was cancelled due to rain.

“I hit yesterday a little bit in an indoors facility, and I took a nap and stayed here until I got canceled,” Serena said. “I don’t know what I did the day before. Probably something similar. I’m really okay with the rain, though. It doesn’t bother me at all.”

By advancing to the quartefinals, Serena is one win away from moving to No.1 in the Road to Singapore Leaderboard. She will play surprise quarterfinalist Yulia Putintseva, after the young Kazakh played a strong match to knock out No.12 seed Carla Suárez Navarro 7-5, 7-5. Ranked No.60, Putintseva heads into her match against Serena without losing a set. Only Serena and Bacsinszky can match that feat.

“I think I have been always playing well,” Putintseva said, when asked to explain her surge in form. “It’s just in last few years I had some troubles with sometimes fitness, sometimes my game that I have to a little bit of change it in the more aggressive way. But I think it’s just the moment came and now I’m playing better in this tournament.”

Garbiñe Muguruza makes her semifinal debut: The 22-year-old was playing her third straight French Open quarterfinal and she finally broke her duck, beating No.108 Shelby Rogers 7-5, 6-3. Since being pushed to three sets in her opening round, Muguruza has looked incredibly confident, brushing aside the competition to make her first semifinal here.

Samantha Stosur proves the doubters wrong: It’s been four years since Stosur made the quarterfinal of a Slam, let alone a semifinal. But the 2011 US Open champion and 2010 French Open finalist has built on a strong clay court season to book a spot in the semis here, beating Tsvetana Pironkova, 6-4, 7-6(6). Stosur rallied from being down a break and 0-40 in the first set, down a break in the second set, and down 1-5 in the tiebreak to get the win.

Stosur struggled after 2011 to maintain her Top 10 level, nearly dropping out of the Top 30 last year. But the 32-year-old Aussie never doubted she had the ability to get back to the top. The tennis was in her, she just had to work to get it out.

“I think tennis in general is very reactive,” Stosur said. “You can have a great year or two and then you have a slump and everyone writes you off. I think even people write off Roger and Rafa. If they will write them off they will write off everyone else.

“But I think it all really comes down to how you feel about what you’re doing. If you feel like, [you’re] still healthy, doing everything you need to, training well, training hard, and feel like you can still compete with the best players in the world. I always still felt like that.”

Stosur struggled after 2011 to maintain her Top 10 level, nearly dropping out of the Top 30 last year. But the 32-year-old Aussie never doubted she had the ability to get back to the top. The tennis was in her, she just had to work to get it out.

“I think tennis in general is very reactive,” Stosur said. “You can have a great year or two and then you have a slump and everyone writes you off. I think even people write off Roger and Rafa. If they will write them off they will write off everyone else.

“But I think it all really comes down to how you feel about what you’re doing. If you feel like, [you’re] still healthy, doing everything you need to, training well, training hard, and feel like you can still compete with the best players in the world. I always still felt like that.”

The Evolution of Timea Bacsinszky: “I can adapt my style to the conditions. This is what I constantly work on and try and develop in my life, my personal life, but also when I’m on the courts each time I practice. Even though I might be in a tricky position, sometimes there are days that are not good for you. And even then I try and react and change and turn around the game.

“It’s like a negative spiral, if it’s the case, I will do my utmost to change the trend in my favor. It’s the same for my game. The fact that I know how to play many different types of shots and spins, I can play well on clay. Also on other surfaces, as well.

“What is amazing is that when you don’t set any limits to what you do. You know you can develop many, many aspects of your game. In this respect, Roger is an incredible source of inspiration. He is 34 and last year he invented a new shot. I am not the new revolution. I don’t want to invent a new shot for tennis, but I’d like to add more shots to my palette of shots.

“For instance, those who knew my game, let’s say, before 2010, well, they have not seen me slice a point. Whereas now, this is one of my good shots. I’m not going to serve and volley in a year, but who knows? Why couldn’t I develop that type of style? It could help me. This is what I try and work on throughout the year, and it’s bearing its fruits.”

Kiki Bertens

The Curious Case of Kiki: Bertens has no real explanation for her incredible run of form. “I have no idea,” she said after beating Keys. “I’m just doing it every day, doing every day, I’m going to try to do my own thing.

“Yeah, it’s just keep on going, keep on going, so I don’t want to think about it too much. I’m just really enjoying it at the moment, and, yeah, hopefully it goes on tomorrow again.”

Bertens said the washout and rain delays have helped her physically. She’s played a lot of tennis over the last two and a half weeks — 18 matches, if you count singles and doubles — but she’s adapted to all the curveballs well. Maybe it’s the magic of Nürnberg, which she won two weeks ago.

“I think in Nürnberg we had everything,” she said. “We had sun, we had rain, we had like 6 degrees, we had 20 degrees. It was like every day was different. So you have to make the best out of every day, and that was really a lesson from there. I’m just taking it here with me. So every day is new day. We’re gonna try and give everything. Then we will see how it goes.”

Venus Backs Her Fellow Players: Not surprisingly, the players were asked about the comments made by Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska about the suitability of the playing conditions on Tuesday. Both women complained that the courts and balls were simply unsafe and expressed their disappointment in having to play through it.

“I think the conditions were not playable yesterday,” Venus said. “It was really bad. It’s hard to see. The balls are wet, the courts are wet. I wasn’t out there the whole time that some of the matches were on, but it just seemed terrible. It should be fair. You know, some players shouldn’t have to play in that weather and others not. It doesn’t seem quite equal.”

Venus Williams

Back-to-Back: While the men’s schedule has been crunched by the rain delays, the women say they’re prepared to play matches on back-to-back days. While Slams normally afford them a day off between matches, the players are used to playing without a day’s rest. After all, that’s what they do at tour events. But if the rain continues to wash out play, the prospect of having to play two matches in one day will be met with opposition.

“Back to back is fine,” Venus said. “That’s what we do all year. But two matches in one day, especially if the rest of the draw isn’t doing it, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“I have done that once before, actually,” Serena said when asked about two-a-days. “Charleston I think I played like the 1:00 and the 7:00 match. It was crazy.

“No, I don’t think they would do that though here. This is a Grand Slam, and I think we would have to find a different solution.”

A Different Generation: How about this story from Timea Bacsinszky on her brief interaction with the juniors competing here at Roland Garros.

“Yesterday I was at Jean Bouin at the practice facilities for the French Open,” she said. “They uncovered two courts for Murray and for myself. Well, my hitting partner told me that some juniors were complaining because they were saying, Oh? Who is Bacsinszky? Why does she need a court? So I don’t know if I’m such a big inspiration then.

“I don’t know. I remember when I was myself a junior, believe me. I remember seeing Likhovtseva. She was probably top 20, maybe even 20, and she was playing in the second week. I saw her and like she was not my idol, but still, I was shaking in front of her. I was like, Ahh, she’s in the same locker room as I am.

“But I think maybe now I don’t know if juniors are feeling differently. I have no idea. But I got to talk [as a] junior with Monica Seles in Hungarian and it was like probably one of the best days of my life. I will remember that forever. When she just answered me in Hungarian I was like, Okay, I can lose in first round.”

Timea Bacsinszky

From Weakness to Strength: Stosur’s backhand wing has always been a vulnerability. The slice can sit up, she can rely on it too much to make up for lateral speed to the ball, and her two-handed backhand can let her down. That hasn’t been the case at all in Paris. Against Pironkova, she hit just 7 unforced errors on the backhand (she hit 17 on the forehand). In the previous match against Halep she hit 10 unforced on the backhand to 13 on the forehand.

“We haven’t spent a ton of time hitting backhands every practice session,” Stosur said, when asked about the improvement. “I think when you’re playing well and setting up points well and I’m in control of it, then it really can be a strength.

“I feel like I have been hitting it very well. I have been able to mix in the slice. Probably hit too many slices first six games of the match. Kept constantly telling myself to hit over the ball. I guess if I’m telling myself that it’s a good thing.

“I guess a lot of it is the mindset I have got on it. If I’m putting myself in a good position on the court and wanting to hit it, then I know it can be a good shot. I’ve got to really do that.”

Slicing and Dicing: The backhand slice has been a key shot for two players this week: Bacsinszky and Stosur. With the courts damp and the balls picking up moisture, the slice and dropshot have been incredibly effective, as the ball has been dying on the bounce. While Stosur has used the slice all her life on the backhand side, it’s a relatively new shot for Bacsinszky. The shot developed out of a suggestion from her coach. It took her some time to get her head around it.

“At the beginning I was a bit reluctant. To tell you the whole truth, it was the first time I managed to play one in a match. It was in Andrezieux-Boutheon in 2014 against Sramkova in the first game. It was a small backhand slice shot like Roger’s, and it surprised my opponent so much that I thought, Maybe that’s a good thing to play.

“And then I’m not saying I have total control of this shot or technique today, but then to gain more confidence and a new shot, you have to do is to try it. Not just during practice, but also during matches. Because otherwise it’s only an intention.

“And last year at the end of the year in Beijing, I won key points. I was in a tricky situation at that moment. And thanks to the slices, I won the point. I gained more confidence. But there are so many things that I can still work on in my game. I love doing that. When Dimitri says, Let’s try this, let’s try that. You know what? I’m immediately enthusiastic about it. I like to try those.

Except if I miss them all the time.”

Yulia Putintseva

Puntintseva’s Shuffle: So what was Yulia Putintseva doing during the rain delays and washouts of the last few days? Rebooking her hotel. Putintseva’s reservation was only for the first week of the tournament.

Lucky Ladybug: Don’t ask how ladybugs came up in Bacsinszky’s press conference, but they did. A reporter asked her about saving a ladybug that landed on the court earlier in the week.

“It’s a lucky charm,” Bacsinszky said. “I cannot step on it. Also on the social media, one of my first practices on clay I took a picture and I posted it on Instagram. There was a ladybug. Landed just on a tennis ball just in front of me.

“Here I saw quite a few of them. On my match against Bouchard I think I saved one. The ball kid just stepped on it. I was like, Oh, poor ladybug. He’s like ‘Someone is saving my life.’

“I’m not superstitious. Just saying like why should I step on it? I’m not saying we should like be super careful about every insects and animals, but just like don’t need to murder a poor insect because it’s bothering you.

“You can just push it a little bit. Like, Go on. Go away. That was my feeling about this poor ladybug.”


All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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Stosur Slides Past Pironkova

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

No.21 seed Sam Stosur is back into the semifinals of the French Open for the first time since 2012 with her win against surprise quarterfinalist Tsvetana Pironkova.

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WTA Dominates ESPN World Fame 100

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

Who is the most famous athlete in the world? Ben Alamar, ESPN’s director of sports analytics, devised a formula that combines salary, prize money and endorsements with social media following and Google search popularity to create the ESPN World Fame 100 rankings.

The WTA’s brightest stars dominated the list: of the 8 women highlighted by ESPN, half are WTA players. Maria Sharapova (No.18), Serena Williams (No.25), Sania Mirza (No.41) and Venus Williams (No.74) were named as the most famous female athletes.

At No.18 on the list, Sharapova is the most famous female athlete in the world and her combined 17.6 million fans on social media can agree. From winning her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon at the age of 17 to debuting her confectionary lines, the Russian’s broad popularity has cemented her position at the top.

Two “Serena Slams” 13 years apart speak to the longevity of Serena’s career, during which she’s amassed 70 titles and claims a combined 10.4 million social fans. Her off court activities – including a couple of viral cameos – keep her firmly in the pop culture spotlight as well. At No.25 she is the third most famous female athlete on the list.

A pair of trailblazers round out the ESPN World Fame 100 list: Sania Mirza and Venus Williams. Mirza galvanized an entire subcontinent when she became the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam last year at Wimbledon, and the world’s No.1 doubles player continues to break barriers for women. Similarly, Venus made history when she became the first African-American player ever – male or female – to hold the No.1 ranking in tennis. Her 49 career titles are only eclipsed by her continuing contributions to equality in the game, and as a result she remains one of the most famous athletes in the world.

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Doubles Semifinals Set In Paris

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina weathered a rain-delayed match to continue on a collision course toward local favorites Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic.

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Konjuh Eases Through In Bol

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

BOL, Croatia – No.5 seed Ana Konjuh eased past Grace Min, 6-1, 6-3, in her Bol Open 125K opener. Despite rain dampening much of the afternoon action, the Croatian favorite notched her first WTA win in her home country to book a Round of 16 clash against Turkey’s Ipek Soylu.

Watch free live streaming from Bol, Croatia all week right here on!

Also through is another Croat, wildcard Tereza Mrdeza, who took on fellow countrywoman Ani Mijacika. A lucky loser, Mijacika came up short once again in the first round and bowed out 6-3, 6-4.

Joining Konjuh and Mrdeza in the second round are a pair of seeded players, No.4 Nao Hibino and No.7 Polona Hercog. Hercog had to come back from a mid-match wobble to advance Petra Martic, who was looking to make it three Croatians through today. The Slovak defeated her 6-2, 4-6, 6-1. Hibino had little trouble against French qualifier Marine Partaud, making her way to the Round of 16, 6-2, 6-1.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the seeds in Bol. No.1 seed Anna Karolina Schmiedlova bowed out to Kristina Kucova in the day’s biggest upset, while No.3 Shuai Zheng suffered a 6-4, 7-6(4) defeat at the hands of Ysaline Bonaventure.

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Muguruza Rallies Past Rogers

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

PARIS, France – No.4 seed Garbiñe Muguruza was made to work in the first set of her much-anticipated French Open quarterfinal against Shelby Rogers, but from set point down, the Spaniard rallied and never looked back, easing past the American, 7-5, 6-3, to reach her first career semifinal at Roland Garros.

Rogers had enjoyed a most impressive run into the last eight, upsetting No.17 seed Karolina Pliskova, Volvo Car Open finalist Elena Vesnina, No.10 seed Petra Kvitova, and No.25 seed Irina-Camelia Begu to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Muguruza herself had played solid tennis to reach this stage for a third year in a row, but it was the young American who steadied first, edging out to a 5-3 lead and getting within a point from the opening set.

The 2015 Wimbledon runner-up had only dropped one set through her first four matches, and promptly saved the set point and only lost three more points to sneak off with the opening set a few games later.

Rogers stopped the rot at six straight games, and took one last stand when she recovered from a 0-3 deficit to level the second set at three games apiece.

Muguruza ultimately had too much experience for the American, duly serving out the match to reach the final four for the first time at the French Open.

In a battle of first strike tennis, the No.4 seed proved far more consistent, striking 21 winners to Rogers’ 16, and only 13 unforced errors to 21 from the American. Coverting four of her six break point opportinities, the Spaniard also hit five aces in the 81 minute affair.

Up next is either 2010 finalist and No.21 seed Samantha Stosur or Tsvetana Pironkova. 

More to come…

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