A WTA Premier event in St. Petersburg. A breakthrough win for a teenager. An injury-timeout controversy in Thailand. Twelve Davis Cup qualifying ties held from Tashkent to Bogota. A trophy ceremony as elaborate and baffling as any Super Bowl halftime show. Yes, it was just another week on the pro tennis circuit.
What can we take away from the last seven days, as the long shadow of the Australian Open begins to fade and the sport goes back into its niche for February? Here are five points of interest:
The Dutchwoman Can Fly
What is Kiki Bertens’ defining quality as a player? It may be deceptiveness.
It starts with her height: She’s a sneaky tall 6-feet. It continues with her serve: Her hurried motion isn’t intimidating, but she has the racquet speed to generate aces with it, especially wide in the ad court. And then there’s her foot speed: At first glance, Bertens looks like a hitter rather than a runner, an attacker rather than a defender; but this past week in St. Petersburg she consistently surprised her opponents with the shots she tracked down and sent back. That was especially true in her 7-6 (2), 6-4 win over Donna Vekic in the final. Down 2-5 in the first set, Bertens worked her way back with a series of great gets and well-measured passing shots that demoralized her opponent.
After a disappointing second-round loss at the Australian Open, Bertens, one of the WTA’s most improved players of 2018, would seem to be on track for an even better 2019. This week she beat three quality opponents—Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Aryna Sabalanka and Vekic—and reminded everyone that she’s Top 10 player for a reason. Bertens is 27, which once upon a time would have qualified her as a late-bloomer. Now it makes her rise up the rankings seem right on schedule. She’s also deceptive in one other way that should help her in the months ahead: While she may not look the part of a dirt-baller, she’s just as comfortable on clay as she in on hard courts.
Young Yaz Arrives
Major league baseball had a Hall-of-Famer named Carl Yastrzemski; major league tennis now has Dayana Yastremska. It’s a little too early to say whether the 18-year-old Ukrainian is heading for tennis’ Hall of Fame, but young Yaz is already stirring things up in the WTA.
This weekend the Odessa native won her second WTA event, at the Thailand Open, recorded her second win over two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza, and came back from 2-5 down in the third set to snag the title from Ajla Tomljanovic in a deciding tiebreaker in the final. Unfortunately, it was the way Yastremska started that comeback, by calling for the trainer when she down 2-5, and receiving a medical timeout for a left leg issue, that garnered most of the attention. Tomljanovic complained about the timing of the move, and did her best to smile through the trophy ceremony afterward, but she was helpless to stop the Yastremska storm-back.
We’ll see if this becomes a pattern with Yastremska; she retired down 0-5 in the final set against Monica Puig last year. For now, what’s equally important is that Yastremska can play—she can move, she can hit, and she can fight. She’s just 5’9, and her serve may never be a major weapon, but she consistently belts more winners from the baseline than her taller opponents. In her quarterfinal win over Muguruza, Yastremska hit 25 winners in two sets; against Magda Linette in the semis, she his 27 winners in two sets; in the final, she hit 33 winners in three sets, while Tomljanovic finished with fewer than 10.
You put a shot-maker together with a fighter, and in the long run you usually end up with a winner.
The Cup Still Runneth
How did the new Davis Cup go in its debut? The matches were shorter—best-of-three rather than best-of-five. And the ties lasted two days rather than all weekend. But the energy and enthusiasm, from players and spectators, looked familiar. This was the only chance that fans will get to see old-fashioned home-and-away ties in 2019.
Davis Cup, it’s clear, is also still a rite of passage for young players. This weekend it was Denis Shapovalov’s and Felix Auger-Aliassime’s turns to make that passage. The two teen pals won their final singles rubbers on Saturday to give Canada a comeback victory over Slovakia. And another young star, Karen Khachanov, looked mightily relieved to clinch Russia’s win over Switzerland.
OK, the new guys are all in. How about the stars that the Cup’s organizers had hoped to lure to Madrid for the final? Will Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer be there? In Federer’s case, the answer is no: Roger-less Switzerland, as expected, lost to Russia this weekend. Djokovic, however, could still decide to participate in the finale; the Serbs edged Uzbekistan 3-2 to advance.
Maldives > Madrid
Davis Cup is still a rite of passage for everyone except Alexander Zverev, it seems. Perhaps the worst news that the new organizers have received came from the young German this weekend. After leading his team to a 5-0 win over Hungary, Zverev reiterated that he doesn’t plan to play the final in Madrid. Instead, “I will watch our team while being on holiday in the Maldives,” Zverev said.
In his mind, the season is already too long without adding another week for Davis Cup in November. It’s hard to argue with that viewpoint, but let’s hope Zverev has a change of heart somewhere on the road to Maldives. If the ATP’s young stars stop wanting to carve their names in the Cup, the way every other great player in the men’s game has for the last 120 years, the competition really might be dead, after all.
Not Standing on Ceremony
The St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy draw was a strong one this year, and it produced an entertaining final. As always, though, the emphasis in the tournament’s name was on “Trophy”—as in trophy ceremony. Once again, the tournament went all out, staging a 20-minute, on-court pop concert after the final, complete with a roof-raising singer, dancers in smocks, and women being hoisted and spun high in the air. What did this have to do with tennis? Who knew? Who cared? Even Vekic, who was forced to sit through the whole thing at courtside just to give her runner-up speech, seemed amused by it all in the end.
St. Petersburg’s trophy ceremony was amusing, and fun, and glorious overkill, and it was also a symbol of all the varied ways that tennis entertains us throughout the season. The NFL’s Super Bowl, and its halftime show, come just once a year. Tennis had its own halftime-worthy show in St. Petersburg on Sunday, but it’s just one part of the sport’s never-ending global pageant. Next week its fans and players will move on to the next set of cities, and matches, and ceremonies, and scandals, and see what drama awaits us there.
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