Saturday, February 22, 2020

Simona Halep wins 20th Career Title in Dubai

DUBAI, UAE -- No.1 seed Simona Halep was forced to the brink, but battled to a hard-earned second Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title, as the Romanian fought back from a set down to overcome rising Kazakh Elena Rybakina, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) in Saturday night’s classic final.

"It feels great that I could win it," Halep said, during her post-match press conference. "Actually, it was amazing. [Rybakina] fought till the end. She didn't give up any balls. It was really tough mentally. The pressure was very high. But I want it badly, so that's why I fought till the end."

Reigning Wimbledon champion Halep, who also hoisted the Dubai trophy in 2015, stormed back from a break down at 3-1 in the final set to clinch her 20th career WTA singles title after nearly two-and-a-half hours of unpredictable play.

"It's very special to be in 2020, 20th anniversary of this tournament, 20th title," an elated Halep stated. "It's pretty special. I just want to enjoy it. It's very, very beautiful."

World No.2 Halep notched her first title of the season as she approaches her 318th consecutive week in the Top 10 -- the tenth-longest streak in WTA history. She also earned redemption from her only previous meeting with Rybakina, where the Romanian was forced to retire in the first set of their 2019 Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open encounter due to a lower back injury.

"She's strong," Halep said about her vanquished foe. "She has a huge serve. She's tall. She has power. I think she's really good to get into the top 10 very soon."

"[Rybakina is] moving well, even if she's very tall," Halep continued. "Her ball doesn't jump that much. It's really tough to find the length of the ball. The shot, cross backhand, is amazing. She can go also down the line. I think she's at the highest confidence level. I think everything she hits, it's really good now."

With her 20th title, Halep has drawn level with Victoria Azarenka in sixth place on the list of active title winners (behind Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova).

"I've done a lot of results, many results these six, seven years," said Halep. "I'm staying here in the top 5, top 10, which is not easy. I'm proud of my job. Also this tournament gives me confidence that I'm still there."

Despite the loss, Rybakina, who was in her fourth final out of five events this season, will continue to move up the rankings, as she is projected to reach No.17 on Monday's new rankings, up two spots from her current career-high position of No.19.

After a tight first game, the nerveless power of Rybakina allowed her to edge ahead as the first set took shape. Halep found herself in danger on serve in the second game of the match, having to save a break point, though the Romanian got herself out of trouble on that occasion.

However, at 3-2, Halep let a 40-15 lead slip away as exceptional returning by the Kazakh pulled to another break point. In that instance, Rybakina was ceded the break after a long forehand miscue by Halep, as the unseeded player took a crucial 4-2 lead. The Kazakh was not overwhelmed by her first big advantage, using strong serving to move ahead 5-2.

After holding at love for 5-3, Halep finally had chances on the Rybakina serve, withstanding two set points before clutching two break points. However, Rybakina calmly batted those break points away with an ace and an error-forcing winner, and claimed a third set point after a wide return by Halep. There, another wide return by the top seed gave Rybakina a stirring one-set lead.

Halep, though, was undaunted, and after erasing a break point in the first game of the second set, the Romanian crept ahead. Halep fired a forehand winner for triple break point at 2-1, and after a forehand miscue by the Kazakh followed, the former champion had earned her first break of the night and a 3-1 lead. An ace helped the top seed close out another game and a sturdy 4-1 lead.

Rybakina, however, would keep working for a straight-set win, staving off two break points to hold for 4-2, then getting back on serve at 4-3 after an error-laden game from Halep. Despite that stumble, Halep took command in the set once more, converting her fourth break point of a massive game filled with grueling rallies to slide ahead 5-3.

Serving to level the match, Halep found a much-needed ace at 30-30, giving herself a set point. There, a rally forehand forced an error from Rybakina, and the combatants were deadlocked at one set apiece.

Rybakina, though, clutched the upper hand early in the decider, gritting out a tough service hold for 2-1, then earning a break point in the next game with a huge return off of a Halep second serve. Halep was pressured into a double fault in the next point, and Rybakina was leading by a break at 3-1 in the final set.

Errors by the Kazakh in the very next game gave Halep the break back immediately, though, and the Romanian kept herself on serve until she was able to break Rybakina once more, forcing errors with outstanding defense for a 6-5 lead.

Serving for the match in that game, though, Halep was never able to reach match point, as powerful hitting by the young Kazakh led the topsy-turvy tilt to its inexorable conclusion -- a decisive final-set tiebreak.

In the breaker, Rybakina walloped another huge return off a second serve to go up 4-3, but Halep immediately got the minibreak back with a vicious forehand winner. Eventually, Halep claimed the only match point after a wide Rybakina backhand, which she converted to polish off a tiring tilt and notch a noteworthy 20th WTA singles title.

What a great tournament and tremendous fight from Simona Halep. 

My gosh how I enjoy watching her play when she's healthy, because she's able to produce out of this world shots that you just won't see with any other player on tour. 

Congratulations on your 20th title Simona (and your 2nd in Dubai), thanks for making another dreary wintery week a little brighter. 

It was an absolute joy to watch you fight your heart out. 

Enjoy some well deserved rest :). 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Roger Federer underwent right knee surgery set to return on the grass in June

Roger Federer announced today that he will return to competitive tennis during the grass-court swing, after undergoing right knee surgery in Switzerland on Wednesday.

“My right knee has been bothering me for a little while,” Federer announced on Twitter. “I hoped it would go away, but after an examination, and discussion with my team, I decided to have arthroscopic surgery in Switzerland yesterday. After the procedure, the doctors confirmed that it was the right thing to have done and are very confident of a full recovery.

“As a result, I will unfortunately have to miss Dubai, Indian Wells, Bogota, Miami and the French Open. I am grateful for everyone’s support. I can’t wait to be back playing again soon, see you on the grass!”

The 38-year-old, who reached the Australian Open semi-finals (l. to Djokovic) last month, also underwent arthroscopic left knee surgery on 3 February 2016, limiting him to seven tournaments that season.

4 months is an awful  long drought without Roger in the draw, but I would rather he's back to 100% healthy so he can play for a few more years. 

And the last time he had arthroscopic knee surgery he came back after a 6 month break and won 2 Grand Slams. 

I would not mind that happening again. 

Strange how this happened the same month as 4 years ago, just at the end of February instead of the start. 

Get well soon Roger!. The tennis world is going to miss you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Kim Clijsters encouraged by first professional match back in Dubai despite loss

Kim Clijsters lost the first match of her highly-anticipated comeback against Garbine Muguruza in Dubai, but she pushed the Spaniard all the way in an entertaining clash on Monday night.

Muguruza beat the four-time Grand Slam champion 6-2 7-6(6) to progress to the second round of the hard-court tournament.

But the continuation of the Australian Open finalist’s impressive start to 2020 - she has won 12 of her 14 matches - was overshadowed by the return of Clijsters, who showed encouraging signs in her first professional match since the 2012 US Open.

Now 36 and the mother of three children, the Belgian shrugged off rust to push the world No.16 in a physically intense battle, coming within two points of extending the match to a third set.

"I had a good feeling out there,” Clijsters said.

"I do feel a little bit of… I'm not going to say relief, but a feeling of the pace I can handle.

"Second set, I felt I was really in the match. I felt like for a while I was dominating some of the points.

“I think that's a good feeling to have, knowing the way I started the first set and then the way I was able to get back into that second set, with the type of tennis I played, it's something that is the positive about this match.

“I'll take that with me for the next matches."

Early on, it was one-way traffic as the in-form Muguruza controlled the contest.

Several forehands from Clijsters flew long while her double-fault tally mounted; she finished the match in double digits.

When the Belgian sprayed a backhand wide, she trailed 6-2 3-0.

Yet Clijsters has a history of quickly rediscovering form after a long lay-off.

She missed the bulk of 2004 due to a wrist injury before rebounding to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back in 2005, when ranked outside the top 100.

When she made her return to the game in 2009 after first retiring in 2007, she won the US Open as an unranked wildcard in just her third tournament back.

This is a comeback of an altogether different kind, given her age and the time she has spent away. Yet again, she displayed her uncanny ability to almost immediately summon world-class ball striking.

She and Muguruza slugged out a series of entertaining rallies, and Clijsters ultimately broke the Spaniard to level at 4-4 before saving break points to push ahead 5-4.

Her groundstroke speed matched the powerful Muguruza, and Clijsters even demonstrated her trademark sliding split as she lunged to reach wide forehands.

Despite the large crowd growing in volume as Clijsters threatened to take over the match, Muguruza remained focused and closed out victory in one hour and 37 minutes.

Muguruza was only just starting to emerge on tour in 2012 in what was Clijsters’ last season before her second retirement, and admitted she was impressed by what she saw in the wildcard.

"I think she played very well, especially in the second set at the end. It was very tight," Muguruza said.

"I think this is just special because I didn't know how (she) going to play. I know she can play incredible. She did at some point play incredible level. I haven't seen her play in so long, so it's like, 'Okay, what's going to happen?'

"I'm sure she's going to get better and better, for sure, give us a lot of trouble.”

Monday, February 17, 2020

Kim Clijsters managing expectations, emotions ahead of professional tennis return in Dubai

DUBAI, UAE - With preparations winding down ahead of her first professional tennis match in about eight years, Kim Clijsters almost looks like she’s never left.

All eyes have been on the former World No.1 since she announced a surprise return to the tour last fall. At 36 years old and with four Grand Slam singles trophies to her name, there’s not much the Belgian has left to achieve.

But that’s not what she’s doing this for, Clijsters told press at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

“It was a feeling that I had inside, a feeling that I had inside for a little while,” she said, speaking to a packed room of journalists during WTA All-Access Hour in Dubai.

“Kind of talked to a few people. Once in a while that feeling would go away when I was home with the kids. A couple times it would come back. It got stronger and stronger.

“I talked to my husband. He was like, ‘Why not? Stop worrying about why and ask yourself why not.’ He made a very good point. I was like, All right. Yeah, why not?

That’s not to say that it was an breezy journey back to the game. Clijsters was the first to admit that the process of getting back to professional match fitness has been difficult, especially with the lengthy interval since her last competition. (During those eight years away, the Belgian gave birth to her second and third children, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.) She had to delay her comeback - originally scheduled for January - due to an injury, but assured press that she's ready to compete.

“I've enjoyed the challenge," Clijsters said. "I've enjoyed it since the day I've decided to go for it. It's been with ups and downs.

“Being 36 years old, you know that's how it's been for your whole career. It is with ups and downs. It's how you mentally stay through it, how strong you stay through those kind of situations.

“It's been an interesting but very challenging process that I'm really enjoying.”

She will have to hit the ground running in Dubai, where she’s set to contest her first match in eight years on Monday against Garbiñe Muguruza. The Spaniard is coming off a thrilling run to the Australian Open final, looking her vintage best after a sluggish 2019 season.

“I've seen Muguruza play many matches in the last few years, so I have a little bit of an idea,” Clijsters said. “Obviously I was a little curious to see who it was going to be. I don't think it really matters in my situation right now.

“I still feel like I have a lot of things that I want to focus on myself, want to learn, start to get a feel for things again mentally, physically, emotionally, how I'm going to feel when I'm out there.”

To prepare, Clijsters hit the Dubai practice courts with fellow former No.1 Simona Halep - who told press that the Belgian is “playing really well” - and has been seen putting in the long hours on Centre Court.

No stranger to comebacks, Clijsters first stepped away from the sport in 2007 at the age of 23 as injuries took their toll. She spent two years in retirement, during which she gave birth to her oldest daughter Jada, but she soon found herself back on the tennis courts after being invited to compete at an exhibition match at Wimbledon. The trip sparked what would later become her “second career”, returning to the tour in 2009 and right away lifting back-to-back US Open trophies.

But despite her previous success, Clijsters isn’t putting the pressure on herself to see big results straight away.

“I have expectations. I don't think they're the expectations [you guys] would like to hear from me. They're not result related or ranking related. They're more individually for myself,” Clijsters said.

“It's getting a feeling of how I want to play out there,” she added. “That's the expectation or the goal I'm trying to get to. I have moments now where in practice, ‘This is it, this is how I want to play.’ I just have to be able to do it in matches now.

“We'll see if I'm capable of doing that. I'm sure it will take time.”

Kim Clijsters will kick off her run at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships against No.9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza during Monday’s first-round action. She is also set to compete in Monterrey and Indian Wells later in the season.