Mary Carillo previews French Open, assesses Serena Williams’ chances for title No. 24

Serena Williams training ahead of the 2020 French Open
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On Thursday, tennis analyst Mary Carillo sat down with On Her Turf to preview the women’s tournament at the French Open. This Q&A has been edited lightly and condensed for clarity.

On Her Turf: Between the US Open earlier this month and the Italian Open last week, what are your takeaways ahead of the French Open?

Mary Carillo: I’m thinking that there’s a big separation between Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Victoria Azarenka — and everyone else, including Serena Williams.

It is no surprise that Simona Halep continues a great streak. She decided against playing in New York on the hard courts and stayed in Europe. It’s such a condensed clay court season, but she already won in Prague, and she won in Rome against a good field. She looks solid. Muguruza also looked very good.

Azarenka, that she was able to go from the [US Open] women’s championship match straight to Rome… she didn’t seem to have a hangover from the [US Open] loss. She’s not somebody you necessarily think of immediately as a great ‘clay-courter,’ but she played great and she could have won that [Italian Open] title.

So after seeing that, and recognizing that Serena Williams hasn’t played a clay court match since the French Open last year, which was at the end of May, and that Serena has likely not been practicing on clay since last year, I think she’s going to have some problems. Even though she is the active women’s player with the most French Open titles – three of them – she will be going up against a lot of clay-courters who’ve been practicing on the surface.

I should also quickly mention that last year’s champion, Ash Barty, isn’t coming. It was a big surprise to me that Ash Barty won last year. And it was a surprise to Ash Barty that her first major title came on clay. So her absence, of course, is significant, but not unexpected. She hasn’t left Australia since the pandemic started.

And Naomi Osaka [also isn’t playing]. Clay is not her best surface… yet. Maybe it will be one day, but it isn’t yet. So, to me, her absence doesn’t feel like that big of a hole in the draw.

The players who are showing up, they know their way around the clay court. And unlike on the men’s side – where [over the last] 15 years, it’s one of three or four guys – on the women’s side, it’s not that way. But I have my favorites.

OHT: Going back to Simona Halep… What is it about her style and approach to the game that makes her a strong clay-court player?

Carillo: Halep grew up on this stuff so it’s her first and best surface. On clay, Halep’s strengths are immediately visible. She is a tremendous mover. She’s in great shape. She understands how to go from offense to defense back to offense. She’s got a great sense of the court and how to navigate it. She cuts into the court when she knows she’s hurt somebody on the other side. Her serve isn’t necessarily a weapon, but it’s hard to break her because her second shot after the return is always solid.

She has great memories of Roland Garros. She lost in a couple of heartbreaking finals, but then when she finally won it [in 2018], it changed her life and it changed her career. And it changed her attitude about who she was as a player. In my mind, she really she deserves to be considered the best clay-court player among all the women, even though she’s only won it once and, again, Serena has won it three times.

OHT: It’s interesting that Serena is going in with more French Open titles than any of the other players, but also the fact that she only has three French Open titles compared to at least six at the other majors. Historically, what has made the French Open less of her tournament than the others?

Carillo: Well, Serena grew up on the hard courts of California. A lot of Americans are much more comfortable on a surface that doesn’t slide under their feet. And Serena is a player whose game is aggression-based, that’s what rewards her. Whether it’s her magnificent serve or the heft of her shots, on clay, a lot of stuff comes back. As well as you might strike a shot, if you’re playing against anybody who knows how to counter-punch… Instead of hitting one winner in a rally, Serena is forced to hit two or three or sometimes four.

OHT: Does the number 24 weigh on her?

Carillo: Absolutely. Not even a question. Sometimes she’ll deny it and sometimes she’ll admit it. I tend to believe her more when she admits it. She’s trying to do a remarkable thing. She’s already made history, now she’s trying to expand upon it.

OHT: Something I find interesting is that, in her return since childbirth, how quickly she reached the finals. But at this point, she’s gone 0-4 in Grand Slam finals—

Carillo: Without winning a set.

OHT: Good point. Statistically, it feels like, ‘Well, Serena has to win one eventually.’ But can you put into perspective the difference between reaching a final and winning a final?

Carillo: For Serena, you know, it’s a failure. She’s been to four finals since she had her baby three years ago. And she’s lost her finals at places where she’s always done so well. She lost [the 2018] Wimbledon final to Angie Kerber, then she lost the US Open final to Naomi Osaka… and then she lost another Wimbledon final to Simona Halep. I had picked Serena for all of these, by the way. And then she lost [the 2019] US Open final to [Bianca] Andreescu.

Serena had so much more experience and so much more success at those fast court majors, I just had it in my head that she would win them… I just feel it weighs so much upon her. And clearly, the other finalists don’t feel all that [pressure]. For them, it’s like, ‘Here’s my shot. Give me the balls, let’s go.’

For Serena, it’s a very different situation. She’s said that, if she could play in the championship matches the way she played to get there, she knows she’d be winning them. Heading into the French Open, will she allow herself to move more freely and hit more freely? We all know it’s not her favorite surface. Maybe that will allow her to settle in a little bit better.

OHT: In terms of up-and-coming women, is there anyone you’ve enjoyed watching recently that you don’t expect to win the French Open – or even necessarily make the quarters or semis – but that you think has a lot of potential for the future?

Carillo: Jen Brady. She has been this summer’s revelation, she has gotten so much better. She moved [from Orlando] to Germany to train. She found a coach and a trainer that she trusted, and she has become fitter, faster, and more confident. Everything about her game has taken such a remarkable leap. She has been the standout of the season.

Shelby [Rogers] has also been great. She got to the quarterfinals of the French Open years ago, but then she had a catastrophic knee surgery that kept her out for a long time. She’s come back fitter, faster, and more confident as well.

READ MORE: Shelby Rogers enters French Open with momentum on her side

And then, [Sofia] “Sonya” Kenin. She won her first major title in Australia [in January] and looked unbelievably strong. But clearly she feels the pressure of her new status because she’s had a pretty rough summer and hasn’t won a lot of matches. She lost love and love [0-6, 0-6] last week in Rome. No one should beat Sonya love and love.

OHT: What are your initial thoughts on the draw?

Carillo: Serena could play Azarenka in the fourth round. That’s just bad, bad luck for both of them. And, by the way, Azarenka has to go through Venus [Williams] in the second round to get to Serena.

The other big news is that Coco Gauff gets [Johanna] Konta first round.

Halep against [2019 French Open semifinalist] Amanda Anisimova would be a third round match. That’s pretty brutal, but I still think Halep gets that in straight [sets].

OHT: In a normal year, the season goes from the French Open on clay to Wimbledon on grass to the US Open hard courts. This year, to have the French Open after the US Open, how does that impact a player’s body? Are there any injury concerns?

Carillo: Changing surfaces, it stresses different muscle systems. If you go from hard courts to clay, where you’re sliding around, or grass courts where you’ve got to bend lower, you start feeling it.

The other difference is the balls; balls change from hard courts to clay courts to grass courts. That can stress out muscle systems as well, and there’s a brand new ball at the French this year. You might have to hit it harder or it might get fluffy… That means that you’ll end up after the first days of practice with a sore elbow or wrist.

OHT: Looking ahead several years… Obviously there are still the Tokyo Olympics next summer, but then Paris will host the Olympics in 2024, and Roland Garros will be the home of the tennis tournament at those Games. In the coming years, do you think we will see more Americans prioritize their clay game?

Carillo: I think the Olympics have become more and more important to the players. The Olympics have become a very big event, and that wasn’t always true in tennis. There were players who didn’t consider it as important as the majors. But I really think that has changed.

Tennis courts these days have become more homogenized. Grass court tennis is a lot slower than it used to be. Clay court tennis has sped up from what it used to be. There are very few players these days who are specialists. You know, if you are a professional tennis player, you’ve got to know how to play everything.

OHT: What did I miss? Any other questions I should have asked?

Carillo: The only other thing… It’s a different time of year. It will get darker and colder earlier. And some players aren’t good cold players.


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FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Utah Royals FC announce NWSL return as new ownership addresses Utah’s abortion restrictions

Real Salt Lake owner, Ryan Smith, left, and NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman pose at a press conference where they announced the return of Utah Royals FC.

SANDY, Utah – The 2023 NWSL season kicks off Saturday and there’s one thing we know for sure: This is the last year the league will be 12 teams after the Utah Royals FC recently announced its return to the league for 2024.

“I knew that this was going to be one of the most important things that we do,” Jessica Berman said at the announcement March 11 regarding her priority initiatives over her first year as NWSL commissioner. “I lead on behalf of the NWSL, who is making sure that we bring this team back because we know the NWSL fans here are avid, and they care and they’re passionate, and that’s why we’re so excited to bring this team back to the community that’s been asking for [it].”

The Royals ownership group includes Ryan Smith, owner of Smith Entertainment Group, a sports, technology and entertainment investment group whose portfolio includes the Utah Jazz (NBA), Real Salt Lake (MLS), Vivint Arena, America First Field, the Salt Lake City Stars (NBA G-League), Real Monarchs (MLS NEXT Pro) and management of the Salt Lake Bees (Triple A baseball); and David Blitzer, owner of sports investment group Global Football Holdings, which has interests in the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA), New Jersey Devils (NHL), Cleveland Guardians (MLB) and seven European soccer entities including Crystal Palace (England) and FC Augsburg (Germany).

Also joining the ownership is Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman and Philadelphia 76ers exec Daryl Morey, who are part of a five-investor consortium named 42 Futbol Group. Rounding out the group are Netflix vice president Amy Reinhard, former Ernst & Young partner Jim Steger and Eleanor Health CEO Corbin Petro. Gelman will serve as the team’s alternate governor alongside Blitzer, while Michelle Hyncik has been named the club’s president. Hyncik has served as RSL’s general counsel for the past three years and spent five years working as a senior legal counsel for Major League Soccer.

In a recent interview with Sportico, Gelman said the group believes that analytics was being underutilized in leagues such as the WNBA and NWSL, noting “there was a natural fit between 42 Futbol Group’s vision and the commitment from Utah Soccer to dedicate appropriate resources toward the new women’s franchise.”

“This is the right opportunity, with the right overarching ownership group, which has the same vision as us: to empower women, affect change and to do it right,” Gelman said. “Alignment of values is so important.”

The new club is returning to a state with a very different landscape following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last June. Just four days after the Royals’ announcement, Utah’s Gov. Spencer Coxsigned into a law a bill that bans all abortion clinics by Jan. 1, 2024.

Berman stated last summer that a state’s abortion laws would factor into the league’s decision regarding expansion cities: “It’s one of the things that we’re actually currently analyzing, which is looking even at our current markets to see where we have some differentiation between our values and what we stand behind relative to where we have teams located, and what are the solutions we can put in place that we feel comfortable we can commit to and execute on,” she said.

Berman, Smith and Hyncik talked with On Her Turf about how they plan to address Utah’s reproductive health-care laws within the Royals organization, plus we unpack Utah’s new legislation and take a look at what’s new for the club’s second iteration.

Current Utah abortion legislation counting down to 2024 ban on clinics

Cox signed H.B. 467 into law on March 15 and it takes effect May 3, when abortion clinics will be required to close either by the end of the year or when their license expires, whichever comes first. Additionally, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services will not be allowed to grant or renew abortion clinic licenses starting May 2. The full ban goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024.

The bill does include exceptions for victims of rape and incest, when the mother’s life is in danger or when the fetus has a “lethal fetal anomaly.” It also classifies violations of Utah’s abortion laws as “unprofessional conduct” for health-care providers, requires doctors to offer perinatal hospice and palliative care options as alternatives to abortion for women facing a fatal anomaly, and prohibits abortion for victims of sexual assault and incest after 18 weeks.

“This bill clarifies that so that those abortions can continue. They will continue in a hospital setting, but there’s nothing to prevent those from continuing,” Cox said at a recent news conference.

Under the legislation, all abortions will be required to take place in a hospital, which is defined as “a general hospital licensed by the state.” Critics warn that moving abortions to hospital facilities will likely raise the cost of accessing an abortion in Utah, even when medically necessary, as out-of-pocket costs in a hospital can reach into the thousands compared to costs at abortion clinics.

How Royals ownership, NWSL are addressing Utah’s abortion laws

Both Smith and Berman addressed head-on the concerns over players’ and female staff health-care access in light of Utah’s restrictions. Smith noted that it’s something his companies have already addressed and implemented a policy for.

“Similar to what we’ve done with the Jazz and what we’ve done with all the employees that work in this organization: If there’s healthcare that is not provided by the state, we’ve offered a stipend, we’ve offered consideration for them to go receive whatever treatment they want elsewhere,” he said. “This is one of the greatest reasons why Michelle (Hyncik) is in this spot, because we worked hand-in-hand with her to develop all of this and roll it out.

“There’s a lot of opportunity we have to push forward what the women in this state can go do. I’m incredibly proud of the women that we have in the state, Look at the entrepreneurship and this platform – it’s way bigger than soccer. And as a girl dad, that’s what I want to see — I want my daughters want to work here. I want our stats department and our analytics to be the best in women’s sports, and I don’t know why we can’t officially own that. And with Jessica (Gelman) coming on board – that’s what she’s done out of Boston and with all of their analytics background, like, that’s right here.”

Berman expressed confidence in the Royals’ ownership, noting: “It’s something that we talk about often and in particular with Meghann Burke (executive director of the NWSL Player Association), and we know that it’s on players’ minds. It’s our responsibility to offer that safety net for players, and we know that the Royals ownership group is completely aligned to ensure that if an athlete’s medical needs are not able to be addressed in their home market, that we have the mechanisms and the tools to offer them the support they need, even if they have to leave the market. We’re going to work closely with the union and with our players and our health-care providers to make sure that our players are taken care of.”

In a statement to local Salt Lake City news outlet, a club spokesperson stated that: “For all employees enrolled in our benefits plan, we have had a policy in place where if there is a medical procedure that is not provided in the state of Utah, we will provide a reimbursement of up to $4,000 toward travel and lodging costs.”

The nearest abortion providers outside of Utah are in Colorado — in Durango and Glenwood Springs. Earlier in March, a proposed Planned Parenthood clinic in West Wendover, Nevada, was blocked when city council members denied the organization’s request for a conditional use permit. According to the Guttmacher Institute, however, Colorado is protective of abortion rights and has a shield law to protect abortion providers from investigations by other states.

What’s new for the Utah Royals

The new Utah Royals FC has a lot to look forward to, beginning with a new, state-of-the-art locker room at newly renamed America First Credit Union Field, the stadium they’ll share with MLS team Real Salt Lake.

“I personally have Saran-wrapped that locker room off,” said Hyncik. “Those facilities have been in hibernation, just waiting for the women to come back.”

Additionally, the stadium saved spaces for Royals murals, intentionally left blank when the team did recent improvements and now filled with artworks. Expect to see a depiction of the club’s updated crest, which still features a lioness wearing a crown and a blue, gold and red color scheme, but the new badge is a bolder, cleaner look that also pays homage to Utah with its iconic mountain range graphically incorporated into the crown. Philadelphia-based Tobah Kaiser and her women-run studio, Tov Creative, led the redesign project.

As for partners, the Royals announced the YWCA Utah as a foundational partner and donated $20,000 to the organization during halftime of RSL’s home opener. Hyncik said the Royals also will support STEM education opportunities for young women in the community. America First Credit Union, a longtime partner of RSL and the original Royals, will be the new Royals’ jersey front partner.

“Our foremost goal is to empower women, not only on the field but also the young women off the field who look up to them as heroes and women throughout the community,” she added.

History of Utah Royals FC

The Royals were first established in November 2017, the same week that FC Kansas City folded its club and the team’s player contracts, draft picks and other rights were transferred to the new Salt Lake City team. The expansion club debuted in 2018, packing in 19,203 fans at the home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium, and regularly averaging 11,000 fans or more during three seasons in the NWSL.

England’s Laura Harvey, who currently manages Seattle’s OL Reign, was hired as the first head coach and recorded an 18-17-12 (W-L-D) record over the first two seasons. Several U.S. national team members spent time with Utah including Kelly O’Hara, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn.

The 2020 season was a tumultuous one for Utah. Head coach Craig Harrington was placed on administrative leave that September amid reports that he allegedly made inappropriate sexual and racist comments to staff and was being verbally abusive, and subsequently was fired in November. Harrington received a two-year suspension from the NWSL this past January after an investigation found he “made inappropriate sexual and objectifying comments” to players.

Amy LePeilbet stepped in as interim coach, and the team went 0-2-2 to finish the season. Additionally, MLS opened an investigation into Real Salt Lake and Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen for racist comments and behavior. Hansen sold his Utah soccer holdings, which included the Royals, RSL and USL’s Real Monarchs, at the end of the year.

The team officially finished 18-14-17 in three seasons in Utah, never reaching the NWSL Cup playoffs but making a statement during the pandemic when the league needed a place to play the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup — a one-off tournament that marked the league’s return to action. The Royals donated $900,000 to help establish a bubble for the four-week tournament that stretched from June 27-July 26, as the NWSL became the first North American professional sports league to return to play following the national shutdown.

In December that year, the Royals moved back east to become the Kansas City Current, whose ownership group includes Brittany and Patrick Mahomes. In January 2022, Real Salt Lake transitioned ownership to Blitzer and Smith.

More about potential NWSL expansion teams 

In July, the NWSL announced that it would be adding two expansion teams in 2024 and a third later on. The other two cities expected to secure franchises are Boston and the San Francisco Bay area, according to a Wall Street Journal report that estimates the two cities will pay a record $50 million in franchise fees. Utah paid a much cheaper price, reportedly $3.5 million, thanks to a prior agreement by former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who had agreed to a fixed reactivation fee.

The 2022 season debuted two new NWSL teams, both located in California: Angel City FC, which averaged more than 19,000 fans at games last year, and San Diego Wave FC, which reached the playoff semifinals and set several attendance records.

Like Utah, Boston would be making its return to the NWSL. The Boston Breakers, one of the NWSL’s original teams, played for five years from 2013-17. San Francisco and Utah are set to begin play in 2024, with Boston launching at a later date.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship — How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

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