Saturday, February 06, 2016

FC I Day 1 Update: Upsets, Russians and Angie... oh, my!

On the first day of the first Fed Cup weekend of 2016... well, you just never know, do you?



Some Fed Cup notes from Day 1 of weekend action:

**WORLD GROUP 1st Round**
...three of the four WG match-ups are knotted at 1-1 after one day of play, while the one that isn't is the tie that was considered to be the one that wouldn't have ANY drama -- but it's turned out to be the craziest of them all.

In Cluj-Napoca, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova both lost their Day 1 matches, as the Romanian's decision to delay nasal surgery to play this weekend is now a "why-bother?" topic of discussion, while Kvitova will have just as many questions riding on the HUGE match-up between the two on Sunday. One of them is going to be go 0-2 for the weekend. Halep had the chance to be the hero on home soil, but she could turn out to be the goat (and I don't mean Greatest of All Time, either). After winning the 1st set in a tie-break over Karolina Pliskova, Halep was broken at 4-4 in the 2nd set and then saw Pliskova win eight of the last ten games of the match starting with that break.


Pliskova won 6-7(4)/6-4/6-2 in 2:30 to notch her first win in four meetings against Halep. With the opening loss it seemed as if the Romanians were now in deep trouble, what with Kvitova playing on an indoor court seemingly an unbeatable force. But then Monica "I'll forehand slice and dice you to death if you let me" Niculescu stepped in and proved the notion wrong, making up for Halep's loss by upsetting Kvitova 6-3/6-4. Playing to chants of "Mon-i-ca, Mon-i-ca!" from the stands, Niculescu committed just 12 UE errors in the match to the Czech's 46. "I said I am going to play slice because it is my game," said the Romanian. "In the end it was perfect -- I think the slice was bothering her."



So, that 2016-17 Romanian challenge for the FC title prediction is still breathing... no matter how many times Simona has to gulp in air. Oh, if only the Swarmettes' "best" player actually played like it on the FC stage, their grit might make THEM unbeatable.

In Leipzig, Angelique Kerber looked far fresher and confident than Germany teammate Andrea Petkovic. While Petko squandered an early 1st set break of serve, and was broken late in the 2nd after holding true until 4-4 en route to losing 6-3/6-4 to Belinda Bencic (5-1 in FC), fresh-from-her-AO-title Kerber arrived to avoid a second straight 0-2 Day 1 hole for the Germans after one day of play. She handled Swiss Timea Bacsinszky a 6-1/6-3 loss, blasting out of the gates by winning the first five games of the match. So, it looks like this tie might just hinge on Kerber vs. Bencic on Sunday. Said Bencic, "I really feel I belong in between the best players in the world. It makes me happy to be on the big stage." Well, the 18-year old will now get what she wishes for.

Also, Martina Hingis might just play a big role in this tie yet.



In Marseille, French Captain Amelie Mauresmo's faith in Kristina Mladenovic didn't produce the expected dividends, but Caroline Garcia bailed them both out with a fine performance. Mladenovic showed all that is good as well as wrong in her game in a 1-6/6-4/6-1 loss to Camila Giorgi, who "unofficially" looks to have seized the lead role on Team Italia this weekend. Mladenovic's serve did her in, as her ten aces were overruled by eleven double-faults, and her service just fell apart in the final two sets. She served at a 32% and 28% clip in the final two sets, and Giorgi won 30 of 44 return points. Garcia evened the tie in match #2 with a 6-3/7-5 win over veteran Sara Errani. A year ago, the Pastries came back from a 0-2 Day 1 deficit on the road against the Italians. Such a Herculean effort won't be necessary for the away-from-home-this-time Italians, looking to reach the semis for the seventh time in eight years.

Meanwhile, in Moscow... things would only get worse for Maria & Co. as the day wore on.


Whatever is floating around the Hordette squad this weekend, it isn't good. Whether it be lingering uneasiness surrounding Sharapova's possible unwillingness to play FC this weekend (after putting the team on her back and leading it to the final a year ago), or her only being in Moscow because she was threatened to not be allowed to play in Rio if she didn't show up, or her maybe only wanting to play doubles (maybe due to her previous forearm injury) and whether it was her decision or that of "others" to sit, she'll surely be assigned blame in some quarters if Russia manages to lose to the seemingly under-womaned Dutch team tomorrow. And that very well could happen, considering Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova BOTH "spit the bit" on Saturday and lost singles matches to, respectively, Kiki Bertens and Richel Hogenkamp, to put the hosting Hordettes down 0-2.



Bertens improved her FC mark to 12-1 with a 6-3/6-4 win over a discombobulated Makarova, then #141 Hogenkamp came in and knocked off #17 Kuznetsova 7-6(4)/5-7/10-8 in a Fed Cup record 4-hour match. In the 3rd, Hogenkamp had served for the match at 5-4, only to see Sveta break and then hold a MP at 7-6. Ultimately, the 23-year old Dutch woman's converted MP pushed her to a final one-point edge (146-145) in total points on the day against the veteran as both players littered the scorecard with winners and unforced errors. Kuznetsova had more winners (44-34), but also more UE's (72-56). Hardly a surprise, really, when BOTH Svetas show up to play a match.



Now, the question will be whether or not Sharapova will now play singles. And if she doesn't, will it be by choice or because "others" are already preparing to place the blame on her shoulders for NOT playing rather than on those of the former slam winner and semifinalist who crumbled under the pressure on Day 1.

Of course, there's always Daria Kasatkina. Can you feel it?



**WORLD GROUP II**
...WG II isn't without it's twisty/turny ties, either.

In Bratislava, the Slovaks and Aussies are knotted at 1-1 after Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, off to an horrendous start in '16, averted further disaster by avoiding a match #1 upset at the hands Arina Rodionova, ranked 246 spots below her. In a 3:02 match, Rodionova led 7-5/4-1 before the Slovak took advantage of the suddenly tight Aussie, saved three BP in game #11 of the 2nd before getting a break to take the set, and then rode the momentum to a 5-7/7-5/6-0 victory. Said Rodionova of the crazy match, "It had blood, tears, cramping... there was everything out there." Schmiedlova had cut her knee during the match, hence the "blood." Sam Stosur then defeated Jana Cepelova 6-3/6-4 to send things to Sunday on equal footing.

In Kraljevo, the Spanish ruled over the Serbs. Why, it was as if Serbia was missing its good luck charm or something. Which, of course, it was, as Aleksandra Krunic sat out the weekend due to surgery, and her absence looks like it will once again coincide with a Team Serbia loss, just as it has at every Bracelet-less tie since the '12 final. Garbine Muguruza defeated Ivana Jorovic 6-3/6-1 (on MP #8), then Carla Suarez-Navarro wasn't much more generous to Jelena Jankovic, winning 6-4/6-2.

In Quebec City, the Genie-less Canadians are still in it against the Vika-less Belarusians. Aliaksandra Sasnovich's 6-4/2-6/6-3 win over just-turned-19 Francoise Abanda gave BLR the advantage, but Aleksandra Wozniak, the all-time Canadian Fed Cupper making her big comeback from injury, then evened things out with a 6-2/6-2 victory over you're-the-leader-now-act-like-it Olga Govortsova to make things very interesting heading into Sunday.



In Kailua Kona, Hawaii, the American squad went in against Radwanska-less Poland with a decided roster advantage. After a brief rocky stretch, Sloane Stephens downed Magda Linette 6-2/6-4, winning the final six games of the match after falling down a double-break at 4-0 in the 2nd set. In the second match, despite often looking to be playing at about 60% (Lindsay Davenport's estimation) energy/health level, Venus Williams (18-2 in FC) downed Paula Kania 7-5/6-2, surging late in the 1st set to break the Pole in her final two serve games (Kania served for the 1st set) and then taking the 2nd with less drama and hand-wringing from the sidelines. So, as it should be, the U.S. is up 2-0 heading into Sunday.

Hmmm, Mary Joe REALLY can't screw this up now, right? Hmmm. Of course, if Venus isn't up to going on Sunday, and match #3 goes to Poland, never say never...



**Zone Play**
=EUROPE/AFRICA I at Eilat, ISR=
...two teams were promoted out of this zone to spring's WG II Playoffs, and one of them wasn't the hosting Israeli team. Though they gave it a good effort.

Israel managed to make it out of pool play at the expense of a Croatian team that stumbled when it needed to thrive, but the home crowd was disappointed when Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko were swept in the promotional playoff by, respectively, Kateryna Bondarenko (6-1/6-1) and Lesia Tsurenko (7-6/7-6) as the Svitolina-less Ukrainian team moves on. I'm not sure anyone is hoping that K-Bond takes her outfit with her to the WG II Playoffs, though.



In the other promotional playoff, Belgium swept the Brits as both Ysaline Bonaventure and Alison Van Uytvanck wrapped up dual undefeated weeks with three-sets wins over, in order, Katie Swan and Heather Watson. Afterward, the Waffles got soggy... on purpose.



=AMERICAS I at Santa Cruz, BOL=
...in the Americas zone, the key match-up ultimately came in pool play.

Argentina's deciding doubles win from Maria Irigoyen & Catalina Pella over Brazil's Paula Cristina Goncalves & Beatriz Haddad (tour title winners in Bogota in '15) on Friday put the Argentine team into the promotional playoff over the Brazilians. Once there, Catalina Pella, 23, and Nadia Podoroska, 18, proved to fill their first-ever roles as team leaders quite well. The teenager, for one, went 4-0 for the week and finished off Paraguay in the PP with a straight sets win over Montserrat Gonzalez.


=ASIA/OCEANIA I at Hua Hin, TPE=
...Japan had to battle to stay alive all week, but in the end went down to bitter defeat.

With much difficulty, Japan reached the promotional playoff by winning two of three ties by the score of 2-1 thanks to Shuko Aoyama & Eri Hozumi winning deciding doubles matches over India (in Sania Mirza's only match of the week) and Thailand. In the PP, once again things came down to the doubles against Taiwan. But what Mirza was unable to do, the Chan sisters did with ease, as Hao-Ching & Yung-Jan defeated Aoyama/Hozumi 6-3/6-3 to secure the win for host nation Taiwan.


=ASIA/OCEANIA II at Bayamon, PUR=
...Monica Puig had a great week for the hosting Puerto Rican squad. But she leaves with a really nasty taste in her mouth.

After going undefeated in singles and doubles in pool play for the week, including winning 48 of 50 games in singles, Puig carried PUR into the promotional playoff vs. Chile, which had finished just second in its pool. Once again, Puig won her singles match over Daniela Seguel 6-1/6-2, sending the tie to the deciding doubles. There, Puig & Ana Sofia Cordero led Andrea Koch-Benvenuto & Seguel 5-3 and held MP in the 3rd set before the Chilean duo charged back to win the 2:10 match 6-1/3-6/7-5 to advance. Now Monica knows how Kristyna Pliskova feels. Sort of, only seven fewer MP and a whole lot less aces.



In the other promotional playoff in Americas II, Venezuela defeated Guatemala with Andrea Gamiz finishing off an undefeated week in singles to clinch the victory.



And, finally... oh, shut up, Tracy.

For once, prior to Tennis Channel's coverage of USA/POL, the pre-show co-host (I'm not sure who it was, truthfully -- Ian Eagle, maybe?) brought up a long-talked-about (here, anyway) topic in the form of a question, asking, "Shouldn't we (the U.S.) expect more out of our Fed Cup team... than to be fighting to get into the top group (from World Group II)?"

Of course, how did Tracy Austin construct her excuse? Umm, by noting that the U.S. has won the more Fed Cup titles (17) than any other nation, and saying it was about how often the top players (and we know who she was talking about, because only one player would really give Team USA an advantage) play.

So, the U.S. can't win unless Serena is on the team? Really? Well, I got some important news -- she won't be on the team many more times over the next few years. She does turn 35 this season, after all, and she can't play forever. So that won't be a ready excuse for much longer. Sorry, Tracy, but that just doesn't cut it on a weekend when the Netherlands, already IN WG I, it should be noted, is up 2-0 on the Russians in Moscow with Kiki Bertens and Richel Hogenkamp leading the way. Is the inability to lure top-ranked player(s) to EVERY U.S. FC tie a factor in the general lack of success? Sure, but it's not ONLY about having the very best player in the world on the roster. Seems to me that none of the other championship teams have had the best player in the world on their roster, yet somehow they've been able to win. The U.S. doesn't even compete with or against the top level squads, and that's not just because Serena (and/or Venus, for that matter) doesn't play every tie.

And the seventeen titles? Well, four were in the 1960s, seven consecutive came between 1976-82, then three from 1986-90. So, fourteen came in the first twenty-eight years of FC, while three have come in the last twenty-five (26, if you count the title-less '16), with the last coming sixteen years ago in 2000.

There's a bit more to it than "the top players" playing, or not playing. So, way to avoid the question, Tracy. Congrats. Of course, Lindsay Davenport then beat the same drum about "getting players to commit" to and "want to win" Fed Cup. Oddly enough, she said this as her good friend Mary Joe was on the screen. Hmmm, I wonder who's actually supposed to be in charge of convincing those players to commit and getting them to want to win? Hmmm. I wonder. Hmmm. Who could it be? Hmmm.

Not that anyone on TC (or ESPN) would ever say bring that up... the coverage of the U.S. Fed Cup efforts, and tennis in general, is far too incestuous for that, with commentators having too many good friends in high positions for any real truths to be spoken or questions of competence raised. At least not for long. And if they are... well, they're just avoided and the players are quickly blamed for not participating A WEEK AFTER A MAJOR.

So, we're still watchin' you, Mary Joe... don't let the relative quiet of this weekend lull you into a false sense of superiority regarding your performance as Captain.


(All right, so there's that.)


I'll have the complete weekly wrap-up of the opening Fed Cup week of '16 after the weekend, probably on Monday as I suspect I'll be taking a "Super Bowl break" tomorrow.

(Psst... I'll go with Carolina 36-10, by the way.)

All for now.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

FC I Preview: Let the Fed Cup Games Begin

Well, it's time to unwrap our first helping of Fed Cup-related treats in 2016.



Some big stars have slipped into the national colors for the first time this season, and it promises to result in a very interesting weekend. Oh, that and Mary Joe Fernandez has actually smartly constructed a rather nice roster for the U.S. squad.

Yeah, I know... go figure.

Obviously, that means it could be WILD weekend.



*WORLD GROUP I 1st Round*
Czech Republic at Romania (Cluj-Napoca - HCI)
CZE: Kvitova,Ka.Pliskova,Strycova,Allertova
ROU: Halep,Niculescu,Mitu,Olaru

...I've been touting a 2016-17 title/final run by the Swarmettes for a few years now, and here is where the proverbial rubber meets the road and something has to GET DONE if it's going to happen this season. Both ROU and CZE have gone undefeated in Fed Cup play the last two years, but they haven't met since 1980. While it's nice for the Romanians to play at home, they couldn't have picked a worse 1st Round opponent (only maybe Russia would be equally tough) than the two-time defending (and very deep) Czech squad. Even without Lucie Safarova or either member of the "Double H" doubles duo there's still talent to spare for Captain Petr Pala to choose from, especially since Petra Kvitova is around to play on indoor hardcourts. Meanwhile, singles #2 Karolina Pliskova put the team on her shoulders en route to the title last year, while Barbora Strycova is the "secret weapon" who has helped pull out some tight ties in the deciding doubles during the Maidens' dynastic FC run. Simona Halep is putting off nasal surgery to play this tie, one year after she crumbled on the Romania-hosted stage in FC against Spain & Garbine Muguruza (but was bailed out by, mostly, Irina-Camelia Begu). The Swarmettes somehow need to find a way to push things to the doubles, and then hope the raucous crowd will tip the scales in their favor vs. a likely Pliskova/Strycova duo. If Alexandra Dulgheru, who led the road win over Canada that got the team here, was on this roster I'd give Romania a slight chance at an upset, with Pliskova maybe faltering under the pressure of a hostile environment. Pliskova still might blink to open a small window of opportunity, but it's hard seeing her going winless in singles. So SOMEONE has to defeat Kvitova... and that's a mean feat in Fed Cup, where she's 24-4 indoors. Halep has the chance to be the hero, but the view from here is pretty skeptical.
PICK: Czech Republic def. Romania 3-1 (with maybe a 3-2 final score w/ a possible "dead rubber" doubles win for ROU to soothe the ill feelings)
...and here's to hoping for a WG Playoff win in the spring, and a better 1st Round draw for 2017 to keep my prediction alive at least one more season


Switzerland at Germany (Leipzig - HCI)
SUI: Bencic,Bacsinszky,Golubic,Hingis
GER: Kerber,Petkovic,Beck,Groenefeld

...wow, what an interesting tie. Switzerland has it's "dream team" together, hopefully with Dream Teamer Martina Hingis being held back for only doubles participation this time around. She might be needed there, too. Meanwhile, AO champ Angelique Kerber is back at it again, along with Andrea Petkovic. Those two asking out of Day 1 play in last year's semifinals (GER went down 0-2 vs. RUS) likely cost Germany a second straight trip to the FC final, and here is their chance at team redemption (their furious Day 2 comeback nearly saved the day last spring, but GER lost in the doubles). Well, that is, unless Kerber's long two weeks in Melbourne means that once again she'll play a limited role. If that's the case, this tie will go to the doubles, with whatever Swiss combo (Hingis w/ Bencic, or Bacsinszky?) having an equal shot at a road win vs. (probably) Groenefeld and an unnamed partner (unless the recent Kerber/Petko doubles duo carries over to FC). Timea Bacsinszky's lacking '16 results gives the edge to Germany, as Belinda Becic (4-1 in FC) will likely get at least one singles victory. If Kerber is in full form/participation, this might be easier than Switzerland's nice roster would lead one to believe.
PICK: Germany def. Switzerland 3-1
...Hingis might get the weekend off. This would set up a crazy-good semifinal rematch of the '14 final vs. the Czechs.


Italy at France (Marseille - HCI)
ITA: Errani,Giorgi,Schiavone,Caregaro
FRA: Mladenovic,Garcia,Parmentier,Doi

...last year, on Italian clay, the Pastries came back from 0-2 down on Day 1 to shock Errani & Co. and seemingly put an end to Italy's recent great Fed Cup era. But Italy rebounded, with Flavia Pennetta's help in her hometown, to give them maybe one more chance at glory with 50% of the roster consisting of two of the nation's four FC legends (in this case, Sara Errani and Francesca Schiavone, who could be having her FC farewell party this weekend), with NextGen Cupper Camila Giorgi also here for the "hand-off" of the baton. It's become clear that Captain Amelie Mauresmo's favored FC weapon is Kiki Mladenovic, and she'll be in the key role again this weekend. With Caroline Garcia an iffy prospect, as always, Mladenovic might have to have a hand in all three wins if France is going to take this tie. This one SO has the look of a battle that will come down to the doubles, with Garcia/Mladenovic once again having a tie on their rackets, this time possibly against the veteran pair of Errani/Schiavone for all the Marseille marbles. Yes, please.
PICK: France def. Italy 3-2
...Queen Kiki celebrates with Garcia and Mauresmo once again. Barring a Si-mo-na sighting, Mladenovic has a good chance to the this weekend's Overall MVP.


Netherlands at Russia (Moscow - HCI)
NED: Bertens,Hogenkamp,Burger,Rus
RUS: Sharapova,Kuznetsova,Makarova,Kasatkina

...despite some questionable (on so many levels) Shamil Tarpischev-related threats about HAVING to participate if she wants to play in Rio, Maria Sharapova is back after leading the Hordettes to the FC final a year ago. She gave it her all vs. the Czechs, but didn't have Svetlana Kuznetsova or Ekaterina Makarova by her side last fall (meaning Captain Anastasia Myskina's bad habit of relying on namesake Pavlyuchenkova sunk Team Russia's chances), but the better parts of the Russian gang are present this time around. It'll make all the difference. This Russian team is, from top to bottom, THE best squad in action this weekend. The Dutch team should be proud of themselves for having climbed so high while proving that a team can sometimes be better than the sum of its parts, but the journey ends here.
PICK: Russia def. Netherlands 4-0
...if Sharapova sticks around all season, the Russians might be the favorites to end the Czech title run.

UPDATE: as of the Friday lineup announcements, Sharapova is listed as only playing doubles. One wonders how much the whole does-she-need-to-be-there-to-be-Olympic-eligible situation might be playing into that. It shouldn't matter with the end result, though, as Kuznetsova and Makarova should be more than enough. Maybe NED gets a point, though.



*WORLD GROUP II*
Australia at Slovak Republic (Bratislava - HCI)
AUS: Stosur,Dellacqua,Wolfe,Birrell
SVK: AK.Schmiedlova,Cibulkova,Hantuchova,Cepelova

...I'd like Australia's chances much better if, say, Daria Gavrilova were in this mix. But, hey, at least the Aussies aren't playing on home soil... so they maybe have a shot. The big problem for SVK is that Schmiedlova and Hantuchova (and Cepelova, for that matter) aren't in fine form at the start of 2016, so Dominika Cibulkova might have to be perfect for this home tie to not go to waste. Australia lost a pair of 4-1 ties last season, but may have pulled the lucky card in the deck by catching the Slovaks at precisely the right time. One can't expect Stosur to go 2-0 in singles, so returning-from-her-concussion Casey Dellacqua or Jarmila Wolfe (who specializes in long, dramatic FC matches that she ends up losing) probably need to get a singles win to push things to the doubles. There, one would think that a duo of Stosur/Dellacqua or Stosur/Wolfe (or even Birrell/Wolfe, who reached a Week 2 tour final?) would have the advantage.
PICK: Australia def. Slovak Republic 3-2
...rolling the dice on a Dasha-less group of Aussies, albeit ones safely tucked Up and Over the horizon rather than Down Under it.


Spain at Serbia (Kraljevo - HCI)
ESP: Muguruza,Suarez-Navarro,Arruabarrena,Dominguez-Lino
SRB: Jankovic,Jovonovski,Jorovic,Stojanovic

...the Serbian team finally ended their long FC losing streak last year when the Serbian Good Luck Charm once again was part of the roster. Well, Aleksandra "The Bracelet" Krunic is out (surgery) this weekend, and it's difficult NOT to get that queasy feeling that the Serbs are going to have a flashback moment on home soil. Jelena Jankovic is leading the way, but she's backed up by Bojana Jovanovski. BoJo is 0-3 in '16, has won just four total games in those losses and has been bageled four times in six sets this season. The Serbs are just overmatched here. If Garbine Muguruza is healthy, this could get ugly fast.
PICK: Spain def. Serbia 4-0
...oh, Good Luck Charm. Where art thou? Healthy and back in the fold for the next tie in the spring, hopefully (or the Serbs could fall back into the zone play again for '17).

Belarus at Canada (Quebec City - HCI)
BLR: Azarenka,Govortsova,Sasnovich,Lapko,Shytkouskaya
CAN: Zhao,Dabrowski,Abanda,Wozniak

...Genie Bouchard decided not to play in this tie back home in Quebec. For once, she's made a GOOD Fed Cup decision. At least she won't be blamed this time around when things go horribly wrong. Well, then again, maybe she will... but she hasn't been much count in Quebec-hosted ties or WTA events the last two years, so whatever. This would actually be an really interesting battle if a certain former #1 wasn't playing, but it's hard too see Belarus doing anything but running roughshod over the Canadians with Victoria Azarenka (presumably, with all her rackets -- as last February her gear arrived mysteriously late for zone play) around. Even the low end -- Australian Open girls champ Vera Lapko -- of the BLR roster might give a run to the top of Canada's, though should-be-the-leader-no-matter-her-age Francois Abanda's good first season of FC action in '15 hints that the home team has a chance to at least avoid an embarrassing shutout.
PICK: Belarus def. Canada 4-1
...get ready for the Team Belarus group (yabba-)dab(-adoo).

UPDATE: in a big shocker, Azarenka's name was included on the updated team roster on Friday, so this one might just tighten up considerably. I still think Govortsova and Sasnovich will be enough for BLR to win, but I'll cut the final score down to 3-2 (with either Abanda getting two wins, or the doubles coming into play)

Poland at United States (Kailua Kona - HCO)
POL: Linette,Kania,Rosolska,Jans-Ignacik
USA: V.Williams,Stephens,Vandeweghe,Mattek-Sands

...I come not to bury U.S. Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, but to praise her. For once. Yeah, I know -- it shocks me, too. Maybe it's the prospect of the only outdoor tie this weekend that has caused the Tennis Gods to look down upon MJF in this opening FC tie of '16 and set her up for a triumphant moment, perhaps to set her and her team up for an even bigger fall later this year. Or maybe that'll come this weekend in Hawaii? But, come now, the Bannerettes couldn't possibly squander a home tie against a Polish squad minus a single Radwanska now that Tomasz Wiktorowski is no longer team Captain, could they? Hmmm. Probably not. After all, Fernandez has managed to put together a complete, balanced and versatile team capable of surviving a Plan B situation this time around. Something MJF never seemed to bother doing in the recent past, and lived to regret it. She's enlisted a Williams (Venus), a young rising star (Stephens), a versatile semi-newcomer (Vandeweghe, fresh off good AO doubles results) and a veteran (BMS) who could fill in for anyone in singles or doubles, or even take on a bigger load due to illness, injury or emergency at any time this weekend. All bases seem to have been covered. Which makes me think I must have missed something -- this can't be a Fernandez roster. Of course, one injury or bad match could put MJF in a decision-making position that could blow up the entire tie, right, even with so many good options? I mean, Venus could be "limited," and Sloane might "feel the pressure," leading MJF to put Vandeweghe in a lead role on Day 2 that she's not ready for or, gulp, adding Christina McHale to the roster and playing her rather than BMS. Right? Linette (a '15 tour finalist) and Kania (a '15 slam Last Qualifier Standing... but on the Parisian clay) aren't pushovers, but they really shouldn't win any of their combined four singles matches in this tie vs. this U.S. roster, but MJF is still just one lost player away from being given just enough rope to hang this squad. All right, all right... truthfully, I can't really find a way to talk my way into a Worst Case Scenario for MJF this time around. I guess it'll have wait until the spring.
PICK: United States def. Poland 4-0
...of course, the MJF-with-mustache pic is ready to go, just in case.



Famous last words?



Zone play has been going on at various sites the last few days, so I can't really preview anything there. But I can still make picks! I can ALWAYS make picks.

*ZONE PLAY*
Group I - Europe/Africa (Host: Eilat, ISR - HCO)
The British team of Heather Watson, Katie Swan (the youngest ever Cupper for GBR) and Jocelyn Rae/Anna Smith is arguably better than a few squads in World Group play. They should advance, along with the Svitolina-less Ukrainians with Lesia Tsurenko and Kateryna Bonadarenko. Turkey has an underrated roster, but is always going to be fighting against the Euro tide in this zone.
PROMOTION PICKS (2): GBR & UKR

Group I - Asia/Oceania (Host: Hua Hin, THA - HCO)
China probably has the best roster (Zheng Saisai, Wang Qiang, Wang Yafan & Liang Chen), but since when has that meant anything at FC time? They've already lost to Taiwan, the best team in the same pool with the Chinese, in round robin play.
PROMOTION PICK (1): TPE

Group I - Americas (Host: Cruz, BOL - RCO)
Teliana Pereira is once again leading the Brazilian team.
PROMOTION PICK (1): BRA

Group II - Americas (Host: Bayamon, PUR - HCO)
The two best teams -- Venezuela and Chile -- are in the same pool, while the top player (Puerto Rico's Monica Puig) is in the other. Only two can make it through to advance.
PROMOTION PICKS (2): PUR & VEN




Check back on Saturday, as I'll be doing an update on Day 1 of World Group play before the regular weekly wrap-up following this first Fed Cup weekend of the year.

All for now.

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January BSA's: The Power of Conviction




"I had one leg on the plane to Germany -- and now I'm here!" - Angelique Kerber


**JANUARY PLAYERS OF THE MONTH - WK. 1-4**
1. Angelique Kerber, GER
...the German debuted her more aggressive style of play in Brisbane, making it all the way to the final before coming up short against career nemesis Victoria Azarenka. In the Australian Open, Kerber had to save a MP in her 1st Round match, but after she survived that brush with defeat she played with the power of her conviction that a more offensive mindset would make all the difference. It did, too, as Kerber held firm in Melbourne until there were no more matches to play, or win. Victories over two-time AO champ Azarenka and Serena Williams in the final made her the first German slam winner since her idol Steffi Graf in '99 and lifted her ranking all the way up to #2.
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2. Martina Hingis & Sania Mirza, SUI/IND
...Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne. The loud beat of the Dream Team drum continues uninterrupted into 2016, just as it closed out 2015. Hingis & Mirza's 36-match, eight-tournament title streak now points them toward the one-year anniversary of their partnership in March. Their eleven months of action have so far produced twelve titles, three straight slam crowns and both players rising to the #1 ranking in doubles.
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3. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
...Azarenka looked like her old self while running roughshod over the competition, including Kerber, in Brisbane as she picked up her first title since August 2013. For a while, she seemed a good bet to threaten to do the same at the Australian Open... until she ran up against a different, aggressive-from-the-first-ball, Kerber in the QF as the German got her first career win in their head-to-head. Still, Azarenka is within striking distance of a return to the Top 10, and appears to be on the path toward good, if not great, things once again.
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4. Aga Radwanska, POL
...Radwanska's post-U.S. Open Asian/Pacific surge produced another Week 1 title in Shenzhen, her second AO semifinal in three years and her second at a slam in the last seven months. But while her rise back into the Top 5 was aided by a willingness to be more appropriately aggressive, the tactic either left her (vs. Friedsam in the AO Round of 16) or was taken away (vs. Serena in the SF) in Melbourne. Kerber's rise should provide the chance for Aga to remember how she got (back) here.
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5. Serena Williams, USA
...after coming to Melbourne with the health of her knee a question mark, Williams looked to once again be an unstoppable force in pursuit of slam #22. But she was ultimately undone by the "perfect storm" of an "off" day combined with Kerber playing without fear or hesitation in the AO final. On the bright side, pressure-wise, Williams won't be hounded by Grand Slam questions all year. Oh, and the last time she went multiple slams without a title (the first three majors of '14)? Well, she "made up for it" by completing Serena Slam II over the next four. I'm just sayin'.
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6. Daria Gavrilova, AUS
...Gavrilova's first month on tour as an official Aussie couldn't have gone much better. First, she joined with Nick Kygrios to win the first Hopman Cup by an Australian duo since 1999. Then, in Melbourne, she upset Petra Kvitova and starred in a series of star-making "Dasha Show" matches under the lights en route to the Round of 16. She likely should have gone ever further, but her admitted "spoiled brat" reactions in her final AO match ultimately did her in despite having been a set up and having break advantages in the 2nd and 3rd sets vs. Carla Suarez-Navarro.
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7. Johanna Konta, GBR
...Konta has been climbing the rankings in leaps and bounds since her game caught fire last season on the grass and North American hard courts, leading to a Round of 16 result at the U.S Open (she'd previously been 1-7 in slam MD). Beginning last season at #150, she ended it just inside the Top 50. In Melbourne, she opened with a 1st Round upset of Venus Williams and went on to become the first British woman to reach a slam semifinal in thirty-eight years. She's now ranked inside the Top 30.
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8. Zhang Shuai, CHN
...Zhang, her career having taken a severe downturn, came to Melbourne thinking that retirement may loom. After barely surviving AO qualifying (Virginie Razzano served for the match in the final round), she opened with a 1st Round upset of #2 Simona Halep (after having been 0-14 in career slam MD matches) and rode her momentum to become the fourth Chinese woman (after Li Na, Peng Shuai & Zheng Jie) to reach a slam singles QF. Not surprisingly, she's now put those retirement plans on ice.
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HM- Sloane Stephens/USA, Alize Cornet/FRA & Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
...in the season's first two weeks, Stephens picked up career title #2 in Auckland, Cornet rebounded from a disappointing '15 (dropping from the Top 20 to #43) with a crown in Hobart, while Kuznetsova's late '15 championship run in Moscow was joined by another in Sydney (after she'd won just one title from 2011-14).
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*RISERS*
1. Angelique Kerber, GER
2. Aga Radwanska, POL
3. Johanna Konta, GBR
4. Sloane Stephens, USA
5. Alize Cornet, FRA
6. Ekaterina Makarova, RUS
7. Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
8. Anna-Lena Friedsam, GER
9. Monica Puig, PUR
10. Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
11. Misaki Doi, JPN
12. Elina Svitolina, UKR
13. Caroline Garcia, FRA
14. Johanna Larsson, SWE
15. Zhang Yafan, CHN
16. Heather Watson, GBR
17. Timea Babos, HUN
18. Camila Giorgi, ITA
19. Wang Qiang, CHN

20. Alison Riske, USA
HM- Mona Barthel, GER

*FRESH FACES*
1. Daria Gavrilova, AUS
2. Naomi Osaka, JPN

3. Belinda Bencic, SUI
4. Margarita Gasparyan, RUS
5. Daria Kasatkina, RUS
6. Samantha Crawford, USA
7. Annika Beck, GER
8. Maria Sakkari, GRE
9. Elizaveta Kulichkova, RUS

10. Yulia Putintseva, KAZ
11. Denisa Allertova, CZE
12. Jelena Ostapenko, LAT
13. Han Xinyun, CHN
14. Maryna Zanevska, UKR
15. Lauren Davis, USA
16. Marie Bouzkova, CZE
17. Carina Witthoeft, GER
18. Kimberly Birrell, AUS
19. Anna Blinkova, RUS
20. Raveena Kingsley, USA
HM- Olga Fridman, UKR

*SURPRISES*
1. Zhang Shuai, CHN
2. Anna-Lena Friedsam, GER
3. Naomi Broady, GBR
4. Viktorija Golubic, SUI
5. Kimberly Birrell/Jarmila Wolfe, AUS/AUS
6. Aliaksandra Sasnovich, BLR
7. Laura Siegemund, GER

8. Zhu Lin, CHN
9. Arina Rodionova, AUS
10. Veronica Cepede Royg, PAR
HM- Zhang Kailin, CHN

*VETERANS*
1. Angelique Kerber, GER
2. Aga Radwanska, POL
3. Serena Williams, USA
4. Zhang Shuai, CHN
5. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS

6. Maria Sharapova, RUS
7. Jiske Griffioen, NED (WC)
8. Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP
9. Julia Goerges, GER
10. Barbora Strycova, CZE
11. Kateryna Bondarenko, UKR
12. Roberta Vinci, ITA
13. Sara Errani, ITA
14. Kirsten Flipkens, BEL
15. Varvara Lepchenko, USA
16. Samantha Stosur, AUS
17. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
18. Tatjana Maria, GER
19. Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ
20. Hsieh Su-Wei, TPE
HM- Marjolein Buis, NED (WC)

"My dreams come true when I step on the court." - Victoria Azarenka

*COMEBACKS*
1. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2. Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Hradecka, CZE/CZE
3. Zhang Shuai, CHN
4. Genie Bouchard, CAN

5. Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
6. Alize Cornet, FRA
7. Sorana Cirstea, ROU
8. Nicole Gibbs, USA
9. Tamira Paszek, AUT
10. Anastasija Sevastova, LAT
11. Vania King, USA
12. Christina McHale, USA
13. Vicky Duval, USA
14. Michelle Larcher de Brito, POR
15. Luksika Kumkhum, THA
HM- Anna-Lena Groenefeld, GER

*JUNIOR STARS*
1. Vera Lapko, BLR
2. Tereza Mihalikova, SVK
3. Sara Tomic, AUS
4. Sonya Kenin, USA
5. Anna Blinkova, RUS
6. Amanda Anisimova, USA
7. Rebeka Masarova, SUI
8. Kimberly Birrell, AUS

9. Maddison Inglis, AUS
10. Reveena Kingsley, USA
11. Anna Kalinskaya/Tereza Mihalikova, RUS/SVK
12. Lara Salden, BEL
13. Anna Kalinskaya, RUS
14. Dayana Yastremska, UKR
15. Ludmilla Samsonova, ITA
16. Ellie Douglas, USA
17. Eva Guerrero Alvarez, ESP
18. Baijing Lin, AUS
19. Anastasia Potapova, RUS
20. Zoe Hives, AUS
HM- Dominique Schaefer, PER

*DOWN*

1. Simona Halep, ROU
2. Petra Kvitova, CZE
3. Venus Williams, USA
4. Garbine Muguruza, ESP
5. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
6. Timea Bacsinszky, SUI
7. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, SVK
8. Jordanne Whiley, GBR (WC)
9. Andrea Petkovic, GER
10. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS
11. Bojana Jovanovski, SRB
12. Francesca Schiavone, ITA
13. Madison Keys, USA
14. Chan Hao-Ching/Chan Yung-Jan, TPE/TPE
15. Karolina Pliskova, CZE
HM- Lucie Safarova, CZE



*DOUBLES*

1. Martina Hingis & Sania Mirza, SUI/IND
2. Andrea Hlavackova & Lucie Hradecka, CZE/CZE
3. Elena Vesnina, RUS
4. CoCo Vandeweghe, USA
5. Yui Kamiji, JPN (WC)
6. Elise Mertens & An-Sophie Mestach, BEl/BEL
7. Vania King & Monica Niculescu, USA/ROU
8. Kimberly Birrell & Jarmila Wolfe, AUS/AUS
9. Zhang Yifan & Zhang Saisai, CHN/CHN
10. Anna-Lena Groenefeld & CoCo Vandeweghe, GER/USA
11. Anna Kalinskaya & Tereza Mihalikova, RUS/SVK
12. Dayana Yastremska & Anastasia Zarytska, UKR/UKR
13. Angelique Kerber & Andrea Petkovic, GER/GER
14. Andreja Klepac, SLO
15. Julia Goerges & Karolina Pliskova, GER/CZE
HM- Caroline Garcia & Kristina Mladenovic, FRA/FRA

*ITF PLAYERS*
1. Chantal Skamlova, SVK
2. Ons Jabeur, TUN
3. Sorana Cirstea, ROU
4. Stefanie Voegele, SUI
5. Irina Ramialison, FRA
6. Anastasia Grymalska, ITA
7. Ekaterine Gorgodze, GEO
8. Marie Bouzkova, CZE

9. Tadeja Majeric, SLO
10. Sandra Samir, EGY
11. Anna Blinkova, RUS
12. Tara Moore, GBR
13. Montserrat Gonzalez, PAR
14. Sonya Kenin, USA
15. Christina McHale, USA
16. Viktorija Golubic, SUI
17. Basak Eraydin, TUR
18. Kamila Karimbayeva, KAZ
19. Lina Gjorcheska, MKD
20. Olga Doroshina, RUS
HM- Angelica Moratelli, ITA





**TOP PERFORMANCES**
#1 - Angelique Kerber stuns Serena Williams to win the Australian Open. The wins makes her the first German to win a slam since 1999, the first to win the AO since '94 and the first lefty champ in Melbourne since '96. After saving MP in her 1st Round match vs. Misaki Doi, Kerber won thirteen of her next fourteen sets (dropping only the 2nd in the final vs. Serena) on her way to the title.
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#2 - Martina Hingis & Sania Mirza win back-to-back-to-back titles in Brisbane (where Hingis defended), Sydney (where Mirza defended) and Melbourne (their third straight slam, but Mirza's first ever AO win, and Hingis' first since 2002). Also in January, Hingis joined Mirza as the co-#1 in doubles, rising to the position that she last held in 2000.
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#3 - Victoria Azarenka wins Brisbane, her first title in twenty-nine months, in true Vika style. She didn't drop a set all week and tied Serena Williams' tournament record by losing a total of seventeen games (including just four in the final vs. eventual AO champ Kerber).

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#4 - Aga Radwanska wins in Shenzhen, her third consecutive title dating back to the 2015 season and her fourth since the close of the U.S. Open. As she did en route to two of her wins last season, A-Rad coasted to victory without dropping a set.
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#5 - Five months after she claimed her first tour title in Washington, D.C. without dropping a set, Sloane Stephens wins #2 in Auckland, once again after not losing a set all week. This was Stephens' first tournament with new coach Kamau Murray. Due to weather delays, Stephens had to finish off her semifinal with Caroline Wozniacki, then win the final over Julia Goerges, on the same day.
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[Team]
The Australian Green team -- Daria Gavrilova & Nick Kyrgios -- become the first Aussie duo to win the Hopman Cup since Mark Philippoussis and a 16-year old Jelena Dokic in 1999. The pair barely made it out of round robin play, having to save a MP (via a Gavrilova volley up the middle and then a crosscourt drop volley) vs. France in the final RR match in an 11-9 3rd set mixed double match tie-break. The Aussies never lost again, winning the match two points point later (Kyrgios covered the entire court, hitting all half a dozen shots on MP) and then shutting out Ukraine 2-0 in the final.

Omg! No words! So happy!!!!!!! Best week of my life!

A photo posted by Daria Gavrilova (@daria_gav) on



[Wheelchair Champions]
Jiske Griffioen defends her Australian Open singles crown, finally putting away doubles partner Aniek Van Koot on her fourth MP after twice failing to serve out a straight sets win. With three career slam wins, the Dutch woman now leads the pack (three other woman have won two each) when it comes to slam titles won since her countrywoman Esther Vergeer retired following the 2012 season after dominating the WC tennis world for over a decade, ending her career on an obscene 470-match winning streak.

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Yui Kamiji, playing without regular partner Jordanne Whiley in Melbourne, nonetheless claims her third consecutive AO doubles crown with Marjolein Buis. The #2 seeds, they defeated #1 Griffioen/Van Koot in the final.
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[Juniors]
Vera Lapko's Australian Open junior singles final win over '15 champ Tereza Mihalikova, in which she closed out a straight sets win despite having trailed 4-1 in the 2nd set, makes the Belarusian the first girl from her nation to win a slam crown since Victoria Azarenka claimed the AO and U.S. Open titles in 2005.


[Best Pre-2016 Performance]
Aussie teen Maddison Inglis pulled double duty in the December Australian Open Wild Card Playoff tournaments held by Tennis Australia. After losing to Priscilla Hon in the final of the first-ever junior wild card event for a MD women's berth, Ingliss also reached the final in the women's event. There the 17-year old defeated newlywed Arina Rodionova (who'd gotten married after her semifinal win) to earn a spot in her first career slam main draw.

[Best Non-Winning Peformances]
An energetic and entertaining Daria Gavrilova becomes an instant star Down Under, knocking off AO seeds Petra Kvitova and Kristina Mladenovic under the lights en route to her first career slam Round of 16
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Before Johanna Konta's semifinal run at the Australian Open, no British woman had reached an AO Round of 16 since 1987, a slam QF since 1984 or a major SF since 1977
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Zhang Shuai puts on a quarterfinal run for the ages in Melbourne, going from a #133-ranked barely-a-qualifer who was contemplating retirement to the highest-ranked Chinese player in the world after an improbable AO run that included wins over #2 Simona Halep, Week 2 title-winner Alize Cornet and '15 Melbourne semifinalist Madison Keys
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Samantha Crawford uses a huge serve and big shots to go from qualifier to Brisbane semifinalist after upsetting Belinda Bencic and delivering a Breaking Bad-style "say my name" three & love demolition of Andrea Petkovic
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[A Feat... or not a Feat?]
Kristyna Pliskova, whose twin sister Karolina led the tour in aces in '15, set a tour record for aces in a match with 31 vs. Monica Puig in the 2nd Round in Melbourne, breaking the mark of 27 set a year ago by Sabine Lisicki in a two-set match in Birmingham. Pliskova set the mark in an extended three-setter in which she held five match points... but lost.



[Best Set]
In the Australian Open semis, Serena Williams throttled Aga Radwanska in a near-perfect love opening set that lasted just 21 minutes. In all, Williams, moving forward with gusto, led 18-1 in winners in the stanza... even without hitting a single ace. As it turned out, she didn't need them.


[Best Around-the-Post Winner]

That was fun ?? ????

A video posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on



[Best Game/Coaching Tool While Having No Hope]
Maria Sharapova's game #7 performance in the 2nd set of a 6-4/6-1 loss to Serena Williams in the Australian Open QF. Maybe the cheers she received after she finally got on the board in the 2nd after falling down 5-0 ("Don't give me your pity!") particularly irked her, but in what would be the final game of the match Sharapova seemed to make a point of showing her competitiveness. Serving with new balls, Williams hit her thirteenth ace on the second point of the game. But Sharapova didn't fold, not by a long shot. Clenching her fist, slapping her thigh and urging herself on, she fired a return winner to reach BP, then reached BP again soon afterward, still seeking an opportunity to get a foothold from which she might be able to climb back into the match. It was a characteristic stretch of points for the Russian, though it was ultimately an unsuccessful one. Really, coaches of young tennis players -- or young athletes, period -- should show this game to their charges, covering up the score. The kids should be told to focus on Sharapova, playing "in a bubble" with her all-so-familiar look of intensity, pumping herself up to give her all on every point. When the kids are asked what they think the score of the match was in that game, they'd likely to stunned that it wasn't something close to 5-5 in the 3rd.

[Best/Oddest Coincidence]
2015 AO 3rd Rd. (MCA) - #10 Makarova def. #22 Ka.Pliskova 6-4/6-4
2016 AO 3rd Rd. (MCA) - #21 Makarova def. #9 Ka.Pliskova 6-3/6-2

...in the second of back-to-back years at the Australian Open, in the same round (3rd), on the same day (January 23), on the same court (Margaret Court Arena), with nearly identical (just traded) seeds, Ekaterina Makarova AGAIN defeated Karolina Pliskova

[Best Act-Like-Nobody's-Watching Post-Match Celebration]


[Best "non-Federeresque" Big Point Reaction From...Roger Federer]


[Best Post-Match Emotion]


[Best Post-Match Slip of the Tongue]



[Best Post-Match "Co-winner"/Mini Me/Shadow]
Steph, in Brisbane

[Best Post-Match Possible Super Bowl Preview]


*MEMORABLE MATCHES*

Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Daria Gavrilova def. Kristina Mladenovic
...6-4/4-6/11-9.
The Eternal Sunshine of the Gavrilovian night ruled the evening in this one as the "Dasha & Kiki Show" took center stage and hogged the spotlight. With a business-like, focused look on her face rather than the constant smile she displayed while upsetting Petra Kvitova earlier in the tournament, Gavrilova put her quickness and aggressive game on the table against Mladenovic for three sets that went on for nearly three hours in a back-and-forth match that saw both women exchange swings of momentum throughout the night. While Gavrilova's fighting instincts ruled the day when she was on top, Mladenovic's bigger serve often commanded the stage when she took her turn. There were moments of frustration and elation for both, and down the stretch of an hour-and-a-half 3rd set the match would ultimately be determined by which player better handled the mounting pressure, could bounce back quicker from disappointment and was able to finally seize their opportunity to put away the match before the momentum changed yet again. Playing bigger-than-her-size and consistent tennis, Gavrilova overcame her three DF in the set (and Mladenovic's four aces) to serve out the 1st 6-4 when her wide serve produced a Mladenovic return that went off the net post. With the Aussie crowd ready to ride the Gavrilovian wave into the Round of 16, though, the 2nd set proved to be the Pastry's time to fight back and shine the brightest. When a replay showed that a Gavrilova shot had indeed hit the line, Mladenovic's decision to challenge broke her own serve and put the Aussie up 3-2. With Gavrilova's game maintaining its relentless drive and forward motion, it seemed as if she might pull away. But Mladenovic had other ideas, as she used a consistent, bigger serve -- and Gavrilova's edgy rambunctiousness -- to her advantage while pulling herself back from the edge of defeat. The Pastry broke Gavrilova at love to forcefully reclaim the momentum, then later Mladenovic held at love for 5-4, forcing Gavrilova to serve to stay in the set. Perhaps feeling the moment for the first time, she strung together errors that quickly put her behind love/40. As Mladenovic completed her comeback from a set and a break down to win the 2nd set 6-4 and force a 3rd, Gavrilova erupted in frustration by tossing her racket (the chair umpire was soon seen giving her a "message").

The 3rd played out much like the previous two sets, as The Show featured each player in a constantly-shifting starring role. The Pastry's DF to break herself gave Gavrilova the chance to serve for the match at 5-4, but her inexperience showed as she tried to race through the point and ride the wave of emotion traveling through the stands, never slowing down to focus. She soon fell behind love/40, as Mladenovic broke to get back on serve at 5-5. As the 3rd set stretched deeper into the night, Gavrilova began to routinely hold serve. She held at love for 7-7, and went back to looking for another break. She nearly got it in game #15, going up 30/love on Mladenovic's serve, only to be forced to save a GP with a forehand winner. Still, Mladenovic held once more for 8-7. Gavrilova held at love again for 8-8, then again for 9-9 as the pair went back and forth, both seeking out the BIG point that would provide the final turn in momentum on the night. Finally, in game #19 it arrived. The Aussie's forehand return winner of a second serve put her up 30/love, then an overhead shot led to a Mladenovic error and break points at 40/15. The Pastry saved the first with a big serve, but then finally cracked at precisely the wrong moment. A DF broke her serve and handed Gavrilova a 10-9 lead and another chance to serve out the match. At 15/15, a Mladenovic forehand error brought Gavrilova within two points of the win. The crowd erupted. They could feel it now. This time it would happen. A long return gave the Aussie double match point. Mladenovic delayed Hisense Arena's gratification for one point longer, nailing a pass at the net on the first MP, but then she pushed a short ball long to end an Australian Open "instant classic" after 2:51 of competitive bliss.


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Shenzhen 2nd Rd. - Naomi Broady def. Jelena Ostapenko
...4-6/7-6(4)/7-5.
Broady added her name to the list of Brits to Watch, and added a few more intriguing layers to her personal story in Week 1 in Auckland. Already once a controversial figure a few years ago when she had her funding pulled due to supposedly questionable photos posted on social media, qualifier Broady found herself smack in the middle of a headline-grabbing situation vs. wild card Ostapenko. The teenage Latvian led by a set and 5-2, and held two MP. Broady saved both. In the ensuing TB, either in desperation, frustration or my sheer "accident" Ostapenko's racket went flying at a ball that she was unable to reach, then bounced up and hit a ball boy. Broady immediately protested to the chair umpire that her opponent should be defaulted for the incident. The rules essentially say as much, though the chair umpire didn't see fit to "pull the trigger," giving Ostapenko the benefit of the doubt (which Broady did not) largely, one would suspect, because there was a legitimate question about the nature of the "accidental" slip/intentionally frustrated toss actions by Ostapenko and, one might consider, maybe because she was up a set and had just held MP a few minutes earlier and, truth be told, it felt a bit desperate the way that Broady (literally bringing herself to tears) pleaded for the default and even called out a tournament official to argue for it. As things turned out, Broady finished off the TB, recovered from a 5-1 3rd set deficit and fired 21 aces to win the match as Ostapenko failed on three occasions to serve out the victory. Then, at the net, Broady sparked a confrontation with Ostapenko after the Latvian complained about her earlier reaction, leading to the Brit yelling in her direction in the changeover area and the two continuing to verbally go back-and-forth after the match. Later, fellow players stood behind Broady while commenting on issues they'd had with Ostapenko during her first season on tour last year. Whether the Latvian deserved to be defaulted, or whether Broady's over the top reaction during and after the match was warranted, the match will surely be one of the most "memorable" of the year.

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Australian 1st Rd. - Angelique Kerber def. Misaki Doi
...6-7(4)/7-6(6)/6-3.
The match that was overlooked by most at the start of the tournament turned out to be the most important one of the fortnight by the time it was over as Kerber went on to become the first slam winner to go on to win the title after having faced a match point in the opening round of the event. After racing out to a 4-0 lead in the 1st, and maybe mistakenly feeling like she had the match in the bag (Kerber allowed just one game in her last meeting with Doi on hard courts last summer), the German saw her Japanese opponent grab the momentum as Kerber's level of play dropped, erasing the two-break deficit and taking the 1st set in a tie-break. In the 2nd, Kerber went about trying to get it right a second time. She took a 4-1 lead, and soon found herself serving up 5-3, 30/love only to see Doi suddenly surge again, leaving Kerber grumbling and looking for answers to all the proverbial tennis questions that go though a player's mind at such moments. Smacking lefty forehand winners from all over, the diminutive-but-deceptively-powerful Doi (Justine Henin was her idol, so you get the idea) won four straight points to break to get back on serve at 5-4. Things again went to a tie-break, where Kerber's well-timed winner put her up 2-1, only to see her then give the lead back with a double-fault. Doi's put-away at the net gave her a match point, but her long return allowed Kerber to stay alive, even as the German was having a devil of a time avoiding (and catching up with) Doi's whipping, aggressive forehand shots. At 6-6, a long Doi backhand mercifully gave Kerber a set point, and she converted it when Doi finally netted a forehand rather than plant it into the corner, ending the 1:01 2nd set and sending things to a 3rd. In the deciding set, Kerber finally began to go on the attack once again. Saving a break point, she managed to barely hold for 4-2. Two games later, Kerber found herself down love/40. But two Doi errors, and a Kerber slice off the corner line saved all three BP and she ultimately held on her own third GP to go up 5-3. It was finally enough to escape Doi's web. Kerber grabbed a 40/love lead a game later on Doi's serve, then won it with a clean forehand return winner. She let out a roar, winning in 2:41 despite Doi's fifty-nine winners (Kerber had 35) and 20/26 net points won. The rest turned out to be history.
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Australian Open 2nd Rd. - Monica Puig def. Kristyna Pliskova
...4-6/7-6(6)/9-7.
Karolina's sister Kristyna set a WTA record with thirty-one aces in a single match, but STILL lost despite holding five match points, including triple MP in a 2nd set TB in which she was serving twice up 6-3. I guess that's the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory (or maybe "Pyrrhic defeat"), isn't it? Really, the match was lost by Pliskova in that tie-break. Pliskova's lefty shot put in back-to-back aces to go up 2-1, then placed another big serve up the middle that Puig failed to get back as she secured both serve points to go up 5-2. At triple MP, though, Pliskova's serve didn't pay the price of admission, failing to give her any noticeable edge. Puig saved one MP with an overhead winner, then a second with a long Pliskova backhand. A long return from the Czech wasted the third MP on Puig's serve, then another forehand error gave the Puerto Rican a set point. She won it to claim the TB at 8-6. Pliskova's serve again heated up in the 3rd, but it still wasn't enough. She held for 6-5 and 7-6 (the latter time with back-to-back aces to lift her final total to 31, four past Sabine Lisicki's 2015 mark of 27, which she got in TWO sets), but Puig countered by doing the same to keep her hopes alive. Pliskova failed to convert two more MP on Puig's serve, the lost her serve a game later. On her own second MP, Puig put away a forehand winner at the net and collapsed on the court.

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Australian Open Final - Angelique Kerber def. Serena Williams
...6-4/3-6/6-4.
With Williams' game -- especially her serve and wonky footwork -- waxing both on and off (she had 46 errors -- 23 in the 1st, 5 in the 2nd, then 18 in the 3rd -- and 6 DF to go with 7 aces), Kerber's unrelenting combination of defense and offensive aggression (including on her own serve) proved to be the difference as she grabbed her maiden slam title and became the first German to win a major title in seventeen years. In the key game of the match, Kerber broke Serena for 4-2 after saving two Williams game points with drop shots before finally converting on her fifth BP of the game. Williams' first career loss in a three-set slam final (8-1) prevented her from tying Steffi Graf, Kerber's idol and sometimes-mentor, with a record 22nd slam singles title in the Open era.
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Auckland 1st Rd. - Tamira Paszek def. Francesca Schiavone 7-6(3)/4-6/6-3
Australian Open Q2 - Virginie Razzano def. Francesca Schiavone 6-1/4-6/6-1
...
the matches that prevented Schiavone from tying Ai Sugiyama with a tour-record 62nd consecutive slam main draw appearance. Needing a big result in Week 1 to raise her ranking high enough for automatic entry into the AO, Schiavone lost a 3:00 battle to Paszek in her opening '16 match in Auckland. In a set that featured Schiavone's late fight, multiple arguments and a forward-facing tweener shot at the net in the closing moments the Italian battled back from 4-1 down in the 3rd and got back on serve down 4-3, only to give the break back a game later, then fail to convert BP at 5-3 as Paszek served out the win. Forced into AO qualifying, Schiavone lost to another veteran, as Razzano pulled away in the final set to win and end what could have been a great Melbourne story (a round later, she nearly ended what WOULD become a great Melbourne story before it began -- serving for the match, but losing, against eventual AO quarterfinalist Zhang Shuai in the final Q-round). With the end of Schiavone's consecutive slam quest at hand, the player who moves into the on-deck spot is Jelena Jankovic, who has now played in 50 consecutive slam main draws. She could tie Sugiyama at the 2019 Australian Open. JJ would be a month away from her 34th birthday, while Schiavone will turn 36 this June. Hmmm. It's conceivably do-able. We'll see.
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Australian Open 4th Rd. - Maria Sharapova def. Belinda Bencic
...6-2/4-6/7-5.
Like a lost relic from an earlier, Supernovic age, Sharapova dispatched the teenager behind the force of a power game that littered the scorecard with winners, errors and a career-high ace total. There was a time when the heart and quality of Sharapova's game radiated from her serve outward. When it shined its brightest, providing the tide that lifted all the boats of her tennis existence, she was a powerful figure on the court who was nearly unstoppable in full flight. But all that changed after the 2008 shoulder surgery that could have, but didn't, end or greatly diminish her career. The Russian survived, and likely even improved because of, the injury. But it changed the legacy of the Sharapova serve and what it meant to her success. After surgery, it was no longer a reliably consistent weapon, and on occasion was even nearly a liability. Rather than prop up the rest of her game, providing its fuel, it was often something that had to be overcome. To her credit, she did just that. Improving her court movement, quickness and variety in the "second phase" of her career, Sharapova transformed herself from an awkward clay courter into one of the best in the world on the surface, and took home a pair of Roland Garros titles because of it. A round after firing sixteen aces against Lauren Davis, Sharapova's serving confidence carried over vs. Bencic. While her errors (46) her high, they were the byproduct of an aggressive game that was kept afloat by a hunger for winners (58 to Bencic's 10) and a serve that produced a career-high twenty-one aces that helped to cover Sharapova's imperfections. Though Bencic wasn't able to match Sharapova's power, and struggled to develop the same sort of aggressive gameplan (she faced BP in all six of her 1st set serve games) that helped her to her biggest career title in Toronto last summer, much credit goes to the Swiss for managing to be opportunistic and staying close enough with Sharapova on the scoreboard (she saved nine of the first eleven BP in the 1st, and converted two of her own) that the result remained in question throughout the tight two-set victory by the Russian. Sharapova had set the tone for her day early, firing four aces in her first two service games, then displayed her characteristic fight through the middle portion by twice countering Bencic breaks of serve by immediately breaking back one game later. In the 2nd, Sharapova faced and saved break points in games #1, #3 and #5, ending the latter with an ace up the "T." Needing her power and serve to overcome her rising error total, Sharapova finally pulled away from Bencic down the stretch, but it was never a runaway. In game #12, Sharapova's 57th winner gave her a match point, but error #46 prevented her from converting it. On MP #2, winner #58 -- a backhand shot that landed near the baseline but was called out -- was awarded via a replay challenge that showed the Sharapova ball clipping the line.
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Australian Open 4th Round - Johanna Konta def. Ekaterina Makarova
...4-6/6-4/8-6.
Facing off with '15 AO semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, the Sydney-born Konta outlasted the Hordette in a 3rd set that, unlike some of the recent women's matches at the AO, opened with eight straight holds of serve. Konta finally broke Makarova in game #9 and served for the match at 5-4. But the moment proved to be too much for her, and it was soon back to the grind at 5-5. Three games later, she got the break advantage back at 7-6, and went about her "do-over" moment. This time, Konta held true, easily holding to put away a victory that made her the first British woman to reach a slam Final 8 since Jo Durie at Wimbledon in 1984.
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Australian Open 1st Rd. - Kristyna Pliskova def. Samantha Stosur
...6-4/7-6(6).
While an early Stosur exit in Australia isn't big news, she usually wins at least ONE match. This was just her second 1st Round loss since 2005, and it came on the big stage under the lights on Rod Laver (really, they should have known not to schedule her there, right?). Qualifier Pliskova nearly flubbed her chance, showing all her Czech-ness by throwing in a pair of DF while trying to serve out the match at 6-4/5-4. Eventually, Stosur held two SP before Pliskova pushed things to a TB. There, on her 3rd MP, Pliskova fired a lefty ace to put Stosur away. So, again, she flashed all her "Czech glory"... only this time it was the good stuff. A round later, Pliskova hit 31 aces and held five match points, but still lost. Yep, she's a Maiden, through-and-through.
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Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Maria Sharapova def. Lauren Davis
...6-1/6-7(5)/6-0.
The Russian put together a well-played, dominant performance against Davis. Well, that is, if you overlook the messy, un-Sharapovian 2nd set that sprung up from the depths of Laver Arena in between the 1st and 3rd sets and, for a bit, swallowed up the gummy candy maven. Playing for her 600th career win, Sharapova took the 1st set at 6-1, and then the 3rd at love. But in the 2nd an uncharacteristic spate of errors (33... in the SET!) plagued her game throughout. Still, she very nearly won it to finish up in straight sets. Davis served up 4-2 in the 2nd, and later led 4-2 and 5-4 in the tie-break, yet all along one fully expected Sharapova to do what she always does under such circumstances: get back even and then pull away. She did the former to force the TB, but the latter would take an additional set. Davis reached set point when Sharapova missed on a seemingly easy short ball eleven points into the breaker, slicing a ball that landed just outside the line to give Davis a set point at 6-5. A forehand error then forced Sharapova to go the distance. The 3rd set was elementary, as Sharapova took out her 2nd set frustrations on the diminutive Bannerette to notch yet another career milestone.


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"When I play her, I know automatically I have to step up my game. I think that makes me play better." - Serena Williams, on Maria Sharapova

[Serena vs. Maria XXI]
Australian Open 4th Rd. - Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
...6-4/6-1.
While the matches never live up to the anticipation, Serena/Maria meetings are -- or should be -- always an occasion to marvel at the historic careers and personas each has carved out over the past decade-plus as two very contrasting personalities who have managed to co-exist on the big stage of the same sport -- as the two most successful, non-sibling players of their generation -- without ever having
either's career defined by the (more, or less) success of the other, no matter if numbers or dollar signs are easily assigned to both women. In the latest match-up, Sharapova opened strong with a break of serve, as Williams got off to a somewhat slow start. So, in the early going, the prevailing notion was that the immediate conditions that Sharapova had to be hoping for were to her liking. She came in serving well (16 and a career-best 21 aces in her last two matches) and playing with confident and powerful aggression, showing a bit of her old, my-serve-informs-my-game-rather-than-hamstrings-it style. Sharapova held for 2-0 with an ace, then reached deuce on Williams' serve in game #3. But Williams has a long memory, and it's been twelve years since she's allowed the Russian to see anything much less than her best for long. The same would be the case again here. Serena held for 2-1. From there, things would never quite be the same for Maria. In the next game, the serve that carried Sharapova into another deep run in Melbourne began to let her down. Still, the Russian managed to stay even at 4-4 despite six 1st set DF. A Williams DF in game #9 gave Sharapova a break point and a chance to have the set on her racket. Naturally, Serena hit an ace, then saved a second BP with a big serve up the "T" and a forehand winner. Her eighth ace gave her game point. She didn't convert it, but did GP #2 with, you guessed it, an ace up the middle (#9) for a 5-4 lead. After one final valiant stand, Sharapova was broken on Williams' third SP. Then, it happened again. It's one of the odd facts about this series, as Sharapova -- whose confidence never flags vs. any other opponent -- often finds herself, when playing Serena, face-to-face in the mirror with her own, "anti-Maria" tennis doppelganger. And for going on twelve years now, Maria has always blinked. Sometimes early, sometimes late. But always. Serena would run off seven straight games before Sharapova finally got on the board for 5-1, then collected herself to regain her will to make the match's final game a study in her time-honored competitiveness.



Nothing changed as a result of this match, but both Williams and Sharapova continue to survive. Together, as well as apart. Both having become secure as her own person, not to be denied that right by any win, any loss or anyone. When they join as "one," though, the tennis world can't help but pause, if just for a moment, out of respect as well as in the hope that something great may happen between them once again. The greatness may be forever elusive, but the interest will likely never dissipate.




"Pain is my second name." - Aga Radwanska


*WINS AND LOSSES ARE FINE, BUT COMEBACKS ARE FOREVER*
Sydney Final - Martina Hingis/Sania Mirza def. Caroline Garcia/Kristina Mladenovic
...1-6/7-5 [10-5].
The Dream Team's infallible reputation nearly suffered a dent the week before the start of play at the Australian Open, but it instead was only bolstered by another clutch performance as Hingis/Mirza recovered from a 6-1/5-2 deficit against the all-Pastry duo to win their seventh straight title and 30th consecutive match. In Melbourne, the numbers would be increased to eight and 36.
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Hopman Cup RR Mixed Doubles - Australia Green (Gavrilova/Kyrgios) def. France (Garcia/de Schepper)
...6-4/2-6 [11-9].
The Aussies needed a win to advance to the final (otherwise, the British team of Watson/Murray would) in the final RR match, and faced down a MP at 9-8 in the deciding tie-break. After Garcia had managed to get back Kyrgios' big serve, Gavrilova followed up her slugging volley up the middle with a deft crosscourt drop volley just barely over the net and inside the service box line to save the day. The Aussies didn't lose another point, as Kyrgios soon handled every shot on Australia's MP, pushing the duo into the final, where they shut out Elina Svitolina and Alexandr Dolgopolov and swept the Ukrainians to take the title.

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Australian Open 4th Rd. - Aga Radwanska def. Anna-Lena Friedsam
...6-7(6)/6-1/7-5.
Radwanska trailed 4-1 in the 1st, but won four straight games and held a set point. Friedsam pushed things to a TB and won it 8-6. In the 3rd, once again, Friedsam grabbed the lead, coming back from 0-2 down to lead 5-2 and serve for the match at 5-3. But severe cramping did her in down the stretch, as A-Rad took advantage of her compromised opponent by mercilessly moving her around the court. Friedsam often served through tears as her pain increased. Trying to stretch out her hamstring, Friedsam was given a time violation before serving the first point in game #11 then, unable to push off without pain, she tried to serve underhanded. It didn't work (not everyone can be Michael Chang). Dragging her legs, she was called for a foot fault, and was soon down a break point after chasing down a short ball but being unable to get it back. She doubled over and nearly went down in pain in front of the changeover area as she grabbed the back of her UNwrapped leg. Delaying and slowly walking back to the baseline, she was given another time violation, which resulted in a lost point that handed Radwanska the break for a 6-5 lead.



Ten minutes after dangling over the edge of an Australian Open cliff, Radwanska was suddenly serving for the match. Securing the hold, she served out the match and eventually reached her second AO semifinal in three years.
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Auckland 2nd Rd. - Nao Hibino def. Daria Kasatkina
...7-5/2-6/7-5.
Hibino saved 11 of 16 break points in the match, coming back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after Kasatkina had come within two points of the win at both 5-3 and 5-4 in the 3rd set.
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Hobart 1st Rd. - Naomi Osaka def. Jarmila Wolfe
...6-7(7)/7-6(8)/6-4.
The week before the start of the AO, Osaka qualified in Hobart and saved two MP in the 2nd set TB -- at 6-5 and 8-7 -- to get the win over Aussie Wolfe. She did so well in the event that had she not "conveniently" lost her next match she'd have missed out on the qualifying rounds in Melbourne. As it was, Osaka made it there on time, won three matches to qualify, then reached the 3rd Round after notching an upset win over #18-seed Elina Svitolina.
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Hopman Cup RR - Heather Watson def. Daria Gavrilova
...6-7(2)/6-2/7-5.
Watson and Andy Murray failed to reach the final (barely), but the Brit didn't let this match get away like she did the one against Serena at Wimbledon last year. Gavrilova saved 2 SP in the 1st set to grab the match advantage, winning ten of twelve points (going up 6-0 in the TB). But Watson didn't go away. Instead, she overcame a 4-2 3rd set deficit, and Gavrilova serving at 5-3, 30/15. Watson closed out the match with a love hold. This, as well as another win over Sabine Lisicki and a three-setter with Garcia, didn't lead to greater things in Perth, but it could down the line in 2016.
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Hobart 2nd Rd. - Heather Watson def. Monica Niculescu
...6-7(3)/6-2/7-6(3).
In a 3:14 match played out over two days, defending champ Watson squandered a 4-1 3rd set lead and had to save three MP before finally vanquishing the oft-frustrating game of Niculescu. She had to play her QF, which she lost to Johanna Larsson, the same day, ending her twelve-month reign as the Queen of Hobart.
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Sydney 1st Rd. - Samantha Stosur def. Roberta Vinci
...4-6/7-5/5-7.
In 2:32, Stosur came back from a set and a break down, then had to hold off Vinci after leading 5-2 in the 3rd. Stosur only had three wins in Sydney since reaching the '05 final, but she notched two this year alone.
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Australian 1st Rd. - Magdalena Rybarikova def. Yanina Wickmayer
...3-6/6-3/7-5.
The oft-overlooked Slovak saved two MP at 5-4 in the 3rd, held serve, then broke the oft-overlooked Waffle again to win her fourth 1st Round match at the last five slams.
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Australian Open Q3 - Wang Yafan def. Kristina Kucova
...5-7/7-6(5)/6-3.
The 21-year old saved a MP en route to qualifying for her first career slam MD, after having failed in three straight slam qualifying attempts last season.
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*COUGH, COUGH, COUGH -- hey, don't choke!... ah, too late*
Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Madison Keys def. Ana Ivanovic
...4-6/6-4/6-4.
Ivanovic came out firing following a :50 delay after coach Nigel Sears collapsed in the stands and was rushed to a hospital with the Serb leading 6-4/1-0. But Ivanovic, being who she is for the last seven-plus years, wasn't going to go quietly -- and victoriously -- into the Melbourne night. She led by an early break in the 2nd, gave it back, then regained it. Serving for a 6-4/5-2 lead, one would think that the former #1 and slam champion would have her opponent -- who hasn't really won anything yet in her career -- right where she'd want her, right? Come now, we're talking about AnaIvo. Keys had HER right where she wanted her. The Serb's service toss immediately began its slow devolution, and errors overtook her game. Keys eventually recovered from love/40 and saved six BP in game #10 to hold to take the 2nd set. Not content to have lost two potentially match-securing leads to Keys, Ivanovic was at it again in the 3rd. She blew a 3-0 3rd set advantage, Keys held from 15/40 for 3-3, then AnaIvo double-faulted to break herself a game later. Keys would win six of the final seven games to take the match, as Ivanovic has now failed to reach the 4th Round at six of her last nine slams, and nineteen times in the thirty-one slams since she won her only major title at Roland Garros in '08. Before that stretch, AnaIvo had put together a F-SF-4th-F-W run in 2007-08 that lifted her into the #1 ranking. Some might want to use the incident with Sears as a reason for Ivanovic's squandering (on multiple occasions) of this match. But, come on, this has been her pattern for the past eight years. Unfortunately, as a player, it's just who she is.
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Australian Open 4th Rd. - Carla Suarez-Navarro def. Daria Gavrilova
...0-6/6-3/6-2.
Playing in her first match at Rod Laver Arena, Gavrilova seemed to have everything going for her in the 1st set. And the 2nd. And the 3rd. The energized Aussie took the 1st at love from CSN, with the Spanish veteran winning just one point on her first serve in the set. In both the 2nd and 3rd sets, Gavrilova led 2-0 and was a point away from a 3-0 lead. After failing to get the game in the 2nd, she became frustrated and lost four straight games then, ultimately, the set. But Gavrilova was still seemingly in the driver's seat in the deciding set. Up 2-0, she again was a point away from a 3-0 lead. Again, she failed to get it. Again, she got frustrated. Again, she couldn't pull herself together enough to turn the tide back in her favor, as she mutated into a Russo-Aussie version of Jelena Jankovic. Clanging her racket against whatever was handy, wild gesticulating at herself and her players box. Screaming at her coach, then angrily gesturing in the direction of her team when they didn't stand up and cheer when she won a point. The move made coach Nicole Pratt simply shake her head and chuckle... oh, Dasha.



While she put together a few points down the stretch, the storyline turned into a case of Gavrilova never being able to focus long enought to put herself back into the mindset necessary to win the match. Suarez-Navarro ran off the last six games, winning 0-6/6-3/6-2 as Gavrilova failed to become just the second Aussie woman to reach the AO quarterfinals in the past decade. Afterward, Gavrilova admitted to and apologized for acting like a "spoiled brat."

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Australian Open 1st Rd. - Ana Konjuh def. Ula Radwanska
...0-6/6-4/6-3.
U-Rad led 6-0/3-0, and had a break point at 4-4 in the 2nd that, if converted, would have given her the chance to serve for the match and just her second MD slam win since 2013. Konjuh would lose in her next match, while Ula's sister Aga would win five times in Meblourne to reach the semifinals.
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Australian Open 3rd Rd. - Barbora Strycova def. Garbine Muguruza
...6-3/6-2.
Et tu, Garbi? #3-seeded Muguruza joined the maddening crowd of ousted seeds with a muted, stagnant, disheartening performance that ended the Wimbledon finalist's chances for a third straight Round of 16 result at the AO. The win improved Strycova's career mark vs. Top 5 opponents to 3-18.
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Australian Open Q1 - Zhu Lin def. Elena Vesnina
...6-3/4-6/9-7.
The Russian led 7-6 in the 3rd set, but Zhu won the last twelve points of the match, reportedly leaving upset newlywed Vesnina -- who came into a season ranked outside the Top 100 for the first time since 2005 -- to angrily fling her tennis bag against a tree in frustration after the match. 68 unforced errors in a match will do that to a Hordette, I guess. Don't worry, though, things ended well in Melbourne for Elena -- on the final day of the tournament, she claimed her first career slam Mixed Doubles titles with Bruno Soares.
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Australian Open 1st Rd. - Yulia Putintseva def. Caroline Wozniacki
...1-6/7-6(3)/6-4.
Despite handily winning the 1st set over Putintseva, Wozniacki could never quite get rid of the just-turned-21 year old Kazakh. She battled back to take the 2nd in a tie-break, fought off an attack of cramps and sometimes had her way with the far-too-passive Dane in the 3rd set. She opened with a break, gave it back, then regained the advantage to take a 5-4 lead as the set was characterized by Putintseva dragging Wozniacki from one side of the court to the other, bringing her into the net and often firing a winner past her once she got there. On her second MP in the tenth game of the set, Putintseva engaged Wozniacki in a long rally. The sort of rallies that Wozniacki often wins. But not this time. With Putintseva finding a way to get everything back herself, it was the Dane's eventual forehand error into the net that ended the proceedings as the Moscow-born Kazakh reached her fifth career slam 2nd Round in nine major appearances. Wozniacki has now failed to advance past the 2nd Round at four of the last five slams. Since 2011, her AO result progression looks like this: SF-QF-4th-3rd-2nd-1st. Realistically, she can't take another step back -- there's no more room. If that little fact doesn't tell Caro something, then nothing ever will.

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Australian Open 1st Rd. - Kirsten Flipkens def. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
...5-7/6-2/7-5.
The Waffle emerges with the victory after being 5-3 down in the 3rd, as Lucic served for the match at 5-4, only to be broken at love, then drop serve again to lose the match two games later. Mirjana is currently petitioning every tennis organizing body on record seeking the right to play Simona Halep at EVERY slam.
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*LOOK! UP IN THE SKY! IT'S A BIRD! IT'S A PLANE! IT's SUPER-... umm, UPSETS*
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Zhang Shuai def. Simona Halep
...6-4/6-3.
Days later, Halep spoke of various physical ailments and announced nasal surgery intended to deal with some of them. But none of that was an excuse for yet another loss after which she admitted to being "lost" on the court as she dropped the final five games of the match after having led the veteran Chinese qualifier (world #133) 3-1 in the 2nd set. While it's a lament associated with the Romanian quite often over the past year, Zhang deserves credit, too. With thirty-one winners, many of them zinging down the line shots, she made #2 Halep the twelfth (and final) seed to fall in the 1st Round of the AO, and the Swarmette the first Top 2 to lose her opening match in the event since #1 Virginia Ruzici (Halep's current manager) in 1979. Zhang, who already holds the tour record as the lowest-ranked player to defeat a world #1 (#226 vs. Dinara Safina in '09), had been 0-14 in slam MD matches in her career, and failed on thirteen other occasions to qualify for majors (and saw her opponent serve for the match in the final round in Melbourne this time around, as well). She was considering retirement going into this match, and had flown in her parents to be there for the occasion... which turned out to be "special" for a totally unexpected reason. A week later, Zhang had reached the QF, become the highest-ranked Chinese player in the world and reconsidered shelving her career.
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Auckland 1st Rd. - Daria Kasatkina def. Venus Williams
...6-7(4)/6-3/6-3.
Beware the Kasatkina. Down 3-1 in the 3rd, the Russian (who put on a 3rd Round run as a LL at last year's U.S. Open) charged back to take out Williams in the opening match of the season for both players. The result, her first Top 10 victory, spoke to a potential breakout year for the Hordette (she went on to defeat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and Ana Konjuh at the AO), while it put an early-season damper on the excitement Williams' strong '15 finish had stirred up a few months earlier. Williams would go on to drop her opening round match in Melbourne, too.
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Australian Open 2nd Rd. - Daria Gavrilova def. Petra Kvitova
...6-4/6-4.
The #6-seeded Czech was sent packing in the first three rounds in Melbourne for the fourth straight year by the newly-minted Aussie, who'd use the boost to put on a career-best slam Round of 16 run (she'd had two previous 2nd Rd. results) and become the newest, most energetic apple of the collective eye of fans Down Under. Kvitova twice held break leads in the 1st set only to immediately give back the advantage one game later. With Gavrilova serving for the match at 5-3, she tightened up after holding a MP and Kvitova was back in the match... only to drop serve to end the match a game later, as the Aussie converted her fifth of six BP chances in the match.

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Brisbane Q1 - Samantha Crawford def. Tsvetana Pironkova 7-6(1)/6-4
Brisbane 2nd Rd. - Samantha Crawford def. Belinda Bencic 7-5/7-5
Brisbane QF - Samantha Crawford def. Andrea Petkovic 6-3/6-0
...
20-year old Crawford was the girls U.S. Open champ in 2012 and cane into 2016 having won back-to-back USTA playoff races for wild card berths into last year's U.S. Open and this January's Australian Open. But none of that made what the world #142 did in Brisbane any less surprising, nor how easily she did it any less shocking. Armed with a big serve and flat, powerful groundstrokes that brought to mind Petra Kvitova at her best, the Bannerette came into Week 1 with just two main draw wins in her tour career. But after opening the WTA season by upsetting Brisbane's #1 Q-seed Tsvetana Pironkova on Day 1 of qualifying, then notching two more wins to reach the MD (the last, an 18-ace triumph over Oceane Dodin), Crawford put up three straight sets MD wins to reach her first career semifinal. The first win was against Aussie junior Priscilla Hon, but the last two came over Belinda Bencic and Andrea Petkovic, the latter a love & 3 lesson in domination that left the German searching for answers as the American officially registered a performance that will forever remind everyone of what she's capable of doing on her best day.

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Auckland 1st Rd. - Naomi Broady def. Ana Ivanovic
...7-5/6-4.
Firing fourteen aces, the Brit grabbed her first career Top 20 victory against the '14 Auckland champ. AnaIvo's back-to-back DF to end the opening set were but another example of the Serb's serve (and toss) crumbling when the slightest bit of pressure was applied in a close match. She'd go on to suffer a similar fate in Melbourne.
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Australian Open 1st Rd. - Johanna Konta def. Venus Williams
...6-4/6-2.
What Kasatkina started in Auckland, Konta finished in Melbourne as #8 seed Williams, lethargic in her movement and playing with her leg wrapped, was assured of a winless January to open her 2016 campaign. For Konta, she made her AO debut a memorable one... and went on to become the first British woman to reach a slam semifinal in nearly forty years.

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Australian Open 2nd Rd. - Naomi Osaka def. Elina Svitolina
...6-4/6-4.
18-year old, #127-ranked Osaka, a qualifier with Japanese, Haitian and American roots playing in just her fourth tour-level main draw, used a series of massive ground strokes and #18-seeded Svitolina's consistent unwillingness to aggressively move forward to take advantage of the opportunities she had -- including being up 3-1 in the 1st, and holding four BP as Osaka served for the match at 5-4 in the 2nd -- to mark herself as a true "rising star" months after she was the surprise winner of the tour's Rising Star competition in Singapore.
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Australian Open 1st Rd. - Magarita Gasparyan def. Sara Errani
...1-6/7-5/6-1.
The hail of seeds falling in the opening rounds in Melbourne began with #17 Errani, who has now been the First Seed Out in the AO twice in the last three years. The Italian led 5-0 in the 1st, and held a 6-1/4-3 advantage a set later before the Russian staged a comeback to notch her first career slam MD victory. She'd go on to reach the Round of 16.
========================================
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Wang Qiang def. Sloane Stephens
...6-3/6-3.
Auckland champ Stephens led 3-1, and nearly 4-1, in the 1st before Wang reeled off nine consecutive games to take a set and 4-0 lead. #24-seeded Stephens, with 36 errors in the two-set match, didn't buckle and almost got herself back into the 2nd set. But her efforts were too little, too late as her January became a two-steps-forward, one-step-back, hold-your-horses-the-Future-isn't-here-just-yet start to her '16 season.
========================================
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Lauren Davis def. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
...1-6/6-3/6-4.
#26 seed Pavlyuchenkova, never one to NOT go out in disappointing fashion at slam time, had a point for a 5-3 lead in the 3rd set. The Russian, while regularly winning titles (5) over the same stretch, has now gone seventeen consecutive slams without even a Round of 16 result to show for her "efforts."
========================================
Australian Open 1st Rd. - Daria Kasatkina def. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova
...6-3/6-3.
The #27-seeded Slovak's poor '16 start continued as she dropped to 1-3 on the season after this loss. Kasatkina immediately grabbed a 5-0 lead in the 1st set, and her taking two service games to finally secure the set turned out to be the only tense moments that'd she experience on the day.
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She is a character now ??

A photo posted by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on










The things I do for my favourite channel @nickelodeon_au #AusOpenFestival

A video posted by Daria Gavrilova (@daria_gav) on


Snapchat: daria_gav

A video posted by Daria Gavrilova (@daria_gav) on





Of course, no matter what happened in January, in the end, Aga is still Aga...



Dasha is still Backspin's Official Unicorn...




Vika is probably going to dab again soon...



And, last, but certainly not least, you-know-who will remember what happened here... and will be back soon, stronger than she was before.



All for now.

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