Monday, September 29, 2014

Wk.39- Will the Real Petra Please Stand Up

For a while, it was easy to wonder if anyone even WANTED to win Wuhan at all.

After all, reason-for-the-tournament's-existence Li Na retired from her tennis career in the week leading up to the inaugural WTA event in her hometown. Also, Vika Azarenka pulled up the stakes of her season, and then when play began three former #1's retired from their matches and top seeds fell like dominoes striving to prove a theory. It sure FELT like a "last chopper out of Saigon" scenario in the making.

Ah, but have no fear... enter Petra Kvitova. As it turned out, the tournament wasn't the biggest sports boondoggle of the weekend this side of the Ryder Cup, the annual "winner" of the Most Over-Sold Silliness Award on the sports calendar each and every year.

Again, just like in New Haven, Kvitova rose above a decimated draw to prove her worth as the world #3 and (still) potential #1 down the line. Even with so many absences and upsets, the final four included three Top 10ers -- Kvitova, Eugenie Bouchard and Caroline Wozniacki, as well as coming-soon-to-a-Top-20-ranking-near-you Elina Svitolina. After dispatching with 20-year old Svitolina, Kvitova handled Bouchard, also 20, just as easily in the final as she had in the championship match at Wimbledon earlier this season.

Kvitova dropped just three games in London to the Bouchard, and only failed to collect seven in Wuhan. Playing in 90-degree heat "oven" (but maybe not quite as lethal humidity as in the U.S.?), Kvitova was at least made to work late in the proceedings by the Canadian, whose frustration with her inability to impose her game on the Czech as she has so many others in '14 was crystallized in her cracking of her left hand with her racket follow-through on a forehand. After failing to put away a match point, Kvitova saved five break points before eventually dropping serve. Two games later, she served out the 6-3/6-4 victory to become the first-ever Wuhan champ, and run her career head-to-head against Bouchard to 3-0.

So, is this finally, again, the REAL Petra?

Kvitova followed her 2011 Wimbledon win with a bad summer in North America, but rebounded by taking the WTA Championships title and leading the Czechs to the Fed Cup crown. After qualifying for Singapore and the newly-named WTA Finals, and with a FC final date against Germany set for later this fall, Kvitova stands poised to end her '14 season the same way she did three years ago, when she put on a late push for WTA Player of the Year and set herself up as the "next superpower" in the game. Early in 2012, she nearly claimed the #1 ranking, but soon fell back into the bottom of the Top 10 and slipped from very-top-contention on tour until taking SW19 for a second time this summer.

Are we looking at the early stages of a successful "do-over?"

Maybe more so than any other player on tour, a high-level Kvitova that consistently resembles the player who has crushed opponents in two Wimbledon finals sparks the imagination of the tennis masses. It did three years ago, and did so again this summer in a London sequel. But we've never really had a true, tour-defining Serena vs. Petra "moment" -- between the winners of five of the last six SW19 titles --since the Czech rose to prominence, even while they HAVE met three times (w/ Serena dropping just one set) since Kvitova's first win.

We COULD have one this coming week in Beijing, albeit in the SEMIfinals, not a final. And only then if the "real Petra" stands up for a second straight week.

It could be a prelude to a "perfect storm" sort of season for the WTA in 2015. One would think that Serena will be there, ready for action, next year as she looks to rebound from her "incomplete" slam campaign of '14. But will Kvitova?

WUHAN, CHINA (Premier 5 $2.4m/Hard Outdoor)
S: Petra Kvitova/CZE def. Eugenie Bouchard/CAN 6-3/6-4
D: Hingis/Pennetta (SUI/ITA) d. C.Black/Garcia (ZIM/FRA)

JUNIOR FED CUP FINAL (San Luis Potosi, Mexico)
S: USA def. SVK 3-0

...Kvitova lost just one set in Wuhan, showing (again) just how good she can be when she's not battling herself, her asthma or her inconsistency, especially in the humid summer conditions of North America. Winning ten of eleven sets over Karin Knapp, Karolina Pliskova, Caroline Garcia, Elina Svitolina and Genie Bouchard, the Czech is now 3-0 in '14 finals. With her fourteenth career singles title, Kvitova ties Jennifer Capriati, Aga Radwanska and Zina Garrison on the all-time tour list, one behind Ana Ivanovic.

RISERS: Eugenie Bouchard/CAN & Caroline Garcia/FRA for her Round of 16 run at the U.S. Open, Bouchard's post-SW19 summer was pretty forgettable as she dealt with some under-reported injuries and showed just how poorly she can play if she's not prepared to do so. To a large degree, the Canadian turned the ship around in Wuhan. After coming back from a set down to take out Mona Barthel in her first match, Bouchard ran through Alison Riske, Alize Cornet and Caroline Wozniacki, all in straight sets, to reach her fourth career singles final, and third this season. She joins Ana Ivanovic as the only players on tour to reach finals in hard, clay and grass court tournaments in 2014. Of course, the resurgence ended there, as Bouchard was handled once again in the final in a Wimbledon rematch with Kvitova. After a great start to her season, which included her first tour title in Bogota and a starring Fed Cup role in April followed by QF results in Madrid and Nurnberg, Garcia ended a 6-12 skid in Wuhan by posing her first QF result in over four months. The Pastry got wins over Venus Williams, Aga Radwanska and Coco Vandeweghe, and also reached the doubles final with Cara Black (def. Errani/Vinci in the QF). She's set for a rematch with Venus in the 2nd Round in Beijing.
SURPRISES: Alize Cornet/FRA & Conny Perrin/SUI Cornet continues to climb up the rankings -- FINALLY into the Top 20 this week -- she notches bigger and bigger wins that you really never see coming. In Wuhan, she got her third -- THIRD! -- win over Serena this season when Williams retired with another viral illness in their 2nd Round meeting. It was also the Pastry's tour-best fourth win over a tournament #1 seed in '14, and she's already followed up her QF run in Wuhan with an opening round win over '13 Beijing runner-up Jelena Jankovic on Monday in a 2:39 marathon. Meanwhile, as Belinda Bencic (a Wuhan qualifier) and Timea Bacsinszky (QF) pop up and more in the latter rounds in WTA level singles and 33-year old Martina Hingis (Wuhan champ) covers old/new winning ground in doubles, their Swiss countrywoman Perrin has been burning up the ITF circuit. The 23-year old swept the singles and doubles crowns (that's four titles each in '14) in the $15K challenger in Algiers, defeating Frenchwoman Sherazad Reix in the final. The wins are Perrin's 21st and 22nd (9 & 13) career crowns.

VETERANS: Martina Hingis & Flavia Pennetta (SUI/ITA) & Laura Pous-Tio/ESP

...U.S. Open runners-up Hingis & Pennetta grabbed their first doubles title as a duo in Wuhan, outlasting Cara Black & Caroline Garcia in a 12-10 match tie-break in the final. It's Hingis' second Premier doubles title this season, having won Miami with Sabine Lisicki in the spring, and the 39th of her (already... literally) Hall of Fame career. It's Pennetta's 16th title. At 33 and 32, respectively, Hingis & Pennetta are the second-oldest doubles duo to claim a title in '14 at a combined 65 years, behind only Kveta Peschke & Katarina Srebotnik (38+33=71) in Rome. Pous-Tio, 29, won the $25K challenger crown in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to grab her 15th career ITF title, and tour-leading seventh this season alone. She defeated 33-year old countrywoman Lourdes Dominquez-Lino in the final.

Speaking of ages, did you know that BOTH the world #1 and #2 have celebrated birthdays over the past week?

And, on Sunday, Kimiko Date-Krumm celebrated her 44th.
COMEBACKS: Timea Bacsinszky/SUI & Edina Gallovits-Hall/ROU
...while 17-year old Bencic leads the way for the Swiss at #34 in the rankings, Bacsinszky isn't far behind at #45 (up 26 spots in two weeks, and not far off the career-best #37 she attained in 2010). The 25-year old carried over the momentum of her SF run in Guangzhou (w/ wins over Soler-Espinosa and Torro-Flor) to a qualifying run (Scheepers & Kr.Pliskova) in Beijing that got even better when she put up a pair of Top 15 main draw wins over Hordettes Ekaterina Makarova and Maria Sharapova (and pushed another Top 10er, Caroline Wozniacki, to three sets in the QF). Gallovits-Hall, 29, returned to pro tennis last week by accepting a wild card into the $10K challenger at Amelia Island. EGH last played at the Australian Open in 2013, losing 6-0/6-0 to Serena Williams in the 1st Round. Citing a series of injuries, the Romanian officially retired in February of this year, saying she wanted to begin a coaching career. Well, maybe things have changed a little. She advanced all the way to the final, taking out the likes of U.S. Open junior draw achievers Natalia Vikhlyantseva (def. Bellis), Caroline Dolehide (SF) and Marie Bouzkova (W) before losing to 16-year old Ingrid Neel in the final. Of course, that the final match ended via Gallovits-Hall's retirement with the score knotted at 4-4 in the 1st set, as she failed to notch her 19th career ITF title, might lead her to believe her original plan might have been the best course of action. We'll see.

FRESH FACES: Elina Svitolina/UKR & Ingrid Neel/USA
...the recently-turned 20-year old Ukrainian Svitolina has already won and defended a WTA singles title in her pro career, but her week in Wuhan just produced her first Premier level semifinal result as the two-time Baku champ put up impressive wins over Camila Giorgi, Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber before losing to eventual champ Kvitova. Up to #33 in the rankings, matching the career-high she first reached in May, Svitolina is set to meet Maria Sharapova in the 2nd Round in Beijing after getting a 1st Round bye due to her final four berth in Wuhan. Neel, 16, won the $10K Amelia Island challenger highlighted by Gallovits-Hall's comeback run. The young Bannerette made her way through qualifying and into just her third career pro main draw, completing her title drive with her eighth win of the week when the Romanian retired eight games into the final.
DOWN: Simona Halep/ROU & Aga Radwanska/POL
...the end of long seasons are playing havoc with two of the most intriguing players to watch on tour when they're healthy, focues and in their rather unique individual "zones." Both Halep and Radwanska dropped their opening matches in Wuhan, with the Romanian falling to Garbine Muguruza and the Pole being taken out by upset-minded-once-more Garcia. Aga had already gotten a Beijing win over Coco Vandeweghe, who she missed out on facing in the 3rd Round in Wuhan, while Halep has advanced in this week's tournament in China with a victory over Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, who never got the chance to face the Swarmette in a possible QF match-up last week. Proving, I guess, that if you wait around on an abandoned road long enough, you'll eventually get run over by an automobile. Or something like that.
ITF PLAYER: Madison Brengle/USA
...BrengleFly is on quite the resurgence kick of late. After her summer included the end of her decade-long quest for a slam main draw match win, the Bannerette has opened the fall with a $50K challenger win in Las Vegas. The 24-year old notched wins over Nicole Vaidisova (who reached the QF in her second comeback event), Kateryna Bondarenko and Michelle Larcher de Brito in the final to grab her seventh career ITF crown and second this season. Of (some) note, MLdB had defeated Brengle for her own very first ITF title in the Rancho Santa Fe challenger final back in 2011.
JUNIOR STARS: U.S. Junior Fed Cup Team
...for the second time in three seasons, Team USA claimed the Junior Fed Cup title, going undefeated in matches in Mexico. The 3-0 win in the final over the Slovak team included Tornado Black defeating Tereza Mihalikova, then CiCi Bellis (who led the American squad's title-run to the 14-and-under World Junior crown last season) clinched the title with a win over Viktoria Kuzmova. The U.S. team had taken out the defending champion Russians in the semifinals, with Bellis pulling out a three-set win over Anna Kalinskaya after having lost a 6-1/4-2 advantage in the match. Read a recap of the final from Zoo Tennis' Colette Lewis here.

By the way, pictured above are both Bellis and Black, along with doubles teammate Sofia Kenin and team coach Kathy Rinaldi. Hmmm, so Rinaldi has proven adept at handling this young group of Bannerettes and leading them to great junior success, huh? Maybe she should be given a look as coach of the big Fed Cup team -- filled with many of the same players, no doubt -- down the road? No matter what what-exactly-are-they-trying-to-prove? award the current captain is awarded by the USTA.

1. Wuhan Final - Kvitova d. Bouchard
The difference between Wimbledon...

and Wuhan...

might just have been the level of a certain Canadian's P.O.'ed-ness after her defeat. More then, when she was more strident in her right to win NOW. Less at the moment, after a humbling summer. Most everything else was exactly the same.
2. Wuhan SF - Bouchard d. Wozniacki
Genie wins the playing-to-the-crowd and...

taking photos with babies awards.

geniebouchard: "Roaming the streets of Wuhan and getting asked to take pics with babies #canikeephim"

Oh, and she won the match, too. This was her eighth career Top 10 win.
3. Wuhan 3rd Rd. - Bacsinszky d. Sharapova
Sharapova's first straight sets loss this season to a player not currently ranked in the Top 10. She's since rebounded in Beijing with a win over Kanepi.
4. $25K Podgorica Final - Mitu d. Diatchenko
The Swarmette has won six ITF singles titles this season, just one off the circuit lead.
5. Wuhan 1st Rd. - Pavlyuchenkova d. Ivanovic 7-5/6-5 ret.
Wuhan 2nd Rd. - Dellacqua d. Pavlyuchenkova 7-6(7)/6-7(5)/6-1
Beijing 1st Rd. - Zhu d. Pavlychenkova 6-3/3-3 ret.
as the Pavlychenkova turns.

Deadlines, Daney baby. They're a you-know-what.

1. Wuhan 2nd Rd. - Cornet d. Serena Williams
...5-6 ret.
The dramatic Pastry's third win over Williams ended Serena's winning streak at 12 matches, maintaining Li Na's standing as the player with the longest WTA winning streak (13) this season. Nice touch.
2. Wuhan Doubles Final - Hingis/Pennetta d. Cara Black/Garcia
...6-4/5-7 [12-10].
Black, sans Asian Games-playing partner Sania Mirza, reaches but fails to win her second doubles final in two weeks. Hey, at least it was a winning week for Sania, as she picked up a Mixed Doubles Gold for India along with countryman Saketh Myeni.

3. $10K Madrid Final - Elizaveta Ianchuk d. Paquet
Olga's sister wins her fourth ITF circuit singles title of the season.
4. Wuhan 3rd Rd. - Kvitova d. Karolina Pliskova
Pliskova followed up her Seoul title with Wuhan wins over Stosur and Petkovic, and claimed the only set lost all week by Kvitova, too. Finally running out of steam, she's already lost in the Beijing 1st Round -- but in three sets -- to Polona Hercog.
5. Beijing 1st Rd. - Venus Williams d. Watson
Of course, the Brit had a few other concerns, too.

HM- Beijing 1st Rd. - Serena Williams d. Soler-Espinosa
Ah, the key to success in Asia... pretty nails?

serena williams: "Hair, nails, tennis... Talk @carowozniacki ??"

**2014 WTA TITLES**
6...Serena Williams, USA
4...Ana Ivanovic, SRB
3...Maria Sharapova, RUS
[by nation]
9...United States

100% - Serena Williams (6-0)
100% - PETRA KVITOVA (3-0)
100% - Maria Sharapova
67% - Li Na (2-1)
67% - Ana Ivanovic (2-1)

**2012-14 WTA FINALS**
26...Serena Williams (24-2)
17...Maria Sharapova (8-9)
16...Victoria Azarenka (9-7)
11...Simona Halep (8-3)
11...Aga Radwanska (7-4)
11...Sara Errani (5-6)
11...Li Na (4-7)
11...Angelique Kerber (3-8)
9...Caroline Wozniacki (4-5)

**2014 WINS OVER WORLD #1**
JAN - AO 4r - #14 Ivanovic d. #1 S.Williams
FEB - Dubai SF - #26 Cornet d. #1 S.Williams
APR - Chas 2r - #78 Cepelova d. #1 S.Williams
MAY - RG 2r - #35 Muguruza d. #1 S.Williams
JUN - Wimb 3r - #24 Cornet d. #1 S.Williams
AUG - Mtl SF - #26 V.Williams d. #1 S.Williams
SEP - Wuhan 2r - #21 Cornet d. #1 S.Williams

2...Ana Ivanovic
2...Klara Koukalova
2...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

**2014 WTA SF**
8...Serena Williams (6-2)
7...Ana Ivanovic (6-1)
7...Maria Sharapova (3-4)
6...Simona Halep (4-2)
6...Aga Radwanska (2-4)

4 - Karolina Pliskova (1-3)
3 - Klara Koukalova (1-2)
1 - Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova (0-1)

**2014 WEEKS IN SINGLES TOP 10 - 39 weeks**
39 - Serena Williams*
39 - Li Na*
39 - Aga Radwanska*
39 - Maria Sharapova*
39 - Petra Kvitova*
39 - Angelique Kerber*
36 - Simona Halep*
35 - Jelena Jankovic
31 - Victoria Azarenka
14 - Dominika Cibulkova
13 - Eugenie Bouchard*
12 - Sara Errani
8 - Ana Ivanovic*
7 - Carolina Wozniacki*
* - currently in Top 10

11 - Serena Williams
8 - Ana Ivanovic
4 - Eugenie Bouchard
4 - Alize Cornet
4 - Aga Radwanska
4 - Venus Williams

16...Serena Williams (5 in '14)
12...Caroline Wozniacki
10...Victoria Azarenka
10...Maria Sharapova (2)
9...Aga Radwanska (1)

**2014 WEEKS AT DOUBLES #1**
19...Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci
15...Peng Shuai
5....Hsieh Su-Wei/Peng Shuai

**2014 ITF TITLES**
7...Denisa Allertova, CZE
6...Patricia Maria Tig, ROU

2005 Poland d. France
2006 Belarus d. Russia
2007 Australia d. Poland
2008 United States d. Great Britain
2009 Russia d. Germany
2010 Russia d. China
2011 Australia d. Canada
2012 United States d. Russia
2013 Russia d. Australia
2014 United States d. Slovak Republic

A whole different sort of "Mladenovic Magic"...

kristinamladenovic93: "You know it was a successful day of shopping when... you even had to buy suitcases to fit everything in ?????????? #shopping #beijing"

Charrrrrrrrrrrrrrge it!!

BEIJING, CHINA (Premier Mandatory $5.19m/HCO)
13 Final: S.Williams d. Jankovic
13 Doubles Final: Black/Mirza d. Dushevina/Parra-Santonja
14 Top Seeds: s.Williams/Halep

#1 S.Williams d. #6 Wozniacki
#3 Kvitova d. #12 Makarova
#4 Sharapova d. #7 Kerber
#9 Ivanovic d. #2 Halep
#1 S.Williams d. #3 Kvitova
#9 Ivanovic d. #4 Sharapova
#1 S.Williams d. #9 Ivanovic

...part of me wants to pick Serena Sidekick Caro to upset -- or outlast -- Williams in the draw in Beijing, but if Serena wins the title and I DIDN'T pick her I'll be a tad bit upset at not picking up an "easy" prediction win in the season's closing weeks to make my '14 record look at least a tiny more presentable. She didn't already retire from her opening match this time, so it seems a smart thing to do.

And, finally, well... this is simply EPIC:

All for now.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Wk.38- Seven Days in September

The WTA may have left anything resembling an official "New York Minute" behind at Flushing Meadows, but Week 38 showed just how much everything can change in just the span of seven short days in September.

Since this time last week, Li Na retired with nary a single regret, leaving behind an extremely long trail of tears... but even more smiles.

Also, a still-ailing Victoria Azarenka shut down her long-ailing '14 season due to her aching-and-ailing knee, looking hopefully toward a 2015 season that will include a lot less ailing. At least on her part.

Along with all that, Ashleigh Barty took an indefinite leave from the tennis tour; while Nicole Vaidisova played her first professional tennis match in over four years and Bethanie Mattek-Sands returned to action for the first time since her springtime hip surgery.

And then, of course, there was THIS good news:

vickyduvaaal: I AM CANCER FREE! So grateful to everyone for the love and support, and counting on your prayers as I keep progressing on the journey to recovery.

And none of THAT even happened ON the court. Between the lines, a formerly #1-ranked Serb added still another chapter to arguably the very best, though slam-less, season of her entire career. The maybe-not-in-the-shadows-for-much-long rise of another hard-serving, tennis-playing sister -- this one hailing from the Czech Republic, but also a doubles force with her sibling by her side -- gained still more strength with a second straight tour singles final, this time with the accompanying solo crown that eluded her during Week 37's previous seven-day stretch. Meanwhile, a Romanian won a WTA title... but her name wasn't Simona.

Elsewhere, Serena was performing "magic tricks."

serenawilliams: Magic
Of course, the question here HAS to be whether or not the "magic toilet" works for non 18-slam winners, too.

Sigh. Such is the week that just was. Now, Week 39... whatta YOU got for us!?

TOKYO, JAPAN (Premier $1m/Hard Outdoor)
S: Ana Ivanovic/SRB def. Caroline Wozniacki/DEN 6-2/7-6(2)
D: Black/Mirza (ZIM/IND) d. Muguruza/Suarez-Navarro (ESP/ESP)

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (Int'l $500K/Hard Ourdoor)
S: Karolina Pliskova/CZE def. Varvara Lepchenko/USA 6-3/6-7(5)/6-2
D: Arrubarrena/Begu (ESP/ROU) d. Barthel/Minella (GER/LUX)

GUANGZHOU, CHINA (Int'l $500K/Hard Outdoor)
S: Monica Niculescu/ROU def. Alize Cornet/FRA 6-4/6-0
D: Chuang/Liang (TPE/CHN) d. Cornet/Linette (FRA/POL) 2-6/7-6(3) [10-7]


...if one would conveniently forget AnaIvo's 2014 grand slam results AFTER her upset of Serena Williams in Melbourne, a legitimate case could be made for a "Player of the Year" campaign. The Serb leads the tour in wins (53), is tied for most finals (6) and is second in singles titles (4, with her Tokyo crown this weekend). Not only that, but she's the only player to notch '14 wins over all six of the other active former/current #1 singles players -- Serena, Venus, Sharapova, Jankovic, Wozniacki and Azarenka -- who've played on tour this season. She's climbed back into the Top 10 for the first in five years, and has now won more titles and reached more finals than she has in any single season of her career. In Tokyo, Ivanovic never dropped a set while taking out Vika Azarenka (for the first time since '10), Lucie Safarova (for the first time since '08), #1-seeded Angelique Kerber and fellow Top 10er Caroline Wozniacki, with the latter two wins providing AnaIvo with her sixth and seventh Top 10 wins this year.
RISERS: Monica Niculescu/ROU & Alize Cornet/FRA

...Niculescu was nearly untouchable while coasting to the title in Guangzhou, the second tour win of her career after taking Florianopolis a season ago. The 26-year old Romanian dropped just seventeen games over five matches in China, second-fewest on tour in '14 to only Garbine Muguruza's fifteen lost while taking Hobart in January. Wins over Bojana Jovanovski, Misaki Doi, Monica Puig, Wang Yafan and Cornet in the final puts Niculescu in a tie with Alexandra Dulgheru with two career titles, behind only Simona Halep (8) on the active Romanian tour title list. The run to the Guangzhou final by 24-year old Cornet is her third of '14 (she's won one). While the Pastry often fails to win her final match in tournaments (even while winning the Hopman Cup for France in January, when she failed to win a singles match), she's never less than superbly entertaining. Wins over Yulia Putintseva, Shahar Peer, Hsieh Su-Wei and Timea Bacsinszky highlighted her week in China, but a second final run in doubles (w/ Magda Linette, Cornet's first doubles final since 2011) made for a very busy week. Early on this season, Cornet seemed a good candidate for the WTA's "Most Improved Player" award for '14. That honor, even with an upset of Serena at Wimbledon under her belt, as well as nearly having achieved a ranking (currently #21) that could lead to her her first year-end Top 20 finish since 2008, might have slipped through her fingers over the last few months, though. Still, the Frenchwoman's continual ability to put up good results surely points to a "promising career reclaimed" over the course of the current season.
SURPRISES: Wang Yafan/CHN & Chuang Chia-Jung/Liang Chen (TPE/CHN)
...a week after Zhang Kai-Lin's run, countrywoman Wang starred in Guangzhou. The #251-ranked 20-year old wild card made her WTA debut a memorable one, upsetting Sam Stosur in her first match and backing up the win with additional victories over Petra Martic and, yes, even Zhang herself to become the lowest-ranked singles semifinalist on tour this season. In the same event, veteran Chuang, 29, teamed with the lesser-known Liang to claim the doubles title. For Chuang, who had a nice run years ago while playing with Chan Yung-Jan (winning six titles in 2008-09), it's her 21st tour title with an eleventh different partner, but her first since 2012. Earlier this season, she won a share of two doubles titles in both WTA $125K Challenger events in Nan Chang and Suzhou. For the #256-ranked Liang, 25, it's the first tour-level title of her career. The duo came back from a set and match point down in the final against Alize Cornet & Magda Linette.
VETERANS: Varvara Lepchenko/USA & Cara Black/Sania Mirza(ZIM/IND) Seoul, Lepchenko, who ESPN always likes to remind us is a "naturalized" American born in Uzbekistan rather than, I suppose, a "real" U.S. of A. player, became the fourth Bannerette this season -- w/ Keys, McHale & Rogers -- to reach her maiden tour singles final. But she's the first of the group not born on American soil. So there's that. After wins over Olivia Rogowska, top seed and defending champ Aga Radwanska and real-live-American Christina McHale, the 28-year old fell in three sets in the final to Karolina Pliskova. Lepchenko had been looking for her first singles title of any kind since winning a challenger event in Kansas City in 2011. In Tokyo, the where-have-they-been-all-their-lives? late-career doubles pairing of Black & Mirza continues to be one of the best on tour. A year ago, the, respectively, 35 and 28-year old vets combined to win back-to-back titles in Tokyo in Beijing. After winning a third title together earlier this season, they reconvened once again in Tokyo and defended their first title as a duo. It's Black's 59th career doubles win, once behind Rennae Stubbs on the all-time WTA list, while Mirza, who just picked up the Wimbledon Mixed title while she and Black also reached the semis in London, grabbed title #21. They moved up two spots in this week's rankings, sharing the #5 doubles ranking behind the top-ranked team of Errani & Vinci and the no-longer-together Hsieh & Peng.

COMEBACKS: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Maria Kirilenko/RUS
...proving that her summer fling with more aggressive tennis wasn't a fleeting dalliance, in Tokyo, the Dane backed up her U.S. Open final run with the second of back-to-back tour finals appearances. Wozniacki knocked off Jarmila Gajdosova, Carla Suarez-Navarro and Garbine Muguruza to reach her third '14 final, though she again came up short in the end, losing to Ivanovic. Still, with a smile on her face, the Dane is onto her next battleground.

carowozniacki: Made it to China!!
One of my predictions for this past week, despite her paltry 2-6 record this season, was a final run by Kirilenko in Seoul as a #155-ranked wild card. She didn't quite get there, but the Hordette's career-long affinity for Asian-based tournaments (seven finals, four titles, and back-to-back final runs in the same Seoul event in 2007-08) that I pointed toward as the rationale behind the pick turned out to have some legs, as her semifinal result produced her best week's work since Monterrey in April '13. The 27-year old, who got wins last week over Donna Vekic, Klara Koukalova and Kaia Kanepi, began the season still ranked in the Top 20 before her slow recovery from a knee injury sent her ranking so far south. Last week was her first significant on-court progress this season, and her bump up to #136 is surely an optimistic sign for '15. With her week a success, Kirilenko was onto, umm, other things.

mkirilenko87: Disney Land #BackToTheChildHood
FRESH FACES: Karolina Pliskova/CZE & Belinda Bencic/SUI

...both these two put up career-best slam results in New York, and have only used the experience as jumping-off points for what comes next in their careers. Pliskova, 22, reached the 3rd Round in Flushing Meadows, then the big-serving Czech rumbled to a final in Hong Kong a week ago. She lost there to Sabine Lisicki, but won the doubles with sister Kristyna. She reached still another final this past week in Seoul on the back of wins over Julia Glushko, Anna-Lena Friedsam, Nicole Gibbs and Maria Kirilenko, then grabbed her second career tour singles title with a win over Varvara Lepchenko. It's Pliskova's fourth final this season alone, and her fifth overall the last two seasons. Both are tops among the Czech Maidens, as new #31 Pliskova swaps places in this week's rankings with her countrywoman, new #32 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, to become the third-highest ranked woman from her country behind Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, 17-year old U.S. Open quarterfinalist Bencic opened up her first post-NYC event by taking down former U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets (one a bagel) before taking Safarova to three sets in the 2nd Round. Additionally, the New Swiss Miss teamed up in doubles with the Original Swiss Miss Martina Hingis, losing in the 2nd Round to eventual champs Black & Mirza.
DOWN: Samantha Stosur/AUS & Sloane Stephens/USA
...both have slipped from their Top 20 rankings in '14, and things aren't getting any better for either in the season's backstretch. Both were in Guangzhou last week, but neither could escape the 1st Round. Stosur lost to eventual semifinalist Wang Yafan, who at the time was making her tour debut. Ranked #251, Wang is the fourth player ranked outside the Top 100 to defeat the Aussie this season, and the second #251-or-higher (as you may remember, #406 Naomi Osaka stunned Stosur in Stanford, also in HER tour debut match). Meanwhile, Stephens went down in three sets to Silvia Soler-Espinosa, then pulled out of this week's Wuhan event with an injured wrist. One has to wonder if maybe both women should be looking to Vika for guidance when it comes to what remains of their seasons.
ITF PLAYER: Anna Tatishvili/USA a week when "naturalized American" Lepchenko reached her first WTA final, Georgia-born (as in ex-Soviet Georgia) finally-an-officially-new U.S. citizen Tatishvili (not to be confused with Citizen Anna, of course) won her first title while representing the U.S., taking the $75K Albuquerque challenger that got much attention this past week as the site of Nicole Vaidisova's comeback debut. The 24-year old knocked off fellow Americans Tornado Black and Irina Falconi (in the final), as well as Aussie-turned-Brit Johanna Konta (who'd earlier defeated Vaidisova) en route to her eleventh career ITF win. Earlier this season, Tatishvili won a second '14 challenger while she was still representing Georgia.

...last week we saw one end of the Croatian tennis generational spectrum (Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 32) produce a title win in Quebec City, while this week the spotlight kinda-sorta-almost is illuminating the other end, namely 17-year old Fett. The Australian Open junior runner-up from earlier this season, the Croat began '14 with a 10-9 won/lost record in ITF events. Lately, though, things have picked up considerably. She's currently on a 14-3 run, including her first challenger title in a $10K in Ostrava (CZE) a month ago, which has been followed up by three straight $10K events in Bol, Croatia in which she's put up QF, runner-up and semifinal results.

1. Tokyo Final - Ivanovic d. Wozniacki
Career title #15 lifted Ivanovic out of a tie with Kuznetsova and Radwanska on the active title list, and within two of Azarenka's 17.
2. Guangzhou Final - Niculescu d. Cornet
Cornet led 4-2 in the 1st set, but dropped the next ten games in the Guangzhou heat, tossing in 12 DF during the match.
3. Tokyo 1st Rd. - Dellacqua d. Lisicki 6-7(5)/7-5/6-2
Guangzhou 1st Rd. - Puig d. Knapp 6-1/4-6/6-2
Week 37's champions weren't in action too long in Week 38.
4. Tokyo 1st Rd. - Bencic d. Kuznetsova
Bencic was seven years old when Sveta won the U.S. Open.
5. Tokyo 2nd Rd. - Ivanovic d. Azarenka
In the words of Nicole Vaidisova in 2005, "People who never care that they lose have never won so much." Vika cares. She'll be back, hopefully as good as new. So, no more wincing while watching Azarenka try to tough out a few more tournaments without being able to be "fully Vikafied." Whew.
6. Guangzhou QF - Wang Yafan d. Zhang Kai-Lin
Fittingly, in the week of Li's retirement, two Chinese surprises faced off with each other in a WTA event in their home nation for a berth in their first career semifinal. Zhang lost out here, but only after a second straight successful qualifying run and main draws wins over Jana Cepelova and Alison Riske.
7. Tokyo 2nd Rd. - Cibulkova d. Vandeweghe
Tokyo was Cibulkova's first event with back-to-back match wins since Wimbledon. Of course, the Slovak has followed up her QF run with a 3rd set retirement loss against Madison Keys in the 1st Round in Wuhan. So...
8. Guangzhou 1st Rd. - Zhu Lin d. Vinci
Not to be outdone by Stosur, the Italian now has three '14 losses to players outside the Top 145, including this one to the 20-year old, #185-ranked wild card Zhu.
9. Seoul QF - McHale d. Rybarikova
...6-2/2-0 ret.
After retiring in the 3rd set in the 1st Round of the U.S. Open against Wozniacki, Rybarikova didn't even last that long in the final match in her follow-up tournament.
10. Tokyo SF - Wozniacki d. Muguruza
Another spurt of success from the Spaniard last week, as she reeled off wins over '13 Tokyo runner-up Pavlyuchenkova, as well as Jankovic and Dellacqua. Not only that, but she also reached her third '14 doubles final with CSN.
11. $75K Albuquerque 1st Rd. - Vaidisova d. Karatantcheva
Vaidisova's comeback event, at which she won her first match since losing to Heather Watson in a $25K challenger event in Hammond, Louisiana in March 2010, was well-covered. She's on the court again this week in Las Vegas.

nicolevaidisova: So surreal stepping onto a tennis court and playing a competitive match after more then 4 years off. It was nerve wracking,scary but also an exhilarating and proud moment for me..Its one tiny step at a time,but so happy the 1st was a winning one Thank you for all the encouraging messages and congratulations,It means so much to me
12. Wuhan Q2: Voegele d. Mattek-Sands
Meanwhile, the return of BMS (now ranked #222 - yikes! - after having started '14 with a qualifier-to-QF run in Sydney that included wins over Bouchard and Radwanska) was a bit more "off Broadway"... way off Broadway. She returned in Wuhan for her first tournament since Miami in March. After notching her first post-hip surgery win over Tsvetana Pironkova, she fell to Stefanie Voegele.
HM- $75K Albuquerque Doubles Final - Abaza/Oudin d. Melichar/Will
Additionally, go figure.


1. Seoul Final - Karolina Pliskova d. Lepchenko
Hmmm, there's a shot that the #2 woman/sister on tour this season for aces (Pliskova) could face off next weekend in the Wuhan final with the #1 woman/sister on tour this season for aces (Serena).
2. Tokyo Doubles Final - Cara Black/Mirza d. Muguruza/Suarez-Navarro
Black won this title with Backspin's 2005 U.S. Open "It Girl" winner Mirza. Black's first tour title came in Auckland in 2000. At the time, CiCi Bellis, the '14 "It Girl" winner at the Open, was nine months old.
3. Seoul 2nd Rd. - Aga Radwanska d. Scheepers
A-Rad's week started out rather deliciously, courtesy of a pair of bagels.
4. Seoul QF - Lepchenko d. Aga Radwanska
But, again, she's developed an inability to "clean her plate."
5. Wuhan 1st Rd. - Garcia d. Venus Williams
Right out of the gate in Wuhan, a big name fell. Venus led 5-2 in the 3rd set, and held a match point at 5-3.

vichka35: Well duh.... This just made me laugh so hard!

**2014 WTA TITLES**
6...erena Williams, USA
3...Maria Sharapova, RUS
2...Li Na, CHN
2...Petra Kvitova, CZE
2...Simona Halep, ROU
2...Andrea Petkovic, GER

**2014 WTA FINALS**
6 - Serena Williams (6-0)
6 - ANA IVANOVIC (4-2)
4 - Simona Halep (2-2)
4 - Venus Williams (1-3)
4 - Angelique Kerber (0-4)

Brisbane - Serena Williams
Shenzhen - Li Na
Brisbane(d) - Anatasia Rodionova
Australian Open(d) - Errani/Vinci
Florianopolis(d) - Medina-Garrigues/Shvedova
Miami - Serena Williams
Stuttgart - Maria Sharapova [3 con.]
Rome - Serena Williams
Baku - Elina Svitolina
Washington, D.C.(d) - Shuko Aoyama [3 con.]
U.S. Open - Serena Williams [3 con.]
Tokyo(d) - C.Black/Mirza

0-4...Angelique Kerber
0-2...Sara Errani
0-2...Bojana Jovanovski
0-2...Roberta Vinci
1-3...Venus Williams
1-2...Klara Koukalova
1-2...Dominika Cibulkova
1-2...Simona Halep

#251 WANG YAFAN/CHN - Guangzhou
#189 Nigina Abduraimova/UZB - Tashkent
#166 Kristina Kucova/SVK - Bucharest
#160 Nasstasja Burnett/ITA - Rio
#147 Shelby Rogers/USA - Bad Gastein (RU)
#140 Belinda Bencic/SUI - Charleston
#139 Ana Konjuh/CRO - Istanbul

[2014 Finals]
3 - Klara Koukalova (1-2)
2 - Petra Kvitova (2-0)
1 - Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova (0-1)
[WTA singles titles - active]
13...Petra Kvitova
6...Nicole Vaidisova
5...Lucie Safarova
3...Klara Koukalova
1...Kveta Peschke
1...Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova

3 - Alize Cornet
2 - ANA IVANOVIC, Klara Koukalova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Bethanie Mattek-S./USA - Sydney [def. A.Radwanska, to QF]
Garbine Muguruza/ESP - R.Garros [def. S.Williams, to QF]
Annika Beck/GER - 's-Herto. [def. Halep ret., to QF]
Venus Williams/USA - Montreal [def. S.Williams, RU]
Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK - New Haven [def. Halep, RU]
Varvara Lepchenko/USA - Seoul [def. A.Radwanska, RU]

5 - Sara Errani (5/0)
5 - Roberta Vinci (5/0)
4 - Peng Shuai (4/0)
3 - SANIA MIRZA (2/1)
3 - Hsieh Su-Wei (3/0)
3 - Karolina Pliskova (3/0)


achak87: Yahooo ))))

And, as always, the "aura" of JJ endures...

WUHAN, CHINA (Premier 5 $2.4m/HCO)
13 Final: =new event=
13 Doubles Final: =new event=
14 Top Seeds: S.Williams/Halep

#1 S.Williams d. #9 Ivanovic
#2 Halep d. Ka.Pliskova
#1 S.Williams d. #2 Halep

...with tentative opinions I move forward as, in fitting '14 prognostication fashion, my recent picks have continued to double-back on themselves. Maintaining the season's weird pattern, in recent weeks, I've picked Venus to win a title only to see her reach a final and lose to a player who hadn't won one in sixteen years. Two weeks ago, I predicted Karolina Pliskova to defeat Sabine Lisicki in Hong Kong, only to see the German defeat the Czech instead... then Pliskova won a title one week later in Seoul.

Serena would seem a much safer bet in Wuhan, with no magic required.

While the existence of this event in her hometown should be a celebration of what Li has brought to the tour, it's also more than a bit sad since she won't be playing there this week.

Still, some intriguing match-ups COULD come about, including in the early rounds, where we could see clashes of recent big result-makers -- slam semifinalists Bouchard/Peng in the 2nd Round, with the 3rd Rd. seeing Ivanovic/Wozniacki (Tokyo F) and JJ/Aga (a delight no matter the recent history) -- that lead into possibly even bigger contests nearer the weekend. NOTE: 1st Round losses have already ruled out ALL those matches!

There, that's better. ;)


13 Final: Russia d. Australia

All for now.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Backspin Special: The Very Best of Li

Li Na, the greatest tennis player ever produced by the most populous nation in the world, and a winner of two grand slam singles titles, has retired. She will be missed, but she will never be forgotten. Ever.

Quick with a joke and a smile, but with a backstory that highlights her strong will, as she stood up and broke away from the powerful Chinese tennis establishment and found her greatest success in the final years of her career, Li will forever be the "founding mother" of Chinese tennis. She was the first player from her nation to win a WTA title, to reach the Top 20, Top 10 and Top 5 (climbing to #2 earlier this season), to reach a grand slam final and two win a major singles crown. Winning at Roland Garros in 2011, she set off an explosion of tennis popularity in Asia, the results of which will be felt across the WTA (and ATP) landscape for generations. Quite literally the "most popular athlete on earth," Li may ultimately influence more future sports champions -- starting with the little Chinese girls who witnessed her triumphs and dreamed of being just like her -- than any person, well, ever.

Said WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster, "It's hard to be a household name in a nation with 1.4 billion people, but that's what Li Na is."

In announcing her retirement today, Li said in an open letter posted online, "Most people in the tennis world know that my career has been marked by my troubled right knee. After four knee surgeries and hundreds of shots injected into my knee weekly to alleviate swelling and pain, my body is begging me to stop the pounding." She added, "As hard as I tried to get back to being 100%, my body kept telling me that, at 32, I will not be able to compete at the top level ever again. The sport is just too competitive, too good, to not be 100%."

Her work has only begun, though. The future will include a tennis academy, as well as possibly having a child with her longtime husband/sometime coach/always-the-good-sport-butt-of-so-many-of-her-jokes Jiang Shan.

"I've succeeded on the global stage in a sport that a few years ago was in its infancy in China," Li said. "What I've accomplished for myself is beyond my wildest dreams. What I accomplished for my country is one of my most proud achievements."

Li's second major win at the Australian Open earlier this season seemed to point to one final late-career rebirth under the tutelage of coach Carlos Rodriguez. But, unfortunately, it turned out to be a wonderful farewell performance that brought a smile to everyone's face. Both at the time and for as long as humans breathe air and tennis fans have any sense of history and/or heart.

Li was an original. And weren't we lucky to have experienced her in real time?

Here she is at her very, very best...

Saturday, June 04, 2011 - "The Woman with the Rose Tattoo"

Apparently, life begins at 29... at least when it comes to women's tennis players in Paris.

A year ago, a nearly-30 year old Francesca Schiavone threw herself mind, body and spirit into winning Roland Garros just weeks before her thirtieth birthday, thereby reinvigorating the notion that anything was possible in the sport as long as a player is willing to work long enough, hard enough and with as much passion as necessary to achieve the task at hand.

"It like fine wine," Schiavone said this week as she returned to France for the defense of her one and only slam title and fashioned an even more improbable run to a second consecutive final, "Stay in the bottle more is much, much better." Thing is, the same sentiments equally applied to the Italian's opponent in Saturday's women's final, 29-year old Chinese vet Li Na. "When I come here, I feel something special," Schiavone remarked of Roland Garros in recent days. She always will. But, now, so will Li. Because Paris is where she today not only claimed the first slam title of her career, but did so for the entire sporting nation of China, as well as for the budding tennis revolution filled with "wannabe Na's" that her accomplishment will undoubtably help to further spur to bigger and greater heights.

In the women's slam final with the oldest combined age of its two participants ranking the fifth-highest ever, and the highest on tour since the 1998 Wimbledon championship (Jana Novotna vs. Nathalie Tauziat), Schiavone's artistic endeavor to write yet another favorable ending to a springtime trip to the City of Lights proved to be no match for "the Henny Youngman of women's tennis" -- "take my husband, please!" -- with a few billion far away souls on her side. After her semifinal victory over the favored Maria Sharapova, Li had openly discussed the effect that her success might have on the future of many girls and boys back home. "Maybe children, they saw the match, and they think that maybe one day they can do the same or even better," she theorized, accompanied by her always-ready-to-light-up-the-immediate-surroundings smile.

Four months wiser after her losing experience in the Australian Open final against Kim Clijsters, Li didn't show up at Chatrier Court wondering how she was going to once again use her hitting partner/deposed coach Jiang Shan in another comedic punchline, which she'd done with great humor in Melbourne as well as after her come-from-behind 4th Round win over Petra Kvitova in Paris. She came to win. With Jiang, for whom Li has a rose tattoo over her heart lest there be any questions about the strength of their relationship, in the stands sitting along-side new coach Michael Mortensen, Li went about the business of becoming a groundbreaking soon-to-be-legendary figure in the minds of many of the players who'll one day make their own dreams come true in professional tennis.

As the final began, something that would become a match trend was immediately noticeable. Like the three other Top 10 players that the Chinese vet had vanquished along the way in Paris, Schiavone had a hard time breaking through Li's mix of offense and defense, two styles which she liberally intermingled in her game throughout the afternoon as the situation warranted. After having so often played defense against the big hitters from previous rounds, Li better utilized the offensive weapons that they couldn't against HER in her own tactical plan of attack against Schiavone's variety-filled game of creative angles, slices and volleys. The 1st set was decided but by a few spare points, but it was Li who was in control of them.

Li's forehand winner got her a break point chance in the opening game of the match, though the Italian managed to hold. But, later, after racing to cover a Schiavone drop shot and putting away a volley following Schiavone's scrambling retrieval, Li was gifted with two more chances to break. She only needed one. Schiavone couldn't effectively respond to another big Li forehand, and her errant shot sailed out to give Li a break and a 3-2 lead. Serving at 5-4, 30/30 Li took a Schiavone return and smacked a winner from the baseline. When the Italian's forehand sailed on set point, Li claimed the opening stanza 6-4 on the strength of a 15-3 edge in winners.

"Be that self which one truly is," said dead Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. And that was what a desperate Schiavone was in search of as the 2nd set began -- her true self. Try as she might, though, she had a hard time successfully discovering her free "Francesca flow" against Li, who was having none of it.

In game #1 of the set, Li reached triple beak point after her deep, driving groundstrokes pinned Schiavone on the baseline, keeping her off-balance and unable to utilize all her shots as well as the entire breadth of the court, as is her desire. To this point in the match, Li had actually approached the net as often as the volley-seeking Italian. Schiavone saved two break points, but Li finally grabbed a 1-0 lead on the third. From there until the end of the match, Schiavone would often briefly resemble her "old" self for a few shots in a rally, as she did in game #2, during which she abruptly ended her own potential surge by pushing a shot just beyond the lined boundaries of the court. In that same game, Schiavone DID finally get her first break point of the match after a rally in which she managed two volleys, but Li threw in an ace and held for 2-0.

With time running short, Schiavone spent most of the 2nd set simply holding on, possibly hoping that things would eventually break her way as they did in the QF match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in which she escaped a 6-1/4-1 deficit against the 19-year old Russian. Twice the Italian was threatened with going down a second break of serve, as Li continued to come out on top in rallies by ending them with winners that weren't the risky sorts of shots like those of Sharapova, but were simply solid and effective strokes often set up by the same crosscourt forehand that tends to pull opponents wide of the court that has proved to be her bread-and-butter shot throughout this Roland Garros. The Chinese woman held break points in both the 3-1 and 4-2 service games of Schiavone, but Schiavone held for 3-2 and 4-3.

After that second hold, though, the moment arrived when Schiavone found a way to get back into the match. Showing signs of slight tentativeness as her formerly deep groundstrokes began to fall a few feet short, Li blinked in the face of the occasion. Just a little. But it was enough to spur Schiavone on as the defending champion made an attempt at pulling off yet another Parisian passion play. The t-shirt donning Francesca supporters of '10 -- this time sporting clothing emblazoned with "Schiavo Another Show" -- had something tangible to cheer about for the first time. Finally with enough room to operate on her side of the net, Schiavone began to use the entire court again and force errors from Li. She got a break to knot things at 4-4, then held twice for 5-4 and 6-5 leads, the latter service game being won at love in another two-volley game played in the style that had helped her string together thirteen straight RG wins.

But right when it looked as if a classic Roland Garros final might be about to break into the clear on Chatrier, producing the first three-set women's final in Paris since the Capriati/Clijsters 12-10 3rd set thriller in '01, one point sent things in a direction that could never be reversed. With Li serving at deuce, down 6-5, a Li shot on the right sideline of Schiavone's court was called wide. The Italian celebrated being just one point away from knotting the match a one set each. But then the chair umpire raced across the court to examine the mark in the terre battue, quickly ruling that Li's shot had hit the edge of the line. Rather than having set point, an upset Schiavone found herself down game point. After she netted a backhand to end a short rally after initially thinking that Li's previous shot wasn't going to make it over the net, causing her to relax for a moment and then have to lunge at the last instant at a ball that she wasn't properly prepared to hit, the defending champ found herself in a life-or-death tie-break. Out of sorts, Schiavone wouldn't win another point in the match. Whether the Italian's concentration was broken and she was unable to get it back, or if it was Li's continued calm under pressure after her earlier wobble, that caused the clean-sweep of the remainder of the match, it's a shame that what looked to have been budding as the 2nd set wore on wasn't allowed to fully blossom due to the natural flow of the match. But the umpire made the call that she felt was correct (and it seemed to be so), so there's no unfair blame to place in this situation.

In the tie-break, Li grabbed a first-point mini-break by winning a very Francesca-like point in which she both volleyed and lobbed over Schiavone to lock away a 1-0 lead. Later, she expertly moved Schiavone from side to side on the baseline and took a 4-0 lead. The Italian, unable to stem the Chinese's woman momentum, missed an easy volley and it was 5-0. Schiavone was three mini-breaks down and the course of history seemed assured. And it was. Schiavone's long backhand ended the tie-break with a 7-0 score, giving Li eight consecutive points following the changed line call. With her 6-4/7-6 victory in hand, ironically the same scoreline as in Schiavone's win in the final over Samantha Stosur last year, Li dropped her racket and slid onto her back in celebration behind the baseline.

"If at first you don't succeed... so much for skydiving," Henny Youngman famously joked. Well, luckily for Li, her inability to become the first Chinese grand slam singles champion didn't prevent her from taking the opportunity to succeed in her SECOND attempt to do do. As she celebrated her win with the terre battue caked on the back of her shirt being carried with her as she ventured to the net to shake Schiavone's hand, the rest of Chinese tennis history will now carry the memory of HER with it.

As Schiavone talked this past week of falling in love with Roland Garros when, as a junior, she watched the 1999 Steffi Graf/Monica Seles semifinal from the stands and said that she wanted "to be like them," the same is likely the case tonight back in China. Last year, it was Schiavone giving rise to future "little Francescas" by becoming the first Italian slam champ, "little Na's" by the thousands (millions?) will soon be running around the court with rackets as big as they are trying to emulate their new heroine.

Interestingly, at the '99 RG that Schiavone mentioned, Graf was 29 years of age when she pulled off what was a surprise title run to claim the final slam crown of her fabled 22-slam win career. Of course, that's the same age at which both Schiavone and Li have now gone down as FIRST-time slam titlists.

Sometimes things just seem to work out that way, I guess. It's just a matter of time... and life beginning whenever you desire it to do so.

January 25, 2014 - "Li Na: One Night Only"

As her career has shaped itself and will ultimately be remembered, Li Na is a pied piper. Not just for all the "first Chinese to..." accomplishments she's posted though the years, nor for the stand she made against her nation's tennis establishment in an attempt take her life into her own hands by keeping her prize money, picking her own coach and making her own schedule, but for also serving as the guiding light for all the upcoming tennis generations that will likely emerge on the WTA shores in waves hailing from Beijing to Wuhan and all points in between and beyond

But in her third appearance in an Australian Open final, all of that was background noise. For one night only, the story of Li was about securing her individual tennis legacy by claiming a second grand slam title to go along with the one she won in Paris three years ago. Even if by the end of the night it ended up being viewed as something of a prelude to a typically-entertaining post-match victory speech.

Standing in the way of the 31-year old Li's next date with tennis history was surprise finalist Dominika Cibulkova, 24, the first Slovak woman to reach a slam final. Seeded #20 but ranked outside the Top 20, the tour's shortest player (5-foot-3) had chopped down four Top 20 players (Li had to face none) in Melbourne, including two (Sharapova & A.Radwanska) ranked in the Top 5. Playing with a new larger racket, but with the same hard-working mindset that she's always possessed, Cibulkova's confidence looked to have reached an all-time high over the past two weeks as she'd taken out personal adversaries while dominating the final sets of nearly every match after having developed a career-long reputation as a talented player with a problem when it comes to closing out big wins.

Li's confidence has been a work in progress throughout her entire career. When Carlos Rodriguez, longtime mentor of seven-time slam champ Justine Henin, came aboard as her coach in the late summer of '12, bolstering Li's belief in herself was the biggest hurdle to overcome while reworking the veteran's game for the latter chapter of her career. When Li won a title in Cincinnati just days after hiring Rodriguez, there was hope that it was a sign that Li's mindset and, accordingly, results might eventually greatly improve at an age when players (not named Serena) have started to go in the opposite direction. But heading into this AO, the two had only teamed to win a pair of small titles in Shenzhen, though Li had played in and put up a great fight in the Aussie final last year against Victoria Azarenka. Before last year's Wimbledon, with pressure coming from the Chinese press and her results hitting a dry spell, Li had to be talked out of retiring by Rodriguez to give herself one final chance to be as good a player as she could be.

It was a close call. But Li's decision to stick around has proven to be a well-timed stroke of genius.

Her quarterfinal run at SW19 bolstered her confidence, and then the advantages of a mid-season "boot camp" to make sure Li was fit for success a the end of '13 began to be seen. She ended the year with a run to the Tour Championships final and entered this AO championship match on an eleven-match winning streak in 2014. After escaping a 3rd Round match against Lucie Safarova in Melbourne in which the Czech held a match point, going for but missing on a chance for a down-the-line winner, Li has often played like a woman on a mission, deftly utilizing her additional topspin on her groundstrokes (to make her shots more reliable in the clutch), improved serve and added aggressiveness, calmly assuming the role of "favorite" for the tournament title after all the other expected contenders fell by the wayside before Li had an opportunity to face them.

With these two players still possibly susceptible to feeling the tension of a slam final no matter their recent level-headedness, it was clear that the 1st set might prove to be vital. Early on, it was apparent that things weren't going to be quite as easy for Cibulkova as they'd been against Radwanska. Li went up 30/love on the Slovak's serve in the opening game, winning rallies and breaking her courtesy of a double-fault for 1-0. After seeing winners coming seemingly at will two days earlier, Cibulkova had a hard time finding them here. In game #3, Li held two break points, though Cibulkova -- saving the first with a forehand passing shot, her first winner of the match -- held and managed to avoid sliding so far behind that the set was a lost cause. With shades of Li's fall-heavy final of a season ago, the Slovak stumbled and nearly fell in the next game, then shot a forehand long to slip further behind at 3-1.

From there, Cibulkova started to slowly but surely pick of her level of play, while Li's began to waver.

Li's errors allowed the Slovak to go up 40/love and, despite two errors of her own, Cibulkova held for 3-2. It was an interesting point in the set, as Cibulkova was arguably fortunate to not be a double-break down, but that fact also meant that she wasn't letting Li off the hook and was instead forcing her to make the shots to stay ahead and win the set. And, suddenly, she wasn't hitting them.. On the first point in game #6, Cibulkova took to the net and put away a backhand crosscourt winner, then saw Li double-fault on back-to-back points to break herself and knot the set at 3-3.

While Li stared at her racket and then called for her husband to take a pair of rackets to be re-strung, Cibulkova began to get the better of the Chinese in rallies. A crosscourt forehand put the Slovak up 40/love, giving her eight points in the last nine, and a wide service winner gave her a hold to take the lead in the set for the first time at 4-3. Meanwhile, Li's first serve percent was ebbing below 30%. Still, she managed to hold on, winning a rally that featured several defensive saves from Cibulkova and holding for 4-4 then, after failing to convert a break point in game #9, firing an ace to hold for 5-5.

A Li return winner and Cibulkova double-fault put Li up 30/15, then she got a break point on the strength of her favorite shot sequence this entire Australian Open -- a rally that saw her move Cibulkova back and forth across the baseline, then quickly end the point with a backhand crosscourt winner. A deep return was netted by Cibulkova and Li had the chance to serve for the set at 6-5. She appeared to blink when, at 30/30, she dumped an easy open court volley into the net that would have given her a set point. Two points later, she got a SP, but missed a backhand down the line and saw Cibulkova go on to break with her very own crosscourt backhand to force a tie-break.

In the breaker, four of the first five points were won by the returner, and Li found herself with a quick 4-1 lead. At 5-1, Li stopped play to challenge a Cibulkova ball that had been called in on the baseline. If she'd gotten the call, Li would have had five set points, but when the call was proven correct it was 5-2 and Cibulkova was seemingly back in the game. But Li didn't allow the slip to become a total slide. She got to set point at 6-3, then put it away with a deep crosscourt backhand that the Slovak failed to get over the net. Although she hadn't played her best, Li had grabbed the opening set with a 7-3 TB win.

At that point, she could finally breathe.

With the 1st set in her back pocket, it was noteworthy to know that twenty-seven of the last twenty-nine grand slams had been won by the woman who claimed the 1st set in the final. That was good news for Li. But the two times that that wasn't the case was when Li won the opening game in both her previous AO finals in 2011 and 2013. That wasn't so good.

But the latter stat wouldn't matter in the least.

After playing an up-and-down 1st set, searching for consistency on both her first serve and forehand, and having to scratch out and scrounge up winners wherever she could find them in order to take a set in which she didn't play nearly as well as she had since she stared down that match point against Safarova in the 3rd Round, Li played like the world had been lifted from her shoulders in the 2nd. And it had. Having found a way to live up to her role as "favorite" by taking the lead, Li ran away with the title.

After falling down love/30 on serve in the opening game, she reeled off four straight points to hold. In game #2, Li smacked a second serve forehand return for a down-the-line winner to get a break point. A Cibulkova forehand error made it 2-0. With her confidence growing with every shot, Li held and then looked to grab the match by the throat and choke the life out of it. She took a backhand and ripped it into the corner to reach break point in game #4, then hit a crosscourt backhand laser off Cibulkova's racket to go up 4-0. With her game flowing, Li's first serve percentage rose, while she played well within itself, and seemingly without tension.

A put-away at the net secured game #5, as by this point Cibulkova was essentially just serving in the role of "opponent" on Li's march to match point. As the inevitable got closer and closer, it was as if Li was waving to the crowd along the way. She shot off a backhand winner down the line, then another backhand crosscourt into the corner past the Slovak. A ball off the net cord was sent long by Cibulkova to get to double match point at 40/15. Li didn't get the first, then a Cibulkova forehand went long to hand her the second. Locking away the final nine games of the match, and losing just six points on serve in the final set, Li won 7-6(3)/6-0 to become the eighth woman to win a slam after her 30th birthday, and the first Asian woman to win the "grand slam of Asia/Pacific."

Of course, even as the newly-crowned multiple grand slam winner, and the oldest to woman to win the Australian Open, received her trophy during the post-match ceremony, the best was still yet to come. Somehow, with Li, that always seems to be the case. As tennis' best one woman comedy act took to the microphone, you had to know that something great might be coming. And Li didn't disappoint. In fact, she let the natural one-liners flow from her mind just as smoothly as her shots had in the final set.

To her agent Max Eisenbud, she said simply, "Max, agent.. make me rich. Thanks a lot." With that, she had the crowd at "Thanks." After telling her physio Alex Stober that her stumbles and falls in last year's AO final were her fault and not his, and thanking Rodriguez for believing in her, she turned to her husband Jiang Shan, "Dennis," the long-time focus of so many of her jokes, telling him, "My husband, you are famous in China.". She said thanks to him for "just traveling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drink, and fix the rackets. So, he do a lot of jobs. So, thanks a lot... you're a nice guy." After everyone was laughing along with both of them, she added, "And also you are so lucky... found me," she said with big grin. By the end, she was even talking about coming back to Melbourne to play again, and saying that she knows everyone thinks she talks too much.

Li can talk all she wants. We won't get tired of listening.

(Li Na in Chinese)

And we never did, either. All for now.