Wednesday, January 17, 2018

AO.3 - Two Sides of the Dane

And on Day 3, we saw both sides of the Dane.

"Two sides of the coin to choose from,
Two sides of the coin, they are mine
Two sides of the coin, I'm gettin' weary
Which one should I choose, I need time"

- "Two Sides of the Coin"
Ace Frehley (Kiss), Unmasked album, 1980

In her 2nd Round match with 21-year old, #119-ranked Croat Jana Fett, #2-seeded Caroline Wozniacki once again displayed the oft-troubling tendency to slide back into bad (unaggressive) habits. It very nearly cost her the match, too, in what was just her opponent's second career slam main draw match (it was #144 for Caro). But right when her prospects seemed to be their darkest, the dawn of Wozniacki's 2018 Australian Open arrived. That was when she called upon her far superior experience to gradually reel back from the precipice a match that seemed beyond lost into the crevasse of early-round slam flameouts. Once Wozniacki had Fett's back against the wall, she utilized her longstanding defensive abilities, metronomic ball-striking skills and stroke accuracy as an ultimate weapon to survive and live another round in Melbourne.

Early on, though, it was Fett who controlled the flow and direction of the match. The 2014 AO girls runner-up was dictating play with her power, and serving big. Meanwhile, Wozniacki spent the 1st set seemingly forgetting about the more forward, aggressive style of play that has allowed her to rise back up the rankings (though, listening to ESPN's Chris Evert and Jason Goodall, you'd think that it was Wozniacki's relationship with fiance David Lee that had done the trick... and that the installation-to-great-success-and-then-sudden-exit of assistant coach/hitting partner extraordinaire Sascha Bajin didn't even exist as a compelling component in her recent tennis storyline). Falling back into her old, too-far-behind-the-baseline habits, Wozniacki allowed Fett the chance to control her own fate. She broke the Dane to open the match and never lost form in the 1st set. Serving down 5-3, Wozniacki fell behind love/40, then threw in a backhand error to end the set after just thirty-three minutes.

But rather than dig in her heels and stubbornly go down in defeat, Wozniacki's 2nd set moment of truth presented her with the chance to show that she *could* diagnose her difficulties and change course. In the aftermath of dropping the 1st, she began to move forward and take balls earlier. She broke Fett for a 2-1 lead, then again for 4-1. When she briefly once again began to hold back she saw the Croat break serve and spark to life again at 4-2. But the more aggressive stance immediately returned a game later and Wozniacki went on to take the set 6-2.

But rather than go away herself, Fett stood up. Not holding back, she regained control of the match in the 3rd. Hitting and serving big, she pressured the off-once-again game of Wozniacki into producing more errors. She broke for 3-1, then held to take a 4-1 lead against the ever-more-frustrated Dane.

Wozniacki's fifth double-fault of the match broke own serve and she was down 5-1, Fett took a 40/15 lead on serve and held double match point. And then she finally started to show her nerves. Fett continued to go for big first serves, but now she started missing them. Her deep groundstrokes started landing shorter in the court, and Wozniacki began to take advantage.

It was here where the Dane's experience advantage truly took hold. With the Croat starting to resemble the big stage newcomer she is, Wozniacki knew she still had a chance to wiggle free from almost-sure defeat. She knew what she needed to do, too. Hit the ball deep in the court to prevent Fett's power from bailing her out of a rally, and try to never fire a ball outside the lines. Luckily for Wozniacki, she's always been expert at both. Her accuracy and ability to extend rallies and hit shot after shot after shot after shot, while it sometimes lulls *her* into a form of complacency and unwillingness to break pattern with a spark of aggression and leads to big-hitting opponents seizing their opportunity to hit her off the court, served her well here. While she did choose her moments to go for her own shots, Wozniacki rightly recognized an opponent that she could finally wear down in the closing games, waiting for the errors that now would almost surely eventually come off her racket.

The Dane got the break for 5-2, and you could feel the match teetering on the edge. She held at love for 5-3, was the benefit of a bit of luck when she mishit a return at 30/30 a game later and Fett fired a down the line forehand wide. Another break made it 5-4, followed by another hold from Wozniacki to pull even at 5-5. It was like a slow motion car wreck, and you were suddenly fairly secure in the notion that it was going to be the Dane who'd survive with nary a scratch.

With Fett desperately trying to avoid falling victim to a loss in the old, my-lead-is-never-safe-no-matter-how-big tradition of the late, great(est) Jana [Novotna], the Croat found herself in a now-or-never rally with the Dane that lasted twenty-six shots. As usual, Wozniacki refused to miss, and it was an error from Fett that lost the point, putting her down 15/30. A few points later, a double-fault handed the break and the match lead to the world #2. She then served things out for a 3-6/6-2/7-5 comeback win that may (or may not) prove to live on to be a B-I-G story well into the *second* week of this Australian Open.


(And *now* you know Jana Fett's name, too.) ;)

...Day 3 began with a trio of Ukrainians, each from a different tennis generation and the only from their nation to have been crowned a junior slam singles champ, taking center stage on the tournament's three show courts.

On Hisense, veteran Kateryna Bondarenko, the 2004 Wimbledon girls winner, took down Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2/6-3 as the Russian finally posted the aforementioned-in-this-space, and now-hardly-shocking disappointing result that was likely always going to be her inevitable fate at this slam. She'd managed to avoid it two days ago via a 3rd set comeback win in the 1st Round. But, here it is, anyway. So, one year after she completed a Career QF Slam with a final eight run in Melbourne, Pavlyuchenkova exits before the 3rd Round for the twenty-sixth time in forty-one appearances in majors.

On MCA, the reigning Australian Open girls champ continued her assault on the tennis record books. Already having become the first player born in 2002 to appear in a slam MD after making her way through qualifying, then winning her 1st Round match over the seeded Peng Shuai to become the youngest woman to win an AO match since 1996 (Martina Hingis), Marta Kostyuk put up yet another win over Aussie wild card Olivia Rogowska. The 15-year old immediately grabbed an early lead in the 1st, took the set and led 3-1 in the 2nd. Rogowska got things even at 4-4, but Kostyuk pulled away with late break to secure the 6-3/7-5 win. Kostyuk, whose mother played on tour in the 1990's, is the youngest to reach a slam 3rd Round since 1997.

Naturally, she'll face off with yet another Ukrainian. In fact, it'll be the most successful one ever: Elina Svitolina, the 2010 Roland Garros junior champion and the unlikely "betting favorite" at this AO despite having never reached a slam SF and imploding last spring in Paris when she got close. At Laver Arena, Svitolina had her hands full against talented but inconsistent Katerina Siniakova, the young Czech she'd needed three sets to defeat in the 1st Round of last year's U.S. Open.

Cleanly striking balls and showing the promise she often flashes, Siniakova broke Svitolina's serve for a 4-3 lead, and served for the set at 5-4. Svitolina, playing with somewhat less aggression than one would like, saved a set point but couldn't put away a pair of break chances in the game (making her 0-for-6 in the set), and Siniakova held on a long error from the Ukrainian on SP #2, taking the set 6-4.

In something of a reversal of expected fortunes, Svitolina was suddenly the one throwing up her hands in exasperation while Siniakova maintained a calm demeanor. Of course, all that didn't last long. Svitolina finally got her first break of serve on her seventh BP chance of the day, taking a 2-0 lead, and then held serve a game later in a five-deuce game, saving three BP of her own. Siniakova took a medical timeout down 5-2, and once she returned the momentum of the match, already turned against her, was unalterable. The newly-established tone of the match carried until the finish as Siniakova's game became less reliable and Svitolina grabbed total control, winning 4-6/6-2/6-1. player who won't be joining Svitolina or the other Ukrainians in the 3rd Round is Belinda Bencic. Yep. After putting up results like a house on fire for months, and looking like the fully-formed potential slam contender she was thought to about to become two years ago when she took out Venus Williams in straight sets in the 1st Round, the Swiss was run out of this AO in short order today by Thai qualifier Luksika Kumkhum. Never really in the match, Bencic went out 6-1/6-3 in maybe the most confounding result yet at this opening slam of the season.

Of course, Kumkhum, though she's never ranked higher than #85 and had never before reached a slam 3rd Round until today, is one of those players who have a knack for pulling off big stage upsets like this. She's even pulled off a more consequential shocker than this one in Melbourne, knocking out then-#6-seeded Petra Kvitova in the sweltering heat of the 1st Round in 2014.

...somewhat quietly, in the wake of Bencic's loss and Wozniacki's escape, Dasha Kasatkina followed up her first career slam Round of 16 result in New York with a straight sets 2nd Round AO upset at the hands of an injured Magda Linette (ankle), falling 7-6(4)/6-2.

Soon after, in a match highlighted by short rallies and many breaks of serve, Alona Ostapenko did what she does. Again.

Essentially, she points at a spot on the distant horizon and nonchalantly tells her opponent, "I'm going *there*. It might not always be pretty, but I'm going to pummel you with everything I can get my hands on, and it's gonna hurt." Then she flashes one of her wicked Thunder smiles and turns on her heels, saying, "Now try and f-ing stop me," as she marches toward the baseline. For many opponents, it proves to be too much to handle. Eventually, that was the case today for Duan Yingying.

Ostapenko fell behind an early break against Duan. But, as she has a tendency to do, Latvian Thunder simply played her game and things started to go her way. She got the break back, took her own break advantage and then served out the 1st set at 6-3. Duan broke for a 4-2 lead in the 2nd, only to see Ostapenko immediately get the break back, only to drop serve again (whew!) and see her Chinese opponent take the set 6-3. In the 3rd, Ostapenko led 4-1 and things seemed to have settled down, but the then tide briefly turned again as Duan got things back on serve at 4-3 before the 20-year old finished off a 6-3/3-6/6-4 win. She's now reached at least the 3rd Round at five straight majors after having lost in the 1st Round at all four in 2016.

...the doubles kicked off today, and Sloane Stephens couldn't win there, either. She and Genie Bouchard, who teamed to reach the Washington doubles final *before* Stephens' great North American roll in singles last summer, fell 6-4/6-4 to #2-seeded Elena Vesnina & Ekaterina Makarova. The Russians are seeking an AO crown to complete their big event doubles title collection, having already won at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, WTA Finals and the Olympics. They'd be the first women's pair to ever claim all six titles.

(In case you were wondering, Venus & Serena have won five of the six, but never a season-ending championships crown.)

Other top seeds posting wins today included #1 Latisha Chan & Andrea Sestini-Hlavackova and #4 Lucie Safarova & Barbora Strycova. Safarova is trying to defend the '17 AO title she won with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Incidentally, BMS said on ESPN the other day that her rehab is going well and that she's aiming for a March return. long as they remain in the draw, expect the AO night session schedule to continue to trade off "Dasha Show" and "Barty Party" episodes. Tonight, one night after Ash Barty's 1st Round win, Dasha Gavrilova takes her turn in a 2nd Rounder on Laver against Hobart champ Elise Mertens. On MCA, Julia Goerges will try to extend her winning streak to sixteen matches against Alize Cornet.

...NOT THAT ESPN'S ON-AIR COVERAGE CARED ON NIGHT 2: Too busy showing uncompetitive men's matches to even both to do live look-ins to prove that the night schedule was something other than an only-straight-sets-allowed-here boondoggle.

...LATE UPDATE FROM DAY 2: And so it goes... 15. And counting.

In the live rankings following the 1st Round, Mladenovic was still ranked at a new career high of #9 (up because of CoCo's big points hit and Konta being only one round into matching her QF run of '17). But that'll change soon if Kiki doesn't first, as the defense of all four of her '17 finals (and one title) will take place before the end of the spring schedule.

...LIKE ON DAY 3: They just keep coming, don't they?

...LIKE ON DAY 3: As always...

...and, finally... no, it's not the traditional U.S. Open "New York Groove" time, but I'm surely not going to turn down an opportunity to listen to an Ace Frehley song from an old Kiss album. [Side Note: I think I just figured out my "And, finally..." theme for this year's Open.]

2008 Jessica Moore, AUS (2nd Rd.)
2009 Jelena Dokic, AUS (QF)
2010 Justine Henin, BEL (RU)
2011 J.Dokic/AUS, C.Garcia/FRA & A.Molik/AUS (2nd)
2012 Casey Dellacqua/AUS & Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd)
2013 Madison Keys, USA (3rd Rd.)
2014 Casey Dellacqua, AUS (4th Rd.)
2015 K-C.Chang/TPE, O.Dodin/FRA & I.Falconi/USA (2nd)
2016 Han Xinyun, CHN (2nd Rd.)
2017 Ash Barty, AUS (3rd Rd.)
2018 Olivia Rogowska, AUS (2nd Rd.)

TOP QUALIFIER: Marta Kostyuk/UKR (first player born in 2002 in slam MD)
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Caroline Dolehide/USA def. Conny Perrin/SUI 5-7/6-3/7-6(7) (trailed 5-0 and 6-2 in the deciding TB, saved 5 MP to record first career slam match win)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): xx
FIRST VICTORY: Duan Yingying/CHN (def. Duque-Marino/COL)
FIRST SEED OUT: #13 Sloane Stephens/USA (1st Rd. - lost to Zhang Shuai; 0-8 since winning U.S. Open)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: USA (women lose first eight 1st Rd. matches, go 1-9 on Day 1, 3/4 of '17 U.S. Open all-Bannerette semifinalists ousted)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: In 2nd Rd.: Allertova(W), Kostyuk(W), Kumkhum(W) (LL: Pera)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Olivia Rogowska/AUS (2nd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: In 2nd Rd.: Barty, Gavrilova, Rogowska(L)
IT (TBD): Nominee: Kostyuk ("Teen")
CRASH & BURN: Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe & Venus Williams, USA (3 of 4 '17 U.S. Open semifinalist lose on Day 1)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: Wozniacki (2r - Fett served up 5-1, 40/15 in 3rd set); Puig (1r - Stosur MP in 2nd set); Halep (1r - down 5-2 and 2 SP in 1st set vs. Aiava, rolls ankle in 2nd set); Petkovic (1r - Kvitova twice served for match; won 10-8 in 3rd); Pera (LL wins first career slam MD match)

All for Day 3. More tomorrow.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

AO.2 - Have You Seen This Woman?


Be advised. There has been a Kerbernator sighting on the Australian Open grounds.

Proceed with caution, and advance at your own risk.

Finally, after her long season of discontent, a campaign in which her game failed to consistently fire for long and she could never quite rediscover that spark that had so recently lifted her to the greatest heights of her career, Angelique Kerber was back where it all started twenty-four months ago. On Day 2, the 2016 Australian Open champion, unlike her experience in Melbourne a year ago, emerged unscathed to live another day, her roll undisturbed and her early '18 fortunes still burning bright.

Two years ago, Kerber stared down a match point against Misaki Doi in the AO 1st Round, then went on to win the title, setting the stage for a career year. Last January she was upset in the 1st Round by Lesia Tsurenko, setting the stage for her historic fall over the course of '17, as she dropped all the way from #1 to #22, the biggest non-injury/retirement related slip for a year-end #1 over the course of the following season in tour history.

The omens are more in the German's favor this time around.

Even with the current #1 player in the world, last year's tour title leader, the player with the longest active tour-level winning streak (as well as the player with the longest overall winning run) all lifting championship trophies during the first two weeks of '18, and another singles title being successfully defended, there has arguably been *no* player in better form than Kerber. Undefeated at 9-0 (4-0 in Hopman Cup play, and 5-0 in her first title run in sixteen months in Sydney), the only player to defeat Belinda Bencic since last October (a 6-4/6-1 win in the WS part of the Hopman final), back in the Top 20, and last week a winner of a pair of back-to-back matches in which she dropped the 1st set (after being 3-22 in those situations last season), Kerber arrives at this slam having been tested in nearly every way imaginable over the course of the short two-week stretch to begin the season.

Facing off today against fellow German Anna-Lena Friedsam (coming back from a shoulder injury, and maybe best remembered for her near-upset of Aga Radwanska in the AO Round of 16 two years ago before being felled by cramps), for a set and a half, Kerber looked every bit the player who has buzzed through a long list of opponents in the season's opening weeks. She dropped just one point on serve while taking the 1st set at love, and led 4-1 in the 2nd. At that point, Friedsam finally found her footing and made Kerber work a bit more as she leveled the score at 4-4. But after a handful of squandered chances, Kerber finaly got the break for 5-4 and served out the match, converting her second MP to record her first victory in Melbourne since defeating Serena Williams two years ago to claim her maiden slam crown.

With her streak at ten match wins in a row, next up for Kerber is Croatia's Donna Vekic. Nothing is guaranteed for the German over the next two weeks, but nothing is off the table, either.

So, you know... beware.

...if Monday, when six (mostly big-name) seeds fell, resembled a day "in a hurry" and was ready, willing and able to wreak havoc with the women's draw, Tuesday was content with merely flirting with danger, only to pull itself back from the edge before things reached an official "eve of destruction."

Day 2 immediately proved to be something of a turnaround point for the Bannerettes one day after the U.S. women went 1-9 and saw three-fourths of last year's U.S. Open semifinalists sent packing. Today, lucky loser Bernarda Pera (in for an injured Margarita Gasparyan) was the first player to advance to the 2nd Round, defeating Russian qualifier Anna Blinkova 6-2/6-2. Pera jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead and never looked back. She's the first LL to post a 1st Round win in Melbourne since Irina Falconi in 2014. It's been twenty one years since such a run was extended another round Down Under (Sandra Kleinova in 1997), but Ons Jabeur *did* do just that last year in Paris after getting her own second chance opportunity in the Roland Garros MD.

Pera will next face Johanna Konta, who destroyed Pera's countrywoman Madison Brengle, winning 6-3/6-1 and firing off thirty-seven winners in the match's sixteen games.

While Pera's day-starting win alleviated a bit of the remaining pressure created by the series of Bannerette failures yesterday, the results of the rest of the day for the U.S. women were decidedly spotty. Madison Keys managed to avoid the U.S. Open semifinalist curse imposed at this AO by becoming the only of the four Bannerettes who reached the SF at Flushing Meadows last summer to advance to the 2nd Round at this slam, but she had to battle back from a 5-2 2nd set deficit in order to take out Wang Qiang in straight sets.

But that was where the good news ended.

Varvara Lepchenko looked as if she might upset Anastasija Sevastova, but the Latvian pushed the match to a 3rd set and won it. Shelby Rogers, too, had a big win within her grasp. She pushed '17 AO semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni to 3rd set, but couldn't get past the 35-year old Croat. Other Bannerettes who fell on Day 2 included Christina McHale and Kristie Ahn.

With the U.S. women standing at a combined 3-14, only Lauren Davis (vs. Jana Cepelova) has yet to complete her 1st Round match in an attempt to join Keys, Pera and Nicole Gibbs in the 2nd Round.

...after a bit of a shaky start, Caroline Garcia got her AO off to a winning start. Carina Witthoeft served for the 1st set at 5-4 against the Frenchwoman, but after getting the break Garcia ran off a string of six additional games to take a 7-5/4-0 lead before ultimately taking the 2nd set 6-3. The Pastry has reached at least the 3rd Round at the last five majors, as well as in two of her last three trips to Melbourne.

While her name was on the tip of everyone's tongue at the start of multiple slams in '17 following her 2016 U.S. Open final appearance, the buzz around Karolina Pliskova is not quite as loud as this AO begins even after she put up her most consistent slam season a year ago (w/ a SF and two QF). Not that the twin is one to show any outward signs of not withstanding pressure, but being a bit on the down-low when it comes to people discussing her title hopes is still probably a checkmark in the Czech's column for this opening major of '18. One of six women with a chance to finish this slam in the #1 ranking, Pliskova began her own personal quest by defeating Veronica Cepede Royg 6-4/6-3.

Pliskova was one of a slew of Czechs who advanced to the 2nd Round today after winning in their first-up matches at the start of the day. The group of Maidens included Lucie Safarova (in her first outing since failing to convert that MP vs. Angelique Kerber in the 1st Round in Sydney), Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova.

...while Kerber made her winning return to Melbourne today, Maria Sharapova was back for the first time in two years, contesting a match on MCA in her first AO outing since her failed drug test following her QF loss to Serena Williams in 2016. A few days after reawakening the ire of the I-don't-care-if-she-served-out-her-punishment-I'll-never-let-it-go-until-my-dying-day crowd by being included in the draw ceremony with Roger Federer-er-er-er-er -- granted, it was an odd choice by the organizers, but there would honestly be few who'd even come close to being the star-power equal of RF, so deal with it -- the Russian got about to getting things done between the lines in a match-up with Tatjana Maria (yeah, so the scoreboard read "Sharapova vs. Maria"... a nice chuckle courtesy of the Tennis Gods, who may or may not have been trying to deliver some sort of subconscious message in the odd occurrence -- they've refused to answer any of the questions sent their way from Backspin HQ).

After winning the opening set 6-1, Sharapova's error count begin to climb in the 2nd as Maria settled into the big stage surroundings. The German led 3-1 before Sharapova tightened things up and finished off the win.

...while Sloane Stephens couldn't stop her losing streak on Day 1, Genie Bouchard *did* manage to end her own skid, and may have just gotten a big gift from the Tennis Gods, as well. More on that in a moment.

It was four years ago that Bouchard had her breakout slam in Melbourne, reaching the AO semifinals in a season in which she'd reach another slam semi and the Wimbledon final, then climb as high as #5 in the rankings. The Canadian came into this slam ranked outside the Top 100, and might need to post a few impressive results to avoid having her position as the top-ranked player in her nation challenged by one or more younger countrywomen later this spring or summer. On a six-match losing streak (not including her 0-3 mark in the Hopman Cup), and with a 3-13 mark beginning with her Madrid QF loss last spring after having won matches over Sharapova and Kerber earlier in the week, Bouchard took the 1st set from Oceane Dodin today, then avoided what might have become a sticky 3rd set by taking out the Pastry in the 2nd set TB to win 6-3/7-6(5). Bouchard hit twelve aces in the match and held a 29/24 edge in W/UE.

So, what is the gift Bouchard might have received? Well, frankly, that her next opponent is Simona Halep. Not because of any deficiencies in the #1-ranked player in the world, as the Romanian put on a gritty performance today against 17-year old Aussie wild card Destanee Aiava, but because one has to wonder if an ankle injury she suffered during the match might turn out to be as significant as was initially feared despite the fact that she literally got up off the court and finished off her opponent in straight sets this afternoon in Melbourne.

Make no mistake, Halep should be proud of what she did today. Against a great deal of adversity, she never lost her head, heart or guile on the Laver Arena court. She faced down a huge-hitting opponent who got on top of her and grabbed a big 1st set lead, found her way after a long injury break from the teenager, saving a handful of set points and ultimately stealing the opening stanza, then pulling out the match after badly rolling her ankle and seeming to be on the verge of possibly abandoning the match as the intense pain she was in was plainly visible on her face.

Having dropped her last two 1st Round matches in Melbourne, Halep already had a major mental hurdle to clear before today's match had even started. Though she's been sporting a lightness of spirit and a high level of confidence after sweeping the titles in Shenzhen in Week 1, Halep needed to prove (mostly to herself, maybe) that she wasn't snakebit at this event, especially not in her first slam as the world #1.

The powerful Aiava didn't make things easy, and she looked like a possible upset-maker in the 1st set. She broke for 3-1 and 4-2 leads, and managed to save a handful of BP to hold in a 15-minute game for 5-2. But it was then that she called for a trainer, and eventually was led off the court for ten minutes. When play resumed, Halep served to stay in the set, and had to save two SP before holding for 5-3. A bit lost in the moment (maybe it was the long break, maybe it was the occasion), Aiava lost track of the match score after that game and thought it was time for a changeover break. Wandering around the court for the next few games with an expression that surely didn't look as if it belonged to a player *leading* the match, Aiava's errors increased. Halep held on, and put in a series of big first serves to get back on serve at 5-5, then managed to edge out the Aussie to win a 7-5 TB and steal away with a 1st set win.

Early in the 2nd, though, one point after pulling up and hitting the back of her thigh, Halep stretched for a ball behind the baseline and turned her left ankle. She went down quickly and clutched at her leg. It looked bad, and the video of the incident backed up the feeling.

Halep was taped up and continued to play, though. While favoring the ankle, she was able to run and move around the court. She took a 3-0 lead, kept Aiava at bay and put the match away 7-6(5)/6-1 to notch her first AO win since 2015. Afterward, she admitted to being in the dark about how bad her injury might be, noting that it was still warm and she didn't yet feel it. Even a good diagnosis is going to include a lot of work to get her ready for a 2nd Round match with Bouchard, and beyond. One wants to believe she'll find a way to keep going, but then you see that video and just how far over her ankle was rolled and it makes one wonder if further examination might reveal an injury extensive enough to prematurely end her AO.

(Fingers crossed.) the start of the night session neared, Day 2 had yet to see a women's seed ejected from the draw despite quite a few close calls. It looked as if that was all going to change as Petra Kvitova's return to Melbourne seemed set to end the way so many had in the past, with a devastating defeat. Then, fortunes changed and Kvitova looked to be ready to stage a successful Houdini act... until she couldn't quite escape her fate.

Andrea Petkovic won the 1st set, only to see the Czech go up 5-4 in the 2nd and push things into a 3rd. The German led 4-0 there, and held three MP (two in a row), only to see Kvitova find a way out of the deep hole. She battled back and eventually found herself serving for the match at 6-5, but fell behind 15/40 and then double-faulted two points later as the score was knotted at 6-6. Three games later, Kvitova got the break to get a second chance to serve out the match at 8-7, only to fail to do so and drop serve yet again. Finally, Petko did the honor, breaking Kvitova to get the win that she nearly let slip away, 6-3/4-6/10-8, as the Czech DF'd on the German's final MP.

While it's sad to see Petra sent away so early, it's nice to see such an effort from Petkovic. This has to be one of her biggest wins in quite some time.

...still to come on Tuesday as of the posting of this update: Kristina Mladenovic (with 14 straight losses, she'll face Ana Bogdan) will see if she'll join the Stephens or Bouchard camp when it comes to trying to end a long losing streak, Aga Radwanska will try to get past a Pliskova (Krystina), Garbine Muguruza's true condition (after a retirement and walkover in the first two weeks of '18) may finally be revealed under the lights on MCA, and one night after the successful first episode of "The Dasha Show" proved to be a predictable one, another "Barty Party" will break out on Laver as Aussie Ash goes up against Aryna Sabalenka in what could be an excitable night-ending face-off.

...LIKE ON DAY 2: When you win on Day 1...

...and, finally... a flashback to Jelena Dokic's heartwarming AO quarterfinal run of 2009:

2012 GBR (0-4 1st Rd.; all on Day 1)
2013 AUS (1-6 in 1st Rd., 1-7 overall)
2014 ITA (top-seeded #7 Errani & #12 Vinci out 1st)
2015 CHN (year after Li champ, 1-5 in 1st Round)
2016 AUS (1-8 in 1st Rd.; only AUS-born in 2nd is a Brit)
2017 ROU (2-4 1st Loss, 1st Seed Out, 3 Top 32 defeats)
2018 USA (lost first 8 matches, 1-9 on Day 1; 3/4 of '17 U.S. Open SF ousted)

2008 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (3rd Rd.)
2009 Venus Williams, USA (2nd Rd.)
2010 Maria Sharapova, RUS (1st Rd.)
2011 Jelena Jankovic, SRB (2nd Rd.)
2012 Samantha Stosur, AUS (1st Rd.)
2013 Samantha Stosur, AUS (2nd Rd.)
2014 Petra Kvitova, CZE (1st Rd.)
2015 Ana Ivanovic, SRB (1st Rd.)
2016 Simona Halep, ROU (1st Rd.)
2017 Simona Halep, ROU (1st Rd.)
2018 Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe & Venus Williams, USA (1st Rd. - all '17 U.S. Open SF)

2006 US: Nicole Pratt, AUS (2nd)
2006 RG: Kirsten Flipkens, BEL (2nd)
2007 WI: Alize Cornet, FRA (2nd)
2008 US: Mariana Duque-Marino, COL (2nd)
2009 RG: Mariana Duque-Marino, COL (2nd)
2009 WI: Kristina Kucova, SVK (2nd)
2010 RG: Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA (2nd)
2011 WI: Stephanie Dubois, CAN (2nd)
2012 RG: Sesil Karatantcheva, KAZ (2nd)
2013 US: Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, AUT (2nd)
2014 AO: Irina Falconi, USA (2nd)
2015 US: Daria Kasatkina, RUS (3rd)
2016 WI: Duan Yingying, CHN (2nd)
2017 RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN (3rd)
2018 AO: Bernarda Pera, USA [into 2nd Rd.]
Most Recent AO 3rd Rd.: Sandra Kleinova, CZE (1997)

TOP QUALIFIER: Marta Kostyuk/UKR (first player born in 2002 in slam MD)
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Caroline Dolehide/USA def. Conny Perrin/SUI 5-7/6-3/7-6(7) (trailed 5-0 and 6-2 in the deciding TB, saved 5 MP to record first career slam match win)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): xx
FIRST VICTORY: Duan Yingying/CHN (def. Duque-Marino/COL)
FIRST SEED OUT: #13 Sloane Stephens/USA (1st Rd. - lost to Zhang Shuai; 0-8 since winning U.S. Open)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: USA (women lose first eight 1st Rd. matches, go 1-9 on Day 1, 3/4 of '17 U.S. Open all-Bannerette semifinalists ousted)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Into 2nd Rd.: Allertova, Kostyuk, Kumkhum (LL: Pera)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Into 2nd Rd.: Rogowska
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Into 2nd Rd.: Gavrilova, Rogowska
IT (TBD): xx
CRASH & BURN: Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe & Venus Williams, USA (3 of 4 '17 U.S. Open semifinalist lose on Day 1)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: Sh.Zhang (1r - Stephens served for match at 5-4 in 2nd set); Puig (1r - Stosur MP in 2nd set); Halep (1r - down 5-2 and 2 SP in 1st set vs. Aiava, turns ankle in 2nd set); Petkovic (1r - Kvitova twice served for match; won 10-8 in 3rd)

All for Day 2. More tomorrow.


Monday, January 15, 2018

AO.1 - Four Months, Eight Losses and Future Shock

While she might have suffered a bout with Triskaidekaphobia as the #13 seed at this Australian Open, for Sloane Stephens, Day 1 instead turned out to revolve around an unlucky "crazy eighth." As in an eighth straight loss that has served to put her slam run from last summer firmly in her past as she must now deal with the troubling slump that has enveloped her ever since she experienced her greatest career moment.

Arriving as she did in Melbourne with more reverse-momentum than any player not named Mladenovic (or maybe Bouchard), that Stephens' time in this Australian Open's singles draw was brief is hardly a surprise. The reigning U.S. Open champ has been hampered by a lingering knee injury since the fall, and the resulting lack of practice time and match play has put any momentum she might have gained from her New York run under wraps. Looking to end '17 with another highlight, she instead displayed a stark lack of confidence between the lines in the Fed Cup final, as the U.S. squad (no matter how hard Captain Kathy Rinaldi tried to re-light Stephens' inner fire) was forced to win in spite of her near championship-killing face plant in Minsk. When Zhang Shuai's name was pulled as Sloane's 1st Round opponent in the first major of 2018, well, her ultimate fate Down Under seemed to have already been written in the stars.

Still, even while riding a seven match losing streak since defeating Madison Keys in the Open final, Stephens began her first post-Future Sloane slam looking like she'd finally turned a corner. She took the opening set 6-2, then overcame a break disadvantage (down 3-0) in the 2nd to serve for the match at 5-4. But once Zhang got the break, everything changed. The '16 AO quarterfinalist pushed things to a tie-break, won it 7-2, then jumped on her discouraged opponent early in the 3rd. She won the first seven points, and eight of nine to take a 2-0 lead, then coasted to a 2-6/7-6(2)/6-2 win, dropping Stephens to 0-8 since picking up that eye-popping big check last September

Stephens won't feel the sting of her current form in the rankings for quite some time, as she has zero points to defend until the North American hard court summer. Maybe her time away due to foot surgery last year, which stoked her desire and focus once she returned to the court, will once again act as an instigator that leads to Sloane getting her proverbial ducks in a row once again sometime this spring or summer. She needn't panic, nor put too much pressure on herself to right her course too quickly. She has time to get fully healthy, and totally fit -- physically and mentally -- once again. Her game form, confidence and results will likely following suit soon afterward.

Right this moment, though... while it took place place just four months ago, the memory of what happened in New York has already started to fade away. If The Future was then, then what is *this*?

...from its very first moments, Day 1 looked to be in a hurry. And it didn't take long before this slam's first big-name victims were sent packing long before many had anticipated entertaining the thought of leaving Melbourne behind.

With ten women's matches kicking off at 11 a.m. in Melbourne, Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova was the quickest out of the blocks, taking a love 1st set from Taylor Townsend faster than a grand slam website and app could crash within minutes of the start of play... well, check that, *nothing* could quite top the light speed with which this AO's woeful new versions of both fell victim to catastrophic failure precisely when everyone had just started to pay attention to their shortcomings.

But the Slovak wasn't the first to shake hands in victory on this Monday. No, that turned out to be China's Duan Yingying. As things got a bit sticky in the 2nd set for Rybarikova (though she led Townsend 6-0/4-3, she only had a three-point advantage in the match), Duan raced to a 6-0/4-0 lead against Mariana Duque-Marino and closed out the Colombian 6-0/6-1 to become the first player to advance to the 2nd Round.

RG champ Alona Ostapenko, too, was a young woman in a hurry. She jumped out with a 6-1 1st set win over 37-year old Francesca Schiavone (playing with an uncomfortable-looking back brace), fell behind 3-1 in the 2nd, then handed the Italian vet her seventeenth career AO MD defeat (her first came in her debut in 2001, the year before the youngest player in the women's draw -- 15-year old Marta Kostyuk -- was born) by taking the final five games, serving out a 6-1/6-4 victory.

Other early-in-the-day results included Alize Cornet, playing in her 45th straight slam MD (behind only Aga Radwanska's tour-leading streak of 47), defeating 16-year old wild card Wang Xinyu, the youngest Chinese player to ever appear in a slam draw, 6-4/6-2; while Julia Goerges tucked away her fifteenth straight win dating back to last season with a 6-4/6-4 win over Bannerette teen Sonya Kenin.

Kenin's loss, following on the heels of that of countrywoman Townsend, set the early tone for what turned out to be an horrendous day for Bannerette tennis, which had found itself flying high in the closing months of 2017 with a foursome of semifinalists at last year's U.S. Open hailing from the home country, and soon after Team USA lifting the Fed Cup championship trophy for the first time in seventeen years.

By the end of the day, three of those four semifinalists had been dumped out of this AO within hours of its start. And that wasn't even the half of it.

The much-anticipated 1st Round match-up (or second week star-robbing encounter, depending on how you look at it) between Venus Williams, an AO finalist a year ago, and burgeoning comeback star Belinda Bencic didn't turn out to be a classic ala the Sharapova/Halep tilt last summer at Flushing Meadows (expect more of this sort of thing when the seeds are shrunk from 32 to 16). Instead, it showed that Bencic's late 2017 run of dominance and early '18 winner's touch (she won both the Hopman Cup and Kooyong exhibition titles) were likely a sign of greater things to come.

A year after facing (and losing to) Serena in the 1st Round last year's AO, Bencic controlled the course of action this year against Venus. After taking a break lead at 4-3 in the 1st, then saving five BP before a rain delay (at deuce) in order to close the Laver Arena roof, the 20-year old Swiss burst out of the interruption without a hint of rust. Reeling off four straight points, Bencic held for 5-3 and soon secured the 1st set. Throughout a tight 2nd set, she was opportunistic and light on her feet, and kept a step ahead of her 37-year old opponent, notching her first career win in five attempts vs. Williams, 6-3/7-5. Bencic had lost all eight previous sets she'd played against Venus.

Her injury-related absence for much of last season allowed Bencic to play very late into the calendar year, beyond the official end of the WTA season, as she put together a 28-3 overall record on all levels in the closing months, including a 15-0 run to end the year. In an early season stretch that has seen so many top players put up spotty results and/or have questionable conditioning/health, perhaps Bencic's momentum-gathering stretch of action since last fall has allowed her to find her '18 groove far quicker than most. This win gives her six wins in seven matches this January, though the first six took place in "unofficial" events.

Of note: Bencic's single loss, a straight sets defeat at the hands of undefeated-in-2018 Angelique Kerber in Perth, surely continues to make the German look even better than she already has in the opening weeks of the new season, doesn't it?.

Oh, but the U.S. woes were just getting started...

Last year's AO semifinalist, CoCo Vandeweghe, went out quicker and in more frustrating fashion than even her fellow U.S. Open semifinalists Venus and Sloane. Back in Melbourne with Pat Cash in her coaching corner, Vandeweghe won't even get an opportunity operate in the Melbourne draft of the Aussie great. After taking an early lead against the talented but unpredictable Timea Babos, CoCo saw the Hungarian better handle the rain delay and the closing of the Hisense Arena roof. Babos seized control of the 1st set TB, winning it 7-4, then blew out Vandeweghe in the 2nd for a 7-6(4)/6-1 win. Somewhat surprisingly for a player of her talent, it's just Babos' second career Top 10 win, and her first in almost four years (Halep in Fed Cup play in '14).

While all three seeded U.S. stars faced unusually tough 1st Round opponents, and apparently Vandeweghe was experiencing some sort of flu-like symptoms, such a bombed-out result in the first slam after what happened last summer in New York is quite a wicked turn of events, no matter how short-lived the downturn turns out to be.

But, while the tailspin is currently taking place, ummm, why not speed it up a bit more?

CiCi Bellis claimed the opening set against Kiki Bertens, but lost in three. Alison Riske did the same vs. Kirsten Flipkens. With the U.S. with a shocking 0-7 combined record, Jennifer Brady (who reached the Round of 16 a year ago) raced to a 5-0 1st set lead vs. Magda Linette and seemed set to flip U.S. fortunes, only to eventually add her name to the list of Bannerettes to squander leads and fall in three, going out 2-6/6-4/6-3 to the Pole.

With the U.S. woman standing at an astounding 0-8, it could get even worse in the bottom half of the draw. Nicole Gibbs will at least be favored vs. lucky loser Viktorya Tomova, but Irina Falconi has been given the opportunity to serve in the role of guest on this AO's first edition of "The Dasha Show" in the night session-closing match on Laver vs. Miss Gavrilova.

Poors Souls, indeed. (And here's where you make your own "Who's-the-s***hole-country-now?" joke, I guess, too.)

Leave it to Venus to tell it like it is, of course.

Oh, and by the way, Madison Keys... watch your back tomorrow.

...but you didn't have to be a Bannerette to be a seeded player sent packing on this openg day of 2018 slam play. Ekaterina Makarova fell in an 8-6 3rd set to Irina-Camelia Begu, while Dominika Cibulkova was ejected more forcefully by Kaia Kanepi, 6-2/6-2.

Meanwhile, Anett Kontaveit might have had some trouble on her hands had Aleksandra Krunic been able to push the Estonian to a 3rd set. Kontaveit led by a set and a break, served at 5-2 in the 2nd and held a MP before The Bracelet briefly turned the tables on her and knotted the score at 5-5. But Kontaveit rebounded to record her first career AO MD win, 6-4/7-5. Anastasia Palvyuchenkova, a year after the Russian completed her Career QF Slam with a final eight run in Melbourne, looked like she was going to do what she does so often. Come on, you know... She trailed Kateryna Kozlova 3-1 in the 3rd but, wouldn't you know it, she *didn't* put forth a massively disappointing result on the heels of something good. I know... now *that's* a true stunner. Instead, she reeled off five straight games to win 3-6/6-4/6-3. Go figure.

...for all the world to see, it appeared as if Sam Stosur was going to head off at the 3rd set pass any of the home soil demons that have hounded her for nearly her entire career. She led Monica Puig by a set and held a MP in a 2nd set TB. But the Puerto Rican Gold Medalist saved it and pushed things to a 3rd and, well, the match took place in Melbourne. So...

Sam's now lost four matches in a row in Melbourne.

...a year ago, Marta Kostyuk won the AO girls singles title on the final weekend of play. This year, she's way ahead of the game. After making her way through qualifying to become the first player born in 2002 to reach a slam MD, the 15-year posted a 1st Round upset of veteran Peng Shuai today to become the first from her birth year to also get a victory, winning 6-2/6-2.

After making it through qualifying this weekend, Kostyuk found her mom and got a hug and a kiss.

I guess the stakes have now officially been raised.

...well, looks like it's time to wrap up the Day 1 post. Remember, though, there are *still* matches left to be finished, started and completed, including Anna Karolina Schiedlova's long-awaited return to slam MD action vs. Dasha Kasatkina, as well as the slam MD debut of Backspin's 2017 "Player Whose Name You'll Know..." designee Jana Fett (vs. Misa Eguchi) *and* the AO debut of '18 pick, Viktoria Kuzmova (vs. two-time Hobart champ Elise Mertens). Elina Svitolina also takes the court for the first time in the season's first major.

In the night session on MCA, Auckland finalist Caroline Wozniacki will meet Hobart finalist Mihaela Buzarnescu, as the Romanian gets another chance at the Dane, who knocked her out of the U.S. Open 1st Round last fall in the Swarmette's slam MD debut. And, as noted earlier, Gavrilova will try to "Rock The Rod" for a third straight AO when she meets Falconi in the session-ending match on Laver.


Or, as the Trump White House would say... "Everything worked perfectly. We've been getting compliments on it, actually. The general conclusion is that it's the best debut of a new slam website and app ever."


..."UGH" ON DAY 1: after working to get back on the court after three knee surgeries...


...LIKE ON DAY 1: Petra looking all Golden Age of Hollywood-y and all...

...and, finally... it's time for the bush birds to call once again...


A post shared by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

2005 #16 Ai Sugiyama, JPN (lost to Sucha)
2006 #9 Elena Dementieva, RUS (lost to Schruff)
2007 #25 Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP (lost to Vesnina)
2008 #32 Julia Vakulenko, UKR (lost to Vesnina)
2009 #23 Agnes Szavay, HUN (lost to Voskoboeva)
2010 #14 Maria Sharapova, RUS (lost to Kirilenko)
2011 #28 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK (lost to Kulikova)
2012 #19 Flavia Pennetta, ITA (lost to Bratchikova)
2013 #32 Mona Barthel, GER (lost to Pervak)
2014 #7 Sara Errani, ITA (lost to Goerges)
2015 #32 Belinda Bencic, SUI (lost to Goerges)
2016 #17 Sara Errani, ITA (lost to Gasparyan)
2017 #4 Simona Halep, ROU (lost to Rogers)
2018 #13 Sloane Stephens, USA (lost to Sh.Zhang)

2009 Patricia Mayr, AUS (def. Schruff)
2010 Dinara Safina, RUS (def. Rybarikova)
2011 Evgeniya Rodina, RUS (def. Rogowska)
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR (def. Watson)
2013 Maria Sharapova, RUS (def. Puchkova)
2014 Kirsten Flipkens, BEL (def. Robson)
2015 Julia Goerges, GER (def. Bencic)
2016 Petra Kvitova, CZE (def. Kumkhum)
2017 Monica Puig, PUR (def. Tig)
2018 Duan Yingying, CHN (def. Duque Marino)

TOP QUALIFIER: Marta Kostyuk/UKR (first player born in 2002 in slam MD)
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Caroline Dolehide/USA def. Conny Perrin/SUI 5-7/6-3/7-6(7) (trailed 5-0 and 6-2 in the deciding TB, saved 5 MP to record first career slam match win)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): xx
FIRST VICTORY: Duan Yingying/CHN (def. Duque-Marino/COL)
FIRST SEED OUT: #13 Sloane Stephens/USA (1st Rd. - lost to Zhang Shuai; 0-8 since winning U.S. Open)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Nominee: U.S. women lose first eight 1st Rd. matches on Day 1
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Day 1 wins: Allertova, Kostyuk, Kumkhum
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Day 1 wins: Rogowska
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Day 1 wins: Rogowska
IT (TBD): xx
CRASH & BURN: Nominees: Bannerette '17 U.S. Open Semifinalists (Stephens, Vandeweghe & Venus ousted on Day 1)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nominees: Sh.Zhang (1r - Stephens served for match at 5-4 in 2nd set); Puig (1r - Stosur MP in 2nd set)

All for Day 1. More tomorrow.