Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Odds & Ends Between Paris and London

The grass court season is brief, but memorable.

England (and the Netherlands) provide us with but four weeks of WTA action on the grass each season, but it is on the lawns that the players who generally rise to the top of the "best player" discussions for their generation, or lists of all-time greats, make their most indelible marks.

Lenglen. Moody. Connolly. Gibson. Court. King. Navratilova. Evert. Graf. Williams. Williams. It reads like a virtual who's who of tennis history. With few exceptions, if they're an all-time great in tennis they've won Wimbledon.

And while the grass court season isn't ONLY about Wimbledon, it might as well be. Here's a quick look at the players who'll be looking at the grass court season -- but mostly just what happens at SW19 -- in entirely different ways:

Venus Williams/USA & Serena Williams/USA: Grasscourt season is the time of year when the Sisters have their biggest advantage over the rest of the field. Their big, athletic games and powerful serves are never more effective as they are on the green stuff. While they've combined to win a single title and reach just two finals at Roland Garros, they've won seven Wimbledon titles and have a total of eleven appearances in the final (facing each other three times, including last year). With Serena seemingly close to being at full strength, there's no reason to think the pair won't dominate this grass season this time around, as well.

Venus, still on course to meet that Backspin "What If" deadline six years from now. will be going for her sixth title, and Serena her third. Venus doesn't need to Heimlich her season at SW19 as she often does, though. She's had some high points already this season, but her 2nd and 3rd Round exits at 2009's slams means she WILL have something driving her forward to more success at the All-England Club. Not that she needs it. Just stepping foot on Centre Court is usually all she needs.

Meanwhile, Serena's generally peeved attitude over the past few months might give her the fire to reverse last year's RU performance. I still like Venus at Wimbledon, but I might like Serena even more come Day 1.

ALSO: 2006 Wimbledon champ Amelie Mauresmo's only real chance to win a third career slam is at Wimbledon, and after pretty much tossing her RG appearance into the trash can from the start she's going to want to make up for it big time on the grass courts that serve to highlight her classically stylish game, the prettiest the sport has seen this generation this side of a top-flight performance from Mister Federer.
Dinara Safina/RUS: Safina has a lot to prove after what happened in the Roland Garros final (again), but it probably won't be happening on the grass. Like her brother, it's hardly her favorite surface. Still, she DID upset eventual SW19 semifinalist Dementieva at 's-Hertogenbosch last year to reach the grass court final there and was the '01 Wimbledon Girls RU. Of course, all that's balanced out by her 2nd and 3rd Round Wimbledon exits the past two years. Bring on North America, where Safina is the defending U.S. Open Series champ and has loads of points to defend. Anything she gets on the grass will just be a nice helping of strawberries-and-cream for her.

ALSO: Caroline Wozniacki, Wimbledon junior champ in '06, could be considered a player to watch. But the extent of the back injury she suffered in Paris will tell the tale of whether or not she'll even show up in London, let alone win a few matches there. If there's any question, you don't mess with a back injury and she should play it safe and rest if she has to.
Victoria Azarenka/BLR: Over the past few months, Azarenka has bounced from looking like a future grand slam champion to looking like a future grand slam champion who'll one day be embarrassed to watch video clips of some of her outbursts over the last few months. Of course, if Azarenka can't get her emotions under control she might turn out to be the next Nicole Vaidisova rather than the next Maria Sharapova. After a rocky start in Paris, she flashed that eye of the tiger again before reverting back to squawking, eye-averting form. If she can harness her talent and keep her head, she could bust out at Wimbledon and get that SF result she missed out on in Paris. If she can't, well... she still might reach the semis, but it'd be difficult to be on her side while she was doing it.

ALSO: '08 Wimbledon junior champ Laura Robson, a media, crowd and court darling a year ago, will be trying to become the first player to defend the Girls title since Andrea Strnadova won in 1989-90.
The Aussies: If this year's first two slams are a harbinger, expect one of the Aussies to flash during Wimbledon. Better still, the games of the two-Aussies-most-likely actually should transition easily to the grass courts.

After coming back from bouts with injury and illness in 2007-08, doubles-star-focusing-on-singles Samantha Stosur has seen her results steadily improve all season. In Paris, after only having advanced past a slam 3rd Round once before, she reached the Roland Garros SF and gave Svetlana Kuznetsova a good fight. With an attacking game and fine doubles-influenced volleys, Stosur might be even more effective a force on grass (she was an Eastbourne semifinalist in '08). That is, if she can put out of her mind the crushing collapse she had against Vaidisova last year at SW19.

Meanwhile, Jelena Dokic made her name at Wimbledon ten years ago, then reached the SF a season later. A great deal has since happened, but in 2009 she's once again shown an ability to be her best on the slam stage. She put on a spirited QF run in Melbourne, and was throttling Elena Dementieva in Paris before having to retire with a back injury. The last WTA title Dokic won was a grass courter in 2002, and assuming she's healthy enough she could make some noise at a third consecutive slam in a few weeks time.

ALSO: Keep an eye on the Belgian. No, not THAT Belgian. Umm, or THAT OTHER ONE, either. I'm talking about Yanina Wickmayer. She was a tour event RU in Birmingham last year, and has since won her first WTA singles title in '09. Also, American Sloane Stephens will be looking to follow up her Paris Girls final four result with something even better in London.
Maria Sharapova/RUS: Sharapova is known for being a great grass courter, but is she really? She hasn't reached a Wimbledon final since she won the title in '04, and her last grass title was in Birmingham in '05. Over the last four years, she's lost to Jamea Jackson, Jelena Jankovic and Alla Kudryavtseva on grass courts, players who Sharapova should be able to handle on the surface. Now, she's coming back from her 10-month layoff after shoulder surgery. She battled her way to the QF in Paris, but the faster courts at Wimbledon might actually make a similar run even more difficult in London so early in her comeback. The fighter inside the Supernova says that she can never be overlooked but, at best, she'll be the fourth-best grasscourter in the SW19 draw, and people blindly expecting her to last at least until the final four at Wimbledon (or in a tune-up event) might be disappointed.

ALSO: Zheng Jie will be hard-pressed to match her historic semifinal run at SW19 from '08. Ditto for Ana Ivanovic, who reached the Wimbledon SF in '07, but hasn't been able to follow up her RG '08 success at any of the four slams she's played since. In fact, neither of the Serbs (Jelena Jankovic reached the Wimbledon Round of 16 last year, and won a grass tournament in Birmingham in '08) should be counted on to live up their seeds at Wimbledon. Of course, since Ivanovic's ACTUAL ranking is now outside the Top 10 after losing her RG title points, MAYBE she will. Both former #1's have a better shot to finally get out of their slumps in North America.
Elena Dementieva/RUS & Nicole Vaidisova/CZE: Dementieva reached her first Wimbledon SF a season ago, but her '09 results have trended demonstrably downward ever since her hottest-on-tour start before the Australian Open, most recently including her two-round spiral out of Paris at the hands of Dokic (who she should have lost to) and Stosur (against whom she did). The thought back then was that she might have played far too much too soon, and it seems to have played out just that way. Often, though, just when Dementieva is counted out she surges back. Maybe it'll happen again. Maybe.

Vaidisova, 8-10 on the season, could be in this category every week of the WTA season, it seems. She's actually reached the SW19 QF two years running, putting on a best-and-worst display a year ago when her listless play put her one point from being in a 6-2/0-6/0-4 hole against Stosur before she somehow found a way out. But there's been nothing ever since that's given any indication that such a dumb-luck discovery of heart is in any way capable of being repeated.


What about Wimbledon? Well, usually it's an easy pick -- Venus. If not Venus, then Serena.

They're still the co-favorites to take the title, and if the draw allows it'd be hard to pick a final that didn't include BOTH of them. In fact, I KNOW I'll be picking Venus to win again... but I'm not nearly as confident about the choice as I was a year ago.

Still, there are fewer players who can win Wimbledon than any of the four slams. For every head-scratcher like Conchita Martinez winning in '94, there are generally twenty Ladies champions who were as predictable as London rain in late June (which at least won't effect play on Centre Court anymore, which actually plays into the hands of the top seeds, since those are the players who'll be scheduled to play there and will be less likely to have to play matches on back-to-back days due to weather-related back-ups). So, one shouldn't expect some huge surprise finalist. In the 2000's, only seven different women have filled the eighteen berths in the final. Only Marion Bartoli in '07, who advanced when the wind did in Justine Henin in their SF meeting, was a shocker. In fact, looking back at all the Open Era finalists at Wimbledon, the only "outsiders" one might find besides Bartoli are Martinez in '04 (though she was the #3 seed), Ann Jones in '69 (#4), Nathalie Tauziat in '98 (but her best surface was grass) and Zina Garrison in '90. Sharapova was actually labeled a "stunning" finalist in '04, but I picked her to get there before the tournament... so, obviously, I've never believed that to be the case.

Speaking of the Supernova. If Sharapova can avoid the sort of long matches she endured in Paris, she'll be a decent alternate choice as a finalist, but I think she'll be a much more likely champion in NYC than London. If Mauresmo can regain her form, I'd take her as the "dark horse" pick to lift the Venus Rosewater dish before Sharapova. Then again, how can we overlook RG champ Kuznetsova? Her game translates to the grass, as she's reached Wimbledon quarterfinals. But it's hard to imagine she, even in her better frame of mind, could pull off the RG/SW19 back-to-back two-fer, though.

Oh, and as much as I was turned off by her antics at Roland Garros, I think Azarenka might be the one player who might be able to break through to her first-ever slam final. Rarely have I nearly completely turned on a player so quickly, going from pulling FOR her to rooting AGAINST her based on one match (the one she one won against Suarez-Navarro), as I did with the Belarusian in Paris... so much so, that I have to believe that I'm overreacting and will drop the issue pretty soon. Depending on the draw, it could happen VERY soon.

But those decisions are still two weeks away.

All for now.


Blogger Zidane said...

Hmmm, Ivanovic reached the semi in 2007, not 2008. Zheng beat her, if my memory is good. She has few points to defend this year. Plus, she is not out of the top 20 (yet?).

By the way, huge thanks. Let me explain. After Federer's loss at the Australian Open finale, my tennis heart totally disappeared, and I didn't follow any tennis until I learned Nadal lost in Roland Garros. Going through your archives during hours last week helped me getting informed on what happened since Serena won the Australian, and fully appreciate Kuznet's victory (one of my favourite players). Thanks!

I also believe, as you do, that Maumo might do well this year at Wimbledon.

Tue Jun 09, 09:26:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kutta said...

Todd...from your lips to God's ears! I hope for the best for Amelie here at Wimbledon. I still think the title is Venus', with Serena the only one who could (potentially) stop her, but if Amelie gets a favorable draw, who knows...we might see one last deep run from her at a Slam!


Wed Jun 10, 12:36:00 AM EDT  
Blogger U said...

Alla Kudryavtseva upset Sharapova on grass. Safina never did.

Wed Jun 10, 04:06:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Will said...

Yeah, remember that Kudryavtseva summoned the will to beat Sharapova because of absolute disdain for her fashion sense. Maria better hopes her Wimby dress isn't an eyesore.

Safina lost that heartbreaker to Shahar Peer (of all people) last year.

Wed Jun 10, 10:51:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Man, I must still be even more tired after two weeks of Roland Garros than I'd thought.

Where to begin...

1) yep, of course, Ivanovic was a Wimbledon semifinalist in '07, not '08 -- she's done nothing in the slams since she won RG (slaps forehead). I even looked that one up in the Guide and typed it wrong. And, as everyone knows, she's dropped out of the Top TEN, not twenty (yet, at least).

2) As for the Sharapova/Safina/Kudryavtseva thing. Apparently, I got my Russians mixed up LAST year. On the notes I updated during the '08 grass season, which I used to find out Sharapova's grass losses, I'd put down "Safina" instead of "Kudryavtseva." So that's what I used this time. (slaps forehead again) I guess I shouldn't always take my own word for things.

3) and I made a note in the corrected post that Safina's run to the 's-Hertogenbosch final last year included an upset of Dementieva, so she DID at least beat one Top 10 Russian on grass in '08, just not the one I had down originally.

Hey, at least I know people are paying attention to what they read, right? :D

Oh, and Zidane... welcome back to the fold. You shouldn't let one loss get you so discouraged. Obviously, Federer didn't... and that worked out pretty well for HIM. :)

Now, I need some aspirin. For some reason, I've got a headache.

Wed Jun 10, 11:42:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I so want Amelie to do well at Wimbledon that I'm trying to not even think about her!

Maria says it won't be this year, but who knows? And I'm looking at Sam Stosur.

Fri Jun 12, 10:33:00 PM EDT  

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