Thursday, January 24, 2008

Day 11: 2.0 X 2

This year's Australian Open women's final will pit a pair of "new-and-improved" versions of Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic against one another.

Sharapova's 6-3/6-1 victory over Jelena Jankovic in the SF wasn't anywhere near as comprehensive as her previous win over Lindsay Davenport, nor as top-line as her defeat of Justine Henin. But it didn't need to be against a Serbian opponent still fighting to hold off a wave of injuries (in this case, a back) and with a serve that offered Sharapova little to worry about.

If THIS Sharapova, with an under-50% serve percentage (and a handful of double-faults) in the 1st set despite racing to a 5-0 lead after having won the final seven games in the QF, had shown up against Henin, then La Petit Taureau would have been playing against Jankovic on Day 11. But the Supernova was due an off day after nearly two weeks of perfection... and, even in lesser form, she still managed to extend her Melbourne set-winning run to twelve.

Of course, she'll need to see a return of her "improved" self in the final if she's to be assured of claiming a third leg of a career Grand Slam against Ivanovic, whose own off-season improvements might prove to be the difference between her remaining a promising player or graduating to slam champion status.

Speaking of battlefield promotions, for eight games it appeared that "Wonder Girl" Daniela Hantuchova was ready to climb the chain of command and become a "Wonder Woman" against Ivanovic in their SF meeting. The 24-year old "veteran" Slovak led AnaIvo 6-0/2-0 and her rocky road to Welville looked like it would have a happy ending.

Then reality struck. Hard.

While flying above the clouds, Hantuchova was good to go. But as soon as Ivanovic started to offer some resistence, Wonder Girl reverted back to her old ways... for a while. With Hantuchova throwing in forehand errors where there'd been winners for the first eight games, Ivanovic claimed the 2nd set 6-3. While Hantuchova showed her improved maturity in the 3rd set and righted her game (in years past, she would have offered up a Petrovian 3rd set meltdown, complete with tears and awkward viewing for fans), her 2nd set setback was enough to put the match and her first appearance in a slam final in jeopardy.

As much as the match's altered tone had to do with Hantuchova's dip, it can't be underestimated how much Ivanovic's improved play was key, as well. Remember, this is a player whose career slam exit matches have averaged 6-2/6-2 drubbings, and it sure looked like it was going to be a case of deja vu in the SF.

But AnaIvo's ability to step up in a big situation (first glimpsed in L.A. last year), her improved fitness and resulting ability to chase down balls that would have gone for winners for her opponent a year ago, and her often lethal serve/forehand combo all worked together to make the ultimate difference in this match.

It was during the middle section of the deciding set that Ivanovic pulled ahead for good. In a seven-deuce serve game, the Serb avoided falling down 4-2, fighting back against Hantuchova's one break point in the game with a forehand winner and a follow-up ace. She held, then broke Hantuchova for a 5-4 lead after a series of linesperson shenanigans (specifically, a late call that precipitated the re-play of a point, then meant a dumped Hantuchova volley on the next point off a shot run down by AnaIvo sealed a break of the Slovak's serve rather than simply awarded a break point) seemed to work against Wonder Girl on every level.

Ivanovic served out the match for a 0-6/6-3/6-4 victory and a spot in her second career slam singles final.

Which "new and improved" version will win out in the final? Well, before the semis, Sharapova would have been a safe bet. But AnaIvo's battle-tested come-from-behind win, coupled with the Supernova's "average" performance, at least puts the 2008 Australian Open title in question.

Maybe we'll actually get a great final in Melbourne... for a change.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #1: Men's SF - Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA def. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP - 6-2/6-3/6-2.

...the exciting French 22-year old added Nadal's pelt to his Melbourne collection that includes the likes of Murray, Gasquet & Youzhny. But it was the ease with which he dispatched Rafa, who hadn't dropped a single set coming into this match, that means he might just be a threat to win this title... even if Federer defeats Djokovic in the semi.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #2: Mixed Doubles QF - #5 Sun Tiantian/Nenad Zimonjic (CHN/SRB) def. #1 Cara Black/Paul Hanley (ZIM/AUS) - 4-6/7-6/10-8.
...Black just hasn't been having the best opening to her 2008 season.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #3: Women's Doubles SF - Alona Bondarenko/Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR/UKR) def. #10 Anabel Medina-Garrigues/Virginia Ruano-Pascual (ESP/ESP) - 6-2/6-4.
...the Bondarenkos have quite simply been the Doubles Stars of this Oz, even if they fail to win the actual title against Victoria Azarenka & Shahar Peer (players who, interestingly, are both former Oz junior champions, in 2005 and '04, respectively).

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #4: Girls QF - #10 Simona Halep/ROU def. #1 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS - 6-2/6-3.
...the young Russian is risking seriously damaging her confidence for the ungoing shift to the WTA if she keeps going back into the junior competitions she used to dominate (she was Oz Jr. champ the last two years) and getting her doors blown off like this.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #5: Girls QF - #14 Arantxa Rus/NED def. #5 Bojana Jovanovski/SRB - 6-1/6-3.'s difficult to figure out who the "Breakout Junior" is for this Oz, considering all four semifinalists would qualify. The highest seeded girl in the remaining four is #10 Halep.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #6: Boys QF - #5 Bernard Tomic/AUS def. #1 Cesar Ramirez/MEX - 6-4/6-3.
...along with Jessica Moore in the girls SF, Tomic is keeping alive the possibility of two Aussie champions in the junior competitions.

2004 Wimbledon - def. Serena Williams
2006 US Open - def. Justine Henin
2007 Australian Open - lost to Serera Williams
2008 Australian Open - vs. Ana Ivanovic
2007 Roland Garros - lost to Justine Henin
2008 Australian Open - vs. Maria Sharapova

*JUNIOR FINALS - 2004-07*
2004 Shahar Peer def. Nicole Vaidisova
2005 Victoria Azarenka def. Agnes Szavay
2006 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova def. Caroline Wozniacki
2007 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova def. Madison Brengle

A: Yan Zi/Zheng Jie, CHN-CHN
R: Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur, USA-AUS
W: Yan Zi/Zheng Jie, CHN-CHN
U: Martina Navratilova, USA
A: Liezel Huber, RSA
R: Katarina Srebotnik, SLO
W: Cara Black, ZIM
U: Nathalie Dechy, FRA
A: Alona & Kateryna Bondarenko, UKR-UKR

#10 Simona Halep/ROU vs. Jessica Moore/AUS
#14 Arantxa Rus/NED vs. #11 Zhou Yi-Miao/CHN

#5 Bernard Tomic/AUS vs. #8 Yuki Bhambri/IND
#4 Ryan Harrison/USA vs. #10 Yang Tsung-Hua/TPE

#1 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/Ksenia Lykina (RUS/RUS) vs. Elena Bogdan/Misaki Doi (ROU/JPN)
Hsieh Cheng Peng/Yang Tsung-Hua (TPE/TPE) vs. #2 Vasek Pospisil/Cesar Ramirez (CAN/MEX)

#8 Jonathan Erlich/Andy Ram (ISR/ISR) vs. #7 Arnaud Clement/Michael Llodra (FRA/FRA)
Alona Bondarenko/Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR/UKR) vs. #12 Victoria Azarenka/Shahar Peer (BLR/ISR)
#5 Sun Tiantian/Nenad Zimonjic (CHN/SRB) vs. #3 Yan Zi/Martin Knowles (CHN/BAH)
#8 Nathalie Dechy/Andy Ram (FRA/ISR) vs. Sania Mirza/Mahesh Bhupathi (IND/IND)

TOP QUALIFIER: Julia Schruff / GER
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Maria Sharapova / RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Maria Sharapova / RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): (vacant)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st - Jankovic def. Paszek 2-6/6-2/12-10
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): QF - Sharapova def. Henin 6-4/6-0
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): (vacant)
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Julia Vakulenko / UKR (1st Rd.-Vesnina)
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Marta Domachowska / POL & Hsieh Su-Wei / TPE (4th Rd.)
IT GIRL: Casey Dellacqua / AUS
MISS OPPORTUNITY: Daniela Hantuchova / SVK
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Jelena Jankovic / SRB (1st Rd.- down 3 MP to Paszek)
CRASH & BURN: #2 Svetlana Kuznetsova / RUS (3rd Rd.- A.Radwanska)
DOUBLES STARS: Alona & Kateryna Bondarenko / UKR

All for Day 11. More tomorrow.


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