Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Day 9: What a Difference a Year Makes

A year ago, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova left Melbourne on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

"The Demolition Heard 'round the World" left Williams basking in a spotlight befitting a vindicated champion, while Sharapova was picking up the pieces after being utterly destroyed in the singles final (and didn't really recover until her final match of the season in November).

In 2008, the script is being flipped.

Williams' Australian Open came to a stunningly quiet end ("The Shrug Heard 'round the World?") in the QF, while Sharapova's picked up a momentum that maybe no one -- not even another Williams -- may be able to stop.

At the start of 2007, a season-long tete-a-tete between Sharapova and Justine Henin was expected, but it never happened. After Melbourne, Sharapova was in search-and-recovery mode until she slipped into the year-end championships in Madrid thanks to an injury to Venus Williams, then rediscovered her serve and confidence en route to a great three-set final loss to Henin in their only meeting of the year.

It's apparent now that her eleventh-hour heroics have inspired her to rebound in 2008. Healthy, in great shape and with her game having picked up some additional spark (she's moving better than ever, and even coming to the net), Sharapova is now looking like the player it was assumed she'd be last year.

Against Henin, as she did against Lindsay Davenport in the 2nd Round, Sharapova made a point to attack early and pretty much dare her opponent to stop her forward momentum, just as Serena did against HER in last year's final. Davenport was knocked on her heels and never recovered. Henin, riding a 32-match winning streak, was pushed off-balance, as well. She battled to recover, but the constant struggle to keep up with the Supernova proved to be a losing battle.

After falling behind 0-3, Henin managed to scrape and claw her way back on serve at 4-5. But with the Sharapova assault coming from all angles -- forehands, backhands, a decidedly mistake-free serve, net play and all-out aggression leading to the Russian coming out on top in most long rallies, a rarity against La Petit Taureau -- it was only a stay of execution for the world's top player.

Despite holding off the inevitable through three set points, Henin couldn't do it a fourth time. When she volleyed a Sharapova stinger into the net to drop the set 6-4, the tide was past being turned, even if she and rest of us couldn't be sure of it at the time. She didn't win another game, losing the 2nd set at love despite never giving up or seeing her form slip significantly even as the deficit grew and grew.

While Yuri has often looked the part of an "assassin" in the stands in Melbourne (and seemed to gleefully play along with the idea after this match), Maria has been as close to the real thing as possible on a tennis court so far at this Australian Open. The Everest-esque nature of the draw that faced her at the start of this tournament has been rendered hill-sized as she's scaled it with ease, and if she can keep up her current pace that third grand slam title (at a third different slam) will be arriving right out of the gate in 2008.

While this match might signal the start of a season-long battle between the two, there was just no beating the Supernova on Tuesday night... not even by Henin. And that's saying something.

Near-perfection is great. But there's something to be said for being in the right place at the right time, too. Just ask Jelena Jankovic.

After nearly being bounced in the 1st Round (and, by the way, how much must Tamira Paszek be hating on herself for letting that one slip away now?), Jankovic has managed to slip through the draw with little pressure since she has been a back-from-the-dead zombie since Day 1. Facing Williams in the QF was, for most, a holding-to-form moment that would see her ushered out the door with a pat on the back for having managed to last so long after her close call.

Of course, that was assuming that Serena would show up. She didn't.

Just a few games into the match, the familiarity of the situation was smacking everyone in the face. We'd seen "the look" before from Williams. Feet planted on the baseline as if they were set in cement. A curious lack of fire. An only occasionally superior serve. The "is she injured?" whispers. After fighting her way through several walkabout moments at last year's Oz, she wasn't able to do it this time out.

"I went crazy," Serena said after the match. Appropriate, I'd say, considering the often loopy nature of her opponent.

As it was, the only real question as the 2nd set moved forward with no further signs of life from Serena was whether Jankovic would be her own worst enemy, fail to the close out a match that was there for the taking in straight sets, and inject Williams with a renewed 3rd set vigor as several of her opponents did a year ago. When the Serb took an injury time out at 6-3/3-2 the opening seemed to be there, and when Williams opened her serve game with a few heated shots disaster seemed just around the corner for Jankovic.

But Williams couldn't keep up her momentum beyond a few points, and Jankovic wrapped up the 6-3/6-4 match just moments later, sending Serena out in the QF for the fourth straight slam and herself into as surprising a SF for a #3-seeded player as you're likely to see.

Of course, the tennis universe often provides a swift lesson in balance... and next time out, Jankovic may find her position anything but fortunate if Sharapova continues her Melbourne blitzkrieg in the SF.

But that's a story for another day.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #1: Women's Doubles QF - #7 Yan Zi/Zheng Jie (CHN/CHN) def. Serena Williams/Venus Williams (USA/USA) - 3-6/6-4/6-2.

...Serena's day of listless disaster was complete, just as Yan & Zheng's comeback was given some real bite. Suddenly, China's prospects for backing up that '04 Athens Doubles Gold is looking better and better. Especially when you consider...

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #2: Women's Doubles QF - Alona Bondarenko/Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR/UKR) def. #1 Cara Black/Liezel Huber (RSA/USA) - 6-3/6-2.
...sure, Black & Huber couldn't play doubles together in Beijing anyway, but their slow start to '08 makes one wonder if they'll be able to hold onto that #1 ranking this season. But, hey, at least one pair of sisters are in the SF.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #3: Girls 2nd Rd. - Misaki Doi/JPN def. #3 Nikola Hofmanova/AUT - 6-4/1-6/9-7.
...the highest-seeded junior to be dumped out so far.

SCORELINE-OF-NOTE #4: Girls 2nd Rd. - Alison Bai/AUS def. Sacha Jones/NZL - 7-5/7-5.
...apparently, Dellacqua has inspired all the little Sheilas.

A: Serena Williams, USA
R: Patty Schnyder, SUI
W: Venus Williams, USA
U: Vera Zvonareva, RUS
A: Yan Zi & Zheng Jie, CHN/CHN

TOP QUALIFIER: Julia Schruff / GER
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Maria Sharapova / RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): (vacant)
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): (vacant)
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
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Jelena Jankovic / SRB (1st Rd.- down 3 MP to Paszek)
CRASH & BURN: #2 Svetlana Kuznetsova / RUS (3rd Rd.- A.Radwanska)
DOUBLES STAR: (vacant)

All for Day 9. More tomorrow.


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