Monday, April 14, 2008

Wk.15- A Little Less Green

It's never easy being green. Just ask Maria Sharapova.


You wouldn't think that after three slam championships, eighteen singles titles, fourteen weeks at #1, a bazillion print ads, TV commercials and sponsor fests, not to mention the pressure of likely being the most famous tennis player in the world, Sharapova wouldn't still be chasing too many "firsts" in her career. But heading into last week's tournament in Amelia Island, that's just what she was doing.

After being the top player during the 2008 1st Quarter, Sharapova began her clay season with essentially little at stake since her failure to ever reach a clay court final lessened the urgency she might otherwise be compelled to feel while preparing to contend for the next grand slam on the calendar. But after winning her first career clay title this weekend with a 7-6/6-3 win over Slovakian teenager Dominika Cibulkova, that script might be in the process of being rewritten.

Sharapova didn't blaze through the field in Florida, but what she DID do might have been even more impressive, considering her lack of experience on the clay. She gritted her teeth and battled past game opponents in long matches on a somewhat unfamiliar surface that she is experiencing a bit earlier in the year than is normally the case, since injuries have often forced her to being her clay campaign a bit later in the schedule in recent years.

If practice makes perfect, Amelia Island could prove to be very good for the Supernova. The toughness displayed by her opponents last week ultimately managed to give her more match play than she could have ever imagined would be coming her way before the first ball was struck. Her best training ground? A three-and-a-half-hour nail biter over veteran Anabel Medina-Garrigues in the 3rd Round.

For all her hard work, Sharapova was "rewarded" with a walkover from an ill Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals, eliminating the potential peril of what would have been the first career clay meeting between the Russian and three-time Amelia Island champion American. Cibulkova put up a fight for a while in the final, but anything other than a Sharapova title coming on the back end of the match-up with the first-time WTA finalist would have been a major surprise.

Sharapova is still learning to play on the surface, even though her Roland Garros SF a year ago was a sure sign that it need not be an impossible obstacle. Even with a title in hand, she's still fairly green in terms of clay experience. Her un-Clijstersian movement and the slower nature of the clay will always prevent Sharapova from being the prototype for a clay court champion, but she's slowly (but not as slowly as she was a week ago) but surely proving that her game is good-and-getting-better-enough to compensate for her clay shortcomings.

So, with career title #19 in hand, and another week on the green stuff before she heads off to do battle on the European red dirt, Sharapova's clay outlook for '08 may have already changed. Oh, she's not looking to supplant Justine Henin as the Queen of Clay, but she doesn't need to do that.

With three of the four slams represented in her trophy case, Sharapova only needs to win Roland Garros once to complete the career slam... and she's only turning 21 this coming Saturday. At 22-1 on the season, with Henin's play and physical condition still not quite up to its usual snuff, maybe 2008 could be that year. Stranger scenarios have taken place, for sure. And if Sharapova can stake out a large portion of the clay season as a personal playground, foes will be hard-pressed to prevent her from ending the year at #1.

It's not easy being green, but it might be easier than being a little less green, what with all the added pressure it could entail in Paris for Sharapova. But, then again, the Supernova knows pressure... and it hasn't exactly beaten her down just yet.


S: Maria Sharapova d. Dominika Cibulkova 7-6/6-3
D: Mattek/Uhlirova d. Azarenka/Vesnina

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Maria Sharapova, RUS
sure, it would have been nice to see Sharapova face Davenport after being pushed earlier in the tournament by AMG and Alona Bondarenko, and have to face Cibulkova with less rest. But the SF stroke of luck (and, no, there are no rumors about Yuri and/or spiked Davenport dinners... unless you want to start one right now, that is) is emblematic of how 2008 has mostly gone for the Supernova to this point.
RISERS: Agnes Szavay, HUN & Alona Bondarenko, UKR
Szavay must be smiling now that the 1Q is over. Her darkly disappointing '08 start turned brighter when she got immediate AI revenge for her Melbourne loss (defeat #2 in '08 for Szavay) to Ekaterina Makarova, then finally was able to string some wins together for only the second tournament this season. A win over Katarina Srebotnik and a close two-set defeat at the hands of Davenport in the QF was enough to raise the Valkyrie's ranking to #13 and hopefully spur her on to a successful 2Q. Bondarenko knocked off Caroline Wozniacki and Dinara Safina, then pushed Sharapova in the QF to move into the Top 20 (#19) in singles for the first time in her career.
SURPRISES: Karolina Sprem, CRO & Chayenne Ewijk, NED
Sprem used to be considered a future star. In 2004, she reached the Wimbledon QF and ended the season ranked #18. But several years of poor results and injuries had pretty much turned her into an afterthought (her year-end rankings went from #65 to #88 to #209) until her blast from the past week in Amelia Island, After qualifying, the now 23-year old Croat notched wins over Ai Sugiyama and Daniela Hantuchova before falling to Davenport. Sprem is currently ranked #236. Meanwhile, Michaella Krajicek has had a disappointing season so far, but Dutch 19-year old Ewijk has been doing their country proud on the ITF circuit. She won her second challenger title of the season (and grabbed a doubles crown, as well) this weekend in the Telde, Spain $10k event.
VETERAN: Amelie Mauresmo
could Amelie finally be stirring? It certainly appeared so in Amelia Island, where she knocked off youngsters Sorana Cirstea and Agnieszka Radwanska (in an impressive two-and-a-half hour battle). She ultimately lost in the QF to Cibulkova, but it was a nice way to start the clay court season.
FRESH FACES: Dominika Cibulkova, SVK & Alize Cornet, FRA

this week's star-making performance most definitely came from 18-year old Cibulkova. She garnered attention earlier this year with a win over Venus Williams, but her run to her first-ever WTA singles final in Amelia Island was likely the first time many people have ever heard of her. After knocking down the likes of Victoria Azarenka, Anna Chakvetadze, Mauresmo and Cornet, the little 5'3" Slovak won't have the security blanket of anonymity for much longer. Before losing to Cibulkova in the AI SF and just missing out on her second WTA final in '08, Pastry Cornet defeated Krajicek, Sybille Bammer, Elena Vesnina and Virginie Razzano.
DOWN: Daniela Hantuchova, SVK & Lindsay Davenport's body, USA
Wonder Girl Hantuchova doesn't have any Indian Wells momentum to carry her into the 2Q this season, and it's showing. After reaching her first career slam SF in Melbourne in January, Hantuchova hasn't been able to follow up with another big result. Her 2nd Round loss in AI to Sprem was her second straight early-round loss following her 3rd Round defeat by Ai Sugiyama in Miami. Since Oz, she's gone just 3-4 aside from her QF run in Indian Wells, Hantuchova's own version of the Emerald City. Meanwhile, Davenport's body seems to be fighting her comeback... and it's won twice in recent weeks. Davenport retired from Indian Wells with a back injury the week before defeating Ivanovic in Miami, then reached the Amelia Island SF but gave Sharapova a walkover ("walkova?") when she awoke on Saturday too ill to play. Lindsay's body's ability to withstand the rigors of her return to the tour has always been the biggest "yeah, but" factor hovering over the possibility of truly "great" results in Davenport II, and these recent incidents are only going to raise those questions all over again..
ITF PLAYER: Petra Kvitova, CZE

six-foot Maiden Kvitova, 18, continues to make a name for herself. Earlier this year, she shocked Venus. This weekend, she claimed a $75k event in Monzon, Spain with wins over Marina Erakovic and Maret Ani before defeating Yanina Wickmeyer in the final.

1. AI 3rd - Sharapova d. Medina Garrigues
Sharapova survived this three-and-a-half-hour marathon, but the Spaniard might get another 3rd Round shot at the Supernova in Charleston.
2. AI 3rd - Mauresmo d. A.Radwanska
For maybe the first time since her appendectomy, there's true light at the end of the tunnel for Mauresmo. If she can return to form, the top tier of the WTA field is REALLY going to get crowded by the end of the summer.
3. AI Final - Sharapova d. Cibulkova
Apparently, they make 'em big (nearly 6-foot Wonder Girl) AND small (barely over 5-foot Cibulkova) in Slovakia.
4. AI 2nd - Sprem d. Hantuchova
But neither Slovak could walk away with a title last week in Florida.
5. AI 3rd - Cibulkova d. Chakvetadze
Anna must have felt like she was... nah, STILL too soon.
HM- AI 2nd - Szavay d. Makarova
Makarova was the second player to defeat Agnes in 2008. Check. Yuliana Fedak was the first. Check (after Szavay's Charleston 1st Round win over the Ukrainian today). Ai Sugiyama was #5, and Szavay will play the Japanese vet in the 2nd Round this week. #3 was Chakvetadze, who she might face in the QF. If Szavay makes it through this Vengeance Obstacle Course, Alisa Kleybanova (loss #4) had better start looking over her shoulder.

2...Justine Henin
2...Serena Williams
2...Flavia Pennetta
2...Lindsay Davenport

4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (3-1)
4...Jelena Jankovic (1-3)
3...Ana Ivanovic (2-1)
3...Vera Zvonareva (2-1)
3...Flavia Pennetta (2-1)
3...Li Na (1-2)

8...#1 seed (Sharapova-Amelia Island)
2...#4 seed
2...#8 seed
1...#3 seed
1..#5 seed

Feb - Karin Knapp, ITA/20 - Antwerp (L)
Feb - Maria-Emilia Salerni, ARG/24 - Bogota (L)
Feb - Olga Govortsova, BLR/19 - Memphis (L)
Feb - Alize Cornet, FRA/18 - Acapulco (L)

07 FINAL: Arn d. Azarenka
08 TOP: Pennetta/Kirilenko


SF: Pennetta d. Safarova; Larcher de Brito d. Knapp
FINAL: Pennetta d. Larcher de Brito

...why not pick The Kid back in her native Portugal? Why not pick Pennetta in a small event on clay?

07 FINAL: Jankovic d. Safina
08 TOP: Jankovic/Sharapova

=Round of 16=
Jankovic d. Cibulkova
Zvonareva d. Dellacqua
Azarenka d. Dementieva
A.Radwanska d. Schnyder
Szavay d. Safina
Chakvetadze d. Cornet
S.Williams d. Srebotnik
Sharapova d. Medina-Garrigues (Part Two)

Jankovic d. Zvonareva
Azarenka d. A.Radwanska
Szavay d. Chakvetadze
S.Williams d. Sharapova
(How big a match would this be! And how much would inevitably be read into the final result? Serena tends up get super-charged for certain opponents, and Maria is one of them.)
Jankovic d. A.Radwanska
S.Williams d. Szavay

S.Williams d. Jankovic

...but if Sharapova wins again? Boy, then the ballgame REALLY changes.

All for now.


Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Pierre's Battle Royale Charleston picks (prior to Anna C's elimination):

Jankovic d. Zvonareva
Dementieva d. A.Radwanska
Chakvetadze d. Safina
S.Williams d. Sharapova

Jankovic d. Dementieva
S.Williams d. Chakvetadze

S.Williams d. Jankovic

Wed Apr 16, 08:00:00 PM EDT  

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