Friday, June 08, 2007

Day 13: Nice Justine?

It's fitting that a Belgian is meeting a Serb in Saturday's women's final at Roland Garros, considering the one-nation, two-headed monster that developed in the former country at the start of this decade is so very similar to the one that's come about in the latter as we race toward the end of it.

The blueprints that brought the WTA Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters from tiny Belgium, and Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic from the formerly war-torn Serbia share a kinship in that neither came about as a result of either nation's tennis establishment providing money and/or casting a wide net with which to find talent. Sure, Serbia's success has at least come about in the now-long-ago afterglow of the exploits of one-time Yugoslavian stars such as Monica Seles in the early 1990's, while Belgium's pair seemingly popped out of thin air, but the story of both managing to produce two top-flight stars are equally remarkable... something close to aberrations that link them in history.

While Henin's career was and always will be compared (favorably, as it's turned out) to that of Clijsters, the same will be said of Jankovic and Ivanovic. Six years ago, Clijsters was the first of the Waffles to reach a slam final, losing to Jennifer Capriati at Roland Garros by a 12-10 score in the 3rd set in a match that may have forever altered the course of the now-retired star's career. Now, Ivanovic finds herself in the same position, also in Paris, when it comes to the Fantastovics. Will the same result occur?

As different in temperment and reputation as Henin and Clijsters were, so is the case with Ivanovic and Jankovic. While Jankovic is often hyper and excitable on court, just as capable of flying high or crashing and burning at a moment's notice, Ivanovic has displayed a serene on-court nature over the past two weeks. She's let her stellar play do most of her talking and taken things as they've come, never placing the weight of pressure on her own shoulders. Will AnaIvo be like Henin, at her best on the big slam stage, or like Clijsters?

That she's facing Henin tomorrow might not provide a great predictor for the rest of her career as Clijsters' maiden slam final trip did for her's. The two-time defending Roland Garros champion has had a rather easy time of it over the past 13 days, dispatching even the likes of Serena Williams as the world's best female claycourter should -- in straight sets, extending her Paris streak to a record 33.

But is the Henin we'll see in the final the same one who's been a lightning rod for criticism because of her single-minded, sometimes-selfish, drive to succeed? After all, following her separation from her husband in January, she managed to reconnect with her estranged father and three siblings and has talked about trying to change her "unfriendly" reputation. For years, she's maintained her top spot in the game largely because of what made her different from her peers, what set her apart (sometimes literally) from them. Can a "nice" and "happy" Justine still succeed as she has in the past?

Well, so far so good... maybe because she's still Le Petit Taureau ON THE COURT. The fear expressed here that she might lose her competitive edge if she softened her personal ones appears to be unfounded. For now. In the end, Henin will never be quite like "the nice Belgian" no matter how hard she tries. It was probably wrong of Backspin to worry that a "different" Justine could lead to "different" results. After all, the difference between the two Belgians wasn't so much in how they were OFF the court but in how their mind's worked when they were.

All you have to do is look at Roger Federer to see that becoming a great champion isn't all about Clijsters-like humility. Listen to Federer talk about himself sometime... he knows how good he is, and isn't afraid to say it. Why not? He knows it's true. He's not stupid. If it's a subtle act of intimidation directed toward his opponent, so be it. If someone doesn't like it, then beat him and make him eat his words. Federer doesn't win extra points for being a "good guy" when he puts his rackets down -- he'd win the same amount of if he were a jackass in "real life" as long as he had the desire to win at all costs when he was inside the lines.

I always questioned that about Clijsters, and still do, because I never felt she learned to balance the two sides well enough to be a good person AND a take-no-prisoners tennis champion. Federer can walk that fine line. Maybe Henin can, too.

Even as Henin's made strides in changing her personal life and actions for "the better," she stated that she still wants to win Roland Garros as much as ever. "I want to do it for myself," she stated.

It's difficult to imagine Clijsters ever saying something like that, but hearing Henin say something she HAS likely uttered many times before, one can't help but hear it with a different ear these days. Rather than the all-consuming competitive desire that elicited such a remark in the past, the feel now is that it's born from the desire to be happy... and winning still makes her happy.

The new "sound" sounds pretty good, too.

Hmmm, could it be that Backspin is in the midst of a minor course correction in terms of how Le Petit Taureau is viewed in these parts? After years of defending her every action, now that there is no longer the need to protect the Henin flank against Clijsters' legacy, is it possible that this space is open to a more reasoned, multi-faceted take on Queen Justine, one that allows that she may NOT need tp wear the black hat to retain her aura and level of success... but instead could don something in the shade of gray?

Hmmm, I'm thinking "yes." Hey, you're never too old (or jaded), to learn something new.

Right, Justine?


Love-Love...congratulations to Alicia Molik and Mara Santangelo, who claimed the Women's Doubles championship on Day 13 with a 7-6/6-4 win over Katarina Srebotnik & Ai Sugiyama. Thus, Srebotnik goes 0-2 in 2007 RG Doubles finals, while Molik picked up her second slam doubles title (she won the '05 Australian Open with Svetlana Kuznetsova) and Santangelo her first.

Way to go, Steamer!
15-love...nothing against Nikolay Davydenko or Novak Djokovic, but the Federer vs. Nadal "thing" is STILL the biggest story in tennis at the moment. For either of the two to make a grab for history, and they BOTH will be seeking to do so on Sunday, they NEED to succeed at the direct expense of the other for it o have any sort of luster. To set up the latest "dream matchup," Federer downed Davydenko in a tight 7-5/7-6/7-6 affair, as the Russian might ultimately have to settle for only getting this close to grand slam glory in the Federer/Nadal Era. Then, Nadal gradually wore down Djokovic 7-5/6-4/6-2 to maintain his unbeaten record in Paris.

Sure, "The Sopranos" finale will be BIG news on Sunday, but the latest Roger vs. Rafa clash has the potential to mark the landscape of men's tennis forever after.

#1 Federer vs. #2 Nadal
so much is riding on this match. Nadal is on a 20-match winning streak in Paris, and is looking to become the first man to three-peat at Roland Garros since Bjorn Borg four-peated from 1978-81. Federer is looking to complete a career slam of all four major titles with his fourth consecutive slam title, which would give him the equivalent of the "Serena Slam" of a few years ago. Maybe even more importantly, a win in Paris on his most vexing surface against his only true rival would only further pad King Roger's resume in the "Best of All Time" race... and if he were to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to close out the season, gaining the first true Grand Slam in men's tennis since 1969, there may no longer be any doubt where Federer ranks.

No matter what, this will be the ninth straight slam that's been won by either Federer or Nadal, a streak that sees no natural end until Novak Djokovic fully comes of age on the stage. He's getting close, but he's not there yet.

Before Federer defeated Nadal in Hamburg, he'd been 0-5 against Rafa on clay. Earlier this quarter, he looked very mortal and even dismissed coach Tony Roche. Hamburg changed everything, though. Riding the confidence he gained there, Federer comes into the final having only lost one set at this tournament. He's never been in a better position to win. But how much was what happened in Germany about Federer, and how much was about Nadal probably playing one too many tournaments in a row, leading to the end of his record 81-match clay winning streak?

We're about to find out.

I picked Federer to win the true Grand Slam in January, then started to waver when he seemed to be having trouble finding his way on the clay. After Hamburg, though, there was no doubt that I was going to hold onto the possibility for history to be made. And that Federer has won three of his four matchups with Nadal since last year's Roland Garros final is only one final piece to the psychological puzzle that might finally be tilting in the King of Tennis's favor.

Only Nadal, the King of Clay, stands in the way of "RogerSlam"... and that is no small obstacle. Buckle your seatbelts, this could be one for the ages.

MEN'S FINAL PREDICTION: Federer in 5 sets

Justine Henin def Ana Ivanovic
I am still shocked (impressed) that Ana was so impressive during this tournament, she's been very good... but playing against Sharapova or Justine Henin is far from the same thing really... Look how Jelena Jankovic had been dominating...she simply got pushed aside... I expect a two set win.

Rafael Nadal def Roger Federer
as much as I'd like to pick Roger to win, nothing has been convincing enough for me to change my pre-tournament pick of Rafa.

Mariana Duque Marino(COL) vs. #2 Alize Cornet(FRA)

#5 Greg Jones(AUS) vs. #12 Vladimir Ignatic(BLR)

Sorana Cirstea(ROU)/Alexa Glatch(USA) vs. #3 Ksenia Milevskaya(BLR)/Urszula Radwanska(POL)(POL)

Thomas Fabbiano(ITA)/Andrei Karatchenia(BLR) vs. #2 Kellen Damico(USA)/Jonathan Eysseric(FRA)


[Women's Singles]
2003 Justine Henin-Hardenne d. Kim Clijsters
2004 Anastasia Myskina d. Elena Dementieva
2005 Justine Henin-Hardenne d. Mary Pierce
2006 Justine Henin-Hardenne d. Svetlana Kuznetsova
[Men's Singles]
2003 Juan Carlos Ferrero d. Martin Verkerk
2004 Gaston Gaudio d. Guillermo Coria
2005 Rafael Nadal d. Mariano Puerta
2006 Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer

2003 Kim Clijsters/Ai Sugiyama
2004 Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez
2005 Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez
2006 Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur
2007 Alicia Molik/Mara Santangelo

2003 Bob Bryan/Mike Bryan
2004 Xavier Malisse/Olivier Rochus
2005 Jonas Bjorkman/Max Mirnyi
2006 Jonas Bjorkman/Max Mirnyi


Ksenia Milevskaya seemed to have it all wrapped up -- she even advanced to the Girls Doubles final with Urszula Radwanska, despite losing in the singles SF to Alize Cornet -- but when unseeded 17-year old Mariana Duque Marino continued her unlikely roll by upsetting #1-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the Colombian grabbed the "Junior Breakout" award at the wire.

07 Australian Open: Madison Brengle (USA), 16
07 Roland Garros: Mariana Duque Marino (COL), 17

MATCH, "Wisdom reigns surpreme..." of course, why would NBC think it should show the men's semifinals live on the network on Friday? I mean, there'd only been twelve previous days of live coverage from Paris on The Tennis Channel and ESPN2 (hard as that is to believe), why would anyone think it'd be smarter to go live than air hours-old tennis? If they don't care to do it live, farm it out to cable as was the case with the Women's SF on Thursday. It's not that difficult to figure out. Normally, this wouldn't be anything to sniff at, but after probably the best TV coverage of Roland Garros EVER in America over the past two weeks, this kind of thing stands out more than usual.

TOP QUALIFIERS: Timea Bacsinszky & Ioana-Raluca Olaru
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Justine Henin
TOP MID-ROUND (3r-QF): Justine Henin
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): (vacant)
FIRST SEED OUT: #31 Severine Bremond (1r- M.Krajicek)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Dominika Cibulkova, Alla Kudryavtseva & Ioana-Raluca Olaru (all 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Ana Ivanovic
DOUBLES STAR: Katarina Srebotnik
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Mariana Duque Marino

All for Day 13.


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