Monday, April 18, 2005

Wk.15 - Le Petit Taureau est de Retour

The Little Bull has returned. For a moment in time this weekend, it was 2003 again.

Well, not exactly. Justine Henin-Hardenne isn't quite in the form she was when she won three grand slam titles in an eight-month span, nor the form she'll need to reclaim her preeminent position in the game at Roland Garros in about five weeks time. Pesky errors (mostly on the forehand side) and first serve inconsistencies in Charleston mean the current world #22 can still improve on the game that was required to put away Elena Dementieva in the final and claim her 20th career singles title.

The fight is back, though. The nerves of steel. The ability of Henin-Hardenne to hold on in seemingly dire circumstances long enough to raise the level of her game while simultaneously outlasting and ultimately outplaying her opponent. Actually, maybe it NEVER went away (remember that improbable Athens Gold?), and all JHH needed to dominate again was a few healthy months under her belt. That realization means the image of her athletic, less than 5-foot-6 (1.67m) body, stalking the opposing baseline might soon be just as imposing as it was when she overcame being physically dwarfed by so many to almost spitefully rise to #1. That is, if Sunday's win hasn't already fully restored her luster. For, make no mistake, what JHH did at the Tier I in South Carolina was not for the faint of heart.

After not having advanced to a WTA final in over a year (thirteen months, to be exact). After missing scads of time, first with cytomegalovirus and then a fractured knee. After seeing her top ranking drop to #43. After all that, in just her second event back in her '05 comeback bid, she was faced with a string of long, tough matches prior to her tight two-set triumph over Dementieva. She went three sets against Jelena Jankovic in the 1st Round, and won. She went three sets against Shuai Peng in the 2nd, and won again. She breezed past Iveta Benesova, conqueror of #10 Vera Zvonareva, in the 3rd. But that wasn't the end of her re-affirming week. She outlasted #1 Lindsay Davenport in the QF, coming back from a set down to knot the match before the American retired a game into the 3rd. The SF saw a game Tatiana Golovin battle for two close sets and, after all that, JHH still had to fight off a Dementieva who wanted to push the should've-been-tiring Belgian into yet another set. What a week.

Aside from maybe the galactic exuberance inherent in the Supernova's bright lights show, my most enjoyable subject in this column's almost 150 editions has likely been Queen Justine. In my humble opinion, next to the mastery of Roger Federer, the best thing to watch in tennis, circa 2005, is Henin-Hardenne's gorgeously varied game -- sometimes dominated by touch and craftiness, sometimes by an always-surprising burst of power that belies her slight stature. Whichever style comes to the forefront, it takes a seat right next to the gritty, against-the-grain pugnacity that almost always rises to the top at the biggest moments in her biggest matches... in sharp contrast to her Belgian counterpart Kim Clijsters.

There's just something supremely comforting about watching a 4-1 JHH lead slip away, with the score tied at 4-4 and her opponent serving up 40-15 -- as happened Sunday against Dementieva, a talented player suddenly even more lethal when she's in come-from-behind mode -- and feeling in your bones that somehow, some way, the Queen will find a way to stem the tide and emerge on top. Against Dementieva, just as she always used to, Henin-Hardenne did it again. Afterward, the Russian said, "Justine, she plays even better than she was before her illness." Ahh, music to the ears. So, while this space has been a good soldier and whistled Clijsters' tune in recent weeks, my "favorite" Belgian is back. You can have Nice Kim... I'll take the Queen.

S: Justine Henin-H. d. Elena Dementieva 7-5/6-4
D: Martinez/Ruano-Pascual d. Benesova/Peschke


PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Justine Henin-Hardenne
...Charleston, her 20th, was JHH's first WTA title since Indian Wells in April '04 (though she did win the Gold in Athens in September). She's 34-1, with six titles, in her last seven Tier I's. ============================
RISERS: Elena Dementieva & Tatiana Golovin
...Dementieva is looking far more likely to put together a run at Roland Garros than her counterpart in the final there last year, Anastasia Myskina. And since Amelie Mauresmo's chances of claiming her home country's slam are even shakier than the Czarina's (not based on form... but just because she's STILL Amelie), maybe it's the 17-year old Frussian Pastry who'll be carrying the hopes of a country come next month. ============================
SURPRISE: Nuria Llagostera-Vives
...the 24-year old Spaniard is always good for an occasional upset. Last week it was Mary Pierce. ============================
VETERANS: Conchita Martinez & Virginia Ruano-Pascual
...neither of these two burned things up in the singles, losing in the 1st Round to Barbora Strycova and Samantha Stosur, respectively. But they rebounded by forming an all-Spanish doubles title-winning duo. It was doubles #1 VRP's third title of the season, and second Tier I of '05. ============================
FRESH FACES: Nicole Vaidisova & Viktoriya Kutuzova
...less than a week from her Sweet 16 birthday, Nicky V cut down two of the tour's better-playing ladies, Shahar Peer and Shinobu Asagoe, and another of it's most-slumping, Anastasia Myskina en route to the QF. Meanwhile, the 16-year old Ukrainian Kutuzova, after knocking off Flavia Pennetta and Amy Frazier a few weeks ago, followed up with a nice win over Fabiola Zuluaga. ============================
DOWN: Anastasia Myskina
...the '04 Roland Garros champ continued her '05 swoon in Charleston, dropping her only match to Vaidisova and falling to 9-8 on the year. Maybe playing Fed Cup this week will kick up her competitive fires and relieve her of her recent "boredom."


...everything's comin' up Justine this week. Here's the Queen's official site.

1.Final - JHH d. Dementieva
...7-5/6-4. Along with Clijsters' two Tier I wins last month, this makes it three straight unseeded Tier I champions. ============================
2.3rd - Golovin d. V.Williams
...7-5/6-4. Did Venus have an excuse? Judge for yourself. Here's what she said after the match: "I'm just having a mental letdown from all the tennis I've been playing in the last four weeks." Hmmm, Venus didn't mention her reality show prep. Oh, and Tatiana played well, too, right? For the record, Venus has played ten matches in the last four weeks. To win a slam, she'd have to play seven matches in two weeks. You do the math. ============================
3.3rd - Vaidisova d. Asagoe
..3-6/6-4/7-6. A win over one of the tour's hotter players.
4.2nd - Vaidisova d. Myskina
...6-3/5-7/6-4. And one over one of the coldest. ============================
5.2nd - Benesova d. Zvonareva
...6-4/4-6/7-5. Maybe Memphis was an aberration. ============================
6.QF - JHH d. Davenport
...3-6/6-3/1-0 ret. A pulled hip flexor put Davenport out, but JHH might have done it anyway.
7.SF - JHH d. Golovin
...7-6/7-5. Other than Le Petit Taureau, no one left Charleston with a sunnier outlook than the Frussian Pastry. ============================
8.1st - JHH d. Jankovic
...5-7/7-6/6-2. If that 2nd set TB hadn't gone her way...
9.2nd - JHH d. Peng
...the Queen wouldn't have made her second escape of the week an afterthought, considering what happened the rest of the tournament. 6-2/4-6/6-4.
10.Hvar Final (ITF) - Sanja Ancic d. Zec-Peskiric
...4-6/6-2/6-4. Back-to-back titles for Mario's little sister.



9...Davenport (7/2)
7...Sharapova (5/2)
6...Henin-Hardenne (5/1)
6...Mauresmo (5/1)

**2005 FINALISTS BY COUNTRY** 8...USA (3 titles)
6...Russia (4)
4...Australia (1)
3...Belgium (3)
3...Italy (2)


==WEEK 16 THOUGHTS== "official" picks (but some predictions, though) this time around with Fed Cup play at the end of the week. But it's all the better for me, since I'll get an extra week to revel in my first truly good pick of the season. Yep, that's right -- I picked the Queen over Punch-Sober final in Charleston last time out. Maybe there was something to going with the player I'd LIKE to see win. Hmmm... would it be fair to start saying I've gone 3-for-7 in picks in recent weeks? It sounds so much better than the 1-for-15 run that preceded it, and at least gives me a little hope that this section of Backspin can experience something of a successful rebirth over the balance of the 30 weeks that remain in the season.

On to the Fed Cup 1st Round predictions:

[Group I]
Russia d. Italy (red clay) 4-1
USA d. Belgium (hard) 5-0
Spain d. Argentina (red clay) 3-2
France d. Austria (red clay) 5-0

...major powers advance as expected, but watch the Russia/Italy tie since Italy is loaded with good claycourters and the Sharapova-less Russians will depend on Myskina righting herself before her RG build-up as the Horde's '04 Fed Cup title defense begins.

[Group II]
Slovak Republic d. Switzerland (hard) 3-2
Germany d. Indonesia (red clay) 4-1
Croatia d. Thailand (hard) 4-1
Czech Republic d. Japan (red clay) 3-2

...the matchup of the Czech Maidens and the Rising Sunners should be the most interesting one here.

All for now.


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