Friday, January 20, 2006

Oz Open Day 5: Toto, I Don't Think Serena's in Oz Anymore

One hundred degree-plus on-court temperatures. Wind gusts up to forty miles per hour. Heat restrictions, and closed roofs. Day 5 was not a particularly nice one to be a professional tennis player in Melbourne.

That was especially true if your name was Serena... but for completely different reasons altogether.

A year ago, Serena Williams arrived at the Australian Open with a mission. She wanted to prove everyone wrong who said her time at the top of the game had passed. Two weeks later, after both periodically spotty and brilliantly gutsy play, she'd accomplished her mission and won her seventh career slam title in her most "soulful" performance to date.

Ever since then, what she accomplished in Oz has grown even more remarkable considering how far her results, health and fitness have slipped. Oh, there were whispers, pictures and shouts this week in Melbourne about Serena's muscle-to-flab ratio... but Serena being Serena, no one wanted to underestimate her. They just waited to see what would happen in her rematch with Maria Sharapova in the Round of 16. As it turned out, that match won't happen. Courtesy of Daniela Hantuchova.

DOROTHY OF THE DAY: Daniela Hantuchova
...why, Wonder Girl, as we live and breathe. The 22-year old Slovak would-be star has been drifting in and out of the tennis world's consciousness for the last few years, but it was wins like her 6-1/7-6 3rd Round upset of Serena that caused so many to tout her as the star/champion that Maria Sharapova turned out to be a short time later. But Indian Wells '02 has become ancient history. If Hantuchova is ever going to reclaim her position as one of the "next wave" of champions, she has to make a move in '06. This is a good start, but we'll know a great deal more after she faces off against Sharapova. Serena wasn't at her best physically in Melbourne, no matter how often she kept saying this week that she "wasn't tired" after her matches.
SHEILA: Nadia Petrova
...the #6-seeded Scarlett Empress hasn't really been tested yet, winning on Day 5 6-1/6-2 over Maria Elena Camerin, and might not be against Elena Vesnina in the 4th Round, either. As it is, she's 7-0 in 2006 matches that actually finished (she retired from a defeat in Week 1, then had a walkover loss in Week 2). So, technically, no one's truly beaten on a level playing field. Of course, that won't matter for much longer. Armed with her best-ever ranking and confidence from a late-season title, a quarterfinal matchup with Sharapova (or even Hantuchova) could be her "moment of truth." Rise or fall.
GOBSMACKER: Elena Vesnina
...the 19-year old Hordette outlasted qualifier Olga Savchuk in three sets, 5-7/6-2/6-4, to claim the top half of the draw's most unlikely Round of 16 survivor slot. She'll emerge from Melbourne with her career-high ranking, somewhere inside the Top 100.
AUNTIE EM: Virginia Ruano-Pascual
...the 32-year old Spanish vet is still out there plugging away, beating Laura Granville in the 3rd Round. As the world doubles #2, she's in the doubles draw with (finally) healthy again Paola Suarez, and should break back into the Top 100 in singles with this Round of 16 result, her best slam result since a 2003 QF in Melbourne. She faces Henin-Hardenne next, but she's already won more matches at this Australian Open (3) than she won in all four slams combined (1) last year.
MUNCHKIN: Maria Kirilenko
...the soon-to-be 19-year old Russian put up a nice fight against Lindsay Davenport, taking the 2nd set before a short break from the heat (and blisters on her feet) turned her fortunes in the deciding stanza.
WALKABOUT: Serena Williams
...a few Did-You-Know facts to ponder about Serena:

1)Serena had won 16 straight matches in Melbourne before Friday
2)She's advanced past the 3rd Round in 19 of her last 21 slam appearances
3)Both of those losses (Craybas at '05 Wimbledon) have come in the past year
4)After she'd won the AO a year ago, Serena had advanced to the QF-or-better for sixteen straight slams, a streak that went back to her '99 U.S. Open title. Since last time in Melbourne, her slam results have been 3rd-4th-3rd.
5)Serena's ranking dropped to #15 before play began on Monday. If she's not out of the Top 20 when the next rankings are released, she might be soon.


1.#17 Hantuchova d. #13 S.Williams
...6-1/7-6. Serena still had fight left in her at the end, though, saving three match points (the last with an ace) to force a tie-break, then saving a fourth before finally falling. Before this match, Wonder Girl had never taken more than four games off Serena in a single set. Oh, two more Did-You-Know facts about Serena: she's only played all four slams in a season twice in her career, in 1998 and 2001... and, along with Venus' 1st Round exit, this is the earliest both sisters have ever lost in the same slam.
2.#1 Davenport d. #25 Kirilenko
...6-4/4-6/6-2. If Davenport plays as loosely against Kuznetsova as she did in the 2nd set here, she'll be in trouble.
3.#4 Sharapova d. Kostanic
...6-0/6-1. The Supernova was probably ready for Serena if this match is any indication, but now the pressue is off. Is that good or bad?
HM- Vesnina d. (Q)Savchuk
...5-7/6-2/6-4. Only two of Friday's eight matches went three sets.


..obviously, Daniela Hantuchova has now stepped into the spotlight as the potential winner of the award for the player who takes the most advantage of her big slam opportunites. Of course, she might meet a brick wall in the 4th Round. Kuznetsova has to get past Davenport. Petrova needs to beat the player she's supposed to (Vesnina), then go for broke in the QF against the Sharapova/Hantuchova winner. If the semifinalist out of that section isn't named Maria, Melbourne's "Ms.Opportunity" will likely have been crowned. (Tomorrow: "Ms. O" contenders in the bottom half of the draw)

...Slingin' Sammy. Stosur isn't playing against a top seed or well-known contender -- hello, Sybille Bammer -- but she's been awarded the plum 7:30pm night match on Laver for Day 6. Stosur vs. Hingis could be coming soon.

...there's a temptation to pick Clijsters/Vinci here, with Clijsters' hip still being an issue. But, while the end result will likely turn out to be disappointing, I'll go with:


...maybe Richard will have some more pointers for Michaella for this match. Certainly, Mauresmo wasn't one of the women he was talking about a few years ago when he said that 80% of the women's Top 100 were "fat, lazy pigs." Say what you will about her, Mauresmo's never been accused of being that.

All for now. More tomorrow.


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