Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Oz Open Day 9: Petrova...Off to See the Wizard?

Nadia Petrova really needs to schedule an impromptu trip to the Emerald City to see the Wizard. For more than a year now, the Empress has been just good enough to almost pull off a breakthrough performance in a slam. Her near-miss habit showed up again on Day 9 in Melbourne,

Backspin is an avowed fan of Petrova, ahead of all the other members of the Russian Horde, really. She's the epitome of the type of player that I, personally, find so intriguing. Talented, but not necessarily #1 material. Endearingly competitive, but missing one essential (mental?) ingredient that's preventing her from reaching her full potential. Here are her results from the last six slams:

2004 U.S. (QF-lost to Kuznetsova)
2005 Australian (4th-lost to S.Williams)
2005 R.G. (SF-lost to Henin-Hardenne)
2005 Wimbledon (QF-lost to Sharapova)
2005 U.S. (QF-lost to Sharapova)
2006 Australian (QF-lost to Sharapova)

To summarize, at the last six slams she's either lost to the eventual champion or Maria Sharapova. Good, but not quite good enough. It's the difference between being a slam winner and/or #1-ranked player, and a player who might spend her entire career with a forehead badly bruised from continually banging it against the grand slam ceiling that she can't quite find a way around.

Petrova climbed a small mountain last October, winning her first title in Linz. Then, in November, she traversed another hilly terrain with a 6-1/6-1 win over Sharapova in the WTA Championship Round Robin. It was a meaningless match (Sharapova had already qualified for the SF), and the Supernova admitted as much. But Petrova could make of the result whatever she desired, maybe even using it to instill more confidence in preparation precisely for a match like the one she played in Melbourne on Tuesday.

Maybe she did, for Sharapova could have easily gone down to defeat. But whatever Petrova gained in Linz and Los Angeles still wasn't quite enough to write a different ending to her latest slam chapter.

It's not as if the chances weren't there for her to script a different Oz conclusion, either. In the 1st set against Sharapova, she served for the set twice at 5-4 and 6-5, but was broken both times because she wasn't able to match Sharapova's error-free mettle on the biggest points. In the 1st set tie-break, Petrova held two set points (one on her own serve), but saw her 6-4 lead evaporate and transform into an 8-6 defeat. She double-faulted on Sharapova's set point, then opened the 2nd set by being broken at love.

In the 2nd set, after fighting back to within striking distance to 4-5, she got Sharapova into a 0-40 hole on the Supernova's serve. Sharapova won the game, and the match, anyway in a contest that included a combined 20 double-faults between the two of them. Sharapova had the mental fortitude to win this the pair's third straight slam QF meeting, while Petrova came up just short enough to lose it. Again.

So, Petrova's attempts to trek to her tennis peak will continue, and Backspin will persist in watching with bated breath. Maybe it's because of my seven-year stretch of vicariously experiencing Jana Novotna's slam travails in the early 1990's, as sometimes the long (and possibly futile) battle is even more dramatic than any particular day's smiling victor. It's why Backspin so often focuses on a player's psychology, confidence and big point prowess over their strokes and style of play. Not that such dialogue doesn't have merit, but I know I'd be very bored writing exclusively about the technical aspects of anyone's game. That's why the likes of Petrova's ongoing experiences and growing pains are establishing such a foothold around here. Blame Jana's long trip from "slam choker" to "slam champion"... I'm always on the lookout for another project that turns out to be quite a corker in the end.

As for Sharapova, might this win be a watershed moment, too? Not the match victory per se, but her actions within it. Remember, after a 2004 season that saw her win almost every big point that crossed her path, she began 2005 by blowing three match points in the Australian Open semifinals against Serena Williams. It set up a pattern that persisted all season. She won all the biggies against Petrova. Could a new pattern have been established, or RE-established?

Of course, Justine Henin-Hardenne is up next for the Supernova. You want confidence, belief and all kinds of heart and guts on the court, you look up JHH in the dictionary. Should be an interesting match.

As for Nadia... maybe she DOESN'T need to schedule that trip afterall. The experience of somehow finding what she's missing all by herself -- no matter how long it takes, or even if it never happens at all -- could be all the more exilerating than having it instantly granted by any "Wizard." Just ask Jana.

DOROTHY OF THE DAY: Justine Henin-Hardenne
...one #1-ranked player (Lindsay Davenport) down, one former-#1 (Maria Sharapova) to go. And maybe with a once-and-soon-to-be #1-ranked player again (Kim Clijsters) waiting in the wings... unless, of course, it's another former #1 (Mauresmo or Hingis). Either way, a fifth slam title from JHH will come with an impressive row of heads on sticks lined up outside Le Petit Taureau's door.
SHEILAS: Zi Yan & Jie Zheng

...the Oz doubles fortune of this pair of Cookies is still looking very positive. They knocked out #4-seeds Ruano-Pascual/Suarez in the QF, 4-6/7-5/6-1.
GOBSMACKERS: Shinobu Asagoe & Katarina Srebotnik
...the #9-seeds upset #2-seeded Black/Stubbs, 6-3/4-6/6-0, to reach the doubles SF. Yan/Zheng are up next.
AUNTIE EM: Lisa Raymond & Martina Hingis
...#1-seeded Raymond and Samantha Stosur are the only of the top four doubles seeds to reach the SF. While Hingis, with Mixed partner Mahesh Bhupathi, stuck it to #2 Bjorkman/Raymond to reach the QF.
MUNCHKIN: Anna-Lena Groenefeld
...Girl Friday has reached the Doubles SF with Meghann Shaughnessy (the #5-seeds), beating #3 Likhovtseva/Zvonareva, and the Mixed QF with Frantisek Cermak, beating #7 Huber/Ram.
WALKABOUT: Lindsay Davenport
...the #1-seed, likely because of her ankle injury, didn't hit her one and only ace of a three-set match until game point at 2-5 in the final stanza.

1.QF - #8 Henin-Hardenne d. #1 Davenport
...2-6/6-2/6-3. Davenport will now likely lose her #1 ranking to Kim Clijsters.
2.QF - #4 Sharapova d. #6 Petrova
...7-6/6-4. Sharapova's the only '05 Aussie semifinalist to repeat in' 06. The others: Davenport (QF), Dechy (1r) and Serena (3r).
3.Mixed 2nd - Hingis/Bhupathi d. #2 Raymond/Bjorkman
...7-5/6-7/7-6. The "youngsters" (25 & 31) beat the "oldsters" (32 & 33) in a tight one.


Australian: 1-1
Roland Garros: 2-1
Wimbledon: 1-2
U.S. Open: 1-0
2001 Roland Garros (L)
2001 Wimbledon (W)
2002 Wimbledon (L)
2003 Australian (L)
2003 Roland Garros (W)
2003 Wimbledon (L)
2003 U.S. Open (W)
2004 Australian (W)
2005 Roland Garros (W)
2006 Australian

Australian: 0-1
Roland Garros: 0-0
Wimbledon: 1-1
U.S. Open: 0-1
2004 Wimbledon (W)
2005 Australian (L)
2005 Wimbledon (L)
2005 U.S. Open (L)
2006 Australian

#1 Raymond/Stubbs vs. #5 Groenefeld/Shaughnessy
#9 Asagoe/Srebotnik vs. #12 Yan/Zheng


...the truth about both of them will finally be exposed.

...is it time for Amelie to click her heels and say, "I want to go home?"

#2 Clijsters d. Hingis
#3 Mauresmo d. #7 Schnyder

All for now. More tomorrow.


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