Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Wk.10/11-A Breeze in the Desert

Like a cool breeze, Maria Sharapova swept into Indian Wells lugging along in her tennis bag a good, but not great (by her standards, anyway), nearly-one quarter of a season. After three events, she'd chalked up two SF and a RU result, but she'd failed to claim a title of any kind. And, you know, when you're the Supernova people start to whisper about "what have you done lately."

Two weeks later, Sharapova was hoisting a humpback whale-shaped trophy, and her season had a new direction and, dare it be said, vigor?

== "Maria, what you gon' do with all that junk? All that junk inside your trunk? Your hump, your hump..." (sorry, I couldn't resist) ==

A year ago, a post-wrist injury Kim Clijsters re-entered the WTA fray in Indian Wells. She walked off with a surprise title (and another two weeks later in Miami), as her newly-strengthened wrist built a foundation for a finally-strong backbone come Flushing Meadows six months later. This year, Clijsters missed the desert event (she returns this week in Miami) while nursing that ankle she turned in Melbourne. The absence caused her to lose her #1 ranking to Amelie Mauresmo, and it provided another player with the opportunity to provide a clue about the remainder of HER '06 season. Hoping that the crowning of this year's version of the Indian Wells champion would be an event that will foretell the future as well as a year ago, Sharapova stepped into the spotlight.

The Supernova hasn't had a poor season, but until Indian Wells she hadn't given any indication of being ready to kick-start the type of momentum she'll need to claim a second slam title before the end of 2006. In Cali, though, she mastered the Hingis Conundrum in the SF, and barely broke a sweat in the final against Elena Dementieva, proving once again that it's best to bet on Sharapova in most all-Russian matchups. Sure, it'd been a bigger statement-making week if in gaining her second career Tier I title she'd had to face the likes of Justine Henin-Hardenne or Lindsay Davenport, but she could only knock down the obstacles put in front of her. And that she did with the ease of a breeze turned suddenly warmer by it's sojourn through the desert. Now, if only she could find a way to carry this spark into the upcoming clay season (a surface on which she's yet to make a tour final) she could be on to something big (and less odd-looking -- and slightly phallic -- than that trophy).

Could Sharapova match Clijsters' Indian Wells-Miami combo? Stay tuned.


S: Maria Sharapova d. Elena Dementieva 6-1/6-2
D: Raymond/Stosur d. Ruano-Pascual/Shaughnessy

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Maria Sharapova
...while everyone else (as you'll see in a moment) was involved in all the drama, Sharapova just won. And won big. Her eleventh career singles title makes her the winningest Russian woman ever.
RISERS: Elena Dementieva & Na Li
...the Russian who grabbed the most headlines last week wasn't Sharapova, it was Dementieva, who reached her second Tier I final of '06. Her serve was often off. Her error count was often incredibly high. Her consistency was often all over the map. But, as is often the case with Dementieva, it didn't really matter. She outlasted both Sania Mirza and Ana Ivanovic in two very losable matches, then in the SF showed once again why she transformed from the lead-squandering "Punch-Drunk" into the never-say-die "Punch-Sober" a few years ago, escaping a two-breaks down 6-2/5-2 hole against Henin-Hardenne, then cleaning up her game in the deciding third set to notch one of the biggest come-from-behind wins of her career. As for Li, she's one of the few Chinese women putting up any singles results to be proud of in '06. In Indian Wells, she blew away Iveta Benesova (6-0/6-1!!) and took out upstart American Vania King, as well.
SURPRISES: Sybille Bammer & Maret Ani

...Austrian Bammer, 25, a semifinalist in Pattaya City earlier this season, reached the IW 3rd Round after wins over Jie Zheng and Jelena Jankovic before losing to Martina Hingis. Estonia's Ani, 24, followed up her Acapulco SF with wins over Nathalie Dechy and Marion Bartoli in IW. (Of course, then she loss to Carly Gullickson in the first round of qualifying in Miami on Monday.)
VETERAN: Martina Hingis
...after upsetting the Supernova in Tokyo, Hingis looks like she might be in the Russian's pocket now, going down 3-and-3 (though the match was closer than the score would make it appear) in the IW semifinals. Still, Hingis handled Dinara Safina and Lindsay Davenport (more on her in a moment) to give her week a nice little glow, nonetheless.
FRESH FACES: Vania King & Meng Yuan
...again, King made enough noise to mark herself as one of the few young American hopes for the future. Wins over Klara Koukalova and Anastassia Rodionova moved her into the Top 100 for the first time. Yuan might turn out be this year's version of Zi Yan as the most improved Cookie of the year. She qualified in IW, then knocked off Akiko Morigami and Catalina Castano. She's already moved from #153 to #100 this season.
DOWN: Lindsay Davenport & Justine Henin-Hardenne
...while some players had nice times in California, others didn't. Oh, Davenport and JHH flying high for a while (just ask Ashley Harkleroad, who was bageled by ol' LD), but when they landed... boy, they landed hard. Davenport is looking more and more like a veteran player finishing up her career, as she wilted (again) in a 3rd set against a good player (Hingis) then pulled out of Miami with a bulging disc in her back. If 2006 is to be her curtain call, and it's starting to look like that'll be the case, she might have one (and only one) run left in her body... so the late summer hardcourt season is now even more of a priority than it was going to be anyway. As for Justine... oh, Justine. It's clear that JHH is back, but Le Petit Taureau is still lagging behind. LPT would never have failed to close out Dementieva in the 2nd set, and Henin-Hardenne's less-muscled body is showing signs it won't be able to hold up all season (first it was a shoulder in Australia, and now maybe a knee). The less-demanding-on-the-her-joints clay season (where she was 24-0 a year ago) can't get here fast enough.

1.IW SF - Dementieva d. JHH
...2-6/7-5/7-5. Henin-Hardenne lost her grip on a "certain" win, then Dementieva settled her game. JHH never regained control, and the Russian once again proved to be a dangerous third-set mistress. This match is precisely the type of occurrence that made "Punch-Sober" a reality.
2.IW 4th - Hingis d. Davenport
...6-3/1-6/6-2. This was their first meeting since October '01. If their matchups went like this more often, maybe Martina would have never left.
3.IW Final - Sharapova d. Dementieva

...6-1/6-2. A bit of an anticlimax, for sure... but look at Maria "working it" after she won. Hey, Sharapova's now tied with Anna with eleven career titles. I'm talking about Anna Smashnova, of course.
4.IW SF - Sharapova d. Hingis
...6-3/6-3. Advantage Sharapova. 2-1.
5.IW Doub.Final - Raymond/Stosur d. Ruano-Pascual/Shaughnessy
...the #1 & #2 doubles players in the world claimed their third title of '06, and second Tier I. They were also RU in Melbourne.
6.IW 3rd - Dulko d. Golovin
...6-1/5-7/7-6. Golovin lost a 5-1 lead in the deciding tie-break.
7.IW 3rd - Dementieva d. Mirza
...5-7/6-4/6-4. Sania decides to play doubles with Israel's Shahar Peer -- in the type of in-your-face act of indvidualism we came to love a season ago -- and (not surprisingly?) her game looked better, too. Hmmm. On another note, Mirza's first "major" American ad campaign was spotted during the commercial breaks of ESPN's Indian Wells coverage.
8.IW QF - Sharapova d. Groenefeld
...6-1/6-3. Indian Wells wasn't Moscow. That was both good for ALG, and bad. "Payback" will have to wait. (And I'm not talking about the Mel Gibson movie.)
9.Canberra (ITF) Final - Gajdosova d. Adamczak
...7-6/6-2. The 18-year old Slovak won her third straight challenger to run her ITF winning streak to fifteen matches.


Tokyo - Dementieva d. Hingis
Indian Wells - Sharapova d. Dementieva

*WEEKS AS SINGLES #1 in 2006*
7...Kim Clijsters
3...Lindsay Davenport
1...Amelie Mauresmo (current #1)

3...Mauresmo (AO-Paris-Antwerp, 3-0)
3...Henin-H. (Sydney-AO-Dubai, 2-1)
2...Sharapova (Dubai-IW, 1-1)
2...Pennetta (Bogota-Acapulco, 0-2)
2...Kostanic (Pattaya-Bangalore, 0-2)

6...France (4 titles)
6...Russia (3)
5...Italy (1)
4...Belgium (2)

11...Maria Sharapova (2003-06)
10...Anastasia Myskina (1999-05)
9....Olga Morozova (1969-75)
5....Elena Dementieva (2003-06)
5....Svetlana Kuznetsova (2002-04)
4....Dinara Safina (2002-05)

06 Tokyo SF - Hingis 6-3/6-1
06 Dubai QF - Sharapova 6-3/6-4
06 Indian Wells SF - Sharapova 6-3/6-3




...a mixed bag in Part I of BR/06, as Henin-Hardenne's SF collapse cost both Pierre Cantin and me a chance to say we picked the Indian Wells winner.

4th ROUNDERS: Backspin 11-9

05 F: Clijsters d. Sharapova
06 TOP: Mauresmo/Clijsters

BACKSPIN's picks:

-4th Round-
Mauresmo d. Ivanovic
Petrova d. Safina
Henin-Hardenne d. Sugiyama
Hingis d. Schnyder
Myskina d. Peer
Sharapova d. King
Dementieva d. Schiavone
Clijsters d. Groenefeld
Petrova d. Mauresmo
Henin-Hardenne d. Hingis
Sharapova d. Myskina
Clijsters d. Dementieva
Henin-Hardenne d. Petrova
Sharapova d. Clijsters
Sharapova d. Henin-Hardenne


4th round:
Mauresmo def Ivanovic
Safina def Petrova
Henin-Hardenne def Likhovtseva
Hingis def Schnyder (wow...good match here)
Myskina def Chakvetadze
Sharapova def Kirilenko
Dementieva def Golovin
Clijsters def Groenefeld

Mauresmo def Safina
Henin-Hardenne def Hingis
Sharapova def Myskina
Clijsters def Dementieva

Mauresmo def Henin-Hardenne
Sharapova def Clijsters

Sharapova def Mauresmo (wow...another big title for Maria??? Better believe it!)

All for now.


NEXT WEEK: another Special Edition of Backspin


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