Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Daily Backspin, RG 12: Down the Line, and Across the Chops

"Down the line, and across the chops."

That was the story of the women's semifinals on Thursday... what one player DIDN'T do, and what another player DID.

It's tempting to say that what Justine Henin-Hardenne did to Kim Clijsters (a 6-3/6-2 thrashing) in their twentieth career meeting brings her tennis redemption within arm's reach, but doing so would be to fall for the months-old misperception that she's ever needed redeeming in the first place. She never has. (The lack of an asterisk by Amelie Mauresmo's Australian Open title will forever be a testament to that fact.) But it IS fair to say that, after seeing her game waver in and out of alignment for the past few months, Queen Justine has apparently rediscovered her champion's form -- and, in turn, herself -- in Paris.

Nicole Vaidisova is still in the process of completing the early stages of HER tennis foundation. She's almost got it down, but not quite yet. Thursday provided the evidence... for the 17-year old SHOULD be facing off against the Belgian on Saturday, but she'll be watching the final instead.

After so many correct decisions and the flashing of an almost preternatural ability to ignore pressure in Paris through five matches, Vaidisova's Roland Garros journey was undone by a few nervous moments and one bad shot. Up 7-5/5-3, the Czech teenager served for the match, only to appear to back off her shots just enough to allow Svetlana Kuznetsova to find a backdoor through which to enter a match that was all but a handshake at the net from being over.

After the steadier Russian gained the lead in the set at 6-5, Vaidisova got herself under control and forced a tie-break. There, at 5-5, she approached a less-than-mediocre Kuznetsova drop shot that bounced at the back of the deuce court service box and prepared to hit the most important shot of the match. Rather than crushing a stinging forehand down the line, likely out of reach of Kuznetsova, who was stationed on the left side of the court, the Czech attempted a riskier crosscourt flick-of-the-wrist shot behind her opponent. The ball sailed wide and, rather than a match point, the Dynamova faced a set point in Kuznetsova's favor. One point later, the match was knotted at a set apiece, but it turned out to be, once again, all but over save for a handshake at the net.

This time, Vaidisova failed to forget her missed opportunities. Kuznetsova jumped at the chance she was given and sailed though to her second slam final with a 5-7/7-6/6-2 victory. Vaidisova will be thinking about this one for a while, or at least until she gets another chance in similar slam circumstances.

JHH has been there. In her first career slam final at Wimbledon in 2001, the Belgian fought to knot the match with Venus Williams and took the 2nd set, only to fall flat in the 3rd and lose it at love. While Henin-Hardenne has still yet to win a Wimbledon title, she's rarely blown her slam opportunities since. She's gone 6-3 in her slam semifinal appearances, and 4-1 in slam finals (her only loss coming with that Melbourne retirement in January).

While Clijsters was the player who needed to be aggressive in the all-Waffle match-up with Henin-Hardenne, it was "Le Petit Taureau" who actually was. Rather than force the action, Clijsters reverted to the defensive, sometimes tentative player who blew so many of her slam opportunities before winning the U.S. Open last September in what might turn out to be her biggest career aberration, rather than any sort of awakening. JHH took a figurative shot across Clijsters' chops on Chatrier, and the world #2 went down in a heap... never more representative than when she nearly completely whiffed on an overhead in the final stages of the 2nd set. Whether the wind altered the course of the ball or JHH's backcourt stumble distracted her, it doesn't matter. Clijsters whiffed at Roland Garros again, and if she follows through with her retirement plans she won't get another better chance to win there than she had in 2006. Something of a pity, but hardly surprising.

Henin-Hardenne is now on a 21-1 run at Roland Garros, and looks to claim her third title in four seasons at the slam that's become her's to win if she's ready, willing and able to perform come the final week of May. The continuation of that sort of dominance could even turn that semi-tepid response she got from the post-Melbourne French crowd when the tournament began into outright admiration, right? Here's to letting (over-hyped) bygones be bygone.

Vaidisova, though, will have to wait a while longer for her big day. She wasn't ready to boil in Paris, after all. She's still on simmer. But it'd be wise to keep a close eye on THIS pot. She went 18-0 after her U.S. Open loss, then followed up her Oz loss by reaching the SF in her next slam. After today, what does SW19 hold for the Dynamova and those stinging groundstrokes and high octane serve? Could she be on a path adhering even more closely to Maria Sharapova's than anyone imagined? We'll see.

But Saturday will be Justine's time (and Svetlana's, of course), when an "untarnished" grand slam title will be doled out, and the French crowd will decide whether bygones truly will be bygone.

The perfect opportunity has arrived, and it's about time to move on.

6...Amelie Mauresmo (4-2)
6...Nadia Petrova (4-2)
5...Maria Sharapova (3-2)
5...Martina Hingis (3-2)

[by nation]
15...RUSSIA (7 champions)
7....BELGIUM (3)
6....France (4)
6....Italy (1)

5...Amelie Mauresmo
3...Maria Sharapova
3...Martina Hingis
2...Kim Clijsters
2...Nadia Petrova
2...Elena Dementieva
2...Nicole Vaidisova
2...Dinara Safina


Sometimes Backspin gets caught up in the moment and roots for the big and new story. Case in point this Roland Garros, as I gritted my teeth and picked against Le Petit Taureau from the start by choosing Nadia Petrova to advance past her in the QF.

As it turned out, that match never happened.

Before these semifinals, again I touted the virtues of Vaidisova winning this title over Kuznetsova, Clijsters and... gulp... even Henin-Hardenne.

Well, now that one's over, too. So now, without conflict, Backspin can once again become a Justine-friendly zone should she win her fifth grand slam title on Saturday.

Hmmm, maybe the pigeons were Queen Justine fans all along?


In matches other than the women's semis, Martina Navratilova's final Roland Garros journey before her 50th birthday ended when she and Bob Bryan lost in three sets to Likhovtseva/Nestor in the Mixed SF.

In Junior action, #1-seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (the Girls champ in Melbourne) dispatched Tamira Paszek as three of the top four seeds reached the semifinals.

#1 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) v. #3 Yung-Jan Chan (TPE)
Katerina Vankova (CZE) v. #2 Agnieszka Radwanska (POL)

#1 Thiemo De Bakker (NED) v. Philip Bester (CAN)
#8 Petru-Alexandru Lucanu (ROM) v. Martin Klizan (SVK)

#1 Bryan/Bryan v. #2 Bjorkman/Mirnyi

#7 Likhovtseva/Nestor v. #8 Srebotnik/Zimonjic

#1 Raymond/Stosur v. #15 Daniilidou/Medina-Garrigues
#4 Yan/Zheng v. #5 Hantuchova/Sugiyama



Backspin: 1-1 (RG: 9-5), Pierre: 0-2 (RG: 8-6)

Pierre: 2/2, Backspin 1/2 (2006: Backspin leads 7-5)

All for Day 12.


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