Friday, June 02, 2006

The Daily Backspin, RG 6: X-Women: The Next Stand?

Since when are the winners of a combined six grand slam titles "dark horses" to take a seventh? When they're named Venus and Maria, and the slam is Roland Garros.

With half the Round of 16 slots filled, the top-ranked women have been setting fire to the clay courts. The current Top 10 ranked players are a combined 18-1 so far. The Top 18 are 38-1. Only #3-seed Nadia Petrova, who was the hottest player on tour coming into Paris, has bowed out to this point. But even with all those name players still out there fighting, the two "X-Factor" players are named Williams and Sharapova.

Neither will likely win Roland Garros, and both or either could lose their next match (Williams plays Patty Schnyder, while Sharapova faces fellow Russian Dinara Safina), but what's already happened to them in these early rounds in Paris might turn out to be very important nonetheless. If not in Paris, then a little ways across Europe at SW19.

Both came into this event a little green on the match toughness side due to injury-related layoffs, with Venus still working her way back after missing three months after the Australian Open, while Sharapova missed the previous two leading into Roland Garros. Toss in the fact that clay is the worst surface for both, that they've both made it into the second week of action is already quite impressive.

Through three matches, both have gotten progressively better, too. Sharapova narrowly avoided a 1st Round upset loss to Mashona Washington, but buckled down and got through it. She's since proceded to handle Iveta Benesova and Alicia Molik with relative ease. Venus suffered through slow starts agaisnt Sybille Bammer and Emma Laine, but gathered her game and advanced. In the 3rd Round, she won a tight 1st set against Karolina Sprem, then sailed through to the Round of 16.

Neither are favorites to win Roland Garros, and history says they WON'T, either. Venus has only reached one RG final (losing to sister Serena in '02), while Sharapova has never reached any clay singles final on the WTA tour. But the match toughness they're picking up in Paris, essential to rounding their respective games into full and devastating form, might mean even bigger things as the summer goes along.

A fit and ready duo of Venus and Maria should take SW19 by storm next month, with the last two Wimbledon champions making a bee-line for each other in the draw. They could even meet in the final, a rematch of the SF clash won by Williams (ending Sharapova's 22-match grass winning streak) a year ago en route to her surprise comeback title.

The summer is only just beginning, but it could still turn out to be the "Summer of Venus and/or Maria" when things are all said and done... and Paris is at least making it possible. Later this month, when both take up their rackets on the grass courts of England, Sharapova (winner in '04, SF in '05) and Williams (remarkably a finalist in five of the last six years, winning three times) will fully be in their elements. For them, Roland Garros is akin to a tune-up event. And, up to now, it's been a pretty good one, too. Whether fate places them in a (more-or-less) unlikely semifinal against each other late next week or not, whatever happens in Paris is dessert.

Their main course is still to come... on the green courts of the All-England Club.

This Prelude in Paris could just make perfect.

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There were a slew of important three-setters on the women's side today:

2nd - Groenefeld d. Jackson... 6-7/6-2/6-1. Two days of play and nearly two months later, ALG finally puts that Fed Cup loss behind her.
2nd - Dementieva d. Kutuzova... 3-6/6-0/6-4. Kutuzova was up 5-1 after yesterday. Punch-Sober won 14-5 today.
3rd - Schiavone d. Pennetta... 4-6/6-1/9-7. Schiavone is the longest-lasting Noodle (assuming Garbin doesn't upset JHH again tomorrow).
3rd - Schnyder d. Vakulenko... 2-6/7-5/6-0. Well, Julia put up a fight but ran out of gas in the end. Still, she tied with Rezai as the "Last Qualifier Standing."

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FIRST SEED OUT: #18 Elena Likhovtseva (1st vs. Sprem)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Julia Vakulenko (3rd) & Aravane Rezai (3rd)
REVELATION LADIES: The French Pastries (Rezai, Cornet, Johansson, Pichet, etc.)
UPSET QUEEN: The Americans (Perry, Jackson, Harkleroad)

STILL TO COME: "It" Girl & Mademoiselle Opportunity

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1.Amelie Mauresmo
2.Martina Hingis
3.Venus Williams

1.Ana Ivanovic
2.Anna-Lena Groenefeld
3.Jamea Jackson

1.Shenay Perry
2.Mashona Washington
3.Ivana Lisjak

1.Martina Hingis
2.Patty Schnyder
3.Mashona Washington

1.Nicole Vaidisova
2.Aravane Rezai
3.Alize Cornet

1.Nadia Petrova
2.Ting Li & Tiantian Sun
3.Elena Likhovtseva

1st Round - Sharapova d. Washington
...Sharapova overcomes a 5-2 3rd set deficit, and saves three match points (with the help of her fine feathered friends)

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1...Czech Republic
1...Slovak Republic

(Top Half of Draw)
3...Russia (Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Safina)
1...Czech Republic (Vaidisova)
1...France (Mauresmo)
1...Italy (Schiavone)
1...Switzerland (Schnyder)
1...USA (V.Williams)

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DAY 7: Saturday, June 3 the Round of 16 lineups will be complete after tomorrow, things begin to get serious now.

Nadal vs. Federer is still lining up rather nicely, though with the Swiss Mister again having a bit of trouble again today (this time against Nicolas Massu, who struggled to get past Xavier Malisse in the 1st Round), the form that he'll need to complete his RogerSlam has yet to materialize. Could Tommy Robredo pose a problem if they meet in the QF? Of course, if Nadal were to lose along the way things would change dramatically. Boy, would a result like that send some major shockwaves across this tournament or what? Has any recent male player other than Federer or Sampras at Wimbledon been pretty much ceded a spot in a slam final like the Spanish (as of Saturday) TWENTY-year old has been at this Roland Garros?

The most interesting men's match on Day 7 might be the Blake/Monfils showdown as the last American tries to take out the best of the young Frenchmen. In mixed doubles, Martina Navratilova and Bob Bryan face Sania Mirza/Paul Hanley... with the winner drawing Oz champs Martina Hingis/Mahesh Bhupathi.

Both the Belgians will get tests, as Kim Clijsters faces Anabel Medina-Garrigues, the underrated Spaniard who seems perpetually frozen in the role because she can't come up big at the slams. Justine Henin-Hardenne plays Tathiana Garbin, the player who upset her in the 2nd Round of Roland Garros in 2004 (the only match JHH has lost in her last seventeen matches in Paris).

But I'll go with this as the "Match to Watch":


...the '04 champ is still a lurking threat, especially if she can pick up some momentum against the '05 Quarterfinalist who's rolled through both her opponents so far. The winner will likely be facing Henin-Hardenne next, with one or the other probably going on to claim the semifinal slot in their quarter.

All for Day 6.


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