Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Daily Backspin, RG 8: A Supernovic Stumble and the Birth of a Dynamo(va)

What did we just witness?

The fate and future path of Nicole Vaidisova's career has been merrily conjoined with the already-traveled road of Maria Sharapova for a while now. As Vaidisova followed along in Sharapova's wake, the links between the two were certainly "intriguing," from the flowing blond locks and powerful groundstrokes to the Floridian connections and potential off-the-court marketing bonanzas.

On Day 8, the fortunes of the teenaged pair criss-crossed in rare fashion. And, as the sun set in Paris, it was the Russian who was boring holes into the ceiling with a stare that lasted deep into the night, and the Czech who was staring into the stary sky, wondering whether "her time" had suddenly arrived.

Sharapova nearly flopped out of this tournament on Day 1, but managed to make a few winged friends and survive to wail another day. Gaining her footing on the terre battue and playing off the rust of a two-month layoff, she entered her 4th Round match with Dinara Safina being able to harbor subtle thoughts of a far more successful Parisian holiday than anyone could have ever expected. And for a while on Sunday, her perceived pre-Paris faults remained a thing of the past.

Even after losing a 5-3 lead and failing to secure two set points in the opening stanza against Safina, the Supernova's fortunes appeared bright deep into the 3rd set. She led her Russian counterpart 4-0, then failed to secure a break point for 5-0. No matter, it was soon 5-1. In moments, she was just two points from the quarterfinals.

Then the pigeons got even.

Whether they stared her down from their perches atop Lenglen, or they'd already worked their dark magic earlier in the morning, something happened to Sharapova that was very uncharactistic. She choked. In a grand slam. Against another Russian. And she didn't have a Rafa banana around to help explain away her inability to swallow, either. A few ill-time double faults and wayward forehands later, and Safina was playing Rocky to the Supernova's Bullwinkle.

"Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat."

And Safina did. She broke Sharapova's serve three straight times. She won the final six games of the match, precipitating a slam crashout that the Supernova seemed immune from every having to experience. But it happens to almost every top player at some point, and on Sunday it was Sharapova's turn.

Somewhere, the pigeons were bobbing their heads, admiring the spectacle made possible because of their interference on Day 1. In the end, they proved their unbiased nature.

A few hours later, Darlin' Nikki had the chance to fill the void left by the Supernova's exit. After a series of on-court fits and false starts, feats of promise and then feet of clay (no pun intended) in Melbourne, Vaidisova saw her chance.

As a result, "The Dynamova" was born on Court Chatrier.

In her other grand slam Round of 16 meeting with Amelie Mauresmo in Australia, Vaidisova crumbled like a stale cracker. She barely showed up, showing her youth and raising at least a little doubt about her supposedly high-flying future. Or, at the very least, the timetable for her expected ascent. On Sunday, the rematch presented another opportunity for the 17-year old to crack: she lost a tight 1st set in a 7-5 tie-break. This time, she didn't succumb. Instead, it was the Oz champ who wilted under the pressure, and the kid who played to her potential and sailed through to the quarterfinals with two dominating, not to mention somewhat strikingly uncomfortable (for longtime Mauresmo watchers), sets won by Vaidisova 6-1/6-2.

So, the Dynamova will use Sunday as a means of gaining ground on her bigger goals, while the Supernova is left to pick up the pieces and prepare for Wimbledon, where her lack of match toughness and inability to close out an "in-the-bag" match will have to be forgotten and overcome. If she's the champion she's always appeared to be, this match will only serve to spur her on.

But what of Vaidisova? Will she now be content that she finally shined on the big stage, and willingly submit to the pressure of playing five-time slam champion Venus Williams for a slot in the semis? Or, ala Sharapova at Wimbledon less than two years ago, will she recognize that there's no better time than the present to declare that "her moment" has come, and grab for her destiny with both hands?

What did we just witness? If nothing else, a 'Nova-esque rite of passage, for sure. For the Dynamova, but for the Supernova, as well. How they handle their immediate fates will be quite the intriguing story to follow for the remainder of this tournament, as well as this summer.

Slip or soar, the intertwining stories of the blonde bombers promise to continue to twist together.

Isn't it great?


Well, that jinx on Mauresmo worked out pretty well, huh?


By the way, big congrats to NBC for its Roland Garros coverage today. I mean, who would've ever thought to play taped coverage of Monfils/Blake AND Federer/Berdych rather than live coverage of one of the young up-and-coming stars knocking out the #1 player in the world in front of her home nation fans?

Pure genius, guys.


**2006 WINS OVER WOMEN'S #1**
Jan - Aust. QF - #6 Henin-Hardenne d. Davenport
Feb - Antwerp F - #2 Mauresmo d. Clijsters
Mar - Miami SF - #14 Kuznetsova d. Mauresmo
Apr - Fed Cup SF - #11 Schiavone d. Mauresmo
May - Berlin SF - #7 Henin-Hardenne d. Mauresmo
June - RG 4th - #16 Vaidisova d. Mauresmo


DAY 9: Monday, June 5

MARTINA N. & MARTINA H.'ll be all-Martina-all-the-time on Day 9, as Hingis completes her 4th Round match with Shahar Peer, currently tied at a set apiece. Later, Hingis & Bhupathi face off with Navratilova/B.Bryan in the 2nd Round of Mixed Doubles.

As the men complete their 4th Round action, I think the most interesting match could be Monfils vs. Djokovic. The talk of the vanquished last week centered around how hard the young Serb was hitting the ball; while the French teen has recaptured his winning junior mindset, taking all three of his matches in five-set knock-down-drag-outs that'll either soon sap him of his mojo or set up a potentially very raucous QF matchup with a particular Spanish 20-year old in long pants.

**Men's Bottom Half 4th Round Picks**
Martin d. Benneteau
Ljubicic d. Ramirez-Hidalgo
Djokovic d. Monfils
Nadal d. Hewitt

(top half 4th Rd. picks: 3-1)

All for Day 8.




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