Friday, September 08, 2006

Day 12: Shock & Awesome

On Day 12 of the 2006 U.S. Open, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Maria Sharapova reminded everyone precisely how they originally introduced themselves on the grand slam stage just a few seasons ago.

Through a series of shock and awe moments on Friday, they forcibly pushed and shoved their way past their shell-shocked opponents into the Saturday night meeting that had always appeared to be the most likely final weekend match-up when this tournament began nearly two weeks ago.

Back in 2003, "Le Petit Taureau" was born in a season that saw Henin-Hardenne fight through debilitating leg cramps to defeat Lindsay Davenport in a 9-7 3rd set in an Australian Open SF, win her first slam crown in Roland Garros, then come to New York and survive back-to-back SF & Final matches against Jennifer Capriati (a three-hour contest where she was two points from defeat ten times, trailing 3-5 in the 2nd set and 2-5 in the 3rd) and, less than twenty-four hours later, Kim Clijsters despite being on the cusp (and teetering on the edge) of exhaustion.

A year later, a 17-year old Sharapova transformed herself from a player with great potential into a giant killer in front of everyone's eyes at Wimbledon. After a come-from-behind win over Davenport in the SF, she went "Supernova" as she shocked Serena Williams in the final, leaving the sports world in awe, and Madison Avenue banging down her door.

On Friday, Justine once again did what she did best... hold on against all odds and live to tell about it. Longshot semifinalist Jelena Jankovic was looking like anything but that in today's match. With Henin-Hardenne battling her own serve and the Serbian 21-year old hitting clean winners from all over the court, JHH fell behind 1-4 in the 1st set, ultimately losing it 6-4 after holding her serve just once in five attempts.

Later in the day, Maria blasted through world #1 Amelie Mauresmo, bageling the winner of two '06 grand slams in the 1st set. In a nip-and-tuck 2nd set, the Frenchwoman provided more evidence of her new-found resilience as she claimed the set 6-4 to force a deciding third stanza. If Sharapova was going to break her 0-for-5 slam SF streak, and reverse her 0-for-3 career mark against Mauresmo, she was going to have to reach back for the awe of '04.

Even while being able to break back to prevent a landslide loss, Henin-Hardenne still couldn't make up ground during the 2nd set of a match that saw her having tossed in eleven double-faults in a little more than a set and a half after having had just ten through the tournament's first five rounds. With Jankovic serving, JHH was down 4-6/2-4 30/40, and her shot to play in a fourth '06 slam final (something no woman had done since Martina Hingis in 1997) was about to disintigrate.

But then it happened.

Jankovic crazily got into an argument with the chair umpire for not being willing to overturn poor line calls (forcing her to use her replay challenges). Jankovic had had JHH cornered, but her own distraction gave "Le Petit Taureau" an opening... and it was all the Belgian needed to survive, and then thrive. After the argument, the Serbian immediately double-faulted on game point. Moments later, she'd been broken and her advantage erased.

Jankovic wouldn't win another game in the match.

With the crowd anticipating a heated 3rd set battle between Sharapova and Mauresmo, the shock that Sharapova created in the 1st set returned in full. After Amelie's leaping fist punch to celebrate her knotting of the match, she wouldn't win another game. The final set went just as the 1st as she was bageled by the 19-year old Russian once again in the 6-0/4-6/6-0 match.

Henin-Hardenne took the final ten games of the match, finding her form just in time and winning 4-6/6-4/6-0... leaving Jankovic as disappointed in herself as JHH had to be proud of her own ability to persevere as she had back in 2003. Thus, on Day 12, the astounding lack of appreciation for "Le Petit Taureau's" laudable fighter's instincts that was displayed by the pouncing critics after Melbourne was once again called out to be the odious (not to mention forgetful) attack it was. Not to say "I told you so," but... I told you so.

Meanwhile, Sharapova's first slam final since claiming a Wimbledon title at least a year ahead of optimistic prognostications should have a quieting effect on any of the critics who'd begun to mutter under their breaths about her not living up to the expectations generated by her SW19 exploits. She's still improving... so imagine where she'll be a year from now.

Questions asked have now been countered with emphatic answers by both Henin-Hardenne and Sharapova. Now, there's only one more left: Who's going to win on Saturday night?

Whichever one it turns out to be, it'll be a moment worth savoring by the winner's backers, and a poke in the eye to their detractors.

Shock and awe THAT, boys and girls. No, make that "shock and awesome."

LOVE-LOVE... seriously, were those two of the weirdest slam semifinals you've ever seen, or what?
15-LOVE... Martina Navratilova, if she indeed does ultimately never play again, has a chance to go out in style. Today, she and Bob Bryan advanced to the Mixed Doubles final with a walkover past Meghann Shaughnessy/Justin Gimelstob (hmmm... I'm smellin' that conspiracy again). Tomorrow, she'll close out her career with a shot at a final grand slam title (it'd be her 59th) if she and Bryan can defeat Kveta Peschke & Martin Damm. The appropriate stage is set, and the match will actually take place AFTER the Henin-Hardenne/Sharapova singles final on Ashe. Another like her will never venture this way (and for this long) again, so it's time to enjoy her one last time. Hopefully, Peschke/Damm won't see fit to play the Benjamin Becker role and spoil the party.
15-15... in a bit of trivia(l?) history, Jana Novotna defeated Nathalie Tauziat today in the 1st Round of Champions play by a 5-7/6-2/[10-5] score. It was Tauziat on the other side of the net when Novotna won her Wimbledon title in '98. Go, Jana! If Martina can play doubles at nearly 50, why can't you at a mere 37? (Yeah, maybe that's the old heart talking.)
15-30... not sure what it means, but do you realize that in Amelie Mauresmo's final five sets of play in Flushing Meadows against Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova -- which surrounded the QF win over Dinara Safina -- she produced two brilliantly played sets of tennis but three (THREE!) sets lost at love. Weird. In the 3rd set against Sharapova, her accuracy just disappeared. There was some wind going through the court, but it really wasn't strong enough to account for her winning just seven of the final thirty-one points and committing fourteen unforced errors. It wasn't a return of the "old Amelie," but it wasn't the "new" one, either.
30-30... a mixed bag for Canadian tennis on Day 12. Sharon Fichman lost in the Girls singles QF to Katerina Vankova, but she and Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (the #1 seeds) advanced to the Girls Doubles SF. Also, Peter Polansky defeated Roman Jebavy, and will now face American Donald Young in the Boys SF. Not bad, eh?

#1 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) vs. Katerina Vankova (CZE)
Lauren Albanese (USA) vs. #11 Tamira Paszek (AUT)

Peter Polansky (CAN) vs. #4 Donald Young (USA)
#10 Dusan Lojda (CZE) vs. #9 Luka Belic

40-30... could Lauren Albanese be the top American teen to watch now? After a few years searching for the young player at the leading edge of the next group of American girls, 16-year old Floridian Albanese has stepped up in a big way at this Open. After getting a wild card into the main draw, she got a 1st Round win over Olga Savchuk. And now "Ms. Wolf" is into the Girls SF and possibly looking to begin to clean up the seeming mess (or has it simply produced late bloomers?) that has been the American junior development program over the past decade. Hurry, Lauren. Time is of the essence.
GAME, (everybody sing) "SHE FEELS PRETTY. OH, SO PRETTY. IT'S AMAZING HOW PRETTY SHE FEELS...but not nearly as pretty as she'll feel if she wins tomorrow night."
...will it have any magic left after two weeks of wear? (Well, not really... but she might have wrung every bit of good karma out of the garment in that Golovin match.) Yes, Sharapova's little black dress will make it's final appearance on Saturday night. And since I'm sticking with my pre-tournament pick that Justine will win, I'm hoping that Sharapova will be virtually naked out there on Saturday. (Hey... you KNOW what I mean. Geez... such dirty minds.) Of course, Henin-Hardenne can't expect her opponent to fold like a deck chair as Jankovic did today. She'll have to be ready to go from the start rather than wait a set and three-quarters of another before she stops finally serving as if she's Elena Dementieva's doppelganger. Of course, with Sharapova seemingly finally gotten use to her additional height since she won Wimbledon, and her game having nearly totally caught up with her growth spurt, it wouldn't be a shock if the New York crowd got an early preview of the "Sharapova Scenario" as if it was a fledgling Broadway production. But I'm not going to back off Le Petit Taureau right after she made another memorable appearance on Arthur Ashe. So... HENIN-HARDENNE IN THREE SETS.

All for Day 12.


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