Friday, January 19, 2007

Day 5: Neck-Steppin', Rubberneckin' & All That Jazz

Nadia Petrova's most dangerous opponent has always been the one looking back at her in the mirror... and when the one staring back over the net is Serena Williams, passivity is not an option.

Petrova learned that lesson the hard way on Day 5.

As far as it can be said about any player leading Serena when the younger Sister is determined to right her course, Petrova had Williams dead to rights in their 3rd Round match in Melbourne. She won the 1st set at 6-1, then overcame a 3-0 hole in the 2nd to take a 5-3 lead against a seemingly tiring opponent. Nadia served at 5-4, and the situation called from some aggressive neck-steppin' to make sure Williams didn't get back on her feet. After all, nothing is scarier in tennis than Serena pulling up behind you flashing her siren... and with a ticket quota causing her writing hand to feel itchy. And after two years of being on the outside looking in at the sport she used to dominate, Serena was itchin' to make someone pay.

It turned out to be Petrova. (Cue the siren's blare... Miss Petrova, pull your car over to the side of the road, please.)

Nadia was broken for 5-5 as she didn't pressure Serena the way she should have made it her mission to do. Instead, she appeared to be waiting for Williams to fold. She gave every indication that she WOULD for a while... but this IS Serena, remember. Looks can be deceiving, and an almost won match can turn into a nightmare pretty quickly. It did for Petrova when she double-faulted at 5-6 on set point, allowing Serena to knot the match and get a second chance at life in this 2007 Australian Open. Williams took advantage, outlasting Petrova late in a 3rd set that was tight in its initial stages, taking the match 1-6/7-5/6-3.

Uh-oh. Here she comes.

Now eyes are REALLY going to turn to Serena as the rubbernecking tennis crowd collectively pauses to wonder whether we're about to experience a feeling of deja vu. Two years ago, Williams came to Melbourne without grand expectations, didn't play her best, but managed to survive one match after another and walked off with the title.

Not that she will again... but I'm just saying.

Just having Serena back as a factor (and this win was her first Top 10 victory since she won this tournament in '05) is like finding money on the sidewalk. You can't really EXPECT it to happen, but when it does it certainly puts a little extra spring in your step. The same goes for the WTA finding a determined Serena scampering around the court, winning big points and striking fear in the hearts of tour players everywhere.

Next up for Williams is #11-seed Jelena Jankovic. The same player who's now 12-1 on the season... but also the same player who blew that big lead to Justine Henin-Hardenne at the U.S. Open SF in September, and squandered a lead in a winnable match against Kim Clijsters in Sydney last week. Of course, Serena isn't Belgian... but Jankovic still has to prove she can stand up to big-time pressure against a big-time player who's starting to find her big-time, big-match game again.

There's no player in the sport who can win just a few matches and have so many people try to read so much into them as Serena, but past experience tells us it's simply the thing to do. The same goes here, as a win to advance to the QF WOULD potentially be the most important moment of this Australian Open so far because back-to-back wins over top players would go a long way toward restoring the aura (at least until the end of next week) that used to surround Williams during SerenaSlam, but has waned over the last few seasons. She's already got everyone's attention... the next move would be to leave them shaking in their sneakers.

Meanwhile, Nadia will have to stew, and ponder why. Why couldn't this match have happened on clay in Paris? Why didn't she make a move to win the match in the 2nd set rather than hope that Serena would fold? Petrova didn't exactly wilt, but she didn't flourish, either. Still, the Russian remains on the other side of the fence when it comes to her slam career. She proved that she could overcome her own misgivings of confidence and win titles, then they came to her in abundance. Will the same ever happen for her in a slam?

It's overcoming things like this that makes it so special when the good finally pervails over the bad. I know it did with Jana Novotna nearly a decade ago, and it's probably Petrova's Novotna-esque battle against the specter of her own self-doubt that helped spawn the Backspin fascination with her career in the first place.

Of course, never being able to clear her slam hurdles would be a lingering pain that'd be difficult to cure. But, hey, Roger Federer doesn't play on the WTA tour. The field isn't playing for 2nd place and hoping for fate to intervene as with the men at three of the four slams (and, after this season, maybe all of them), so the opportunity is always there for a player like Nadia to reshape her career... if she'd just let it happen.

You know, just like Serena.

Love-Love...hmmm, Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic in the Round of 16. Not that I or anyone else is crazy enough to pick it, but the Serb is a young up-and-comer who has the ability to pull a whopper of an upset here. Will he? Of course not. I'm just saying... you know, he might take a set off Federer and push him to 7-5 or a tie-break in another. Of course, getting the Godly One's attention in even a close match so early in a slam probably wouldn't bode well for their future meetings, what with Federer being the "murderous assassin" that he often is on the court against someone that he knows he has to keep an eye on. Again, I'm just sayin'.

without the heat being a factor this time around, Shahar Peer and Tatiana Golovin might have played the best women's match of the tournament so far. Peer's shown her fighting spirit in the past (just ask Francesca Schiavone about their U.S. Open match), and she did it again versus the Frussian Pastry. Down 6-3/2-0 and two points from 3-0, she battled back to win the 2nd set 7-5. With Golovin serving at 5-4 in the 3rd, and holding two match points, Peer still refused to wilt. Maybe she learned about that sort of thing during her Israeli army training? Ultimately, her 3-6/7-5/7-5 victory pushes her into that Round of 16 match-up with #3-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova that I was eyeing as her big Melbourne upset last weekend. Nothing against the Contessova, but I've got my fingers crossed.
with the draw being parred down, the candidates for 2007 Oz "It Girl" and "Miss Opportunity" are emerging. In the bottom half of the draw, the "IG" nominees are Shahar Peer, Jelena Jankovic and Nicole Vaidisova. "Miss O" contenders are Peer, Jankovic, Serena Williams and Lucie Safarova.
Girl Friday still has a little going for her. Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Meghann Shaughnessy knocked off the Bondarenko sisters, Alona & Kateryna, 6-7/6-3/6-3. I see... so ALG is fine on hard courts when she only has to cover half the court. Good to know.
MATCH, "Everybody Told Him, But He Just Wouldn't Listen"...
Forget the "Kuznetsova Curse," the "Martina Curse" is the one to look out for. Miss Hingis may keep fiance Radek Stepanek warm at night, but he's so far a stone cold victim of the career malady that afflicts all the Swiss Soon-to-be-Mrs.'s beaus. After holding a two set lead against David Ferrer in their 3rd Rounder, Stepanek saw his lead and the match slip away in five set. Now, as long as Martina beats Aiko Nakamura on Day 6, she will have outlasted him in the draw. He should have known. All he had to do was ask Magnus Norman, Justin Gimelstob, etc.

All for Day 5.


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