Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wk.10/11- Lost and Found

Wonder Girl and the Debutante. They've been unofficially tied together since the early days of Backspin.

As dual subjects of "Intriguing Questions," as well as the objects of either/or discussions as far as career prospects are concerned, uttering "Hantuchova" and "Dokic" in nearly the same breath is a tradition that literally goes ALL the way back, considering Daniela Hantuchova and Jelena Dokic were born just eleven April days apart in Europe in 1983.

Five years ago, they were a tandem team of on-the-rise players. They met in the Round of 16 at Wimbledon (Hantuchova won, just weeks after Dokic had completed a career "surface slam" with her first grass court title in Birmingham) amidst the usual "glamour girl" hubbub that surrounds two attractive teenagers meeting on the grass at the All England Club. A season after Dokic had won Tier I's in Rome and Moscow (and was runner-up in another in Zurich), Hantuchova finally broke through to claim her first career title at the Tier I Indian Wells event. Her stated desire to be a #1-ranked player was given legitimacy by no less than the likes of Martina Navratilova, who believed she could indeed do it. During the week of August 26, 2002, Dokic (#4) and Hantuchova (#5) were simultaneously ranked in the Top 5 for the first time. In 2003, the pair showed signs of continuing their shoulder-to-shoulder progress. In January at the Australian Open, Hantuchova played in her third straight grand slam QF, while Dokic reached another Tier I final in Zurich in October.

Then nearly everything went to hell for both of them.

Hantuchova seemingly fell into the tennis-teen-as-star track, attending more photoshoots than winning post-match press conferences as she tried to become the next Kournikova rather than the new Graf. It took a physical toll on her. She experienced a dramatic weight loss (and the already skinny Slovak didn't have much body mass to spare as it was) and often fell to pieces emotionally on court, playing through tears as the whispers about her health closed in around her. By the end of 2004, she'd dropped out of the Top 30. Meanwhile, Dokic's wild family situation and one-dimensional game stunted her growth as a player, her inability to be/want proper coaching and her now-you-see-it, now-you-don't nationality (which became an easy joke -- she's an Aussie, err, I mean a Yugoslav/Serb... or is she an Aussie again?) combined to produce a ranking freefall. Dokic went from #8 in 2001 to #9 in '02, #15 in '03, #125 in '04, #351 in '05 and #621 in '06.

As Dokic floundered with little plan of action, Hantuchova tried to backtrack and correct her mistakes. She reconnected with the coach she'd abandoned, Nigel Sears, and had some modest success, but a series of one step forward, two steps back moments saw her ranking dip in and out of of the Top 20 without her ever getting any real upward momentum. It looked as if Indian Wells '02 was going to be her one and only moment in the sun.

Until last week... again, in Indian Wells.

Travelling with a series of coaches from the Casal/Sanchez Academy, Hantuchova has seen her prospects brighten over the past year. In late 2005, she completed a career Mixed Doubles slam at the U.S. Open, then played a full season in 2006 with a noticably stronger and healthier-looking body. Last October in Zurich, she reached her first tour singles final in over a year. This season, she's showed more patience and better emotional control than during her lean (figuratively and literally) years. With it has come, if not total consistency, then much fortitude. She still hasn't played in another slam QF since 2003, but she overcame a 6-7/0-4 deficit against Ashley Harkleroad at the Australian Open, won 3rd set tie-breaks against Maria Kirilenko in Doha and Shahar Peer last week, and has twice upset Martina Hingis in the past month. Hantuchova's new/old upward mobility came to a head in the final of Indian Wells on Saturday when she put on a serving clinic while knocking off world #3 Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets to belatedly claim career title number two.

Still tied together after all these years, while Wonder Girl was pulling off a "rebirth" five years in the making, Dokic last week was playing (and losing) in the qualifying of a $10K event in Rome less than six years after she'd won a Tier I tour event there.

If Hantuchova now looks capable of restoring some of the luster to her career, the "Debutante" is no more. She's been replaced by a Sister Jelena who last won a main draw match at a slam in the 1st Round of the 2003 U.S. Open. While Hantuchova's results since 2002 have read like the ups and down of a rollercoaster, Dokic has been tripping over all the terrible career decisions she's made since her break with father Damir (who'd have guessed that her career would have been at its most stable while tied to the maelstrom of controversy that he created?).

For years, Dokic's career has been one wrong turn after another. Two years later than she should have, Dokic "committed" to rebuilding her career by playing challenger events. It's been akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Last season she was fined for entering tournaments but not bothering to show up for them, nor withdraw. She's dropped and picked up coach Borna Bikic (brother of her fiance, no less) despite the evidence of his role as an "enabler" who has allowed Dokic to chase her own tail in her worldwide attempt to avoid anyone who would try to make her do something -- no matter how sensible -- she might not want to for the sake of her career. The lack of "tough love" has only meant tougher times on the court.

Just since January '06, Dokic's one-woman newspaper headline writer's dream of a life has given us that cynical cameo in Melbourne, where she was welcomed back "home" with open (but wary) arms, only to fail to take advantage of her "second chance" and flee the country again after a tough loss in the Australian Open 1st Round (though, to be fair, she didn't set fire to every bridge in sight on her way to the airport this time around). She was jostled and had fruit juice lobbed at her by a Croatian mob after a practice session (better fruit JUICE than fruit, I guess) in Zagreb. And this offseason, she fled (hmmm, I'm sensing a pattern) the Pilic Academy either because she didn't like the contract that was offered to her or because she felt there was too much intrusion into her "personal life." Said Niki Pilic, "Jelena doesn't know what she wants."

A positive outlook might cast this week of career contrasts as having provided encouragement not only for Hantuchova, but also for Dokic. If Daniela can stage a comeback, so can Jelena. But the realistic viewpoint says that last week only further cemented the fates of both 23-year olds. Hantuchova was never quite as good as advertised when she won Indian Wells in '02, but is a solid Top 10 talent who maybe could be Top 5 again if she can work up a head of steam going into her favored grass court season and beyond. Dokic is eons behind her now, and is poised to disappear from sight like a piece of space junk floating through the cosmos thanks to as poor a job of career management as any young player in recent memory.

The last two years, Dokic has liked to compare her comeback attempt to the successful one of Mary Pierce's in her late 20's/early 30's... never realizing the difference between the two was the Pierce had more talent and, more importantly, the great maturity necessary to persevere rather than bury her head in the sand and wish all her troubles away. Dokic will likely say she sees Hantuchova's I.W. victory as another potential career rallying point, but there's little chance that that notion will stick any better than the last. Dokic hasn't given up, but often she appears to just be going through the motions... which might be an even worse path for her to trudge down.

Hantuchova surely didn't give up, either. Quite the contrary, actually. Her ability to find her way through the darkness and back into the winner's circle, for the first time, truly erases all the smartass sarcasm from her original "Wonder Girl" moniker in these parts. For the moment, in Daniela's world, the skies are bright and the forecast is sunny.

Good for her.


S: Daniela Hantuchova d. Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3/6-4
D: Raymond/Stosur d. Chan/Chuang

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Daniela Hantuchova
there was a good argument to be had about what Wonder Girl's career heights were REALLY going to be after she won Indian Wells in 2002, but you would have been met with dead silence (or maybe a snicker) if you'd said then that it'd take her five years to win another title. While the sport's biggest stars either lost early or didn't show up in California, Hantuchova's I.W. wins over Schiavone, Hingis, Peer, Li and Kuznetsova (all either accomplished with ease, or after an equally impressive fight) can't be easily disregarded. Of course, she's still 0-for-a-career everywhere else on the schedule, so she still has something to prove even as her #12 ranking has her right on the doorstep of the Top 10 for the first time in ages.
RISERS: Shahar Peer & Na Li
Peer put up her usual fight in a QF loss to Hantuchova by way of a 3rd set tie-break, but wins over the likes of Safarova and Chakvetadze still made for a nice week (and change) in the California sun. Meanwhile, Li knocked off A.Bondarenko, Jankovic and Zvonareva to reach the SF, where she fell in three sets to Hantuchova.
SURPRISES: Sybille Bammer & Mirjana Lucic
Bammer stepped into Elena Dementieva's spot in the draw as the #33 seed when Punch-Sober pulled out of Indian Wells. She rode the break to wins over Peng, Ivanovic and Golovin, then put up a great effort in a three-set loss to Kuznetsova in the SF. Through-hell-and-back Exhibit #1 Lucic, a '99 Wimbledon semifinalist from Croatia in the same year where Dokic burst onto the scene and reached the SW19 QF, was granted an I.W. wild card and got her first main draw victory (over Lindsey Nelson) since 2002. Now 25, Lucic has played a total of six matches since the 2003 U.S. Open.
VETERANS: Lisa Raymond & Laura Granville
Raymond (with Sam Stosur) won her second Tier I doubles title of the season, while fellow American Granville -- who's quietly putting together a nice season -- notched wins over Camille Pin and Severine Bremond.
FRESH FACES: Evgenia Linetskaya & Naomi Cadavy

Through-hell-and-back Exhibit #2 Linetskaya ran her 2007 record to 18-1, reaching her third straight ITF singles final and winning her second title of the season in the $10K Ramat Hasharon event. 17-year old Kent-born Brit Cadavy defeated Brandi, Spears (the one without the shaved head) and Knapp (6-1/6-1 in the final) in the Orange, California $25K. It's the second ITF singles title of her young career.
DOWN: Maria Sharapova
did someone say "Curse?" No, of course not. Who'd say something like THAT about the Supernova? Well, the numbers really tell the tale as far as Sharapova went in Indian Wells. She entered the event as the defending champion and #1-ranked player in the world. In the 4th Round, she served at 6-4/5-3 against Vera Zvonareva... then crumbled like an old hotel set for demolition. Zvonareva won eight straight games, and ten of the last eleven in the match. Sharapova ended the match with thirteen double-faults, and is now the #2 player in the world.

1. IW 4th - Zvonareva d. Sharapova
Zvonareva is now 3-4 against Sharapova in career matchups.
2. IW Final - Hantuchova d. Kuznetsova
Okay, it must be asked. How long will it take for Wonder Girl to win title #3? If she can serve like this at Wimbledon, might she finally be able to make that sparkling grass court run envisioned to be her destiny half a decade ago?
3. IW 4th - Hantuchova d. Hingis
Hingis is still ranked ahead of Hantuchova, but you'd be hard-pressed to find evidence in their two most recent meetings that would back up that pecking order.
4. IW QF - Hantuchova d. Peer
This match maybe more than any other highlighted the advances that Hantuchova has made. She grabbed an early lead, but failed to take advantage of opportunities to put Peer away in two sets. Things turned against her for a time, but rather than let Peer wait her out and steal away with a victory, Wonder Girl collected herself and finally capitalized in the 3rd set tie-break. That wouldn't have happened a few years ago.
5. IW QF - Kuznetsova d. Vaidisova
This matchup of the #2 and #6 seeds was the one on-target QF meeting in Indian Wells. The other matches included #15 vs. #12, #14 vs. #11 and #33 vs. #13. It sounded more like the lineup at a moderate-sized Tier II.
6. IW Doubles F - Raymond/Stosur d. Chan/Chuang
Raymond/Stosur won the season's first four Tier I titles in 2006. They're two-for-two so far in 2007.
7. IW 4th - Bammer d. Ivanovic
Erasing any further doubt that she's the surprise of '07. Of course, I'm talking about Bammer... but Ivanovic might qualify, too -- just for very different reasons.
8. IW QF - Bammer d. Golovin
The Frussian Pastry gets to do a Miami "do-over."
9. IW 4th - Golovin d. Petrova
...6-2/1-0 ret..
Petrova went down with heat exhaustion. Not to be outdone, Amelie Mauresmo got appendicitis (she'll miss a month).
10. IW 2nd - Molik d. Medina-Garrigues
Sure, beating AMG on clay would be more impressive. But it's still nice to see the Steamer continuing to work her way back.

2...Justine Henin (2-0)
2...Kim Clijsters (1-1)
2...Martina Hingis (1-1)
2...Jelena Jankovic (1-1)
2...Amelie Mauresmo (1-1)

**2007 SINGLES SF**
4...Jelena Jankovic (2-2)
3...Kim Clijsters (2-1)
3...Amelie Mauresmo (2-1)

377..Steffi Graf
331..Martina Navratilova
262..Chris Evert
209..Martina Hingis
178..Monica Seles
98...Lindsay Davenport
57...Serena Williams
39...Amelie Mauresmo
22...Tracy Austin
19...Kim Clijsters
17...Jennifer Capriati
14...Maria Sharapova
12...Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
11...Venus Williams

4...Cara Black/Liezel Huber

ROUND OF 16: Backspin 28-25
SEMIFINALS: Pierre 17-13
FINALS: Backspin 10-8
CHAMPIONS: Backspin 3-2

2006 FINAL: Kuznetsova d. Sharapova
2007 TOP: Sharapova/Henin

**ROUND OF 16**
#13 S.Williams d. V.Williams
#8 Vaidisova d. #21 Bartoli
#3 Kuznetsova d. #14 Peer
#5 Hingis d. #12 Ivanovic
#17 Golovin d. #7 Jankovic
#4 Clijsters d. Molik
#6 Petrova d. #10 Safina
#2 Henin d. #18 Zvonareva

...need more evidence of Sharapova's bad mojo than that she enters Miami as the #1 seed and has a draw that might bring a matchup with Venus in the 3rd Round, and then Serena in the 4th if she makes it past the first sister. If both are healthy, and Maria's serve is still iffy, it's hard to see the 'nova making it through the Williams Line. Aren't #1 seeds kind of expecting the easiest draw of the top seeds rather than the worst? Zvonareva would likely have to go through Hantuchova to get the meeting with Henin, so the thinking goes that Wonder Girl has a slight letdown after Indian Wells.

S.Williams d. Vaidisova
Kuznetsova d. Hingis
Clijsters d. Golovin
Henin d. Petrova

...Hingis finds herself in an unenviable (and familiar) situation -- directly in the line of fire. If she makes it through Ivanovic in the Round of 16, she probably gets defending champion Kuznetsova. If she'd win that one, she'd either get Sharapova, Vaidisova or a Williams... and she'd still need to probably beat a Belgian to win the title. Even a grand slam draw might not be that difficult. Golovin is finally back home at last year's scene of the crime, so if she makes it this far don't discount the possibility of an upset... especially, you know, if Kim has a wedding party to plan like the one that's more important than Roland Garros.

S.Williams d. Kuznetsova
Henin d. Clijsters

...one more for good measure for Justine & Kim?

Henin d. S.Williams

...Justine's on a roll, but it's always a bit nuts to pick against Serena if she makes it this far.

**ROUND OF 16**
Sharapova def SWilliams
Vaidisova def Schnyder
Peer def Kuznetsova
Hingis def Ivanovic
Jankovic def Golovin
Clijsters def Molik
Petrova def Safina
Hantuchova def Henin

Vaidisova def Sharapova
Peer def Hingis
Clijsters def Jankovic
Petrova def Hantuchova

Vaidisova def Peer
Clijsters def Petrova

Clijsters def Vaidisova

As for the men's draw, where Roger Federer will be looking to get back on the proverbial horse... just as Nadal finally righted himself just weeks before the start of the clay season:

(1)Federer d. (9)Haas
(7)Ljubicic d. (4)Davydenko
(12)Murray d. (3)Roddick
(2)Nadal d. (10)Djokovic

...Haas is always up to play Roger. Andy vs. Andy again. Rafa vs. Djokovic again, too.

Federer d. Ljubicic
Nadal d. Murray

...are we about to witness the Summer of Roger vs. Rafa, Part II?

Federer d. Nadal

...it's time to start shaking up the tour again.

Federer def Haas
Berdych def Ljubicic
Murray def Roddick
Nadal def Djokovic

Federer def Berdych
Murray def Nadal

Federer def Murray

All for now.


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Blogger Zidane said...

I'm glad to see Linetskaya back on track. I liked this young player, she had a lot of talent, and i still don't know what made her disappear...

Tue Mar 20, 11:02:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I think the article on the other end of the link in her section tells some of the story.

Tue Mar 20, 12:04:00 PM EDT  

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