Friday, May 23, 2008

RG Preview: LPT+1=OMFG...JJ?

2008's second grand slam won't be played in Paris. For this one two-week period, Roland Garros will temporarily be transported to a magical locale easily identified on Google MapQuest as "The Land of Opportunity"... an all-female nation-state currently lacking a legitimate Queen.

The battle for the red dirt throne is up for grabs, and there may be no player who'll benefit more from the potential power vacuum than Jelena Jankovic.

Last year, this space previewed Roland Garros with an eye toward the "Ahabian" Jankovic and her potential semifinal meeting with her personally elusive "White Whale," Justine Henin, the object of her career-long, star-crossed pursuit. The matchup came about, as did the expected result when Henin dispatched her "peg-legged" opponent and went on to win her fourth career RG title. This time around, it'd be impossible to talk about this tournament without once again mentioning the 23-year old Serb.

Fresh off a successful defense of her Rome title and, in a true stunner, somewhat rested, at least by her previous standards (she's played ten fewer clay tune-up matches and about ten fewer overall matches on the season as opposed to this time a year ago), Jankovic comes to Paris on an upswing that can't be matched by any other player in the draw. Henin's retirement a week and a half ago leaves nary a single remaining player in the field who's appeared in multiple RG finals, and the lone former champion saw her only title won a full six seasons ago during the preternatural "Serena Slam."

"You know why I won? Because Henin didn't come."

That's what Jankovic, hardly oblivious to what turned out to be her nine failed attempts to pull off a coup d'├ętat against the Belgian, said last year after she survived the Taureau-less draw in Rome to claim her first red clay Tier I crown. Twice Henin bounced Jankovic from a slam SF in the past six majors (including after the Serb had led 6-4/4-2 at the '06 US Open). So with her Whale having willingly beached herself, the biggest obstacle (well, at least the biggest one not actually named "Jelena," or her sometimes criminally negligent serve) preventing her from a breakout slam won't even be around to play on her psyche as a future face-off approaches.

Jankovic has reached the SF of three of the four slam events (the most recent coming in Melbourne in January), but she may never have a better chance to win one than she does in the environment of this Roland Garros. The hard court and grass slams have generally been the domain of the tour's most dominant power players (and Henin) in recent years, but the terre battue mostly neutralizes their advantage. With Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the last two RG runners-up, hardly burning up the clay in recent weeks, Maria Sharapova still seeking to master the red stuff (and follow up a somewhat unexpected RG SF from '07), Serena Williams her usual enigmatic self after retiring in Rome with a back issue and Venus Williams on the short end of Jankovic's most impressive victory in the same tournament, the fanciful Serb finds herself in good standing with the field. Maybe even ahead of the group by a nose.

I previously held the notion that Jankovic, in spite of her obvious talent, would likely never win a slam with the lethal combination of her inability to upend Henin and her own propensity to ride an emotional and mental rollercoaster in big events (her blown US SF against Henin came about after she lost her focus arguing a call with the umpire, then lost the final ten games of the match) working a tag-team offensive against her. But the landscape of the post-Taureau WTA is somewhat more forgiving, and Jankovic's Rome title in the wake of Henin's retirement is simply symbolism too savory to slight. It had to be a sign of SOMETHING, right?

Parisian surprises don't come around too often on the women's side of the draw, but it's significant to note that the most recent one -- the '04 final between Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva -- came about because the draw opened wide when Henin, in the early throes of her battle with the cytomegalovirus, was upset in the 2nd Round by Tathiana Garbin. It was the only match the Belgian lost the last five years in Paris. A Jankovic title wouldn't be in the Iva Majoli ('97) category of "shockers," as it would be right at home in The Land of Opportunity era, but it would be one that Your Friendly Neighborhood Backspinner wouldn't touch with a ten-foot net post if Henin were still standing in JJ's way.

Jelena, being herself, would likely wryly "thank" Henin for retiring were she to be fortunate enough to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen two weeks from now. In a way, it would be an uncanny tribute to La Petit Taureau if she were to be the player to benefit most from her absence in Paris. "Dowager Champion" or no, only the whimsical personality of Jankovic could dream such a fractured fairy tale outcome into reality.

And, come on, who's more "fractured" than Jelena... in a charming way, of course?

Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez & Yanina Wickmayer
RISERS: Carla Suarez-Navarro & Jarmila Gajdosova
SURPRISES: Bethanie Mattek & Anastasiya Yakimova
VETERANS: Selima Sfar & Jelena Pandzic
FRESH FACES Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova & Magdalena Rybarikova
DOWN: Barbora Zahlavova Strycova
COMEBACKS: Iveta Benesova & Zheng Jie

1. #25 Nadia Petrova vs. Aravane Rezai
2. #17 Shahar Peer vs. Samantha Stosur
3. #15 Nicole Vaidisova vs. (Q) Iveta Benesova
4. #13 Dinara Safina vs. Kateryna Bondarenko
5. #18 Francesca Schiavone vs. Jill Craybas
HM- #6 Anna Chakvetadze vs. Nuria Llagostera-Vives

1. Iveta Benesova, CZE
2. Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
3. Jarmila Gajdosova, SVK
4. Zheng Jie, CHN
5. Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP
HM- Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS

#13 Safina or #21 Kirilenko vs. #16 Azarenka or #25 Petrova

#22 Mauresmo or #19 Cornet vs. #10 Schnyder or #23 Alona Bondarenko

....through the looking glass.

Hmmm, considering Jankovic was recently the subject of actress Brittany Snow's short film, would it be bad to dub Jelena "The Snowflake"... a beautiful sight to see, but capable of frustratingly melting on contact? It'd be a moniker of perplexed endearment, of course.

Then again, maybe I thought of that because I'm still in "Non Sequitur Jubilee" mode.

16...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS
18...Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
19...Magdalena Rybarikova, SVK
19...Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP
21...Jarmila Gajdosova, SVK
21...Anastasiya Yakimova, BLR
23...Bethanie Mattek, USA
24...Zheng Jie, CHN
25...Iveta Benesova, CZE
25...Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, ESP
25...Jelena Pandzic, CRO
30...Selima Sfar, TUN
(lucky losers)
20...Monica Niculescu, ROU

#68...Iveta Benesova
#95...Yanina Wickmayer
#108...Bethanie Mattek
#122...Carla Suarez-Navarro
#148...Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez
#158...Magdalena Rybarikova
#171...Anastasiya Yakimova
#188...Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
#191...Jelena Pandzic
#197...Jarmila Gajdosova
#201...Zheng Jie
#239...Selima Sfar
(lucky losers)
#86...Monica Niculescu

#1 Sharapova d. #21 Kirilenko
#11 Zvonareva d. #7 Dementieva
#16 Azarenka d. #4 Kuznetsova
#6 Chakvetadze d. #12 Szavay
#8 V.Williams d. #22 Mauresmo
#3 Jankovic d. #19 Cornet
#5 S.Williams d. #10 Schnyder
#2 Ivanovic d. (Q) Benesova

...Kirilenko (vs. Safina in the 3rd) and Zvonareva (Dementieva) survive matches against fellow Hordettes that could easily go the other way. The Supernova perseveres. The Contessova doesn't. The Doll sees a speck of light at the end of the tunnel. Cornet gives Jankovic a battle, while the Williams sisters set up a pair of battles with the Serbs.

Weird, even without Henin, the draw still has an odd distribution to it -- all the Russians are in the top half, while the Serbs and Williams sisters are in the bottom.

#1 Sharapova d. #11 Zvonareva
#16 Azarenka d. #6 Chakvetadze
#3 Jankovic d. #8 V.Williams
#2 Ivanovic d. #5 S.Williams

...originally, I had Zvonareva upsetting Sharapova here. But then I realized I needed a "backup plan." The road to the final in the top half, even with all the Russians, is a potentially far less strugglicious one than on the bottom.

#1 Sharapova d. #16 Azarenka
#3 Jankovic d. #2 Ivanovic

...the draw presented just too golden an opportunity to pass up to push Sharapova into the final in spite of her lack of a proven resume on red clay. Oh, and I mentioned something last week about maybe this being the moment when the Serbs "switch places" in the standings?

#3 Jankovic d. #1 Sharapova

(first, I just noticed something -- here's what I said last year at this point in the RG preview where I picked Henin to win. It proved to be kind of prophetic):

"...hmmm, could it be that Justine is both the White Whale to Jankovic, AND Ahab in her own mind? Single-minded, driven to maniacal lengths to achieve her goals no matter the price? She's not evil, she's just drawn that way. While a nice Kim might have worked for Clijsters, Backspin fears that a Justine who wants to be perceived as "nice" might cause the entire house to come tumbling down around her, opening her up to all the demons of mental fragility that her well-built walls have previously kept at bay in moments of crisis. "Le Petit Justine" may not have the edge of "Le Petit Taureau." Thus, maybe this title, should it come, may need to be savored... it could signal the end of an era."

...who knew? Anyway, a year later this Roland Garros won't be won without a nod to the champion who didn't return to defend her title yet again. Speaking of whales...

On Wednesday, over 100 whales beached themselves in Senegal. Was it another sign? Maybe. Maybe not (hence, the "backup plan" and the Supernova's presence... can you say "Sharapova Scenario?"). But I know I'm not going to ignore it or the other collection of "signs."

Don't call Jankovic Ishmael... call her "champ." Or not. I like the story and, in the absence of another better one, I'm in Snowflake's (yep, I kind of like it for now) corner for the next two weeks..

All for now.

ON SATURDAY: Bare Bones Backspin, with "guest Backspinner" Carl Caveman


Blogger Zidane said...

Interestingly, if Jankovic wins (as I also believe and even thought so at the beginning of the year), she would become world #1...

Fri May 23, 11:37:00 PM EDT  

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