Friday, May 30, 2008

RG.6- With Two You Get No Egg Roll

It's often been said that when Serena Williams plays a match there's really only one player on the court that matters, since if the American is on her game there's no one that's going to beat her.

That's probably true, especially with a certain Belgian skipping through the lily-covered fields of retirement. But what is often obligingly shoved into the dark recesses of everyone's brain by Williams' sometimes radiant brilliance is that there are often TWO Serena's on the court to contend with -- the most talented player of her generation, as well as the most frustrating one.

Guess which one showed up in Paris today?

Taking away nothing from what #27-seed Katarina Srebotnik did in defeating #5 Williams 6-4/6-4 on Day Five, but Serena really beat herself more than anything today. Congratulations are due the Slovenian for finally being able to come out on the winning end against a top player in 2008 -- after battling and losing to Justine Henin in a three-hour match in Dubai earlier this year, then failing to take advantage of her chances in a three-set loss to Serena in Charleston just last month... not to mention blowing a 6-4/6-5 lead on Anabel Medina-Garrigues in the Strasbourg final barely a week ago. She's overdue to get a measure of the attention that normally eludes her.

But, really, the story here is Williams.

Some might look to the absence of Henin as providing her with a lack of intense motivation in this tournament, but the fact is that this sort of result isn't unusual for Serena. While she's shown the ability to pull grand slam titles out of thin air at times, she's only won two of them over the last four and a half years... and both of them -- at the '05 and '07 Oz Opens -- came when she was seemingly emerging from some dark forest after being chased by a pack of wicked fairy tale creatures with lit torches and sharp pitchforks. She hasn't really prospered as a "favorite," which she was in many corners coming into Paris, since she pulled off the "Serena Slam" in 2002-03.

If she can survive potential early round disasters in a slam she can work herself into a lather as a way to "show" any detractors who dare whisper that she can't win an event, and her game can gradually tag along and peak at just the right time. But one wonders if the front-running Serena that once won five slams in six attempts, and did it with everyone pointing at her as the one to beat, will ever show herself at a slam again.

If she'd faced a young Russian or a neophyte Romanian in her 3rd Round match today, she'd probably still harbor title hopes. But she faced a veteran who was tired of squandering potential career-best wins... and, maybe more importantly, who witnessed Williams dump funky forehands into the net or out of bounds on big points time and time again today and simply let Serena beat herself without trying to do something crazy and shock her opponent back to "reality." The bad spell included a two service game span where Serena held four break points on Srebotnik's serve in the 2nd set, with a shot to gain a 3-1 or 4-2 advantage, but failed to convert a single one, any of which might have lit the fire within that would have allowed everyone to see that OTHER Serena on this day. But THIS Serena's deadly combination of poor shot selection and sometimes even worse mechanics were too much for even THAT Serena to overcome and swoop in in the nick of time to save the day.

But the funk was never broken... and then to add further Williams insult to injury, Venus went down in flames against Flavia Pennetta at the end of the day as the Italian veteran made it to match point in a 7-5/6-3 victory when it appeared that play was about to be suspended at any moment (and already had been in Jelena Jankovic's match) due to darkness.

So, with that, there were none. No more Williams sisters as the 4th Round beckons, for only the second time at a slam in which they both participated. There are no more American women in Paris, either. That's the first time in the Open Era that's happened so soon.

Hmmm... I guess this means the sisters will have a little extra time to rest up and prepare for the grass at the All-England Club. They should have something to prove, huh?

Uh, oh.

...Maria Sharapova's performance wasn't picture-perfect yet again, but she at least survived. Again. In Charleston a few weeks ago, Sharapova bageled Bethanie Mattek, but today the American was able to push their continued-from-Day Five 2nd Round match (Sharapova led 6-2/2-3) to three sets. She wasn't able to put a stake through Sharapova's Roland Garros heart (maybe if she'd been able to find one with a fuschia-colored grip?), as the Supernova took the 3rd set at 6-2, but she once again rattled any thoughts that the Russian is going to be the ruler of the Land of Opportunity a little over a week from now. One day Sharapova may be able to win this tournament, but her form doesn't say it'll be this year. Of course, if enough of the other better-adapted-to-clay contenders lose, who knows?

...Mattek wasn't a Zombie Slayer on Day Five, but she and doubles partner Sara Errani (herself a loser of a two-day match earlier in the week) combined to take out the 2007 RG Doubles champions, the #5-seeded team of Alicia Molik & Mara Santangelo.

...with Emilie Loit's 3rd Round loss to Patty Schnyder and Alize Cornet's tight 3rd Round defeat by Agnieszka Radwanska (Cornet led the 1st set 4-1, but lost the match 6-4/6-4), the two tied for Last Pastry Standing at this Roland Garros.

...whew! Nadia Petrova put away Alisa Kleybanova in their continued 2nd Round match, 6-3/6-3. Vera Zvonareva made it three-for-three for the Hordettes in the other left over 2nd Round contest. Nadia plays Svetlana Kuznetsova next. Nope, I'm not sayin' nuthin'.

...Jelena Jankovic and her sore forearm (she apparently hurt herself hitting a ball in the heavy conditions earlier this week) leads Dominika Cibulkova 7-5/4-2 in the only 3rd Round match not completed today in the bottom half of the women's draw. The men knocked out all their 3rd Round bottom half matches, though, and the remaining eight hail from just four nations -- Spain (3), France (3), Latvia (1) and Serbia (1).

...and, finally, with the only former Roland Garros women's champion in the draw gone, it'd be a true shocker if the women's final didn't include some combination of a Russian vs. a Serb. If that DOESN'T happen, well, this tournament could end up with a final matchup that'll look odder than some of those old ones at the Australian Open in the late 1970's when the big stars didn't show up. "Chris O'Neil def. Betsy Nagelsen, in 1978," anyone? What would be the equivalent of that this time around... possibly Flavia Pennetta vs. Karin Knapp?

0...lost in 1st Round
1...lost in 2nd Round
7...lost in 3rd Round
4...lost in 4th Round
10...lost in Quarterfinals
2...lost in Semifinals
2...lost in Final
8...won title

3...lost in 1st Round
2...lost in 2nd Round
5...lost in 3rd Round
4...lost in 4th Round
11...lost in Quarterfinals
4...lost in Semifinals
6...lost in Final
6...won title

=2nd Round loss=
1998 Australian Open
=3rd Round loss=
1998 Wimbledon
1998 US Open
1999 Australian Open
1999 Roland Garros
2005 Wimbledon
2006 Australian Open
2008 Roland Garros

2006 Australian Open (Venus 1r, Serena 3r)
2008 Roland Garros (Serena 3r, Venus 3r)

TOP QUALIFIERS: Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez/ESP & Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Ana Ivanovic/SRB
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st- Sharapova d. Rodina 6-1/3-6/8-6
FIRST SEED OUT: #15 Nicole Vaidisova/CZE (1st-Benesova)
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: Serena Williams/USA (3r- lost to Srebotnik)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Maria Sharapova/RUS [2 pts. from 1st Rd. loss]
LAST PASTRIES STANDING: Alize Cornet & Emilie Loit (both 3rd Rd.)

All for Day 6. More tomorrow.


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