Monday, May 19, 2008

Wk.20- Non Sequitur Jubilee

What better format for a week in which Jelena Jankovic wins a singles title?

Go ahead, pick a "favorite" for Roland Garros. I dare you. Let's see... there's Justi- (sorry, force of habit). Umm, there's Maria Sharapova (the new #1, but without a red clay title), Serena Williams (her back acted up last week), Ana Ivanovic (not exactly burning up the court in Europe) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (ditto). Not sure any are as "locked-in" as Big Brown at the Belmont.

Miss Jankovic, the Tour might be ready for your close-up.

Could we see a Paris "shocker" along the likes of Anastasia Myskina being the last woman standing? Or maybe it'll be another Iva Majoli-style moment? The only former RG champ in the draw will be Serena, and she last won the title six years ago. While Henin had four titles, not a single remaining player has appeared in more than one final in Paris (with Serena, there's also Venus, Dementieva, Kuznetsova and Ivanovic).

Rafael Nadal is 108-2 in his last 110 matches on clay. (Hey, it's "Non Sequitur Jubilee," don't you know.)

The Supernova is now #1 in the world, while AnaIvo is #2. Both have big points to defend ('07 SF and RU, respectively) in Paris. Jankovic and Kuznetsova aren't far back. Neither is Serena, considering her propensity to grab HUGE titles out of nowhere. Toss in injuries and streaky play, and we might see (counting Henin) as many as five or six different players ranked #1 at various times in 2008. The record is four, in 2002 and 2006.

Borg. Austin. Jaeger. Hingis. Clijsters. Henin. Why are we surprised any longer? A long tennis career is the exception, not the rule. Big Brown only has to win a handful of races to reach the top, while WTA players have to do it nearly every week. Or maybe even more often, if your name is Jankovic. They also don't have the situation where their closest competitor might literally run herself to death trying to catch up down the stretch. Plus, nothing beats the "studly" future of Big B as a carrot to succeed, right?

No matter how many planes Justine will now jump from to continue to feel the "high" that winning Roland Garros titles used to provide her, Big Brown is eyeing a lifelong vacation that begins in about a month.

Plus, he's a horse... he doesn't do "regret."

Right on cue, just as Henin walks out the door, leaving a Backspin storyline void, Jankovic rises, Jelena Dokic makes a move toward a comeback and Backspinner fave Chelsey Gullickson wins her first career ITF title. The space is a little less vacant now, proving that the tennis Gods are looking out for Your Friendly Neighborhood Backspinner... or at least that's the story I'm going with after Week 20.

If Nadia wins a title this week, I'll swear I'm seeing religious icons (or maybe Andre Agassi?) on my toast.

Is it good or scary that China's best shot at a tennis medal in Beijing might rest on the shoulders of Peng Shuai? At least Sun Tiantian can carry half the load.

While I doubt it'll happen, I'd say the chances of seeing Henin on the court in '09 or '10 are better than any for Kim Clijsters during the same period. Tennis just never seemed important enough for her to chuck her new life for it one more time.

AnaIvo must have a bad karma signature at the moment. Think about it, had Henin retired a week earlier then Ivanovic would have become the first Serb to be atop the tennis rankings. But she failed to defend her Berlin title, fell from #2 to #3 last week... then saw new #2 Sharapova claim La Petit Taureau's position. With RU points to defend in Paris, Ivanovic might actually see Djokovic beat her to the #1 position... and then there's new world #3 Jankovic, who's only a little over 400 points behind Sharapova.

I hate these opening Sunday starts for Roland Garros. I'm not the only one, either. It'll be interesting to see who draws the short straw and has to play early. Sharapova complained when she had to do it. You don't think someone would seek to antagonize the Supernova and schedule her again, do you? And there'd be no compromise in the works for this beef.

You know, it'd been nice if someone at ESPN had had enough knowledge about Henin's career to provide something resembling a semi-informed opinion about the not-totally-shocking nature of her retirement announcement last Wednesday. Of course, we ARE talking about the network (ESPNEWS, to be accurate) that presented a screen full of early round scores from Berlin a little while back, and had the anchors stumbling through the "blow-your-mind" surnames, then laughing and wondering why the producer was even including scores like this in the every-thirty-minutes update show. Never mind the fact that the same anchors likely followed up by perfectly pronouncing a slew of NBA and/or NHL-related names that probably were strikingly similar to the "foreign" WTA ones, considering the country of origin of the athletes in question are so similar these days. Peja Stojakovic? Hello?

Maybe if one of the players had repeatedly hit herself in the head with her racket until her frustration drew blood, ala Mikhail Youzhny? Or announced an engagement to a model, ala Andy Roddick? Is that what it would have taken for a few more "heads" to apply themselves just a little more? Now, on to another Patriot Spygate story.

In "other news," ESPN recently proudly announced it'll have a hand in broadcasting all four grand slams starting in 2009 now that the U.S. Open is under its all-controlling, but less-than-discriminating wing. Hopefully, the likes of Fowler, Fernandez, Shriver and Co. will be on a SportsCenter or PTI producer's speed dial should something important happen in the sport during a future afternoon... but what are the odds of that?

Whatever they are, they're surely far longer than Big Brown's will be in New York in a few weeks.

And as for Barbaro? Amazingly, still dead.


ROME, ITALY (I-Red Clay)
S: Jelena Jankovic def. Alize Cornet 6-2/6-2
D: Chan/Chuang d. Benesova/Husarova

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Jelena Jankovic, SRB

Did we catch a glimpse of Jelena version 2.0 -- or, in other words, Jankovic with her White Whale safely beached -- in Rome? It seemed perfectly fitting that in the same week that Henin retired that the player who was 0-9 against her found her way through the weeds to pick up her first title of the season in defending her '07 crown. There's been no question that Jankovic has had a mental block when coming up against Henin, and it cost her slam final appearances in the past. Without Justine, could Paris turn out very differently for her this time around? Career title #6 wasn't important in and of itself as far as Jankovic's potential career upgrade is concerned... but the symbolism was certainly as bright as any smile she may flash on the court over the next few weeks.
RISERS: Peng Shuai/Sun Tiantian, CHN & Chan Yung-Jan/Chuang Chia-Jung, TPE
Rome doubles wins over Black/Huber and the Sisters Bondarenko, even while the team topped out with a SF result, might mean the Peng/Sun combo might be China's best shot at a tennis medal in Beijing. Of course, irony being sweet... the rise of the Taiwanese pair of Rome title-winning Chan/Chuang might mean a spoiler moment could be in the works. Chan/Chuang knocked out Peschke/Stubbs, then Benesova/Husarova in the final, to claim the first Tier I for the combo this weekend. But eyes are already starting to turn toward 8-8-08.
SURPRISES: Tsvetana Pironkova, BUL & Jelena Dokic, AUS

Bulgarian Pironkova's been known to pull off a big upset or two along the way, and she got another in Rome when she overturned top-seeded Ana Ivanovic in the 2nd Round. As a qualifier, the 20-year old added a win over Victoria Azarenka to reach her first tour QF since reaching the Stockholm SF last August. Sesil who? Meanwhile, Jelena version 2.0 ...umm, that's already taken, so how about The Debu-... uh, no, not yet. The old moniker can't be reclaimed before any real Big Tour success against better competition (there's a chance as a Wild Card in the Strasbourg main draw this week) is posted, either. Let's just note that Jelena Dokic won her second ITF event in as many weeks with her title at the $25K Caserta event, which began with a win over #1-seed Jorgelina Cravero in three sets and ended with nary a dropped set the rest of the way. After having a career-best mark of eight straight tour wins (three times between 2001-02) in her "previous life," Dokic has now won twelve straight matches on the ITF circuit over the past two weeks. Her ranking is "up" to #318, which says a great deal about where her starting point was. This run won't likely mean anything in Paris, if she sees any action there, but it could raise an eyebrow or two in London.
VETERANS: Patty Schnyder, SUI & Venus Williams, USA
Perhaps sensing an opportunity (yes, this is going to be a persistent theme until a champion is crowned in Paris), Sneaky Patty bounced back "almost-big time" in Rome with a QF run that included wins over Mariya Koryttseva, Virginia Ruano-Pascual and Marion Bartoli, as well as a tight three-set loss against Sharapova. Venus returned from her "not a hiatus" with wins over Sammy Stosur and Vera Zvonareva (impressive one there) to reach the Rome QF. Still, one senses she's just tuning up for SW19.
FRESH FACES: Alize Cornet, FRA & Chelsey Gullickson, USA
could 18-year old Cornet be the best Pastry going in a year where they've mostly gone a bit stale? She reached her second '08 final in Rome, this time as a qualifier (the second Q-er to reach a tour final this year), with big wins over Vera Dushevina, Francesca Schiavone and -- wait for it -- Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze, with a walkover from Serena in the QF for good measure. Meanwhile, make way for the Naturals (their dad was a major league baseball player), as Carly's little sister, 17-year old Chelsey, won her first career title at the $25K in Raleigh, North Carolina. In making it through qualifying, and getting a QF win over Carly's 1st Round-conqueror Maria Fernanda Alves, Gullickson won seven straight matches and notched additional victories over fellow Americans Audra Cohen, Kimberly Couts and Lauren Albanese (in the final). Earlier this season, Carly won an event in Hammond, Louisiana, while Chelsey reached the SF, and the sisters paired to reach the event's doubles final that same week.
DOWN: Ana Ivanovic, SRB & Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
if AnaIvo is looking to capitalize on Henin's absence in Paris, the '07 RG RU surely didn't appear to be chomping at the bit last week in Rome with her 2nd Round exit a week after she failed to defend her Berlin title. Coming up a week short of becoming the first Serbian to be ranked #1 was one thing, but having Jankovic jump at the chance to become the first post-Henin champion on tour was another. Are we about to witness a changing of the Serbian pecking order, as we did when Henin began to outpace Clijsters after the latter had come closer to winning a slam earlier in their careers? And what about '06 RG RU Kuznetsova? Well, the Contessova was taken out in the 3rd Round by Cornet last week, dropping her to 2-2 on red clay in '08 one season after she reached both the Berlin and Rome finals.
ITF PLAYER: Petra Cetkovska, CZE
edging out fellow Maiden Strycova for ITF POW honors, 23-year old Cetkovska won the $50K Saint-Gaudens event with wins over Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez (in the final), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Bovina and Marie-Eve Pelletier. It was Cetkovska's second ITF crown in '08. She's one of five different Maidens to claim little circuit titles this season.

1. Rome 2nd - Pironkova d. Ivanovic
Maybe AnaIvo is just lulling everyone into a false sense of security? She's 4-3 on tour since winning in Indian Wells, with straight set losses to vets Davenport and Dementieva.
2. Rome QF - Jankovic d. V.Williams
Considering Jankovic has had some success against Venus in the past and that this was Williams' first event back from her break, it's probably not wise to read TOO MUCH into this result as far as the Serb's Parisian prospects are concerned. Still.
3. Rome 3rd - Cornet d. Kuznetsova
Rome SF - Cornet d. Chakvetadze
For a player that was winning the RG Girls title a year ago, it's safe to say that she's progressing nicely. Of course, The Doll did lead the SF 6-3/3-0.
4. Rome Final - Jankovic d. Cornet
Talk about everything breaking right for JJ. Henin retires, Serena and Maria pull out of the event, then Jankovic gulps up a Tier I title defense in the gaping hole that was left behind in Italy. She wears opportunism well. Hmmm...
5. Rome 1st - Makarova d. Vaidisova
And then there's Nicole. Zzzzzzzzzzz.
6. Rome 1st - Wozniacki d. Paszek
Is the young Austrian still having Fed Cup nightmares? She's gone 0-2, losing 24 of 34 games, since losing her grip on that match against Stefanie Vogele.
7. Rome 2nd - Sharapova d. Cibulkova
Rome 1st - Kirilenko d. Petrova
Sharapova's rematch with Amelia Island RU Cibulkova ended up with her winning again, but after a tougher, three-set fight. If not for Kirilenko -- or maybe because of her? -- Nadia would be flying very low under the radar heading into Paris. Maria2 took out Petrova in both Berlin and Rome. Crossing fingers for a good draw.
8. Rome 1st - Stosur d. Krajicek
Krajicek has lost 1st Round matches in seven of her nine 2008 tournaments. The other two events? She lost in the 2nd Round... after 1st Round byes Yep, that makes her 0-9. Ouch.
9. Rome 1st - Ruano-Pascual d. An.Rodionova
You don't see a lucky loser vs. lucky loser matchup too often in the 1st Round of a WTA event.
10. Rome QF - Cornet walkover S.Williams (back)
Rome SF - Jankovic walkover Sharapova (calf strain)

....skill is great, but a little good fortune is nice, too. Can you say, "Saving myself for Paris?" How about, "Justine who?"
HM- Strasbourg Q2 - Lisicki d. Karatantcheva
By this weekend, Sesil was "the other Bulgarian."
HM- Szczecin $25K Final - Zahlavova-Strycova d. Wienerova
In Poland, Strycova took out Poles Piter and Brozda on her way to her circuit-leading third ITF title of the season.

#1...JUSTINE HENIN, BEL (2008)
#3...Steffi Graf, GER (1999)
#4...Kim Clijsters, BEL (2007)

377...Steffi Graf
331...Martina Navratilova
260...Chris Evert
209...Martina Hingis
178...Monica Seles
117...Justine Henin
98...Lindsay Davenport
57...Serena Williams
39...Amelie Mauresmo
22...Tracy Austin
19...Kim Clijsters
17...Jennifer Capriati
12...Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
11...Venus Williams
2...Evonne Goolagong
ALSO: Margaret Smith-Court & Billie Jean King were year-end #1's before computer rankings

4...2002 (Davenport-Capriati-V.Williams-S.Williams)
4...2006 (Davenport-Clijsters-Mauresmo-Henin)
3...1980 (Navratilova-Austin-Evert)
3...1995 (Sanchez Vicario-Graf-Seles)
3...2001 (Hingis-Capriati-Davenport)
3...2003 (S.Williams-Clijsters-Henin)
3...2004 (Henin-Mauresmo-Davenport)

12...Justine Henin (10/2)
5...Serena Williams (2/3)
5...Anna Chakvetadze (4/1)

*MOST 2008 WTA SF*
5...Vera Zvonareva (4-1)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (3-1)
4...Elena Dementieva (3-1)
4...Ana Ivanovic (2-2)
4...ALIZE CORNET (2-2)

.000 - Svetlana Kuznetsova (0-3)
.000 - Victoria Azarenka (0-2)
.000 - ALIZE CORNET (0-2)

Feb - Nuria Llagostera-Vives (Bogota, #114/ESP) - W
MAY - ALIZE CORNET (Rome, #34/FRA) - L

Serena Williams - Miami, 2007-08

3...Cara Black/Liezel Huber
2...Alona Bondarenko/Kateryna Bondarenko
2...Katarina Srebotnik/Ai Sugiyama

07 FINAL: Medina-Garrigues d. Mauresmo
08 TOP: Bartoli/A.Bondarenko

Bartoli d. Kvitova
Medina-Garrigues d. Dokic

Medina-Garrigues d. Bartoli
....yeah, not really sure I truly believe in a Dokic SF here (she'd likely have to scale an impoved-competition wall that includes bricks named Bacsinszky, Yan and A-Bond). But, memory serves that a confident and in-form Dokic can roll over a series of opponents with little regard to ranking. Sure, it's a six or seven-year old memory, but still. We'll see if the tennis Gods are still paying Backspin a stipend this week.

07 FINAL: Dementieva d. Rezai
08 TOP: Dementieva/A.Radwanska

Dementieva d. Petrova
A.Radwanska d. Pironkova

Dementieva d. A.Radwanska

....Dementieva and AMG are equally difficult to gauge, yet both won these same tournaments a year ago. BOTH defending probably isn't likely, but what the heck? Maybe I'll get ONE correct. Punch-Sober's recent form says this SHOULD be her tournament to win, though. Maybe we'll get an idea about whether or not she might be up to taking advantage of the Taureau-less draw in Paris to come up with her best performance there since her 2004 RU (she's yet to reach the QF).


All for now.

THIS WEEKEND: Barebones Backspin & Roland Garros Preview: LPT+1=OMFG


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