Thursday, June 05, 2008

RG.12- AnaIvo By a Nose

Tennis' first all-Serb grand slam semifinal was already a watershed moment in the still-early stages of the sport's latest eastern European revolution, but when Dinara Safina defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova in Day Twelve's first semifinal match, it became an historic battle for the #1 ranking.

Before she met countrywoman Ana Ivanovic for a chance to play for the Roland Garros singles title, Jelena Jankovic wrote (in USA TODAY) that, "The one who's hungrier in the big moments is the one who will go on to the final."

It turned out that Jankovic was right. Too bad for her.

Both Serbs had found themselves overcome by the moment in their previous trips to slam semis or finals, but it was Ivanovic that used her previous experiences to her advantage today, doing right what she once did wrong. The 20-year old AnaIvo prevailed 6-4/3-6/6-4 to become the seventeenth woman in WTA history to claim the #1 ranking in the world.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the ENTIRE semifinal experience was exactly what could be called "pretty." In reality, this semifinal was a match of rolling momentum that swung both ways throughout the contest, with the two Serbs alternating roles as the woman who "asked why" she should be the one to assume the mantle as the top player in the world, and the one who asked, "Why not?"

Jankovic broke out first, as if she were racing to keep ahead of Big Brown around the first turn in this weekend's Belmont Stakes. She led 3-0, and seemed to shed light on her overall game plan when she used her defensive skills to extend a 28-stroke point that she ultimately won to go up 4-2.

Then Ivanovic took her turn in the lead. Breaking Jankovic three straight times, she salt away six of the final seven games of the set and won it 6-4, putting her improved court coverage and quickness on display. Early in the set, Jankovic looked as if she were preparing to be steamrolled out of Paris, hitting balls in the middle of the court right into Ivanovic's wheelhouse and then watching them fly back at (and past) her at a higher velocity. AnaIvo led 6-4/3-1 and held a break point on Jankovic's serve for 4-1. The Match for History was about to turn into a dud.

Then Jankovic remembered how she got so far in the first place, and decided to test if Ivanovic's improved skills would hold up to such scrutiny.

With her arm wrap removed and a new racket in hand (with Jelena, it's always something random, isn't it?), Jankovic began to smack shots into the outer edges of the court's fair boundaries, dragging AnaIvo from side to side. One particular 20-shot moving of her countrywoman around the court as if she was a marionette on the end of strings was especially clever. With her heretofore clear road through the Roland Garros draw finally meeting some resistance, Ivanovic didn't appear up to the challenge. Jankovic won five straight games, claimed the 2nd set at 6-3, and then saw AnaIvo open the 3rd with a double-fault on the first point. Jelena soon found herself leading 3-1.

This is when Ivanovic finally began to steady herself, and Jankovic's pre-match words began to take on more and more meaning. The match's final surge of momentum was likely to decide matters, and it was AnaIvo who rose to the occasion... perhaps wanting it more, but maybe actually just more prepared to realize her potential on this day.

Ivanovic held serve, barely, for 2-3, then broke Jankovic at love for 3-3. After immediately hiccupping and handing back the break by double-faulting on game point to break herself and fall behind 4-3, AnaIvo dug in and took control of the match, and her immediate destiny.

After playing most of the final set in the lead, Jankovic suddenly found herself playing catch-up in nearly every game. She was down love-40 on her own serve, and was broken. She was down 40-love on Ivanovic's serve, and AnaIvo took the set lead at 5-4 as Jelena changed rackets again, and got into some odd exchange with the chair umpire about the volume level on his microphone.

Serving to stay in the match and continue to survive in the Land of Opportunity in what might end up being her best chance to ever claim a grand slam title, Jankovic was trumped again... not by Justine Henin, as she has been so many times before, but by a fellow Serb almost three years her junior. On the first point, Ivanovic smashed a big return to go up 15-love. At 30-all, she killed an opposite court forehand to give herself a match point. On match point, she jumped on a Jankovic second serve and pounded a winner to become the #1-ranked player in the world.

Even with a Roland Garros title, it would have felt a BIT fluky had Jankovic suddenly grabbed the mantle left vacant by Henin at the top of the women's game. She's just not yet a complete player. Her serve still needs much work, and she needs to get stronger to not only add a bit of punch to her groundstrokes, but also to stay healthy. She complained all tournament about her various ailments, and while she's known to be a tad on the dramatic side, the odds of her taking a slam title will only get longer and longer if she doesn't continue to improve her game. Maybe this loss in this moment will be the true starting point for such a full transformation. Ivanovic has made the necessary steps forward. Maybe Jankovic will follow suit. With a new coach and changing attitude about career longevity and how to achieve it, she's already made important strides in 2008. But she needs to do more. In her moment of truth on Day Twelve, she simply wasn't ready. Not yet.

Jankovic might be the more "fun" player, but Ivanovic is the one built for a championship. Taller, stronger and with room to grow into an even more powerful player, she crossed the finish line first today and IS ready to join fellow Serb Novak Djokovic as a grand slam champion in her third career slam final on Saturday against Safina.

Over the last two weeks, we've seen evidence that AnaIvo very well may be the best player in the world at this moment in time, but she still needs a slam title to make the label more than just an honorary one in the eyes of history. She's proven herself many times in Paris, but it's the next time she does it -- or doesn't -- that will be remembered.

=DAY 12 NOTES= least for the last month, you just don't mess with the Safina.

Sober Safina didn't bother messing with skating on the edge of oblivion today. Instead, she railroaded fellow Hordette Svetlana Kuznetsova in a quick straight sets. The victory means, as of the new rankings on Monday the 9th, Safina will have just claimed wins over the new #2 (Sharapova), #4 (Kuznetsova) and #5 (Dementieva) players in the world, the tournament after she defeated former #1 Henin and #6 Serena Williams (and Dementieva a second time). She'll face new #1 Ivanovic on Saturday. In case you weren't counting, that'd mean a title would give her wins over the ex-#1 and five of the top six current players in the world during what could soon become a 13-match winning streak.

As for Kuznetsova, she just wasn't present in the SF, and she pretty much admitted it after the match. In spite of her high ranking, the questions about the Contessova continue to mount. It's now been nearly four years since she won the US Open, and if it wasn't for that one title she'd be beating routinely pummeled about the head and shoulders for being one of the worst chokers on tour. She has a shot to be #1 by the end of the summer, and it's time for her to find a way out of this protracted big-match slump she's been in. The player that both Roger Federer and Justine Henin says is their favorite women's player to watch should not be coming up on the short end in so many potentially career-making moments. should be noted that the last three times Jankovic lost in a slam SF, the woman who beat her went on to win the tournament. Can Ivanovic join Henin ('06 US and '07 RG) and Sharapova ('08 Oz) as a player who had to go through Jankovic to get to a slam title?

...the Mixed Doubles team of Katarina Srebotnik and Nenad Zimonjic advanced to the final with a walkover past Zheng Jie & Mahesh Bhupathi (they'll face Victoria Azarenka & Bob Bryan, the only American still alive in any of the draws). Zimonjic has a shot at two RG titles, as the Serb also moved on to the Men's Doubles final with Daniel Nestor. They'll play surprise unseeded finalists Pablo Cuevas & Luis Horna.

...BOGDAN WATCH: #10-seeded girl Elena Bogdan upset #1-seeded American Melanie Oudin in the Girls QF today, so The Watch continues. Meanwhile, the Romanian Swarm has coalesced a bit for the first time in Paris, placing two players in the Girls SF. Along with Bogdan, #9-seed Simona Halep (a junior semifinalist in Melbourne) advanced to the semis, as well, with a win over Russian Ksenia Lyskina. They're on opposite sides of the draw, so an all-Romanian final is possible. Either way, consider the pair the dual "Junior Breakouts" for this Roland Garros.

...apparently, the upsets were contagious in the junior competition, as #1-seeded boy Bernard Tomic of Australia was upset by Argentine Guido Pella in the QF on Day Twelve, as well.

...and, finally, we'll find out tomorrow if the "inevitable" becomes reality and we'll get another Roger-Rafa grand slam final this weekend. Gael Monfils will certainly have the French crowd on his side against Federer, and Djokovic would still have a shot at being part of a Serbian Slam Sweep with AnaIvo if he can hand Nadal his first-ever loss at RG. But, more than likely, we already know the ending to this chapter of the story.

#10 Medina-Garrigues/Ruano-Pascual (ESP/ESP) vs. Dellacqua/Schiavone (AUS/ITA)
#1 Srebotnik/Zimonjic (SLO/SRB) vs. #3 Azarenka/B.Bryan (BLR/USA)
Cuevas/Horna (BRA/PER) vs. #2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB)
#10 Elena Bogdan/ROU vs. Lenka Jurikova/SVK
#9 Simona Halep/ROU vs. #2 Arantxa Rus/NED
Guido Pella/ARG vs. #12 Jerzy Janowicz/POL
Yang Tsung-Hua/TPE vs. #2 Cesar Ramirez/MEX
#8 Hercog/Moore (SLO/AUS) vs. Jurikova/Tabakova (SVK/SVK)
#6 Curtis/Hofmanova (GBR/AUT) vs. #7 Kerkhova/Rus (NED/NED)
Kontinen/Rungkat (FIN/INA) vs. Pospisil/Raonic (CAN/CAN)
Obry/Puget (FRA/FRA) vs. Brunken/Reid (GER/AUS)

12...Venus Williams (6-6)
10...Serena Williams (8-2)
7...Lindsay Davenport (3-4)
4...Maria Sharapova (3-1)
3...Amelie Mauresmo (2-1)
3...Svetlana Kuznetsova (1-2)
3...ANA IVANOVIC (0-2)
2...Elena Dementieva (0-2)
1...Marion Bartoli (0-1)
ALSO: M.Pierce 2-4, J.Capriati 3-0, A.Myskina 1-0

1974 Wimb - C.Evert def. OLGA MOROZOVA
1974 US - C.Evert def. OLGA MOROZOVA
2004 Wimb - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. S.Williams
2006 US - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. J.Henin-H.
2007 AO - S.Williams def. MARIA SHARAPOVA
2008 AO - MARIA SHARAPOVA def. A.Ivanovic
2008 RG - A.Ivanovic vs. DINARA SAFINA

2004 RG - Anastasia Myskina (4r vs. Kuznetsova)
2005 AO - Serena Williams (SF vs. Sharapova)
2005 RG - Justine Henin (4r vs. Kuznetsova)
2005 Wimb - Venus Williams (F vs. Davenport)

TOP QUALIFIERS: Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez/ESP & Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Ana Ivanovic/SRB
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Ana Ivanovic/SRB
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st- Sharapova d. Rodina 6-1/3-6/8-6
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th- Safina d. Sharapova 6-7/7-6/6-2 [Shar. 2 MP]
FIRST SEED OUT: #15 Nicole Vaidisova/CZE (1st-Benesova)
IT GIRL: Dinara Safina/RUS
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.)
JUNIOR BREAKOUTS: Simona Halep/ROU & Elena Bogdan/ROU

All for Day 12. More tomorrow.


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