Tuesday, August 26, 2008

US 2.0- Heavy Weighs the Crown

The other day, "Women Who Serve" blogger Diane Elayne Dees posted a quote from Elena Dementieva in response to a question about why the multiple #1-ranked women this year don't seem to be able to keep a tight grip on #1. Punch-Sober said, "Because Justine is not here anymore."

Can't get much more succinct than that, huh?

With every passing week since Henin's retirement in May, we've learned more and more about her and the hold she had not only the #1 ranking but also on the mindset of the other top players in the game. With the Belgian comfortably ensconced at #1, none of the other players had to feel the pressure of playing for the top ranking in the sport, and the only one who really desired it -- Serena Williams -- just couldn't get past Henin when it counted in the slams. With everything up for grabs, every slam is like a game of pick-up-sticks.

Four different players have served time in the top spot so far this year, and that number will almost surely increase by season's end... mostly because of the distinctly unstable nature, in one way or another, of pretty much all the players in competition for the year-ending #1 position.

Currently injured Maria Sharapova doesn't really care about the #1 ranking, and instead thinks about winning slams. Serena and Venus Williams will never play enough to hold onto the top ranking for long (it's good for career longevity, but not for long stretches at the top -- Venus was only #1 for eleven weeks in her career, and has only been the top seed at a slam once). Svetlana Kuznetsova hasn't actually won something on a court in ages. Dinara Safina is still looking for her first "major" title (though that didn't stop a certain Serb from claiming the #1 spot). Dementieva, even in her confident post-Beijing form, is hardly the mental image you get when you think about "the best player in the world." Ditto for oft-injured Jelena Jankovic, who's time in the #1 spot only lasted a week.

Or, rather than "time," should I say "sentence?" For the player who's spent more time at #1 in the wake of Henin's retirement has been Ana Ivanovic, and she's hardly shown much ability to handle the pressure. Following her Roland Garros win and rise to the top spot, she's had a shaky Wimbledon performance, a thumb injury, a curtailed practice schedule and an Olympic "did-not-post." (If she's cursed, I had nothing to do with it.) Today, after seemingly well on her way to an easy win over Vera Dushevina, she led 6-1 and had two break points for 5-2 in the 2nd, and she nearly went ker-plunk once again.

She ended up taking the final set 6-4 to advance, but if she were Sharapova the vultures would already circling her '08 U.S. Open chances. Actually, after what transpired after her near-loss to Nathalie Dechy at SW19 (and\ actual loss to Zheng Jie), maybe they ARE.

AnaIvo DID catch a break, though. Slam Giant Killer Casey Dellacqua will NOT be waiting for in the 2nd Round, having lost today to qualifier Julie Coin. After that? Maybe Amelie Mauresmo.

Henin was emboldened by becoming the #1 player, and eventually became the picture of consistency. After having problems with nerves early in her career, her position of power enabled HER to find new depths of reserve in her biggest matches after her hard work paid off with the top ranking in 2003. Even while battling injury and illness, she never lost the thrill of the battle... until she lost the need for it. Without her, the vacuum of power in the women's game -- or at least the inability of the best players to take advantage of it -- only gets more and more pronounced.

Which makes one wonder, how long will La Petit Taureau be able to resist the potential easy-pickings that she might encounter upon a return to the game in the near future? How about Kim Clijsters? Will one of the big stories of 2009 be about "the band" getting back together?

With every passing week, the question lingers.

Could Marat be learning something from his sister Dinara's summer run? Judging from today, maybe.

Against Vince Spadea, Safin was enraged by a center-line foot fault call (I don't think I've ever seen one of those before) that gave the American a set point to knot the match at two sets each. Safin argued. He tossed his racket. He sat down. He walked around. He cursed. He finally served, and ended up dropping the game and the set, then walked directly off the court for a few moments (with the tournament director following right behind him).

In the past, this would have been a perfect time to melt down. Maybe he would have on the grass, maybe not. But the fact is that he didn't this time, held himself together and took the final set to advance to the 2nd Round.

Dinara's been showing an ability to control her emotions and not lose her concentration mid-match even when things don't go her way (such as today, when she served ten double-faults, but still won in straight sets over sixteen-year old Kristie Haerim Ahn). Today, Marat did it as well.

Brother see, brother do?

...before the start of the Open, I mentioned that qualifier Anna-Lena Groenefeld, who was on the cusp of the Top 10 just a few years ago, had a grand opportunity to put some real teeth in her comeback if she could upset #11-seed Daniela Hantuchova in the 1st Round. Well, she did it today... so Backspin's Girl Friday is finally back in the discussion again. It's been a bumpy road back from all that lawsuit/accusation nonsense with her former coach and the havoc it wreaked on ALG's head, fitness and career. It's so great so see that once she was able to clear herself from the situation, it really didn't take all that long for her to seemingly get her game back in line.

As for Hantuchova, how long ago does that Australian Open semifinal from January seem now? Talk about star-crossed. Just like the last time she reached a career milestone a few years ago in Indian Wells, everything came down around her head physically and emotionally. This time, it's been her body once again that's let her down. She's been resilient before, so there's good reason to think that the former Wonder Girl will be again. Still, this career just hasn't turned out the way she and so many others thought it would, has it?

...a few results of note from Day Two:

Jessica Moore won two tie-breaks to win the battle-of-the-wild-cards against Melanie Oudin, while Ioana Raluca Olaru knocked off fellow Romanian Edina Gallovits. Nicole Vaidisova actually won handily in straight sets over Petra Cetkovska (no, that wasn't a mistake, she really DID) and lucky loser Mariana Duque Marino came back from dropping the opening set at love against Tamarine Tanasugarn to win 0-6/6-3/6-2.

Wild card Jamea Jackson is currently in a three-set battle with #27-seed Alona Bondarenko, which I'll probably talk about in the "Backspin at Night" post.

...Jim Courier's Sisters-vs.-Serbs take on the Open survived AnaIvo's bad patch today, but didn't have to worry so much about Serena Williams. Against Kateryna Bondarenko, Williams won her first eighteen service points of the match in a 6-1/6-4 victory in fifty-seven minutes, then talked about how she thinks she can play better. A good first step, which could mean everything... or absolutely nothing.

...and, finally, Venus (20-2 in her career under the Open lights) hits the court against Sammy Stosur tonight, while four-time defending champ Roger Federer (10-0 in Ashe night matches) makes his '08 debut.

*1st Round Q/WC/LL Winners*
Maria Elena Camerin, ITA (Q)
Julie Coin, FRA (Q)
Rossana de los Rios, PAR (Q)
Mariana Duque Marino, COL (LL)
Anna-Lena Groenefeld, GER (Q)
Hsieh Su-Wei, TPE (Q)
Jessica Moore, AUS (WC)
Ioana Raluca Olaru, ROU (Q)
Robert Vinci, ITA (Q)
STILL TO FINISH: Severine Bremond (WC), Jamea Jackson (WC)

TOP QUALIFIERS: Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xxx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: #15 Olaru/ROU def. #22 Larcher de Brito/POR 6-2/6-3
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xxx
FIRST SEED OUT: #24 Shahar Peer/ISR (1st Rd.-Li Na)
IT GIRL: xxx

All for Day 2.0. More tonight and tomorrow.

UPCOMING: Backspin Time Capsule: 1991 U.S. Open


Blogger Diane said...

Hantuchova makes me want to bang my head against the wall. I love to watch her play, and fortunately for her fans, she doesn't generally start choking until she gets pretty far into a match. But you can just about count on her finding a way to lose.

Too bad about this business with her foot. She certainly didn't need another problem. But who knows? The way things are up in the air right now, Dani could get inspired to make another good run.

Wed Aug 27, 12:25:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, with the likes of Elena Bovina, Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Jelena Dokic actually winning mathches again, there is something of a retro comeback chic thing going on... so maybe Hantuchova will find her way back up the rankings yet. If everyone stays retired, it's probably even more likely. :)

Wed Aug 27, 12:50:00 AM EDT  

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