Monday, August 04, 2008

Wk.31- And a Russian Cat Shall Lead Them

A few months ago, everyone was wondering which player would benefit most from Justine Henin's sudden retirement from the sport.

Everyone from Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic was mentioned as a potential beneficiary, and most top players (but hardly all) HAVE indeed experienced gains helped at least in some small part by the gaping hole left in any draw that would have otherwise included La Petit Taureau. But no one really singled out Dinara Safina as one of the women who might see her career results spark in the post-Henin era.

How stupid were we? Considering the Russian Cat was the last player to actually defeat Henin, in Berlin, the tennis Gods couldn't have made the clue much more blatant. I'm sure They're making all sorts of "mortal" jokes even as I speak.

Thing is, Safina is suddenly the hottest player on tour. Her win in Montreal gave her back-to-back titles, a U.S. Open Series championship, a new career-high rank of #7, a 27-3 record dating back to the spring and the honor of easily being dubbed the current "best Russian female tennis player in the world"... even if the rankings don't necessarily back it up. Yet.

After knocking off the likes of Henin and Serena to win in Berlin, then surviving match points in multiple matches en route to the Roland Garros final and coming back from the edge of defeat once again to win a title in Los Angeles a week ago, Safina "took it easy" in Quebec. Her two three-setters last week came in matches against Svetlana Kuznetsova and Victoria Azarenka, but she never found herself walking "The Green Mile" in the same way she's been doing off-and-on the last few months, and then Dominika Cibulkova was but a shadow of her Top 10er-conquering self in the final.

As the Olympic tournament gets under way in Beijing less than a week from now. Safina's name will have to be thrown into the ring as a potential favorite to walk away with a Gold Medal, even while she's still something of an "anonymous" Hordette and many sports fans around the world (and ESPN broadcasters, no doubt) likely remain more familiar with her brother than her.

"She's Marat's sister? But her name's Safina, not Safin. I'm confused, mommy. My head hurts." (And that's just a comment overheard in the White House.)

They say the fish rots from the head (amazingly, no, that is not a Bush joke), but what's to be made of a tennis player whose career seems to have turned around as soon as she got her head screwed on tightly in spite of the odds against it happening to someone in her athletic family? But what else do you expect in a sport where Miss Jankovic is soon to be the #1-ranked player?

Ah, speaking of...

Leave it to you-know-who to find the "eye-rollingest" way to become the eighteenth top-ranked woman in WTA history. Proving the three-strikes-and-you're-safe rule, Jankovic has managed to find a back door to the back door of the WTA computer shed. After arriving in Montreal, then seeing Ivanovic lose in the 3rd Round, Jankovic was told she needed to reach the final to become the new women's #1.

After she lost to Cibulkova in the quarterfinals and seemingly missed out on a third opportunity (after Paris and L.A.) to rise to the top spot, Jankovic said, "At the moment I don't deserve that spot," adding, "I am not in the best shape; I am not at my highest level. So it will take time for me to get better." And, also, "The #1 spot doesn't matter."

So, sure as the sun rises and Jankovic defies convention in the weirdest way imaginable, within two days the WTA announced that an error had been made and that Jankovic didn't actually need to reach the final to knock Ana Ivanovic from the top spot, after all -- and she would assume the spot one week from today after points from last year's events fall off.

Wouldn't you figure it? I just knew she'd find her "own" way.

Thus, ol' Jelena adds "the first #1 to never reach a slam final" to her career resume. Naturally. And that she'll do so a week from now, following an extremely rare week where zero WTA tournaments are to be played? Why, what else would you expect? Oh, and, of course. that her ascension will occur just before the more monumental changing-of-the-guard moment when Rafael Nadal ends Roger Federer's four year-plus hold on the ATP's top spot -- and will be largely overlooked as a result -- is as Jankovician as things can get, isn't it?

Next, of course, Jankovic tries to give a little more substance to that #1 ranking in Beijing and New York. As usual, it'll be full speed ahead for the Jelena Train, maybe even at breakneck speed. Sure, the pursuit of the former while still tired and nursing an injury might preclude a legitimate run in the latter (remember her lunacy in the name of Serbia at the Hopman Cup at the start of the season?), but that's a head-spinning discussion for another day, and month, and year. I'm sure it'll come up often down the line, just with different city names in the equation.

Hmmm, look at this. The WTA says that Jankovic will become the 18th #1 by moving eight points ahead of Ivanovic on the eleventh day of the eighth month of 2008. The Olympic opening ceremonies take place on 8-8-08. Could the tennis Gods be teasing us again? Either Jankovic is about to be bathed in Serbian Olympic glory in Beijing... or the "mortal trap" has been secretly planted by the members of the Supreme Court of Tennis, and an epic derailment could soon be in order.

Maybe Safina will have something to do with it, too.


S: Dinara Safina def. Dominika Cibulkova 6-2/6-1
D: Black/Huber d. Kirilenko/Pennetta

S: Caroline Wozniacki def. Vera Dushevina 6-0/6-2
D: Benesova/Zahlavova-Strycova d. Cetkovska/Safarova

the world #7's eighth career title included Montreal victories over four other Top 20 players (Schnyder, Kuznetsova, Azarenka & Cibulkova) and solidified her feat of being the only player currently ranked in the Top 10 in both singles and doubles.
RISERS: Marion Bartoli, FRA & Vera Dushevina, RUS
Bartoli's North American surge has put her back on the tennis map for actual tennis rather than her father and his unorthodox "training" techniques. In Montreal, La Trufflette notched wins over Anna Chakvetadze and Ai Sugiyama before falling to Cibulkova and an untimely rain delay in the SF. 21-year old Dushevina reached her third career singles final, and second straight in the Stockholm event, by putting together a week that saw her defeat the likes of Lucie Safarova, Agnes Szavay, Iveta Benesova and Katarina Srebotnik. Unfortunately for the Hordette, she's still looking for her first career title.
SURPRISES: Stephanie Dubois, CAN & Tamira Paszek, AUT
maybe Dubois should lobby for the Rogers Cup event to be played in Montreal EVERY year. Who needs Toronto? Anyway, two years after reaching the 3rd Round after advancing past an injured Kim Clijsters in her home province's tournament, Quebec native Dubois was granted a wild card this year (she was ranked #122) and upset Olga Govortsova and Maria Kirilenko to reach the 3rd Round again. If this was 2007, it wouldn't have been a surprise to see the 17-year old Paszek get wins over Francesca Schiavone and still-#1 AnaIvo en route to the Montreal QF, but after the season she's had it actually WAS a somewhat "surprising" result for the (hopefully, still) future Top 10er... not to mention a big "whew!"
VETERANS: Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA & Ai Sugiyama, JPN
Black & Huber are sure getting in as many titles as they can before their Olympic "hiatus" from each other, as their Tier I title in Montreal was their overall seventh crown of the season (but there's only one more opportunity to avoid going slam-less for 2008). Meanwhile, Sugiyama reached the Montreal QF with wins over Nicole "I'm Not There" Vaidisova and Shahar Peer, not to mention being the immediate beneficiary of the April error of Maria Sharapova's doctors when the Supernova pulled out of their prospective 3rd Round match.
FRESH FACES: Caroline Wozniacki, DEN & Dominika Cibulkova, SVK

while one Z-Girl (Azarenka, who was run from Montreal in the SF) is still trying to pull out her first career title, Wozniacki joined Aleksandra Wozniak as one of Team Z's first-time titlists over the past month. In Stockholm, the 18-year old Dane had impressive wins over Anabel Medina-Garrigues, Agnieszka Radwanska and Dushevina, the last two on Sunday after a rainy Saturday wiped out play, to become the youngest (of five) to grab a maiden WTA singles title this season. In Montreal, Cibulkova once again proved how adept she is when it comes to facing down taller, higher-ranked opponents in big events, reaching her second final of the season (with Amelia Island, where she lost to Sharapova). The 5-foot-3 Slovak took out four Top 20 players -- Dementieva, Petrova, Jankovic, Bartoli -- to become a Top 20 player herself for the first time in the latest rankings. Against Jankovic, the scrambling counter-puncher aggressively battled back from a 1-5 1st set deficit to win in straight sets and tire out the soon-to-be #1 player in the world. Who'd have thought we'd be seeing the rise of a player SMALLER than Henin in the wake of the retirement of the diminutive Belgian, but Cibulkova IS two inches Henin's junior. She's three inches shorter than Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, whose image she brings to mind when watching her play, along with a touch of South African former Top 5 player Amanda Coetzer... a player that Cibulkova would actually "tower" over, by a WHOLE INCH.
DOWN: Maria Sharapova, RUS
Sharapova had everything all planned out. She "entered the Russian fold" by playing Fed Cup, with an eye on playing Olympic tennis in Beijing, even hoping to carry the flag during the opening ceremonies. She began 2008 like a house on fire, winning the Australian Open and wiping out all challengers throughout the 1st Quarter, and then claimed the first clay title of her career in the 2Q. After Henin retired, she rose to #1. It's been all downhill from there, as her serve and shoulder have alternately and collectively given her trouble for months. This week, after she notched a single win in Montreal (despite 17 double-faults vs. Marta Domachowska), we found out why -- she's been playing with a torn rotator cuff for three months, the result of a misdiagnosis back in April that will now cause her to miss the Olympics and the U.S. Open. SOMEONE is going to catch hell for this, I suspect. After that, SOMEONE ELSE is going to have to consider another big alteration in her service mechanics if she's going to avoid this being a career-hampering shoulder problem that's going to prevent her from being at her best for more than half of the season, every season, or worse. It's stuff like this that makes you marvel (or shake your head, take your pick) at the "Bionic Woman" that is Jankovic.
ITF PLAYER: Kimiko Date-Krumm, JPN
did someone say, "Bionic Woman?" Age smaydge. Date-Krumm, 38 next month, this weekend won the third ITF crown of her Japanese circuit comeback in the $25K in Obihiro, getting wins over Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, Tomoko Yonemura and Suchanun Viratprasert. She's only one title away from leading the circuit in total championships this year.

1. Mtl 2nd - Sharapova d. Domachowska
In the Supernova's only 3Q match, and quite possibly last of the season considering the importance of protecting that multi-million dollar shoulder, she and Domachowska combined for 30 double-faults. Boy, as difficult as it is to believe, the U.S. Open might turn out to be even more wide open than Roland Garros was.
2. Mtl QF - Cibulkova d. Jankovic
Jankovic's ascension is temporarily delayed, but typically obtuse. She's the WTA version of Salvador Dali. Meanwhile, imagine if Cibulkova hadn't been felled by cramps in Stanford a few weeks ago -- SHE might have been playing Safina in the Montreal final for the U.S. Open Series title. Talk about melting clocks.
3. Mtl 2nd - Dubois d. Kirilenko
And Maria didn't need to fall on her wrist, either.
4. Mtl 2nd - Jankovic d. Wozniak
Mtl 3rd - Jankovic d. Dubois
...6-3/6-2. A-Woz hasn't exactly followed up Stanford by showing a knack for momentum, has she? Meanwhile, after two wins over Quebec's best players, Jankovic said, "I took out two Canadians, maybe the people will start to hate me now."
5. Mtl 3rd - Paszek d. Ivanovic
Still searching for that elusive "consistency gene."
6. Mtl 3rd - Kuznetsova d. Larcher de Brito
The Kid, who literally squished Pennetta in the 2nd Round, even impresses when she loses. Imagine what she'll be like when she's a "veteran" of 16 years of age.
7. Vancouver $50K F - U.Radwanska d. Coin
17-year old U-Rad held up her end of the bargain, but A-Rad wasn't able to make it a two-title weekend for the Radwanska sisters.
8. Rimini $75K F - Groenefeld d. Dominguez-Lino
ALG's fourth ITF title of '08 puts her in a circuit-leading tie with Italy's Lisa Sabino.
9. Mtl Final - Safina d. Cibulkova

Well, they can't ALL be masterpieces.
10. Stock Final - Wozniacki d. Dushevina

3...Maria Sharapova, RUS
3...Serena Williams, USA
3...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL

**2008 WTA FINALS**
4...Serena Williams (3-1)
4...Vera Zvonareva (1-2 + L)

Kataryna Bondarenko, UKR (age 21, Birmingham)
Alize Cornet, FRA (age 18, Budapest)
Sara Errani, ITA (age 21, Palermo)
Aleksandra Wozniak, CAN (age 20, Stanford)

3...Serena Williams (March-April)
2...Maria Sharapova (January-February)
2...Sara Errani (July)#
#-active streak

2004...Lindsay Davenport, USA
2005...Kim Clijsters, BEL
2006...Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2007...Maria Sharapova, RUS

2...Serena Williams
1...Ana Ivanovic
1...Jelena Jankovic
1...Maria Sharapova

2...Sara Errani

55...Lindsay Davenport (2008: 2)
37...Venus Williams (1)
31...Serena Williams (3)
24...Amelie Mauresmo (0)
19...Maria Sharapova (3)
10...Patty Schnyder (0)
9...Elena Dementieva (1)
9...Svetlana Kuznetsova (0)
8...Anabel Medina-Garrigues (1)
ALSO: Pierce (18), Myskina (10)

[as of August 11]
(WTA titles/slam titles...#-active)
377...Steffi Graf (107/22)
331...Martina Navratilova (167/18)
260...Chris Evert (154/18)
209...Martina Hingis (43/5)
178...Monica Seles (53/9)
117...Justine Henin (41/7)
98...Lindsay Davenport (55/3)#
57...Serena Williams (31/8)#
39...Amelie Mauresmo (24/2)#
22...Tracy Austin (30/2)
19...Kim Clijsters (34/1)
17...Maria Sharapova (19/3)#
17...Jennifer Capriati (14/3)
12...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (29/4)
11...Venus Williams (37/7)#
9...ANA IVANOVIC (7/1)#
2...Evonne Goolagong (68/7)

SOMEONE got a new "glamour" WTA website bio photo

There are no tour events scheduled to take place this week, but I'll be posting a few items over the next few days:

Tomorrow, a quick awards column that covers July/early-August for the 3rd Quarter. After that, it's the Backspin Olympics Quiz and another look at the Top 10 Olympic Tennis Moments leading into my Beijing Battle Royale prediction contest with Pierre Cantin before tennis action begins in China on Sunday.

All for now.


Blogger Just Tennis said...

safina has more wta singles titles than jankovic and ivanovic..i didnt know that, thanks :)

Mon Aug 04, 11:09:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, Safina got started pretty early, winning her first title back in 2002 at just 16 years old in only her fourth tour main draw (she reached a SF in her first).

The promise has always been there from the beginning, it's just taken a while for the "bigger" results to catch up.

Tue Aug 05, 12:21:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

seriously, ancic has mono?!?!


one of your categories needs to be how many times players get mono...i think ancic would be the leader of the pack...i feel like this happens to him every year -- which makes me wonder what else he does in his off time besides getting a law degree (i guess for a tennis pro, college girls must be easy pickings)

every season it's the same: first he'll get mono; then b/c he can't play, he'll go water skiing or do some other extreme sport and then get injured and miss the next 6-10 months...then he comes back and all the journalists write about how he's on the comeback trail...

part of being a pro is taking care of yourself so that you can actually accomplish things...i mean what a waste of talent. not many people are born with top10 talent and he's just throwing it down the makes me kind of angry

ok. spiel done.

nice point todd about how the tennis gods gave us a huge hint and we all didn't think anything of it.

Tue Aug 05, 07:09:00 PM EDT  

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