Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Odds & Ends Between Brisbane and Miami

2009 has barely begun, but just how important are the opening weeks and months of the schedule when it comes to the long distance run that is the WTA season?

The Dorothy Tour and the entire 13-week 1st Quarter can be the start of something big for players who get off on the right foot, as early-season good tidings can change a player's entire seasonal outlook (see Marina Erakovic's Auckland SF and Sabine Lisicki's Australian Open upset of Dinara Safina a season ago). Of course, early missteps can also turn out to be the first of many on a pothole-marred season's road (just ask Agnes Szavay, who opened '08 by losing a 1st Rounder to a Lucky Loser and never really fully rebounded, and Tamira Paszek, who misplaced her seemingly unstoppable mojo after failing in multiple bids to knock off Jelena Jankovic in that 12-10 3rd set match in Melbourne).

Who'll be looking to reverse trends, pick up steam, or just simply survive to play another day during this opening stanza of 2009? Here are a few ideas for the goal-oriented between Brisbane and Miami:

The Laggers of '08: nothing erases bad memories better than good new ones to replace them. As usual, there are a handful of players who would help themselves greatly by opening up '09 with some momentum-gathering results after suffering through disappointing campaigns a season ago, from Szavay and Paszek, to Nicole Vaidisova, Shahar Peer and Sania Mirza. Of course, this type of group exists every season. What about some more specific reasons some players might be looking to the 1st Quarter for support? All right...

Vera Zvonareva: after finally seeming to "get it" last season and begin to live up to her talent, an early-season letdown could unleash the old counterproductice demons and undo all the good she's accomplished. She can't let that happen.

Flavia Pennetta: during the 1st Quarter, she could become the first-ever Italian woman to reach the Top 10. But as her wins last season over Venus Williams proved, she actually might be better than even SHE thinks she is. Some early-season success could enlighten her and put some wind in her sails for the entire year.

Jelena Dokic: in 2006, she won the Australian Open wild card playoff tournament, then lost a 1st Round match in Melbourne after holding match point against Virginie Razzano. Three years later, the former world #4 found herself once again having to win the same Tennis Australia playoff to earn a spot in the AO main draw. If she falters Down Under once again, will she have the wherewithal to right herself and move on, or will she once again fall into the darkness that enveloped her after her '06 false start? This week, she lost a 1st Round match in Brisbane to Amelie Mauresmo 7-6/7-6 after failing to convert five set points in the 1st. The test begins now, a little earlier this time around.

Ana Ivanovic: she's had precious little slam success since winning in Paris last summer. Melbourne (where she was RU a year ago) will provide her the chance to get right back on the same horse she fell from during 2008's second half. If she meets the challenge, she might be a contender for year-end #1 in 2009.

Daniela Hantuchova: remember Hantuchova's Australian Open SF in '08, her best-ever slam result? Well, hopefully she does, since the tour's most star-crossed almost-but-never-quite-became-a-true-star former prodigy saw injuries derail pretty much everything that came after Melbourne last season. It's 2009, so Take Two. (Unfortunately, she's already lost a 1st Round contest this week, dropping the 3rd set at love.)
...obviously, a player would never turn her back on a good start, but a few top players might have something in their pockets for later in the year should their '09 campaigns stumble out of the gate.

Maria Sharapova: if her health/preparation were sound, she'd probably be in the "most important" category, as she'd be looking to prove that she CAN reclaim the dominating form she displayed early last season. But with her delayed start of her schedule, and even the possibility that she won't attempt to defend her Australian Open crown, the LONG TERM is more important than anything she might be able to accomplish by rushing back (possibly) too soon after arthroscopic surgery on her ailing shoulder, even if she might experience a severe ranking hit if she doesn't defend the AO title and the 18-match streak that began her '08 campaign. So be it.

Jelena Jankovic: holding to chaotic form, JJ is now saying she'd rather win a slam in '09 than finish year-end #1 again. Her increased offseason fitness regimen might give her an edge in the Oz heat, but it could also prove golden as the season progresses and attrition comes into play. If she doesn't get the grand slam monkey off her back Down Under, she's shown signs of a willingness and ability to do what it takes to put herself into position to shake it off later in the year.

Venus Williams: as usual, Venus' season "officially" begins in June in London. That's what happened last year, and she STILL garnered some "Player of the Year" recognition. Anything good that happens in Melbourne is like icing on a cake that hasn't been baked yet. She last reached an Oz final in 2003 and has never won the title... but she'd never won a SEC until last November, either.
..."greatness" being a relative term, meaning anything from true "breakout" success to a reclaiming of a former position in the sport.

Anna-Lena Groenefeld: ALG qualified in Brisbane, but lost early in the main draw. Still, it's a positive beginning to a season in which she'll try to regain the good karma her career SEEMED to have a few seasons ago. If the serve is poppin', she's got a chance to make a mark.

Dinara Safina: currently competing with Marat in Perth, it'd be nice if Dinara didn't wait three or four months for her game to kick in this season. Of course, she's never advanced past the 3rd Round in Melbourne, and lost in the 1st Round in 2008. She's never carried with her the expectations she'll enter the AO with in 2009, so here's her chance to rise or fall in the face of it.

Svetlana Kuznetsova: then-#2 Kuznetsova opened '08 saying she wanted to catch Justine Henin in the rankings. She immediately lost to the Belgian in the Sydney final, then was tossed out of Melbourne in the 3rd Round. With Olga Morozova in her corner, she might not have a better opportunity to prove that that 2004 U.S. Open title wasn't something this side of a fluke.

Serena Williams: and, of course, sometimes "greatness" DOES mean greatness, after all. Sure, she's nursing a hamstring injury and no one knows just what she'll bring Down Under. But we've heard that song before, and Serena's managed to be a a Soul Survivor more than once in Melbourne. If she could do it again she'd become the first woman to win back-to-back slams since Henin won the 2003 U.S. and 2004 Australian titles.
Victoria Azarenka: 2009 could finally be the year the Belarusian breaks out. It would be very helpful if she could get that first career title stumbling block out of the way as quickly as possible (like, say... maybe before the AO begins?).

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: Hordette 2.0 is in the starting gate. Let's see how quickly she can rev up to speed. She won the '06 Australian Open Girls title.

Li Na: newly-free, Li can look back as recently as one year ago to find a time when all seemed possible (when she opened '08 with a title at Gold Coast). Staying healthy throughout the 1st Quarter would at least provide her with a nice foundation for her season.

Caroline Wozniacki: junior RU to Pavlychenkova in '06, C-Woz is the young player best positioned to make a Top 10 run in '09. Realizing her first career slam QF in Melbourne might just be the launching pad she's looking for.

Alona & Kateryna Bondarenko: one never knows what to expect from the Sisters Bondarenko (they've both already lost 1st Round matches in Week 1). What COULD turn heads, though, would be to defend their surprise '08 Oz doubles crown.

Michelle Larcher de Brito: if The Kid turns up in Melbourne, could that first big slam upset moment come before the end of January?
Nicole Vaidisova: she says 2008 was a year of "change," and blames a wrist injury for much of her troubles. Not sure if that REALLY explains the disinterested appearance she sometimes sported, but it'll be easier to take her word for it if she rebounds in '09. If not... well, it wouldn't exactly be an original tennis tale, now would it?

Anna Chakvetadze & Nadia Petrova: from head (literally) to toe (and everything in between), these two Russians need a 1st Quarter free of uncomfortable bumps and nasty turns in order to make sure things don't go terribly wrong in '09. Nothing BIG is necessary, per se... just nothing BAD.

Maria Sharapova???: ummm, I don't even want to talk about it too much, but a bad shoulder is not exactly a good thing for a player whose game has so often surged or sagged based on the rises and falls of her serve. For two seasons now, Sharapova's shoulder has been a stumbling block/glass ceiling. Now, she's had arthroscopic surgery after rest failed to alleviate pain. Getting fully healthy and falling out of the Top 10 (or even Top 20?) is fine if it comes to pass, since the consequences of not taking care of this problem once and for all (or at least finding a way to work around it by altering her service motion) could be ghastly for her career. Two words of warning to any player who takes shoulder problems lightly: Jennifer Capriati.

All for now.

NEXT: What If? (a parody starring the player formerly known as "Anna Kournikova")
AFTER WEEK 1: Act 1, Scene 1 (2009)


Blogger Diane said...

I thought about Maria when I watched Meghann Shaughnessy last night. Fresh back from all that surgery and rehab, and she spent an entire set in obvious pain and disability. We won't know about the "success" of Maria's surgery and rehab for a while, and I join you in feeling pretty anxious about it.

Wed Jan 07, 11:09:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, I'd think the injuries with the most potential long-term damage for a tennis player would probably be (possibly in this order but maybe not): hip, shoulder, wrist and knee. If things continue to go wrong, it could be the beginning of the end. Medical technology has made recovery from knee injuries monumentally better than used to be the case, but it could still be something that can't be overcome in a particular case.

Maybe Shaughnessy, as if often the case with football players, was told that the original injury was healed and that her biggest problem would be playing through and compensating for the lingering pain? Of course, it hasn't even been a year since she injured it, though, so who knows?

Wed Jan 07, 01:44:00 PM EST  
Blogger Karen said...

Happy New Year Todd. I am not sure whether I read your post correctly but you seem to be indicating that if Serena wins in Oz then she would be the first woman since Justine Henin to win back to back majors. I am sure that Serena has already accomplished that feat, having won the FO, Wimbledon and USO in 2002 and then going on to win Oz in 2003 making it the Serena Slam. Am I missing something here? Also, regarding Maria's shoulder injury, she should really take a book from the Sisters Williams. Remember when Serena fell out of the Top 100 and actually made it to Oz ranked No. 81 and what she did after that. Some of these players need to realise that the coach, parents etc. are not the ones out there competing and that if they truly love their job, then they need to do what is best for them, and if it means resting up for a long time to retool their game, fall in the rankings etc., then that is what they need to do to ensure that they have a long career. Who knew that Serena/Venus would be around this long. That is because they have done what is best for them and not for everyone else.
As to Jelena, I am a bit concerned at her body type now. What the hail is she thinking getting so bulky, to the point where she is saying that she has to get used to her new body. That is ridiculous. Is she willing to kill herself just to win a major or to remain No. 1. This is absolutely ridiculous. Between the USO and the start of this season the woman has put on so much bulk that she is beginning to look like Arnold Schwarznegger - perhaps we should start calling her the Terminator.

Sat Jan 10, 08:05:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Good point about Jankovic. Considering her propensity for getting knicked up in the past, her "new body" could end up being a problem. Of course, now she has the flu, too. It's always something.

With Sharapova, especially considering it's a shoulder and she had recent surgery, I agree that she should take as long as it takes. Rushing back too soon could only prolong and/or make the problem worse.

Of course, the Williamses are sort of unique (skipping the juniors, etc.) and have always marched to the beat of a different drummer, so trying to follow their lead might not necessarily work for every player. :)

I think you misread the comment about Serena/Henin. Yeah, Serena has won back-to-back slam titles (back-to-back-to-back-to-back, actually) but, as you noted, that was in 2002-03. Henin's US/Oz combo was 2003-04. No player since THEN has won back-to-back slams (that's a WTA record twenty slams without a woman taking two in a row during the span, from Henin's '04 Australian title to Serena's '08 U.S. Open), so if Serena won in Melbourne she'd be the first to do it since Henin in 2004.

Here's the list:

A- Justine Henin
R- Anastasia Myskina
W- Maria Sharapova
U- Svetlana Kuznetsova
A- Serena Williams
R- Justine Henin
W- Venus Williams
U- Kim Clijsters
A- Amelie Mauresmo
R- Justine Henin
W- Amelie Mauresmo
U- Maria Sharapova
A- Serena Williams
R- Justine Henin
W- Venus Williams
U- Justine Henin
A- Maria Sharapova
R- Ana Ivanovic
W- Venus Williams
U- Serena Williams
A- ??

Sat Jan 10, 01:18:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Justine Henin got one of those new bodies, got used to it relatively quickly, but then became extremely ill, almost undoubtedly because of over-training.

Sat Jan 10, 08:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger Topaz said...

I've always had the opinion that Justine's 'viral' illnesses had nothing to do with overtraining. *coughcough*

Also, she also decided to rid herself of some of the bulk during her last few years on tour...I think because she felt it slowed her down. It will be interesting to see if Jankovic comes to the same conclusion or not.

Sun Jan 11, 09:32:00 PM EST  

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