Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Oz 10- Pay Attention to the Woman Behind the Curtain (and under the roof)

Did Serena Williams just get her groove back?

It sure looked like it. For one set under the blazing sun on Rod Laver on Day 10, Williams resembled the player who might have been moments away from having to fight for her Australian Open life against Victoria Azarenka a round ago. Her serve was wayward and Svetlana Kuznetsova actually looked as if she might hold it together. The Russian took the set 7-5 and seemed ready to make the Oz semis an all-Hordette affair.

But then the record-breaking heat wave striking Australia this week forced the closure of the roof on Laver. The 25-minute delay may have changed the entire course of this tournament.

When the players returned, Williams' serve was back in gear. But Kuznetsova didn't immediately wilt indoors. She actually served for the match at 5-4. But Serena has been here before, having won the Australian title in '07 after surviving matches against both Nadia Petrova and Shahar Peer when they served for the match. Anyone watching knew that all Serena needed was one service break and everything could change. Thing is, Kuznetsova seemed to know it, too. She blinked, Williams seized upon the opportunity... and the rest was history, or could soon be by the end of the weekend.

Final score: Williams 5-7/7-5/6-1, punctuated by an ace on match point.

Jelena Dokic was the best story of this tournament, and Dinara Safina's sometimes-imposing presence has threatened to turn the WTA world on its collective ear. But Serena is still surviving, just like she has so many times Down Under over the years... to the consternation of her opponents (and their little dogs, too!). As things are beginning to turn more and more in her favor -- Azarenka gets sick, the roof gets closed just in time, etc.) -- the likelihood of the "Soul Survivor" series adding another installment gets better and better.

We started this tournament talking about new versions of the Jelenas One and Two, but we could end it talking about the latest persona of Williams. We've seen her as the young champ who shocked the world ('99 U.S. Open), the most dominant force in the game ("Serena Slam") and as the player trying to overcome inactivity and adversity ('05 and '07 in Melbourne). But now, as she inches closer to possibly becoming the first woman in five years to string together back-to-back slam titles, we may be entering into the "Grand Dame" portion of Serena's career, when she fully reclaims her throne as the game's best -- not only in theory, but in practice, as well..

The Williamses have never done anything by the book. Serena even more so than Venus. A TRUE second act in the career of a dominant athlete, not just a spare additional moment of glory every once in a while, is a rarity in sports. But Serena might just make it another chapter in her ongoing tennis life story.

Sure, there are multiple reasons to like one of the Russians to win this title. Safina is due. So is Elena Dementieva, and she's riding a fifteen-match winning streak and recently has had Williams' number. In the end, Serena may yet turn out to NOT be the women pulling the strings in Melbourne, but don't be surprised if in a few years when people wonder just what you have to do to win the Australian Open they set out on a quest down a yellow brick road to Serena's house, hoping that she'll be able to dispense the wisdom necessary for wishes to become reality.

In other words, pay attention to the woman behind the curtain.

...Elena Dementieva wrapped up another fine performance by dispatching Carla Suarez-Navarro in the day's other women's QF by a 6-2/6-2 score. CSN didn't become a rare unseeded slam semifinalist, but two QF results in four career slam appearances mean this will likely be the last time in '09 she's unseeded at a slam. Look out for her at Roland Garros, where she qualified and reached the quarters last year in her slam debut.

Dementieva has won three straight matches over SF opponent Serena. But this in Melbourne, and Williams might have finally emerged in full Wizardess attire in her match against Kuznetsova.

...the Veradasco/Tsonga QF was similar to the one between Safina and Dokic, as far as the winner coming down to who took most advantage of the opportunities given to them by their opponent. Tsonga was just 2-for-14 in break point attempts, while Verdasco was 4-for-4. The Spanish lefty will now face off against that other Spanish lefty -- Rafael something) -- in the semis. With Federer and Roddick in the other SF, #14 Verdasco is the last player with a chance to extend the double-digit/unseeded men's final participant streak to four years (and 8-of-9).

1999 - #10 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, (u)Thomas Enqvist
2001 - #15 Arnaud Clement
2002 - #16 Thomas Johansson
2003 - #31 Rainer Schuettler
2004 - (u)Marat Safin
2006 - (u)Marcos Baghdatis
2007 - #10 Fernando Gonzalez
2008 - (u)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Of course, we could also be about to see the first final meeting by Nadal and Federer at a hard court slam, as well. If Nadal wins in Melbourne, how long will it take before people start talking about a potential "Rafa Slam?"

...the Girls QF are set, and six of the top eight seeds have advanced. Only Anna Orlik of Belarus and #9 Heather Watson (another Brit!) prevent a full house. The BOGDAN WATCH is on again, as the Romanians -- #2 Ana & #4 Elena -- are on opposite sides of the draw and could set up the second all-Swarmette junior slam final in the last year (E-Bog and Simona Halep made the final at Roland Garros).

...Nathalie Dechy is the only woman still alive in both the Women's and Mixed Doubles competitions. She and partners Mara Santangelo and Andy Ram, respectively, have both reached the SF. Mahesh Bhupathi (w/ Sania Mirza in Mixed, by the way) and Lukas Dlouhy (Iveta Benesova) can say the same amongst the men. Dechy, Mirza or maybe Casey Dellacqua, the last Aussie alive for a title, will likely claim Backspin's "Doubles Star" title for Oz.

...and, finally, a big debt of gratitude to Tennis Channel, but not ESPN2. After my satellite TV crapped out in the middle of the Safina-Dokic match the other night/morning, I needed to catch a replay of the 3rd set to actually see for myself what happened. Thankfully, Tennis Channel obliged before the afternoon had even begun. But ESPN2? The network never showed a replay of the three-setter (w/ a 3:30am start) between the world #3 and the story of the tournament.

As it turned out, rather than show even a partial replay of the entertaining Safina/Dokic clash during the network's late afternoon/early evening coverage, ESPN2 re-aired the Federer/del Potro (with back-to-back bagels of the Argentine to end the match) and Roddick/Djokovic (which ended in a retirement or, as Federer would say, a "give up") matches in whole.

Many commentators on ESPN like to talk about a lack of "star power" in women's tennis, and they're right when you consider that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy when decisions like this are made. Of course, this is the same net that two years ago ran print ads for RG coverage that featured Venus Williams and James Blake, hardly real factors in Paris, yet somehow managed to not include Nadal, who was already the reigning RG champ at the time. The promotions department has learned a little since then, but not as much as you'd think. Consider, during last night's coverage Chris Fowler was constantly promoting the 3:30am Federer/Roddick match that won't air until TONIGHT/TOMORROW MORNING, but for some reason neglected mentioning LAST NIGHT'S/THIS MORNING'S airing of the Nadal/Simon match. Hey, he's only the #1 player in the world playing better on hard courts than he ever has in his life. Why would you ever promote something like THAT when you can hope and hope for the seemingly millionth time that THIS TIME Roddick will actually put up a fight against Federer in a slam. Maybe he will this time, as his new fitness has made a big difference, but when you decide it's more important to focus your advertising on the American who's the #7 seed rather than the best player in the world who just so happens to be Spanish it says something about whether or not you really have any clue about how to promote the sport for which you now hold the broadcast rights for all four grand slams.

I've said it before and will again. ESPN's coverage of this year's U.S. Open will either be the best or the worst thing to happen to tennis on television in the United States. The network has the platform to return the game to a place of (increased) prominence, but the powers that be may have no idea how and/or desire to do it.

(Middle-Round Awards are coming momentarily)

18...Lindsay Davenport (7-11)
17...Venus Williams (13-4)
10...Maria Sharapova (4-6)
8...Amelie Mauresmo (3-5)

*SLAM SF - SINCE 2005*
9...Maria Sharapova (3-6)
8...Justine Henin (7-1)
5...Kim Clijsters (1-4)
5...Jelena Jankovic (1-4)
4...Ana Ivanovic (3-1)
4...Venus Williams (3-1)
4...Amelie Mauresmo (2-2)
3...Svetlana Kuznetsva (2-1)

5...Lindsay Davenport (2-3)
4...Maria Sharapova (2-2)
2...Mary Pierce (2-0)
2...Amelie Mauresmo (2-0)
2...Venus Williams (1-1)
1...Ana Ivanovic (1-0)
1...Kimiko Date-Krumm (0-1)
1...Nathalie Dechy (0-1)
1...Daniela Hantuchova (0-1)
1...Jelena Jankovic (0-1)
1...Patty Schnyder (0-1)
1...Nicole Vaidisova (0-1)

*AUSTRALIAN SF - 2000-09*
5...Kim Clijsters (1-4)
4...Maria Sharapova (2-2)
3...Martina Hingis (3-0)
3...Jennifer Capriati (2-1)
3...Lindsay Davenport (2-1)
3...Justine Henin (2-1)
2...Venus Williams (1-1)

3...France (Mladenovic/Obry/Puget)
2...Germany (Becker/Georgoudas)
2...Great Britain (Robson/Watson)
2...Romania (A.Bogdan/E.Bogdan)
2...Russia (Biryukov/Pervak)
1...Belarus (Orlik)
1...Guam (Uriguen)
1...India (Bhambri)
1...Taiwan (Hsieh)
1...Thailand (Lertcheewakern)

#7 Zvonareva/RUS vs. #3 Safina/RUS def. (WC)Dokic/AUS
#4 Dementieva/RUS vs. #2 S.Williams/USA

#1 Nadal/ESP vs. #14 Verdasco/ESP
#7 Roddick/USA vs. #2 Federer/SUI

#9 Hantuchova/Sugiyama (SVK/JPN) vs. Dechy/Santangelo (FRA/ITA)
#12 Dellacqua/Schiavone (AUS/ITA) vs. #10 Williams/Williams (USA/USA)

Kubot/Marach (POL/AUT) vs. #3 Bhupathi/Knowles (IND/BAH)
#6 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) vs. #2 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA)

#7 Medina-Garrigues/Robredo (ESP/ESP) vs. Dechy/A.Ram (FRA/ISR)
Benesova/Dlouhy (CZE/CZE) vs. Mirza/Bhupathi (IND/IND)

#1 Noppawan Lertcheewakern/THA vs. Anna Orlik/BLR
#4 Elena Bogdan/ROU vs. # Laura Robson/GBR
#9 Heather Watson/GBR vs. #3 Ksenia Pervak/RUS
#7 Kristina Mladenovic/FRA vs. #2 Ana Bogdan/ROU

#1 Yuki Bhambri/IND vs. Richard Becker/GER
Mikhal Biryukov/RUS vs. #7 Adrien Puget/FRA
Alexandro-Ferdinandos Georgoudas/GER vs. #15 Hsieh Cheng-Peng/TPE
#5 Julien Obry/FRA vs. #2 Julen Uriguen/GUA

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Elena Dementieva/RUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Stephanie Dubois/CAN d. Urszula Radwanska/POL 6-4/6-4
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd: Suarez-Navarro d. V.Williams 2-6/6-3/7-5 (1 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd: Safina d. Cornet 6-2/2-6/7-5 (2 MP)
FIRST SEED OUT: #23 Agnes Szavay/HUN (1st Rd.- Voskoboeva/KAZ)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Elena Baltacha/GBR, Alberta Brianti/ITA, Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL-KAZ (2nd Round)
IT GIRL: Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
CRASH & BURN: Venus Williams/USA (lost in 2nd Rd.)
ZOMBIE QUEENS: Dinara Safina/RUS (down 2-5 in 3rd, & 2 MP to Cornet in 4th Rd.)

All for Day 10. More tomorrow.


Blogger Zidane said...

Hey, you forgot my sweet Jelena in your *SLAM SF - SINCE 2005* list (she would be at 5 (1-4) if my memory's good).

Wed Jan 28, 01:41:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yep, you're right. I actually had her on my "Active Slam SF" list, but I cut it off at seven appearances on the post. For some reason, I'd left her off my "since 2005" list.

Just too many Jelenas as this slam, I guess. :D

Wed Jan 28, 06:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

As I see it, Todd, your metaphor does fall apart in one regard: Someone else has the red shoes... :)

Wed Jan 28, 06:42:00 PM EST  
Blogger mjgrace22 said...

I'm surprised you picked Lena over Bepa for the top middle round player. I thought Bepa was the one who impressed the most so far.

Wed Jan 28, 08:30:00 PM EST  
Blogger leia said...

As I live on the other side of the planet and rely on whatever tennis cable tv shows, I really appreciate insight on broadcast politics/marketing and all.

How can people NOT market Nadal is beyond me. But then again, I love Rafa so I'm a little biased =D

Thu Jan 29, 04:13:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Diane: :) I'd kind of cast Dokic as Dorothy before. Plus, I had Amelie "clicking her heels" a few seasons ago. The Wizard(ess) runs Emerald City, right? So I'm thinking that's Serena. :D

mjgrace22: Well, I went that way because I'd said all through the first week that I was waiting for Dementieva to LOOK like a potential champion (which I didn't really think Zvonareva could be) in the important middle rounds, and she did just that. Of course, in the SF...

leia: ESPN usually does promote Nadal (especially as a combo w/ Federer... so they CRAVE that final), but it took a while for it to happen. The network promotes him now, but it's apparent they'll throw him over the side if they have even a small chance to promote an American man, no matter how little a chance he might have.

Thu Jan 29, 12:48:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

At least Roddick deserves all the promotion. But then we have something like the Fish/Isner vs. Bryan/Bryan match--which had already been played--being shown when actual, live doubles was going on in Australia.

Thu Jan 29, 03:06:00 PM EST  

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