Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oz 7- Chaos in the Morning, Drama During the Day and Glory in the Evening... late into the fun night

On Day (and Night) 7, Rod Laver Arena hosted a cornucopia of tennis action that, well, had to make even Rod Laver himself proud.

Ah, look at the ol' redhead smile.

The never-ending day began with a 4th Round match between top-seeded Jelena Jankovic and #16 Marion Bartoli, a contest that was expected to be close and a real test for the world #1. As it turned out, it was simply a case of one woman outplaying the other from the first ball struck until the last.

In the end, Jankovic had left the building. (And her #1 ranking might soon be joining her, as well, thanks to Bartoli's 6-1/6-4 victory.)

Getty Images

Jankovic never really seemed to play herself into this Australian Open. She looked like Queen Chaos (a bulked-up QC, actually), but she never fully embodied the role. Everyone waited throughout the first week for "version 2.0" to actually look like an upgrade, but the glitches ended up ultimately outweighing the new functions. It doesn't mean a recall is in order, but a few weeks and months with her nose buried in an instruction manual might be in order, as for only the second time in her last nineteen slams she finds herself having failed to match or improve upon her previous year's (a SF in '08) result.

New body. Same old serve. New power. Not nearly as effective a gameplan. On the whole, the JJ at THIS Australian Open was a not-quite-as-vivacious one compared to the dervish we've seen in the past. Was it her health? Was it her preparation? Was it the pressure? Whatever it was, SHE wasn't even the JELENA "with the mostest" at this tournament, let alone it's ultimate champion. But she's got a long season to "find herself" again.

For her part, Bartoli jumped into the big time a couple of seasons ago at Wimbledon while expressing a love of Pierce Brosnan's 007 and truffles. Her feelings on Daniel Craig aside, from the looks of the "Trufflette," the Frenchwoman hasn't been enjoying nearly as many sweet treats as she used to. With a new fitness. her game was as effective as Jankovic's was just the opposite. Keeping her shots low to JJ's consternation, while seizing upon the Serb's woeful second serve, Bartoli never truly had her back up against the wall in this match.

Even with Bartoli's improved fitness, if Jankovic could have forced the match to a 3rd set she might have grabbed the advantage as those weeks training at elevation in Mexico would have paid some dividends. But after denying Bartoli numerous break attempts at 4-4 in the 2nd, Jankovic saw the Pastry finally grab a 5-4 lead on her fourth break point attempt. She then served out the match, ending Act I of what turned out to be a very long day. What did we learn from this opening act? Well, for one, apparently there's room for only one Jelena at this slam.

So, bring on Match #2.

With Jankovic's loss, the #1 ranking was suddenly up for grabs, with the likes of Serena Williams, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva within shouting distance of the top spot.

Enter Dinara. Imposing Dinara. She started her 4th Round match with Alize Cornet like she was mistress of all she surveyed, and how dare this "little girl try to block my path." She led 5-0, and Cornet looked like she was about to surrender her lunch money to the cafeteria bully.

But then the Pastry sucked it up, and Dinara... well, Dinara started to act like a member of the Safin family. Cornet didn't panic, and simply remained steady, keeping the ball inside the lines while Safina started to implode. She lost the 2nd set at 6-2, then found herself down 5-2 in the 3rd after a long stretch of those racket-tossing, head-shaking moments that have so far prevented the Russian from hoisting her first slam championship trophy.

Ah, but Safina actually had Cornet just where she wanted her.

Twice the French teenager served for the match, and twice she failed. She held back-to-back match points, too, but even when she tried to smash a winner to put away the match -- and very nearly DID succeed in doing it, just missing a down-the-line winner by an inch -- she couldn't do it. Given life, as happened when she survived match points last year at Roland Garros, Safina was suddenly closer to victory than Cornet had ever been.

An imposing-once-more Safina won the final five games of the match, winning 6-2/2-6/7-5 and again triumphed over her inner family demons to resemble a player who might be a grand slam champion in one week's time.

All right. Next?

Match #3 on Laver filled the afternoon with unexpected drama as Roger Federer faced off with Tomas Berdych, the same Czech that the former #1 has pretty much had his way with ever since Berdych knocked him out of the Olympics back in 2004. With the "bizarro" clouds still circling the arena, Berdych took a two sets to love lead as Federer's game was totally out of sorts. Gradually, Federer worked his way back into the match, finally seizing control for good in the 5th set to win 4-6/6-7/6-4/6-4/6-2 in his first comeback victory from two sets to love down since he pulled off the feat against Rafael Nadal (before Rafa was really "RAFA"... and maybe the match that kicked off the transformation) in Miami in 2005.

Oh, but that wasn't the end of the action. Not by a long shot. Next, Laver Arena was gripped by this tournament's every-other-day Time Machine Experience for Match #4.

Under the lights, the Queen of the Melbourne Night, Jelena Dokic, clashed with AnaIvo conqueror Alisa Kleybanova, a Russian teenager whose game style, skills and look bring to mind Lindsay Davenport, the same player who so often provided Dokic with her big event pink slips throughout Dokic I at the start of the decade.

But Dokic, coming off two previous night victories that have re-catapulted her into the Australian and tennis spotlight, was up to the challenge... as was the Russian. Kleybanova served at 5-4 in the 1st set, but Dokic won it 7-5. Serving at 5-4 in the 2nd, Kleybanova was again turned away. She battled back, finally taking the 2nd set at 7-5 with an ace.

In the 3rd, the same set where she wrestled away the match from Ivanovic in the previous round, Kleybanova jumped out in front once again. She was up a break at 3-1, and took a 30-love lead on Dokic's serve as the Aussie, who later admitted her exhaustion in the last set of her fourth straight three-set contest, found herself backed into a corner.

For all the ill will that her father Damir has brought to Dokic's life, he did lend her ONE thing that has served her well throughout what is turning out to be BOTH of her careers. A boxer in his younger days, father Dokic's fighter's mentality was imprinted into Jelena's game from the onset, and even in the old days often allowed her to thrive on the court even while the opponent and her entire world was bearing down on her (well, at least for a while that's how it went).

At any rate, that on-court character trait served her well on Night 7. I guess that's a case of what you'd call making chicken salad of chicken you-know-what, huh?

Two points from being down two breaks at 4-1, Dokic surged once again. From 1-3, love/30 down, she won ten of the next eleven points, breaking Kleybanova in the middle game of the run, encouraging the crowd to get behind her with a few gestures to "raise the level" of noise and suddenly finding herself up 5-4.

Leading 6-5, after having lost the first two points on Kleybanova's serve, Dokic nastily turned her left ankle (after already dealing with a lingering injury to her right Achilles). With a middleweight fighter-like knowledge that she nearly had her opponent right where she wanted her, though, Dokic didn't take an injury timeout. She hobbled back into the action and continued to play. Kleybanova claimed the game, but Dokic won the battle.

Dokic held serve, then after some treatment during the changeover, came back out to attempt to break the Russian to take the match. During the previous game, the overall match point total was knotted at 120-120. A few minutes later, after Kleybanova had been broken to send Dokic into her first slam QF since 2003, Jelena led 125-120. After a 3-hour plus match that was every bit as close as the final 7-5/5-7/8-6 scoreline would suggest, this Open's most emotional story had resulted in Dokic being assured of returning to the Top 100 in the WTA rankings.

After the match, with tears in her eyes and giving back all the warmth towards her that was emanating her way from the crowd, Dokic actually had a moment that couldn't help but remind one of that OTHER Jelena. Asked about the tiny stuffed animals attached all over her racket bag, she said the gifts sometimes serve as her on-court coaches during matches. "I talk to them all the time," she said with a nearly-straight face.

But surely their conversations can't be as intriguing and outright heartwarming as what's happened ON the court during this first week of the Australian Open for Dokic. And the crazy thing is, even with an injury question rearing its head and Safina waiting in the next round, this story still might have another improbable chapter left to tell.

And that STILL wasn't the end of the day on Laver. Match #5 hadn't even started yet, and it was already after 11pm.

The nightcap wasn't nearly as dramatic, but any match which features Novak Djokovic against Marcos Baghdatis can't help but be fun, especially now that the Cypriot seems to have rediscovered his crowd-pleasing game. While Djokovic, even with all his entertaining aspects, isn't likely to turn too many crowds in his favor, he's never boring.

Baghdatis tried to turn the contest into a Davis Cup-esque match where the crowd would get behind him in a 5th set, possibly bringing out "Bad" Novak to the detriment of the defending champion, but Djokovic would have none of it. He put away Baghdatis in four sets, finally finishing off a match point at about 2:30 in the morning Melbourne time.

Whew! What a day. Are we SURE this tournament is only HALF over?

...meanwhile, earlier in the day, Vera Zvonareva knocked out Nadia Petrova in straight sets to match her career-best slam result. She'll face Bartoli for a right to reach to her first ever slam SF. In doubles, the Williams sisters, took out the Aussie team of Sam Stosur and Rennae Stubbs in straight sets, 6-4/6-2, to reach the QF.

...and, finally, Safina's middle-round Zombie Queen act against Cornet prevented me from giving this Day 7 recap the title that I wanted, but I'm going to use it here anyway. On the heels of what would have been back-to-back upsets of two of the top three seeds by French players, it was going to be called, "Sometimes You Eat the Pastry, and Sometimes It Eats You." I know it would have still been applicable with the Jankovic/Bartoli match, but the overall events of the day on Laver won out in the end. Darn you, Dinara.

2000 Aniko Kapros d. Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez
2001 Jelena Jankovic d. Sofia Arvidsson
2002 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova d. Maria Sharapova
2003 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova d. Viktoriya Kutuzova
2004 Shahar Peer d. Nicole Vaidisova
2005 Victoria Azarenka d. Agnes Szavay
2006 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova d. Caroline Wozniacki
2007 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova d. Marion Bartoli
2008 Arantxa Rus d. Jessica Moore

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: 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
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: xxx
CRASH & BURN: Venus Williams/USA (lost in 2nd Rd.)
ZOMBIE QUEENS: [Early-Rd.] Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP (down MP to V.Williams in 2nd Rd.; [Middle-Rd.] Dinara Safina/RUS (down 2 MP to Cornet in 4th Rd.)

All for Day 7. More tomorrow.


Blogger Vicki said...

You are right about Alisa but i have to say she reminds me of Lindsay from about 13 years ago when Lindsay was starting out career but it was a great match.

Look forward to the instalment of the fairytale but I can't really seeing it continuing but Safina didn't set the world on fire either yesterday so who knows.

Love your work too.

Sun Jan 25, 06:28:00 PM EST  
Blogger Pierre said...

Simply amazing that Dokic is still in play, I can't imagine how unlikely this would have

Sun Jan 25, 07:12:00 PM EST  
Blogger leia said...

I am absolutely heartbroken about JJ's loss - the loss was horrible to watch. I'm scared for her - I hope she figures out this new body and whatever niggling issues there are because I want the JJ that made me fall in love with tennis.

That said: Go Dinara!

Sun Jan 25, 08:53:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Vicki - Thanks. And, yeah, I was sort of playing fast and loose with the Davenport timeline as far as whether or not Kleybanova was exactly like the Davenport that Dokic used to face. I think I was just girding myself for a Dokic loss, and thinking how ironic it would be if it came to this player. :)

Pierre - well, you know, you pick Jelena to make a comeback enough times, I guess she's bound to do it one day, huh? Of course, not that either you or I was REALLY expecting it to happen like this.

Leia - well, I think Jankovic's best shot at a slam this year was always going to come in either Paris or New York, so she's got time to work things out.

Mon Jan 26, 04:02:00 AM EST  
Blogger leia said...

Yeah, I think her best shot is RG as well. Hope this is a reality check for her and stop all that yakkity-yak about her being #1. I want to see the real Queen Chaos =D

Mon Jan 26, 09:20:00 AM EST  

Post a Comment

<< Home