Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oz 9- Dinara on Her Shoulder

Jelena Dokic tried to deny Dinara Safina a spot in the 2009 Australian Open semifinals. The loud voice of that "little Dinara" who resides inside the Russian's head did, too. But, in the end, fate could not be denied.

Safina's close 6-4/4-6/6-4 victory, which was not without several moments when it appeared as if Aussie comeback queen Dokic was one or two points from turning the match in her favor, puts her within two wins of reaching her hoped-for grand slam destiny.

But for at least one more day, she'll have to share the spotlight with her Night 9 opponent, whose winning story has been so special Down Under that Rod Laver himself showed up in Melbourne for a first-hand look at what all the fuss has been about.

For her part, Dokic had spent the previous eight days of this tournament playing to perfection her role as a modern day Dorothy who'd been plucked from the swirling winds of the tornado named Damir and, after a long trip on a yellow brick road, finally plopped down in the Land of Oz with a legion of Aussie "munchkins" cheering her on. She went into this match not yearning to go home, for she'd already done that, but to try to extend this unexpected second Australian honeymoon for as long as humanly possible, even if the limits of her tiring body and the talent of her opponent seemed to be ready to spring upon her from the weeds at any moment.

This semifinal might not have been, as some called it, the "biggest match of her career" (she'd already played in a Wimbledon SF, and for an Olympic Medal in Sydney -- both more than eight years ago), but it might have been the most important one of her new life. The result didn't matter, as just persevering and reaching this point was about ten million times more than half the battle.

Of course, having sometime in the past week moved past the invisible "line of importance" that had previously divided the reclaiming of her off-court self and the resurrection of her past high-flying tennis fortunes, winning would have been another brick upon the load that she's been more than happy to carry on her shoulders at this tournament. After all, it would have just piled another heap of superlatives upon the ton of ones she'd already earned. And she DID have chances to win this match. But, in the end, Safina ultimately silenced them, as well as the havoc-heavy plans of "little Dinara," the alternate pseudo-personality who once again threatened to deny Safina's slam-winning dreams in this match.

Even with what Dokic still seemed capable of achieving in Melbourne under the right circumstances, there was always the underlying feeling that this match was going to be all about whether or not Safina could keep herself together long enough to not allow Dokic to get her fangs into yet another night match of which she would refuse to let go. In a battle which turned on who better handled a handful of big points, the Russian was the player who seized control of the most of them.

In the 1st set, she broke Dokic in her first serve game and soon took a 3-1 lead. After working her way into the match, Dokic broke back to tie the set at 3-3. But Safina's second break for 5-4 gave her the chance to serve out the set, which she did.

As the 2nd set moved along, Dokic pushed back and served for a 5-3 lead, but was broken. The match might have turned out to be a straight sets win for Safina at that point, but it was then that "little Dinara" came out of hibernation. Down 5-4, Safina posted four double-faults in a single service game, got that angry/frustrated look on her face that's become so familiar, slammed a racket and handed Dokic the set on a silver platter. Even while losing the set 6-4, Safina won more points (39-38) in the stanza. But the match was still tied at one set all.

Safina had given Dokic new life, and it very nearly cost her the match.

In the 57-minute 3rd set, big points swayed the momentum. Safina led 4-2, but Dokic surged back to tie the score at four-all. Serving down 15/30, the Aussie worked the point well to set up a mid-court shot perfectly situated for a put-away, but she netted a backhand to give Safina two break points. Dokic extended the game to deuce, and got to game point (just barely missing a backhand down the line for a winner), but Safina eventually broke her to take back the lead. Rather than being up 5-4 and forcing Safina to contend with a potential re-emergence of "little Dinara" on her shoulder, Dokic's back was against the wall. Thing is, she very nearly fought her way out of the corner again, holding a 40/15 lead on Safina's serve as the Russian served for the match. But it wasn't meant to be. Safina kept her inner demons in check, and finally ended Dokic's magical run.

In the end, the big point numbers told the tale of the match. In the 3rd set, Dokic was 1-of-6 on break attempts, while Safina was 2-of-4. While Safina had a 68% 1st serve win percentage in the set, Dokic's was 46%. While Dokic led the overall match in winners (29-23), was essentially even in aces and had fewer double-faults, Safina's 72% 1st serve win percentage was considerably better than Dokic's 56%. As was the case in Dokic I, while the Aussie serves hard her serve is not a reliable and consistent weapon, and in a match such as this -- especially while fighting fatigue in her fifth straight three-set match -- that's enough to make a difference in a close contest.

But Dokic has nothing to feel bad about. Not today. Not after pushing herself to the limit, knocking off three seeds, coming precariously close to making it four against the world #3 and perhaps being just one converted Alize Cornet match point or another "little Dinara" cameo from reaching her second career slam semifinal after being little more than a quickly-fading WTA memory for the last half-decade. This might not have been the ending to her '09 Australian story that many wanted but, then again, no one could have conceived of this story at all before this tournament began.

Fighting back against an opponent on the court used to be Dokic's salvation. Now it's simply proof of what always seemed to be the case even back in her early days -- that she has more than enough heart, courage and brains to get along well if only she'd recognize it herself.

Finally, that seems to be the case. Good for her.

So, while Dokic's career and life move forward in a better place than either were a week ago (imagine if she's able to remain consistent, get her ranking high enough to be seeded at a slam and take some version of the game she showed in Melbourne to her favorite Dokic I stomping grounds at SW19 this summer), Safina moves forward in this tournament. Whoever wins the '09 Oz title, if it's the Russian, is going to have to deal with the woman who's emerged from behind the WTA curtain over the past nine months.

Winner of fourteen straight-and-counting matches Elena Dementieva notwithstanding, if it wasn't for the presence of three-time champ Serena Williams on the other side of the draw, Safina would be the overwhelming favorite to win this slam. Well, those players and that little Russian who lives inside Safina's own head, who might have an itching to attempt one more coup d'etat before the Australian Open is over.

If Safina can manage to totally evict "little Dinara," or at least brush her off with great force if she appears on her shoulder again during what's left of this tournament, there might be no one who can stop her.

...meanwhile, Vera Zvonareva easily made her way through a player who was but a shadow in the blazing sun of the same Marion Bartoli who knocked out Jelena Jankovic. It's Zvonareva's first slam SF, as the Russian that was one of the least talked about of her countrywomen coming into the tournament has seized the "Ms. Opportunity" crown for this Australian Open. After ending her 2008 season with back-to-back finals, then reaching the team final in Hong Kong to begin '09, Zvonareva will be looking to reach the last match in her fourth straight event.

2004 Fabiola Zuluaga, COL
2005 Nathalie Dechy, FRA
2006 Martina Hingis, SUI
2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
2009 Vera Zvonareva, RUS

...while Dokic and Bartoli both lost one match, Cara Black lost two. She and world doubles co-#1 Liezel Huber were upset in a three-setter by Daniela Hantuchova & Ai Sugiyama. In Mixed Doubles, she and Leander Paes were ousted by Patty Schnyder & Wesley Moodie.

...Roger Federer reached his nineteenth straight slam SF with an easy win over Juan Martin del Potro; while the slimmed-down and fitter Andy Roddick outlasted defending champion Novak Djokovic, who retired in the 4th set in the 120-plus degrees F heat on Rod Laver.

...while Dokic didn't manage to do it, Carla Suarez-Navarro still has a shot to reach the women's SF as an unseeded player. If she does it, she'd become just the third unseeded woman to reach the Oz SF this decade, following in the footsteps of Serena Williams (2007) and Jennifer Capriati (2000). Only ten unseeded women have reached the semifinals in the Australian Open in the last thirty years.

...whoops. The Middle-Round Awards actually will come TOMORROW, since the quarters won't be finished until then. Jumped the gun yesterday a little on that one, I guess.

...so, to replace the Middle-Round Awards, here are a few off-Open awards, if you will. ITF Player of the Week goes to Canada's Sharon Fichman, 18. A week after losing to Gabriela Paz in a circuit singles final, Fichman defeated the Venezuelan in a QF rematch in the $25K in Lutz, Florida. She then went on to knock off Lauren Albanese in the final. On the junior circuit. 16-year old Ukrainian Nadiya Kichenok gets "Junior Star" honors for winning the Optus Nottinghill International Grade 1 event in Melbourne. She defeated Maria Kirillova and Elena Bogdan along the way.

...and, finally, it's funny how sometimes when a player says something in his/her second language, while it might be technically true, it sometimes has a blunter, almost more accusatory tone to in than the player might have intended. Case in point, when asked about whether or not he was surprised about Djokovic's retirement against Roddick, Federer matter-of-factly said that he wasn't since the Serb "has given up" in matches several times before. For his part, Federer, said that HE'D only "given up" once in his career, last season when he has a back injury. I doubt if Federer meant for it to sound as derogatory about Djokovic (and maybe his character) as it almost did, and he WAS just stating the true facts... only without the "nicer," more politically correct spin, tone and word usage that we've come to expect from generally emotionally level-headed athletes whose first language isn't English. Again, nothing was or I don't believe was attempted to be stirred up or tweaked here, but I just thought it was a good example of how the fine subtleties of a language can cause nonexistent things to be able to be read between the lines.

Of course, I'm sure Alla Kudryavtseva knows all about that, huh? Unfortunately, because of it, she'll likely never say another sentence in English about a fellow player's match day attire ever again.

[multiple scheduled matches]
4...Jelena Dokic (3-1)
3...Roger Federer (3-0)
2...Rafael Nadal (2-0)
2...Marcos Baghdatis (1-1)
2...Alisa Kleybanova (1-1)
2...Samantha Stosur (1-1)
NOTE: through nine days of scheduled night session matches at Rod Laver Arena, plus one night on Hisense Arena

#7 Zvonareva/RUS def. #16 Bartoli/FRA
#3 Safina/RUS def. (WC)Dokic/AUS
Suarez-Navarro/ESP vs. #4 Dementieva/RUS
#8 Kuznetsova/RUS vs. #2 S.Williams/USA

#1 Nadal/ESP vs. #6 Simon/FRA
#14 Verdasco/ESP vs. #5 Tsonga/FRA
#7 Roddick/USA def. #3 Djokovic/SRB
#2 Federer/SUI def. #8 del Potro/ARG

#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) def. #6 Fyrstenberg/Matkowski (POL/POL)
#3 Bhupathi/Knowles (IND/BAH) def. F.Lopez/Verdasco (ESP/ESP)
Bolelli/Seppi (ITA/ITA) vs. #6 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND)
Fish/Isner (USA/USA) vs. #2 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA)

Schnyder/Moodie (SUI/RSA) vs. #7 Medina-Garrigues/Robredo (ESP/ESP)
Dechy/A.Ram (FRA/ISR) vs. Cibulkova/Melzer (SVK/AUT)
Benesova/Dlouhy (CZE/CZE) def. Cornet/M.Melo (FRA/BRA_
Mirza/Bhupathi (IND/IND) vs. Wozniak/Nestor (CAN/CAN)

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: 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 9. More tomorrow.


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