Sunday, January 11, 2009

Wk.1- Act 1, Scene 1 (2009)

And in Week 1 Victoria Azarenka finally ripped off the Band-Aid... and it felt great.

AP Photo / Tertius Pickard

A player's quest for a first career singles title can be a triumphant march to victory that springs out of nowhere (as, say, was the case with Justine Henin, who won the very first WTA tournament she entered), or one that degenerates into a virtual trail of tears that is prolonged for years, breaking hearts and curtailing growth as it becomes a lingering albatross. For every player who perseveres and, better late than never, finally snags a WTA title and moves forward to bigger and better things in her career (such as then 21-year old first-time winner Elena Dementieva, or then 23-year old Nadia Petrova), there are a few who never cross the threshold (see Ms. Kournikova... though not in the upcoming "What If?" this week -- and, yes, that IS a shameless plug) and end up having their actually-quite-good careers summed up in rather negative fashion with the "she never won a title" slap in the face.

For a player with Top 10-or-better talent, the longer the wait the more crippling it could potentially be for her development, as mental blocks could be allowed to fortify, possibly effecting the player's ability to play as confident a game as necessary to actually win the elusive maiden crown.

Coming into 2009, there was no player dancing on that treacherous fence quite like Azarenka. The 19-year old from Belarus had been the world junior #1 in 2005, winning Girls titles at both the Australian and U.S. Opens, and had continued to steadily rise in the rankings since turning pro. She won Mixed Doubles slam titles in New York ('07) and Paris ('08), and reached the Round of 16 in singles in both those events in the same years, as well. She's been one of the "players-to-watch" for a couple of seasons, but she had one problem -- she hadn't yet figured out how to win a singles title. While she was one of only two players to end 2008 in the Top 20 in both singles and doubles (along with Katarina Srebotnik), if she didn't become a champion soon the lack of a title was going to be like a seed planted in the opening paragraphs of every story written about her, and eluded to every time one of her matches was televised (and then there'd be the press conferences). Rather than a flower, the seed could eventually have germinated and grown into an insidious weed.

At the end of the past two WTA seasons, Azarenka was the highest-ranked player without a career title (while ranked at #30 in '07, then #15 last year). She'd come close, advancing to a pair of finals in each of the past two seasons, even going to three sets (one in a tie-break) in two of the matches, including in Week 1 of '08 against Li Na at Gold Coast. But she was still 0-4.

Last week, I noted that the Dorothy Tour and 1st Quarter would be important for Azarenka largely because they offered her the chance to finally get the no-title monkey off her back early in her '09 campaign, then go about her business trying to accomplish her next career benchmark -- the Top 10 -- in the coming months.

After taking out Marion Bartoli in straight sets in the final at Brisbane (the city where the old Gold Coast tournament was moved, as it turns out) on Saturday, Azarenka can now get on with things. Weed-be-gone.

Finally, the sky (or at least a few of the moderately-high clouds, for now) can become the limit.


S: Victoria Azarenka def. Marion Bartoli 6-3/6-1
D: Groenefeld/King d. Jans/Rosolska

S: Elena Dementieva def. Elena Vesnina 6-4/6-1
D: Dechy/Santangelo d. Llagostera-Vives/Parra-Santonja

HOPMAN CUP; PERTH, AUS (Team Exhibition/HI)
F: SVK (Cibulkova/Hrbaty) def. RUS (Safina/Safin) 2-0

HONG KONG, CHINA (Team Exhibition/HO)
F: America's (V.Williams/Dulko/Vandeweghe) def. Russia (Zvonareva/Chakvetadze/Panova)
3rd: Asia/Pacific (Mirza/Zheng/Zhang)
4th: Europe (Jankovic/Szavay/Larcher de Brito)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
apparently, all Azarenka needed was a Week 1 change of address. Gold Coast. Bad. Brisbane. Good. It's not as if she walked over a patsy draw to get her first title, either. Getting wins over Kaia Kanepi, Jarmila Gajdosova, Lucie Safarova, Sara Errani and Bartoli was quite impressive, though obviously not as tough as the types of draws she'll have to conquer if she's to take the NEXT step in her career. Azarenka, as of this moment, is scheduled to play again this week in Sydney. She could possibly even meet fellow Week 1 champion Elena Dementieva in a 2nd Round match. It'll be interesting to see if she's satisfied with her most recent accomplishment and essentially "bags" the tournament or a match, or if it emboldens her to grasp for even more of the spotlight with an eye toward Melbourne, as well... especially since back-to-back deep runs in tournaments so early in the season could leave her a little worn out when the Australian Open begins.

NOTE: Azarenka has indeed "bagged" the tournament, pulling out before her first scheduled match.

RISERS: Elena Vesnina/RUS & Sara Errani/ITA
Vesnina, 22, has always been one of the Hordettes who's sort of gotten lost in the crowd. Occasionally, she'd have a result that sparked interest and belief that she was close to making a move. I know I picked her to reach her first final a few seasons back, but it just never happened... until now. After seeing her season-ending ranking go in reverse from #44 to #55 to #76 the last few seasons, Vesnina finally reclaimed some control in Week 1, advancing to her first career tour final in Auckland, following a week of results that saw her upset the likes of Nicole Vaidisova and Caroline Wozniacki. She ultimately lost the seventeenth all-Russian final in WTA history to Elena Dementieva, but she's certainly started her '09 season on the proverbial right foot. Italian Errani's I-can-outlast-you game certainly plays well on the dirt. Bearing it out, most of her best career results have come during the clay season. Apparently, it works well on hard courts, too (one of her two '08 titles WAS on hard courts in Portoroz). En route to the Brisbane SF, she took out Daniela Hantuchova in the 1st Round (bageling her in the 3rd set) and outlasted Tsvetana Pironkova in a 3:31 battle.
SURPRISES: Amelie Mauresmo/FRA & Anne Keothavong/GBR
it was a bittersweet opening week for Mauresmo. Armed with a new coach and a determination to tighten up her sagging post-slam titles career, she took Brisbane by storm. Down went Jelena Dokic in two tie-break sets. Julie Coin followed, as Mauresmo saved match points. Then top-seeded Ana Ivanovic was wiped out in straights. All seemed right again in Amelie's world... then she had to retire four games into her SF with Marion Bartoli with a right thigh injury, possibly putting her on the sidelines along with Maria Sharapova for the Australian Open. What's that they say about one step forward, two steps back? While Laura Robson gets much of the press (what of it there is to get) when it comes to British women's tennis, Keothavong is the bigger CURRENT threat to break the long strangle-hold on tour disappointment for her countrywomen. The 25-year old actually made it into the Wimbledon draw on ranking merit, not by a wild card, last year and performed well when she got there. She started '09 in Auckland with her second career SF result (her first since '07) after wins over comeback-minded Mirjana Lucic, on-the-rise Carla Suarez-Navarro and a retiring Ayumi Morita.
VETERAN: Elena Dementieva/RUS & Venus Williams/USA
hmmm, maybe the idea that Olympic Gold had sated Dementieva's desires for continued success were wrong-headed, after all. A nice week -- wins over Chan Yung-Jan, Marina Erakovic, Shahar Peer, Aravane Rezai and Vesnina -- in Auckland gave her her twelfth career singles title, and might just put her in good position for Melbourne. She'll be the #4 seed (at least), with many of the top contenders either out, battling illness, suspected injury or a bad history of Australian Open results. Of course, Venus seems to be getting along rather well, too. Always a striking Hong Kong presence, Williams was so once again in the annual opening week exhibition. Last year, she won the singles-only competition with a win in the final over Sharapova. This year, with the event transformed into a team affair, she led the America's team (with Gisela Dulko and Coco Vandeweghe) to the title by sweeping both her singles matches (over Europe's Jelena Jankovic in the SF and Russia's Anna Chakvetadze in the Final), then teamed up with Vandeweghe to win the title-clinching doubles match against the Hordettes. Going back to last season, Venus has won twelve straight singles matches (ten of them official) and been the champion (or co-champion) at three straight events. Hmmm... is anyone else smelling the possibility of an all-Williams final in Melbourne?
FRESH FACES: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK & Aravane Rezai/FRA

with Azarenka's title, Cibulkova moves into the role of being the highest-ranked player (#19) without a tour singles title. Still, she did win SOMETHING in Week 1, taking the Hopman Cup championship with fellow Slovak Dominik Hrbaty. She went 4-0 in singles play, including a potentially very telling three-set win over Dinara Safina in the SVK/RUS final. Meanwhile, after climbing as high as #40 in 2007 before falling back to #74 in 2008, Pastry Rezai is one of those "laggers" from '08 looking to rebound this season. So far, so good. After being a RU in Auckland a year ago, Rezai reached the SF this time around, only her second SF (w/ Fes '08) since the last time she visited New Zealand. She notched wins over Eleni Daniilidou, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Edina Gallovits.
DOWN: Daniela Hantuchova/SVK, Alona & Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR
The Enigma known as Daniela lived up to expectations in Brisbane, falling in the 1st Round to Errani with a love set in the 3rd. As for the Sisters Bondarenko... well, it hasn't been a good start to '09. Both lost in the 1st Round in singles in Brisbane (K-Bond took only two games off Azarenka), then teamed to lose their second doubles match to eventual champions Groenefeld & King. Kateryna has already lost in Week 2, falling in an early-round match in Hobart to Magdalena Rybarikova (Alona won, though). So far, not exactly the momentum they were looking for to take into their Oz doubles title defense.
no ITF events were played this week, so... umm, I got nothing, other than to say there's obviously no ITF Player of the Week for Week 1.
JUNIOR STAR: Ajla Tomljanovic/CRO

meanwhile, while there were no ITF events this past week, there were 2009 junior events both this AND last week. Thus, the first-ever Backspin Junior Star of the Week award actually covers TWO weeks. 15-year old Croat Tomljanovic won her first career Grade A titles (in both singles and doubles) in the International Casablanca Junior Cup in Mexico the week of December 29-January 4. The #2-seed, she knocked off #3 Timea Babos of Hungary in the SF, then top-seeded Swarmette Ana Bodgan in the final, 3-6/6-4/7-6.

1a. Bris 2nd - Ivanovic d. Vinci
AnaIvo saved two match points here, so one would think she'd feel good about her ability to mentally hold things together after such a rocky second half of '08, right? Oh, yeah. That's what everyone expected after her "Kiss of Life" escape against Dechy at Wimbledon last year, too, wasn't it? In her next match at SW19, she was wiped out by Zheng Jie. Take note. Moving on...
1b. Bris QF - Mauresmo d. Ivanovic
It wouldn't be quite so potentially telling if we didn't know the backstory the last time Ivanovic's confidence was challenged. Moving on...
1c. Bris SF - Bartoli d. Mauresmo
...4-0, ret.
Hopefully, this is just a false alarm for Mauresmo.
2. Bris 2nd - Mauresmo d. Coin
This might end up saying more about Coin's '09 chances than Mauresmo's by the end of the season. Both saved MP's in this three-hour match, and a win would have given US Open AnaIvo conqueror Coin her first-ever tour QF result. Can you say, "late-bloomer?"
3. Bris QF - Hantuchova/Sugiyama d. Black/Huber
It wasn't ALL bad for Hantuchova in Brisbane, though one might have expected a better ultimate doubles result for the pair after this big an early-round win. As for Black/Huber... hey, they've got a 3720-point lead over their nearest competitor on the WTA computer, so they're allowed a few mulligans over the course of the season.
4. Hopman F (WS) - Cibulkova d. Safina
Two Safin(a)s didn't make a Slovak (or two) buckle in Perth. Has any player pulled off more highly-ranked upsets over the last year than Cibulkova?
5. Auck F - Dementieva d. Vesnina
Dementieva has appeared in nine of the seventeen all-Russian tour finals, going 4-5.
6. Bris F - Azarenka d. Bartoli
Simple and quick. Learned well you have, Miss Azarenka.
7. Bris 1st - Mauresmo d. Dokic
They hadn't met since 2003. Dokic failed to convert five set points in the 1st, then pulled out of Hobart with an Achilles injury. Here we go again?
8. Hong Kong SF (AMER/EUR) - V.Williams d. Jankovic
It's been a typical few weeks for Jelena. She gets back from training in Mexico, then heads for China after the Serbian movie premiere of "Jelena's World." Let's see, she now has a star named after her, and she just signed with IMG for representation. Oh, and she was wiped out by Venus on the court... and now has the flu, to boot. Never a dull moment, huh? Of course, a little calm once in a while might be a good thing, too.
9. Auck 1st - Craybas d. Date-Krumm
A Kimiko sighting outside of Japan. A short-lived one, though.
10. Hobart Q2 - U.Radwanska d. Schiavone
Apparently, an administrative error caused Schiavone to have to go through qualifying to reach the Hobart main draw. Whoops. I wonder if whoever screwed this up is friends with Sharapova's doctors?
HM- Bris 2nd - Govortsova d. Karatantcheva
Still, Sesil made it through qualifying and notched four wins overall. And she didn't get pregnant, either... I mean, as far as we know.
HM- Auck QF - Dementieva d. Peer
Not exactly the most care-free week for Peer, who resisted out-of-place calls for her to pull out of the event because of the war going on back home. Of course, if every player whose country is involved in a war somewhere stopped playing there'd hardly be much tennis going on, now would there? There's a time and a place for everything, and this wasn't it.

1...Great Britain

19...Maria Sharapova (2003-08)
12...ELENA DEMENTIEVA (2003-09)
10...Anastasia Myskina (1999-05)

5...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-3)
4...Anastasia Myskina (4-0)
4...Maria Sharapova (3-1)
3...Dinara Safina (2-1)
2...Anna Chakvetadze (2-0)
2...Nadia Petrova (0-2)

1999 Australia (Dokic/Philippoussis)
2000 South Africa (Coetzer/Ferreira)
2001 Switzerland (Hingis/Federer)
2002 Spain (Sanchez Vicario/Robredo)
2003 United States (S.Williams/Blake)
2004 United States (Davenport/Blake)
2005 Slovak Republic (Hantuchova/Hrbaty)
2006 United States (Raymond/Dent)
2007 Russia (Petrova/Tursunov)
2008 United States (S.Williams/Fish)
2009 Slovak Republic (Cibulkova/Hrbaty)

2001 Jelena Dokic
2002 Jennifer Capriati
2003 Monica Seles
2004 Venus Williams
2005 Elena Dementieva
2006 Kim Clijsters
2007 Kim Clijsters
2008 Venus Williams
2009 America's (V.Williams/Dulko/Vandeweghe)

2001 Justine Henin, Meilen Tu
2002 Anna Smashnova, Venus Williams
2003 Eleni Daniilidou, Nathalie Dechy
2004 Elena Daniilidou, Ai Sugiyama
2005 Patty Schnyder, Katarina Srebotnik
2006 Marion Bartoli, Lucie Safarova
2007 Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina
2008 Lindsay Davenport, Li Na
2009 Victoria Azarenka, Elena Dementieva

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA (Premiere $600K-Hard Outdoor)
08 Final: Henin d. Kuznetsova
09 Top Seeds: S.Williams/Safina

S.Williams d. Dementieva
Kuznetsova d. Safina

S.Williams d. Kuznetsova

...Serena had a close call with Stosur in their early 1st Round match, as Sammy served at 5-4/40-love in the 3rd and double-faulted twice on MP as Serena won the set 7-5 to advance. As history has shown, it's often dangerous to give Williams second chances in tournaments in which she should have been eliminated. This is really just a tune-up for her, though. As long as she gets to Melbourne in one piece, Sydney champ or not, this week will be a success. How about that Cibulkova-Wozniacki 1st Round match? Good for the spectators. Bad for whichever player loses and gets bad-drawed out of at least one more pre-Oz match.

HOBART, AUSTRALIA (Int'l $220K-Hard Outdoor)
08 Final: Daniilidou d. Zvonareva
09 Top Seeds: Dementieva/Schnyder

Pennetta d. Zheng
Pironkova d. Kvitova

Pennetta d. Pironkova

...#2-seed Schnyder didn't even survive the extra-early 1st round action this weekend (falling to Pironkova, who I REALLY DID have in my SF picks before she pulled the upset, by the way). Pennetta would get a chance to stake a claim to some potentially-growing goals with a title here.

ALSO: Australian Open qualifying

S.Williams d. Dementieva
Safina d. Kuznetsova
Safina d. S.Williams

Zheng d. Pennetta
A.Bondarenko d. Szavay
Zheng d. A.Bondarenko

All for now.

THIS WEEK: What If? (In Search of "Citizen Anna") and Backspin Time Capsule: 1993 Australian Open (Seles... trapped in amber)
NEXT WEEKEND: Australian Open Preview and Bare Bones Backspin I (for Week 2)


Blogger Pierre said...

so picking Pironkova in the final hey? Interesting pick;)

Sun Jan 11, 07:10:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, since I predicted her to be the highest-ranked player at the end of '09 without a career title, I figured I'd better follow through and at least pick her to get close to one during one of the few weeks where she really might have a shot to go deep into a draw. Of course, watch her win the tournament and the entire thing backfire. ;)

Sun Jan 11, 08:41:00 PM EST  
Blogger Vicki said...

Todd love backspin read it every week but there is a error in this week;s Safina can't be beaten the semi finals and then final can she?

Sun Jan 11, 11:14:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Whoops. Thanks, Vicki. :)

And I changed the person beating Safina (at least in the SF) to Kuznetsova, too, since Zvonareva pulled out of Sydney.

Mon Jan 12, 09:49:00 AM EST  

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