Monday, March 23, 2009

Wk.11- Diplomatic Maturity?

In most areas of life, nothing is a better teacher than experience. In tennis, the same notion holds true. Winning begets winning, which fosters confidence which -- you guessed it -- leads to more winning.

Case in point... Vera Zvonareva.

Photo by Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

Not that long ago, the would-be future Russian diplomat was known for her on-court emotional meltdowns and as a career underachiever. But that's starting to change. Maybe big time, after Zvonareva cleared yet another career high bar with her 7-6/6-2 win in the Indian Wells final over defending champion Ana Ivanovic on Sunday.

Ever since Zvonareva won a Bronze Medal at the Beijing Olympics late last summer, she's been a different player. Maybe it was a change that was already in the making, hence the Medal in the first place after a long hard battle to wrestle control of her in-match emotions, but surely the Russian's confidence-building Chinese excursion provided a welcome and proud moment of self-congratulation for the now 24-year old.

It's working, she must have realized. If the epiphany could have occurred a few years ago, Zvonareva surely would have reached this high point in her career earlier... but every player progresses at her own pace, and this has turned out to be the Diplomat's. And at the moment, her pace could very well be leading her into something resembling the brilliant spring/summer that her countrywoman Dinara Safina experienced a year ago.

After the Olympics, Zvonareva reached finals in Moscow, Linz and the season-ending championship (giving her eight final appearances in '08) to finish the year at a career-best #7 in the rankings. In January, I listed her as one of the players for whom the 1st Quarter of '09 would be most important, for she didn't want to squander the momentum she built at the end of the previous season. Good for her, because she hasn't done anything of the sort.

After having only reached a single slam quarterfinal in her career ('03 Roland Garros), she reached her first slam SF at the Australian Open in January and jumped into the Top 5 for the first time. She won a title in Pattaya, and has now added the Indian Wells crown to tie her for the tour's season lead eleven weeks into the campaign. So far, her match record is 18-2, giving her the second-highest win total on tour (20-Dementieva).

Naturally, her not-so-distant past still makes every moment on court an anxious one. For example, when Zvonareva furiously smashed her racket after having her service broken by Ivanovic in the final -- in just the SECOND GAME OF THE MATCH! -- who didn't think the long slide on a windy Sunday afternoon had already begun? Maybe it would have, had AnaIvo been able to convert one of three set points on Zvonareva's serve at 6-5 in the 1st. But she didn't. Zvonareva won the ensuing tie-break, and the rest was Indian Wells history.

Imagine, though, just for a moment, if you will. What if Zvonareva has discovered a way to use her anger and emotion IN HER FAVOR after all these years. She surely played better after her outburst on this day, not that two games was really enough to establish a pattern that needed to be broken by totally sending an entire dinner set crashing into the wall and starting all over again from scratch. But still. This time it seemed to work, and it could portend some great things before the 2009 season is complete.

Of course, the plate-clearing method probably wouldn't be the best course of action if Zvonareva really does live out her dream and become a diplomat one day (she's attending the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with her eyes set on working within the United Nations). International relations and flying porcelain plates and silverware don't generally mix all that well, you know.

In a year when the upcoming Roland Garros event, which world #1 Serena Williams has won just once (2002), could very well arrive with the field as even as ever (maybe even more so than a year ago, when Justine Henin's retirement made the entire thing a crapshoot)... why couldn't Zvonareva become the next Russian slam champ? Not long ago, it'd be too easy to believe that Zvonareva wouldn't be able to handle the pressure of such a big stage.

That may no longer be the case.



S: Vera Zvonareva def. Ana Ivanovic 7-6/6-2
D: Azarenka/Zvonareva d. Dulko/Peer

it's difficult to get much better than the destined Diplomat winning the first Tier I... err, I mean "Premier Mandatory" (catchy, huh?) event of her career without dropping a set against the likes of Ivanovic, Azarenka, Wozniacki, Li and Kvitova. Not to mention winning the doubles, too. Oh, and regaining her career-high #5 ranking with her ninth career title (which ties her with Kuznetsova, Safina, Petrova and Morozova on the all-time Russian list). That Olympic Bronze seems to have really secured a foundation of confidence for Zvonareva to build upon, hasn't it?
RISER: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
sure, A-Rad's QF run in Indian Wells ended earlier than she might have hoped. But for a player who just lost her Top 10 ranking and entered the event under .500 for the season (and after three wins is still barely over .500), such a result in a big event is just the type of affirming outing she's been looking for for months.
SURPRISES: Elena Bovina/RUS & Violette Huck/FRA
you've got to hand it to Bovina. She's been trying to forge a post-shoulder injury comeback for a few seasons now without any concrete consistency to help her along, but she hasn't given up. Right before last year's U.S. Open she won a challenger in the Bronx, her first singles title of any kind since she won in New Haven in 2004 and the road ahead seemed to run parallel with a rainbow leading to a pot of gold (all right, so maybe I went a little far with the analogy -- but she DID seem destined for greater things in that moment that's now nearly five years in the past). This weekend in Tenerife, Spain she won her second comeback title in a $25K challenger. Ranked #180, she was forced to qualify first, then knock off Simona Halep before finally taking out Rebecca Marino in the final. Maybe all hope isn't lost, after all? Meanwhile, 21-year old Huck won her second consecutive challenger by knocking off fellow Pastry Audrey Bergot in the 10K in Amiens, France.
VETERANS: Sybille Bammer/AUT & Laura Granville/USA
before her ailing shoulder forced her to forego her QF meeting with Ana Ivanovic in Indian Wells, Bammer had broken out of her recent quiet spell by stringing together wins over Roberta Vinci, Vera Dushevina and two-time I.W. champ Daniela Hantuchova. Before heading to Redding, California to play a $25K challenger, Granville hadn't played a match since she won a Midland challenger last February and suffered a wrist injury soon afterward. She made her return a memorable one, winning the Redding title with wins over Alberta Brianti, Madison Brengle and Rika Fujiwara in a 6-2/2-6/6-4 final.
FRESH FACES: Victoria Azarenka/BLR & Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
when Pierre Cantin and I made our preseason Top 10 picks, I literally tossed a bunch of names into a hat and picked them out in order to see if "The Hat" could be a better prognosticator than either of us. "The Hat" chose Azarenka as 2009's #1 player. While that might be overshooting things a tad, she's certainly not embarrassing herself (or "The Hat"). Her run to the I.W. SF with wins over Shvedova, Vesnina, Peer and Safina ran her '09 singles record to 17-2 and has finally pushed her ranking into the Top 10. Her I.W. doubles title with Zvonareva also moved her into the doubles Top 10, making her the only player in the Top 10 in both rankings. Pavlyuchenkova, 17, continued her I.W. first week success in week two, reaching her first career tour SF. Already the youngest player in the Top 50, she's now the youngest in the Top 30 (thanks to her new career-high rank of #27). With some improved fitness, a Top 20 (she's only 537 points behind #20 Mauresmo) or Top 15 (Schnyder, 1279 points up) year-end finish is certainly possible.
DOWN: Dinara Safina/RUS
with Serena not touching Indian Wells with a ten-foot (to be conservative) pole, Safina actually had a chance to grab the #1 ranking this past week. Hmm, I wonder if she HAD whether or not she'd been barraged with derisive comments about getting there without winning a slam, as SOMEONE ELSE was a while back? Just wondering out loud. Of course, since she crashed out ala the "old Dinara" in the QF against Azarenka, we'll have to wait until next time to find out... if there is a next time, that is. One never knows.
ITF PLAYER: Darya Kustova/BLR
the 22-year old from Belarus defeated Anna Korzeniak in the Rome-Pomezia $10K to claim her second ITF title of the season. Ranked just inside the Top 300 (#283), Kustova isn't another Azarenka. But she's proof that Belarus is developing some nice depth (there's also Olga Govortsova, Anastasiya Yakimova, Ekaterina Dzehalevich, Tatiana Poutchek, Ksenia Milevskaya & Anna Orlik) from which to pull together a decent Fed Cup team the next few years.
the 16-year old Chilean won the Banana Bowl in Florianapolis, Brazil, defeating Kristina Mladenovic 6-4/1-6/6-2 in the final. She's now reached four consecutive junior finals, winning three with the last two (along with her Asuncion Bowl win in Paraguay a week ago) being title runs in G1 level events.

1. IW QF - Azarenka d. Safina
A set and a victory away from the #1 ranking, Safina imploded in a 56-error crash that looks even worse now in comparison to Zvonareva's mostly-incomparable play in California.
2. IW Final - Zvonareva d. Ivanovic
Will AnaIvo gain confidence from her first appearance in a final this season, as Lindsay Davenport insisted during Sunday's TV coverage? Or will she instead hang onto the memory of her three blown set points in the opening stanza? The last nine months or so says it might turn out to be the latter. Hey, both of this season's "Premier-Plus" ($2 million or more) events -- along with Venus' win in Dubai -- were claimed by players who were ranked #6 going into the tournament. By the way, Venus is again #6 heading into Miami.
3. IW Doubles Final - Azarenka/Zvonareva d. Dulko/Peer
As good as Azarenka's singles record is in 2009, she's UNDEFEATED (12-0) in doubles.
4. IW QF - Pavlyuchenkova d. A.Radwanska
What are the odds that #27 Pavlyuchenkova passes #11 A-Rad in the rankings before the season is over?
5. IW 4th Rd. - A.Radwanska d. Szavay
Still, ever since she got that "lucky loser" pass into the Acapulco draw, Szavay has actually seemed to rediscover her (good) consistency of results.
HM- Lima $10K Final - Maria-Emilia Salerni d. Lucia Jara-Lozano
Thirteen months ago in Bogota, Salerni was appearing in the first WTA singles final of her career. Last week she was in Peru.

2...Elena Dementieva (Auckland/Sydney)
2...VERA ZVONAREVA (Pattaya/Indian Wells)
2...Venus Williams (Dubai/Acapulco)
2...Victoria Azarenka (Brisbane/Memphis)

Australian Open - Serena Williams
Memphis - Victoria Azarenka
Bogota - Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez

**MOST WTA TITLES - last 2 seasons**
5...Elena Dementieva, RUS (3/2)
5...Venus Williams, USA (3/2)
5...Serena Williams, USA (4/1)
4...Dinara Safina, RUS (4/0)
4...Jelena Jankovic, SRB (4/0)

19...Maria Sharapova, 2003-08
13...Elena Dementieva, 2003-09
10...Anastasia Myskina, 1999-05
9...VERA ZVONAREVA, 2003-09
9...Dinara Safina, 2002-08
9...Nadia Petrova, 2005-08
9...Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2002-07
9...Olga Morozova, 1969-75
7...Anna Chakvetadze, 2006-08

20...Elena Dementieva
17...Victoria Azarenka
16...Serena Williams
13...Dinara Safina
11...Venus Williams
10...Ana Ivanovic
7...Jelena Jankovic
7...Agnieszka Radwanska
6...Svetlana Kuznetsova
3...Nadia Petrova
0...Maria Sharapova

MIAMI, FLORIDA USA (Premier $4.5m/Hard Outdoor)
08 Final: S.Williams def. Jankovic
09 Top Seeds: S.Williams/Safina

...finally, the ENTIRE band is back together under the Florida sun, as the Sisters return (with Serena still holding onto her #1 ranking, thanks to Dinara's Cali collapse). Pierre and I will be making picks -- hopefully better than those "predictions" for Indian Wells -- when the draw is released later this week.

All for now.


Post a Comment

<< Home