RG.4- Natural Selection, Hordette Style
Natural selection is the "principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved." - Charles Darwin, 1859
Darwin's got nothing on the Russians.
AP Photo / Bernat Armangue
Except on rare occasions, the theory of natural tennis selection is almost always played out on the courts of the WTA when Hordettes are on opposite sides of the net. Day 4 provided two perfect examples of why, even with the tremendous depth of Mother Russian talent, the better equipped, most evolved creatures live to breath in another round of grand slam action while those who aren't... well, don't..
In the all-Russian 2nd Round matchup between Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, while there were small clues throughout, there was no doubt by the end of the contest which player is a future Hall of Fame and which is, well, a talented player who's career has often been defined by an inability to be her best at the most crucial moments of her workday.
Petrova seemingly should have had every advantage today: she was playing on what might be her best surface and what is most definitely Sharapova's worst, was facing an unseeded opponent because last week's three outings in Warsaw were the only pre-Paris matches Sharapova has played since last August and, bigger still, she had managed to grab a 4-2 3rd set lead and was even one point away from going up 5-2.
It still wasn't enough. Instead, it only provided an important stage on which the Supernova could prove that she's still a force to be reckoned with. Blessed with the ability to shine in the spotlight, her survival on Day 4 was all but assured once things got sticky. At 4-4, Sharapova used big serves and big-point prowess to hold her serve in a nine-minute game, during which Petrova held break point, that Tennis Channel commentator Martina Navratilova correctly dubbed the most important in the match.
After failing to convert a break point on Sharapova's serve at 6-6, Petrova's game broke down just enough to lead it to slaughter. Down 6-7, one poor forehand that went wide prevented her from going up 30/love, a double-fault gave Sharapova a match point and, not long afterward, another error sent her Russian counterpart into the 3rd Round... and ended Petrova's most recent Roland Garros quest. Again. Drawing Sharapova in the 2nd Round doesn't rank as high on Nadia's "bad luck" chart as her pre-Roland Garros injury during the best, most consistent stretch of her entire career back in '06, but it IS a fairly typical, "oh, great," moment in her career.
With her quarter the most hard-to-call in the draw, everyone has a right to wonder if Sharapova might be constructing quite an intriguing storyline in Paris. She's not a "cow on ice" on the red clay, and is 21-6 at RG in her career, with a 2007 SF on her resume. Aside from some strategically-placed tape, she's so far showing no signs of a ten-month absence from the tour following shoulder surgery. Her ability to raise her game at the most important moments today is why she is who she is... and, unfortunately, why Nadia is who SHE is -- a good player who's almost always just not good ENOUGH.
Earlier in the day on Wednesday, #1-seed Dinara Safina also faced a countrywoman, qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko. In the 1st Round, Diatchenko had saved seven match points against Mathilde Johansson. So, seeing a kindred spirit on the other side of the net, might one expect the Russian Cat to go a little easier on the upstart?
Umm, no. Well, unless you consider allowing her TWO games rather than the ZERO that Anne Keothavong managed in the 1st Round is showing mercy, that is.
Fact is, though, Diatchenko played pretty well. Early on, the teenager was moving Safina around the court with her odd-looking groundstrokes (which looked normal compared to her service motion... and I won't even get into the little poodle bark-sounding noise she'd make while hitting most shots), controlling many of the points... until Safina would take advantage of one less-than-perfectly-placed shot and end the point with a winner. It was like she was swatting flies on a lazy afternoon.
The two were just on different levels. And even the honor amongst Hordettes couldn't hide that fact. Safina has worked hard to get to this point, and it's going to take a far more formidable foe to end THIS Paris dream.
While 2004 Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina was never able to evolve significantly enough to maintain her position atop of the Russian tennis hierarchy (and ultimately chose motherhood and TV stardom instead), the likes of Sharapova and Safina are the prototypes upon which future Russian champions will be based, or former ones will have to successfully attempt to mimic (Svetlana, this means you) if they are to return to their abdicated position of prominence.
Learn, work, evolve. And get better. And if you can't do that? Well, they're always accepting new applications for "former" Russians -- and Bulgarians -- to play under the flag of Kazakhstan. Which isn't bad work if you can get it, I suppose.
But more on those revelatory ladies tomorrow.
=DAY 4 NOTES=
...of course, all the talent in the world still isn't enough if a player doesn't have the heart and drive to be the best he or she can be ALL the time.
Hence, Marat Safin.
Any ill-conceived "dreams" of a brother/sister combination of champions this year in Paris saw their hopes dashed on Day 4 with the ejection of #20-seed Safin by French wild card Josselin Ouanna in a five-setter than lasted 4:34 and ended with the Russian going out of what will likely be his final Roland Garros in a 10-8 5th set.
It was a great, dramatic match. Safin came back from a two-sets-to-none hole to make a match of things, erasing two match points (one thanks to a poor eye by the umpire, who looked at the wrong mark near the service box and judged an out Safin shot as "in"... but still). While the super-talented former #1 is still capable of playing a part in game day spectaculars like this, that he does so as often as he has over the past few seasons -- and usually ends up on a similarly losing end -- gives a good idea why he's preparing to hang it up at the end of 2009.
The sport will miss him. But, truthfully, we haven't seen the "real" Marat for quite a while. Well, actually, maybe we have... which is why a long, consistent career was probably NEVER going to be in the cards for Dinara's big brother. It's too bad.
...in other matches today, qualifiers Yaroslava Shvedova and Michelle Larcher de Brito (who upset #15 Zheng Jie) reached the 3rd Round. Victoria Azarenka sleepwalked through the first six games of her 2nd Round match with Kristina Barrois, losing five of them. Once she woke up, though, she reeled off six games out of the next seven to take the set in a tie-break and go on to win the match 7-6/7-5. Meanwhile, the coming darkness -- and the long Safin/Ouanna match that delayed the contest and forced it to be moved to another court -- prevented the other Williams sister from dancing with defeat against Lucie Safarova. She did lose the 1st set, though, when the Czech smashed a forehand that twisted Venus into a stumbling near-mess at the baseline.
But with a night for BOTH players to think about things, how many think the resumption of this match will play out just as the Wozniacki/Dushevina one did?
...and, finally, tomorrow, Paris weather permitting, I'll present the Early-Round Awards (and maybe name this Roland Garros' "Upset Queens" and "Revelation Ladies," too)
*WOMEN's FINAL 32 - TOP HALF BY NATION*
1...Czech Republic (Benesova)
1...Portugal (Larcher de Brito)
1...Slovak Republic (Cibulkova)
ALSO: V.Williams/USA vs. Safarova/CZE winner
TOP QUALIFIER: Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dinara Safina/RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): xxx
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xxx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q2: Corinna Dentoni/ITA d. Sesil Karatantcheva/KAZ 4-6/6-3/6-2
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xxx
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): xxx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): xxx
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.- Shvedova/KAZ)
UPSET QUEENS: xxx
REVELATION LADIES: xxx
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: xxx
IT GIRL: xxx
MADEMOISELLE/MADAM OPPORTUNITY: xxx
COMEBACK PLAYER: xxx
CRASH & BURN: xxx
ZOMBIE QUEEN: xxx
LAST PASTRY STANDING: xxx
DOUBLES STAR xxx
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: xxx
All for Day 4. More tomorrow.