Friday, May 29, 2009

RG.6- It's Always Szomething

It was just one of those days.

Finally, a happy Agnes!

First off, let's dispense with all the talk that ESPN has surely been shouting from every Paris rooftop that Agnes Szavay's defeat of Venus Williams on Day 6 was some sort of monumental, ground-shaking upset. It wasn't.

The world #3 has only appeared in one Roland Garros singles final -- seven years ago -- in her career, is better on grass and hard courts, and manages to "zone out" against a wrongly underestimated opponent at about this time every year in Paris.

(Plus, I predicted this result when the draw first came out... so it couldn't have been TOO alien an outcome, right?)

Maybe it has something to do with the knowledge in the back of Venus' mind that her "real" season begins next month when she heads to the All-England Club, usually wins a title, then heads back to North America for the lead up to the U.S. Open. Whatever it is, at Roland Garros it's always SOMETHING.

In this case, it was "szomething." In the form of Szavay's 6-0/6-4 victory.

While Venus' serve and movement were off, and her shots often loose, Szavay was on her game from the start. She grabbed an early lead and refused to let it go. True, she nearly blinked late in the 2nd set, double-faulting and throwing in an unforced error to give Venus a break and a 4-3 lead just after Szavay herself had failed to convert break points in two consecutive Williams service games. But Szavay didn't go down the tubes like Lucie Safarova did against the American one round earlier.

Instead, she held on. Coming back from game point down on Venus' serve, she hit a winner into the corner to get a break point... then watched Williams double-fault away the game to her. All she had to do was hold serve to advance to the Round of 16, and that's just what Szavay did (just months after being the first seed ousted in Melbourne).

Most young players spend some time in the "wilderness" after breaking out. Ever since her sterling summer of '07, Szavay has had a hard time getting her game untracked. Over the past few months, though, the sense of belonging she used to sport with such winning aplomb against top players has started to inch back. Now, maybe it's here to stay. All in all, the Hungarian has weathered her storm of early round losses quite well and emerged in fine form pretty quickly... it's certainly a better rebound than some of her contemporaries have managed to pull off after hitting the skids. Just ask Nicole Vaidisova.

At the end of today's match, the British announcer said, "Frankly, at times, (Szavay) made Venus Williams look very silly." It's not the first time she's stood up to a top player, though. This was the sixth career Top 10 win for the former world #13, and SOMEONE I know was touting Szavay as THE player to watch about fourteen months or so ago. She's been on the verge before, and she looks like she is again.

Hey, better to be on top of a player's potential early than late, I always say.

About Williams. For all the consistency of results that Venus has shown this season, this gives her a pair of early exits at both the Australian Open (where she lost to Carla Suarez-Navarro in the 2nd Rd.) and Roland Garros this year. Oh, well... now she'll just have some doubles fun with Serena and get ready for Wimbledon.

This will not be good news for the rest of the women's field a month from now.

As for Szavay? Well, she's still harboring some Paris dreams, and is staring at a draw that says she might have a chance at living them. As has often been said by others, better a little late than never, eh?

=DAY 6 NOTES= I noted before the tournament began, if Venus didn't pull through her Zvonareva-less quarter, then WHO would?

Maybe Maria Sharapova... but the long and bumpy road that is a clay court grand slam for a player who's not a natural "dirtballer" were evident today when the Supernova faced qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova. Sharapova won the two-and-a-half-hour contest in three sets, playing the big points better than her Kazakh opponent, but whether she can continue to do so for much longer in this tournament is an open question. She's making the most of her return so far, but a lack of match play/overall top fitness is probably going to get her in the end... maybe before she can emerge from the quarter to reach her second career RG semi.

Then who? Well, I still think I was on the right track when I said there'd be a surprise, low-seeded player in the final four. My original pick was #29 Szavay, but the number freaked me out a bit... so I crossed her out on my bracket and inserted '08 quarterfinalist, #19 Kaia Kanepi instead. Smart move, huh? Kanepi was the first seed ousted, while Szavay is looking stronger and stronger. The Hungarian plays #20 Dominika Cibulkova next, while Sharapova faces #25 Li Na. The winners face off for the right to reach the SF.

Well, at least I was right about Venus not pulling through. We'll see about Serena.

...I finally got my most extensive look at Michelle Larcher de Brito, other than in WTT action, today when she played Aravane Rezai. Needless to say, it was quite easy to see just what sort of potential she has. Can you say, "rocket forehand?" Of course, the teenager still has a ways to go, as her 7-6/6-2 loss to the more complete game of the 22-year old Rezai showed.

Much (too much, actually) of the talk during the Tennis Channel coverage was of the loud shrieks The Kid made on pretty much every shot. Even Rezai, who grunts often herself and thus really has nothing to complain about, was making a big deal about it to the umpire early on. It was like the arrival of Monica Seles revisited. I can remember back in the early 1990's the commentary constantly alluding to her in-point sounds, the talk of grunt-o-meters and Martina Navratilova griping that such noise should be banned and/or penalized. Martina was it again today, by the way. I don't agree with her point of view on this topic, as pretty much every player these days grows up making similar sounds when delivering shots, but at least Navratilova is consistent on the subject.

MLDB is such a typical Bollettieri Academy product you'd know where she's spent all her years since age 9 just by watching her. A great deal of the talk today was about how her forehand motion is so reminiscent of Nick kid Sharapova's, but I couldn't help but think of another Academy alum -- Jennifer Capriati -- when I watch her. Capriati, too, had the crushing groundstrokes and the boundless enthusiasm when she was first coming up, but while the 5-foot-4 Larcher de Brito doesn't yet have a serve that opponent's have to worry about, Capriati had the shot when she was the Portugal-born teen's age. Capriati was advancing deep into slam draws when she was younger than MLDB is now, but it'll probably take the The (New) Kid a few more seasons to get to that level. You can tell by her inconsistent scorelines, often losing love sets even in matches she wins, that she's not quite "there" yet.

She should be soon, though. She'll likely grow a little bit more, and will surely get stronger. When she does, watch out. It's sort of like how it felt to see a young Seles hitting those laser beam shots from every inch of the court. You just KNOW that Larcher de Brito is going to be HELL for players to face in a couple years. In 2009, players can reach the Top 10 with no real discernible weapon to scare opponents other than guile. MLDB has one in spades. That forehand isn't going anywhere, and once a complete game is built around it -- and maybe before -- it's going to be hard to prevent her from becoming a Top 10 player herself before she turns 19, and maybe even 18.

As for now, after serving notice on slow red clay that she's going to be something to reckoned with, I can't wait to see what she does on fast hard courts this summer. it turned out, though, the most interesting match of the day yet again occurred late in the evening. In this case, it was the psycho-drama that was the Victoria Azarenka/Carla Suarez-Navarro rumble.

(Not that ESPN2 viewers were seeing any of this, as the network was busy showing the Venus Williams match from many hours earlier in the day.... hmm, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?)

For a set and a half, CSN simply outplayed, out-hit and outwitted the world #9. In the 1st set, Azarenka had just 2 winners (and 18 unforced errors) to the Spaniard's 11 (14). Part-way into the 2nd set, she didn't have even a single forehand winner to speak of.

And the Belarusian didn't like it, either. In fact, as she looked like she was going to emotionally melt down on the way to falling behind 7-5/4-1 she was putting on a show, honestly, quite unbefitting a top player. Squawking. Ranting. Muttering. Throwing her racket. Smashing signs. Azarenka was leering at the crowd. The crowd was getting on her. Her mother was getting into arguments with the crowd from her seat in the stands (at least it seemed like it must have been her mom).

Anyway, you know the drill.

Azarenka continually tried to get into baseline rallies on the slow clay with a player who'll hit balls back all day if given the chance. It wasn't working, and you started to wonder just how many times Azarenka had to slam her head into a brick wall before she decided to change things up.

But, apparently, Azarenka knew what she was doing (or CSN, whose results tend to be as inconsistent as the Paris night is long, got a bit lackadaisical and/or tightened up just enough to allow Azarenka back into the match). With the clock past 9:30 in the evening, and the light quickly fading, Azarenka put on a rally that included a flurry of winners and fist pumps that got her even in the set, then the match. As the set wound down, the pair exchanged breaks, but Azarenka grabbed a 6-5 advantage with her final one of the set and served things out to knot the contest. They'll have to finish things up on Day 7. other women's matches on Day 6, as usual, the session opened with a blowout as Ana Ivanovic took down Iveta Benesova on Lenglen Court 6-0/6-2. With a potential rematch of the '08 final awaiting in the quarterfinals, Dinara Safina once again showed no mercy (good for her) against a fellow Hordette, defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2/6-0 and running her total games mark at this tournament to 36-4.

Two of the three all-sisters doubles teams advanced, as Serena & Venus (getting some "revenge" on Szavay, who likely couldn't have cared less, by defeating her and partner Gisela Dulko) and the Radwanskas won. The Sisters Bondarenko, though, were taken out by Nadia Petrova and Bethanie Mattek-Bands. In singles, the two remaining non-Williams siblings -- A-Rad and K-Bond -- will next meet each other in the 3rd Round on Day 7.

...and, finally, as I was listening to what I believe was the international (Sky Sports, maybe) feed of the Azarenka/CSN match today, I kept trying to figure out who the female commentator was. As per usual in those feeds, only one announcer is assigned to call a match. And the woman covering this one was really good. She didn't talk TOO much, and wasn't as maddeningly silent as many of the British announcers are (would it be too terribly difficult to say the game score occasionally?). She sounded a bit like Tracy Austin, but I didn't think it was her. Finally, when the match was suspended, I found out who it was. It was Elise Burgin, the former American player (1980-93) who reached a career high rank of #22 and won a WTA singles title in Charleston in 1986. It was a delight listening to her. She was more informative, enthusiastic and not at all annoying, unlike even the best traditional multi-person crews whose chatter can sometimes make you want to throw something at the television (or at least shout, "Get on with it!). Why can't SHE be covering tennis on ESPN, Tennis Channel or CBS (I think she was an American TV commentator a while ago, but I can't remember hearing her here for years and years)? I know, I know. Ask stupid questions...

(3rd) Aravane Rezai/FRA, Julia Vakulenko/UKR
(3rd) Dominika Cibulkova/SVK, Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS, Ioana Raluca Olaru/ROU
(QF) Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
(3rd) Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR, Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ

TOP QUALIFIER: Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dinara Safina/RUS
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q2: Corinna Dentoni/ITA d. Sesil Karatantcheva/KAZ 4-6/6-3/6-2
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Vitalia Diatchenko/RUS d. Mathilde Johansson/FRA 1-6/6-2/10-8 (saved 7 MP)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.- Shvedova/KAZ)
UPSET QUEENS: The ex-Russian Kazakhs
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR & Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ (both to 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: (temporary) Venus Williams/USA (3rd Rd.-Szavay 6-0/6-4)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: (temporary) Elena Dementieva (dominated by Dokic in 2nd Round, but advanced when Dokic injured back)

All for Day 6. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

There are some good commentators on the Tennis Channel online feed (when it works), only--with the exception of one woman--they don't know enough about the players. As in--they don't know anything. But they call the matches without extraneous chatter and idiocy.

You're right about MLDB--like her or not--she's here to stay. One thing I think she did that was smart was to get involved in WWT when she was too young to play many tour matches.

Sat May 30, 07:22:00 PM EDT  

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