Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wk.18- A Parisian Preview?

We're two weeks from the start of play at Roland Garros. Do you know where your favorites are?

AP Photo / Andrew Medichini

Going into last week, the first month of the '09 clay court season really hadn't produced anyone worthy of being dubbed "Player of the MONTH" (hence the lack of actual awards... well, that and a lack of time and some technical glitches at Backspin HQ last week). The closest thing to a top performer wasn't even a person, per se, at all -- it was the entire Italian Fed Cup team. Coming into Rome, the mini-season was a collection of great one-off performances from the likes of Sabine Lisicki, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki. Nine clay titles had been won by nine different women in 2009, and the eighteen final berths had been filled by seventeen individuals (only C-Woz had been to multiple finals, both on green clay in the U.S. at the start of the Quarter).

That changed this past week, as the two leading "favorites" (or as close as anyone can come to the term in the post-Henin Roland Garros world) -- Dinara Safina and Kuznetsova -- emerged, "replaying" their Stuttgart final from a week earlier, only with the result flipped on its head. In Rome, world #1 Safina got her first title of the year (just in time to give a tangible answer to Serena Williams' open questioning of her legitimacy in the top position) with a straight sets 6-3/6-2 victory that finally halted her string of second place finishes.

Additionally, Fes runner-up Ekaterina Makarova reached a second final in Estoril, losing again but marking herself as an early-round upset-maker to keep an eye on in Paris. Still, even with three Russians pulling off a trio of back-to-back final appearances. there have still been eleven different champions at the 2009 season's eleven clay tournaments so far.

But what about Paris?

Over the past twenty years, the Roland Garros title has been claimed by ten women who fit into definitively different categories:

The Henin/Graf/Seles/Serena Slam Level Champ: the dominant ones (over the long haul, or during one glorious stretch when even the red dirt couldn't slow her down). Their Parisian likes are extinct... as of now.

The Arantxa: the young upstart who shocks the world, then goes on to have a brilliant career that shows the Parisian result was hardly shocking in the long run.

Capriati & Pierce: the feel-good veteran champs who managed to overcome all sorts of difficulty to emerge triumphant in Paris.

AnaIvo: the young champ who seized the opportunity in a wild open draw, finally coming through on the big stage just as most expected she would some day, even if it was probably too early for her own good. Whether or not Ivanovic is an "Arantxa," though, is something we'll have to wait a while to determine. So far... err, no.

The "Say What?" Champion: of course, a few times a player will pull an end-run and slip, Mine That Bird-like, through a small opening to reach a career height no one saw coming... and wouldn't come close to matching it again in their careers. Can you say, Majoli and Myskina? This one, of course, is the most difficult one to predict. But if you do, you'll be telling people about it for a decade.

Who'll be the names, as of today, being tossed around the mix (in the dirt?) in Paris? Well...

Safina and Kuznetsova: both go hot and cold at sometimes-shocking moments. But Kuznetsova found a way to finish off a tournament in Stuttgart, while Safina is once again showing signs of being able to subsist and thrive on all those additional Russian Cat lives she first flaunted LAST clay season. I tend of forecast my RG picks a week or two before play begins in Paris, and if the draw works out for it to be possible this wouldn't be a bad final to predict. It'd be the first all-Russian slam final since Kuznetsova and Dementieva met in NYC in 2004.

Dementieva & Jankovic:it's hard to gauge these two. Dementieva played too much at the start of the season. Jankovic, as has always been her pattern, might be playing too much over the last month (her results haven't really progressed as the clay season has gone along -- but maybe she'll peak in Paris rather than a week or two prior). Either way, it's a good bet that both will be playing into the second week at the next slam on the schedule.

Ivanovic, Azarenka, Wozniacki, etc.: Ivanovic has been a flickering light for almost a year, and now is hurt (though she says she'll be in Paris to attempt to defend her title). Azarenka has been up and down on clay. Wozniacki seems to favor the U.S. green clay, and even that seemed to surprise her (and a lack of confidence on red clay doesn't equal success). All are capable of riding a good wind toward something big, but there are better options as champion picks.

The Upstarts: Sabine Lisicki looked like a nice dark horse in Charleston, but how bad is her shoulder injury? Carla Suarez-Navarro reached the RG quarters last year, but her inconsistency always makes her a question mark.

The Home Stars: Only Amelie Mauresmo, who hasn't played much of late and never very well at RG, would seem to be the only hometown hope to possibly shine. Marion Bartoli is 5-8 career at Roland Garros, and Alize Cornet can't seem to get over the hump this clay season (she just lost early again in Madrid to Elena Vesnina).

The Time-is-Finally-Righters?: Flavia Pennetta is fresh off her Fed Cup heroics, and has played well at bigger events and against top players over the last year. But she's only reached one slam QF in her career, and it wasn't at RG. At one time, Nadia Petrova looked like she could win a title in Paris. No more. Even though she's put up some encouraging results the last few weeks, there's little hope that she can get through two weeks with at least one clunker performance causing everything to come crashing down around her.

The Sisters: Venus and Serena can never be totally discounted, but it's almost the case in Paris. Serena is just off an injury and out of form (hmmm, if I was talking about any of the other slams, that'd give her a good chance to push through and win, huh?), while Venus has never won the whole sha-bang in Paris. She looked good in Rome, but she's looked decent PRE-Roland Garros before. Something always trips her up. A year ago, it was Pennetta.

Still, no matter all the possibilities and permutations, it's hard to get past the fact that Safina and Kuznetsova are a combined 18-2 on tour this clay season, with both losses coming against each other (they could conceivably be 25-3 after Madrid, with all three losses to each other, if the draw works out). It might not be enough to prove a scientific fact, but it IS more than enough to build a foundation for a Parisian Theory two weeks out.

One month from now, it'll be Safina vs. Kuznetsova for the Roland Garros title.

Well, unless Jankovic or Dementieva wins this week in Madrid, that is.


ROME, ITALY (Premier+ $2m/Red Clay)
S: Dinara Safina def. Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3/6-2
D: Hsieh/Peng d. Hantuchova/Sugiyama

ESTORIL, PORTUGAL (Int'l $220K/Red Clay)
S: Yanina Wickmayer def. Ekaterina Makarova 7-5/6-2
D: Kops-Jones/Spears d. Fichman/Marosi

again, after surviving some tough sledding (Zheng Jie served for the match twice, Venus led by a set and a break), Safina rose above it all (bageling Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez in a 3rd set, defeating Kuznetsova handily) and claimed her tenth career title, but her first of the season (and as #1) and first since last season in Tokyo.
RISERS: Hsieh Su-Wei/TPE & Peng Shuai/CHN, and Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
Hsieh/Peng are becoming quite the doubles threat. In winning their third tour title as a team, they've progressively claimed bigger championships each time... from Bali a season ago, to Sydney and Rome this year. Meanwhile, while (current/temporary?) coach Larisa Neiland, seemed to have a hard time penetrating Kuznetsova's mindset in their changeover discussion during her bad loss to Safina in the final, Kuznetsova can't feel too bad after a week that saw her overcome her sometimes erratic play to defeat the likes of Hantuchova, Pennetta (in a love 3rd set after going 5-for-22 in BP chances), Jankovic and Azarenka.
SURPRISE: Anna Chakvetadze/RUS
after the way she's played the past year, it's easy to simply disregard Chakvetadze as a non-factor heading into a tournament (or Fed Cup tie). Usually, you'd be right. But not last week in Rome, where the Russian was a semifinalist a season ago. After back-to-back uncompetitive losses to Flavia Pennetta, she notched wins over Anabel Medina-Garrigues (Fes champ) and Aleksandra Wozniak (PVB runner-up), then pushed Venus Williams to three sets despite losing the opening stanza at love in the 3rd Round. This might be something to consider in a few weeks as we head into Paris.
VETERANS: Venus Williams/USA & Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP
clay isn't Venus' surface, but her all-surface '09 consistency continued to shine through in Rome. Wins over Safarova, Chakvetadze and A.Radwanska, plus a real battle with eventual champ Safina in the SF, shows that she's probably more likely than Serena to live long enough to dream a little in Paris in a few weeks time. Meanwhile, MJMS further solidified her potential role as a dangerous Roland Garros floater. In Rome, she got wins over Marion Bartoli and Nadia Petrova to reach the QF.
FRESH FACES: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL & Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
in February, after a bad incident with a ball and an official, Wickmayer was defaulted and denied her prize money after reaching both the singles and doubles final in a challenger in Clearwater, Florida. She's rebounded quite well, though. In Estoril, she reached her second WTA singles final and won her maiden title when she knocked off Makarova in straight sets in the final (she got wins over Kvitova, Govortsova, Cirstea and an injured Peer earlier). She's the first Belgian champ since Justine Henin early last season, of course, but also the first from her country to win on tour other than either Henin or Clijsters in eleven years. Makarova reached her second final in two weeks, getting good wins over the likes of Czink, Kirilenko and Groenefeld along the way. But at 0-2 in career WTA finals, her next career hurdle is quite apparent.
DOWN: Serena Williams/USA & Nicole Vaidisova/CZE
after being tossed by Patty Schnyder in Rome, Serena is riding a three-match losing streak. If only such a thing would be considered a similar aberration for Vaidisova. She couldn't even make it through qualifying in Rome, dropping her '09 record to 7-9. If she has the heart for it, a step down to the challenger level is in order for the former would-be "next big thing." And that's a big "if."
ITF PLAYER: Andrea Petkovic/GER
the German won the $100K event in Bucharest, knocking off Simona Halep and Stefanie Voegele in the final. Of course, Petkovic's SF victim had the more intriguing journey, as Jelena Dokic had the sort of week that only she could even hope to (or hope not to) experience. She opened it with the release of an interview where she talked of the physical abuse she endured from her father Damir, then saw HIM get arrested and tossed in jail for threatening an Australian official... while Jelena played on, and nearly reached a final.
JUNIOR STAR: Richel Hogenkamp/NED

Dutch girl Hogenkamp gets the honor for her recent win in Salsomaggiore, the first Grade 2 title of her young career.

1. Rome SF - Safina d. V.Williams
This was one of those matches where we saw a literal "Best & Worst" display from Safina. Up 5-4, 30/15 in the 3rd, she threw in back-to-back double faults, then had another DF after getting back to deuce. She missed a net cord setter down the line at another deuce, too. In between, she put together a series of brilliant points that kept her alive in the game. After saving four break points in the service game, she put away Venus on her third match point when Williams' backhand return sailed long. With Safina, you almost always get both sides of the coin... and I'm not talking about Julie. After earlier being down a set and a break, it was just another "run-of-the-mill" three-hour comeback victory in a Premier (plus) event. Ho-hum.
2. Rome 2nd Rd - Schnyder d. S.Williams
Serena might be right when she talks about HER being the "real #1." But not on clay.
3. Rome Final - Safina d. Kuznetsova
A few post-match interview tidbits from Safina: she was able to laugh about how her coach left the court after getting "pissed" at her during her near-loss to Zheng early in the tournament; and that there might have been something special about her mother's milk when she was breastfeeding Dinara and Marat that would explain their ranking-topping tennis careers. It's not Queen Chaos-level stuff, but it's good.
4. Rome QF - Kuznetsova d. Jankovic
JJ has been getting some diminishing returns on the court since she won in Marbella. Of course, she's still playing in Madrid, though, too.
5. Rome 2nd Rd - Ivanovic d. Schiavone
A good win for AnaIvo, but then after losing in her next match she pulled out of Madrid with an injury. An early round exit (or total absence) while trying to defend her RG title would put an official capper on a very unremarkable twelve months for the former #1.
5. Rome 3rd Rd - Safina d. Zheng
Safina was down 2-5 in the 3rd, and Zheng twice served for the match. Apparently, the Russian Cat's multiple lives have been renewed this EuroClay season.
6. Rome 3rd Rd - A.Radwanska d. Ivanovic
After this result, maybe A-Rad should be included on that "young player to watch out for in Paris" list. Of course, then she went out quickly to Venus in the QF and lost in the 1st Round in Madrid to Stosur, hardly a spectacular clay courter.
7. Est Final - Wickmayer d. Makarova
At least Makarova didn't nearly get double-bageled in her second final in two weeks. Wickmayer's maiden career tour title is the first by a Belgian woman not named Justine or Kim since the quite sublime Dominique van Roost won in Auckland in 1998.

8. Rome 3rd Rd - Azarenka d. Wozniacki
Weird how these two movers-and-shakers have played three matches in 2009, but not a single one has been competitive, with Azarenka easily winning twice on tour and C-Woz doing so in a Fed Cup contest.
9. Est 1st Rd - Peer d. Larcher de Brito
Growing pains.
10. Est 1st Rd - Cirstea d. Date-Krumm
Refusing-to-age pains?
11. Rome 3rd Rd - V.Williams d. Chakvetadze
Might Chakvetadze have turned a significant corner here? I mean, what would have been the chances over the past year that she'd come back from a love set in the 1st to make a real match of a contest like this? Let alone do it against Venus.
12. Est QF - Groenefeld d. Lisicki
...6-2 ret.
The Battle of Germany didn't pan out, as Lisicki went out with a shoulder injury that hopefully won't be serious enough to hamper a potential nice result in Paris.
13. Madrid 1st Rd - Zheng d. Kirilenko
A Russian named Maria often doesn't show up at WTA events in 2009... and I'm not referring to the Supernova, either.
14. Madrid 1st Rd - Szavay d. Pennetta
I dare anyone to successfully figure out either of these two.
15. $25K Florence Final - Kustova d. Di Sarra
While 19-year old Azarenka has won a tour-best three WTA titles representing Belarus in '09, 22-year old Belarusan Kustova has won a tour-best three ITF challenger crowns this season.
HM- $50K Indian Harbour Beach Final - Oudin d. Siegemund
The young Bannerette's star continues to rise.
HM- $10K Edinburgh Final - Babos d. Broady
The Hungarian takes another step up.

3...Victoria Azarenka (3-0)
3...Elena Dementieva (2-1)
3...Caroline Wozniacki (1-2)

6...Elena Dementieva (2-3 +W)
5...Serena Williams (2-2 +L)

Brisbane - Victoria Azarenka, BLR/age 19
Hobart - Petra Kvitova, CZE/age 18
Bogota - Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP/age 26
Charleston - Sabine Lisicki, GER/age 19

48...Sanchez (Arantxa, Emilio & Javier)
32...Richey (Nancy & Cliff)
31...Austin (Tracy & Jeff)

3...Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez, ESP
2...Black/Huber, ZIM/USA
2...Dechy/Santangelo, FRA/ITA
2...Mattek-Sands/Petrova, USA/RUS

15...Russia (6 champions)
4...United States (3)
4...France (2)
4...Spain (2)
3...Belarus (3)
3...Denmark (1)

41...Justine Henin, 1999-08
34...Kim Clijsters, 1999-07
6...Sabine Appelmans, 1991-96
4...Dominique (Monami) van Roost, 1996-98

Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
Karin Knapp, ITA
Mariya Koryttseva, UKR
Petra Kvitova, CZE
Sabine Lisicki, GER
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS
Peng Shuai, CHN
Samantha Stosur, AUS
Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
GREEN = won maiden title in '09

MADRID, SPAIN (Premier $4.5m/Red Clay Retractable Roof)
=New Event=
09 Top Seeds: Safina/S.Williams

Safina d. Kuznetsova
Jankovic d. Petrova
Dementieva d. Azarenka
V.Williams d. Martinez-Sanchez
Safina d. Jankovic
V.Williams d. Dementieva
Safina d. V.Williams

...hmmm, there's the potential for some Rome rematches as Madrid debuts its "Magic Box" arena. How would a third straight pre-RG Safina/Kuznetsova tilt sound? Jankovic getting another shot at Svetlana after she ended her two-year reign in Rome? Or maybe a Safina/Venus "Take Two" of that fabulous semi?

All for now.


Blogger QuestionMark said...

Venus has gotten to the final in Paris before
2002, she lost to Serena

Sun May 10, 08:43:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Whoops. Thanks.

Obviously, that was supposed to say that she'd never won in Paris.

Mon May 11, 08:49:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

where does Serena fit in in your "past champions" categories? She can't possibly be one of those "say what" champions...

also, i don't understand why serena doesn't just withdraw like she used to or like Maria Sharapova is doing now...i mean it's been pretty obvious since her SF against Venus in Miami that she's playing, isn't she just going to aggravate the injury? and she's never really cared about the institution why abide now and risk irreversible consequences?

thanks Todd!

Mon May 11, 01:38:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I think Serena has now decided to make it clear why she's playing hurt (and losing) these days, at least according to what she said on Sunday. Apparently, even a "dead player" will be fined if they skip a WTA event. Still, considering she's not against being fined for skipping Charleston, I wonder why she goes through the motions. Maybe she's trying to make a point?

As far as the categories, I added her to the "dominant" list... even if she was really only in that category in Paris during her "Serena Slam" run. :)

Mon May 11, 04:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

oh my gosh...i was going to respond to your comment today and say that maybe serena is feeling the effect of the economy...but then i thought it was too ridiculous to post b/c she's a millionaire like almost 1000 times over...and then i was just reading that she thinks, "I’m not into throwing thousands and thousands of dollars away.

“I’m remodelling a house. I don’t know about anyone else but $75,000 is a lot of money to me. That’s like my whole furniture bill, and some stairs, rugs.

“That could go a long way. In this economy I’m not going to be writing out $75,000 cheques.”



Have a great day, Todd! Thanks for all the great posting!;_ylt=AiSjcG.xxn7UcH2yeuG19yYpv7YF?slug=reu-womenmadridserena_pix&prov=reuters&type=lgns

Mon May 11, 06:58:00 PM EDT  

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