Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Odds & Ends Between London and New York

It's time to take care of a few post-Wimbledon/pre-3Q loose ends. Say, the season's first "Ms. Backspin" Player-of-the-Year update, a (mostly) North American hard court season preview, and a few other odds and ends:

1. Serena Williams, USA
...she's won only two titles, but they were two "little" tournaments in Melbourne in London. She's only grabbed two doubles crowns, also. Yep, Melbourne and London again. Serena's not #1 on the computer at the moment (amazingly, she's not even close, actually), but there is no other legit contender for Player of the Year at this point in the season.
2. Dinara Safina, RUS
...Safina is having a great year. She's ranked #1, has won two titles, reached four straight finals, played in two slam championship matches and reached a SF in another. But the thorough thumpings she received -- from herself and her opponents -- in Melbourne, Paris and London are the only things that anyone can really remember right now.
3. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
...will the real Contessova please stand up? Boy, that sounds familiar. Is she the one who continued to crumble in big matches early in the season (remember, she served for the match against Serena at the Australian Open), the one who switched coaches and went on a clay court tear that ended with a Roland Garros title, or the one who barely showed up during the grass season? Maybe we'll find out before the end of the summer.
4. Elena Dementieva, RUS
...Punch-Sober started 2009 like a house afire, then seemed to smash into a mental and physical brick wall. But she climbed to her feet at Wimbledon and maneuvered her way through an easy section of the draw to reach the SF, then very nearly took out Serena (she held a match point) in a match that will likely go down as the best of the year.
5. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
...she began the season by grabbing her first career title in Week 1, and things have only gotten better from there. Two more titles, including a big one in Miami over a hobbled Serena, a Top 10 ranking and back-to-back slam QF results followed. If there's a young player who's going to pop up and challenge the current Sisters dominance over the next eighteen months, it's probably this teenager from Belarus.
6. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
...she's still looking for her first career slam QF berth, but the tour's busiest, winningest player over the past year is getting better and better all the time. She's reached five finals in '09, winning two... and her best surface, hard courts, is the predominant court of play the rest of the year. There's a good chance C-Woz will battle Azarenka down to the wire for the season lead in total singles titles.
7. Venus Williams, USA
...for once, Venus showed some consistency of results BEFORE Wimbledon this year, but then she didn't win the SW19 title. Still, she's back in the Top 3, though one assumes she'd give back everything else for that sixth Wimbledon crown. Have we forgiven her for her slow-on-the-trigger-of-a-pop-gun reaction to the Dubai Debacle? Yeah, but we haven't really forgotten it, either.
8. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
...if Zvonareva hadn't torn those ankle ligaments in Charleston, we might have been talking about HER great result in Paris rather than Kuznetsova's. Still, for a player who's played just three matches since April to still be this high on a Player of the Year list says a great deal about how she performed in the first few months of '09 (she won two titles and reached the Australian semis).
9. Sabine Lisicki, GER
...big serve. Pleasant personality. Aside from injury and illness that struck after her Charleston title, Lisicki has consistently looked like a future star all season. She even surprised herself with her grass court proficiency at Wimbledon en route to her first slam QF. On her current path, she seems destined to be a Top 10er by this time next season.
10. Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP
...she's claimed one singles title in '09, giving her the longest current active streak of seasons (6) with at least one tour crown. She won the Doubles at Roland Garros with Virginia Ruano-Pascual, too. Still no slam singles QF, though.
HM- Virginie Razzano/FRA & Marion Bartoli/FRA

1. Italian Fed Cup Team
...after taking out the Russians, the Italians still might have to face off against one or more Williams Sisters to win a second Fed Cup title in four years.
2. Williams/Williams, USA/USA
...when they play, which is only three or four times a year at most, it's a very rare occasion indeed when they are beaten. Taking everything into account, they're probably the best women's doubles team. Ever.
3. U.S. Fed Cup Team
...one of the more shocking FC finalists ever, Mary Joe Fernandez's "B"-teamers have taken full advantage of a draw that included Argentines and Czech Maidens, but not French Pastries or Russians. Great of-the-moment play from youngsters like Alexa Glatch and Melanie Oudin, and oldsters like Liezel Huber and Julie Ditty, have made this American team a great Cinderella story. Now, though, with likely one or both Williamses playing in the final, the Americans might be the favorites to take home the U.S.'s first title since 2000.
4. Black/Huber, ZIM/USA
...last year's co-"Ms. Backspin" winners are still co-#1's, holding their positions on the computer longer than anyone other than Martina Navratilova in WTA history. Still, they've yet to win a slam so far in '09.
5. Llagostera-Vives/Martinez Sanchez, ESP/ESP
...they're ruled the clay, winning three titles, even though they failed to capture RG.
HM- Mattek-Sands/Petrova (USA/RUS), Medina-Garrigues/Ruano-Pascual (ESP/ESP), Hsieh/Peng (TPE/CHN)


Ah, the time is nearly here. After over a year of wondering just what an ESPN-ized U.S. Open will look like, be it the worst thing to ever happen to the American coverage of the event or the best, the last two slams have essentially rendered those lingering concerns moot. For, with NBC out of the equation, there are quite a few levels of stink that will NEVER be reached by ESPN, which, if nothing else, lives to cover a big event and tie its banner to it. I suspect that's what'll happpen at the end of this summer, too. Oh, there'll certainly be issues to contend with, but American television viewers have already seen the worst there is to offer when it comes to grand slam coverage this summer. In New York, a moment to take a breath and maybe even enjoy a little tennis can't help but be a certainly in comparison.

Oh, but what about the actual PLAYERS? Yeah, I guess I can't forget THEM, huh?

Last year, after losing the SW19 final, Serena had the eye of the tiger heading into North America. As is her wont, Safina peaked before a slam, winning the U.S. Open Series. Maria Sharapova was no where to be found. While Jelena Jankovic gave legitimacy to her rise by reaching the Open final and giving eventual champ Serena a run for her money.

This year, Serena has a Wimbledon title in hand. Safina is still trying to learn how to finish a slam on a strong note. Sharapova is back. While Jankovic is seemingly lost in the tennis woods. Throw in Kim Clijsters' return to action for the first time since mid-2007, not to mention some rising stars named Victoria, Caroline and Sabine, and you've got the makings of a rip-roaring quarter of action.

What does the 3rd Quarter (specifically, the hard court season, even though there are also more scheduled clay events this summer, including two this very week) mean to some of these players? Here's an estimation:

Dinara Safina, RUS: Safina has only one more shot at lingering slam success in '09. Truthfully, on its face, that should be a ludicrous statement for a player who reached two slam finals and a semi this year, but all three of those events ended so badly for the Russian she needs to leave New York with her head held high in order for her to be able to look back at what she's done in the slams this year and not get a sick feeling in her stomach. At the very least, she needs to exit the Open fighting. Maybe not playing quite so much before the Open is the answer? Over the past year or so, Safina has entered a slam ('08-09 RG, '08 U.S.) with a head of steam that she couldn't keep going for two more full weeks. As Serena likes to snidely point out, "(Safina) won Rome and Madrid." But if she's going to ever get any real respect, she has to be at her best when EVERYONE is watching. And this quarter, that means Flushing Meadows.

Maria Sharapova, RUS: her clay court run in Paris was a surprise. Her early exit at SW19 was a disappointment. Now comes the Supernova's chance to build up her fitness and match play resume for almost TWO MONTHS heading into a slam for the first time since her nearly ten-month absence after shoulder surgery. And it's the U.S. Open, the tournament that has traditionally been the one best suited to her particular skills set both on and off the court. If she can get everything fine tuned, Sharapova might just be able to put that big point prowess she showed she still possesses in Paris to good use at Ashe Stadium.

ALSO: Ana Ivanovic, SRB: even in her "dead zone" over the past year since winning Roland Garros, AnaIvo DID manage to win a hard court title in Linz last 4th Quarter. It's her only win since Paris. At Wimbledon, the '07 hard court Los Angeles champion finally showed some resiliency by saving match point in the 1st Round and following up that escape with more success. Her injury-related exit from SW19 might prove to be a blessing in disguise. Unlike Safina, she didn't leave London doubting herself. It could be a stepping stone for some bright moments on hard courts. If it doesn't happen, though, she might just declare her recent coaching swich something less than a triumph and decide to "start all over again." After a year of setbacks, she doesn't need another.
The Clay Courters: even though I'm previewing the 3Q as, technically, a HARD COURT section of the schedule, there are more than a few clay court events that will be taking place. So, while the main focus will be on the North America, the U.S. Open Series and the Open itself, there'll be some nice moments doled out elsewhere, too... even if one or two of those soon-to-be champions (hello, Mademoiselle Parmentier) will eventually be dubbed someone "never heard of before" by some television commentators down the road.

ALSO???: Venus Williams, USA: Venus is no Serena when it comes to locking her jaw, fixing her line of vision, and diving head-first into the scrum. Her overall '09 results say that Williams will probably be more of a factor in North America than she often has been in recent campaigns, but right now I get no sense that -- unlike with Serena a year ago -- she will simply not settle for anything less than an Open title after losing the Wimbledon final. Still, no Sister has been the only slam-winning Sister in a calendar year since 2003, and so far Serena is the only one to lift a major trophy this year. But is that enough to predict a title run in New York? With Serena, yes. With Venus, no.
Serena Williams, USA: most other players would be satisfied having won two of the three slams in '09. But defending Open champ Serena isn't one of them. No one likes to pour it on like Serena, and revel in the glory of it all once it happens. The scariest thing about Serena heading back to North America is that she's now remembering what it used to feel like to be THE dominant player in the game, and no longer looks like she intends to take it for granted.

Victoria Azarenka, BLR: the A-Train has pulled into the station, and is currently taking on passengers for the ride to come. Whether the soon-to-be 20-year old from Belarus will reach her breakout point in New York isn't known, but after setting herself up for greatness the last few months on clay and grass, her favored hard courts should allow Azarenka to fully stretch her wings for the first time since she had to be helped off the court in the Melbourne heat (and then won her biggest title ever on HC in Miami).

ALSO: Elena Dementieva, RUS: last summer during the 3Q, Dementieva won Olympic Gold in Beijing, then took her momentum all the way to the U.S. Open SF and began '09 in great form. Having rediscovered her game (and maybe improved it?) in London, maybe the '04 Open RU is finally poised to seize the big slam brass ring before her biological tennis clock runs out.
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN: first off, C-Woz needs to get that first slam QF before it becomes an issue. She's proven she can win a hard court title of note, having taken New Haven (she also won the smaller Stockholm event last 3Q) a season ago, and done well in bigger non-slam events (reaching the Charleston and Madrid finals). The next step is an obvious one. One thing you can be certain of, the Dane is going to be out there playing almost every week (as she is this week in Sweden). Eventually, the slam success is going to come. Why not in the Big Apple?

Kim Clijsters, BEL: Cincinnati is Destination Zero for Clijsters' return. Even in the crowded field of vets and newcomers on tour, she'll surely draw a crowd. But will she win? Sure. Why not? At the very least, she'll probably win a doubles title and/or reach a singles final before the end of the summer. If she does well, too, it'll be difficult not to wonder if her success might eventually nudge that other Waffle back into training. Ah, a compelling reason for Backspin to get behind Kim.

ALSO: Breakout Players: With so many players with skills that play so well to hard courts, this quarter provides the chance for them to really shine. A few to consider: Dominika Cibulkova, #2 in last year's U.S. Open Series, who's still looking for her first tour singles title. Marion Bartoli, #3 in the USO Series a year ago, has been rather quietly having a very nice season. Sabine Lisicki, who's already won one title in North America in '09. And Sania Mirza, too, as she's always enjoyed great support in the U.S..
Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS: Kuznetsova won the Open in '04, but it took five years for her to win antoher slam in Paris. The Contessova, over such a large career hump, has the all-court game that says she should be a factor again in North America. But much of the notion that her RG win might change her standard operating procedure was brought into question by her weak performance on the grass after winning in Paris. Has she already slipped back into the pack?

Aleksandra Wozniak, CAN: A-Woz was a stunning champion in Stanford a year ago, becoming the first Canadian to win a WTA singles title in two decades. Since then, she's had success on other surfaces, as well. There's no reason to expect she'll fall off dramatically in terms of overall results this quarter, but what are the chances she'll defend that Bank of the West Classic title?
Jelena Jankovic, SRB: JJ timed things out rather well in '08, peaking at Flushing Meadows and coming as close as she ever has to winning a slam. A year later, though, she's not on the same level, while more players have raised THEIR games to Top 10 quality. Jankovic need not repeat her NYC final run, but she does need to regain her confidence by the end of the summer so that she'll be in good position to defend all those 4Q points she picked up a season ago. Needless to say, I'm not optimistic.

1. Serena Williams
2. Victoria Azarenka
3. Maria Sharapova
4. Elena Dementieva
5. Dinara Safina
6. Venus Williams
7. Svetlana Kuznetsova
8. Caroline Wozniacki
Wild Card: Sabine Lisicki

Will Serena will? Will Azarenka made a run to her first slam final? Is the Supernova back?

Thankfully, those decisions are still two months away... but things are going to have to change dramatically between now and then for me to back off my initial readings.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (Int'l $220K/red clay)
08 Final: Cornet d. Klepac
09 Top Seeds: Schnyder/Cornet

Gallovits d. Schnyder
Szavay d. A.Bondarenko
Szavay d. Gallovits

...Cornet is in Hungary trying to defend her '08 title, but she's done nothing so far in '09 to make anyone think she'll be able to do it. So, I'll go with a little home cooking for Szavay (her little sister failed to make it through qualifying, by the way).

BASTAD, SWEDEN (Int'l $220K/red clay)
08 Final: (new event)
09 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Cibulkova

Wozniacki d. Pennetta
Suarez-Navarro d. Cibulkova
Wozniacki d. Suarez-Navarro

...I'm tempted to pick Cibulkova to win her first title. But, come on, I can't pick against C-Woz right out of the gate in the 3Q. Even on red clay.

All for now.

ALSO THIS WEEK: Grass Court Awards


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