Sunday, August 30, 2009

U.S. Open Preview: 2 vs. 126?

Throughout the 2000's, the U.S. Open has been a hotly contested slam. Well, at least before the final. So get your jollies while you can.

When Justine Henin won the title in 2003, her semifinal victory over Jennifer Capriati (maybe the "Match of the Decade" in women's tennis) was the classic highlight. When Serena Williams won it all last year, her quarterfinal victory over Venus was the best match. With one more tournament remaining in this decade, we've yet to see a three-set final. In fact, the last time a women's Open final went the distance was 1995, when Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles. Twice, the final has been as close as 6-4/7-5 ('00 Venus def. Davenport, '08 Serena def. Jankovic), but so far the institution of playing the women's final under the lights has yet to produce a thriller that people will talk about for a generation.

Will things be any different in 2009? Well, there are a heap of potentially memorable matches that COULD take place BEFORE the final. Dementieva vs. Sharapova. Clijsters vs. Venus. Jankovic vs. Ivanovic. Safina vs. Jankovic. Serena vs. Venus (or Clijsters). Serena vs. Azarenka. But, really, thanks to a draw that put both Sisters in the bottom half, unless Queen Chaos maintains and improves upon her recent North American form at this tournament, there's really only one potential (and also legitimately realistic) final that has the ability to stir the echoes of classic moments of the past. But will it happen?

Here's a quick breakdown of the draw, quarter-by-quarter:

(1)SAFINA QUARTER: Safina and Jankovic could meet in the QF. As of now, I'm giving the edge to the Serb, but Safina has been in form in this year's slams in almost every round except the ones played just before or during the final weekend. So, I could easily see her advancing past JJ if they do meet. But one wonders if her lackluster pre-Open plays hints at a secret Safina ("It's my brain!") hope that she won't go down in flames on the big stage in NYC -- and that the easiest way to avoid it might be to quietly bow out, Marat-like, before the spotlight gets too harsh, and then hope for a clean slate come January in Melbourne. Just wondering. Lisicki would be a great dark horse pick to emerge here, but injuries and lack of match play have to have set her back and delayed any potential breakout U.S. Open performance by the German by one year. Hmmm, looking at the draw, if Safina did want to "stop the ride and get off," that 3rd Round against countrywoman Alisa Kleybanova, whose play may or may not have peaked in Toronto, could provide a nice "out."
RANKS: 1.Jankovic... 2.Safina... 3.Lisicki (if healthy)... 4.Kleybanova... 5.Ivanovic (on past reputation, not her recent one)

(4)DEMENTIEVA QUARTER: No player heads into Flushing Meadows in better form than U.S. Open Series winner Dementieva, but she'll have to be on her game early to reach the second week, as she'll likely see Maria Sharapova in the 3rd Round in a rematch of the Toronto final (probably under the lights, with Sharapova fresher than she was in Ontario). Though it may have been a blasphemous statement a few years ago, at the moment Dementieva's serve is probably more likely to hold up better than Sharapova's and allow Punch-Sober to survive to play another day. Kuznetsova, meanwhile, seems to have gained nothing from her Roland Garros triumph, though whatever small chance there is that she'll regain her form, would probably be the most likely to be able to claim a semifinal berth from the section. Wozniacki just won New Haven, but she's still unproven in the slams and is searching for her first QF... if she can get past Sorana Cirstea in the 3rd Round, that is. Zheng Jie could prove to be a spoiler, with a chance to catch the Dementieva/Sharapova winner one round later, quite possibly with whichever Russian won suffering a slight letdown that could prove fatal in this tournament.
RANKS: 1.Dementieva... 2.Sharapova... 3.Kuznetsova... 4t.Wozniacki/Cirstea (tie)

(3)V.WILLIAMS QUARTER: This is the section most likely to produce an eyebrow-raising/breakout potential/story of the tournament semifinalist. Venus is the semi-titular "favorite," but she's looked anything but on hard courts this summer. A few weeks ago, my gut was telling me to take a ride on the A-Train into Flushing Meadows, but Victoria Azarenka's lead-up work hasn't exactly been inspiring. Still, I'm not willing to totally forsake her chance. After all, hard court is her best surface, and she's got enough desire to pull a Serena and turn her game up a notch when it matters most. If she can resist taking a hit out on herself if things don't go well during a tight match, that is. The pink elephant in the room in this section, of course, is Clijsters, who's returning to the Open for the first time since she won the title in '05. She's playing better than anyone else in this part of the draw, and already has wins over Bartoli and Azarenka (both of whom she could meet again) in her comeback. A Venus-vs.-Kim Round of 16 match would surely make the tennis world (and maybe even a certain Ms. Henin, realizing she might stand an even better chance at winning than her countrywoman? We can only hope.) stand up and take notice. Of course, after facing no real pressure to perform thus far in Clijsters II, might Kim finally swallow hard if things get sticky over the next two weeks? We'll see.
RANKS: 1.Clijsters... 2.Azarenka... 3.V.Williams... 4.Bartoli... 5.Li (who knows?

(2)S.WILLIAMS QUARTER: This section is no pre-ordained walk for Serena, not with so many players who've beaten her (Stosur, Bammer, MJMS, Hantuchova, etc.) lurking around nearly every corner. Still, if she enters the second week with her body intact who's got the fortitude to pick against her? Sam Stosur has the ability to knock off the defending champ, and has reached a slam SF this year. Flavia Pennetta is playing better than ever. Zvonareva was one of the tour's hottest players earlier this year before her injury. But no one's a better slammer than Serena, and someone will likely have to play the match of her life to prevent her from at least reaching the semis. Williams might not make the final, but she's the only woman in the 128-count draw who is EXPECTED to do so, no matter how many matches she has (or hasn't) won since Wimbledon.
RANKS: 1.S.Williams... 2.Stosur... 3.Pennetta... 4.Zvonarva... 5.Vesnina/Mauresmo

So, if you mentally pencil into Serena in the final, who might she face? Well, Dementieva is long overdue to pick up a slam title, has her confidence brimming and, even better, doesn't have to face Williams until a potential final weekend clash. It seems like everyone who is someone is picking either Serena or Dementieva to win this title, and hardly anyone else (with a few unique exceptions). Who knows, after their classic Wimbledon SF meeting, maybe THAT final would even end the thirteen-year string of straight sets women's U.S. Open championships.

It sounds about right. 2 vs. 126. Of course, how often do grand slams play out just as everyone planned?

TOP PLAYER: Eva Hrdinova/CZE
...the Czech reached the main draw by way of winning a 3rd set tie-break against Laura Robson in the final qualifying round.
RISERS: Mariya Koryttseva/UKR & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE
SURPRISES: Yurika Sema/JPN & Valerie Tetreault/CAN
VETERANS: Camille Pin/FRA & Yvonne Meusburger/AUT
FRESH FACES: Petra Martic/CRO & Chang Kai-Chen/TPE
DOWN: Nicole Vaidisova/CZE & Julia Vakulenko/UKR
COMEBACKS: Angelique Kerber/GER & Shenay Perry/USA
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Monique Adamczak/AUS, Marta Domachowska/POL, Carly Gullickson/USA, Vesna Manasieva/RUS, Anastasia Rodionova/AUS
WILD CARDS: Gail Brodsky/USA, Mallory Cecil/USA, Kim Clijsters/BEL, Alexa Glatch/USA, Vania King/USA, Christine McHale/USA, Kristina Mladenovic/FRA, Olivia Rogowska/AUS
OLDEST QUALIFIERS: Pin, 28 & Rodionova, 27
YOUNGEST QUALIFIERS: Martic, 18 & Chang, 18
LOW-RANKING QUALIFIERS: #212 Chang & #203 Hrdinova

Q1: #6q Chan d. Vaidisova 7-6/2-6/6-2 head hurts.
Q1: Tetreault d. Vakulenko 6-4/7-6 heart hurts.
Q2: Arvidsson d. #22q Karatantcheva 6-4/7-5
...I could make a crude joke here to keep up the pattern, but I'll refrain.
Q2: Sema d. Date-Krumm 7-6/3-6/6-4
...good and bad news for Japan.
Q3: Hrdinova d. Robson 7-6/4-6/7-6
...I'm sure Robson had something cheeky to say afterward.

2 - Alberta Brianti, ITA (AO/WI)
2 - Carly Gullickson, USA (RG/US)
2 - Sesil Karatantcheva, ex-BUL/KAZ (AO/WI)
2 - Victoriya Kutuzova, UKR (AO/WI)
2 - Vesna Manasieva, RUS (WI/US)
2 - Petra Martic, CRO (RG/US)
2 - Yvonne Meusburger, AUT (RG/US)
2 - Melanie Oudin, USA (AO/WI)
2 - Chanelle Scheepers, RSA (AO/RG)
2 - Anastasija Sevastova, LAT (RG/WI)

5 - USA

#11 Ivanovic vs. K.Bondarenko
...AnaIvo is primed for another upset. K-Bond knocked off Venus the other week. She retired in New Haven, though, and, well, you know, she IS a Bondarenko Sister, so I'm not holding my breath for the upset here.
#32 Szavay vs. Peer
...Cibulkova's injury-related withdrawal put Szavay at #32 and, ultimately, in this very difficult 1st Round match-up. Lucky her.
#19 Schnyder vs. Safarova
...both players are just as likely to put on a brilliant show as have their fans pulling their hair out and wanting to throw something.
#23 Lisicki vs. Rezai
...but not if Lisicki is fully healthy, and not hindered by her lack of match play.
#30 A.Bondarenko vs. Kudryavtseva
...what are the odds that one unseeded Bondarenko could pull off a huge "upset," while the other seeded Sister could be bounced early? Hmmm, probably not as long as one might think.
#29 Sharapova vs. Pironkova
...if only because the Bulgarian has a history of pulling off stunning upsets in the early rounds of slams, and Sharapova has THAT SERVE working against her.
#28 Bammer vs. Martinez-Sanchez
...both have given Serena headaches (or, in MJMS's case, a virtual middle finger) this year. Williams lurks two rounds later.
#18 Li vs. Olaru
...when she's healthy, Li is a threat. When she's not, run for cover. Which is it?
#15 Stosur vs. Sugiyama
...if Slingin' Sammy has a letdown.
#3 V.Williams vs. Vera Dushevina'd be the only justification for having this match open up the evening session on Night 1 rather than Serena vs. Glatch.

Hmmm, thing is, even with all these "potential" upsets listed, I actually think there's a decent chance that this Open COULD be a rare slam where none of the women's seeds lose in the 1st Round. But with two Bondarenkos involved, I doubt that'll be the case.

1. Eva Hrdinova, CZE
2. Anastasia Rodionova, AUS
3. Angelique Kerber, GER
4. Vesna Manasieva, RUS
5. Valerie Tetreault, CAN
HM- Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, CZE
Kim Clijsters, BEL
Serena Williams, USA
Vania King, USA (WC)... or maybe NO American women not named Williams will win a match

Ivanovic vs. Sharapova, Clijsters vs. Mauresmo
...All-Comeback: Former Grand Slam Champions Edition
Jankovic vs. Petrova, Dokic vs. Vesnina
...the All-Shakespearean Drama Club
Safina vs. Peer, Larcher de Brito vs. Mirza
...Controversy 24/7
Lisicki vs. Wozniacki, Azarenka vs. S.Williams
...All-Futures (+Serena) Final 4.

1st Rd. - Pavlyuchenkova vs. Oudin
...the best 1st Round match between two unseeded players.
1st Rd. - #11 Ivanovic vs. K.Bondarenko
...ah, but will Julie Coin win HER 1st Round match this year?
1st Rd. - #3 Nadal vs. Gasquet
...obviously, no Kiss-Cam will be allowed.
1st Rd. - #2 Murray vs. Gulbis
...nahh, it couldn't happen. Right?
2nd Rd. - #14 Bartoli vs. (WC) Clijsters
...Bartoli gets the first "do-over" in Clijsters II. (I wonder if a Dallas Cowboys game will break out?)
2nd Rd. - #7 Zvonareva vs. Chakvetadze
...a very interesting early-round match that would probably get precious little attention.

2nd Rd. - #6 del Potro vs. Safin
...would Dinara be in the crowd? We know he won't likely be there when she plays.
3rd Rd. - #1 Safina vs. Kleybanova
...if things fall a certain way here, Safina might have to call on her Cat-like additional lives again.
3rd Rd. - #9 Wozniacki vs. Cirstea
...ESPN2 would probably push for a scheduled night match. Hopefully, Mary Joe Fernandez won't say C-Woz is from the Netherlands, which she did during ESPNEWS draw announcement broadcast, again.
3rd Rd. - #1 Federer vs. #31 Hewitt
...a classic night match if I've ever seen one.
3rd Rd. - #3 Dementieva vs. #29 Sharapova
...the potential highlight of the first week.
3rd Rd. - (WC) Clijsters vs. Dokic
...for old time's sake.

Of note, the Open scheduling mavens say they're going to switch up the order of the men's and women's night matches this season, with the men sometimes leading off after multiple decades of a "ladies first" policy. Oh, pray that Queen Chaos gets a scheduled second match up and brings her special brand of drama to the bewitching hour in New York.

Here's a handwritten bracket with additional comments for my 3rd Round-to-Final picks (with "apologies" to ESPN's Tony Kornheiser for "stealing" the idea from his annual notes-filled NCAA Basketball Tournnament brackets from the Washington Post):

Click for a larger version

#1 Safina d. #19 Schnyder
#5 Jankovic d. #11 Ivanovic
#4 Dementieva d. #13 Petrova
#9 Wozniacki d. #6 Kuznetsova
#8 Azarenka d. #12 A.Radwanska
(WC) Clijsters d. #3 V.Williams
#10 Pennetta d. #31 Vesnina
#2 S.Williams d. #15 Stosur

...I'm not sure I believe AnaIvo will make it this far, but it would be interesting to see an all-Serbian match that means something again. Why not Clijsters? Man, if Stosur could get on a roll, she could really act as a wrecking ball to the lower quarter of the draw.

#5 Jankovic d. #1 Safina
#4 Dementieva d. #9 Wozniacki
#8 Azarenka d. (WC) Clijsters
#2 S.Williams d. #10 Pennetta

...I'm hoping Queen Chaos can pull this one off, but if Safina is at her just-look-at-me-when-no-one's-looking best, I wonder if it'll happen. If the match-up with Azarenka actually comes off, I'd probaby give the edge to Clijsters. But the last time I didn't at least mostly stick with my early gut feeling in a slam (when I didn't pick a Safina/Kuznetsova RG final), I over-thought myself into NOT being able crow about having correctly predicted all six of this season's slam finalists so far. Five out of six isn't bad, but it's not as good as six. So, I'll stick with the A-Train, for this round.

#4 Dementieva d. #5 Jankovic
#2 S.Williams d. #8 Azarenka

...the last chance for Azarenka to get some grand slam payback for that hot day Down Under that ended with her being helped off the court rather than skipping off it after upsetting Serena. JJ at least sets herself up for a good 4Q.

#2 S.Williams d. #4 Dementieva

...Punch-Sober almost got her at Wimbledon, then did in Toronto. I wondered then whether the same result would happen if the match took place at the Open. Well, we might just find out... maybe even in three sets.

2000 Martina Hingis, SUI
2001 Martina Hingis, SUI
2002 Serena Williams, USA
2003 Kim Clijsters, BEL
2004 Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
2005 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2006 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2007 Justine Henin, BEL
2008 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2009 Dinara Safina, RUS

2004 Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Elena Dementieva
2005 Kim Clijsters d. Mary Pierce
2006 Maria Sharapova d. Justine Henin-Hardenne
2007 Justine Henin d. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2008 Serera Williams d. Jelena Jankovic

1997 Cara Black d. Kildine Chevalier
1998 Jelena Dokic d. Katarina Srebotnik
1999 Lina Krasnoroutskaya d. Nadia Petrova
2000 Maria-Emilia Salerni d. Tatiana Perebiynis
2001 Marion Bartoli d. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2002 Maria Kirilenko d. Barbora Strycova
2003 Kirsten Flipkens d. Michaella Krajicek
2004 Michaella Krajicek d. Jessica Kirkland
2005 Victoria Azarenka d. Alexa Glatch
2006 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova d. Tamira Paszek
2007 Kristina Kucova d. Urszula Radwanska
2008 Coco Vandeweghe d. Gabriela Paz

5...Serena Williams
3...Maria Sharapova
3...Amelie Mauresmo
2...Ana Ivanovic
1...Kim Clijsters
1...Jelena Jankovic
1...Venus Williams

3...Serena Williams (1999,02,08)
2...Venus Williams (2000-01)
1...Kim Clijsters (2005)
1...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004)
1...Maria Sharapova (2006)

16...Martina Navratilova
14...Chris Evert
13...Jennifer Capriati
16-0...Martina Navratilova
14-0...Chris Evert
7-0...Pam Shriver
6-0...Tracy Austin

All for now. Day 1 awaits.


Blogger Diane said...

As I'm sure you know, I see this affair pretty much the same as you do (alas, I don't have a cool hand-written bracket). Some additional thoughts:

If Safarova is on her game (which I hope she isn't, given she plays Patty in the first round), she can be quite dangerous.

Kleybanova's back could be the end of her during a grueling tournament like this one. But I hope not--she's fun to watch, and has a nice attitude.

Melanie Oudin has an unfortunate draw. If she gets past Pavlyuchenkova, she gets Dementieva. Watch her while you can.

Lurking in the same part of the draw are a few players who like to spoil the party--Errani, Peng and Wickmayer.

Mon Aug 31, 12:44:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

It still sort of stumps me why the tournament has scheduled both Williams sisters to play on the same. And, barring a rain-marred schedule, they'll probably stay on that schedule all tournament long. Seems to me that sort of makes the daily lineups a bit unbalanced.

Maybe Oudin will get to play a night match if she plays Dementieva. Yeah, probably not. :(

Mon Aug 31, 10:54:00 AM EDT  

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