Monday, August 31, 2009

US.1- Of Kim Clijsters and Pesky Inner Voices

If you squinted your eyes, you could almost see Mary Pierce on Arthur Ashe Court on Day 1 of this year's U.S. Open.

Was it Pierce? No, of course not. It was Victoriya Kutuzova. But since Kim Clijsters was on the other side of the net, the mistake was an understandable one. After all, the same Clijsters who was running roughshod over the Ukrainian, going up 5-0 to start the match, was the same one who'd done the same thing to Pierce in the women's final nearly four years ago. After a wrist injury, retirement, marriage, a baby daughter and a so-far-very-successful comeback, this was Clijsters first Open match since the 2005 championship that finally gave her career tennis resume an accomplishment worthy of all the fuss.

Rarely has a player returned from a self-imposed absence from the sport with such a seemingly seamless transition. While just a few weeks ago it would have been an easy jab at the "quality" of the current women's game to aggressively bat around the "telling" notion of a player who hasn't played a competitive match in over two years being able to walk back onto the tour and be able to defeat Top 20 and Top 10 players with relative ease (as Clijsters did in Cincinati and Toronto this summer), the level of play of the Belgian over the past month has been so high that it really shouldn't be an issue (though some will probably try to make it one if Clijsters advances deep into the second week of this tournament). She's not the same player who won this title four years ago, but she can almost see her from here. While the slight possibility of a yellow-bricked path to the Australian Open final for Jelena Dokic was an unrealistic scenario back in January, a Tony Award-worthy trip to the second Saturday by Clijsters might not necessarily be a tale of fiction.

Of course, what would you expect from the most popular player in the history of tennis? In all of sports history, really, going back to the day the first cavemen challenged all his cave-dwelling buddies that he could throw HIS wooly mammoth bone farther and with more accuracy than the rest. Heck, why even beat around the bush, we ARE talking about the individual whom every person on earth would donate every organ in their body if it meant that she might be able to breathe air for an additional day, improving the atmosphere of the entire planet with her every exhale.

All right, all right. I admit, I AM going a little bit overboard in my praise of Clijsters. But listening to the breathless, awe-inspiring introduction of a short segment about her today on Tennis Channel, I could have sworn the player whose match was about to be aired had just been knighted by the Queen, given sainthood by the Pope and declared the greatest living human all in one fell swoop. Seriously, after that, I was tempted to call someone in New York and tell them to get Clijsters to a protologist, stat, because an entire television network might be squatting in a place where television networks shouldn't ever squat. Seriously, I was about to-

(cue inner voice)

"Calm down. Calm down. Kim doing well might mean Justine will be back soon, too. Remember that?"

(inner voice listens to inner question)

"Yeah, I know that Carlos Rodriguez said that he knows nothing about those rumors of a potential Henin comeback... but, come on, he could have been a secret agent in alternate life. Even water torture -- administered personally by the Dark Lord himself, Dick Cheney -- would get anything out of him. You can't let little things like that Tennis Channel thing set you off. You promised to start Clijsters II by wiping the slate clean, remember? There you go. That's the way."

(order is restored)

Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Great match, Kim. Go get 'em.

...well, the notion of an "upset-free" 1st Round went by the wayside on Day 1 with the exit of the first seed from the women's draw. The victim? Estonia's Kaia Kanepi, for the second time in a slam this year.

Just as she was at Roland Garros, Kanepi was the first seed sent packing when she lost to 18-year old qualifier Chang Kai-Chen of Taiwan, 6-0/2-6/6-2.

...speaking of qualifiers, Angelique Kerber (def. Andrea Petkovic) and Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova (def. fellow qualifier Marta Domachowska) also advanced to the 2nd Round. Wild cards winning on Day 1 included Clijsters and Vania King, who posted the first victory of the tournament when Anastasiya Yakimova retired with a foot injury three games into their 1st Round match.

Also, with King's win, at least one non-Williams American has reached the 2nd Round. Three, actually, since Jill Craybas knocked off countrywoman qualifer Carly Gullickson, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands got a victory today, as well. Also, as I type this, Meghann Shaughnessy is giving Daniela Hantuchova a nice workout. 1st Round winner today was happier about it than Samantha Stosur, who escaped her encounter with Ai Sugiyama by a 6-4/4-6/6-4 score, breaking the Japanese vet at 5-4 in the 3rd to put away the match (after not allowing a netted volley at match point to get inside her head). Slingin' Sammy had come into this event having lost four straight U.S. Open 1st Round matches. Well, at least that long national Australian nightmare is over.

...ITF Update: youngster Richel Hogenkamp of the Netherlands won another ITF challenger event over the weekend. I don't know if she'll be in the U.S. Open Girls draw or not, but if she is, I'll once again make sure to keep an eye on her.

...the reason for the odd scheduling of the Venus Williams/Vera Dushevina match during the first night session rather than the Serena Williams/Alexa Glatch one was finally revealed today. Apparently, word got around the grounds that Cali Girl Glatch was suffering from a lower back injury, so tournament officials didn't want to risk a dud of a match. After penciling in Serena's match for Night 1, Venus' was written down in ink. Thing is, during tonight's match, Venus called for a trainer to look her left knee after just three games (and Richard Williams just told Pam Shriver the knee has been bothering her for "five or six weeks"). Never assume anything, I guess.

Still, I figure Williams will still win the match in the end. If not, if occurrences warrent it, I guess I could be forced to break out the ol' ".5" and do a "U.S. Open at Night" edition of the Daily Backspin later tonight.

...and, finally, ESPN2's first day of coverage of the U.S. Open went off mostly without a hitch. Combined with Tennis Channel's mostly non-Sainthood promoting coverage (with Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors covering matches together, as well as a nightly recap show featuring Lindsay Davenport), this setup might just work, after all (but ESPN needs to show score updates more often so people don't have to jump on the internet to know what's going on, something that TC at least seems to understand with the use of a score ticker at the bottom of the screen). Of course, it'd been nice if Tennis Channel hadn't been forced to go off air at 7pm in the middle of the Jelena Dokic/Kirsten Flipkens match since ESPN2's night coverage was starting. As it was, Dokic, who played an horrific serve game at 3-4 in the 1st set to virtually give away the opening stanza, was leading 3-1 in the 2nd. She eventually lost to the Belgian 6-3/6-4. Now that I think about it, I'm sorta glad I didn't have to watch that one.

Of course, any U.S. Open coverage turns on the axis of the night session coverage. We'll see how that turns out. At least John McEnroe made the jump from USA Network. It wouldn't have had a chance to work at all without him.

2005: #28 Flavia Pennetta (lost to Schruff)
2006: #15 Anna-Lena Groenefeld (lost to Rezai)
2007: #29 Samantha Stosur (lost to Cornet)
2008: #24 Shahar Peer (lost to Li)
2009: #25 Kaia Kanepi (lost to Chang)
AO: #23 Agnes Szavay (lost to Voskoboeva)
RG: #19 Kaia Kanepi (lost to Shvedova)
WI: #23 Aleksandra Wozniak (lost to Schiavone)
US: #25 Kaia Kanepi (lost to Chang)

AO: Patricia Mayr (def. Schruff)
RG: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (def. Olaru), Li Na (def. Domachowska)
WI: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (def. Cetkovska)
US: Vania King (def. Yakimova)

AO: Ashley Harkleroad, USA
RG: Julia Vakulenko, UKR
WI: Meilen Tu, USA
US: Chan Yung-Jan, TPE
AO: Julia Vakulenko, UKR
RG: Timea Bacsinszky, SUI & Ioana-Raluca Olaru, ROU
WI: Hsieh Su-Wei, TPE & Olga Govortsova, BLR
US: Alina Jidkova, RUS
AO: Julia Schruff, GER
RG: Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP & Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
WI: Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP & Eva Hrdinova, CZE
US: Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, CZE
AO: Elena Baltacha, GBR
RG: Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ
WI: Victoriya Kutuzova, UKR
US: Eva Hrdinova, CZE

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xxx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Eva Hrdinova/CZE def. Laura Robson/GBR 7-6/4-6/7-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xxx
FIRST SEED OUT: #25 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.-Chang/TPE)
FIRST WIN: (WC) Vania King/USA (def. Anastasiya Yakimova/BLR)
IT GIRL: xxx

All for Day 1. More tomorrow (if not sooner, I guess).


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