Monday, August 10, 2009

Wk.31- So Near, and Yet So Far

The Holy Grail. Intelligent life in the universe. Amelia Earhart's plane. A real-life, non-radio show hosting voice of the Republican party.

The long-standing quests continue on all fronts... and are now joined in seeming futility by the search for the "ultimate truth" about the upcoming U.S. Open.

Sorry for being a broken record (or, should I say "un-refreshed page" to be more technologically current?), but I'm going to continue to report in this space about this latest WTA quest until something -- anything -- definitive emerges from the woodwork of the U.S. Open Series that can be translated into a clue about what will happen in Flushing Meadows starting at the end of this month. Thus far, evidence has been scant, at best.

I'm looking for an epiphany, but none managed to jump out and grab your friendly neighborhood Backspinner last week in Los Angeles. Just like the week before. And the week before that. As we merrily went along in this 3rd Quarter of WTA action, the L.A. Open turned out to be another tournament that only produced something akin to confusion. Instead of unchallenged facts and unequivocal conclusions coming into focus, we instead were presented with another slew of head-scratchers to ponder:

-- Serena wasn't in L.A., not that it would have mattered. Anyone with any sense has long since abandoned looking at what she does in between majors as an indicator about what she'll do once a grand slam hammer drops down on Day 1. Maybe she'll win this week in Cincinnati. But that wouldn't mean anything, either.

-- Dinara Safina WAS in action last week, stumbling and being ousted in the 3rd Round by Zheng Jie. Considering the Russian's recent pre-slam success and enormously disappointing slam follow-ups, maybe that was a GOOD thing, though.

-- Victoria Azarenka wilted in the clutch against Maria Sharapova in the 2nd Round, but she still has more hard court titles than any other player on tour this season and is due for a huge slam breakthrough. It's too early to make any real judgment about her (but an A-Train title this week in Cincy would surely qualify as an "epiphany"... just so ya know).

-- L.A. champ Flavia Pennetta was impressive, and has won two titles (one on clay) this quarter, but does anyone really believe she's a true contender to win on the big stage in New York? Yeah, didn't think so.

-- Runner-up Sam Stosur has made great strides in her singles mentality in '09, but if she can't muster up enough to put on a show in the L.A. final, what'll happen in New York? In Melbourne, she might be able to put together a Dokic-esque (or better) run in front of a partisan crowd, but probably not at the Open.

-- Maybe the most intriguing, and puzzling, performer in Los Angeles was Sharapova, though.

Oddly enough, minus the naturally good wheels, the Supernova has transformed into something resembling Jelena Jankovic. Whoa, did I just literally shudder when I typed that line? All right, maybe Sharapova isn't REALLY the "new Jankovic," but her penchant for struggling three-set victories and a serve that eventually gets the better of her surely reminds one a little of a certain Serbian chaos-maker. Sharapova was at times impressive in L.A., coming back against Azarenka and continuing to show that her drive and purpose are enough to get her through most matches even if her game doesn't want to make things easy on her. I still think she might be able to catch fire in NYC, with more rest days, many scheduled night matches and a "big stage bump" providing the intangibles that could see her playing matches on Ashe Stadium deep into the second week, but, really, can she be a TRUE force if her serve is going to continue to be a liability in these early stages of her comeback, especially since she'll likely be an unseeded competitor at the Open and could conceivably meet a Williams sister in the first few rounds? In L.A., Sharapova had twelve double-faults against Azarenka and thirteen against Urszula Radwanska in two victories, then sixteen in her SF loss to Pennetta.

ESPN commentators brought up the issue of whether any player had ever won a grand slam title after undergoing shoulder surgery, and drew a collective blank while searching for an example. The discussion might mean nothing, or could be very prophetic. Surely, anyone who didn't cringe when the news of the Sharapova surgery broke all those months ago wasn't being honest with him or herself. A player with an iffy shoulder, whose game is dependent on her serve, is a question mark in tennis shoes.

Sharapova won't be giving up anytime soon but, even as she flashes moments of brilliance these days, the hiccups can't be totally ignored or simply be expected to go away any day now. It's easy to hint at dark times ahead, and ESPN seems to live for it. The network's questions about the likes of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer's futures following injuries and illness proved to be unfounded talking points meant to spark discussion, but signifying nothing when the dust settled. Hopefully, the same will prove to be the case with Sharapova, and she'll provide an answer to the question that stumped the ESPN talking heads on Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, I'll soldier on, too, contining my late summer quest for answers about the upcoming final slam of 2009. Whenever I get a clue I'll surely pass it on.

Hmmm, that didn't quite come out right.


LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA USA (Premier $700K/hard court)
S: Flavia Pennetta def. Samantha Stosur 6-4/6-3
D: Chuang/Yan d. Kirilenko/A.Radwanska

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Flavia Pennetta, ITA
a year ago, Pennetta made a somewhat "surprising" run to the L.A. final (losing to Dinara Safina). This year, the 27-year old did the result one better by taking the title, the biggest in her career so far. Career crown #8, courtesy of a Russian row of victims that included Nadia Petrova, Vera Zvonareva and Maria Sharapova (then Sam Stosur in the final), moves her up to #12 in the rankings, leaving her just 100 points from becoming the first Italian woman to reach the Top 10.
RISERS: Samantha Stosur, AUS & Zheng Jie, CHN
a week after upsetting Serena Williams and reaching the Stanford SF, Stosur reached the final in L.A. after knocking off the likes of Maria Kirilenko, Ana Ivanovic (3 & 2), Zheng Jie and Sorana Cirstea. The final, though, was a case of "been there, done that." And not in a good way, either. The Aussie was never really able to make a concerted run at Pennetta, and fell to 0-5 in career tour singles finals. While she didn't reach the semis, Zheng might have had an even better week than Stosur. Wins over Elena Vesnina and #1 Dinara Safina allowed her to see her fortunes shine brightly just as countrywoman Li Na's once again ran into an injury-related eclipse.
SURPRISES: Vania King, USA & Yvonne Meusburger, AUT
King, a recent MVP during the WTT season, continued her success on the real tour last week. A doubles SF result with Monica Niculescu and a singles win over Sybille Bammer (as well as three-set performance against Ana Ivanovic) provided a nice on-court complement to yet another of her off-court singing endeavors, as she performed the national anthem at Dodger Stadium. Meusburger won the $25K Hechingen challenger, defeating Greta Arn and the recently surging Andrea Hlavackova en route to a 5-7/7-5/6-2 win over Johanna Larsson in the final.
VETERAN: Kimiko Date-Krumm, JPN
Clijsters is returning in Cincinnati, but Date-Krumm's comeback has been ongoing for more than a year now and she's still going strong. The 38-year old Japanese vet (she'll turn 39 next month) qualified in L.A., and put up a spirited fight (losing 7-5 in the 3rd set) against Charleston champ Sabine Lisicki in the 1st Round.
FRESH FACES: Sorana Cirstea, ROU & Urszula Radwanska, POL
even with a bothersome heel injury, Cirstea reached the L.A. semfinals, overcoming her recent dip in results to string together some nice wins over Michelle Larcher de Brito, Caroline Wozniacki, Sabine Lisicki (the German retired with a shoulder, causing everyone to frustratingly "sigh" once again) and Agnieszka Radwanska in the QF. A-Rad's sister, too, had a nice week as Urszula joined her in the quarterfinals. Wins over Julie Coin and Dominika Cibulkova (then a walkover from Li, who injured her knee again) preceded a game effort against Sharapova to provide the Polish teen with her best week on tour yet.
DOWN: Victoria Azarenka, BLR & Caroline Wozniacki, DEN & Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
L.A. didn't provide much to write home about for three of the tour's top young stars. All three received 1st Round byes, but failed to advance to the 3rd Round once they hit the court. Cibulkova, #3 in the '08 US Open Series standings, was dumped out of her first Series-level match by U-Rad. Meanwhile, Azarenka lost a three-setter to Sharapova in her first action since Wimbledon, and Wozniacki dropped a three-setter of her own to Cirstea in the Dane's first action in North America after a rare (for her) few weeks off.
ITF PLAYER: Stephanie Dubois, CAN
almost three years after she infamously advanced past an injured Kim Clijsters in Montreal, Dubois was once again making waves just before the Belgian's comeback in Cincinnati this week. In Vancouver, Dubois won a $75K challenger, reeling off a string of victories over Ahsha Rolle, Julia Glushko, Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, Mashona Washington and Sania Mirza, in 1-6/6-4/6-4 final.
JUNIOR STAR: Ksenia Pervak, RUS
the 18-year old Hordette, the #7-ranked junior in the world and '09 Oz Girls champ, won the $25K Moscow event this weekend, defeating Ekaterina Ivanova in the final (and getting a victory over Arina Rodionova, as well).

1. LA 2nd - Sharapova d. Azarenka
Coming from behind to defeat possibly the brightest young star in the WTA galaxy in a star-studded matchup not far from Hollywood gives reason for hope that the Supernova's time in the spotlight isn't over. Of course, Azarenka's lack of match play since Wimbledon might have played a large part in this result, too.
2. LA SF - Pennetta d. Sharapova
Sharapova served at 3-1 in the 3rd set, then broke herself with back-to-back double-faults. The rest was elementary.
3. LA QF - Cirstea d. A.Radwanska
A-Rad served at 5-4 in the 3rd, but couldn't put the Romanian away after she'd battled back from a poor 2nd set, a heel injury for which she needed treatment and a wounded psyche that needed coddling and stoking (rather successfuly so, too) by coach Sven Groenefeld. (Taking Sven's advice to play how you CAN rather than CAN'T due to an injury, I, too, found a way to play some tennis this weekend despite a shoulder injury. Can you say, "lefty forehand on one side, two-handed forehand on the other, and an ultra-abbreviated service motion up top?" I thought you could. Thanks, Sven.)
4. LA 3rd - Zheng d. Safina
With more results like this, maybe Safina will peak AT a slam this time, and arrive in NYC with less pressure. Yeah, I don't buy that one, either.
5. LA 2nd - Cirstea d. Wozniacki
A rare three-setter that C-Woz didn't pull out in the end. It was her first one-and-out tournament result since Zurich last October.
6. LA Final - Pennetta d. Stosur
The hump is starting to become a bit of a problem for Slingin' Sammy to get over, isn't it?
7. LA 1st - Vesnina d. Szavay
Who knows what happened here? Whatever it was, it must have been contagious since Vesnins ultimately went out in a love 3rd set against Zheng in the 2nd Round.
8. LA 1st - Wickmayer d. Vaidisova
Oh, why even bother?
9. Cin Q - K.Bondarenko d. Mattek-Sands
It's like it's 2007 again. Mattek is a fine doubles player, but her post-marriage singles results have left a great deal to be desired in '09.
10. LA 1st - Vandeweghe d. Garbin
A nice main draw win for the '08 US Open Girls champion.
HM- LA QF - Sharapova d. U.Radwanska
Not following in her big sister's footsteps, U-Rad didn't decide to do cartwheels at the service to distract Sharapova before she served. Of course, she didn't HAVE to. Sharapova hit eleven double-faults in the 2nd set all by herself without any extracurricular prodding.

2 - January - Elena Dementieva (Auckland/Sydney)
2 - February - Venus Williams (Dubai/Acapulco)
2 - May - Dinara Safina (Rome/Madrid)

**2009 WIN STREAKS**
16...Dinara Safina, May-June (lost to Kuznetsova)
15...Elena Dementieva, January (lost to S.Williams)
14...Venus Williams, February-April (lost to S.Williams)
10...Serena Williams, January-February (walkover to Dementieva)
10...Victoria Azarenka, February-March (lost to Zvonareva)

2...Svetlana Kuznetsova (def. Safina/Safina)
2...Venus Williams (S.Williams/Safina)
1...Victoria Azarenka (S.Williams)
1...Marion Bartoli (Jankovic)
1...Tamarine Tanasugarn (Safina)
1...Klara Zakopalova (S.Williams)

[#1 seed/defending champ/round/result]
Victoria Azarenka (#1 S.Williams/DC S.Williams F) - W
Kristina Barrois (#1 Medina-Garrigues/DC Medina-Garrigues 2r) - QF
Virginie Razzano (#1 Dementieva 2r/DC A.Radwanska QF) - RU

72...Serena Williams, USA
39...Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
19...Kim Clijsters, BEL
18...Jelena Jankovic, SRB
17...DINARA SAFINA, RUS (as of August 10)
17...Maria Sharapova, RUS
12...Ana Ivanovic, SRB
11...Venus Williams, USA
ALSO: Davenport-98

4 years - Elena Dementieva, 2006-09
3 years - Serena Williams, 2007-09
3 years - Venus Williams, 2007-09
2 years - FLAVIA PENNETTA, 2008-09
2 years - Dinara Safina, 2008-09
2 years - Caroline Wozniacki, 2008-09
2 years - Vera Zvonareva, 2008-09
ALSO: 2007-08 - Lindsay Davenport, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic

CINCINNATI, OHIO USA (Premier+ $2m/hard court)
08 Final: Petrova d. Dechy
09 Top Seeds: Safina/S.Williams

Safina d. Clijsters
V.Williams d. Petrova
Wozniacki d. Dementieva
Azarenka d. S.Williams
V.Williams d. Safina
Azarenka d. Dementieva
V.Williams d. Azarenka

...all right, all right. Truth be told, I had Clijsters losing to Bartoli in the 1st Round when I first posted this Backspin. But since that didn't happen, I'll go with an immediate QF run by Comeback Kim. (Now, let the countdown begin to see when someone uses her victory over La Trufflette to bash the tour -- since it's a case of a player who hasn't played competitively in two years defeating player who just won a big title in Stanford). Meanwhile, I have Azarenka taking out Serena, C-Woz meeting A-Woz (in the 2nd Round) yet again and fun ensuing, and Pennetta not getting win #14 in a row when she meets Venus in the 3rd Round. Oh, and I have a Williams going home with the title, for no real good reason.

Hey, it's all just an inexact prelude to the Open anyway, right?

All for now.


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