Monday, October 05, 2009

Wk.39- The More the Maria(ier)

Apparently, NO ONE can resist getting in on the act.

I guess the signs of the "Comeback Chic" aspects of the 2009 season should have been detected all the way back in January. After all, Jelena Dokic's return from the brink in Melbourne set the early tone for the season. Not long after, Kim Clijsters announced her comeback.

The rest is history.

In Tokyo, Maria Sharapova added her name to the ridiculously-lengthening list of 4Q champions whose success can be considered of the "comeback" variety by winning her first singles title since returning from shoulder after a nearly ten-month absence earlier this season. She might not quite be back to being the Supernova again, but for at least one week Sharapova showed she didn't HAVE to be dogged to her last days by a faulty serve that spelled her ultimate doom. Keeping her errors from becoming a stat that turns people's eyes into saucers (usually accompanied by a cringe and an audible "oooh" or "geez" for effect), she showed better stamina than in most of her previous post-shoulder surgery stops on the WTA schedule... and, in the end, even outlasted an injured Jelena Jankovic (who retired with a wrist injury, one of many ailments for her at the moment) after completing seven games in the final.

Still three months away, Melbourne is already buzz-worthy. Serena loves it there. It loves Kim. Justine will have something to prove. And now maybe Maria will be ready to re-join the crowded hunt for a slam. Wow, talk about an embarrassment of riches. Hmmm, I wonder how the naysayers will denigrate the competition this time around?

Oh, and did someone say "Dokic?"

Well, you guessed it. Proving again that this comeback bug is contagious (or, considering how she's dropped off the radar since the Australian Open, maybe her's is a case of "coming back from a comeback"), Dokic won a title this weekend, too.

Maybe that officially ends this particular cycle of the WTA season? I guess we'll find out in Beijing.


TOKYO, JAPAN (Premier+ $2m/hard outdoor/indoor)
S: Maria Sharapova def. Jelena Jankovic 5-2, ret.
D: Kleybanova/Schiavone d. Hantuchova/Sugiyama

for a large part of this year, it was easy to wonder whether Sharapova's shoulder surgery and subsequent serving difficulties might forever alter her career. Umm, hold on. That still might happen, but last week in Tokyo was a good sign that this, too, will probably pass. With her first title since Amelia Island in April of last year, and wins over Francesca Schiavone, Samantha Stosur (she was one point away from a double-bagel), Alisa Kleybanova, Iveta Benesova and Agnieszka Radwanska before Jankovic couldn't make it through the final, Sharapova's name is back in the conversation. And not only in a wistful way, either.
RISERS: Jelena Jankovic/SRB & Alisa Kleybanova/RUS
yeah, by the end of the week, JJ was a walking medical oddity with so many ailments that it was hard to tell which was bad enough to put her out of the final. But, on balance, Tokyo was a good step for a player whose 4Q success likely can't help but pale in comparison to her exploits of a year ago and will likely lead to a further drop in the rankings for 2008's year-end #1. Oh, well. Wins over Sabine Lisicki, Marion Bartoli and Li Na (Elena Vesnina retired from her match with her) had to make the Orbit gum smile ambassador grin both inside and out. And that's good news for tennis (even if the deliciously Jankovician feat of her tying for the tour lead in '09 titles, in spite of her very trying season, didn't come off in the Tokyo final) . Meanwhile, Kleybanova knocked off Vera Zvonareva and took Sharapova to three sets in singles, then went out and claimed her third doubles title of '09 with a third different partner (this time it was Francesca Schiavone).
SURPRISES: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL & Ji Chun-Mei/CHN
yeah, a good result from A-Rad isn't really a "surprise." But, the fact is that her SF result this weekend in Tokyo was Radwanska's FIRST such result this entire season. She notched wins over Ekaterina Makarova, Daniela Hantuchova, Andrea Petkovic and Magdalena Rybarikova before falling to Sharapova in three sets. Ji qualified for this week's tournament in Beijing, getting wins over Angela Haynes and Sania Mirza. She's already lost to Lucie Safarova in the 1st Round.
VETERAN: Ai Sugiyama/JPN
for a while, it looked like Sugiyama's farewell tournament was going to provide her with a celebratory going-away title when she Daniela Hantuchova reached the doubles final against Kleybanova/Schiavone. Well, recent tour events notwithstanding, fairy tales don't always come true. Still, a RU was surely a better send-off than her 1st Round singles retirement against Nadia Petrova would have been.
FRESH FACES: Chang Kai-Chen/TPE & Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK
Tokyo qualifier Chang continued her string of good results last week with a monumental upset of world #1 Dinara Safina in a tight three-setter in the 2nd Round. Ranked #132, Chang's the lowest ranked woman to knock off the reigning #1 in 2009. Also in Tokyo, Rybarikova proved she could play on the bigger stages, too, reaching the QF with impressive wins over Urszula Radwanska, Nadia Petrova and Aleksandra Wozniak.
DOWN: Dinara Safina/RUS
the #1 ranking is slowly but surely slipping away. Justine Henin is coming back. Jelena Jankovic won't be heading to Mexico this offseason. Serena will have something to prove (again) in '10. Maria Sharapova just won a title. Ummm, did Safina just blow the season that likely held her best chance to win a slam crown? Of course, she wasn't the only top seed to go one-and-out in Japan last week. Venus, Vera, Punch-Sober, C-Woz and the Contessova did the same after receiving 1st Round byes.
ITF PLAYER: Jelena Dokic/AUS
talk about a pleasant surprise. Just when you thought all the comeback scenarios had been played out this 4Q, Dokic up and wins a $100K Challenger in Athens after having lost in back-to-back 2nd Round matches in two other recent $100K events. This is actually Dokic's biggest title since 2002, when she won her most recent tour level crown in Birmingham. In Greece, she got five consecutive straight sets wins over Kirsten Flipkens (who knocked Dokic out of the 1st Round of the U.S. Open in August), Evgeniya Rodina, Angelique Kerber, Kristina Kucova and, in the final, home crowd favorite Eleni Daniilidou.
the top-seeded teen won the Perin Memorial G1 title in Umag, Croatia by outlasting #2-seed Sophia Kovalets (UKR) 7-5/4-1 in the final. Also of note in the tournament, Agnes Szavay's sister Blanka won the doubles title with fellow Hungarian Vaszilisza Bulgakova.

1. Tokyo 2nd Rd - Chang d. Safina
Dinara isn't even waiting until the eleventh hour to bail out anymore. [LATE NOTE: Safina did it again, losing in the Beijing 2nd Round to wild card Zhang Shuai, world #226, today... hmmm, isn't this sort of string of losses about where AnaIvo began her descent last season?]
2. Tokyo 1st Rd - Wozniak d. Date-Krumm
Kimiko didn't get the same result she had in Seoul, but she showed admirable fight in her first "match after" when she could have been forgiven for being satisfied with her recent accomplishments and just showed up to honor her commitment to her home nation's tournament.
3. Beijing Q1 - Sun Sheng-Nan d. Larcher de Brito
Does a teen from Portugal still make a sound if she loses early enough that most people don't realize that she was ever around in the first place?
4. Beijing Q1 - Glatch d. Oudin
Maybe Melanie needs to face a Russian. These American opponents just aren't cooperating as well.
5. Tokyo 1st Rd - Petrova d. Sugiyama
...6-0/2-1 ret.
Thankfully, it didn't end this way.
6. Tokyo SF - Sharapova d. A.Radwanska
Maria seems to finally be past that case of the A-Rad yips she contracted at the Open a few years ago.
7. Tokyo 2nd Rd - Pavlyuchenkova d. V.Williams
Hey, this is the matchup I had in the "What If?" version of the 2015 Wimbledon Ladies final. They'll meet again in the 2nd Round in Beijing. [LATE NOTE: Pavlyuchenkova won the rematch today in three sets... but, hey, Venus still has six years to master her newest Russian foe, right?]
8. Tokyo Final - Sharapova d. Jankovic
...5-2 ret.
Sharapova is the first Russian to hit the twenty title milestone. Too bad things turned as out anticlimactic as they did. Even Maria seemed a bit disappointed when Jankovic wasn't able to finish... and, therefore, allow Sharapova to prove she could finally play out a full tournament without having her serve implode.
9. Beijing 1st Rd - A.Bondarenko d. A.Szavay
This is the second 6-3/6-0 1st Round loss by Szavay over the past two weeks. She went out with a bagel in one of her pre-U.S. Open losses, too. I thought we were past all this. Apparently not.
10. Beijing 1st Rd - Martinez-Sanchez d. Wozniacki
Is the long season finally catching up with C-Woz? She retired against A-Woz in Tokyo, then went out rather meekly in the end in Beijing against MJMS.

8...Dinara Safina (3-5)
4...Elena Dementieva (3-1)
3...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-1)
2...Vera Zvonareva (2-0)
2...Elena Vesnina (0-2)
2...Ekaterina Makarova (0-2)
1...Vera Dushevina (1-0)
1...Maria Kirilenko (0-1)

20...MARIA SHARAPOVA (2003-09, 1 in '09)
14...Elena Dementieva (2003-09, 3 in '09)
12...Dinara Safina (2002-09, 3 in '09)
11...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2002-09, 2 in '09)
10...Anastasia Myskina (1999-05)

41...Justine Henin, BEL
41...Venus Williams, USA
35...Kim Clijsters, BEL
34...Serena Williams, USA
25...Amelie Mauresmo, FRA

[extended with '09 titles]
7 years - MARIA SHARAPOVA, 2003-09
6 years - Anabel Medina-Garrigues, 2004-09
4 years - Elena Dementieva, 2006-09
3 years - Jelena Jankovic, 2007-09
3 years - Flavia Pennetta, 2007-09
3 years - Dinara Safina, 2007-09
3 years - Serena Williams, 2007-09
3 years - Venus Williams, 2007-09

#226 - ZHANG SHUAI/CHN - def. #1 SAFINA, Beijing 2nd Rd. (OCTOBER)
#132 - CHANG KAI-CHEN/TPE - def. #1 SAFINA, Tokyo 2nd Rd. (SEPTEMBER)
#95 - Klara Zakopalova/CZE - def. #1 S.Williams, Marbella 1st Rd. (April)
#52 - Petra Kvitova/CZE - def. #1 Safina, U.S. Open 3rd Rd. (September)
#47 - Tamanrine Tanasugarn/THA - def. #1 Safina, Eastbourne SF (June)
#39 - Aravane Rezai/FRA - def. #1 Safina, Toronto 2nd Rd. (August)

1. Shahar Peer/ISR: she was the only comeback story to strike twice.
2. Maria Sharapova/RUS: throw HER into the mix, too, in 2010 and you've got the beginnings of a mouth-watering year.
3. Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN: hey, what's a dozen years, anyway?
4. Olga Govortsova/Tathiana Poutchek (BLR/BLR): double Doubles winners in September.
5. Melinda Czink/HUN: the only post-U.S. Open champ who didn't have a "comeback" story attached to her first career title.
HM- Jelena Jankovic/SRB: it says something about the prospects for '10 that a full-season return to form from Queen Chaos might actually get lost in the shuffle of all the other stories.

RISER: Alisa Kleybanova/RUS
...a dual threat in singles and doubles.
SURPRISE: Melinda Czink/HUN
...I guess the tour just isn't big enough for TWO Hungarians to be successful at the same time. Just as Czink has risen to new heights, Agnes Szavay has suddenly fallen to old lows again.
VETERAN: Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN
...she actually "apologized" for being "untruthful" about how big her comeback might eventually become when she returned a year ago. Brilliant!
...her mini U.S. Open breakout performance apparently wasn't a fluke.
DOWN: Dinara Safina/RUS
...maybe once the #1 ranking goes away she won't feel so much pressure?
COMEBACK: Alicia Molik/AUS there anyone else out there left who's decided she may have shortchanged her career? Martina, maybe? Hingis... or, gulp, maybe even Navratilova?
JUNIOR STAR: Irina Khromacheva/RUS
...the Hordette Machine keeps churning them out.

1. Petra Martic, CRO
2. Karolina Sprem, CRO
3. Arantxa Parra-Santonja, ESP
4. Reka-Luca Jani, HUN
5. Mailen Auroux, ARG
HM- Alicia Molik, AUS & Jelena Dokic, AUS

TOP PERFORMANCE: Date Steals the Day
....Kimiko Date-Krumm wins Seoul one day before she turns 39, making her the second-oldest tour singles champ in the Open era (and easily the player with the most years -- thirteen -- between WTA tournament titles).
MATCH/COMEBACK: Seoul 2nd Rd. - Date-Krumm d. Kleybanova 4-6/7-6/6-3
...Kleybanova led 6-4/5-2, and held a match point at 5-3.
UPSET: Tokyo 2nd Rd. - Chang d. Safina 7-6/4-6/7-5 matter how good the teenager turns out to be, the world #1 shouldn't lose to #132.

Alicia Molik wins the Darwin $25K Challenger one year after she retired from singles with an elbow injury
Shahar Peer wins Guangzhou for her first title since 2006, then wins another one week later in Tashkent
Jelena Dokic wins the $100K Challenger in Athens, her biggest title in seven years
Maria Sharapova takes Tokyo for her first post-shoulder surgery championship
Justine Henin rediscovers her "fire," announces a full-fledged comeback for 2010

BEIJING, CHINA (Premier+ $4.5m/hard court outdoor)
08 Final: Jankovic d. Kuznetsova
09 Top Seeds: Safina/S.Williams

Pennetta d. Dementieva
V.Williams d. Sharapova
Pennetta d. V.Williams's been difficult to pick champions this 4Q, what with the "comeback aura" wafting through the air (said the Backspinner who's 0-for-5). Of course, if I'd only followed my stated train of thought in this space last week I'd have gotten the Sharapova in Tokyo pick correct. Anyway, I'm going with a champion I might not normally pick, seeing as Pennetta has always been a puzzle when it comes to predictions (for me, anyway). At first glance, there isn't really a great "comeback" story here, but maybe the string COULD continue if, say, someone like Nadia Petrova won. Or maybe even Serena? Now, there's a thought. Of course, I'm not going with it (again).

All for now.

THIS WEEK: The "Top 25 Players of the Decade" series, #21-25


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