Monday, October 19, 2009

Wk.41- The Road to Osaka

Remember the old "Road..." pictures that starred Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour? (Yeah, yeah. I know. Just go along with me here for a moment.)

Anyway, as Samantha Stosur moved into the singles final in Osaka this weekend, if the tournament was one of those "Road..." movies, and if history was to hold to form once again, the moment where the camel spits in Slingin' Sammy's eye was about to arrive.

(Dear readers, I know what you're thinking. What the heck was a camel doing in Osaka? Well, trust me, it's better to just not ask. You turn over one rock, you know, and you never know what's going to come out.)

Only this is, it didn't. Which says a great deal about the domestication of camels in Japan, as well as Stosur's long road to get to her long-awaited triumph in Osaka, which ended up playing host to her first-ever career tour singles title when she knocked off Francesca Schiavone 7-5/6-1 in the final.

You see, a few years ago Stosur could have settled down into a nice groove and accepted a not-unlucky fate. Heading into her mid-twenties she seemed to have the game for singles success, but it hadn't really come her way. Still, she was one of the best doubles players in the world. Like fellow Aussie Rennae Stubbs before her, she could have taken that role and run with it into her mid-to-late thirties. After all, she'd already become the #1-ranked doubles player in the world in 2006, while her career singles high was a good-but-not-great #27.

Then came 2007.

A viral illness cost her nearly half the season, helped to end her sixty-one straight-week run atop the doubles rankings, and one wonders whether her time away from the court might also have caused her to reasses her career priorities. For, when she returned, Stosur decided it was time to take a larger interest in her singles before time and opportunity got away from her.

(Sometimes when you turn over a rock, you find a gold coin... or maybe a fossil. Sometimes you even see a juicy bug-eyed bug -- yeah, I know that's redundant -- go scurrying for cover. Of course, I suppose it depends on your point of view whether or not a newly-discovered wiggly-wiggly is a GOOD thing.)

Of course, no good thing comes easy.

(Insert own Barack Obama/Nobel Peace Prize joke here.)

Stosur, Singles Star, has often had a hard time overcoming herself over the past season and a half. In Tokyo last year, she couldn't convert three set points against Aleksandra Wozniak and lost. In Los Angeles, she blew a 5-1 2nd set lead and four set ponts against Victoria Azarenka. At Wimbledon, Stosur led 3-6/6-0/3-0 with points for 4-0 against Nicole Vaidisova, but her nerves produced enough errors to allow the Czech back into the match and escape with a win. Things didn't start off so well in 2009, either. In Sydney, Stosur tossed in double-faults on multiple match points against Serena Williams and lost. Then at the Australian Open, she served at 5-3 in the 1st set against Elena Dementieva. The Russian won 7-6/6-4.

(Now, that's what I call a hump... I mean, bump... in the road. Get it? Hump. Camel? Oh, well.

But somewhere along the path that ultimately led to Osaka, Stosur learned the ways of the road. Confidence is a funny thing.

In Fed Cup play, Stosur came back from a set and 5-2 down against Tamarine Tanasugarn, winning eleven straight games to take the match. Then, a year after her loss to Vaidisova there, she went to Wimbledon and defeated Tatjana Malek after trailing 6-4 and a break, then 3-0 in a 2nd set tie-break and 3-0 in the 3rd. Nestled around those matches were wins over both of the players in contention for 2009's year-end #1, Dinara Safina (Miami) and Serena (Stanford). She reached the Top 20 for the first time after Roland Garros, and still managed to back up her longtime doubles credentials by reaching the Wimbledon Doubles final (with Stubbs).

But after reaching and losing the Los Angeles final, there was reason to wonder whether or not Stosur would ever surpass her final singles hurdle. She came to Osaka with a less-than-sterling 0-5 record in tour finals.

(Bazinga! That's where the camel metaphor comes in! See, the road was almost as long as the one to Osaka... but it was worth it. Well, maybe. Kind of.)

The sixth final turned out to be the charm for Stosur, just as the ninth one had been for Schiavone back in 2007. 2009 was supposed to be the year that Stosur finally burst through the WTA singles title door and, with time dwindling before another long trophy-less offseason, Osaka proved to be the ideal destination. "It's the perfect way to finish my year in singles," the Aussie, at a new career singles high of #13 today, said Sunday. "My next goal is to reach the Top 10, for which I would need to play like today, every day."

Who says you can't have it all?

(What the- ? Hey, what happened, Francesca? Oh. How 'bout that. Bad camel. Would you like a towel, or maybe some popcorn?)


LINZ, AUSTRIA (Int'l $220K/hard court indoor)
S: Yanina Wickmayer def. Petra Kvitova 6-3/6-4
D: Groenefeld/Srebotnik d. Jans/Rosolska

OSAKA, JAPAN (Int'l $220K/hard court outdoor)
S: Samantha Stosur def. Francesca Schiavone 7-5/6-1
D: Chuang/Raymond d. Scheepers/Spears

Stosur's road THROUGH Osaka included wins over soon-to-be-retiring Akiko Morigami, Jill Craybas, Caroline Wozniacki and Francesca Schiavone. All in all, excluding C-Woz, a pretty veteran-laden path. Hmmm, could Melbourne soon be the host of a grand slam "Sheila party" that includes Sam, Jelena, Alicia AND Casey coming home with legitimate prospects and/or good memories?
RISERS: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL & Petra Kvitova/CZE
two days before her 20th birthday, Wickmayer showed those people who'd never heard of her when she reached the U.S. Open semifinals that she's not a one-tournament wonder. Linz wins over Timea Bacsinszky, Alexandra Dulgheru, Sara Errani, Flavia Pennetta and Petra Kvitova gave her her second title of the season and moved her into the Top 20 for the first time in her career. Wow, could there be THREE Belgians in the Top 10/15 next season? Meanwhile, Kvitova's quest for her own second title of '09 came to an when she faced Wickmayer. Still, victories over Andrea Petkovic, Iveta Benesova, Carla Suarez-Navarro and Agnieszka Radwanska still provided a nice late-season result (it was her first SF-or-better result since she won Hobart in January) that will send her into the offseason with a good feeling, plus a desire for more.
Mirza seems to have settled her life, tennis and self, or maybe just quieted some of her critics with her recent marriage (which might have the same effect on her tennis mindset? Whatever the reason behind it, the Indian Princess has quietly put together a fine under-the-radar comeback. Remember, she hasn't won a WTA singles title since 2005, and earlier this year had dropped out of the Top 100. But 2009 has seen her reach a final in Pattaya, two SF (in Birmingham, then last week in Osaka after she upset Shahar Peer & Marion Bartoli), win an $50K ITF challenger, claim two doubles titles and her first slam crown (Australian Open Mixed Doubles). She's working her way back up the rankings, and all those billions of Sania fans can finally get excited again (just not TOO excited, I guess... since we know all the unfortunate things that happened the last time).
VETERANS: Lisa Raymond/USA & Katarina Srebotnik/SLO
the comeback theme continued in doubles last week. Raymond, one of the all-time great doubles players (and still waiting to see her name appear on the Backspin "Top 25 Players of the Decade" list), won the Osaka doubles with Chuang Chia-Jung this weekend. It was her first title since taking New Haven last season with Nadia Petrova, and moved the former doubles #1 back into the Top 20. She's now tied for eighth on the all-time doubles title list with 68 tour championships, and at 36 is the oldest doubles champ on tour in '09. Of note, Chuang has seemingly been a doubles drifter this year, with her long-time partnership with Chan Yung-Jan apparently kaput. Maybe Chuang/Raymond will allow both players to become regular names-to-drop again. Meanwhile, Katarina Srebotnik's bumpy, longer-than-expected road back from injury finally produced its first title in Linz as the Slovenian and Anna-Lena Groenefeld won the doubles. It was her first tour title since taking the Moscow doubles at this time last year. Interestingly, these two are slated to play each other in singles in the 1st Round in Luxembourg this week.
FRESH FACES: Lyudmyla & Nadiya Kichenok/UKR

oh, my. It's another pair of sisters. And this time... they're Ukrainian twins (both born on July 20, 1992). In the $10K ITF challenger in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the sisters met in the final to decide the singles champion. 17-year old Lyudmyla defeated 17-year old Nadiya 6-7/6-3/6-2. But, more "importantly," WE have another couple of siblings to talk about.
DOWN: Sorana Cirstea/ROU
Cirstea lost in the 1st Round in Linz to Julia Goerges, three-and-three. While super-talented, the Romanian seems to be getting used to these early exits, though. This was her fifth straight loss going back to when she was defeated by best friend Wozniacki at the U.S. Open, losing in Seoul (Groenefeld), Tokyo (Bartoli, three-and-love) and Beijing (Zvonareva, one-and-two) before last week. She next faces fellow Swarmette Monica Niculescu in Moscow.
ITF PLAYER: Sofia Arvidsson/SWE
Sweden's Arvidsson won the $50K hard court challenger in Joue-les-tours, France, preventing Jelena Dokic from winning back-to-back ITF events by taking down the Aussie in a 6-2/7-6 final. It's her second ITF title this season, and sixteenth of her career (she has one WTA crown).
JUNIOR STAR: Eugenie Brouchard/CAN
the 15-year old Montreal native, the #76-ranked junior in the world, won the Pan-American Closed ITF Championship event in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She defeated Ester Goldfeld 6-7/6-3/7-6 in the final... but maybe her most impressive accomplishment might be her official ITF site bio. There, under her "interests," she simply lists sleeping, eating, shopping and reading. Obviously, she's a well-rounded woman.

1. Osaka SF - Stosur d. Wozniacki
C-Woz had won twelve straight semifinal matches (and is now 8-1 on the season).
2. Osaka Final - Stosur d. Schiavone
Schiavone is 1-11 in career WTA singles finals. Meanwhile, Australia is now the nineteenth different nation to produce a tour singles champion in '09.
3. Osaka Doubles Final - Chuang/Raymond d. Scheepers/Spears
This was Chuang's thirteenth career doubles title, and her third with three different partners this season.
4. Linz Final - Wickmayer d. Kvitova
Yes, that sound you heard on Sunday WAS Pam Shriver's head popping off. Maybe Yanina can hang it from her rear view mirror (although I'm not sure the laws of the road in Belgium will allow that sort of thing... but maybe the authorities will make an exception).
5. $25K Port Pirie Final - Sacha Jones d. Alicia Molik
These two are having quite the round robin of matches Down Under this fall. Again, though, the 18-year old Kiwi emerged with yet another '09 title (her fourth).
6. Osaka 1st Rd. - Craybas d. Date-Krumm
Craybas just keeps going and going and going, never seeing the need to have to retire and then return to the court.
7. Luxembourg Q - Robson d. Goerges
This might be Robson's best win as a pro. Alas, she lost in the final qualifying round to Maria Elena Camerin today.
8. $10K Cleveland Final - Jamie Hampton d. Kyle S. McPhillips
In a matchup of two American teens, 19-year old Hampton (who also won the doubles) eclipsed 15-year old McPhillips. And, no, I've never heard of a girl named "Kyle," either.

**2009 WTA FINALS**
8...Dinara Safina (3-5)
8...Caroline Wozniacki (3-5)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (3-1)
4...Elena Dementieva (3-1)
4...Venus Williams (2-2)
3...Victoria Azarenka (3-0)
3...Serena Williams (2-1)
3...Flavia Pennetta (2-1)
3...Marion Bartoli (2-1)
3...Jelena Jankovic (2-1)

RECENT TOTALS: 2006=11, 2007=13, 2008=6, 2009=12
26...Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP (#66, Bogota)
26...Melinda Czink, HUN (#52, Quebec City)
25...SAMANTHA STOSUR, AUS (#15, Osaka)
18...Petra Kvitova, CZE (#49, Hobart)

4...Caroline Wozniacki (grass/green clay/red clay/hard)
3...Venus Williams (grass/hard/red clay)

Miami - Victoria Azarenka (def. S.Williams/Final)
Quebec City - Melinda Czink (def. Petrova/QF)
Seoul - Kimiko Date-Krumm (def. Hantuchova/QF & Kirilenko/SF)

Sara Errani, ITA (0-2)
Lucie Hradecka, CZE (0-2)
Li Na, CHN (0-2)
Ekaterina Makarova, RUS (0-2)
Virginie Razzano, FRA (0-2)
Elena Vesnina, RUS (0-2)

3...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (youngest: Ponte Vedra Beach, April)
3...Victoria Azarenka, BLR
1...Alexandra Dulgheru, ROU
1...Petra Kvitova, CZE
1...Sabine Lisicki, GER

Anabel Medina-Garrigues (#1 seed) - Fes - def. Makarova
Yanina Wickmayer - 's-Hertogenbosch - lost to Tanasugarn
Patty Schnyder (#1 seed) - Budapest - lost to Szavay
Kim Clijsters - U.S. Open - def. Wozniacki
YANINA WICKMAYER (#3 SEED) - LINZ - def. Kvitova

177...Martina Navratilova
112...Rosie Casals
106...Pam Shriver
101...Billie Jean King
80...Natasha Zvereva
76...Jana Novotna
69...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
68...Gigi Fernandez
68...Helena Sukova

33 - Ai Sugiyama, JPN (Eastbourne w/ Amanmuradova)
32 - Liezel Huber, USA (Paris/Dubai/Madrid/Birmingham/Cincinnati w/ Black)

[most recent title]
Sybille Bammer, AUT [2009=1]
Sara Errani, ITA [2008]
Tatiana Golovin, FRA [2007]
Anne Kremer, LUX [2000]
Li Na, CHN [2008]
Nuria Llagostera-Vives, ESP [2008]
Mirjana Lucic, CRO [1998]
Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP [2009=2]
Pauline Parmentier, FRA [2008]
Virginie Razzano, FRA [2007]
Roberta Vinci, ITA [2009=1]
Klara Zakopalova, CZE [2005]

GOLD: won title in '09
Victoria Azarenka, BLR
Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
Karin Knapp, ITA
Mariya Koryttseva, UKR
Petra Kvitova, CZE
Sabine Lisicki, GER
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS
Peng Shuai, CHN
Samantha Stosur, AUS
Yanina Wickmayer, BEL

MOSCOW, RUSSIA (Premier $1m/hard indoor)
08 Final: Jankovic d. Zvonareva
09 Top Seeds: Zvonareva/Jankovic

Petrova d. Wozniak
Jankovic d. Pennetta
Petrova d. Jankovic, remember when the Kremlin Cup was a REALLY big tournament? The new WTA schedule has really knocked it down a few pegs. Umm, happy 20th anniversary. (But, hey, at least the event still exists, which is more than can be said for some other previously "important" get-togethers.) Oh, well. What a great result this would be for Nadia. Yep, after all else has failed this quarter, I'm now reduced to predicting "heartwarming" results.

LUXEMBOURG, LUXEMBOURG (Int'l $220K/hard indoor)
08 Final: Dementieva d. Wozniacki
09 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Clijsters

Wozniacki d. Wickmayer
Clijsters d. Peer
Clijsters d. Wozniacki

...this one has a decided U.S. Open feel (New York/New York, Luxembourg/Luxembourg... coincidence?), wouldn't you say? There's the chance for a repeat of three of the four Open semifinalists, as well as both finalists. Wozniacki even has the chance to take down Melanie Oudin again, only this time it's in the 1st Round rather than the QF (and the American hasn't exactly been riding nearly as high as she was in Flushing Meadows, either). Unless C-Woz is finally ready to play through a full five matches here, it's hard to see anyone but Clijsters winning the title. Of course, this WILL be her first tournament in more than a month, not to mention she's now EXPECTED to win. Let's see if KC-2 continues its forward motion.

All for now, as I have a ticked-off camel to water.

NEXT: The "Top 25 Players of the Decade - #11-15" and 2009 Regional Honors


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