Monday, November 02, 2009

Wk.43- Simply Another Pleat in Her Cape

Serena Williams has a way of making major accomplishments seem minor (and, no, I'm not talking about what she thinks about Dinara Safina's titles in Rome and Madrid).

For any other player, winning a Season-Ending Championship title would be a bejeweled tiara surely featured as a showpiece in a career collection. But for Serena, her Doha victory (after a 5-0 week that saw her defeat her sister Venus twice, once coming back from match point to do it) is more like a sparkly bauble picked up on a spur-of-the-moment shopping spree, admired at the moment of purchase but soon tucked into a rarely-explored corner of a packed-to-the-gills jewelry box.

Isn't it pretty? Now, when's the next fancy-catching moment set to arrive?

Ultimately, the most important thing about Williams' title run in Doha is that it included yet another crash landing by former #1 Dinara Safina, one that propelled Serena into the year-end #1 ranking (for the just the second time in her career, and the first since three-quarters of the way into "Serena Slam" in 2002) and shut down any possibility for lingering discussions about what's "wrong" with the WTA tour as the #1 player really isn't perceived as being the #1 player. It all worked out in the end.

Now, the runway is clear to talk about the 2010 season possibly featuring the most crowded, competitive upper-echelon women's tennis since, well, maybe ever. If everyone can stay healthy, and as the long line out the trainer's office door in Doha showed, that's a BIG "if," next season might be one for the history books when it comes to a perfect storm of all-time greats, longstanding legacies, attempts to reclaim past glory and breakthroughs from intriguing new faces all coming together at just the right time to make the chatter about any perceived "lack of quality" a distant memory.

All in all, I suppose this was the appropriate end to the 2000's for Williams. After all, after a decade in which she gave birth to a "Serena Slam" (far more impressive than, say, giving birth and THEN winning a slam, for instance), she couldn't rightly go out with a loss, now could she?

I mean, if she'd done that, she might have wanted to stuff a tennis ball down... well, you know.


S: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams 6-2/7-6
D: Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez d. Black/Huber 7-6/5-7/10-7

hmmm, two grand slam singles titles. Three grand slam doubles titles. A SEC crown. The year-end #1 ranking. Is THAT enough to become a two-time "Ms. Backspin" winner? Ummm, well, if your name is Serena Williams, I don't think so. Being Serena, expectations are a b-i-t-c-you know what. With anyone else, including her sister, a 2009 season like that would be a lock-it-up Player of the Year situation. It usually would be in this space, too. But if some people (though I wasn't one of them) didn't see fit to award Amelie Mauresmo as POY when she won two slams in 2006 (many tapped Justine Henin, who'd won one and reached the finals of all four), then how can Serena be a sure thing? A title or two at any of the "lesser" stops on the tour, just to balance out the season of the tour's most talented player, would have set things in cement, but the lack of such a thing left open the door just enough that either the Italian or American Fed Cup team will smash it down with one collective shoulder this weekend. Oh, well. With Justine and Maria and Co. all back at full strength in 2010, Serena might actually be able to earn her Ms.B props with just ONE slam title next time around. Sometimes, it's funny how things work out.
RISER: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN

AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth
just call her Princess Charming with the heart of a lion. Wozniacki didn't win the SEC this weekend, but she was the most impressive player there all week long. Coming in with a hamstring injury at the end of a very long (and hopefully the last of it's kind when it comes to her future schedules) season, having to answer pointless questions about that Luxembourg retirement, and being forced to play in the excessive desert heat that managed to wilt several other competitors, C-Woz gave it her all, and then some. Of course, the image that'll be ingrained in everyone's mind will be the sight of a severely cramping Wozniacki crumpling to the court in the final game, up 5-4 30/30, of her Round Robin match against Vera Zvonareva. There she was, flopping around like a carp at the bottom of a boat as she cried and wondered if she was going to have to be carried off the court. Out of injury timeouts, she managed to climb to her feet and win the final few points of the game to take the match, walking to the net while sobbing and fighting off yet another full-body attack of cramps. If this was a grand slam, it would have been an indelible moment etched forever in tennis history. But being that it was the SEC, a big event that still is traditionally mostly ignored by the masses, it'll have to serve a a prelude to whatever comes next for C-Woz. Thing is, that moment was just one of many for Wozniacki in Doha that speaks volumes about what she's capable of achieving if she can just guard against wearing herself out and develop her second serve into something less cotton-candified than its current state. In her first RR match, she overcame a match point to defeat Victoria Azarenka in a 2:58 match. Against Zvonareva, she wasn't derailed by blowing a 6-0/5-2 lead with two match points (one of which she won, only to see it overturned via replay), then won the final three games while violently cramping despite having fallen behind 4-3 in that 3rd set. C-Woz pretty much ran out of gas after that, losing in straight sets to Jelena Jankovic and retiring in the 2nd set of the SF against Serena. But after reaching her second major SF, and currently finding herself at #4 in the rankings, the Princess of Charm showed in Doha that she has a bit of "Princess of Harm" in her, too. And that's something from which a real champion can be born.
SURPRISE: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
A-Rad wasn't even supposed to play in the SEC. As the second-alternate, she seemed to have simply received an end-of-season trip to the desert. But when both Dinara Safina and her replacement, Vera Zvonareva, fell away with injuries, Radwanska was called upon to play the final Round Robin match of the tournament against Victoria Azarenka. The Belarusian needed a victory to advance to the SF ahead of Wozniacki, and led the match 6-4/5-2. But when Azarenka was struck in her season's last appearance in a major event with heat-related difficulties, just as she had been in her first in Melbourne in January, everything turned around. After winning the 2nd set 7-5, then racing to a 4-1 3rd set lead, A-Rad saw Azarenka retire due to cramping, sending C-Woz to the semis and stuffing an extra $100,000 into the Pole's pocket, as well. The same thing happened to Radwanska a year ago, when Ana Ivanovic's virus-related exit allowed alternate A-Rad to play a single SEC match. She won it, too, defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova.
VETERANS: Nuria Llagostera-Vives/Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP & Rossana de los Rios/PAR
even though they've had a fine season, it's probably safe to say that Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez was the least talked-about/well-known of the four teams that qualified for the SEC Doubles championship semifinals. The #3-seeded Spanish vets never got a shot at #4 Sam Stosur/Rennae Stubbs, but they DID knock out the top two pairs en route to the title. Wins over both the #2-seeded Williams Sisters in the SF and #1-seeded Black/Huber in the final came via the super tie-breaker format in the 3rd set, in 10-8 and 10-7 victories, respectively. The all-Spanish team's seven '09 titles are the most on tour this season. In the $25K Bayamon challenger, Paraguay's de los Rios won her thirteenth career ITF singles title (and second of '09) with a straight sets victory over Mirjana Lucic in the final. In order to get into the deciding match, 34-year old DLR notched wins over four teenagers: Madison Keys (14), Ajla Tomljanovic (16), Julia Glushko (19) and Alison Riske (19). So, DLR must feel good today... even if she might feel something akin to having taken candy from a successive string of babies.
FRESH FACES: Lyudmyla Kichenok/UKR & Chanel Simmonds/RSA
last time out, Lyudmyla Kichenok was defeating her twin sister Nadiya in the final of a challenger back home in Ukraine. This weekend in a $10K in Stockholm, the 17-year old was avenging her sister's loss to Emma Laine (the Fin defeated Nadiya in the QF) in the SF, then winning her second of back-to-back titles with a victory over 18-year old Hordette Marta Sirotkina in the final. Of course, being a good sister, Lyudmyla didn't let Nadiya leave Stockholm empty-handed, as they also paired to claim the doubles title. Meanwhile, South Africa's Chanel Simmonds, 17, won her first career pro title with a 6-1/6-0 victory over Davinia Lobbinger in the final of the $10K Pretoria event. Simmonds, a Girls quarterfinalist at Roland Garros earlier this season, had been 0-3 in her previous ITF challenger finals.
DOWN: Dinara Safina/RUS & Victoria Azarenka/BLR
Safina's horrendous final quarter came to a merciful, crashing halt in Doha when she retired with a back injury in the third game of her opening SEC match against Jelena Jankovic. Safina said she's been having difficulties with the injury for months, which might explain some of her most recent eye-popping upsets at the hands of triple-digit ranked players. After a season that saw her spend the majority of time ranked #1, yet be forced to bear the brunt of a torrent of criticism about her "unearned" spot atop the game and her inability to show in the latter stages of slams, this was somehow a sad-but-fitting end to what probably should have been her career-best year but will instead go down as a disappointment that she may never fully distance herself from now that the WTA's slam-seeking ranks are about to be re-infused with a few additional big-time title-grabbers starting in a few months. After at first questioning whether her back would even allow her to play in Melbourne next year, Safina has since said she'll be playing in Brisbane in Week 1. Of course, Serena said she was going to be playing in Fed Cup, too... so take it with a grain of salt. Elsewhere in Doha, Azarenka's shortcomings were maybe put on grand display like no other's during the past week. The talent and drive are there, for sure, but something essential is missing that will prevent her from joining the "elite" of the tour unless she corrects the problem. Just comparing her to Wozniacki in Doha is fairly enlightening. They played each other in the fourth match, and Azarenka held a match point, but the cramping Dane managed to push through her injury and win the match while Azarenka's hopes dissolved into another racket-smashing tantrum when things got tough. Thing is, you can see these outbursts coming, yet she seems incapable of stopping them from blossoming into reality. Sure, the prep time is as short as a tsunami warning, but Azarenka needs to learn how to get to high ground before it's too late. Against C-Woz, Azarenka served for the match at 5-3 in the 3rd, and held a match point at 5-4. She didn't convert. At 5-5, with her recent failure still fresh in her mind, a couple of poor groundstrokes and a missed overhead sounded the alarm. Viewing the match, I said, "Watch out, here it comes." One point later, Azarenka angrily shot a ball into the stands. Then she smashed her racket, producing a second code violation of the match (and, thanks to Serena, we know what that means), giving Wozniacki a point. Since it was on break point, the Dane went up 6-5 and soon served out the match at 7-5. In their next matches, a wildly cramping Wozniacki lost a 6-0/5-2 lead against Zvonareva, but managed to pull out the match. Azarenka, needing a win to reach the SF over Wozniacki, led Radwanska 6-4/5-2, but ended up blowing the lead and retiring with cramps down 4-1 in the 3rd. Azarenka might have the bigger game of the two, but Wozniacki has the steady heart and courage that give her the intangible edge right now. Unless Azarenka closes that gap, C-Woz will continue to be a rung ahead of her on the rankings ladder.
ITF PLAYER: Jelena Dokic/AUS
a week ago, Dokic reached the $50K final in Joue-Les-Tours, only to lose to Sofia Arvidsson. This weekend, she got a measure of instant revenge... X two. In the $100K Poitiers challenger, Dokic lost one set en route to yet another final (taking out the likes of Stephanie Foretz, Anastasia Rodionova, Lucie Hradecka and Alla Kudryavtseva), then defeated familiar foe Arvidsson 6-4/6-4 in the final. This is Dokic's second $100K challenger title of the season, and her ranking is up to #57. Come January, she'll arrive in Melbourne not needing a wild card to get into the Australian Open draw, and maybe with a nice dose of confidence and momentum. Even with all the other "welcome back" moments sure to spice up play at 2010's first slam, from Justine to Kim to Maria and so on, Dokic's return one year after her crowd-pleasing '09 story-of-the-tournament QF run might be the most intriguing. After seeing a drop-off in her post-Oz results, then an injury/illness-related absence, Dokic has rebounded rather well in the last third of this season. It could be the foundation upon which a truly resurgent '10 campaign is about to be built.
the 15-year old Chinese girl claimed both the singles and doubles titles at the LTAT Junior Championships, a Grade 2 event in Thailand, defeating 16-year old Brit Lucy Brown 4-6/7-6/6-0 in the final. "Lucy Brown"... hmmm, I wonder if Mack the Knife had a hand in her murderous 3rd set loss? Brown, for her part, might be another name to watch in the growing pool of young talent from Great Britain, as she defeated Japan's Miyabi Inoue earlier in the tournament. As for Tang, this victory gives her a perfect 36-0 singles record this year (she's won all seven tournaments she's played in Asia and Australia), as well as a 23-2 mark in doubles (4 titles, 2 runners-up).

1. SEC RR #7 - Wozniacki d. Zvonareva

Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad
A classic, and the sort of match that can define a player in a mind's eye forever. C-Woz led 6-0/5-2 and had two match points, then saw her day nearly go down the drain as full-body cramps left her flat on her back, a sobbing Danish mess just outside the service box. Still, she pulled herself together and staggered into the winner's circle. Of course, this situation might say as much about Zvonareva as it does Wozniacki. The Russian turned out to be the one who pulled out of the event after this match, citing her early-season knee injury... but one has to wonder if the trouble might have been complicated by an affliction a little higher up the body, as well.
2. SEC RR #6 - S.Williams d. V.Williams
Serena was up two breaks in the 3rd, but Venus turned the match around and even held a match point at 6-5. Serena saved it, then managed to win the fourteen-break match (it's only the second time in their 23-match series that one has come back from MP to win, the other being Serena doing it again in Bangalore last season). In the end, they were only one point apart on the stat sheet. Serena, of course, held the advantage.
3. SEC Final - S.Williams d. V.Williams
Venus, who advanced to the SF despite a 1-2 RR record, should be commended for even getting the chance to defend her '08 title. Going in, that didn't seem a very good bet.
4. SEC RR #4 - Wozniacki d. Azarenka
Talk about foreshadowing. Wozniacki cramps up, but wins. Azarenka holds match point, breaks a racket and loses. One exits 2009 after having seen the light, while the other is battling to stay one step ahead of her dark side. The yin/yang contrast between these two at this event made all that "good girl"/"bad girl" talk about them in this space earlier this season well worth it.
5. SEC RR #12 - A.Radwanska d. Azarenka
...4-6/7-5/4-1 ret.
Up a set and 5-2, then cramping and losing her second "in-the-bag" match of the Round Robin, Azarenka has some work to do this offseason in order to be better prepared for 2010. Just don't go to Mexico to train, Victoria!
6. SEC RR #5 - Jankovic d. Safina
...1-1 ret.
This result both assured Serena's ultimate return to #1 and played a large part in getting Jankovic into the SF. If Azarenka had defeated A-Rad, the Belarusian and JJ would have advanced to the semis from the White Group over Wozniacki, who'd come back from match point down and cramping to win two matches, but would have been left behind because Safina COULDN'T continue. That would have been a truly Jankovician development if there ever was one.
7. SEC RR #1 - Azarenka d. Jankovic
Things started out so well for Azarenka. Then again, she did win a title in Week 1 of this season, too. So, she has a track record.
8. SEC RR #2 - Dementieva d. V.Williams
Elena's participation in the SEC pretty much ended after this. She was outdistanced 24-11 in games in her final two matches.
9. SEC Doubles Final - Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez d. Black/Huber
Watching this one, I couldn't determine whether MJMS is extremely tall, or NLV is actually just very short. Either way, height-wise, they're quite the odd-looking coupling.
10. $10K Pretoria Final - Chanel Simmonds d. Davinia Lobbinger
The 17-year old South African wins her first career pro title, after having gone 0-3 in three previous finals.
HM- $100K Poitiers 2nd Rd - Kudryavtseva d. Cibulkova
Lost amidst all the comeback stories of '09 has been the truly disappointing season of Cibulkova (the #1 seed here). A Top 20 player to end 2008, she seemed set for bigger things. It just hasn't happened. She's been injured, for sure, but even when healthy she hasn't lived up to the promise she showed a season ago. As it is, she's still searching for her first career tour title, and is currently the third highest-ranked player (#27) without one (#23 Elena Vesnina and #26 Alla Kudryavtseva are the "battlefield generalettes" in that particular conflict, having displaced Victoria Azarenka in the unwanted role the Belarusian held at the conclusion of the previous two seasons).

**2000's WTA YEAR-END #1's**
2000 Martina Hingis, SUI
2001 Lindsay Davenport, USA
2002 Serena Williams, USA
2003 Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
2004 Lindsay Davenport, USA
2005 Lindsay Davenport, USA
2006 Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
2007 Justine Henin, BEL
2008 Jelena Jankovic, SRB
2009 Serena Williams, USA

2...Kim Clijsters
2...Justine Henin
1...Amelie Mauresmo
1...Maria Sharapova
1...Venus Williams

**2009 - WEEKS AT #1 (as of Nov.2)**
26...Dinara Safina, RUS
4...Jelena Jankovic, SRB

3...Dinara Safina, RUS
3...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
3...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
3...Elena Dementieva, RUS
3...Victoria Azarenka, BLR

5...Black/Huber, ZIM/USA
4...Williams/Williams, USA/USA

41...Justine Henin
41...Venus Williams
35...Kim Clijsters
25...Amelie Mauresmo
20...Maria Sharapova

Dubai SF - Venus 6-1/2-6/7-6
Miami SF - Serena 6-4/3-6/6-4
Wimbledon Final - Serena 7-6/6-2
SEC Round Robin - Serena 6-7/6-4/7-6
SEC Final - Serena 6-2/7-6
[3rd-Set Tie-Breaks]
2008 Bangalore SF - Serena wins 7-4
2009 Dubai SF - Venus wins 7-3
2009 SEC Round Round - Serena wins 7-4
[Match Point Overcome]
2008 Bangalore SF (Serena wins)
2009 SEC Round Robin (Serena wins)

FED CUP FINAL (Calabria, Italy - red clay)
08 Final: Russia d. Spain

Italy def. United States 4-1

...Italy has never beaten the U.S. in Fed Cup, currently riding a 0-9 losing streak. Still, if the Americans (Huber, Oudin, Glatch & King) can defeat the veteran-laden Italian team (Pennetta, Schiavone, Errani & Vinci) in Italy, on clay... well, let's just call this potential Cinderella title run possibly the most improbable in tennis history. Of course, it probably won't happen, especially without a Williams in the mix. Then again, after Mary Joe Fernandez's "B"-teamers got Team USA this far, it's actually better that their fate will be determined by THEM, not by some "ringer" added to the roster at the last moment even though they had absolutely nothing to do with getting the team this far. Win or lose, this is the way it should be. And let the winning team hereby be dubbed 2009's "Ms. Backspin."

TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (Bali, Indonesia - hard indoor)
08 Final: (new event)

=Round Robin=
(7)Peer 2-0
(1)Bartoli 1-1
(11)Rybarikova 0-2
(2)Stosur 2-0
(6)Martinez-Sanchez 1-1
(9)Szavay 0-2
(3)Wickmayer 2-0
(12)Date-Krumm 1-1
(5)Medina-Garrigues 0-2
(4)Lisicki 2-0
(8)Czink 1-1
(10)Rezai 0-2

Peer(A), Stosur(B), Wickmayer(C) & Lisicki(D)

...I'm not sure how the semifinals will be drawn up (Group A vs. B, Group A vs. C, etc.), so I'll just pick the Group winners and rank their chances of winning the inaugural Tournament of Champions title as thus:

1. Stosur
2. Wickmayer
3. Peer
4. Lisicki

All for now.

THIS WEEK: "Top 25 Players of the Decade - #6-10 & #1-5"
NEXT WEEK: 2009 Backspin Awards & Ms. Backspin


Blogger Jeppe said...

Great writing, as usual.

Wozniacki's determination in Doha was truly awesome, almost scary. I almost wish the WTA had fined for 'lack of effort' in that Kremer-match in Luxembourg - the irony would have been priceless!

Thu Nov 05, 04:25:00 AM EST  

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