Saturday, January 02, 2010

Odds & Ends Between Brisbane and Miami

The opening weeks of a new year often casually reveal a slew of clues about the upcoming WTA season.

The Dorothy Tour and the entire 13-week 1st Quarter can be the start of something big for players who get off on the right foot, as early-season good tidings can change a player's entire seasonal outlook, while out-of-the-box missteps can immediately turn a young campaign into an uphill trek that a player's initial misgivings might effectively judge as a losing battle seemingly before the fighting has barely started.

One year ago, Victoria Azarenka opened the '09 season by winning her maiden tour title en route to her first year-end Top 10 ranking. At the same time, then-world #1 Jelena Jankovic showed up on the scene packing extra muscle packed on during an offseason training jaunt to Mexico. The additional bulk cost her her best on-court asset, her movement, and eventually her top ranking as she fell to #8. In Week 2, Dinara Safina lost a singles final, then did it again in Melbourne. Her inability to come through in the clutch ultimately made what was her "career year" seem like a "disappointment." At the same time, Serena Williams won her fourth Australian Open title to fire off the first salvo in a successful bid to reclaim the top position in the women's game, Melanie Oudin was the youngest Oz Open qualifier (kicking off what was a spectacular slam season for the American teen) and Jelena Dokic made a stunning quarterfinal run in the Australian that unknowingly ushered in what would become the Year of the Comeback.

Who'll be looking to reverse trends, pick up steam, or just simply survive to play another day during this opening stanza of 2010? Here are a few ideas for the goal-oriented between Brisbane and Miami:

Jelena Jankovic, SRB: at least The Incredible Bulk isn't likely to make another appearance this year, and that's good for everyone. But even if JJ gets her body back to something resembling its optimum operating condition, will her head be able to totally clear itself now that the specter of Henin will once again loom in the later rounds (and, yikes, for the first month or two of the season, the EARLY rounds until Henin gets her ranking up), ready to extinguish her Chaotic fire? After complaining many months into '09 that she was still waiting for her season "to start," Jankovic now gets her "do-over." If she can make the most of it... boy, she'd be a real joker card thrown into the middle of an already-stacked deck, wouldn't she?

Vera Zvonareva, RUS: the last few years, Zvonareva has gotten off to good starts. In '08, she reached two 1Q finals. Last year, she reached the Oz semifinal and won two titles. But her ankle injury in Charleston blew up what was looking to be her true "breakout" season, and her frustration in losing more than half a dozen match points against Pennetta at the U.S. Open reminded everyone (including probably herself) why she's still looking to reach her tennis potential at nearly age 26 after watching so many of her countrywomen do so quite a few years earlier in their careers.

Victoria Azarenka, BLR: Azarenka played an entire season during the 1st Quarter a season ago. She won her first career title in Week 1, seemed to be on her way to upsetting Serena in the Oz Round of 16 before falling to the Extreme Heat, then won two more titles in Memphis and Miami (beating a hobbled Serena in the final). Even though Azarenka has all the tools to be the next young WTA star, there's a reason the more mature Caroline Wozniacki leap-frogged her first in the rankings, then in grand slam accomplishment, last season. Having recently parted ways with her coach, the Belarusian now goes into unchartered waters with something less than total confidence in the chemistry of her team, and a temper that flares (and usually blows apart her game) when she gets frustrated. It's easy to see warning signs here, so a good start will be a welcome distraction from the uncertainty.

Serena Williams, USA: Melbourne SHOULDN'T matter, but it probably does. The quickest way to make those thirty seconds on Ashe drift off into the ether, hereby defined as "an all-pervading, infinitely elastic, massless medium formerly postulated as the medium of propagation or electromagnetic waves" (or, if you prefer, "the regions of space beyond the earth's atmosphere"), than defending her Oz title. I think most would agree that no player can focus her ire into a laser-like desire that two weeks later produces a slam title quite as well as Serena. Well, now that you-know-who is back, at least there's no more than one other player who is Williams' equal in such an effort. Of course, Serena has NEVER won the Australian in a even-numbered year. Hmmm, I wonder what the Mayan calendar says?

Maria Sharapova, RUS: she doesn't have to win Oz, but she at least needs to put in a good showing that doesn't include any of those multiple double-digit double-fault fiascos that make everyone wonder if she'll ever be the same again. She showed signs of returning to "normal" late last year with her "Premier 9" win in Tokyo, but we haven't really seen her since (she might face Venus in an exhibition match in Hong Kong this week). Even with the Sisters and Belgians in the mix, there's no reason that the (M.I.A.) Supernova can't be reborn and play a leading role in the WTA's 2010 drama.

Ana Ivanovic, SRB & Dinara Safina, RUS: the last two Australian Open singles runner-ups will enter Melbourne this time around almost as afterthoughts. Actually, we can't even be sure if Safina's ailing back will allow her to arrive on Down Under's doorstep at all. For her part, Ivanovic is saying all the right things and is back with coach Sven Groenefeld. Will it matter? Well, a good start in the AO will surely be better than another soul-crushing bad one in a slam. With Safina, maybe not playing at all, avoiding a too-early return that could trouble the entire first half of her season, not to mention avoiding a flashback to her past late-round slam implosions, would constitute a "good" Dorothy Tour for the Russian.

...obviously, a player would never turn her back on a good start, but a few top players might have something in their pockets for later in the year should their '10 campaigns stumble out of the gate.

Justine Henin, BEL: now, of course, this doesn't mean I'm expecting anything other than top tennis from La Petit Taureau in the opening chapters of her comeback. Come now, most surely expect the LPT sequel to be more "Godfather, Part II" or "Empire Strikes Back" than "Grease 2." But, really, this opening quarter is where Henin and everyone else will be able to revel in her return and worry (at least a tiny bit) less about the results. Come clay season, she'll be EXPECTED to reclaim her Queen of Clay crown; then in the grass season, her stated goal of winning at SW19 will play like a ticking time bomb that the Williams Sisters will likely be looking to detonate. The next few months is when it's supposed to be FUN. Then again, winning would be nice, too (see later).

Venus Williams, USA: Venus last reached an Oz final in 2003, has never won the title and often finds herself the unwitting victim of a young upset-minded upstart. Last year it was Carla Suarez-Navarro. Oddly enough, she's usually in good form in the opening week exhibitions and enters Melbourne seemingly in a fine state of mind. So, in other words, it's best to not expect much from Williams at the Australian... then if she DOES happen to pull something off it'll be like finding a long-forgotten unopened Christmas present underneath an avalanche of empty boxes.

..."greatness" being a relative term, meaning anything from true "breakout" success to a reclaiming of a former position in the sport.

The Italian Fed Cup Team: in the face of so many youth-inspired revolutions, the Italians continue to be lethal Fed Cup mainstays while depending on never-let-you-down veterans while most other nations often have to cobble together competitive teams from scraps when their best players' schedules "prevent" them from joining in the FC festivities. Can Team Italia win a third title in five years? The long road begins against Ukraine the week after the Australian Open.

Justine Henin, BEL: she's won six Dorothy Tour titles in her career, and has claimed the Sydney crown three times. So, unlike some Serbians we know, she knows precisely how to use her offseason to prepare her for the season's opening weeks. Still, she has a mixed history in Melbourne. Since she won the 2004 title, she's missed the tournament three times ('05, '07 & '09), was unceremoniously bounced once (6-4/6-0 by Sharapova in the '08 QF) and retired in the '06 final against Mauresmo (leading to Pam Shriver's "it'll tarnish her career forever" mantra... what is it with her and some Belgians, anyway?). Of course, Clijsters won in New York in her third tournament back, and Melbourne is scheduled to be Henin's third event in her comeback. She's talked about Federer winning Roland Garros inspiring her to come back, but you know Justine is more than slightly familiar with Kim's feat of last summer, as well.

Kim Clijsters, BEL: there's one way Clijsters can stick a knife in your Friendly Neighborhood Backspinner's heart. Defeating Henin BEFORE the Australian Open (say, next weekend in Brisbane) would hurt, but it'd only be a minor injury. Defeating LPT in Melbourne and/or winning a second straight slam would really... well, I'm not even going to talk about it since it's not going to happen. So there.

Williams/Williams, USA: if they can defend their Australian Open title, it'll give the Sisters four slam titles in the last five, and five since mid-2008. Plus, it'd be the pair's eleventh slam win as a duo, officially moving them past the half-way point when it comes to the all-time Open Era record of twenty-one slam titles by Navratilova/Shriver. If the Sisters play as long as Venus wants to, there's an outside chance that it's a record the Williamses could threaten.

Venus Williams, USA: lost in all the discussion of the Dubai Debacle last year was the fact that Venus won that hard court tournament, then turned around and jumped a plane to Mexico and won a title on red clay in Acapulco the very next week. If she can do THAT, she can play well enough in the 1st Quarter so that she doesn't HAVE to put together at least a run to the Wimbledon final in order to hold onto a Top 5 position in the rankings.

Anne Keothavong, GBR: the opinionated Brit was well on her way to becoming THE late-bloomer on tour in '09 before her injury ended her season. Of her three semifinal appearances in her abbreviated season, two of them (Brisbane & Memphis) came in the 1st Quarter.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS: she reached her first big-time pro semifinal in Indian Wells last 1Q, then twice upset Venus Williams late in the '09 season. Is her next step about to be taken?

Caroline Wozniacki, DEN: the junior Oz RU in '06, C-Woz has good memories of Melbourne. Her U.S. Open final and SEC SF run show that she can raise her game on the big stage. But after the intense heat of Doha played a part in her cramp-filled drama at the end of last season, has she prepared herself well enough to prevent the same thing from happening in a long match in the notorious Australian Open sun?

Yanina Wickmayer, BEL: if she's going to make a mark in a second straight slam, and maintain her position upon a platform from which she can take swipes at the Belgians who tried to ban her for not one, but TWO seasons, it looks like she'll have to do it the hard way -- through AO qualifying after having not been awarded a discretionary wild card into the draw by Tennis Australia after having missed the entry dates during her "oh never mind" suspension. It's a ridiculous situation for a Top 20 player, semifinalist at the most recent slam and player who saw her on-sketchy-grounds ban lifted before the ink on the offcial Anti-Doping press release had dried. But, hey, if it fuels her fire, it could turn out to work in her favor.

An Australian... any Australian: the recent performances by the Aussies at the AO give reason for the home fans to think that they'll have a favorite daughter to root for in the second week. In 2005, Alicia Molik reached the quarters. In 2008, Casey Dellacqua was in the Round of 16. Last year, Jelena Dokic's QF run was the story of the tournament. In 2010, Dokic is back, maybe even better prepared for success. Samantha Stosur reached a slam SF in Paris, won her first title in Osaka late in '09 and is within spitting distance of the Top 10. Molik, fresh off her great ITF run at the end of the season, has ended her retirement. Dellacqua is back after shoulder surgery ended her '09 campaign early. Jarmila Groth and Antastasia Rodionova are both now OFFICIAL Australian representatives, and a good young group of Aussie teens is led by promising Olivia Rogowska. The Australian is always better when an Aussie is in the mix.

The U.S. Fed Cup Team: Mary Joe Fernandez has her work cut out for her in 2010. She probably won't have the Williams Sisters to turn to in '10, so she'll once again have to deal with playing the perfect hand in order for the Americans to advance. First up... the French in the 1st Round (they shockingly lost 5-0 in the opening round to the Italians a year ago). At least MJF won't to deal with Mauresmo, and maybe Bethanie Mattek-Sands' singles game will be more focused this season than last.

Shahar Peer, ISR: Dubai, take two. Unless all the financial difficulties there end up causing the tournament to be cancelled. Now, wouldn't that be a kick in the teeth? Or would it be considered "divine justice?" Of course, after hearing Pac-10 President Larry Scott the other day doing a very lackluster job in a radio interview trying to sell how great the NCAA college football bowl system is compared to a potential playoff scenario that would crown a "real" national champion (you know, like very other sport on earth), I'm wondering if the Dubai Debacle ever really happened at all last year. I mean, right now, I'm sure anything he's said over the last eleven months has any basis in reality.

Nicole Vaidisova, CZE: it's great that she seems to have finally realized that in order to get her career back she's going to have to take a step back and down to the challenger level to get her game in order and rediscover her desire, but that doesn't mean she actually WILL or WANTS TO. With her current ranking, that was likely her only option if she was going to keep hold of her sponsors and go through the motions expected of someone who still wants to play tennis. We'll see. Hopefully, the ITF reboot will work and this is the start of a nice story (even if it's one that should never have devolved to its current state in the first place).

Victoria Azarenka, BLR: her experience in the Australian last year might make her even more hungry a year later, but with a coaching change and the possibility of her exploding in frustration on a bad day, things could just as easily go from bad to worse in Oz.

Vera Zvonareva, RUS: she reached the Australian Open semifinals last year, but an ankle injury and U.S. Open crash (bad leg tape!) makes one wonder if the recently-rehabbed Russian will enter Melbourne like her hair is on fire... or leave it with her head aflame.

Melanie Oudin, USA: look out, here comes Little MO once again! Well, hold on. She IS just eighteen, and she's now manuevering in a totally different environment than she was last summer in New York. She didn't exactly handle her new expectations with great skill after the Open last year, so it might be asking a little too much to think she's going to be a slam star yet again in Melbourne. Then again, to this point in her budding career, the girl HAS played her best on the biggest stages.

The Chinese Fed Cup Team: does the Chinese tennis federation care anymore now that the Beijing Olympics are in the rear view mirror? Not great development of young talent, injured-and/or-underachieving stars, and misread FC rules make one wonder. The Chinese lost 5-0 in the 1st Round to the Russians last year, and now will face a Slovak Republic team that might be sporting the likes of Hantuchova and Cibulkova in the World Group II Playoffs after the Australian. Looks like another loss. This isn't the direction this ship is supposed to be heading at this point.

Anna Chakvetadze & Elena Dementieva, RUS: a loss of confidence and sense of security can be a terrible thing for a young tennis player (or person, for that matter). Just look at Chakvetadze. She was a slam semifinalist (U.S. Open '07) less than two and a half years ago, but now she's one bad Quarter away from fighting just to stay in the Top 100. As for Dementieva, she's really facing no danger of any "disaster," per se. But if grand slam titles are the measure for a Hall of Fame career, she's sitting atop the proverbial bubble right now at age 28. She might have missed her window to win a slam, with her blown match point against Serena in the Wimbledon SF possibly standing as her last best shot (think Davenport, looking for that elusive career-capping final slam title, in the '05 Wimbledon singles final against Venus). This Australian Open will be Dementieva's 45th career slam appearance. The latest any women's slam champ has ever gone in their career before finally winning a slam was when Jana Novotna won Wimbledon in her 45th career slam attempt. In other words, if Dementieva doesn't win the Australian Open this month, then the best active women's player without a slam will be staring at making history if she's to EVER going to win one.

Dinara Safina???: will Marat end up having as big a presence in Melbourne this year as Dinara?

=AUSTRALIAN OPEN - POWER RANKINGS... from two weeks out=
1. Serena Williams: titles in '03, '05, '07 & '09. Is this a year when "even" isn't odd for Serena?
2. Justine Henin: hey, if KC can win a slam in her third event back, why can't Justine?
3. Maria Sharapova: there'd be no better way to trumpet her return.
4. Kim Clijsters: thing is, even when she had all the rabid "Aussie Kim" support she still couldn't win this tournament.
5. Elena Dementieva: one more shot to avoid having history pass her by?
6. Caroline Wozniacki: she's proved her mettle at the last two big tour events.
7. Jelena Jankovic: just like last year, will our first look at her tell us all we need to know?
8. Victoria Azarenka: how different would '09 have been if she'd beaten the heat, and Serena, in Melbourne?
9. An Aussie: one is bound to light up the crowd.
10. Venus Williams: hey, there's always A CHANCE.
Wild Card- Sabine Lisicki: as long as she's able to stay on the court, she bears watching.
WILD Wild Card- Ana Ivanovic: RU in '08, is her head right?

And, thus, let potentially the most interesting season in WTA history begin...

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA (Int'l $220K/hard court outdoor)
09 Final: Azarenka d. Bartoli
10 Top Seeds: Clijsters/Petrova

Clijsters d. Hantuchova
Henin (WC) d. Dokic
Henin (WC) d. Clijsters

...check the calendar. Is it 2003 again? Hey, the tournament organizers got their wish that the draw would plop down Henin against one of the top two seeds in the 1st Round -- only it turned out to be Petrova, not Clijsters. Oh, Nadia... she's already lost to Justine once in an LPT II exhibition in Cairo. Of course, I'm sure they'll take an all-Belgian final. I'll go with Henin, repeating her one tournament/one title feat that got her her first WTA crown when she made her tour debut in Antwerp back in 1999. Dokic's opening round match is especially juicy, as she faces Ivanovic in an immediate "so how was YOUR offseason" litmus test for both.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND (Int'l $220K/hard court outdoor)
09 Final: Dementieva d. Vesnina
10 Top Seeds: Pennetta/Li

Vesnina d. Pennetta
Li d. Wickmayer (WC)
Li d. Vesnina

..."in your eye" rules say Wickmayer should win this title. But I'll go with Li, since she's more likely to be fully healthy in Week 1 than at any other time of the season (and she won an opening week title at Gold Coast in '08).

HOPMAN CUP; PERTH, AUS (Team Exhibition/Hard Indoor)
09 FINAL: SVK (Cibulkova/Hrbaty) d. RUS (Safina/Safin)
10 GROUP TOP SEEDS: Australia/Russia

Russia (Dementieva/Andreev) d. Spain (Martinez-Sanchez/Robredo)
...will the slightly more leisurely opening week schedule prevent Dementieva from flooding her opening-months engine this time around.

HONG KONG, CHINA (Team Exhibition/Hard)
09 FINAL: America's (V.Williams/Dulko/Vandeweghe) d. Russia (Chakvetadze/Zvonareva/Panova)

=3rd/4th Place=
Europe (Wozniacki/Azarenka/Edberg) d. Asia/Pacific (Zheng/Morita/Srichiphan)
America's (V.Williams/Dulko/M.Chang) d. Russia (Sharapova/Zvonareva/Kafelnikov)
...Venus goes for a Hong Kong exhibition three-peat, having won the singles-only event in '08 and then the all-female team competition last year. Interesting way to go add veteran male players to the mix this time around.

All for now.

2010 Preview Series Link: Wozniacki: Charm, with a Side of Harm, ATP Top 10 Predictions, Prediction Blowout, The Intriguing 100
NEXT: "Citizen Anna"


Blogger Karen said...

Happy New Year to the Backspin Team. KC may just win the AO this year, after all, she has started her cheering team by starting a drive to aid victims of brush fires in Australia. I must be the most pessimistic tennis fan ever but I just cannot see someone being this nice all the freaking time, or am I just a meanie for saying that?

Sun Jan 03, 11:55:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

As they used to say in old B&W movies... "Oh, bother." ;)

Still, I guess you have to give Kim a hand for being consistent. Maybe she thought the Aussies had forgotten about her (though, to be honest, they latched onto her because of Hewitt and the fact that there were no Australian women to root for, a situation which has changed quite a bit in the last few years). Still, I just know I'm going to have to grind my teeth the first time somone on ESPN2 calls her "Aussie Kim."

(grind grind)

Sun Jan 03, 04:03:00 PM EST  
Blogger JAYBIRD said...

Hey guys, new to makin comments here but been reading for a year. Thank you Todd. Im a huge fan of women's tennis. The comebacks are exciting. I wish my fave Capriati would do it one more time, but i guess you cant blame her at 33 and bad shoulder. As for Henin, she will win alot this year, but I hope she doesn't too much. It was boring when she was winning too much. Maybe my replacement fave Jankovic can get it together and finally beat her. Wishful thinking I know.

Mon Jan 04, 11:12:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Hope springs eternal, Jaybird. Even I wouldn't be so against Jankovic getting a win over Henin this year, if for nothing else than to give her a lifeline that will kick up her confidence. The mix of great talent at the top of the game this season looks to be incredible, but only JJ provides those little moments that make you smile and/or chuckle to yourself nearly every time out. The more we get of her the better.

Oh, and it's nice to hear from you, too. :)

Tue Jan 05, 11:34:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what is your blog about? I'm really confused here...but it is cool looking :)

Fri Jan 08, 06:54:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Karen, Kim hasn't been this "nice" all the time. There is a lot of selective memory about her in the press because the press can't contradict its own creation. Some of my favorite Kim moments have been when she's let loose on what she thinks about some of her opponents.

JAYBIRD, I haven't given up on JJ's beating Henin. In fact, I think she's going to do it.

Sat Jan 09, 05:07:00 PM EST  
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Thu Jul 07, 01:08:00 AM EDT  
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