Monday, January 18, 2010

Oz 1: Two for the Road

Two stories down, about a million more still to be told.

The last time that Maria Sharapova and Jelena Dokic played in Melbourne, they were the talk of the town. The Russian won the 2008 title without dropping a set, while the Aussie's quarterfinal run of a year ago made her the story of the tournament. Twenty-four and twelve months later, respectively, things couldn't have turned out any more differently in 2010.

Arriving at the Australian Open without having played a "real" match since late last season, Sharapova's pre-tournament comments and viewpoint were decidedly rosy. She was back and ready to go, she said. Only she wasn't, at least not in her 1st Round match against fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko. In the opening match on Rod Laver Arena at this slam, after having chosen to only play in pre-Oz exhibitions as she's done in past seasons, Sharapova didn't seem to be able to pull the trigger in big moments when the games actually counted. She grabbed a 4-2 lead in the opening set, and had points for 5-2, but wasn't her aggressive self who'd won seven straight matches and fourteen consecutive sets the last time she was in town. If she was waiting for Kirilenko to succumb to the moment... well, then she's still waiting.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

After erasing one 4-2 deficit in set, Kirilenko did it again in the tie break, coming back from another 4-2 hole with five straight points to grab the lead in the match. After seeing Sharapova win the 2nd set, Kirilenko raced to 4-1 and 5-2 leads of her own in the 3rd. Sharapova managed to recover the lost break and close the gap to 5-4, but it was too much to overcome. Kirilenko's 7-6/3-6/6-4 victory in 3:22 gave the three-time slam champion her earliest exit from a major since Roland Garros '03.

While one can quibble with Sharapova's preparation for this slam and hang this result on that, Kirilenko's composure in the moment was just as important... and it's not an uncommon occurrence for a lesser-ranked Sharapova opponent in a slam in recent outings. With her time off the court, shoulder surgery and serving difficulties, it's apparent that the "aura" that Sharapova had built up en route to winning that '08 Oz title has now totally disappeared. A few players on tour are able to intimidate "lesser" players on reputation alone -- Serena, Justine, maybe Kim and possibly still Venus, at least on grass -- but right now Sharapova isn't one of them. Even while she was seeded just #14 here, most conceded that she was a favorite to reach the SF at this event. She didn't even make it to Tuesday.

The road back to the top is not an easy one. Just ask Dokic.

In 2009, Dokic's final victory in her back-from-the-edge comeback was over a then-#29 seeded Alisa Kleybanova. A year later, a little bit fitter and still with a great serve, the now-#27 seeded Russian flipped the script on the Aussie. With a crowd just waiting to get behind her one more time and help her Rock the Rod deep into the night in Day 1's final contest all over again, Dokic wasn't able to muster the game, or seemingly the self-belief, that she was up to repeating her past heroics.

Kleybanova won the 1st set at 6-1, but did noticably begin to feel the pressure in her serve games in the latter stages of the 2nd. At 6-1/3-2, Kleybanova's double-fault early in her service game hinted that the moment was there for Dokic to turn it on and sway the momentum of the match. But a replay overrule on a point that would have given Dokic a break point, which was then followed by an unforced error that handed Kleybanova a 4-2 lead pretty much let everyone know where this match was heading.

Still, after going 0-for-5 in break point opportunities in the match, Dokic finally converted her sixth chance following back-to-back Kleybanova double faults that had given the Aussie one final breath of life. A year ago, a more care free and happy-to-just-be-there Dokic would have charged back with the crowd behind her, pushing the match to three sets and into the bewitching hour after midnight. This year, after knotting the set at 5-5, she lost her serve a love, double-faulting on break point. The balloon sufficiently popped, Kleybanova served out the match for a 6-1/7-5 victory that was wrapped up at 11:57pm Melbourne time.

Dokic didn't turn into a pumpkin three minutes later, but she surely did resemble the same player she was many years ago. One with the talent to win, but one who also could be brought down by her own disbelief and frustration on bad days. Often in the past, as one of the game's ultimate "groove players," she'd manage to hit herself into a hot streak that would turn the match in her favor. "Groove players," Anastasia Myskina notwithstanding, usually don't win slams, but their lack of consistency generally doesn't prevent them from winning more times than they lose. But, boy, when they lose it can sometimes be maddening to watch, as every opportunity is lost and point-winning moments where positivity would do a world of good are often met with slump-shouldered trudging across the court with previous lost points still mentally -- and almost physically -- weighing down every step.

That was the Dokic that we saw on Night 1.

It's a shame. Another great start, followed by a healthy stretch (unlike '09), would have done wonders for her season. But Australian headlines and photos leading into the tournament that showed her arguing with coach Borna Bikic and highlighted her general displeasure with her game's early-season state, on the eve of an Australian Open that would be far more pressurized for her than a year ago when even she didn't expect much from herself, should have probably been a red flag that a Melbourne sequel to last year's run wasn't in the cards. Still, I'm sure Dokic will trade a great Australian Open for a better overall season on which to build a sturdy foundation for her late career goals. Of course, now she'll have to take several steps back after losing all those QF points from a year ago (a season in which she notched only one other main draw WTA victory the rest of '09).

Hopefully, she'll find another ignition point to her season. Sharapova will surely rebound and find the will to fight. With Dokic, one never really knows... no matter how much they hope.

...hmmm, I wonder if Sharapova's karma might have been better in her match had she given more than the additional $10,000 she donated during the Hit for Haiti fundraising exhibition this weekend? I mean, after signing a deal with Nike for $30 million the other day, it sort of made it easy for someone to knock the "size" of her philanthropy.

I know SOMEONE who would have made sure those stories didn't come with a week of one another.

...watching things on Day 1, it was impossible not to realize how great is it that this slam has actually been taking place in the twenty-first century for, well, since it was still the twentieth century? TWO covered courts allowed quite a few matches to get finished today during the off-and-on periods of rain, though twenty-six matches were still cancelled. In London, only Centre Court would have been busy all day, while in Paris they would have tried as best as possible to play through the weather (and continue to attempt to push that retractable roof idea past the powers that be, while threatening to move the tournament to EuroDisney... a move that, which I'll give Pam Shriver credit for saying last night, is "just goofy"). In New York, most of the day would have been lost to Mother Nature's ill will.

Talk about goofy.

Of course, a player like Evgeniya Rodina might have wished she was in NYC today after being double-bageled 6-0/6-0 by Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez. Meanwhile, Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova and Regina Kulikova managed to get 4:06 of action in today... but still couldn't finish their match, having it suspended for the day with the Czech up 7-6/6-7/4-3. it turned out, #14 Sharapova was the only women's seed to fall with so many matches being a no-go. Only one seeded man, #13 Radek Stepanek, fell, as well. an ironic turn, Dinara Safina, who was the last woman to lose a match in Melbourne a year ago, was the first to notch a 1st Round win this time around. The #2-seed defeated Magdalena Rybarikova 6-4/6-4. Still, a nod goes to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who once again challenged to be the first woman to celebrate in the locker room at a slam (she did it twice last season). Safina's countrywoman was the second winner of this Australian Open with her win over Anastasija Sevastova.

The talk today about Safina benefitting from Sharapova's loss because she's in the same section of the draw made me chuckle a little. Considering her soul-crushing collapses in the latter stages of slams and their detrimental effect on her tennis over the past year, maybe the possibility of reaching the latter stages of a slam is the worst thing for Safina. I mean, unless she's a glutton for punishment.

Speaking of gluttons for punishment, Jelena Jankovic is also a potential player who'll benefit from Sharapova's sudden absence. other matches, Kim Clijsters won easily over Valerie Tetreault, while Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva both won to set up their much-anticipated (and likely night-scheduled, now that Dokic is out) 2nd Round meeting, probably on Wednesday. Qualifier Yvonne Meusburger defeated Timea Bacinszky and will next meet Kirilenko.

Meanwhile, Meusburger's fellow "qualifier" Yanina Wickmayer had to sweat it out against Alexandra Dulgheru, and for a while it looked as if Shriver's pre-tournament dubbing of Ms. WICK-mayer as a player to watch was going to serve as a "kiss of death." She lost the 1st set 6-1 before taking the 2nd 7-5, and was a point away from an 8-7 deficit in the 3rd just before the longest rain delay of the day. She ended up winning the set 10-8. Who knew poking people in the eye was such hard work? wrap up some housekeeping from Carl's "Bare Bones" Backspin from Saturday, this past week's ITF Player of the Week goes to Croatia's Ajla Tomljanovic for her win in the $25K challenger in Plantation, Florida. While the "Junior Star" is Pastry Caroline Garcia, who defeated Veronica Cepede-Royg in the G1 Copa Gatorade final in Caracus, Venezuela. Belgium's An-Sophie Mestach, a singles winner a week ago, reached the SF this week and then won the doubles title.

...and, finally, apparently taking his pointers from Shriver's U.S. Open POV, Chris Fowler's probably-incidental comments about Wickmayer in the opening hours of ESPN2's coverage sort of rubbed me the wrong way last night. While he likely meant nothing by it, I question his choice of words in saying that Wickmayer "was allowed" to play in the qualifying for this tournament without mentioning at the time that it was because she'd missed the entry deadline during her temporary ban (temporarly as of now, at least), and stating that it was because her "whereabouts were in question" that she'd been suspended. If Wickmayer's words are to be taken as truthful, then her whereabouts were NOT in question during the three violating instances, as she was playing in WTA tournaments (and never missed or failed a drug test), and the issue was simply one of her actually signing in to technically confirm her presence. Sure, Wickmayer should have been aware that any violation, no matter how minor or seemingly inconsequential, could be treated nearly as severely as an actual failed drug test (unless your name is Gasquet, apparently). But this incident, coupled with Svetlana Kuznetsova's assertion that players don't know they are supposed to report attempts to fix matches, makes one wonder if the WTA, ITF and other bodies are making a truly concerted effort to inform the players of the rules, or simply just assuming that they'll understand their spirit without having been taken through them line-by-line, hand-in-hand.

Never assume anything about tennis players, most of whom have been isolated from "normal thought processes" since they were pre-teens.

Maybe the organizations should hold periodic seminars at big tournament sites around the world during the season, with every WTA player required to attend at least one, where all these sorts of things are explained. The NFL does it with the hundreds of players drafted every year, and it's not dealing with athletes from so many different countries who speak so many different languages, which would seem to set up the possibility of misunderstandings occurring that would make assertions such as Kuznetsova's quite possibly legitimate. Just a thought.

2005 - #16 Ai Sugiyama/JPN (lost to Sucha/SVK)
2006 - #9 Elena Dementieva/RUS (lost to Schruff/GER)
2007 - #25 Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP (lost to Vesnina/RUS)
2008 - #32 Julia Vakulenko/UKR (lost to Vesnina/RUS)
2009 - #23 Agnes Szavay/HUN (lost to Voskoboeva/KAZ)
2010 - #14 Maria Sharapova/RUS (lost to Kirilenko/RUS)

2008 - Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS (3r- lost to A.Radwanska/POL)
2009 - Venus Williams/USA (2r- lost to Suarez-Navarro/ESP)
2010 - Maria Sharapova/RUS (1r- lost to Kirilenko/RUS)

AO: Patricia Mayr/AUT (def. Schruff/GER)
RG: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS (def. Olaru/ROU) & Li Na (def. Domachowska) #-virtual tie
WI: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS (def. Cetkovska/CZE)
US: Vania King/USA (def. Yakimova/BLR)
AO: Dinara Safina/RUS (def. Rybarikova/SVK)

TOP QUALIFIER: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xxx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Kathrin Woerle/GER def. Bopana Jovanovski/SRB 6-2/4-6/9-7
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx Rd.- xxx
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): xx Rd.- xxx
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): xx - xxx
FIRST SEED OUT: #14 Maria Sharapova/RUS (lost 1st Rd.- Kirilenko/RUS)
FIRST WIN: Dinara Safina/RUS (def. Rybarikova/SVK)
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: Maria Sharapova/RUS ('08 champ, lost 1st Rd. to Kirilenko/RUS)

All for Day 1. More tomorrow, mate.