Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oz 11: A Long Time Coming

Discussion of the appearance of two Chinese players in a slam semifinal for the first time was the pre-match topic du jour in Melbourne. But the story of the Chinese tennis revolution is a still-evolving one, while the double-headed story of Serena and Justine is front and center RIGHT NOW.

A day after her oh-so-Serenaesque win over Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Serena Williams faced off against Li Na with everyone assuming that the American would surely be on her game earlier this time around. She was, too. She broke Li's serve to start the match.

Thing is, it was the only time the Chinese woman would drop her serve the entire day.

In the biggest moments, though, Williams pulled from her considerable well of grit to edge ahead. After being broken while serving for the 1st set at 5-4, Serena played a tie-break that ended with her claiming the set via a second serve ace. In the 2nd set, the pair held serve throughout. In fact, the very resilient Li, who hadn't before faced a break point in the set, served at 4-5 15/40 and managed to save three break points/match points to knot the score at 5-5. She held serve for 6-6 after saving a fourth match point, too. In the second tie-break, Serena grabbed a mini-break for a 2-1 lead and let out one of her patented primal screams.

That was the sign that the end of the match was near.

I've said for a long time that whenever Williams lets loose with one of those howls, it's time for all the mothers and fathers to hide the kids. A rattlesnake shakes its tail to warn enemies of what's possible, but Serena's howl is far more emphatic. Whenever an opponent has the displeasure of hearing it, she might as well go ahead and put her racket in the bag to avoid the coming pain. That was the case here, too. Following the primal scream, Li never won another point in the match. Williams claimed the tie-break at 7-1, closing things out with an ace and winning a 7-6/7-6 match to reach her fifteenth career slam final.

Hmmm, on second thought, whenever mothers and fathers hear Serena's signature clarion call they SHOULDN'T hide the kids... they should wake them up and put them as close to the action as possible. Something is about to happen, and they should have the chance to see it for themselves.

Meanwhile, Justine Henin had no such need for an intimidating full-throated stamp of dominance in her semifinal match. She, too, broke her Chinese opponent early in the opening set, doing so at love for a 2-1 lead. But Zheng Jie was totally shut out for the remainder of the match as Henin scored a 6-1/6-0 victory to reach her twelfth career slam singles final, and her first in more than two years.

It sets up an Australian Open final between the two best players of the past decade, and arguably the two best players of their generation (though, I admit, Venus would have to be included in that particular discussion, as well). Shockingly, though, it'll be their first meeting in a slam singles final. They've met thirteen times (Serena's 7-6), and multiple times in slams, but never in a final. It's hard to believe, but rarely have their opposing rising stars met in the same starry sky as they both blazed a trail to the top of the sport often in the absence of the other's best tennis over the last nine or ten years.

This tremendous hole in their respective histories is even more stunning when you consider that other "best of their generation" matchups have had considerable head-to-head battles in slam finals. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert met fourteen times to decide a slam champion (Martina was 10-5). Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, even with Seles' stabbing-related absence, faced off six times (Seles was 3-1 before the attack). Venus and Serena have eight all-Williams slam finals to their credit, and even Henin and Kim Clijsters played one another in three slam deciders over a two-year stretch in the early 2000's.

This will actually be Serena's first slam final against either of the Belgians, and only the second Williams vs. Belgian (Wimbledon '01 - Venus def. Henin) slam championship meeting. So, this Australian Open final has been a long time coming.

Here's a list of a few recent "best of the their generation"-style matchups in slam finals:

*Navratilova vs. Evert, 1975-86*
Australian Open: Navratilova 2-1
Roland Garros: Evert 3-1
Wimbledon: Navratilova 5-0
U.S. Open: Navratilova 2-0
*Graf vs. Seles, 1990-96*
Australian Open: Seles 1-0
Roland Garros: Seles 2-0
Wimbledon: Graf 1-0
U.S. Open: Graf 2-0 (both after Seles stabbing)
*Williams vs. Williams, 2002-09*
Australian Open: Serena 1-0
Roland Garros: Serena 1-0
Wimbledon: Serena 3-1
U.S. Open: tied 1-1
*Henin vs. Clijsters, 2003-04*
Australian Open: Henin 1-0
Roland Garros: Henin 1-0
Wimbledon: none
U.S. Open: Henin 1-0
*S.Williams vs. Sharapova, 2004-07*
Australian Open: Serena 1-0
Roland Garros: none
Wimbledon: Sharapova 1-0
U.S. Open: none
*V.Williams vs. Henin, 2001*
Australian Open: none
Roland Garros: none
Wimbledon: Williams 1-0
U.S. Open: none
*S.Williams vs. Henin, 2010*
Australian Open: (on Saturday)
Roland Garros: none
Wimbledon: none
U.S. Open: none

One's tempted to say that Serena's physical state after playing back-to-back days in singles, combined with the fact that she played a Doubles SF after her Day 11 singles win, and will play in the Doubles final the day before the singles final, means she'll be at a decided disadvantage against Henin, who's had far more rest in recent days. It might be the case, but we ARE talking about Serena. In Melbourne. How many times in the past in this tournament has she seemed to be at the end of her physical tether, only to come out and blow an opponent off the court (the "Destruction Heard 'round the World" of Sharapova in '07 comes to mind)?

Of course, Henin will be on the other side of the net in this one. The only player whose intestinal fortitude rivals Serena's is La Petit Taureau. While Serena's play started at an ultra-high level in this tournament and has gradually gone downhill, Henin's has seemed to improve with each match. That's why it's such an intriguing matchup, and one we've been robbed of in a slam up until this far down the road in their Hall of Fame careers.

It's moments of anticipation like this that make tennis fans, and make fans of tennis move to the edge of their seats. Good things come to those who wait... and Serena vs. Justine proves just that.

...while Li's performance here was good, we're still waiting for that true breakout Chinese tennis star. Li and Zheng are veterans, and the forerunners of what's to come from China. Their performances this week, along with the apperance of a junior in the Girls SF, will inspire the tennis dreams of... geez, maybe MILLIONS of Chinese girls, and is just another step along the road in building a monolithic Chinese tennis empire in a nation that already has a long history of excelling in racket-related sports.

The wave of talent is surely coming (just look at the ridiculous number of Chinese players on the ITF circuit), but when will it fully arrive? China's society has always been one with a long-range view of things, looking to come out on top in the future even if it means sacrificing short-term goals in the present. I've been talking about the coming Chinese WTA presence for so long now that it's become easy to see what it's produced so far to be something of a disappointment, as only Li and Zheng have made any real inroads in singles on the tour. Peng Shuai has been an underachiever, and only now are we starting to see juniors popping up deep in slam Girls draws. But, make no mistake, while this foundation-building is taking some time, once it's firmed up the WTA landscape is going to look very different. While it's hard to remember now what things were like before the Russians, we'll have a similar situation when the Chinese influence takes hold. Maybe more so, actually, considering the thoroughness of a state-sponsored program that is pulling the best players from such a tremendous pool of talent... unlike the Russian model, which largely emerged from the ashes of (and in spite of) the Soviet state and young girls and their families looking for a way to escape economic trials through athletics. Also, while early Russian stars' (Natasha Zvereva, who was actually Belarusian but part of the Soviet federation before the U.S.S.R.'s break-up, piped up first after she reachd the RG singles final in 1988) aspirations were often stymied by the state, the Chinese Federation has already loosened up the formerly-constraining rules and allowed players to keep most of their prize money, devise their own schedules and chose their coaches. They're already WAY ahead of the game.

On ESPN2, the announcers were debating how long it will take for a Chinese woman to win a slam singles title. Mary Joe Fernandez predicted a champion within the next ten years, while Dick Enberg actually sees one coming along in five years. It's hard to tell which will be closer to being correct since there are so many young players in the system that that outside tennis world probably knows nothing about in 2010. As of now, Li is the best current bet... but she isn't likely to ever win a slam in her career, and this AO might have been her one best shot). There isn't an immediate "sure-thing" in the juniors, either. But when a Chinese player does lift a slam singles championship trophy, you can be sure of one thing -- she won't likely be the last to do so.

...while the Women's Singles final pits the top two players of their generation, the doubles finals are following suit with a pair of matchups between the top two seeds. In the Women's, #1 Black/Huber (the '07 AO title-winning team) faces off against defending champion #2-seed Williams/Williams, while in the Men's, #1 Bryan/Bryan face off against the pair the Americans just edged out in 2009 as the year-end top-ranked doubles team, #2 Nestor/Zimonjic. The Bryan twins won this title a season ago.

...Cara Black will claim the "Doubles Star" award if she and Leander Paes knock out Raymond/Moodie in the Mixed SF and the veteran from Zimbabwe reaches her second final of this event.

As far as the "Junior Star" goes, there are still multiple contenders. In the Girl QF, both Pliskova sisters advanced as unseeded Kristyna knocked off #1 Timea Babos and #6-seeded Karolina took out #3 Daria Gavrilova (well, there's goes that Girls Final prediction). Two other unseeded girls advanced, as well, as '09 AO Jr. runner-up Laura Robson and China's Tang Hao-Chen were victorious.

...and, finally, with a relative hole in the women's AO schedule on Day 12 (though the Doubles final takes place), I'm going to do an abbreviated version of my annual "For Whom the Book Tolls" tomorrow. Or maybe I should call it "For Whom the It-Used-To-Be-a-Book-but-Now-It's-an-Online-PDF-File, Which Should Mean It's More Up-to-Date and Includes More Information, but the Reality is That the Opposite is the Case Tolls."

Yep, I've finally downloaded to my computer and perused the "new" 2010 Official WTA Guide, and found it fairly underwhelming. Even while having an online-only edition removes the costs of including and publishing additional bio pages and the like in actual book form, meaning there SHOULD be MORE information included in the '10 Guide, in truth all the former year-by-year season bio notes for each player have been hacked out of the new edition. Rather than a full page of yearly career season notes for every player included, and up to three or four for the more accomplished players, each player gets half a page, with only the player's prize money, slams results, '09 best finishes and the like accompanying their new/old photo. A total disappointment, and something that makes even the online guide pretty well worthless since to research and look back at a player's career you STILL have to go to the WTA website (or, like me, keep the '09 edition handy) to read what used to be included in previous Guides. Not only that, the records pages are hit-and-miss at best when it comes to updated stats. On the same page, some '09 results are included in one chart, yet excluded in others. For example: I hope Guide readers already know that Kimiko Date-Krumm set a tour record in '09 with the longest time span between titles, and that she was the second-oldest WTA singles champion ever, since if you're totally reliant on the information on that specific subject in the tour's "Official" record book you'd be led to believe that that win in Seoul held no significance whatsoever. In other words, reading the "records" section won't necessarily inform anyone what many WTA records REALLY are... which, you know, is sort of the point of keeping records in the first. Records are made to be broken, but it doesn't mean the WTA has to keep them up-to-date, I guess... even when an early publishing date doesn't prevent late additions and alterations to an online Guide that is presented for individuals to download for their use.

All right. End of rant. I guess one shouldn't have expected anything more than a half-assed job, huh? Anyway, I'll still do some version of the yearly awards for all the Guide's bio photos tomorrow (from what I noticed, there were some nice changes).

[women & men]
21...Roger Federer (15-6) #
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
12...JUSTINE HENIN (7-4)
8...Rafael Nadal (6-2)
6...Kim Clijsters (2-4)
5...Andy Roddick (1-4)
4...Maria Sharapova (3-1)
4...Lleyton Hewitt (2-2)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
3...Juan Carlos Ferrero (1-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
3...Dinara Safina (0-3)
2...Novak Djokovic (1-1)
2...Carlos Moya (1-1)
2...ANDY MURRAY (0-1)
2...Elena Dementieva (0-2)
#-still to play in 2010 SF vs. Tsonga (0-1 in slam F's)

Not Ranked - Evonne Goolagong, AUS (1977 Australian Open - W)
Not Ranked - Kim Clijsters, BEL (2009 U.S. Open - W)
#111 - Chris O'Neil, AUS (1978 Australian Open - W)
#81 - Serena Williams, USA (2007 Australian Open - W)

2...Shahar Peer (1-1)
[Wild Cards to Final]
Auckland - Yanina Wickmayer, BEL (def. Pennetta)
Brisbane - Justine Henin, BEL (lost to Clijsters)
[Finals by Nation]
4...BELGIUM (2 titles)
1...Russia (1)
1...Ukraine (1)
1...Israel (0)
1...Italy (0)

#1 Serena Williams/USA vs. (WC) Justine Henin/BEL

#1 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA
#5 Andy Murray/GBR def. #14 Marin Cilic/CRO

#1 Black/Huber (ZIM/USA) vs. #2 Williams/Williams (USA/USA)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. #2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB)

#1 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND) vs. #7 Raymond/Moodie (USA/RSA)
Pennetta/Melo (ITA/BRA) vs. Makarova/Levinsky (RUS/CZE)

Kristyna Pliskova/CZE vs. Laura Robson/GBR
#6 Karolina Pliskova/CZE vs.Yang Hao-Chen/CHN

#6 Marton Fucsovics/HUN vs. Sean Berman/AUS
#14 Tiago Fernandes/BRA vs. #2 Gianna Mina/FRA

#1 Babos/Dabrowski (HUN/CAN) vs. Cepelova/Skamlova (SVK/SVK)

Eleveld/Lupescu (NED/NED) vs. vs. #2 Krawietz/Schulz (GER/GER)

TOP QUALIFIER: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Kathrin Woerle/GER def. Bopana Jovanovski/SRB 6-2/4-6/9-7
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd.- (wc) Justine Henin/BEL def. #5 Elena Dementieva/RUS 7-5/7-6
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd.- (wc) Justine Henin/BEL def. (q) Yanina Wickmayer/BEL 7-6/1-6/6-3
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)
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL [4th Rd.]
IT GIRL: Maria Kirilenko/RUS
CRASH & BURN: Maria Sharapova/RUS ('08 champ, lost 1st Rd. to Kirilenko/RUS)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Justine Henin/BEL - down 3-6/1-3 15/40 to Kleybanova/RUS in 3rd Rd. or Serena Williams/USA - down 6-4/4-0 to Azarenka/BLR in QF
LAST SHEILA STANDING: Samantha Stosur/AUS [4th Rd.]

All for Day 11. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

I have always thought that, if Li could control her nerves, she would be a pretty big deal. Yesterday, she handled them--until she got to the tiebreaks. But this was nevertheless a big improvement, and who knows what next time will bring?

As wonderful as it is that Serena and Justine are going to meet in the final, for me, Li's showing what she can do is a very big story in this Australian Open.

Thu Jan 28, 04:04:00 PM EST  
Blogger ZoĆ© said...

hum, Zheng won the first game didn't she? Justine broke all the other serving games but not the first one.

Thu Jan 28, 04:46:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Zoe... hmmm, yep. I read my notes wrong. There it is, reading "JH love break 2-1."

I guess I should listen to myself better, huh?

Thu Jan 28, 05:18:00 PM EST  
Blogger Eric said...

Diane - SO TRUE. I'm really glad that Li got to show her game.

Hopefully she can continue to improve and maybe bag a slam.

Thu Jan 28, 06:45:00 PM EST  
Blogger Eric said...

i just watched the doubles finals live (first time!!) and...Venus lost track of the score and didn't know that they won...LOL

(aren't there electronic boards with the score displays on them?? ...put in place due to the wimbie '04 venus-sprem tiebreak snafu?? double lol)

Fri Jan 29, 12:54:00 AM EST  

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