Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Oz 2: The Fall & Rise of Americans in Melbourne

In an odd Australian summer day that was dominated by chilly temperatures and wind, the Americans wrote the script in the women's competition.

In a multi-episode tale, the entire spectrum of women's tennis was represented. Starting with the bottom and working our way up:

Coco Vangeweghe & Jill Craybas: The just-out-of-the-juniors teen and the venerable veteran. Vandeweghe, a U.S. Open girls champ in '08, was handed a wild card into the main draw, but was only able to muster a single game in her 6-0/6-1 loss to Sandra Zahlavova. Soon-to-be 36 year old Craybas got into this event on ranking merit, but was bounced by Petra Kvitova. While they're at totally different stages in their careers, Vandeweghe and Craybas end up with the same '10 Australian Open result.

Vania King: The surprise. A few years ago, King became the first American teenager to win a tour singles title since Serena Williams won the U.S. Open in 1999. King hasn't exactly climbed up the rankings since that win in Bangkok in 2006, but she's stuck around and continued to improve. In the past year, she gained Fed Cup experience and today pulled off what might be considered the biggest win of her career. Against #23 Dominika Cibulkova, she was a point away from the upset in the 2nd set, only to fail to convert match point and then fall behind 5-1 in the 3rd. But she proceeded to show why a player should never give up, as she charged back to win 6-3/6-7/7-5. Placed in the same quarter of the draw where Maria Sharapova once seemed a sure bet to advance, King next faces vet Roberta Vinci, with the winner getting either Maria Kirilenko or Yvonne Meusburger. After that, she could get a who-knows-what-you're-gonna-get Dinara Safina for a shot to become the second straight shocking slam quarterfinalist who calls America home. Hey, stranger things have happened.

Melanie Oudin: Speaking of shocking slam quarterfinalists. For a while on Day 2, it looked like the slam mojo that propelled Oudin to such great slam success a season ago was in evidence once again in Melbourne. She led Alla Kudraytseva 6-2/5-3, and was up 40/15 on the Russian's serve. After she failed to convert those two match points, plus another, few would have guessed that Oudin's seemingly "easy breezy" day was about to turn very bad. After having allowed herself to foster 2nd Round dreams, Oudin had her serve broken in back-to-back serve games in the 2nd set as Kudryavtseva won 7-5 and extended her run to seven straight games as she took a 3-0 lead in the 3rd. At 4-2 up, Kudryavtseva donated her break lead with a poorly-timed double-fault and unforced error as Oudin broke back to get on serve, 4-3 down. After both players held, at 5-4, Oudin's double-fault gave the Russian three match points. Oudin saved two, but not a third. Kudryavtseva won 3-6/7-5/7-5. It's a hugely disappointing loss for the American, not so much because of the defeat as the way it all played out. Maybe she would have won this match in New York with the U.S. crowd pushing her along, but she was far more negative on the court in Melbourne than she was last summer in Queens. She seemed to mentally hold onto her lost opportunity, and that was enough to allow a winnable match to slip away. Still, after some poor results immediately after her Open run last year, Oudin's close loss last week to Sara Errani and this one at least shows she moving forward rather than regressing. Her '09 slam results spoke more to her overall potential than her actual current level of play, and it's likely going to take some time for her to be able to put up such results consistently. Still, she's the third-best American player, with room to grow.

Venus Williams & Serena Williams: And how about those top two Americans? Well, they had pretty good days. Serena continued her unbroken run of 1st Round slam victories with her 41st over Urszula Radwanska (man, it's kind of spooky how much U-Rad's movements, physical appearance and attire resemble older sister Agnieszka), while Venus handily won an opener that might have proven to be an obstacle had a bad V day been accompanied by a good one for Lucie Safarova. Quite the opposite happened, however. The Czech, who's capable of rising up against a top player on occasion, committed twenty-eight errors in the sixteen-game 6-2/6-2 Williams win... that's an average of almost two free points for Venus in every game, by the way. While Serena's path to a potential SF meeting with her sister looks good, even with a potential Melbourne rematch with Victoria Azarenka looming (well, that's probably too strong a word) in the QF, Venus' isn't too shabby, either. Even with her poor recent Oz history, Venus' draw says she SHOULD reach the QF if she can avoid one of THOSE days, and possibly meet the likes of a Wozniacki, Li, Peer or Hantuchova there. With so many people lately referring to the "decline" of Venus, a SF (or better?) result here would surely throw yet another twist into the already-curling story of women's tennis in 2010.

Just two days in, the Sharapova loss aside, it feels like we're experiencing the calm just before the storm.

...Alicia Molik's three-set loss to Julie Coin on Night 2 on Laver makes the Aussie women 0-2 in night matches a year after Jelena Dokic road the nighttime timeslot all the way to the QF. Tomorrow night, Jay Leno plays Conan O'Brien.

Nah, not really. Justine plays Elena in the first of many potentially big clashes on the women's side.

...speaking of the Aussies, while Jarmila Groth has yet to play her 1st Round match, it's going to take a run by either Sam Stosur or Casey Dellacqua in order to keep up the recent tradition of a home favorite lasting more than half-way into the draw, since all the other Sheilas have already lost. Stosur took three sets to down qualifier Han Xinyun as she continues to be slow -- but hopefully surely -- learn how to handle the new mental pressure of nearly being a Top 10 player AND actually win matches, too. This is the second straight year she's started the season as if she's an elementary school student having just come back from summer break and is taking a while to get back into the swing of things.

...Some Match Results of Note: Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova won the final two games after the resumption of her match against Regina Kulikova, taking the final set at 6-3 in a contest that lasted an Oz women's match record 4:18. Francesca Schiavone won a wildly-scored one over Alize Cornet, 0-6/7-5/6-0. Sort of a mixed bag for Alize, but one with a lump of coal at the bottom. Karolina Sprem defeated #25 Anabel Medina-Garrigues, who is still searching for that first career slam QF result (a year ago, she reached the Round of 16 here and had maybe her best chance to break the string of futility, but lost to countrywoman Carla Suarez-Navarro), while Ekaterina Makarova upset #18 Virginie Razzano. And so-far-under-the-radar-she's-in-Antarctica Jelena Jankovic took out Monica Niculescu 6-4/6-0 (hmmm, I wonder if JJ heard in between sets that Katie O'Brien, her 2nd Round opponent, preferred to play HER rather than the Romanian?).

On the men's side, Yanina Wickmayer's fellow ban-jumper-turned-qualifier, Xavier Malisse, lost an 8-6 5th set against #26-seed Nicolas Almagro.

...Did You Know? - The Donald Young/Christophe Rochus match was delayed for forty minutes after a ball boy wet his pants. After all the clean-up procedures were completed, and one person was forced to ponder a moment that he'll likely never live down, play resumed.

...and, finally, Taylor Dent's in-progress comeback from all sorts of problems that would have easily ended the career of many a player is a wonderful thing, but one can't help but look ahead to the day when he's no longer in the game pretty much every time he makes a television appearance. In on-camera interviews such as last night's on ESPN2, he so easily dissects his own game and effortlessly communicates his opinions on the game as a whole that he would seem to be a natural for the television booth/studio. Prior to his retirement, Justin Gimelstob was also easy to identify as a future commentator, but his personal baggage prevents him from being much more than a background presence in telecasts. Jim Courier has been around for a while, but tends to be a little too amused by his own sense of humor for my taste. Dent might eventually be able to be an antidote to both.

Sofia Arvidsson, SWE (to play 1st Rd.)
Angelique Kerber, GER
Yvonne Meusburger, AUT
Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
Stephanie Cohen Aloro, FRA (to play 1st Rd.)
Casey Dellacqua, AUS
Jarmila Groth, AUS (to play 1st Rd.)
Justine Henin, BEL
Casey Dellacqua
Jarmia Groth (to play 1st Rd.)
Samantha Stosur

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 2. More tomorrow.


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