Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Oz 3: A Rolling Henin 2.0 Gathers No Moss

Elena Dementieva understands what it's like to have her serve betray her yet have to figure out how to win matches anyway. So far in LPT 2, Justine Henin has often had to do the same. On Night 3 of the 2010 Australian Open she did just that, sending the #5 seeded Russian packing in yet another memorable match in the Belgian's seven-matches-old comeback.

In 2004, when Dementieva reached two grand slam finals, she managed to do so with masterful groundstrokes that compensated for a serve that's unconventional-bordering-on-tragic appearance usually left onlookers aghast. But, to paraphrase the words of fashion guru Tim Gunn, she "made it work." Last night on Rod Laver Arena, Henin was faced with a serve that threatened to turn this once-in-a-lifetime unlikely 2nd Round meeting into a circus. The serve, newly altered for her return to the WTA (but saddled with a toss that has been so inconsistent that the resulting calamity it tends to set up played a major role in her only LPT 2 loss in the Brisbane final against Kim Clijsters), started off poorly, got better, and then very nearly caused another match to be squandered.

Of course, I said "almost." For Henin, even after twenty months away, is still "La Petit Taureau."

The second game of the match was a perfect example of the baggage Henin is forcing herself to carry in these early stages of her comeback. Down 1-0, she engaged in a 22-point, eight-deuce, four-double fault, three-break point game that she still somehow managed to win when Dementieva's forehand error tied the score at 1-1. The back-and-forth nature continued throughout the set, as both committed more errors than winners but never saw the levels of their games significantly drop even while they traded breaks of serve. Serving at 4-5, after falling behind love/30, Henin was spared having to defend one set point chance, thanks to a backhard error by Dementieva at 30/30, but still soon found herself a point from falling behind in the match. The Belgian saved one set point with an aggressive volley, then another with a forehand winner to knot things at 5-5. After Dementieva led 40/15 on her own serve in the next game, Henin battled back with more aggressive tactics. A backhand volley broke the Russian, then in the next game a forehand volley at 15/30 prevented Henin from digging yet another hole from which she'd have to climb. On Henin's third set point, Dementieva was unable to return a deeply-placed Henin groundstroke.

Henin took the set at 7-5 in one hour and twenty-three minutes, winning out by employing the aggressive net play that she's more than once stated she intends to make the hallmark of her comeback and her attempt to finally win the one slam that has so far eluded her on the grass at Wimbledon. The opening set showed she has the skills to pull off such a new style of play, while the 2nd showed it to be a vital key to her ability to survive in the treacherous WTA waters while her serve continues to resemble an uncompleted chapter of a well-researched tome.

In the 2nd, the pattern continued. Dementieva would gain a break of serve, then Henin would break back. A 2-0 Dementieva lead turned into 2-2. 4-2 became 4-4, the latter after Henin held after trailing 30/40. Henin served for the match at 5-4, and held a match point, but was broken. She immediately broke the Russian to take a 6-5 lead and serve for the match again, but Dementieva broke back for 6-6. It was the eighth straight game won by the player who was returning serve.

In the deciding tie-break, Henin's famous guile once again was called upon. Dementieva grabbed an early 3-1 lead, and very nearly went up 4-1. A well-placed defensive lob by Henin, returned by a scrambling Dementieva, was followed up by a powerful Henin forehand that forced an error by the Russian at the baseline. At 3-2, Henin had prolonged her life in the set. Within moments, after finally hold back-to-back service points, Henin led 4-3, when went up 5-3 after a Dementieva backhand sailed long.

But Henin's service toss difficulties weren't over yet.

With the match on her racket for a third time, a bad toss led to a double-fault that tied the score at 5-5. After dropping her second point on serve, Henin faced another set point. Again, her new forward aggression saved her, as a swinging volley winner tied things again at 6-6. From there, Henin spread her wings while Dementieva's contracted. The Russian left a drop shot attempt short to give the Belgian a second match point. With the match on her racket for the fourth time, and with her past serve difficulties waging an internal battle against her and Carlos Rodriguez's new plan for success, Henin did what any would-be Wimbledon champion would do -- she played serve-and-volley tennis. After resetting herself after an errant toss, Henin delivered one of her best serves of the match, then followed it into the net and put away Dementieva's return with a definitive volley.

Henin dropped her racket, looked toward the player's box and clenched both fists. The look on her face seemed to broadcast her excited realization in the moment. "I can really do it this way. I can."

7-5/7-6(6) in 2:50. And thus future history might well have been set on its unalterable course.

Even while sporting just a 36% 1st serve percentage in that 2nd set, Henin found a way. Her 35-for-43 numbers at the net leading the way to victory, Henin can now say that while she failed to convert match points against Clijsters and lost, she didn't allow the same thing to happen against Dementieva here. More match play and practicing her serve will likely close up the remaining cracks in her game. She's not far away from being able to do whatever she desires on the court... in fact, that day might even be less than two weeks away.

Feed bad for Dementieva, though. After defending her Sydney title and handling #1 Serena in the final there, she had every reason to deserve to leave Australia feeling good about her prospects for the 2010 season. But, now, she's left with the knowledge that an inconsistent LPT 2 effort is still enough to beat her at her seeming best, while Williams points toward bigger goals than a second-tier WTA event final, Clijsters continues to look better and better, and Sharapova sets her sights on putting Melbourne behind her and becoming the top-ranked Hordette again by the end of the season.

While the Russian can understand the serving drag on Henin's game, one feeling that Dementieva can't share with Henin is how great it is to win a grand slam title. Henin has experienced the elation on seven different occasions, but now Dementieva's career slam record is 0-for-45. If "the best player without a slam title" is ever going to win one she'll now have to make history to do it. No woman has ever taken more than forty-five slam appearances to win a singles crown (Jana Novotna's '98 Wimbledon title in #45 is the longest-ever wait), and with the field of slam contenders deep and getting more dangerous it looks like it's going to take an act by the Tennis Gods for Dementieva to make history.

While Dementieva is so far pulling an "o-fer," might LPT 2 be able to go 1-for-1? With her swift progression toward her goal of replicating her "old" self's feats with "new" Justine trademarks (the on-court ones, not ones like her new-found "freedom" to visit different restaurants on successive nights during a slam, a practice she says she used to consider a big no-no), it's not out of the question. Obviously, the service toss that is so wreaking havoc with her ability to hold serve will have to be corrected if she's to continue to advance in this tournament past the likes of Clijsters (though she DID hold match points against her in Brisbane even with her toss yips holding her back) or regain her past slam dominance over Serena Williams, it's easy to see her at least playing on the final Saturday of this event with a chance to set off yet another case of fireworks in the middle of the women's game. Even if it doesn't happen in Melbourne, Henin is already looking like the Roland Garros favorite again, and her new aggressive net tactics can only serve her well at Wimbledon, where she's already a two-time finalist.

Rarely has a match highlighted the difference between a "very good" player and a "great" one. The great ones figure out a way to get it done, while the rest wish they could do the same. Just two tournaments into her comeback, Henin is already starting to resemble the former.

She's not there yet, but she can see her destination from here.

...even though half the 2nd Round matches have yet to be completed, the "Upset Queens" and "Revelation Ladies" have been crowned (well, barring some truly wild Day 4 occurrences).

The Russians are the "Upset Queens," led by Maria Kirilenko (def. #14 Sharapova) and Ekaterina Makarova (def. #18 Razzano), and with assists by "semi-upsets" from Alla Kudryavtseva (def. Oudin from 3 MP down) and #27 Alisa Kleybanova (def. Dokic and Cirstea). The Germans are the "Revelation Ladies," with qualifer Angelique Kerber already into the 3rd Round, and 2nd Round matches still pending after opening round wins by Sabine Lisicki, Julia Goerges, Andrea Petkovic and Kristina Barrois.

...Jelena Jankovic easily dispatched Katie O'Brien 6-2/6-2 on Day 3. Hmmm, I wonder what the score would have been had the "dangerous" Monica Niculescu faced off against O'Brien, as the Brit stated she feared might happen the other day? Meanwhile, Kerber knocked out Aravane Rezai. I suppose the Frenchwoman was "impressed" by the German. Caroline Wozniacki had an unusually easy time of it in her latest match against Aleksandra Wozniak. Sofia Arvidsson defeated Aussie Jarmila Groth to become the fourth and final qualifier to reach the 2nd Round. And Yanina Wickmayer, now apparently past her early-round jitters, knocked off #12 Flavia Pennetta 7-6/6-2 to notch her eleventh straight victory going back to last year's Tournament of Champions, from which she withdrew after just one match immediately following the WADA's ruling.

In doubles, the meeting of the Williams Sisters and the all-Aussie pair of Sophie Ferguson and Jessica Moore had the potential to be akin to watching an ugly car wreck, but the sisters "took it easy" on the youngsters, winning just 6-1/6-1 rather than by some even more embarrassing scoreline.

...Mary Carillo was talking about a potential Martina Hingis comeback during the Henin/Dementieva match. Hey, why not? Her two-year banishment is now over, and since EVERYONE ELSE has imitated her comeback move (from Clijsters and Henin to Molik and Date-Krumm) she can become the first of the bunch to "un-retire" for a SECOND time. Hmmm, could a "Spice Girls" reunion be in the future? There was a prediction earlier this year by Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim that a certain Miss Kournikova would attempt a comeback in '10.

...while the Juan Martin del Potro/James Blake match, which took place simultaneously with Henin/Dementieva, was great, it was a tad annoying how ESPN2 completely sucked the energy out of the coverage of the women's match in order to stick with the drama of the men's 2nd Rounder, which was ultimately won by the Argentine 10-8 in the 5th. Moving back and forth between matches is fine, but as Henin and Dementieva were trading momentum in the 2nd set, the men's match was the one shown 98% of the time, even to the point of the network moving away from Henin's attempt to serve for the match to show the two men sitting in chairs during a changeover while getting medical treatment. Chris Fowler attempted to occasionally keep viewers informed when each woman's serve was broken, and it's a good thing since only once do I remember an on-screen graphic updating the score. Henin's failed attempt at a match point at 5-4 was never shown, and I wonder if the ultimate end of the contest would have been, either, had del Potro not finally put away the match before what turned out to be the match-ending 2nd set tie-break in the women's 2nd Rounder. Considering any U.S. viewers who were watching the coverage live were doing so at either 5:30-6 am East Coast time, or 2:30-3am West Coast, it might have been a good idea to attempt to show some good will to those loyal viewers and cover both exciting matches. Such a feat can and has been done quite well in the past. All it takes is a director who knows what he or she is doing.

...and, finally, ESPN/ABC/Disney is constantly touting it's wildly-overblown "announcer swap" project (really, we could have down without Elisabeth Hasselbeck on SportsCenter), but so far the Australian Open coverage hasn't been effected. I know a certain Baltimore native who'd be a good candidate to be temporarily replaced... I mean, she could provide a report or two about why the Colts shouldn't go to the Super Bowl, right? Speaking of...

Pam Shriver's overcompensation for her past ill words thrown in the direction of two Belgians continues. Now, apparently, Henin and Wickmayer are her new BFF's. She's been talking up Wickmayer for a week, and at the top of last night's telecast again made a point to note that the Henin/Dementieva match wasn't the only "big" one of the day, since Wickmayer could upset Pennetta (a pick she'll likely now be given much credit for calling by her ESPN2 colleagues). Her line during the Henin/Dementieva match, though, was the topper. Remember, back in '06, PS led the charge in lambasting Henin for her retirement in the Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo. Acting as if Henin had given the evil eye to a beloved relative, Shriver shouted loudly and often about how the retirement would "tarnish her career forever." Last night, two-thirds of the way into the nearly-three-hour match, she marveled, "I think there was something missing from women's tennis the past twenty months. In the last hour and fifty-three minutes I just remembered what it was." Even when she says the right thing, her history makes every comment drip with disingenuousness... even if, in her mind, it really doesn't. She's definitely no Meryl Streep when it comes to taking every word out of her mouth sound sincere. Still, she skillfully pulled off her post-match interview of Henin, making it appear as if she's always loved what the Belgian brought to the sport. Oh, if Justine only knew.

2004 Hungary
2005 Russia
2006 Spain
2007 Czech Republic
2008 Russia
2009 France
2010 Russia

2006 Italy
2007 Belarus
2008 Poland
2009 Kazakhstan
2010 Germany

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)
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: Maria Sharapova/RUS ('08 champ, lost 1st Rd. to Kirilenko/RUS)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: [Temporary: Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS down 3 MP to Oudin/USA in 1st Rd.]

All for Day 3. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

You may not know this, Todd, but it was only a few days ago that Shriver again criticized Henin for retiring in the 2006 match.

But I understand. I have a list of things Henin has done that make me feel less than warm toward her, but she is good--very good--for women's tennis.

Thu Jan 21, 11:51:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, both opinions can co-exist. But, as you know, Shriver always goes "all in" when she gets on a topic, so anytime she changes even her tune slightly she sounds a bit phony.

Case in point, Wickmayer. :D

You know, ESPN2's coverage would be so less "interesting" without Pam. ;)

Thu Jan 21, 03:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

True on all points!

Fri Jan 22, 09:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger AIr said...

welcome to sprocket

Wed Dec 01, 09:11:00 AM EST  

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