Friday, January 22, 2010

Oz 5: Belgians Wobble, but Only One Falls Down

"It sucks."

That's what Kim Clijsters said in her post-match press conference following her astonishing disappearing act in her 3rd Round match against Nadia Petrova, a 6-0/6-1 loss that ranks as her "worst" career defeat (her previous low game total for a match came in a 6-0/6-2 Miami loss to Serena Williams in 2001). Having "one of those days" when absolutely nothing worked, every failure was soon followed by another, and her frustration led to very "un-Clijsters" moves such as slamming a racket and cursing her actions on the court, this match might have been a perplexing nadir for the Belgian's entire career. Truthfully, she was very fortunate to not be served a double-bagle by a Petrova pulling off as clean a match as maybe she's ever played.

Clijsters hit just five winners, as opposed to twenty-six unforced errors, in the less-than-an-hour match. It was a performance that came out of nowhere, as she was in arguably the best form of any of the contenders in the first two rounds and entered Melbourne having defeated Justine Henin in the Brisbane final after saving match points in just her countrywoman's fifth match back of her comeback. ESPN2 commentators Mary Carillo and Pam Shriver openly wondered whether a potential rematch with Henin in the quarterfinals might have played on her mind... much like was speculated here about how Jelena Jankovic might react to the notion of having to face La Petit Taureau in the late stages of a tournament.

So was it an inadvertant "semi-tank," to borrow the phrase used by Chanda Rubin many years ago to describe a particularly uninspired performances by Jelena Dokic? I don't think so, and I'd more suspect some distraction/injury/illness that Clijsters didn't mention in her post-match comments. This was more like a bad Dinara Safina performance than an "old" Kim one. Still, at the very least, it'll put her future '10 matches under a microscope as everyone looks to see if any of her past mental cracks might have been re-opened by her by-the-skin-of-her-teeth win in Brisbane against a fledgling LPT 2, and Henin's own continued heroics in Melbourne.

Speaking of Justine. She very nearly was sent packing on Day 5, too. But unlike Clijsters, she reeled back in a match against an opponent who blinked just enough to allow Henin to get into a staring match with her and ultimately prevail.

Alisa Kleybanova was outhitting a tired-looking (and thigh-taped) Henin for a set and a half. The Russian led 6-3/3-1 40/15 on Henin's serve, but a pair of unforced errors allowed THIS Belgian to rise from her knees and get back into the fight. Henin held and then, in the changeover, Kleybanova betrayed her own issue with the day's heat, asking for an ice bag.

They say, "never let them see you sweat." Kleybanova did.

In the next game, Henin finally got her FIRST break point of the match (she actually had zero forehand winners up to that point, too). She converted it for 3-3, and then everything changed. Two games later, Kleybanova held to knot the score at 4-4 after Henin had held a break point for 5-3, but the Russian's double-fault on set point two games later gave the Belgian the set at 6-4. Henin grabbed a 3-0 lead in the 3rd, and saw Kleybanova get back on serve with a break for 3-2. But Henin immediately broke back, and that was pretty much all she wrote.

Ala her 2nd Rounder against Elena Dementieva, Henin put away the match at the net with a volley to close out a 3-6/6-4/6-2 win that continues her string of fabulously gutsy performances in her eight-match comeback that is but one point from being unbeaten. Again, she didn't play well for the entire match, but she won the BIG points and outclassed her opponent when it mattered most.

It's tempting to say that she's going to run out of gas before she can cross the finish line next weekend, but then I think back to how she overcame her marathon '03 U.S. Open semifinal against Jennifer Capriati and took out Clijsters in the final the next day, how she won a Gold Medal in Athens in '04 even while fighting the cytomegalovirus, then overcame personal off-court difficulties to have her career year in '07. As impressive as her comeback mettle has been so far, this is really just "normal" for her, as amazing as that is to realize.

Oh, and the third Belgian? Well, Yanina Wickmayer got a hard-fought three set victory over Sara Errani to reach her second straight slam Round of 16 with her twelfth straight match win. She'll face Henin next.

Today, though, it was all about Kim and Justine... Yanina will get her moment in the spotlight in two days. Whether she performs like Clijsters or Henin today could totally re-write the script for this slam.

...ummm, here's where I salute Nadia Petrova for one of the best results in her entire career, and hope that it isn't followed up by one of those forgettable performances that often come after such a "perfect" outing. Petrova faces countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Round of 16, with the winner meeting the Henin/Wickmayer survivor (Nadia's already lost to Justine twice this year in close matches, once in an exhibition and again in Brisbane).

While Petrova's game looked in fine shape against Clijsters, I was especially struck by how SHE looked physically. With so many injury-filled seasons in recent years, her fitness has often been slightly off at the beginning of the season, while she noticably would get into better shape as the year progressed. She looked in fine early-year form on Day 5, so much so that even her face looked "slimmer."

Hey, if a day like this is the result of much hard work in the offseason, then she deserves yet another pat on the back.

...hmmm, maybe that Tennis magazine prediction that Jelena Jankovic will "fade away" this year was a good one (though the jury's still out on the accompanying prognostication that AnaIvo will regain her past form in '10). While JJ wasn't as invisible as Clijsters was against Petrova, she surely was a thin shadow of her former self against Alona Bondarenko.

Jankovic held a 9-0 career record against the Ukrainian. Essentially, A-Bond was Jankovic's "HER"... whenever JJ is playing Henin. That wasn't the case on Day 5, though. With her movement more than a step off, all the inadequacies in her game were put on full display. The lack of a service weapon. The lack of pop to challenge a harder-hitting opponent. JJ was pretty much professionally naked out there on Hisense.

Watching her play, Jankovic admirers couldn't help but keep hope alive that a Queen Chaos match was about to break out and she'd rise from her own ashes. But it didn't happen. Bondarenko won 6-2/6-3 to reach her first career slam Round of 16.

...Jankovic wasn't the only "name" player to lose in the bottom section of the draw. Marion Bartoli, who usually pulls off good results in slams, went down to Zheng Jie. What it all means is that Dinara Safina's obstacles to yet another slam SF -- and another chance to slip on a banana peel after having gulped down the tasty fruit herself and absent-mindedly tossed aside the refuge directly in her own path -- is Maria Kirilenko, Bondarenko or Zheng.

Maybe Dinara IS a glutton for punishement, after all.

...Angeligue Kerber's three-set loss to Kuznetsova leaves Wickmayer as the official "Last Qualifier Standing." Meanwhile, Henin's advancement to the Round of 16 gives her the "Comeback award for this slam, which was already pretty much a fail accompli once she knocked off Elena Dementieva.

...and, finally, some kudos for Pam Shriver. Rather than jab at ESPN2 for the very annoying practice of having their announcers turn off their microphones and discuss between themselves and their director what they should talk about next, all the while with their voices being picked up by a another nearby microphone and transmitted in the background over the air, I'll say something nice.

Shriver was all over Clijsters' march toward oblivion. The Belgian's "walkabout" was detected by Shriver at 0-1 40/40 of the 1st set. She said Clijsters looked "disheveled," and "not settled." Later, Mary Carillo said that Clijsters didn't look right even in warm-ups, but it was Shriver who was the one who noted it during the coverage, while Carillo proceeded to follow her lead after the fact. First wins, so the nod goes to PS.

2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Yan Zi/Zheng Jie, CHN
2009 Jelena Dokic, AUS
2010 Justine Henin, BEL

(3rd Rd.) Olga Savchuk/UKR
(2nd Rd.) Anne Kremer/LUX, Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS, Tamira Paszek/AUT, Julia Vakulenko/UKR, Renata Voracova/CZE
(4th Rd.) Marta Domachowska/POL, Hsieh Su-Wei/TPE
(2nd Rd.) Elena Baltacha/GBR, Alberta Brianti/ITA, Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL
(to 4th Rd.) Yanina Wickmayer/BEL

TOP QUALIFIER: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Kim Clijsters/BEL
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.- Henin/BEL def. #5 Elena Dementieva/RUS 7-5/7-6
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
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL [in 3rd Rd.]
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., or Justine Henin/BEL down 3-6/1-3 15/40 to Kleybanova/RUS in 3rd Rd.]
LAST SHEILA STANDING: [Samantha Stosur/AUS & Casey Dellacqua/AUS to 3rd Rd.]

All for Day 5. More tomorrow.