Sunday, January 24, 2010

Oz 7: Belgian v. Belgian... for your entertainment



It was a case of Belgian vs. Belgian... just not the exact all-Belgian matchup that everyone was talking about a week ago.

But where Kim Clijsters crashed out for no apparent reason in the 3rd Round the other day, neither Justine Henin (as has been proven time and time again) nor Yanina Wickmayer (as we've been learning for months now) seem characteristically incapable of not, when healthy, giving their best in a big match when so much glory is just within their grasp and getting closer and closer every day.

Going in, this 4th Round match appeared to rest upon seven-time slam champ Henin's long-held ability to play the important points better than her 20-year old countrywoman. Thing is, as the match wore on, Wickmayer showed more than a passing ability to "pull an Henin" and out will her opponent. If only she'd had another opponent on the other side of the net, or maybe even another Belgian.

For the most part, Henin DID play the big points better. But it wasn't easy.

Henin closed down a break point opportunity on her serve early in the 1st set, but Wickmayer's well-timed aggression forced her fellow Belgian into errors that provided her with three opportunities to claim the opening stanza. Up 6-5, she carved out a trio of set point opportunites to jump ahead. But Henin wiped away one set point by pushing Wickmayer wide to one side of the court then shooting a backhand winner down the line on the other, then erased another with a forehand crosscourt shot that went behind a scrambling Wickmayer on the baseline. On the third, Henin's penetrating forehand forced an error, then she took the set to a tie-break with a backhand short-court winner to the corner. In the tie-break, Henin achieved the first mini-break with a backhand winner that gave her a 5-3 lead, then swept the second of Wickmayer's serves with a forehand. Finally, employing the tactic that she's used more than once in this tournament in tight situations, Henin played serve-and-volley tennis on set point to close out the tie-break and take a one set lead.

In the 2nd, Wickmayer said a great deal about her immediate future when she did anything but go away in the face of the frustrating fact that she so narrowly dropped the 1st set. She broke Henin's serve in the first game of the set (the final point came on an Henin double-fault), and never pulled back from the pressure. She got an important second break to go up 4-1, and continued to force Henin errors en route to knotting the match with a 6-1 2nd set win.

Finally, in the 3rd, it was all about Henin rising to the occasion. Realizing Wickmayer wasn't going to give away the match, Henin must have understand that she was going to have to take it from her. And that's just what she did.

Henin broke Wickmayer to begin the set, winning seven straight points. With a lead in hand, Henin seemd to offer little resistence during many of Wickmayer's serve games and instead focused on holding her own serve and avoiding the sort of ever-more-squirrelly first serve percentage that nearly sank a few of her previous comeback outings. The gameplan seemed to work, but when Henin slipped while taking a wide step to get to a backhand on the edge of the court in a 4-3 service that went to deuce, the crowd gasped as she nearly fell. She scrambled back into the point as Wickmayer sailed a ball long... but she then doubled over and tested her right leg, not the one she's had taped ever since the Dementieva match in the 2nd Round. Once she appeared to realize she was all right, it was almost as if she immediately decided that the time was right to put on a full court, every game blitz and take out her opponent before it was too late.

Henin held serve for 5-3, then hit a beautiful backhand passing shot by Wickmayer at the net to grab a 30/15 lead on her opponent's serve. She stepped in to slap forehand winner on a second serve to get to match point... and then she went right back to her new "tried and true" -- aggressive play at the net. When a short ball gave her an opportunity to end a third consecutive match with a volley winner, Henin jumped at the chance.

Hit forehand volley. Celebrate eighth victory in nine matches. Final score: Henin def. Wickmayer 7-6(3)/1-6/6-3.

Now, only one Belgian remains in Melbourne. The pre-tournament script that saw Henin trumping Clijsters' slam-title-in-her-third-event-back feat last summer in New York is still viable, and only Nadia Petrova seems capable of preventing her from at least making an appearance in the final of her first slam in LPT 2. And the Russian sports a hardly-encouraging 2-12 career record against La Petit Taureau.

Unless the WADA's efforts are ultimately rewarded, this won't be the last big match Wickmayer appears in in 2010, but it's Henin who still has work to do in this Australian Open.



*DAY 7 NOTES*
...in the last women's match to be completed on Day-turned-to-night 7, Maria Kirilenko advanced to her first slam QF when Dinara Safina retired down 5-4 (she had led 4-2 and seemed in complete control) after tweaking her nagging back injury. This sort of thing is precisely what I was fearing going into this tournament, and wondered if it was even wise for her to play Down Under at all if her back wasn't sound. After all, she had some history-making late season defeats in '09 while dealing with the injury, and then had to pull out of her opening match in the WTA Championships because of it, too.

Not that anyone on ESPN2 possessed such should-be-rudimentary knowledge about the world #2.

When Safina retired late last night/early this morning, apparently after the likes of Mary Carillo, Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver had all retreated back to their hotel rooms after the Henin/Wickmayer match was over, only Darren Cahill was around to provide any commentary on the incident. Safina was in obvious pain, so he concluded that the injury must be real and that she wasn't "faking it." Maybe she came into the tournament with an injury, he theorized.

Really? You think?

You'd have thought someone would have had a note tucked away somewhere about this situation. Surely, Chris Fowler, who covers a great deal of women's tennis, knew it. But, perhaps because he never seems to want to show up a colleague's lack of knowledge or semi-ludicrous statements (see below), he didn't say anything, either. Finally, almost half an hour later, studio host Chris McKendry must have had a little birdie whisper something in her ear, because she said that "apparently" Safina has been dealing with the back injury for many months. I won't jump on McKendry for the comment, partly because I've always enjoyed her work going back to when she covered sports for a local Washington D.C. station a few years ago, but also because she's been very upfront this week about the holes in her tennis knowledge, as she has very little experience covering the sport to this point in her career.

But, come on, NO ONE knew about this when it happened and was able to relay the information to the viewer, and instead brought up the insame notion that she might even consider faking an injury in the 1st set of a slam 4th Round against an unseeded opponent? Sheesh.

...meanwhile, earlier in the day, Nadia Petrova's march to what could potentially be a thought-unlikely slam SF (or better) -- hey, looks like another of those Christmas list items I talked about in last season's WTA Yearbook has already sort of arrived on the doorstep of Backspin HQ, wrapped up with a colorful bow -- continued unabated with her 6-3/3-6/6-1 win over Svetlana Kuznetsova. It gives her a win over the reigning Roland Garros champion to go with her win over reigning U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters. You know, technically, Henin is a "reigning" RG champ, too, since she won the last three times she played there. Nadia faces her next. If by some miraculous event (Petrova's already lost to Henin in an exhibition in December and in her first match back in Brisbane) she reaches the final, she could see reigning AO and Wimbledon champion Serena Williams on the other side of the net.

She couldn't actually pull off such a run, could she? Oh, Nadia.

...Zheng Jie's close straight set win over Alona Bondarenko means the Chinese vet is now one win away from her second career slam SF. She'd be the first Chinese player to do such a thing, just as she was the first to EVER reach a slam SF at the '08 Wimbledon. She'll face Kirilenko.

Of course, if you'd been watching the bottom-of-the-screen ticker during ESPN2's coverage of the AO night session in the early morning hours, you'd have sworn that Bondarenko had won since an incorrect result was run there for hour after hour.

...QUICK PREDICTION: Wickmayer will reach her second career slam SF by the end of 2010.

...hmmm, apparently I wasn't the only one impressed by a dress that gave the "illusion" of a bottomless Venus chasing down shots in Melbourne.

...U.S. Open Girls champ Heather Watson, the #2 seed here, lost her 1st Round match to China's Tang Hao-Chen 6-1/4-6/6-1.

...as always, it was informative to listen to Martina Navratilova do commentary on Tennis Channel. During the Williams/Williams vs. Hlavackova/Hradecka match, as she often does, she provided the to-the-syllable correct pronunciation of the two Czech players' names. It's always good to hear these things at least once on tennis coverage, especially since after all these years you'll sometimes still find people pronouncing Jelena Dokic's name incorrectly.

...and, finally, sometimes you can't but wonder what her ESPN2 colleagues think of ol' Pammy Shriver when she sometimes shoots off a thoroughly wild notion from the tip top of her head. Last night, 4:36 into the Juan Martin del Potro/Marin Cilic match, del Potro grunted a few times during a particularly physical point. Afterward, from her position alongside the court, Shriver said she thought his noises could be penalized by the "hindrance" rule since he hadn't grunted in points earlier in the match.

The tumbleweed-blowing-across-the-deserted-western-ghost-town silence that emanated from the announcing booth was almost comical. None of the assembled ESPN2ers uttered a single word in defense of or in opposition to her more-than-sort-of off the wall assertion. You could almost picture Fowler & Co. looking at each other, rolling their eyes and mouthing, "Is she nuts? Where'd that come from?" to the person sitting next to them... especially since Fowler had only moments earlier marveled at how del Potro's grunts showed how hard he was still working so late in his second four hour plus match of the tournament.

Of course, the del Potro/Cilic match was finished not long afterward, while the Henin/Wickmayer match was still in play for most of the 3rd set once the men had wrapped things up. Shriver wasn't dispatched to provide any courtside commentary on that one, though. Hmmm, I wonder if someone in charge simply figured that since there were no Russians involved in the match, there was no need to play a version of Shriver Roulette in that one after her "performance" at the Open last September. Better safe than sorry.





*CAREER SLAM QUARTERFINALS*
=Bottom Half=
19 - Justine Henin
AO: 2002,2003,2004,2006,2008,2010
RG: 2001,2003,2005,2006,2007
WI: 2001,2002,2003,2006,2007
US: 2003,2006,2007
--------------------------------------------
8 - Nadia Petrova
AO: 2006,2010
RG: 2003,2005
WI: 2005,2008
US: 2004,2005
--------------------------------------------
2 - Zheng Jie
AO: 2010
WI: 2008
--------------------------------------------
1 - Maria Kirilenko
AO: 2010
--------------------------------------------

SLAM "ZOMBIE QUEEN" WINNERS*
=2007=
WI: Venus Williams, USA - 1st: 2 pts. from loss to Kudryavtseva; 2nd: Morigami served 5-3 in 3rd
=2008=
AO: Jelena Jankovic, SRB - 1st: saved 3 MP vs. Paszek, wins 12-10 in 3rd set
RG: Dinara Safina, RUS - 4th: saved 2 MP vs. Sharapova; QF: saved 2 MP vs. Dementieva
WI: Nicole Vaidisova, CZE - 2nd: point from down 6-3/0-6/0-4 to Stosur
US: Jelena Jankovic, SRB - close wins over Zheng (3rd) and Wozniacki (4th, 3 sets), reaches final
=2009=
AO: Dinara Safina, RUS - 4th: saved 2 MP, down 5-2 in 3rd to Cornet
RG: Victoria Azarenka, BLR - 3rd: down 7-5/4-1to Suarez-Navarro, wins set before darkness
WI: Dinara Safina, RUS - 4th: down set & break, 3-0 in 3rd to Mauresmo
US: Flavia Pennetta, ITA - 4th: saved 6 MP in 2nd set vs. Zvonareva
=2010=
AO: Justine Henin, BEL - 3rd: down 3-6/1-3 15/40 to Kleybanova [preliminary winner]



*WOMEN's ROUND OF 16*
#1 Serena Williams/USA vs. #13 Samantha Stosur/AUS
#9 Vera Zvonareva/RUS vs. #7 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
#4 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN vs. #16 Li Na/CHN
#17 Francesca Schiavone/ITA vs. #6 Venus Williams/USA
(WC) Justine Henin/BEL def. (Q) Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
#19 Nadia Petrova/RUS def. #3 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
Zheng Jie/CHN def. #31 Alona Bondarenka/UKR
Maria Kirilenko/RUS def. #2 Dinara Safina/RUS

*MEN'S ROUND OF 16*
#1 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #22 Lleyton Hewitt/AUS
#9 Fernando Verdasco/ESP vs. #6 Nikolay Davydenko/RUS
#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. Lukusz Kubot/POL
#10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA vs. #26 Nicolas Almagro/ESP
#9 Andy Roddick/USA def. #11 Fernando Gonzalez/CHI
#14 Marin Cilic/CRO def. #4 Juan Martin del Potro/ARG
#5 Andy Murray/GBR def. #33 John Isner/USA
#2 Rafael Nadal/ESP def. Ivo Karlovic/CRO




TOP QUALIFIER: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): xxx
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xxx
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
REVELATION LADIES: The Germans
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL [4th Rd.]
IT GIRL: xxx
MS. OPPORTUNITY: xxx
COMEBACK PLAYER: Justine Henin/BEL
CRASH & BURN: Maria Sharapova/RUS ('08 champ, lost 1st Rd. to Kirilenko/RUS)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: [Temporary: Justine Henin/BEL down 3-6/1-3 15/40 to Kleybanova/RUS in 3rd Rd.]
LAST SHEILA STANDING: Samantha Stosur/AUS [in 4th Rd.]
DOUBLES STAR xxx
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: xxx




All for Day 7. More tomorrow.

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