Monday, January 25, 2010

Oz 8: The Triumverate Tries Again

Throughout last year my "Decade's Best" series established the notion that the period of 2000-09 was about three things in women's tennis -- Russians, Belgians and the Williams sisters.

Well, the first slam in 2010 might end up adding yet another chapter to the story of that power-sharing Triumverate which has dominated the WTA at slam time for over a decade.

With quarterfinal pairings that allow for the possibility of an Australian Open semifinal round filled to the brim with players from the three seats of power, this slam could end up being far more unique than one might imagine. For, oddly enough, even while the Russians, Belgians and Williamses have dominated the slam title totals in recent years, only three times during their 2002-to-now timespan of hegemony have all three been represented in the semifinals of a single slam. Not only that, all four SF slots have only been totally filled by the Triumverate on two occassions.

[filled all four slots]
2003 Roland Garros - Henin-Hardenne/Clijsters/S.Williams/Petrova
2007 U.S. Open - Henin/Kuznetsova/V.Williams/Chakvetadze
[all three present, not all four slots]
2007 Australian Open - S.Williams/Sharapova/Clijsters (+Vaidisova)

In all, since the beginning of "Serena Slam" at Roland Garros in 2002, twenty-eight of the thirty-one crowned slam singles champions have been either Russian, Belgian or a Williams. And the three times that they weren't, either a Belgian had to be defeated in the final (Henin twice in '06) or a Russian once (Kuznetsova in '08), just weeks after the retirement of a Belgian (Henin again) threw a slam into total chaos.

*CHAMPIONS OF LAST 31 SLAMS, 2002 RG-present*
[triumverate winners - 28]
10 - Serena Williams, USA
7 - Justine Henin, BEL
3 - Maria Sharapova, RUS
3 - Venus Williams, USA
2 - Kim Clijsters, BEL
2 - Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
1 - Anastasia Myskina, RUS
[non-triumverate winners - 3]
2006 Australian Open - Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2006 Wimbledon - Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2008 Roland Garros - Ana Ivanvoic, SRB

At least one of the four slams has been claimed by a Triumverate player every season since 1999. 1998 was the last season in which the groups were shut out, as Martina Hingis, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Jana Novotna and Lindsay Davenport won slam titles. Prior to Serena's win at the '99 U.S. Open, the Russians, Belgians, and, naturally, Williameses were zero-for-history when it came to lifting major crowns.

When this period in women's tennis ends, whenever that may be, things will be so different that the four biggest weekends on the calendar will almost seem as if they involve an entirely new sport. While there's been much talk of the strangle-hold that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have had on the men's slam titles for the last few years, the decade-plus long and incredibly deep dominance by these three groups of players in a sport with athletes from so many different nations is a point of wonder all it's own.

...Serena Williams' trip to the QF was never in doubt against Samantha Stosur today. Her 6-4/6-2 win was fairly well a breeze. Truthfully, it was a very bad sign for Stosur that immediately after her 3rd Round win Williams had mentioned in an interview that she remembered that the Australian had beaten her last season.

Any sort of revenge or redemption is not something an opponent wants on Serena's mind when they hit the court together. Oh, well... better for Sam's psyche to be essentially run over by a Mack truck than to lose her bearing in the clutch after a nice AO run that maybe erased the opening weeks jitters that the Aussie had been displaying before arriving in Melbourne. Now, maybe she's good to go for that Top 10 run.

Serena, by the way, has yet to have her serve broken in this tournament and is 31-2 in her last 33 Australian Open matches.

...while Serena had an easy day, Venus didn't. In fact, for a while against Francesca Schiavone is looked as if the American's 2nd set difficulties against Casey Dellacqua were going to foreshadow her exit one round later. The Italian vet led by a set and a break at 6-3/1-0, and forehand errors by Williams in game #2 allowed a pair of break point opportunites to slip away. But rather than do what she's done so often in Melbourne in recent years, Venus' game didn't swiftly deteriorate en route to a defeat. She surged back to take the 2nd set at 6-2, then erased another early break deficit in the 3rd to win there 6-1. She's now one win away from her second (following the '07 U.S. Open) non-Wimbledon slam SF since reaching the final of the 2003 Australian Open.

Meanwhile, finally faced with stiff competition in Melbourne, Caroline Wozniacki was taken out in straight sets by Li Na 6-4/6-3, as the Chinese veteran reached the QF of her third different slam. C-Woz was a slow-starting breakthrough player a year ago, with slam results that went from two 3rd Round results in the AO and RG to a 4th Round at Wimbledon and a RU at the U.S. Open, and now she'll have to follow that same path in 2010. Her 4th Round starting point in Oz is an improvement on '09, at least.

...Serena Williams is the only 2009 Australian Open women's quarterfinalist to return there a season later. The final eight players who didn't make it back in 2010 are Marion Bartoli, Elena Dementieva, Jelena Dokic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Carla Suarez-Navarro, Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva. Things change in fast and furious fashion in women's tennis... but Serena, and the Triumverate, remain. Five of the men's quarterfinalists are repeaters from '09: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

...the contenders for "It Girl" for this AO would now seem to be down to Maria Kirilenko and Victoria Azarenka, while the winner of the Zheng Jie/Kirilenko match will likely win "Ms. Opportunity," though Nadia Petrova is still in the running there, as well. Possibly, Li Na, too. non-AO news, the new "ITF Player of the Week" is Luxembourg's Mandy Minella for her win the $25K in Lutz, Florida. Meanwhile, in action that took place before the start of Girls action in the AO, Oz Girls #1 seed Timea Babos of Hungary won the G1 event in Traralgon, Australia with a 6-2/6-3 win in the final over Sachie Ishizu to earn "Junior Star." Day/Night 8's final match, Victoria Azarenka showed all sides of her personality in defeating Vera Zvonareva to reach her first AO quarterfinal. With "fans" in the stands often immitating the "whooop" sounds she makes during her groundstrokes, she avoided getting irritated and even managed to laugh at herself when she missed an easy shot or two rather than slam rackets and make angry gestures toward the crowd (but her failure to put away multiple break points produced a slow leak that you just knew was going to lead to something later). Of course, that's not exactly the type of personality that will propel Azarenka to the next level in her career. Being uncharacteristically level-headed resulted in her falling behind Zvonareva on the scoreboard to the tune of 6-4/3-1 with game points on the Russian's serve for 4-1 (one of which was overturned via a replay challenge after Zvonareva had already headed for her seat thinking she'd held serve). Zvonareva eventually double-faulted on a break point and everything was back on serve in the 2nd set at 3-2.

It was right about there that things changed.

After trying to hold in her emotions all night, Azarenka finally cracked just a tad. In the next few games, the string of breaks continued as the Russian went ahead 4-2, then was broken again for 4-3. After literally waiting with her hands in a praying position for a replay to go her way, Azarenka's hopes were dashed when the call went her opponent's way. After uttering something, she went back to serve, but then a sight we became familiar with at the U.S. Open occurred yet again.

A linesperson, playing the role elementary school tattletale, ran up to the chair umpire to file a report. Azarenka was immediately given a warning for an obscenity violation. When queried, the umpire told the Belarusian, "You said the F word." Azarenka didn't seem to buy it, or maybe she did (the smirk on her face could have been interpreted either way), but her reaction to the moment was impressive. Pulling her best John McEnroe, she came back stronger after releasing a bit of anger and frustration and played better than she had before.

She held serve for 4-4, after the failed replay challenge had put her behind 0/30 in the game, and then proceeded to sweep every game the rest of the match, ending things with a ten-game winning streak in a 4-6/6-4/6-0 victory. After dropping the 2nd set, Zvonareva was broken in the opening game of the 3rd in a seven-deuce, six-break point battle. She soon afterward nearly turned her injured left ankle, and seemed tentative the rest of the match while the inspired Azarenka got better and better. A day that could have ended in anger and frustration for the 20-year old Belarusian turned into one of triumph, while the Russian continues to struggle with an injury that she incurred last spring, not to mention a continued lack of belief (though this time minus the smashed equipment, tape slapping and crying stints) that reached a crisis point in the U.S. Open last year when she blew those six match points against Flavia Pennetta.

...and, finally, about that obscenity violation warning that Azarenka incurred. It ended up seeming to work to her advantage, as it appeared to focus her mind on the task at hand. But, again, much like how events transpired during the Serena incident in New York, it rubbed me the wrong way. I understand the rules say that a linesperson is supposed to report such things to the chair umpire, but the WTA/ATP can't possibly NOT see that the image of a linesperson running to the umpire ala a kindergartener telling on a classmate isn't an horrific image.

My opinion is this: issue the warning/penalty only if the obscenity is loud enough for the umpire to hear it him or herself. Or, if the umpire isn't sure what was said, it'd be fine for the linesperson to be called to the chair to report what, if anything, they might have heard from their more advantageous position. Such a thing might have righfully happened at the U.S. Open. But, really, this immediate running to the tell the teacher thing has just got to stop. I think it makes the sports look like a bad joke.

"You said the F word." "No I didn't." "He says you did." "Well, I didn't." Blahblahblah.

Andre Agassi may not have been totally on the mark when he said "image is everything" all those years ago, but when it comes to rules that force the sport to resemble an elementary school playground where Sally tattles on Timmy because he said "a bad word" when he stubbed his toe jumping off the monkey bars, it's just plain ridiculous. Sometimes, image IS everything. And this isn't a good one.

In fact, I hate it with a passion. I say I hate it with a you-know-what passion, but someone might tell on me. Seriously, an athlete can't utter a curse word on the field of play? Even if it's partially directed toward an official, which wasn't necessarily evident in the Azarenka situation, that's an awfully high standard. Tennis is MMA fighting, but it isn't chess, either.

If the sport wishes its linespeople to be anonymous officials there to only make calls then this current set up isn't the way to do it. After the small incident here, all cameras were focused on the linesman. And anytime the U.S. Open lineswoman is seen in the future, her unwanted role in that summer drama will remain, as well.

Again, the Serena incident is a bird of a different feather compared to this one, but still. What's an F word or two between friends and enemies? I mean, they've written whole books on the subject, after all.

=Top Half=
31 - Venus Williams
AO: 1998,1999,2001,2002,2003,2008,2010
RG: 1998,2000,2002,2004,2006
WI: 1998,1999,2000,2001,2002,2003,2005,2007,2008,2009
US: 1997,1998,1999,2000,2001,2002,2005,2007,2008
29 - Serena Williams
AO: 2001,2003,2005,2007,2008,2009,2010
RG: 2001,2002,2003,2004,2007,2009
WI: 2000,2001,2002,2003,2004,2007,2008,2009
US: 1999,2000,2001,2002,2004,2007,2008,2009
3 - Li Na
AO: 2010
WI: 2006
US: 2009
3 - Victoria Azarenka
AO: 2010
RG: 2009
WI: 2009
=Bottom Half=
19 - Justine Henin
8 - Nadia Petrova
2 - Zheng Jie
1 - Maria Kirilenko

#1 Serena Williams/USA vs. #7 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
#16 Li Na/CHN vs. #6 Venus Williams/USA
(WC) Justine Henin/BEL vs. #19 Nadia Petrova/RUS
Zheng Jie/CHN vs. Maria Kirilenko/RUS

#1 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #6 Nikolay Davydenko/RUS
#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/FRA
#9 Andy Roddick/USA vs. #14 Marin Cilic/CRO
#5 Andy Murray/GBR vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP

TBD vs. #7 Kleybanova/Schiavone (RUS/ITA)
#15 Kirilenko/A.Radwanska (RUS/POL) vs. Peers/Robson (AUS/GBR)
#6 Raymond/Stubbs (USA/AUS) vs. #13 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA)
#8 Mattek-Sands/Yan (USA/CHN) vs. #2 Williams/Williams (USA/USA)

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Butorac/R.Ram (USA/USA)
Kohlmann/Nieminen (GER/FIN) vs. F.Gonzalez/Ljubicic (CHI/CRO)
TBD vs. #3 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND)
Clement/J.Erlich (FRA/ISR) vs. #2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB)

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 [4th Rd.]
IT GIRL: xxx
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.
LAST SHEILA STANDING: Samantha Stosur/AUS [4th Rd.]

All for Day 8. More tomorrow.


Blogger Karen said...

Oh Todd, you know that this sport does not encourage that kind of behaviour. These are supposed to be ladies here. Playing a genteel upscale sport. How dare they curse on the field of play. Now the men now, they have to let off a little bit of steam. They can scream, curse at the umpire (not the lines person), break racquets and let fly the F-bombs and all you hear is laughter in the commentary booth and a titter on message boards and a "oh that (insert name of male player here) he is such a passionate person when he is playing. And then they would have us think that there is no double standard in this sport. Whatever.

Mon Jan 25, 05:53:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...


Oops, I mean... #!*#@-ing :D.

Mon Jan 25, 07:58:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Did you two ever notice that the f-word queen, Lindsay Davenport, was never, ever given a warning? Don't get me wrong--I'm glad she wasn't--but obviously players really do get singled out for special treatment.

Tue Jan 26, 12:16:00 AM EST  
Blogger Jeppe said...

The success of the Chinese players is a surprise. They are very fine players, but low profile compared to the rest of the top players. How would you tenniswriters spin an all-Chinese womans final?

The Russians seems to be slipping, and could very well be without a top 5 player after the clay court season ...

Tue Jan 26, 07:53:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Diane - everyone will probably have itchy trigger fingers (or happy feet, as the case may be where linespeople are concerned) for that Serena/Azarenka match, huh?

Jeppe - in the U.S., it'd probably get very little attention, truthfully (except for wiseacres who'd want to lump it in with the coming "Chinese world domination plot"). Surely not as much as a Williams/Henin match would. Ironically, a slam final with two players from the world's most populated nation would probably get the lowest ratings ever.

But, then again, more American fans would know players such as those two if ESPN & the rest chose to show them more. (That the Zheng/Kirilenko contest got live full-match coverage sort of shocked me last night).

If we do get Li/Zheng, I'm sure it'll be billed as a contest of Li, a "more entertaining" hard-hitting player whose game resembles more closely the top players, vs. Zheng, whose defensive/scrambing abilities make her the underdog. Truthfully, it'd be an intriguing matchup for those who chose to watch. Unfortunately, ESPN2 would likely have a hard time selling it to the masses (sort of like when Kuznetsova/Dementieva met in that all-Russian primetime U.S. Open final back in '04 rather than at least one of the sisters, who the late-starting final was devised to showcase/take advantage of in the first place).

Funny thing is, even with so large a talent pool and so much pre-Olympic funds put into the Chinese tennis organization, not many of them have been all that successful in singles. Peng has been a disappointment, Li has been injured often and Zheng's style of game, while entertaining, makes her the underdog against most of the top players. Maybe as the Chinese players are more Westernized, as has already started to happen when it comes to allowing them to keep prize money and select coaches and devise schedules, all that promise will start to be seen more often.

Yeah, the Russians might dip a bit this year if Safina and Kuznetsova's (not to mention Zvonareva) fortunes slide, but there always seems to be a new wave. I assume they'll still have an incredible advantage in total Top 20/50 and 100 players, so there's always the chance for a breakthrough player to crop up.

Tue Jan 26, 03:52:00 PM EST  
Blogger AIr said...

welcome to sprocket

Wed Dec 01, 09:13:00 AM EST  
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Wed Jul 06, 11:36:00 PM EDT  
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Wed Jul 06, 11:40:00 PM EDT  

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