Monday, January 11, 2010

Wk.1- Act 1, Scene 1 (2010)

All in all, whether it be in Brisbane, Auckland or, yes, even San Rafael, it was a good week to be a racket-wielding female tennis player from Belgium.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

With U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters the top seed and Justine Henin returning from an twenty-month absence in the same event, the main focus of the WTA world in Week 1of the 2010 season was unquestionably in Brisbane. From the start, there was the potential for an ultra-intriguing all-Belgian final, but even the most optimistic observer couldn't have expected the match that resulted when the pair did ultimately meet over the weekend.

I know the season is barely a week old, but it's safe to say we have our first nomination for the 2010 "Match of the Year." I can't remember such an occurrence happening so quickly very often, if ever, in recent years. But that's exactly what the first Clijsters/Henin meeting in three and a half years turned out to be -- a 2:30 spellbinding, stemwinder. that was, in a sense, four different matches rolled into one as Clijsters was able to beat back an almost shockingly resilient Henin in just the fifth match back in her comeback, surviving two match points and twice losing seemingly insurmountable leads herself before managing to finally win her first title in Australia since 2007, 6-3/4-6/7-6(6).

In rare hard-charging, walking-on-air form, Clijsters grabbed a 6-3/4-1, two-break lead, as nearly her every shot was working while Henin's serve and forehand inconsistency threatened to make her day a short one. If not for the diminutive Belgian being able to deflect a handful of break points and hold serve in several crucial moments, it would have been, too. But when Henin escaped one of her service games, then immediately broke a suddenly-unbalanced Clijsters at love, the "old Kim" that so often blinked in the face of a La Petit Taureau challenge returned. Henin reeled off eight straight games and took at 3-0 lead in the 3rd set.

Henin served at 5-3 in the deciding stanza, but was broken. At 5-4 on Clijsters' serve, Henin held two match points, with the first a setter serve that begged to be whacked for a match-claiming winner and a possibly demoralizing loss for her Belgian countrywoman. But Henin missed the shot. Her ever-present battle with her forehand mechanics raged all day, and perhaps combined with being a touch TOO eager to forcefully blow the ball past Clijsters and raise her first in triumph, she directed the return into the middle of the net. It would turn out to be her last best chance to win the match. Clijsters rebounded to hold serve there, then force a tie-break after holding in a twelfth game of the set that saw Henin creep to within one point of having a third match point.

In the tie-break, the momentum moved back and forth like the tide on an Australian beach, as everyone watching had to be trying to figure out what it all meant, if anything, for the pair beyond just being a great way to end a sterling opening week clash. Clijsters ran to a 4-0 lead in the tie-break, then was within a point of the title at 6-3. But that's when Henin came charging back again. At 6-6, it again looked again like Henin would step on Clijsters' heart. But that's when Henin's serve tipped the balance in favor of her opponent, as a double-fault (her eleventh of the match) stopped her momentum cold and gave Clijsters another match point. This time, she converted for career title #36.

Whether or not she's now going to be a "new" Kim against Henin in the future, THIS TIME she wasn't. It'll be interesting to see how her survival in Brisbane effects the rest of her season, which will be her first FULL one since 2006 (and maybe '05, considering her wrist problems in '06).

How do we judge Henin's comeback after just five matches? Well, even with expectations so high, maybe even more so from herself, it can be seen in both light and dark tones. After she defeated Nadia Petrova in the 1st Round, she said, "I feel better today than when I retired, that's for sure. Better emotionally, mentally. Better with myself, and that makes a big difference." Even after failing to win that "should-have" point on her first match point against Clijsters, and the obvious fine tuning that needs to be made to her forehand and new service motion, Henin said after the final that she “can't be disappointed, especially when you have match points. I can be proud of what I did."

Afterward, Henin pulled out of Sydney with a leg injury she said she developed during the final, but one thinks that it's simply a precautionary move to make sure she's ready for Melbourne (ask Dementieva about playing too much before Oz last year, and she hadn't been off tour for a year and a half). Obviously, while she's not fully geared-in just yet, Henin showed against Clijsters that she can still raise her game in crucial moments and push a recent slam winner to the brink just a week into her comeback. She's pretty close to being ready to challenge for everything she desires on a tennis court again. How will she look by summer? From here, pretty good. Slam-winning good.

Clijsters, too, can leave Brisbane with her head held high... with a slight caveat. Her great, adrenaline-fueled start in the final was close to as well as she's ever played, and maybe her most focused set-and-a-half in her now twenty-three career matches against Henin. But then she fell victim to nerves (or "scar tissue" from her past against Henin, as the announcer on Tennis Channel so winningly dubbed it) once again against a relatively "green" Henin, as least compared to the form she'll surely sport the remainder of the year as she becomes more battle-tested in LPT2. Down the line, a sharper Henin won't likely squander that match point she scraped and clawed for here. Still, Clijsters will at least have the memory of Brisbane to draw upon the next time she gets into a similar tussle with her longtime rival.

Raise your hand if you want to see THAT match, as quickly as possible.

This result might not mean a change in direction of a rivalry that has mostly been dominated by Henin in all the areas that matter -- a 5-2 record in slams, and 7-4 in finals heading into Brisbane -- but at the very least it could usher in a more competitive period (think Serena vs. Venus in recent years, as opposed to their early lackluster meetings) where matches like this between the two are common.

Actually, Clijsters/Henin was the FINAL act of this Belgian-dominated tennis weekend. In a normal week, what Yanina Wickmayer did in Auckland would be more than enough to talk about. In true "in your eye" fashion, the 20-year old Waffle went to New Zealand with a Top 20 ranking and slam semifinal appearance in hand -- but not a wild card entry into the Australian Open main draw -- and won her third career title, taking out #1 seed Flavia Pennetta by an easy 6-3/6-2 score.

Wickmayer's year had already been going pretty well, as her one-year ban for violating the "whereabouts clause" was previously overturned by a Belgian court and she arrived in Auckland and immediately defended herself, pointing out that she had never failed or missed a drug test, and in fact was known to be playing in tour events during the times when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sought to punish her for failing to report her location. It wasn't as if she was off "training" at some remote mountain site, as will surely be the case with a few Tour de France riders who come under suspicion later this year.

"I'm happy the way everything turned out," Wickmayer said. "This week will stay in my heart and soul for the rest of my life." Hopefully, her comments against the WADA ruling won't come back to haunt her should the overturning of her ban end up being flipped once again in the final stage of this battle.

Ah, but that wasn't the end of the almost-comical Belgian hegemony in Week 1. The cherry on top of the sundae came in the junior ranks, as An-Sophie Mestach won a G1 event in San Rafael. What comes next is anyone's guess.

Speaking of, if Henin had won Brisbane it'd have been hard to pick against her in Melbourne, even with the randomness of the women's draw possibly placing her unseeded self against a top player in an early round (she's already avoided a meeting with Serena, who she'd been set up to possibly meet in the early rounds in Sydney). I'll still likely be picking Serena to defend her title, but Henin (who I DID pick as RU in the AO in my pre-season picks) sure LOOKS like she's going to be a contender to win another slam in just her second tournament back. Clijsters, too. Hmm, didn't KC win a slam in her THIRD event back? Right out of the box, then, there's a chance for Henin to surpass Clijsters on that front after nearly doing so in Brisbane.

Though she might have to denote her entire career earnings to keep up with Kim in the public relations front when it comes to basking in the applause she so obviously courts when her charitable acts are announced for the first time in front of thousands of people, as occurred during the post-match ceremony this weekend. Not that I doubt the sincerity of her desire to give her prize money the Brisbane Royal Children's Hospital, but her seemingly terminal (no pun intended, obviously) case of love-me-kiss-me-hug-me can't help but bring out the cynic not exactly hiding in the shadows when it comes to all the "look what I did, isn't it great? Now applaud." announcements at tournaments. Would she have done the same thing so publicly had Henin won the match, and would it have been looked at as a way to "show-up" the tournament champion? Interesting question, I think. But, that's an issue for another day, isn't it?

All other long-standing issues aside, if this weekend was the first salvo in a hoped-great season, 2010 might turn out to be even better than anyone ever imagined.


BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA (Int'l $220K/hard court outdoor)
S: Kim Clijsters def. Justine Henin 6-3/4-6/7-6
D: Hlavackova/Hradecka d. Czink/Parra-Santonja

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND (Int'l $220K/hard court outdoor)
S: Yanina Wickmayer def. Flavia Pennetta 6-3/6-2
D: Black/Huber d. Grandin/Granville

HOPMAN CUP; PERTH, AUS (Team Exhibition/Hard Indoor)
F: Spain (Martinez-Sanchez/Robredo) def. Great Britain (Robson/Murray) 2-1

HONG KONG, CHINA (Team Exhibition/Hard)
F: Russia (Sharapova/Zvonareva/Kafelnikov) def. Europe (Wozniacki/Azarenka/Edberg)

maybe Kim has turned a corner in her career, when it's a matter of which player plays BEST on a given day in matches against top players on big stages, rather than whether or not she finds a way to squander an advantage (or her opponent implodes, ala you-know-who last summer). As much as I've had fun batting around "old" Kim over the years, if a "new" one means more matches like the one against Henin, then I suppose it'd be worth it to have her around. Though, of course, I'd prefer a somewhat different ending next time.
RISERS: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL, Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP & Ana Ivanovic/SRB
Wickmayer's wins over Julia Goerges, Ioana-Raluca Olaru, Kimiko Date-Krumm, Shahar Peer and Pennetta in the face of the pressure of playing her first event since she made world news in a way no athlete wishes to is the sort of result that makes you want to fall in love with the Belgian as a player. Hey, SOMEONE around here pretty much did that a few years ago with another Belgian, I believe. MJMS may not have won her singles match in the Hopman Cup final, but she and Tommy Robredo still rallied to put away the team of Laura Robson & Andy Murray in the mixed doubles match against Great Britain that won the title for Spain. Meanwhile, Ivanovic, back with a new/old coach, a supposedly better training regimen, and with some additional Oz support courtesy of her dating relationship with Aussie golfer Adam Scott, went to Brisbane and at least didn't stub her toe to start what might just be a very important year for her looking-to-fly-again career. After defeating Jelena Dokic and Timea Bacsinszky in three set matches, she took down Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to reach the SF. She lost there to Henin, but the '08 AO runner-up is back... well, maybe. We'll see. Possiby. You get the idea.
SURPRISES: Andrea Petkovic/GER, Andrea Hlavackova & Lucie Hradecka/ CZE and Shahar Peer/ISR
Petkovic is a past WTA titlist (Bad Gastein '09), but it's still something of an eyebrow-raising result when she manages to reach a tour SF when everyone is watching. She did it in Brisbane, losing to Clijsters after notching wins over Iveta Benesova, Vania King and Daniela Hantuchova. After winning one title as a duo all last season, the under-the-radar Czech doubles team of Hlavackova/Hradecka opened the season with one in one week in Brisbane. As far as Peer goes, she wasn't really a "surprise" semifinalist in Auckland, but in a week where she got "good" news (Dubai "promised" to grant her entry into the country to play the tournament there next month, though I believe we've heard that story before and this qualifies for the first "I'll Believe It When I See It" Award for the new season) and "bad reviews" (Auckland protestors called for her to pull out of the event because of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians -- which I'm sure Peer would have done if she could just have gotten Benjamin Netanyahu to stop talking her ear off on her cell phone) it was nice to see that she, as usual, simply went along with her business without getting sidetracked with things that she has no control over.
COMEBACKS: Justine Henin/BEL, Alize Cornet/FRA & Sesil Karatantcheva/KAZ
Nadia. Check. Sesil. Check. Czink. Check, with a bit more fight than expected. AnaIvo. Check. Kim. Umm, well, there's one to add to Justine's "To Do" list. Cornet already looks better than she did a year ago. Wins over Marina Erakovic and Elena Vesnina (1 & 1 against the '09 Auckland RU) gave her an early QF result in New Zealand, and she's already gotten a 1st Round win in Hobart over Alexandra Dulgheru. And, finally, is 2010 the year that we get reacquainted with Sesil? She qualified in Brisbane with wins over Chan Yung-Jan and Evgeniya Rodina, then got a 1st Round victory over Casey Dellacqua.
VETERANS: Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA & Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN
after following up their '08 ten-title season with just five last year, Black & Huber got off to a good start in Auckland by claiming their 28th career title as a duo. Date-Krumm, 39, reached the Auckland QF with wins over Anna Chakvetadze and Virginie Razzano, then qualified in Sydney and has opened play there with a 1st Round win over Petrova.
FRESH FACE: Laura Robson/GBR
at least the 15-year old Brit was self-aware enough to know that it was very "convenient" of her to finally win her first match in the Hopman Cup FINAL (over MJMS) after having gone 0-3 in round robin play. Still, with a ranking in the #400's and a load of pressure on her shoulders, she's obviously progressing on the court with her competitive matches against older players and RU result with Andy Murray in Perth, as well as holding onto the cheekiness that threatens to win over more fans than any player has any "right" to expect, as long as she continues to flash the charm she showed in her post-match interview, where she did an impersonation of her mother and quickly noted that everyone in Britain was sleeping (it was around 4am there) when the on-court interviewer asked her to say something to all the people watching back home.
DOWN: Anna Chakvetadze/RUS, Samantha Stosur/AUS & Ekaterina Bychkova/RUS
Chakvetadze's slide continues unabated, as she went down 1 & 2 in the 1st Round of Auckland against Date-Krumm, then lost in Hobart qualifying to Elena Baltacha. Stosur went 1-2 in Hopman Cup play, then was kicked out of Sydney in the 1st Round courtesy of a 6-3/6-1 loss to Pennetta. Every year, it takes Stosur a while to remember how to play winning tennis. Looks like it'll be the case in '10, too. Li Na was going to share this award after losing in the 1st Round as Auckland's #1 seed, but her 1st Round upset of Caroline Wozniacki today in Sydney spares her the dishonor (although it highlights the maddening inconsistency in her results). In her place, Bychkova gets the nod after being fined $5000 and suspended for a month after failing to report an attempt to garner inside information from her in a match-fixing scheme.
ITF PLAYER: Aleksandra Krunic/SRB
the 16-year old Serb won the $50K challenger in Quanzhou, defeating China's Zhou Yi-Miao in the final, after having defeated Bojana Jovanovski and Naomi Broady earlier in the event. It was her fourth career ITF crown, but the other titles came in $10K tournaments.
JUNIOR STARS: An-Sophie Mestach/BEL & Sachie Ishizu/JPN
the previously-mentioned Mestach, 15, gets a nod for her win in the San Rafael G1 final over Monica Puig of Puerto Rico (as well as a nice SF defeat of Veronica Cepede-Royg), while 17-year old Ishizu's week ago Casablanca Cup win in the first 2010 Grade A event (she, too, defeated Puig in the final, in 58 minutes) gets her an additional nod. Of note, the Casablanca Cup doubles title was won by the all-Canadian team of Marianne Jodoin and Gabriela Dabrowski.

1. Bris F - Clijsters d. Henin
This was the Belgian pair's first match since they met in the 2006 Wimbledon SF (Henin won 6-4/7-6), and their first hard court matchup since Toronto '05 (Clijsters 7-5/6-1). Interestingly, this one's final numbers bore a striking resemblance to their '03 Berlin meeting, when Henin won 6-4/4-6/7-5 after Clijsters failed to convert any of her three match points. Henin won Roland Garros weeks later... not that that means Clijsters is going to do the same in Melbourne.
2. Bris 1st Rd. - Ivanovic d. Dokic
Last year, prior to her Oz QF run, Dokic opened with a 7-6/7-6 loss to Mauresmo. Today, she got a Hobart win over Elena Baltacha.
3. Bris QF - Henin d. Czink
Czink saved five match points before finally going down.
4. Bris QF - Clijsters d. Safarova
A typically frustrating result for Safarova. After wins over Groenefeld and Wozniak, she pushed KC but lost... then retired in her next match against Kateryna Bondarenko in Hobart.
5. Auck F - Wickmayer d. Pennetta
Get everything in now while you can, Yanina. You know, just in case.
6. Auck SF - Pennetta d. Schiavone
"Gee, thanks, TEAMMATE."
7. Hopman Cup Final/Women's Singles - Robson/GBR d. Martinez-Sanchez/ESP
Robson came back from 3-5 in the 2nd, and won on her fifth MP. MJMS might face Serena in Sydney. Note To Serena: Play Nice.
8. Hong Kong F/Singles #1 - Sharapova/RUS d. Wozniacki/EUR
Is the Supernova ready to reappear in Melbourne? Considering the AO heat and her past history, will C-Woz be adversely effected by the new rule for treatment of cramps in slams (treatment can only come in changeovers, and a player would have to forfeit points to get to a changeover if immediate medical attention was necessary)?
9. Hopman Cup rr - Lisicki/GER d. Dementieva/RUS
The opening of the season has been strange for Lisicki. She got a big win here, but didn't fair as well later (losing to Shvedova, being pushed by Robson). Then, today, she lost to Victoria Azarenka in Sydney after serving at 5-4 in the 3rd set. Of course, the 75 unforced errors against Belarusian surely tells a tale, doesn't it?
10. "Here We Go Again?," by Vera Zvonareva
the Russian pulled out of her Hong Kong match with Azarenka after having issues with the ankle she injured last spring in Charleston. Today, she retired after six gams against Elena Vesnina in Sydney. This is not good.

41...Justine Henin, BEL
41...Venus Williams, USA
35...Serena Williams, USA
20...Maria Sharapova, RUS
14...Elena Dementieva, RUS

3 - Belgium (Clijsters/Henin/Wickmayer)
2 - Italy (Pennetta Schiavone)
1 - Germany (Petkovic), Israel (Peer), Serbia (Ivanovic)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA (Premier $600K/hard court outdoor)
09 Final: Dementieva d. Safina
10 Top Seeds: S.Williams/Safina

S.Williams d. Pennetta
Dementieva d. Kuznetsova
Dementieva d. S.Williams

...Dementieva, who'll be looking to tie Jana Novotna's late-career record with a slam victory in her 45th career event right after Sydney, defeated Serena in the Sydney SF a year ago en route to her second of back-to-back early season titles. Fewer matches, but still good form, might give her a better shot in Melbourne. The SF slot opposite Williams was going to be filled by Jankovic, then she lost today to Agnes Szavay. Insert Wozniacki. Whoops, then she lost to Li. So, Pennetta it is.

HOBART, AUSTRALIA (Int'l $220K/hard court outdoor)
09 Final: Kvitova d. Benesova
10 Top Seeds: Medina-Garrigues/Peer

Cornet d. Kudryavtseva
Peer d. Wozniak
Peer d. Cornet

...both of them deserve some good mojo heading into Melbourne.

ALSO: Australian Open qualifying

All for now.

NEXT: Australian Open preview & "Time Capsule: Dokic Down Under"


Blogger Zoé said...

Well done with your prevision of Sidney's final. I'm happy Elena defeated Serena.
But it's too bad she will have to face Justine in Melbourne... Well, may the best win.

Fri Jan 15, 06:42:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, talk about a tough luck draw. I was actually hoping to be able to pick both Henin and Dementieva for my Australian Open SF predictions.

Fri Jan 15, 10:29:00 PM EST  
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