Monday, March 22, 2010

Wk.11- Smells Like Queen Chaos

Ladies and gentlemen, your WTA Smile Ambassador.

That's her over there in the fluorescent green tennis dress. I mean, you could hardly miss her. Here, use these sunglasses, if it helps. You probably remember her from that recent television commercial with the guy on the horse, or at least Jelena Jankovic's own possible version of it as she stared into the bathroom mirror each morning over the past year, psyching herself up for the long-term task that she found on her breakfast plate after having climbed to the top of the women's rankings at the end of 2008:

"Look at Queen Chaos, now back at me.
Sadly, I am not Queen Chaos.
But I could be again.
Look at Queen Chaos, now back at me.
I am no longer Queen Chaos, but I know that one day I could smell like Queen Chaos... again.
Yes, I'm still that player that that player used to smell like."

Or something like that. But, either way, that all might have changed in Indian Wells. Queen Chaos may have been reborn.

After the string of big-name upsets in the first week of the tournament threatened to give the event a "B-league" feel, the chaotic nature of the draw was a ridiculously easy invitation to insert the notion that Jankovic might ultimately rise from the ashes in the form of some sort of Serbian Phoenix dressed in "superhero" garb. I mean, come on... "let chaos reign?" Like a Belgian tennis star being made into a plastic Barbie doll (with a version of her actual child serving as an "accessory") that looked nothing like her or any other human being, it HAD to be too good to be true. Then again, ol' QC was never known to pass up an afternoon to step into the spotlight... and wouldn't you know it that she'd have that priceless green number tucked away in her closet just for such an occasion, too.

Bringing a touch of HER own "old spice" back to her game, Jankovic -- naturally, after surviving a near-upset bid, which was always the norm in QC's heyday, too -- spent much of her time on court in I.W. reminding us, and maybe even herself, just what got her to #1 in the first place. Incredible movement, clever point construction and the ability to pick her in-point spots and step into her shots as soon as her opponent gives her an opening to steal a long rally with one down-the-line winner. She surely never forget her recipe for success over the past fifteen months, but the spark that used to be behind it was lost along a rocky path that included a misguided offseason training program, designed to add power to her game, that produced so much muscle that it literally caused her to be forced to lug the additional bulk around the court, robbing her of her best athletic asset -- her quick footwork. With off-court worries with mother Snezana and her late grandmother nagging at her usual inner light, Jankovic still managed to push through to two titles in '09 even while seeing her ranking fall from #1 to #8 as many forecast that her "flash-in-the-pan" rise was destined to fade out and usher her into tennis oblivion.

That Jankovic won one of the biggest non-slam events on the calendar in Indian Wells, notching victories over the likes of the Peer's, Kleybanova's, Stosur's and Wozniacki's of the tennis world, is a fine thing. But how she did it was probably more important. She did it by returning to the roots of her game, rather than dreaming of being some souped-up version of JJ 2.0. The original might not have been perfect, nor able to knock off the likes of Henin or Serena in the crunch... but so what? THAT JJ worked for her -- and us -- and was just good enough to make one believe that on a good day she might be able to clear some of those career hurdles that she'd so far failed to leap, though hardly because of a lack of trying. Rather than try to be something she isn't, JJ learned over the past two weeks that being herself isn't so bad, and that simple tweaks can lead to small improvements in a player's game that can produce far better results. She didn't need to build the latest J-bot model from the ground up, she just needed to tighten a few bolts and update some of the software.

Just bending the ear of Chip Brooks, the Bollettieri Academy tennis director who served as JJ's part-time coach in Indian Wells, seems to have worked short-term wonders. Ricardo Sanchez was great in the good ol' days, but sometimes players just need a fresh set of eyes to help them see things right in front of their face. Hopefully, Brooks' wisdom will stick with JJ. If not... hey, at least he helped everyone catch a brief and entertaining glimpse of Queen Chaos again after too long a time away.

A smiling Jelena is a happy Jelena, and the WTA landscape just got a little bit brighter... even if (or especially because?) a certain Serb acted as if she wasn't quite up to lifting that heavy Indian Wells trophy (she eventually did). You know it's a good sign of things to come when a post-match ceremony includes one of those oh-so-JJ moments like the "I can't lift it" one that arrived right on schedule after Jankovic handily dispatched of Caroline Wozniacki in the final. With some players -- well, one -- such an attention-grabbing move might seem cloying, but with JJ it's just a case of her compelling quirkiness being allowed to roam free. She was just being herself. Thank goodness that she finally CAN be again.

And that's all we can really ask, isn't it?

[Well, then again, maybe we COULD ask for Jelena to have "QC" stitched onto the chest of that green dress... you know, just to play up the role to the hilt. Just a minor request.]


INDIAN WELLS, CALIFORNIA USA (Premier 9 $4.5m/hard outdoor)
S: Jelena Jankovic def. Caroline Wozniacki 6-2/6-4
D: Peschke/Srebotnik d. Petrova/Stosur

career title #12 comes more than seven months after #11 arrived in Cincinnati, but it proves that JJ isn't incapable of learning from her own mistakes. She need not fade away after climbing to a high altitude, only to stall out once she got there. Too many promising players tend to do such a thing, ultimately wallowing in their own underachievement, losing confidence and intensity as soon as the easy ride starts to become a little bumpy, then watching their lack of belief transform a temporary slump into a potentially career-deadening, soul-crushing, self-fulfilling prophecy. Ana, Anna and Nicole, to name a few (though that last one is techically a "former" player now after finally proving what's been pretty obvious for almost two years now -- that she really didn't care anymore), could learn a lot from watching how Jankovic has handled her latest dance with the tennis demons. Jankovic perhaps cared TOO much, and worked TOO hard to improve her lot in the sport. In Jelena's case, being a bit of a bull-headed dreamer with a flair for both dramatic entrances and exits worked. She never gave up on the belief that she could recapture what once made her such a joy to watch and, after much trial-and-error, here she is holding up (well, struggling to do so, at least) the trophy for claiming the biggest prize of her career. Through chaos comes catharsis?
RISERS: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN & Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
after surviving a 1st Round scare against Vania King (down 4-1 in the 3rd), a fitter C-Woz hit her stride in Indian Wells. Substituting that comeback for the decided lack of momentum she had coming into the event, she added a few additional aggressive moves (some worked, some didn't... but at least the effort was apparent) to her normal defensive-minded gameplan and rode a wave into the final after leaving the likes of Zheng Jie, Nadia Petrova and Agnieszka Radwanska in her wake. She finally met her match in Jankovic in the final, but her belated season-"starting" fortnight was enough to push her to #2 in the new rankings. A-Rad, for her part, always manages to pull great results from her racket bag while everyone's attention is diverted to nearly every other player in the Top 10 BESIDES her. She did it again in I.W., reaching the SF on the back of second week wins over Marion Bartoli and Elena Dementieva (the latter by a surprisingly quick 4 & 3 scoreline).
SURPRISE: Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP
MJMS's abilities in both singles and doubles are known at this point, but who'd have thought that the tall Spaniard's disappointing I.W. doubles result (QF) would be buoyed by an accompanying singles QF outcome built upon a pair of upsets over Yanina Wickmayer and Victoria Azarenka?
COMEBACK: Katarina Srebotnik/SLO
Srebotnik's comeback from injury began late in '09, and she managed to get a doubles title in Linz to mark her minor return. Her Indian Wells doubles win Kveta Peschke, her twenty-first career doubles title, is a bit more substantial.
VETERANS: Samantha Stosur/AUS & Kveta Peschke/CZE
even while she's focusing more on singles these days, Stosur remains a dual threat player. Last week was a good example. She reached the singles SF after getting wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, '09 I.W. champ Vera Zvonareva and MJMS, then reached the doubles final with Nadia Petrova. Today she climbed into the singles Top 10 for the first time, meaning she's now a Top 10er in both disciplines. The only other women who can currently say that? Try Venus and Serena. Sling that. Meanwhile, Peschke, who didn't win a doubles title at all in '09, won her second in the first three months of 2010. With Hobart already in her back pocket, her I.W. win with Srebotnik counts as the biggest title claimed so far in her 15-crown career.
FRESH FACE: Alisa Kleybanova/RUS
all right, so she already "graduated" to Riser status a few months ago. But, hey, that category was chocked-full. So, a come-from-behind win over Love Me Barbie and victory against Carla Suarez-Navarro to reach the Indian Wells QF, which have now pushed her to within earshot of the Top 20 (#22), are thus used to slide her into THIS particular slot for Week 11.
DOWN: Belgian Barbie/BEL & Vera Zvonareva/RUS
last Monday, the player who's now almost seven months past that slam win in New York (yes, it's already been that long) continued her 2010 downward progression in Indian Wells. After opening the year with a title, then nearly being double-bageled by Nadia Petrova in the Australian Open, barely escaping an exhibition match against the mostly-no-account AnaIvo in MSG and blowing a 4-2 3rd set lead against Venus in the final, she fumbled away a 3-0 3rd set lead against Kleybanova in the 3rd Round in California, then a 4-0 tie-break advantage. As it is, she's STILL the second-ranked Belgian... and Justine just entered the rankings at #33. With Paris just a few months away, might Jada Accessory Required be feeling La Petit Taureau's breath on her ranking neck before spring's end? Meanwhile, in a matter of hours, Zvonareva went from defending I.W. champ to 4th Round straight sets loser to Stosur, then saw her ranking officially fall from #14 to #23 today.
ITF PLAYER: Chanelle Scheepers/RSA
the South African won the $25K challenger in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, getting wins over Johanna Larsson, Arantxa Rus and Sophie Ferguson in a 7-5/7-5 final.
the 16-year old, a surprise Australian Open semifinalist in January after notching wins over Heather Watson, Yana Buchina and Silvia Njiric in Melbourne, defeated Caroline Garcia in the final of the Sarawak Chief Minister's Cup in Kuching, Malaysia. It's her first career Grade 1 title.

1. IW 3rd Rd - Kleybanova d. Nadia's Melbourne Roadkill
Henin escaped the Russian's wrath in Melbourne.
2. IW 3rd Rd - Jankovic d. Errani
Errani led 4-2 and was up 40/love on JJ's serve in the 3rd. After saving four break points there, then nearly squandering away a 5-1 lead in the tie-break, Jankovic finally put away the match in 2:48. Ah, it's nice to have HER back.
3. IW QF - Wozniacki d. Zheng
Zheng made C-Woz step up her game in order to win. The same didn't happen in the final against Jankovic.
4. IW Final - Jankovic d. Wozniacki
Jankovic broke serve in the first game of the match, then raced to a 4-0 lead. By the time C-Woz eventually got herself into the match it was too little too late.
5. IW 3rd Rd - Martinez-Sanchez d. Azarenka
Maybe the most surprising result of last week. Azarenka attempts to defend her Miami title this week.
HM- IW 4th Rd - Stosur d. Zvonareva
Hard to believe, but this is the first time this season that a defending singles champion has actually been defeated in a WTA event. Previously, five players have defended titles, seven didn't return to the event, and Amelie Mauresmo retired as the reigning Paris Indoors champ.
HM- $10K Antalya Final - Julia Mayr d. Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor
The Merry Wheel of Mayr turned once again on the ITF tour. Julia won her second challenger crown of the season, tying sister Evelyn for a share of the circuit's season lead. Evelyn lost in the 2nd Round.

8...Elena Dementieva (3/3/2)
8...Serena Williams (4/3/1)
7...Dinara Safina (4/3/0)
7...Venus Williams (3/2/2)
6...Caroline Wozniacki (3/3/0)
5...Maria Sharapova (3/1/1)
5...Vera Zvonareva (2/2/1)

10...Justine Henin
10...Serena Williams
8...Venus Williams (2010: Dubai)
7...Maria Sharapova
6...JELENA JANKOVIC (2010: I.W.)

**2010 WEEKS IN TOP 10**
[of 12 weeks, as of March 22; CAPS: current Top 10]
7...Li Na
4...Vera Zvonareva

MIAMI, FLORIDA USA (Premier 9 $4.5m/hard outdoor)
09 Final: Azarenka d. S.Williams
10 Top Seeds: Kuznetsova/Wozniacki

=Round of 16=
Szavay d. Bartoli
Li d. Wickmayer
V.Williams d. Petrova
A.Radwanska d. Pennetta
Jankovic d. Stosur
Azarenka d. She-Whose-Name-Is-Not-Spoken
Henin d. Kleybanova
Wozniacki d. Pavlyuchenkova
Li d. Szavay
V.Williams d. A.Radwanska
Jankovic d. Azarenka
Henin d. Wozniacki
V.Williams d. Li
Jankovic d. Henin
V.Williams d. Jankovic

...well, for one, Ashley Harkleroad (vs. Molik in the 1st Round) is back in action after mommy duty. Somehow, though, I doubt that HER comeback will be hailed as the greatest achievement in the history of sport since the cavemen had a competion to see who could drag Xina by her tresses for the longest distance without yanking out a handful of hair. Sigh. Poor Xina.

As far as the actual contenders go, though, could chaos -- and even Chaos? -- rule again on the opposite American coast? Maybe, though one gets the sense that form might hold a least a LITTLE better in Florida than it did in California.

Serena isn't here, but Venus is... and no one has been hotter since the end of the AO than her. She reached the Miami SF a year ago, only to lose to her sister. That obstacle won't be a problem this year. JJ could surely ride a wave to another title, but the odds are probably against it. I'm not sure I really believe Henin will reach the semis, but I'm thinking maybe she's a little embarrassed about Indian Wells... and, really, I just wanted to have the chance to pick Jankovic finally getting a win over La Petit Taureau after all these years.

And if JJ does that... well, I figure she'll be so overwhelmed by the accomplishment that she'll be distracted easy pickings for Venus in a final.

All for now. I'm still on a horse.


Blogger leia said...

I credit a bit of her victory to you, Todd, coz you didn't pick her to go far in the tournament at all in your pre-IW post. And we all know how she loves to surprise.

But seriously, I missed this JJ. Her movement was incredible, her groundstrokes accurate and deep, and she came up to the net more. I hope she can sustain this form because the WTA Tour needs its Drama Queen.

I was so waiting for this post. Nobody writes about Queen Chaos with combined derision and fondness as you do =D

Tue Mar 23, 05:16:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

watching only the highlights of the game, i am not very impressed with wozniacki,quite athletic, but not much harm, great smile though. thought she is a version of kim....radwanska's game is nice to watch, if she can pack more power to it. JJ...nice to see the old style back, but was never a fan, a bit boring. i do like azarenka's game, but gosh, if she can only mute her grunt. mmm henin, when will she get some consistency back (i wish soon)? kim...also not sure, looks like she wasn't even upset with her performance at IW. i thought wickmayer will have a chance over Li? yea venus looks like she has got herself together again after the miserable loss at AO.

Tue Mar 23, 07:57:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, I don't think I'd call it "derision," since that sort of implies that I disapprove of JJ on some level. That's surely not the case (though I admit that years ago I never would have thought she'd rise as high as she has, so maybe there's some subliminal notes of disbelief/dragging-me-kicking-and-screaming-to-her-side going on that I don't even realize?). I think it's just that she amuses me sometimes, and while some of the things she does might get under my skin if someone else did them I love it when Jankovic does. As I've said for a while now, the tour is just about a million times more interesting and fun when QC is around.

I think Wozniacki's still something of a work in progress, but I think she's easier to appreciate on a point-by-point basis as she finds ways to work her way into matches that sometimes go on for quite a while. A few more games against Jankovic in the final and maybe it would have happened there. She's never going to be like Serena when it comes to offensive tennis, but she IS trying to be a bit more aggressive. Radwanska's an interesting case. I used to get a bit sleepy watching her game (she's actually added a bit of pop and well-placed aggression since then, so you can imagine what it was like a few years ago), but I find her quite intriguing now. She's a bit of an odd bird, and that uniqueness might be how she manages to bedevil and knock off bigger-hitting names (Dementieva in IW) with ease on occasion. Actually, I originally picked Wickmayer over Li for this week, but since I so often go with a "soft" prediction for Li I decided to go the other way (she reached the QF in Miami in '09). When you least expect it, she'll sometimes have a big week (or two). It was a bit of a roll of the dice.

Tue Mar 23, 09:37:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

"Just think what your woman can do if she doesn't smell like an Etcheberry clone."

Hail the Queen!

Tue Mar 23, 09:51:00 AM EDT  

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