Sunday, April 04, 2010

Odds & Ends Between Marbella & Paris

Without fail, the opening months of a new year serve to set in motion the storylines that will come to dominate the future plotline of the current WTA season. Well, check that, every year except for 2010, apparently. Seriously, what's happened to "the greatest year ever?" But have no fear, the foggy conclusions about this season are about to become clear... or else.

So far in 2010, as I'll highlight in a few days in the 1st Quarter Backspin Awards, we've been treated to a slew of intriguing moments that played out like a series of preludes to things BIGGER and BETTER, all seemingly promised (hopefully) somewhere down the road. But, thus far, no true heroines nor villains have emerged in full form. Serena Williams won the Australian Open, but hasn't played since. The two most well-known Belgians have faced off in two close matches that actually managed to raise more nagging questions about both their comebacks than answered the important ones that existed prior to their taking the court. Venus Williams has looked incredible at times, but horrific at others. Jelena Jankovic got her Chaotic mojo back... but, she's still JJ, so we won't know if it means anything for a while longer. Victoria Azarenka went from ready-to-take-the-next-step to back-to-square-one in the blink of an eye on American soil. Caroline Wozniacki's rankings rise continued, but her attempt to become a true WTA force is still a work-in-progress, with no more assurance that the project will have ultimate success than the now-retired Nicole Vaidisova's quick ascent up the rankings a few years ago meant that she was going to be a long-term tour star.

Honestly, the most concrete and sustainable plotline that's developed so far in 2010 came courtesy of Mattel's decision to create a plastic image of a certain Belgian Barbie and her "accessory" daughter. Unfortunately, there's no American Brian/Ken doll dressed in a basketball uniform to complete the family set. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for what we've seen so far.

But starting this week, the preamble ends. With the conclusion of the thirteen-week 1st Quarter and the start of the true meat of the WTA season sandwich on the clay in Europe (after a brief kick-off in North America), the season is no longer young. By the end of the clay court season in the 2nd Quarter, we'll know just how close to the "old" Le Petit Taureau Henin really is in her 2.0 career. So far, the answer is somewhat murky. Serena Williams' march toward a single-season Grand Slam will either continue, or have unceremoniously ended. Underestimate her at your own risk, ladies. We'll have a better idea about just how much Indian Wells meant to Jankovic, too. Oh, what fun that should be. Plus, somewhere along the way, at least one player will lay down the first chapter of a '10 plotline that no one rightly saw coming as April dawned.

Who'll be looking to use the clay season to finally dig into this season, forestall a total collapse or simply survive in healthy enough form to compete on the grass and hard courts later this summer (that means you, Venus and Maria)? Here are a few ideas for the goal-oriented between Marbella and Paris:

Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS & Dinara Safina, RUS: so far in 2010, Kuznetsova has seemed lost, and is now hurt. Dinara Safina is hurt, and may soon be lost. It's possible that neither of these Hordettes will even be healthy enough to attempt to reclaim their '09 clay success this time around. If that DOES turn out to be the case, both will tumble down the rankings. A year ago, Kuznetsova and Safina met three times in EuroClay finals, including the Roland Garros decider that saw Kuznetsova win her first slam in five years. Both are capable of being a dominant clay court player this spring, but an ailing shoulder (Kuznetsova), back (Safina) and head (both of them) will likely cause something far closer to the polar opposite to become reality. If either is going to prevent her season from continuing on what looks to be a long, slow descent into a chasm of insignificance then something good has got to give this spring. Essentially, someone needs to "release the Kraken" before it's too late.

Vera Zvonareva, RUS: she looked to be ready to make her long-awaited move towards being a slam contender one year ago, then suffered the ankle injury in Charleston that still lingers (with the ever-present brace being a constant visual reminder), evident in both her physical limitations and continued mental hiccups (which had finally started to disappear in '09 when her pre-injury confidence was stoked by a series of good results). Now, it's time for Take Two.

Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP: AMG's '10 season has been pretty miserable. But she's always been at her best on the clay... and she's still looking for that tenth career title, and Smashnova Record-Smashing first career slam QF. Might she be able to take down both feats in Europe this spring? Well, how about at least one?

Serena Williams, USA: Serena is like Tiger Woods... umm, I guess it's time to put that comparison on the shelf for a while, huh? Serena is like Lance Armstrong... the big picture is the most important one. And for Williams, the rest of her career isn't about playing in and winning the tournaments in between the slams -- it's about winning the slams. Unlike every other tennis player on earth, Serena doesn't really need to participate in tune-up events in order to be prepared for the two-week slam grind. Practices with Venus provide her with all the work she needs, and any actual match play that she manages to get will simply serve to allow her to get her body clock acclimated to an every-other-day playing schedule. One thing Serena's never done is pull off a single-season Grand Slam. It'll take a yeowoman's effort in Paris to do it this spring, too. But even with her continuing knee issues, if Williams comes to Paris in anything approaching decent form (or close enough that she can get there after she has a match or two under her belt in Paris) it'd be impossible to rule her out as the potential champion, especially with so many RG contenders going to Europe either injured or in questionable form. If Federer can win Roland Garros, why can't Serena do it again?

Jelena Jankovic, SRB: once upon a time, Paris seemed the most likely place where JJ could live her grand slam dream. After 2009, it looked like that potential fairy tale scenario had run into the brick wall of reality. But hold on, maybe there's still hope. If Henin 2.0 continues to sport as many nagging hangnails as it has so far in 2010, maybe Queen Chaos can have her day in the sun in the city of lights after all.

...while the clay is like blood for a vampire when it comes to some players, for others it's like the sun -- something that, if it's full impact can be avoided, will allow them to fight and bite another day.

Serena Williams, USA: forget Europe, it's all about Paris.

Jada's Mom, the Miami Champ: years ago, Belgian's very own Barbie doll nearly salted away her first slam title at Roland Garros. But Jennifer Capriati and an epic 3rd set prevented it from becoming a reality. After that, Justine's Countrywoman seemingly psyched herself out of believing that she could be a true clay court champion, even if her defensive skills said she SHOULD be. Oh, she played and won tournaments on the stuff after losing that '01 RG final, but her affinity for hard courts (and Henin's clay court preeminence, truthfully) usually made her a successful-but-not-overwhelmingly-so afterthought in Europe at this time of year. Now, in 2010, she'll play her first tour clay court match since 2007 (when she lost to Julia Vakulenko in Warsaw, then immediately retired). In fact, that Vakulenko match is the only match she's played on clay since losing to Henin in the 2006 Roland Garros semifinal. Of course, after not playing the U.S. Open since winning it in 2005, she up and won it again in 2009. Maybe this Belgian 2.0 comeback will have something unexpected in store, too?

Venus Williams, USA & Maria Sharapova, RUS: Venus hasn't reached a RG final since 2002, and has usually been an upset victim in the early rounds in Paris (giving her the opportunity to get a little extra rest before Wimbledon). After noticably running out of gas in Miami after her tour-leading winning streak took her to her third straight 2010 final (fourth, if you count the MSG exhibition), one can't expect much, if anything, from Venus over the next couple months. When does SW19 start? Sharapova, meanwhile, is dealing with another injury during the time of the season that she's been traditionally her most invisible. Even with her surprising QF run in Paris a year ago, don't expect to see her anywhere near the winner's circle (or maybe even the secone week?) at Roland Garros in '10.

..."greatness" being a relative term, meaning anything from true "breakout" success to a reclaiming of a former position in the sport.

The Italian Fed Cup Team: come on, we all know the Italians are going to defeat the Czechs in the semifinals and get the chance to become the first non-Russian repeat FC champions since the U.S. in 1999-2000. Does anyone really doubt that? Consider this Step 2 for Team Italia.

Justine Henin, BEL: La Petit Taureau was the Queen of Clay in her first go 'round. If she were to return to Paris and reclaim her throne there her comeback would be complete, elusive Wimbledon title or no Wimbledon title. Hmmm, but why am I forcing myself to put her in this category because I feel like I HAVE to, even while I keep a close eye on those ideas eating away at the base of my skull that Paris might not turn out to be so welcoming to Henin come May?

Caroline Wozniacki, DEN: why not? On the clay, her reliance on defense and penchant for long rallies sort of plays in her favor.

...could these players soon cobble together a storyline in which they star?

Maria Kirilenko, RUS: even though she was left out in the cold when it comes to modeling Stella McCartney's adidas tennis apparel, Kirilenko has definitely upped her game so far in 2010. She reached the QF at the Australian, then pushed Wozniacki to three sets in Miami.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS: she got her first career tour singles title on clay in Monterrey a few weeks ago. How long will it take for the confidence garnered there to lead to more?

Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP: once again this year, CSN has shown as ability to jump up and stun a higher-ranked player, but also stumble against players one might expect her to defeat. A season ago, she reached her first career tour final in Marbella. Here's to thinking that maybe she'll finally get her overdue first singles title sometime this quarter.

Samantha Stosur, AUS: Stosur's run toward a Top 10 ranking got a big push last June when she reached her first career slam SF in Paris. The clay wouldn't seem to be her best surface for further slam success, but there's something to be said for good memories making a player comfortable and capable of more, especially for a player like Stosur who sometimes has to remind herself that she's good enough not to be overwhelmed by the moment.

Yanina Wickmayer, BEL: after weathering the early-season suspension/reinstatement with flying colors, including getting her second straight slam Round of 16-or-better result, Wickmayer has had something of a not-unexpected letdown. She won a title on the clay in Estoril in '09, though, so with her big event knives further sharpened since last summer's SF run at the U.S. Open, maybe Wickmayer can become the latest Belgian to flash mad skills in Paris.

Nuria Llagostera-Vives/Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP: though they've never won a slam crown, they did finally claim a "major" crown at last year's season-ending championship. Paris would seem to provide the best chance for a slam win, with the game's other top two doubles teams having won a total of one RG title since 1999.

...great expectations can sometimes be undone by forces beyond one's control.

The U.S. Fed Cup Team: The Bannerettes are back in the FC semifinals, but this time it's the Russians blocking Mary Joe Fernandez's charges' path to the final. This time, a Sister might be needed to come to the rescue.

Sabine Lisicki, GER: Sabine's Bag Check: trainer's tape, muscle cream, pain pills, ankle brace, knee brace, massage therapist's hotline number, GPS location of nearest 24-hour emergency room, 1-800-DOCTORS coupon, that icy spray stuff... sigh. Lisicki caught everyone's attention when she won Charleston a year ago, but she's been a walking injury report ever since.

Victoria Azarenka, BLR: all the work Azarenka did to learn how to control her on-court anger/emotional issues wasn't enough for everything to be undone by back-to-back disappointing results in Indian Wells and Miami, the latter of which she won in '09. The talent is still tantalizing, but the longer it takes for her to get everything together the less likely it is that she ever fully will (see Zvonareva, Safina, Hantuchova, Ivanovic, etc.).

Dominika Cibulkova, SVK: the chances aren't good that she'll come anywhere near matching her surprise RG semifinal result from last year.

...the tea leaves don't look good.

Ana Ivanovic, SRB: it's hard to believe it was less than two years ago that she reached #1 and won Roland Garros. Many photo shoots, match collapses and coaching changes later, she's bagging Fed Cup match participation in order to avoid coming up against any outside pressure. It's too soon to make any un-grand pronouncements, but stories in this sport with this sort of plot breakdown don't usually result in happy endings.

Cara Black & Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA: their big moments are coming less often. Even while they hang onto the #1 ranking, they haven't won a slam title since 2008. If the Williams Sisters set their mind to claiming their first slam in Paris since 1999 (neither Black nor Huber have ever won the RG doubles), they'll be the reigning champs at all four slams -- a Sisters Slam -- and will have won five of the last six.

Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL (W)
Mary Pierce, FRA (RU)
Elena Likhovtseva, RUS
Nadia Petrova, RUS
Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL (W)
Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (RU)
... ........., BEL
Nicole Vaidisova, CZE
Justine Henin, BEL (W)
Ana Ivanovic, SRB (RU)
Jelena Jankovic, SRB
Maria Sharapova, RUS
Ana Ivanovic, SRB (W)
Dinara Safina, RUS (RU)
Jelena Jankovic, SRB
Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (W)
Dinara Safina, RUS (RU)
Dominika Cibukova, SVK
Samantha Stosur, AUS

With so many of the up-and-coming young players having been ridulously inconsistent this year, Venus not having had great Roland Garros results, Henin having so many problems maintaining her level of play for a full match (and not just with her serve, either), and Barbie seemingly having pysched herself out of being a RG threat years ago, might Serena, even if she only plays one (or none?) Paris tune-up, be the RG favorite if she can just be reasonably healthy when play begins there?

=ROLAND GARROS - POWER RANKINGS... from two months out=
1. Serena Williams: do we need any more blatant evidence that Serena only really bothers to worry about the slams than her total absence since winning in Melbourne? There are a lot of questions about the top contenders for Paris, and Kuznetsova and Safina are even bigger question marks than usual. This might be the year that Serena comes through in Paris for the first time since Serena Slam. THAT'S why she's #1 here, and #2 is...
2. Justine Henin: Blasphemy!!! Blasphemy, I say!!! Hey, it's only April. I'm just saying I need a tiny little bit more from Justine in order to not have to get out some rosary beads -- not to mention become Catholic, or care a whit about such things in the first place -- and/or voodoo dolls in preparation for her return to Paris.
3. Caroline Wozniacki: she knows how to stick around in a match, and her power/aggression deficiency against the top players is slightly less important on the clay.
4. Yanina Wickmayer: she's a proven quantity now, so it's not as big of a longshot as it once was.
5. Jelena Jankovic: LPT 2.0/1 = QC in 2010?
6. Elena Dementieva: time is running out.
7. Barbie: she probably should be higher, but I wonder if SHE really believes that.
8. Victoria Azarenka & Vera Zvonareva: hope springs eternal.
Incompletes- Svetlana Kuznetsova & Dinara Safina: they've filled three of the last four RG finalist slots, but to say they're chances are shaky at this point in time would be a case of being overly kind.
Wild Cards- Agnieszka Radwanska & Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: A-Rad is always a threat to last longer than anyone thinks. And SOME young player has to make a move, so why not Pavlyuchenkova?

By the time the grass season arrives, maybe this season will finally have kicked into high gear. If so, look out summer, here they come.

All for now.


Blogger jo shum said...

hi todd, i agree... march tournaments turned out to be more disturbing as the results unveiled. IW was just...a mess with all the upsets and wonder if we should ever that out any substantial readings from it. Miami though, was more back to order, except a few instances. i can't say i am completely surprised by the win of kim, she had been great throughout except the match with justine. as opposed to opinions of tennis experts, i don't think she actually plays better than she retired, think she is probably at the same level (maybe even a tiny notch lower with some inconsistency), but what makes her standout this moment is that everyone else seems to be so inconsistent during the entire tournament. kim looks to be in great form, RG will be interesting?

well, i have to say, quite impressed with caroline, great defensive play and so consistent, and didn't fold under pressure as opposed to azarenka and zvonavara. she has a bit more time to make her mark, but either she will breakthrough this year or next the latest, it might be too late if not. the pressure and emotion will get to her, given rising to #2 and not winning any big ones.

venus looked so....out of shape at the final, could not imagine the scoreline while she performed well against bartolli. kim didn't play that well, but apparently enough just to put the balls back in the court. pathetic. but again, only wimbledon will eventually tell the true story of venus.

justine... what to say, the ups and downs were just so unpredictable. there were glimpses of excellence, tactics and fights, and lapses of carelessness and vulnerability. you just didn't know which version would show up at any given match. with some stunning display, i could see how great she can be again. are we expecting too much with 3 months back in play? and when kim made it possible? though kim has always been a natural, justine always has to work on her play. so is this a matter of patience or just mind over body?

Mon Apr 05, 10:07:00 AM EDT  
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