Tuesday, May 25, 2010

RG.3- A Quantum Precursor, Pt.2

First, it was Serena Williams. On Day 3, it was Justine Henin.

With their potentially "Big Bang-ish" quarterfinal looming down the road, another step in the process leading to that moment took place on Court Chatrier today when Henin played in her first Roland Garros match since she defeated Ana Ivanovic in the final in 2007. Entering with a twenty-one match, thirty-five set winning streak in Paris, she was the prohibitive favorite over Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova. But, as we've seen at times with the Belgian since her comeback, she's capable of "drift" in certain matches, and Pironkova HAS shown the ability to take down big players (Elena Dementieva just last week) on a good day.

For a while in this 1st Round match, Pironkova played with Henin, using her hard groundstrokes and serve to keep the match even. Though, considering Henin was barely maintaining a 50% 1st Serve win percentage throughout the set, one's tempted to say that the relative closeness of the proceedings likely had more to do with the four-time RG champion than the player who's never advanced past the 2nd Round in a slam. In the seventh game of the match, Henin's backhand winner down the line, off a Pironkova second serve, secured a break advantage at 4-3 in the 1st set. Henin held for 5-3, after initially failing to put away an easy volley on game point when her shot caught the top of the net and dribbled back over onto her side of the court.

That failed volley was only a brief moment, but with so many eyes watching so closely for any sign of the sort of occasional cracks that have hindered Henin 2.0 this season, it was a moment to note. As were the series of errors she commiteed after leading 5-4, 30/love while serving for the set. Soon, Pironkova had a break point. The long game ultimately ended with Henin putting away a forehand volley to take the forty-seven minute opening stanza at 6-4, but everyone's collective antennae had been activated.

In the 2nd, Henin got a quick break to open the set and was up 2-0 moments later. But a very casual game led to her being broken to knot the score at 2-2. She soon lost a third consecutive game, and was down love/40 on her own serve.

Is there a French term for "going on walkabout?" Is this sort of thing simply the normal ebb-and-flow of a player's level of play during a match, or a sign of something to worry about? Again, the magnifying glass focused over every point of every match that Henin plays in Paris this year raises the question, and makes one wonder if more is being made of these "lapses" than should be. Serena, too, remember, usually has a few "zone out" moments during her straight sets victories en route to big titles, as most every player does.

With her long Paris set streak in jeopardy, it was at this moment when the Belgian gathered herself and reclaimed control of the match, finally seizing on the Bulgarian's well-behind-the-baseline positioning (catching her off-guard with a drop shot was an easy way to end a point) and moving forward herself as often as she could (as a result, she put away a ridiculous number of overhead shots on the day). She battled back to hold for 3-3. It was the most important moment of her afternoon. She soon broke Pironkova at love by upping her aggression, then saved a break point on her own serve in a two double-fault game where her toss sometimes wavered and she very nearly opened the door for the Bulgarian to get back into the match. Henin won the game with an ace, though, to go up 5-3. Moments later, she held triple match point on Pironkova's serve, and when she pressured a second serve to force an error she claimed the set, winning the match 6-4/6-3.

It's Henin's twenty-second straight victory in Paris (she's 36-4 overall, and 30-1 since 2003), and her thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh straight sets won. Things won't get any easier, though. Veteran Klara Zakopalova is up next, then maybe Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur before any "Big Bang" meeting with Serena. She showed on Day 3 that the love 3rd set against Aravane Rezai in Madrid was likely at least in part to blame on the lingering illness she was suffering from in Spain, but the continued appearance of the little moments that made this match closer than it might have been leave a few niggling questions that remain to answered about whether Henin is fully in control of her destiny at this Roland Garros.

But, still... two matches down. Six more to go. To be continued...

...the "biggest" result of the day SHOULD have been the 1st Round loss by Dinara Safina, who one year ago entered this tournament as the #1-ranked player in the world and the hottest claycourter in the sport that spring. But considering her emotional collapses, flagging results, back injury, absence from action and lack of results in Europe heading into Roland Garros since last May, it's hard to see the exit by the #9-seed at the hands of 39-year old Kimiko Date-Krumm (who was hobbling around with a thigh injury throughout the match) as anything but a disaster that was just waiting to happen... then it did.

Sort of like the final season of "24."

Thing is, Safina should have had this one wrapped up, but faltered down the stretch and then totally collapsed. Man, we surely haven't heard THAT one before, huh? She led 3-6/6-4/4-1 before a downpouring of double-faults (she ended up with 17 for the match) kept the Japanese vet's chances afloat, and then drowned her own. Date-Krumm won the final set at 7-5 to become the second-oldest woman to win a match in Roland Garros history (just three months younger than Virginia Wade in 1985).

This 1st Round exit is Safina's worst slam result since losing in the 1st Round in Melbourne in '08, and her worst RG result since an opening round exit in 2005. But it's Date-Krumm's "first since" numbers that are positively stunning. Thanks to her nearly dozen-year retirement, this was her first win in Paris since 1996, and her first slam singles main draw victory of any kind since the '96 Wimbledon quarterfinals (when she reached a third slam SF in three different slams, including RG in '95, over a three-year stretch from 1994-96 before her retirement while holding a Top 10 ranking).

Is it too early to legitimately begin to wonder if "the end" is near for the Russian? How low will her ranking be one year from now? Will this be an AnaIvo-like slide, or a Vaidisova-esque one? Two years from now, will Safina be a nice memory trying to be rekindled or a total tennis afterthought? Again, like either AnaIvo, or Vaidisova? Late in his career, Marat persevered through all sorts of problems, even when he was barely a shadow of his former self, and sometimes managed to rise to the occasion and remind everyone why he was a #1-ranked player at one time. Does that willing-to-hang-around-even-if-it's-sometimes-painful-to-watch ability run in the family, like so many other traits that the siblings share? Or should Safina's career be placed on the endangered species list, only having a chance to survive if some emergency revitalization is enacted... and fast?

Sigh. She was so close, but is now so far away that it's almost as if she was never really all that close to begin with.

...Safina, considering her runner-up results at the last two Roland Garros events, makes this year's "Crash & Burn" title an easy one to bestow upon the Russian. Oddly enough, this makes five straight slams that a Hordette has had the dishonor of "winning" this award (and eighth time in the eleven total slams I've given it out). It's Safina's first, though.

There are still nine Russians left in the final sixty-four (plus two Russian-born players -- Anastasia Rodionova & Yaroslava Shvedova -- now representing Australia and Kazakhstan, respectively, and Varvara Lepchenko, the Uzbeki-American whose family has Russian heritage).

One of those Hordettes, of course, is Maria Sharapova. After a slow start, the Strasbourg champ defeated 19-year old qualifier Ksenia Pervak to avoid yet another early-round slam loss to a fellow Hordette. In recent seasons, she's lost in the opening stages in Melbourne (Kirilenko - '10 1st Rd.) and Wimbledon (Kudryavtseva - '08 2nd Rd.), and nearly in Paris (Rodina, who came within two points of victory during an 8-6 3rd set in the 1st Rd. in '08).

Sharapova could face Henin in the 3rd Round. "The Little Bang?" Hmm, what would a potential Henin/Stosur Round of 16 meeting qualify as?

...some interesting winners today: qualifier Anastasia Pivovarova, wild cards Jarmila Groth and Olivia Sanchez, and Lucky Loser Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who replaced Peng Shuai and knocked off fellow American Vania King.

...Stanford and Florida will meet in the NCAA Women's Team championship.

...and, finally, one of the most interesting competitions of this slam got underway on Day 3 -- the women's doubles. With Black and Huber no longer together, and Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez's neck injury (and the pair's recent "healthy" results, to be honest) makes the pairing of MJMS/Nuria Llagostera-Vives an iffy proposition to be around in this event for long (if they play at all). So, the race for this title -- especially with the Williams Sisters' chances alive for a Sister Slam, not to mention Serena's possibility of pulling off the sport's first-ever SuperSlam -- will be something to watch.

Venus and Serena allowed just one game today to Flipkens/Tanasugarn, and both Liezel Huber (with Anabel Medina-Garrigues) and Cara Black (with Elena Vesnina, def. Warsaw champs Ruano Pascual/Shaughnessy) won 1st Round matches with different partners. Some of the other winners/potential contenders who notched wins on Day 3: Dulko/Pennetta, the Sisters Bondarenko, Petrova/Stosur, Kirilenko/A.Radwanska, Kleybanova/Schiavone and Mattek-Sands/Yan.

US: Maria Sharapova, RUS (3r- A.Radwanska)
AO: Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (3r- A.Radwanska)
RG: Serena Williams, USA (3r- Srebotnik)
WI: Maria Sharapova, RUS (2r- Kudryavtseva)
US: Ana Ivanovic, SRB (2r- Coin)
AO: Venus Williams, USA (2r- Suarez-Navarro)
RG: Elena Dementieva, RUS (3r- Stosur)
WI: Maria Sharapova, RUS (2r- Dulko)
US: Elena Dementieva, RUS (2r- Oudin)
AO: Maria Sharapova, RUS (1r- Kirilenko)
RG: Dinara Safina, RUS (1r- Date-Krumm)

*TO 2nd ROUND*
Sophie Ferguson, AUS
Kaia Kanepi, EST
Anastasia Pivovarova, RUS
Chanelle Scheepers, RSA
[Wild Cards]
Stephanie Cohen-Aloro, FRA
Jarmila Groth, AUS
Olivia Sanchez, FRA
[Lucky Losers]
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA
Marion Bartoli, FRA
Stephanie Cohen-Aloro, FRA
Aravane Rezai, FRA
Olivia Sanchez, FRA

39 years, 10 months - Virginia Wade, GBR (1985, def. Sara Gomer)
39 years, 7 months - Kimiko Date-Krumm, JPN (2010, def. Safina)

5...United States
4...Australia, France, Italy
3...Belgium, Germany, Slovak Republic, Ukraine
2...Austria, China, Czech Republic, Serbia, Spain
1...Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Paraguay, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Uzbekistan

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xxx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Kurumi Nara/JPN d. Monica Niculescu/ROU 4-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xxx
FIRST WIN: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK (1st Rd. - def. Ekaterina Ivanova/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (1st Rd. - lost to Dulko/ARG)
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: #9 Dinara Safina/RUS, 2008-09 Runner-Up (1st Rd. - lost to Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN)

All for Day 3. More tomorrow.


Blogger jo shum said...

haha todd, i like what you described justine on putting away 'a ridiculous number of overheads'. :) personally, i really enjoyed it. she may not need to do that on clay, but again, true to her discipline and intention to go more to the net, she did it anyway. most of them were beautiful put aways, esp on the one arching her back with a backhand winner. and yes, i am also not too fond to see her slipping away with momentary lapses, but in a way she plays her best under pressure. all in all she should have won easier, the match was at her racket, her errors did it, not her opponent. justine dictated the match througout, serves and errors let her down a little. again still, first round after madrid loss, not bad.

safina's fall to me was kind of expected. since she came back in stuttgart, she was sooooo nervous, couldn't control her emotions and frustration. and plus the fact that she has always been a one-dimensional player. she's the kind that needs to be on top form from beginning to end, not the kind that can improve and build match by match. she was not going to go far when playing any consistent players. but losing the double breaks lead in the 3rd, she just didn't have the mentality to pull the plug and start anew. personally i think her moments have passed with 2008/9 when she could not capitalize. at the age of 23/24, she can probably still build her physiques part (though think she won't ever be as agressive as before with the haunting back injury), but kind of too late to build her mental game. maybe lingering in top 10 is possible. what will her ranking be like now? must be a free fall...my feeling is that her fate is worse than ivanovic cos ivanovic's game has more variety and her touch is better.

interesting facts about your 'crash and burn' winners, i didn't realize sharapova toppped it every year. she is an extreme player, either playing very well or very badly.

Wed May 26, 01:32:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

With all those Henin overheads, I seemed to be holding my breath hoping she wouldn't miss one, thinking it might be the start of a bad, focus-losing stretch. It never happened, though. Probably a good sign.

Yeah, Safina had her shot when the Belgians were out, and could never get a slam even when she rightly should have been the favorite in finals against players like Ivanovic and Kuznetsova. She had a small window for that type of success, and it might have closed on her now.

Although, I can never say absolutely NEVER after having watched Jana Novotna win Wimbledon at age 29 after so many false starts. She, too, had a tendency to fall apart late in big matches (including a Wimbledon final against Graf that was all but over until she badly flubbed an overhead, then totally choked the title away). The difference there, though, is that Novotna always had a "special relationship" with Wimbledon, and that helped her to never give up there. It eventually worked out for her.

Unfortunately, Safina really doesn't that sort of link to any of the slams that might ultimately allow her to overcome all her other issues simply by pure force of will and patience.

Wed May 26, 11:40:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Also, Novotna had a huge doubles career from which she could draw self-esteem. Even if she hadn't won Wimbledon (and I'm so glad she did!), she still would be remembered as an outstanding doubles player.

Wed May 26, 02:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Very good point. You wonder how much of whatever Stosur does in her career from here on out -- even though her best results are coming later in her career than some players -- will owe at least some debt to her doubles success.

Wed May 26, 08:23:00 PM EDT  

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