Wednesday, May 26, 2010

RG.4- The Late-Bloomer?

Can a seven-time slam winner, former #1-ranked player and one of the most successful, well-rounded athletes of her generation be a... late-bloomer?

Venus Williams won in straight sets over Arantxa Parra-Santonja on Day 4 to advance to the 3rd Round, once again routinely displaying the superb tennis form that has unexpectedly come to be expected from her over the course of the clay season this spring. But, unsurprisingly, there was and will continue to be more talk about what she was wearing than how she's actually playing.

Once again, she was wearing her much-discussed corset-inspired dress with flesh-toned undergarments, an outfit that is the very definition of "cheeky," literally and figuratively. It was fully in the "illusionary" style that Williams has made her '10 designing hallmark, from the "faux" going-commando look to the hilariously "wink-wink" (I think, at least) cut-out pattern seamlessly embedded on the dress surface that makes it appear that you can see her not-really-there thong underneath. You know, the same dress about which an opinion-leading 44% of the respondents in a recent USA Today poll selected "They should have made her change," while another 17% chose "Save the sexy stuff for after the match," while they were perusing the internet the other day.

Hmmm, I wonder if anyone gave a thought to asking people whether they thought Williams had a chance to win the title, or whether they thought she was playing better now that she did in her "glory days?" Yeah, I know. Dumb question. No one would have had any opinions on that. It's easier to make a quick, negative judgment based on a single photo on a website. I wonder how many who voted in that poll actually even saw that, and instead drew all their conclusions based upon the generally-inaccurate, intentionally-misleading descriptions I've read of the outfit the last couple of days?

It's all a temporary distraction, though. If enough people watch Venus play who've avoided doing so for much of this season (and she keeps her game together, which hasn't always been a sure-thing at this tournament through the years), maybe the discussion will eventually shift from the cheap headline-grabbing stuff to the fact that she's arguably been the best player on tour this season. Obviously, the Venus who faltered down the stretch against Li Na in Melbourne was an aberration, not the sign of bad things to come that I wondered if it might be back in January. At the moment, she's in top form, seems super fit and finally healthy, has a potential bonanza of a draw (though not without its pitfalls, such as a meeting with the Rezai/Petrova winner in the Round of 16) and could be playing in the "money rounds" of this tournament a week from now. Much of the talk of the Williams Sisters' resurgence has rightly focused on top-ranked slam-collector Serena, but world #2 (and maybe the soon to be co-#1 ranked doubles player in the world, which would be a new career-high) Venus has more than held up her end of the deal.

And she might just be getting started.

Could it be that Venus is a "late-bloomer?" And is that even possible for a player who made the final in her first-ever U.S. Open appearance at age 17, won her first slam title at 20, and reached the #1 ranking eight years ago? Umm, it just might be. She has a shot to get to #1 after this tournament, is obviously pushing all the right buttons as a design artist (hey, any publicity is good publicity, right?) and seems to be coming into her own more and more with each passing year as a public figure, as well. After seeing Serena possess the more dominant, attention-grabbing personality (at least since all the hair beads controversy died down so many years ago) for so long, the generally more conservative, serene and understated older sister seems to be fully spreading her wings these days.

A few days ago, Jankovic said she feels like a butterfly on the court. But Venus seems to be following along in lock step with another famous quote. One originally uttered by Muhammad Ali.

I'm sure you've heard it before... "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

...on a day where rain delays popped up like strong opinions about things that look like something they're really not, this year's edition of Roland Garros continued to settle down on Day 4 and produce the sort of results we were expecting to see in Paris a few days ago.

For one, Chanelle Scheepers knocked off Gisela Dulko. The South African will next face Akgul Amanmuradova (one of them will likely become the most unexpected player to reach the Round of 16). Since things are starting to return to form around here, it should be noted how typical a result this was for Dulko, who'd opened the tournament on such a high note by taking down the first seed to exit from the women's field (#10 Victoria Azarenka). Every once in a while, the obvious talent that Dulko possesses highlights how good a player she CAN be, leading back to the question of why she's never really risen above a certain level. Well, today was an example of why. Interestingly, while a Tennis Channel commercial was airing today that featured the Argentine talking about how much she loves to play on clay, she was losing to a qualifier. She seems destined to be a career underachiever.

Speaking of "typical" results, after having such a great clay season, then starting off with an easy 1st Round win over Jelena Dokic, #24 Lucie Safarova was taken down hard today by Polona Hercog 6-1/6-2. Again, things are getting back to normal.

Aravane Rezai? Well, just like she did in Madrid, she won today, too. Her three-set victory over Angelique Kerber (who defeated the Pastry in the 2nd Round in Melbourne in January) gives her eight straight wins, and she'll be threatening to become an even bigger story by the end of the weekend if she manages to take out both Petrova and Venus and make herself a legitimate threat to reach the final from the iffy bottom half of the draw.

DEJA VU UPDATE: One thing I realized while watching Rezai play today was how much of a carbon copy her game is of Dokic's from almost a decade ago. When the Aussie was first coming onto the scene, her game was designed around her ability to hit stinging winners from all over the court. When she was on a roll, Dokic would routinely slap clean, "wow"-inducing forehand crosscourt winners that caused one to dream big dreams for her career. Her serve was potentially good, and she'd throw in a 100-mph ace on occasion. An ultimate "groove player," when she was on, she could beat virtually anyone, and she loved playing on a big stage. Her propensity for loose errors, though, sometimes did her in, as did her inability to ever make that "potential" serve anything more than a hope. Off the court, she was a magnet for controversy and often got into trouble when she opened her mouth and said what was on her mind rather than finding a way to politely skirt an issue.

Rezai's mouth, too, has shown an ability to raise the ire of some, and watching her against Kerber today was like I'd jumped into a non-hot tub time machine and was listening to someone call a Dokic match. She'd slap a big winner from the baseline that would inspire awe from Mary Carillo, then a few loose errors would put her life in this tournament in jeopardy. She'd toss in a big serve, and the discussion would turn to how good the shot COULD be. Even her fiery clenched fist resembled Dokic's. When Carillo talked about how some of Rezai's best results have come on clay, but that her game seemed better suited for faster surfaces, I thought, "Hmmm, just like..." well, you know. Dokic's biggest title was on the red clay in Rome in '01, but most people remember her for her slam results on grass (Wimbledon SF) and hard courts (Oz QF). The only real difference was that all that talk about Dokic came when she around age 18, while Rezai is already 23.

Somehow, I don't think Rezai is ever going to be able to play at a high level enough times over a twelve-month period to ever reach the Top 5 as Dokic did, though., what happened with Svetlana Kuznetsova today probably doesn't look like a continuation of this return-to-normal theme, but it COULD be.

For almost two sets, defending RG champ Kuznetsova looked like the player she's been for most of the year. Entering with a 9-9 record in 2010, she looked more than ready to exit Paris with a sub-.500 mark and see her ranking slip out of the Top 10. She was down 6-4/5-4 to Andrea Petkovic, and the German was serving up 40/love. It was OVER, right? Uhh, well. No. Not for Kuznetsova, anyway. It WAS over for Petkovic, though.

(SIDE NOTE: could anyone else not help themselves while listening to Petkovic's exhalations after each shot, and consistently say "loompa" after each one of her "oompah" sounds? Get it, "oompah-loompa?" Oompa Loompas. "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory?" Ah, there you go. Anyway, I had a lot of unexpected fun this afternoon. Ha.)

A string of errors wasted Petkovic's triple match point, then she failed to convert a fourth MP a few moments later. Kuznetsova grabbed the set 7-5, then went up 2-0 in the 3rd. The Russian soon served at 5-3 and held two match points, but couldn't put the match away. She was broken, but in the next game eventually converted on her own fourth match point attempt to win 4-6/7-5/6-4. Afterward, with as many rain delays as shifts in momentum in the match, the Contessova said she "lived a whole life in a day."

Consider Kuznetsova this slam's first "Zombie Queen" nominee.

This result is potentially compelling, and not just because of Kuznetsova's past failures in this event to convert match points against eventual RG champions (2004-05), or her inability to take out Serena last season in Melbourne when she served for the match in the QF, only to see Williams win and take the title two matches later. Remember, there is a long recent history of slam champs using an escape like this as a catalyst for a surge of confidence that ultimately leads to them lifting the championship trophy on the final weekend (see list below).

Might this comeback win spark Kuznetsova to something great, as well? Maybe, but since she didn't really do much to rescue her 2010 RG existence on her own, and was instead mostly gifted at least two more days of life courtesy of Petkovic, I wonder if today's win will have any lasting effect. I'm thinking it'll be more of an Ana "Kiss of Life" Ivanovic than Serena "Soul Survivor" Williams situation.

...a set of sisters were taken out of the doubles competition today. No, not THOSE sisters. I'm talking about the Rodionovas, Anastasia and Arina. They lost to Edina Gallovits & Melanie Oudin. know, sometimes you should be careful, for you just might get what you asked for. Maybe.

In fading light (really, there seemed to be barely any light at all) at the end of play on Day 4, Italy's Fabio Fognini tried to convince the indecisive chair umpire to stop play due to darkness, as had been the case with all the other late matches going on at the time. He'd come back from two sets to none down against Frenchman Gael Monfils to knot the match, and it was 4-4 in the 5th set. A good stopping point, it would seem. The French crowd booed and pulled for the continuation of play, while Monfils stood in the backcourt, arms mockingly spread wide and egging on the crowd, waiting to play. For a little bit there, it looked like an English soccer match might break out. After six minutes of arguing, Fognini was given a point penalty for delay of game and the match went on. Fognini then proceded to go up 5-4 and hold match points against a cramping and seemingly-out-of-it Monfils. It appeared as if the French fans and Monfils were going to regret pushing for the match to be completed today.

As it turned out, though, the Frenchman somehow survived and got the score back to 5-5. At that point, play was suspended. The crowd murmurred, but everyone should have been wiping the sweat from their collective brow in relief that one of France's best chances to cause some damage in this tournament wasn't packing his bags after just two matches because everyone had lost their ever-lovin' minds and decided that it was all right to play grand slam tennis when one player could barely see the person on the other side of the net.

So, they're even again... no harm, no foul, right? Well, Fognini wouldn't say so. He was screaming at whoever would listen as he left the court. They'll resume the match on Day 5, but much of the drama of the moment will have been sapped from the whole near-fiasco by then.

...Stanford defeated Florida yesterday in the NCAA Women's Team championship. It's the Cardinal's sixteenth title in the twenty-nine year history of the event. Freshman Mallory Burdette wrapped things up with a victory over Marit Boonstra, leading her sister Lindsay (the #2 player on the Stanford squad) to hop a fence and tackle Burdette on the court in celebration.

The women's singles tournament will conclude early next week.

...and, finally, barring one of those rainy days that wipes out a full schedule of competition on Day 5, the Early-Round Awards will be served up here tomorrow.

AO: Serena Williams down 2 MP vs. Belgian Barbie in SF
RG: Anastasia Myskina down MP vs. Kuznetsova in 4th Rd.
AO: Serena Williams down 3 MP vs. Sharapova in SF
RG: Justine Henin-Hardenne down MP vs. Kuznetsova in 4th Rd.
WI: Venus Wiliams down MP vs. Davenport in Final
AO: Serena Williams - Petrova (3rd) & Peer (QF) served for match
WI: Venus Williams - Morigami (3rd) served for match
AO: Serena Williams - Kuznetsova (QF) served for match
WI: Serena Williams down MP vs. Dementieva in SF
AO: Serena Williams - Azarenka (QF) twice served for match (led 6-4/4-0)

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)
Nominee: Kuznetsova/RUS down 4 MP vs. Petkovic/GER (2nd Rd.)

All for Day 4. More tomorrow.


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