Monday, May 31, 2010

RG.9- The Big Fizzle

Pffffffttttthhhh!!! That sound you hear is the air being let out of this Roland Garros.

Well, not really, but the stakes surely DO seem to have changed dramatically after today.

Coming into Day 9's "Intermediate Bang" match-up between Justine Henin and Samantha Stosur in the Round of 16, it was hard to ecsape the lingering belief that the Aussie might be the overlooked potential obstacle in the draw of a tournament that began with Henin and Serena Williams as the "1a" and "1b" favorites to take the title. After all, if she'd only played a better 3rd set in the final in Stuttgart against the Belgian, Stosur would have come to Paris as the unquestioned queen of the EuroClay season. She was the only player to reach two finals this quarter (on either green or red clay), but Henin's first 2.0 title that afternoon in Germany served to prop up the belief that SHE might be able to recapture her past clay court dominance, even if every big moment she's had in 2010 had seemingly come with an accompanying eyebrow-raising one that served as an unwanted, Barbie doll-like accessory. Slingin' Sammy was sort of lost in the haze of the discussion.

Not after today, though.

Oh, it sure didn't look like that was going to be the case in the early going in this match. Stosur double-faulted in the opening game to give Henin a break point, which the four-time champ glady grabbed and ran away with the 1st set at 6-2. But, as has so often been the case over the past few months, the question with Henin was whether or not she could keep up her sterling, flashback dominance for a FULL match. And, again, the answer was discouraging.

Stosur got an early break and took a 3-0 lead in the 2nd set, her powerful forehand grabbing control of the rallies and her wide-and-high-bouncing deuce court kick-serve often putting Henin on defense and scrambling from the first ball struck in so many of Stosur's service points. The Aussie took the set at 6-1.

The 3rd set featured more great play from Stosur, but it'll be difficult to remember it for much more than Henin's lost opportunities. In the second game, she got a break point and had a chance to take a quick 2-0 lead. But an in-point, tactical lapse precipitated her centering a shot down the middle of the court, right in the wheelhouse of Stosur's big lethal forehand, rather than continuing to keep the ball on the edges and taking advantage of the Aussie's less-effective backhand and on-the-run groundstrokes. With that one shot, Henin conceded control of the break point rally to Stosur, who quickly saved it by running Henin wide with an inside-out forehand and followed it up with a put-away volley. She held serve for 1-1.

Three games later, Henin double-faulted on break point and fell behind 2-3. But Stosur opened the door yet again, double-faulting herself on back-to-back points to fall behind 15/30. On her second break point of the game, Henin's big second serve return forced an error and knotted the final set's score again. After Henin held for a 4-3 lead, the match turned on Stosur's serve.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of the moment, back-to-back Stosur errors caused her to fall behind love/30. With the Aussie her own worst enemy at that moment, Henin probably should have simply allowed her to hang her own game. But, instead, she decided to try to take control by force rather than have it ceded to her. Trying to get to triple break point, she tried to go WAY big on a service return, but the ultra-aggressive shot forcefully slammed into the net.

Henin winced, and Stosur got back into the game.

The Aussie ended up holding for 4-4, and then it was Henin who saw her game fail in the biggest moment of the match. Two errant shots later, the Belgian was down love/30 on her serve. She got back to 30/30, but then another double-fault gave Stosur a break chance. Henin hit a backhand wide. Stosur led 5-4, and served for the match.

From there, Henin's famed backhand completed her late collapse.

On the first point of the tenth game of the set, Henin was a half-step slow in getting to what should have been an easy down the line backhand into an open court past a scrambling-at-the-net Stosur, but she had to reach too far to get to the oddly-bouncing ball and weakly put it into the net. Another backhand error gave Stosur a 30/love lead. After a successful (desperate?) drop shot, another backhand miss made it 40/15. The sometimes-able-to-be-rattled-by-her-own-hand Aussie wavered just a bit, double-faulting on her first match point, but then returned to her Day 9 bread-and-butter on the second. Her deuce court serve kicked wide and forced Henin off the court and she was able to only get the shot back with a high, defensive backhand. With the planned setup having perfectly played out, Stosur easily put away the overhead and Henin's 24-match Roland Garros winning streak was over.

Stosur def. Henin 2-6/6-1/6-4.

(Congrats, Sam. But, really, "thanks" for making all my effort to talk this tournament into revolving around a Big Bang moment one big waste of time. I sort of want a few of those hours back. Seven of eight matches down... time for Justine to go.)

Having taken out half of the Big Bang, Stosur now gets the chance to take out the other -- Serena herself -- in the quarterfinals in an attempt to reach her second straight RG semi.

In the end, just as was the notion that was hinted at in the weeks and months leading into Roland Garros, and which was so often attempted to be forgetten or reasons found to disregard because of her history at this particular tournament, this version of Henin is clearly not the same Henin that last played in Paris in 2007. Not yet, at least, and maybe never. Over the five straight days she was forced to play due to weather and darkness, her two-steps-forward, one back back dance was bound to trap her in a corner from which she would have a difficult time escaping. She managed to do so against Maria Sharapova, but ultimately couldn't against Stosur. Right when she seemed to feel it was her moment to seize control of the match for good in the eighth game of the final set, she overstepped and tried TOO hard. Then, her backhand continually let her down in the match's final moments, while the Aussie showed just how much she's learned over the past year about holding her nerves and putting away opponents.

Not a good combination.

It's possible that Henin would have been able to finally put together a consistent, full match against Serena in the now-debunked Big Bang Theory clash of this tournament... though all evidence points to the opposite being the case if the match-up had actually occurred, even in Paris.

As she's acknowledged multiple times this week when asked about her in-match lapses, Henin says that she's always understood that this season was going to be about re-learning how to maintain her level of play through an entire match. She says she knew there'd be (re-) growing pains... or at least that's her story now that they've become so apparent over the first five months of the season. It could be that she'll be proven right, and by this time in 2011 she'll truly resemble the LPT of old on a consistent basis, rather than just enough to make her 2.0 career as ultimately frustrating as it has often been of late.

It's difficult to begrudge you-know-who's success last summer, but maybe if her Belgian counterpart hadn't won in New York there wouldn't have been so many immediate expectations for Henin's slam results so early in her comeback. Ah, another thing to hold against Jada's Mama.

(You grab hold of whatever you can, I guess.)

Okay, time to find a new focus for this Roland Garros, huh?

=DAY 9 NOTES= least Serena held up her end of the Big Bang deal, defeating Shahar Peer (who actually served for the match against Williams in Melbourne a few years back during one of her title runs) with relative ease.

Peer won the first seven points of the match, but then Williams took the next nine and never looked back, winning 6-2/6-2 to advance to her thirtieth career slam QF (one behind Venus amongst active players). Now, with Henin out, the tournament becomes Serena's to lose.

The remainder of this Roland Garros could pivot around the discussion of whether Serena might be in the middle of the Greatest Season Ever in women's tennis. Yeah, Steffi Graf's Golden Slam in 1988 was wonderful and unique, but if Williams can salt away the most difficult slam for her to win to become the first woman to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam since Jennifer Capriati in 2001, who's going to say she's not THE favorite to play this season out and win all four? Her sister would be the biggest threat to upset the run in London, but if Serena were to exit SW19 with three slams in hand there is NO WAY she doesn't win in New York to seal the deal. The same goes for the Sisters in Doubles. RG is their most difficult get. By the end of this weekend, Serena would be four-for-four in slam titles in 2010, and the SuperSlam would be half-way to completion. No man or woman has ever swept the singles AND doubles at all four slams in a single season.

Now there's a story that even NBC could get behind (or maybe not, since CBS would be the network airing the U.S. Open).

But what if Serena, too, were to stumble along the way? Well, then this tournament becomes yet another Paris free-for-all where a first-time slam champion is destined to be crowned. Without Serena, the proceedings would take on more of an anticlimactic feel than they already do with Henin's absence in this second week, but what would remain could still provide some memorable moments in Paris. The history-making possibilities? The first Aussie woman to win a slam in thirty years. The first Dane ever. The first representative of Kazakhstan (by way of Russia). The first Italian ever. A longest-wait ever slam titlist in event #46. Nadia. Queen Chaos. Nadia VERSUS QC in the final.

Whoa, my head is spinning about that last one. Oh, but it would be fun, wouldn't it? I wonder if they'd have to implode the stadium after it was all over? That WOULD sort of take care of all those discussions about whether this tournament might be leaving its current site in Paris for bigger and better facilities, though. They can't play on rubble, after all... and by the time Nadia and Jelena got done with things, that might be all that there was left.

In other words, Serena is holding this thing together with twine and rubberbands, preventing the 2010 RG from becoming a clay court game of Pick-Up-Sticks (which, to be honest, WOULD be sort of wild to watch). Of course, who wants to bet that Williams has a little tube of Krazy Glue hidden in her shoe, ready to put everything together so well that no one will be able to tear it apart? of the leading pre-tournament contenders for the Doubles title was sent packing today in the QF when #5-seeded Dulko & Pennetta were taken out by #3 Huber & Medina-Garrigues. They'll next face top-seeded Venus and Serena. Huber will be playing defense for her #1 doubles rankings, as she'll lose it to the Sisters if they reach the final.

In junior play, Sloane Stephens (a semifinalist at this event last year) defeated '09 U.S. Open junior runner-up Yana Buchina, while Silvia Njiric upset '09 RG Girls runner-up Daria Gavrilova

...Georgia Bulldog sophomore Chelsey Gullickson (U.S. Open Mixed doubles champion Carly's sister) defeated Cal Bear Jana Juricova 6-3/7-6 to take the NCAA women's singles championship in Athens, Georgia. Stanford's Hilary Barte and Lindsey Burdette won the doubles title.

...with so many options for so many of the Roland Garros Awards, I guess I should at least make a quick list of so-far nominees. So, here it goes:

Elena Dementieva (in her 46th slam)
Jelena Jankovic
Nadia Petrova
Francesca Schiavone
Yaroslava Shvedova
Samantha Stosur

Yaroslava Shvedova
Caroline Wozniacki
A Junior

Kimiko Date-Krumm (if no better winner becomes apparent)
Nadia Petrova

Nadia Petrova (with Henin's exit, Nadia's probably got this one, barring some miraculous comeback elsewhere)

Agkul Amanmuradova (Mixed QF?)
Nuria Llagostera-Vives (alive in Doubles & Mixed QF)
Kveta Peschke (Doubles QF)
Yaroslava Shvedova (Mixed QF)
Katarina Srebotnik (alive in Doubles & Mixed QF)
Any Surprise Unseeded Champion

Plus, the "Junior Breakout" will be decided later, as well.

...and, finally, the Middle-Round Awards (including those few 2nd Rounders that were carried over an extra day) arrive tomorrow.

#1 Serena Williams/USA vs. #7 Samantha Stosur/AUS
#4 Jelena Jankovic/SRB vs. Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ
#17 Francesca Schiavone/ITA vs. #3 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
#5 Elena Dementieva/RUS vs. #19 Nadia Petrova/RUS

#1 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #5 Robin Soderling/SWE
#15 Tomas Berdych/CZE vs. #11 Mikhail Youzhny/RUS
#22 Jurgen Melzer/AUT vs. #3 Novak Djokovic/SRB
#19 Nicolas Almagro/ESP vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP

#1 Williams/Williams (USA/USA) def. #11 Kirilenko/A.Radwanska (RUS/POL)
#3 Huber/Medina-Garrigues (USA/ESP) def. #5 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA)
#12 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO) vs. Bondarenko/Bondarenko (UKR/UKR)
Niculescu/Peer (ROU/ISR) vs. #2 Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez (ESP/ESP)

Melo/Soares (BRA/BRA) vs. #10 Knowle/A.Ram (AUT/ISR)
#3 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) vs. #8 Fyrstenberg/Matkowski (POL/POL)
M.Lopez/Riba (ESP/ESP) vs. #4 Moodie/Norman (RSA/BEL)
#6 Kubot/Marach (POL/AUT) vs. #2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB)

Vedy/Llodra (FRA/FRA) vs. #6 Srebotnik/Zimonjic (SLO/SRB)
#3 Llagostera-Vives/Marach (ESP/AUT) vs. #5 Kleybanova/Mirnyi (RUS/BLR)
King/Kas (USA/GER) or Amanmuradova/Qureshi (UZB/PAK) vs. Garbin/Matkowski (ITA/POL)
Shvedova/Knowle (KAZ/AUT) vs. #2 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND)

=By Age=
19...Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
22...Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ
25...Jelena Jankovic, SRB
26...Samantha Stosur, AUS
27...Nadia Petrova, RUS
28...Elena Dementieva, RUS
28...Serena Williams, USA
29...Francesca Schiavone, ITA
=By Rank=
#1 Serena Williams
#3 Caroline Wozniacki
#4 Jelena Jankovic
#5 Elena Dementieva
#7 Samantha Stosur
#17 Francesca Schiavone
#20 Nadia Petrova
#36 Yaroslava Shvedova
=By Slam QF Results=
30...Serena Williams
12...Elena Dementieva
9...Nadia Petrova
7...Jelena Jankovic
4...Francesca Schiavone
2...Samantha Stosur
2...Caroline Wozniacki
1...Yaroslava Shvedova

6...Russia (4/2)
4...United States (3/1)
3...Serbia (1/2)
3...Spain (0/3)
2...China (2/0)
2...Switzerland (0/2)
1...Australia (1/0)
1...Austria (0/1)
1...Belarus (1/0)
1...Belgium (1/0)
1...Croatia (0/1)
1...Czech Republic (0/1)
1...Denmark (1/0)
1...France (0/1)
1...Great Britain (0/1)
1...Italy (1/0)
1...Kazakhstan (1/0)
1...Sweden (0/1)

31...Venus Williams
19...Justine Henin
15...Belgian Barbie
13...Maria Sharapova
11...Svetlana Kuznetsova
7...JELENA JANKOVIC, Dinara Safina, Patty Schnyder
6...Kimiko Date-Krumm
5...Ana Ivanovic
4...Jelena Dokic, Daniela Hantuchova, FRANCESCA SCHIAVONE
3...Victoria Azarenka, Anna Chakvetadze, Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska
Marion Bartoli, Shahar Peer, Flavia Pennetta, Lisa Raymond, SAMANTHA STOSUR, Carla Suarez-Navarro, CAROLINE WOZNIACKI, Zheng Jie, Vera Zvonareva
Sybille Bammer, Kateryna Bondarenko, Elena Bovina, Severine Bremond-Beltrame, Dominika Cibulkova, Sorana Cirstea, Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Kaia Kanepi, Maria Kirilenko, Michaella Krajicek, Sabine Lisicki, Mirjana Lucic, Alicia Molik, Melanie Oudin, Lucie Safarova, Meghann Shaughnessy, YAROSLAVA SHVEDOVA, Karolina Sprem, Alexandra Stevenson, Agnes Szavay, Tamarine Tanasugarn, Yanina Wickmayer

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Venus Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Kurumi Nara/JPN d. Monica Niculescu/ROU 4-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd: #6 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS d. Andrea Petkovic/GER 4-6/7-5/6-4
FIRST WIN: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK (1st Rd. - def. Ekaterina Ivanova/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (1st Rd. - lost to Dulko/ARG)
UPSET QUEENS: The Australians
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Chanelle Scheepers/RSA (4th Rd.)
IT GIRL: xxx
CRASH & BURN: #9 Dinara Safina/RUS, 2008-09 Runner-Up (1st Rd. - lost to Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN)
Petrova/RUS down 3 MP vs. Rezai/FRA (3rd Rd)

LAST PASTRY STANDING: Marion Bartoli/FRA & Aravane Rezai/FRA (3rd Rd.)

All for Day 9. More tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not fun to watch anymore, thanks to Sam.

Maybe it's Dementieva's best chance? She tends to lose when people have high hopes on her.. hmm..

Mon May 31, 08:28:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kuznetsova would be my Zombie Queen pick, for her post-match comment on young players.

Mon May 31, 08:32:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

todd, i am so utterly disappointed. maybe we are asking too much to have justine version 1 to be back too soon? although i could see that she is improving match by match, and if the draw was kinder to her, she may have made it much further than this. the emotional drainage also did her after the match of sharapova yesterday. yes still, by far she is not up to the level of her old self. it is improving though, but to us, perhaps mightily slow. she could have won, could have taken opportunities if only she could capitalize breakpoints better, that she maintain just a tiny bit more aggression in 3rd set. to me, the difference is still, she has great fighting spirit, but she doesn't not have the winning spirit. she didn't believe enough in the end, she could have won not too convincingly, but she could have won uglily too. but guess that's not her nature, she has to feel good about her shots before she goes out for more. her second career now is like a huge mountain and one would have to ponder, if ever will she get to the top. i actually had a hard time sleeping after the match, and kept thinking this must feel so bad for her, and right before her birthday.

there is really something missing in this match, there was no spark, there was a forced tactic, there was just no natural instinct in her game anymore. when she loses her variety, she becomes so predictable. she kept sending the balls to sam's backhand, she didn't try drop shots until the end, there was no element of surprises, there was no backhand down the line, there was no angular forehand, backhand was completely flat. everything just kind of collapsed after 1st set. the lapses she had now almost in every 2nd set when she just let her opponent came right back into the game. and afterwards she lost confidence. obviously she knew intensity is problem, i wonder how she can work on it. thought this comes as natural as a keen competitor. or does she need more match play, well, terrible loss like this. her level of consistency is worrying, but should come in time (can see improvement already), but the mental part is really a big hit coming from her.

Mon May 31, 11:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeppe said...

I guess the lesson here is never to put all your eggs in one basket. I have no particular devotion to Henin, but I'm sad to see her go since it obviously takes some of the excitement out of the tournament. Happy for Sam, though. And don't forget we still have 5 of the top 7 players left in the final 8, so it ought to be plenty interesting despite the exit of the #22 seed.

I hesitate to comment on Caroline's prospects, because last time I did that, she immediately sprained her ankle. But I would like to nominate her as Zombie Queen - as she was pronounced dead by most people before the tournament even started, remember...

Finally, a word on Shvedova, who is having a great RG. I watched her beat Radwanska in Round 2 on a packed Court 4, and I'm not at all surprised she made it this far. It was the only tennis I got for my 21 euro ground pass because of the rain, but it was well worth it. High quality and very competitive - must have been one of the best early round matches noone noticed. So good luck to her, hope she gives JJ a good match tommorrow.

Tue Jun 01, 04:28:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kumar said...

@Jo shum : I feel exactly the same about Justine. I know the expectations are ridiculously high after Kim's fairytale run, and even I foolishly believed RG was hers to lose, even after tough scraps against Jankovic (who, I concede, played great) and Stosur in Stuttgart, head-scratching losses to Dulko and Rezai, and her vulnerability in 3-set matches so far. I mean, her opponents are basically begging her to close them out, but she returns the favor (Jada's mom, anyone?) with interest. The AO run was just so encouraging even she must have felt she could draw on similar reserves at RG. But her game is muddled right now, though it does seem rather effective on fast courts. To keep playing like this, she needs a much more reliable serve, because she is way too inconsistent when forcing herself to execute big-babe tennis.

I think this 1 match alone doesn't say it all, because Sam does hit with extreme spin (and really, nobody else actually exploits that advantage of playing on clay), and her serve is superior. Besides, the heavy conditions meant Justine had to hit harder and harder to penetrate the court, which she was determined to do instead of playing smart, medium-paced rallies with angles and depth, getting her opponent out of position, and THEN finishing off the point, which is the gameplan that constituted her success on clay. Most of her balls land short when she takes them so early and flattens them out; in Australia she did it pretty well, and scored amazing winners, but it is hard to keep doing it especially if its not your natural style. Justine served well in Stuttgart, and was a bit lucky to get ahead quickly in the final set against Sam, which boosted her to play better and better.

Clearly, she is faltering on the big moments, like break points, set points, match points (ever remember her double-faulting as often on those?), and is unable to fire herself up to fight back in sets she starts off poorly. Nice fight against Maria, although the end again got dicier than it needed to be.

Another thing is that maybe she sometimes expects matches to go her way after a while, and is surprised when she is forced to dig deeper. I mean, Kim would usually roll over and die everytime they played before, and Maria seemed befuddled by her changes of pace when they played during Career 1.0. Not so now, everyone is out to get her, and the non-stop experimentation doesn't help her confidence when it fails her. I still don't think her game is significantly different, just the need to be aggressive at any cost is perhaps too much to handle. She is constantly pulling off shots, when she would be in perfect balance earlier.

Despite everything, I am hopeful she will be able to find the right balance. It is definitely challenging to manage aggression with her variety, which I think she was already doing pretty well as LPT 1.0. Some good wins against good players should give her confidence, which she is sorely lacking. That explains the Allezs on every point and looking towards Carlos all the time (I wish she would get fined once so she realizes she doesn't need him to instruct her mid-match).

I want Jelena to win now, or Sam if she beats Serena. Nadia lost today, and it is unlikely Elena can go all the way when injured. I think either JJ or Sam can beat Elena anyway.

Tue Jun 01, 12:36:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Of course, Justine didn't have any problem with the emotional thing after a big win in the past. Or at least that was the case in a situation like the Capriati/Barbie combo she pulled off in the '03 U.S. Open SF/F. But, of course, that's an AWFUL LOT to live up to seven years later.

With Petrova losing, I'm not sure who's a good Zombie Queen pick. Maybe even Dementieva? If no one really rises from the dead, though, maybe I'll just leave it vacant for this slam.

Of course, the adrenaline in that first slam is so high, expectations CAN be needlessly raised. After Seles returned from the stabbing, she reached the U.S. Open final and won the Australian right after that. She reached a couple more slam finals, but she didn't really improve as time went on after she came back.

And, of course, we shouldn't ever write off a previous champion because of a single tournament or match. Even though I didn't REALLY do that with Venus in Melbourne in January, I do admit to wondering out loud if I should start to think about that back then. As it's turned out, that would have been woefully wrong.

Tue Jun 01, 05:30:00 PM EDT  

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