Monday, June 21, 2010

W.1- Two Sides of the Champion Equation

Day 1 was a good example of how different the perceptions are of the careers and tennis auras of Roger Federer and Serena Williams.

Both are seeded #1 at this Wimbledon, are the defending SW19 champions, up until a couple of weeks ago were both the top-ranked player in the world, and they're still -- and likely will continue to be until their retirements -- the grand slam career title leaders amongst active players. But their eras of dominace have played out so differently and, as a result, a similar result from each player can be viewed from opposite ends of the perception spectrum.

Case in point, take today.

For a long while in his 1st Round match, Federer just didn't seem like himself. Against hard-hitting Alejandro Falla, Federer looked fairly ordinary. When the Colombian took the 1st set at 7-5, it was the first time that Federer had dropped the opening set of his opening match at Wimbledon since it happened against Mario Ancic in 2002. One season before Federer became "Federer," Ancic ended up winning that match. And at THIS match wore on, it looked like "Federer" might be Federer once again.

With Falla serving up 5-4 in the 2nd, Federer failed to convert on two break points. On his fourth set point, Falla put away an easy volley and took a 7-5/6-4 lead. Everyone was getting out their historical notes about early round losses by defending champions, #1 seeds, and Federer himself at that point.

In the 3rd, Falla had break points at 4-4 as Federer was teetering on the edge of disaster, and threatening to become only the fifth defending men's slam champ to lose in the 1st Round in the Open era (and only the second at Wimbledon). But Federer held, then got a break to win the set 6-4. But, still, he wasn't out of the proverbial woods. In the 4th, Falla led 5-3 and served at 5-4. After being just a few points from a loss, Federer broke for 5-5 and took the set to a tie-break.

Finally looking like "Federer" again, Federer won it handily. With Falla possibly slowing down physically (he was seen by the trainer at the end of the 2nd set for a groin injury), though more likely it was a combination of mental fatigue and Federer's having been swept up in the momentum of knotting the match at two sets all, the 5th set was a whitewash. Federer won 6-0 to complete his Houdini-esque escape.

If Serena comes out tomorrow and gets into a similar (and even more unanticipated) tussle with Michelle Larcher de Brito but finds a way to come out on top in the final scoreline, the collective thought will be along the lines of, "uh-oh, she's got everyone right where she wants them -- here she comes." But with Federer, it's difficult not to highlight the danger signs seemingly apparent in such a result.

It sort of goes with the territory when it comes to these two.

Serena has risen to the top of the women's game through physicality and the sort of "gut-check" moments symbolized by her in-match primal screams. Federer took over the men's game with a sort of quiet elegance that lulled everyone into seeing of him not as the "greatest athlete" in the game, but as a most "complete" player who wielded his racket like a magician's wand. It was a fine bit of misdirection, as Federer's unsurpassed fitness, while not crowning him as the biggest or strongest man on tour, usually meant he was the player best prepared to play any sort of match necessary to win. He rarely had to dig the greatness out of the pit of his soul. It just sort of floated around him like a puffy cloud. And, rather than primal roars, the air during a Federer match was often filled with an almost funeral quiet (or maybe it was stunned awe) during some of his more lethal destructions of overmatched opponents (a near triple-bagel of Lleyton Hewitt at the U.S. Open comes to mind).

Over the years, at least in the pre-Nadal days, we've rarely seen Federer have to sweat, while Serena has often been at her best when she does.

Half of Serena's twelve slams have been won after being either match point down or having an opponent serve for the match. For her, a near-loss has usually been a prelude to greatness to come. With Federer, though, it's always raised an suspect eyebrow. Last year's escape in Paris against Tommy Haas before claiming his first Roland Garros crown notwithstanding, it's usually foreshadowed something other than a championship run, too.

The whole past year has had a run of such moments for Federer. He barely escaped Andy Roddick in the 16-14 5th set of the '09 Wimbledon final to move into sole possession of first place on the all-time men's slam title list, but rather than see it as a great player winning a great match, at least part of the mind's eye equation since then was to wonder if it was but Part II (the loss in "The Greatest Match Ever Played" a year earlier being Part I) of the gradual, natural erosion of Federer's aura on the grass of the All-England Club. Such is the eventual price of the sort of overwhelming era of dominance that Federer contructed before Rafael Nadal started to crack that particular egg a few years ago, then others began to follow suit on a semi-regular basis. Since then, many players have defeated Federer who had a hard time doing it before. Del Potro. Davydenko. Soderling. Hewitt.

It's easy to forget that Federer won the Australian Open in January, largely because he hasn't really had a result of consequence since (how very Serena-like of him). Today's near upset at the hands of Falla only gives birth to visions of other such moments to come. Put Williams in the same role and she looks "tougher," while her future opponents become just a little bit more weak in the knees. But the Falla match doesn't make Federer more dangerous -- it makes him look vulnerable, and allows everyone else he plays to stand up straighter and hold their head higher. They have a chance.

Of course, that doesn't mean Federer won't move past this hiccup and onto the final, and maybe even win a seventh title to tie Pete Sampras for the most by any man at Wimbledon in the Open era.

I just thought it was interesting how the same sort of WIN by the two leading men's and women's players of the past decade could so easily be perceived so differently depending on which player it was who emerged victorious. It proves the point that champions come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments. The only thing they really have in common is that they know how to win better than anyone else. THAT was surely proven today by Federer.

And that's all that REALLY matters, too.

...needless to day, Roland Garros means very little at Wimbledon. At least this year.

Even though she had some nice grass court results in '09, I sort of figured a couple of weeks ago that Francesca Schiavone's win in Paris would mean she'd pretty much pull a disappearing act during the grass season. Turns out, it was the correct thought. She lost in her opening match in Eastbourne last week (she'd been a semifinalist the same week in the Netherlands last year), and after being a Wimbledon quarterfinalist a season ago she was dumped out in the 1st Round today by Vera Dushevina, 6-7/7-5/6-1. After being the last woman to win in Paris, she was the first seed to exit in London.

This is really nothing new for Schiavone. In the past, she's had similar one-and-out results immediately after playing a starring role in Fed Cup ties for Italy. After the "national group hug" nature of her win in Paris, I'd say that the parallels run true.

Of course, the headlines tonight and tomorrow will probably focus on how the RG champ losing in the 1st Round shows that her win two weeks ago was somehow "illegitimate" and proves that the level of play in the women's game is wanting.

...later in the day, just-turned-30 Venus Williams faced off with 34-year old Rossana de los Rios. She debuted her Tina Turner-inspired all-white "shimmy dress" (as she called it the other day), which features skirt-style rows of shakin' (you know, like when Turner would dance/shake on stage) fringe. Mary Carillo called it a "flapper skirt."

Oh, yeah. And she played, too. She opened the match with a 119-mph serve, which DLR challenged. Naturally, the ball hit directly in the middle of the service line. For the first five-plus games, it was all Venus. She led 5-0, and looked like she was going to win the set at 6-0 while allowing just six ponts. But the veteran from Paraguay began to hit directly at Venus, who starting making a few more errors. The scoreboard tightened up a bit, but the result remained the same. Venus won 6-3/6-2 in 1:04.

...of the early matches today, two of them started off with 6-0 sets, as Kim Clijsters took a quick lead over Maria Elena Camerin (whose name, by the way, was pronounced multiple ways today on ESPN2, and I actually don't think any of them were correct) and Chan Yung-Jan went up over Patty Schnyder. The Belgian had an easy time advancing to the 2nd Round, but Chan got to the Day 1 finishing line first, winning 6-0/6-2 to notch the maiden women's win of this third slam of 2010. other matches of note, Justine Henin defeated Anastasija Sevastova in straight sets, and Shahar Peer eliminated Ana Ivanovic, as the '07 Wimbledon semifinalist continued to either set down new footsteps for Dinara Safina to follow, or continued to walk in lock-step toward irrelevance with her fellow former #1-ranked player in the world. Take your pick.

Meanwhile, Melanie Oudin returned to Wimbledon one year after defeating Jelena Jankovic there to gain the early traction necessary for the summer run that ended in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. After having moved into Safina's vacated spot in the draw, she defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld in straight sets. Also, additional wins by Kirsten Flipkens and Yanina Wickmayer (who was pushed to three sets by Alison Riske, who beat her in Birmingham, but ultimately prevailed) means all four Belgians in the draw have advanced into the 2nd Round.

...three qualifiers advanced to the final sixty-four, as Shenay Perry defeated fellow Q-er Anastasiya Yakimova (9-7 in the 3rd), Andrea Hlavackova took out wild card recipient Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, the '09 Wimbledon Girls champ, and Greta Arn upset #34-seed Kateryna Bondarenko (bumped up to a seed after both Safina and MJMS pulled out).

...and, finally, might there be a possibility that the female Brits go a combined 0-6 in the 1st Round? Maybe. Laura Robson (who saved a match point and pushed Jelena Jankovic into a 2nd set tie-break on Centre Court), Elena Baltacha, Melanie South and Katie O'Brien (three sets vs. Alona Bondarenko, who simply refused to be like a Pliskova sister and lose immediately after her sister was bounced from the tournament) all lost on Day 1. Tomorrow, Anne Keothavong faces Anastasia Rodionova in "Britain's Got One Player Talented Enough to Get a Win, Right? - Episode 5." But maybe the best chance to have a British woman standing in the 2nd Round comes in the form of teenage wild card Heather Watson, who'll go against qualifier Romina Oprandi in the 1st Round. If all six end up falling, then, technically, the "Last Brit Standing" will be the final one to lose.

2005: #10 Patty Schnyder (lost to Ant.Serra-Zanetti)
2006: #28 Sofia Arvidsson (lost to Birnerova)
2007: #30 Olga Puchkova (lost to Vesnina)
2008: #30 Dominika Cibulkova (lost to Zheng)
2009: #23 Aleksandra Wozniak (lost to Schiavone)
2010: #5 Francesca Schiavone (lost to Dushevina)

AO: Dinara Safina, RUS (def. Rybarikova)
RG: Dominika Cibulkova, SVK (def. Ivanova)
WI: Chan Yung-Jan, TPE (def. Schnyder)

1977 Australian Open - Roscoe Tanner, USA
1997 Australian Open - Boris Becker, GER
1999 U.S. Open - Patrick Rafter, AUS
2003 Wimbledon - Lleyton Hewitt, AUS

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): xxx
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Q1: Junri Namigata/JPN def. Karolina Pliskova/CZE 6-2/4-6/14-12
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xxx
FIRST WINNER: Chan Yung-Jan/TPE (def. Patty Schnyder/SUI)
FIRST SEED OUT: #5 Francesca Schiavone (1st Rd. - lost to Vera Dushevina/RUS)
IT GIRL: xxx

All for Day 1. More tomorrow.