Tuesday, June 22, 2010

W.2- The Myth of Slingin' Sam?

Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between a legend and a myth. It's a lingering phenomenon that has existed for eons. What's true? What isn't? What can you really believe?

Sasquatch. Roswell. The Loch Ness Monster. Slingin' Sammy Stosur.

For years, we've looked at Sam Stosur and been intrigued. She had doubles skills and a big serve, and seemed built to be a grass court player. Yet, for years, she failed to come through the draw at Wimbledon. Once, after losing an opening set, she came within a point of holding a 6-0/4-0 lead in the final two sets against a player who had noticably decided to quit. Still, somehow, she found a way to leave the All-England Club that day in 2008 as a loser.

But she came back. Back from Lyme disease. Back to transform her career into a singles-driven enterprise rather than as one starring a doubles specialist armed with singles skills and wasted potential. After a while, and a whole lot of trial-and-mostly-error when it came to closing out matches, she learned how to win, too. She reached a slam semifinal and the Top 20. She won her first singles title and climbed into the Top 10. After getting it into her head to be positive on the court (including going so far as writing the words "attitude" and "composure" on tape around her wrist), she finally was. She was the hottest player on tour during the clay season, then she knocked off the two best players of her generation in a grand slam. She seemed well on her way to creating a legend after reaching the Roland Garros final and stirring hopes that she might become the most successful Australian women's player on the grand slam stage in three decades.

It didn't happen in Paris, but the hope was that the disappointment of that unfinished mission was just an early chapter in an heroic tale that would eventually result in Slingin' Sam going down in Aussie history, and one day being the subject of a Outback campfire pep talk by an overzealous scout master looking to instill the belief in his or her charges that great things are possible in their unfinished lives if they would only never give up hope. On that note, the hope is that Stosur still might grow into the role of that landscape-changing Australian tennis figure, but it doesn't look like the story is ever going to find its happy ending on the grass in the neighborhood of SW19. There, her story will forever likely be a scary one meant to frighten those same children into obedience and the straight-and-narrow.

It's a pity, especially since failure to come through in Great Britain right on the heels of failing to do so in France might just be a weight that a formerly fragile mind need not be forced to carry. We've seen too many stories on the WTA tour over the last two years of players who reached career heights only to have the zenith only provide a higher falling point from which to fall to their nadir. Nicole Vaidisova (that quitter who Stosur still couldn't beat back in '08). Ana Ivanovic. Dinara Safina. Some have fallen into oblivion. Some are still working their way there. Two years ago, their likes were rising stars. Two reached #1 and appeared in multiple slam finals, one lifted a slam trophy and the another appeared in two slam semis. But, today, just two years later, one is retired, two are watching their rankings sink like a stone in Loch Ness, one didn't even play Wimbledon, while the other might as well not have done so. Even though time is on their side, none may ever play an important match again.

Today, two weeks after reaching her career height in reaching a grand slam final, Stosur was dumped out of the 1st Round of Wimbledon by qualifier Kaia Kanepi 6-4/6-4. It's her worst Wimbledon result since 2005. Stosur need not join that list of players who didn't have the mettle to handle success, but one has to wonder what comes next. As it is, I'll cling to the positives. Stosur reached the Eastbourne semifinals last week, and looked pretty good doing it, too. Still, it's hard to shake the niggling question in the back of my mind that that single loss to Ekaterina Makarova and then seeing her Roland Garros conqueror Francesca Schiavone lose on Day 1 might have been enough to chip away at a bit of Stosur's confidence and make her question herself at this tournament. That would not be a good sign for a player for whom the biggest obstacle preventing her and that big game from continuing to thrive in the shark-infested WTA waters is the five inches between her ears and behind her forehead.

Kanepi is a capable Top 100 player who can play an any surface (she qualified at both RG and Wimbledon) and beat anyone on a good day (can you say "Henin," in Fed Cup a few months ago?). But, capable or not, coming off a grand slam final only to lose to a qualifier in the 1st Round of your next slam is a pathetic result that will be hard to forget. Hopefully, though, Stosur will find a way to slip the blinders on (hey, her sunglasses seemed to work in Paris) and keep moving forward, returning to the role of prey-seeking shark rather than abandoned and vulnerable baby seal.

Stories like Stosur's need to have happy endings, not lamentable ones.

Long live the legend. Long live Slingin' Sammy Stosur. And better luck next time.

...side note: not to put a cynical spin on the legend, but Stosur's deepest penetration into any U.S. Open is just the 2nd Round. So, her summer battles with her own memories and internal questions are far from over.

...well, I guess you can't get any more "Crash & Burn" than having BOTH Roland Garros finalists get run out of Wimbledon on a rail in the 1st Round. So, Francesca and Sam will share the "C&B" award for this Wimbledon. At least Schiavone had the excuse of her mind being understandably elsewhere and her preparation compromised. Sam needs a cover story, as well.

Pam Shriver today attributed Stosur's loss partly to exhaustion from the clay court season, which is as good a spin as I guess can be put on things. I'm not sure I'm fully behind that line of reasoning in this case, but it at least SOUNDS good.

(Speaking of Shriver, more on her in a moment.)

...by default, Heather Watson was the "Last Brit Standing" for this slam. After the British women went 0-4 yesterday, they went 0-2 today. Thus, they're done. Finished. Outta here. All of 'em. Anne Keothavong's three-set loss to Anastasia Rodionova finished up before Watson's three-set loss to Romina Oprandi, though, so the teenager gets the "honor" of being the last of her countrywomen to lose. I hope she's made a space on her mantle for her forthcoming "achievement plaque."

...Anastasia Pivovarova needs to get Wimbledon out of her mind as quickly as possible. She was double-bageled in the final round of qualifying by Eleni Daniilidou the other day, only to get into the main draw as a Lucky Loser. Today, she lost to Maria Sharapova 6-0/6-1. Whew, I guess she should thank Maria for not forcing a second serving of bagels on her, huh? That wouldn't be good for a tennis playing teen's physique, nor psyche.

Speaking of Sharapova, anyone else hear her name come up during NBC's coverage of the golfing U.S. Open on Sunday? When Tiger Woods was muscling a shot out of the high rough, his clamorous grunt led Brad Faxon to say it "sounds like a Sharapova swing." There's no better example of a player crossing tennis' arbitrary lines and being an international figure of sport than that, I'd say. Of course, it was in reference to her grunting rather than anything of importance... but, hey, you take the good stuff where you can get it. My favorite cross-reference for tennis is still whenever someone says that an athlete "has it on his/her racket" when a championship is there for the taking.

A few other Hordettes had reason to be relieved on Day 2. Svetlana Kuznetsova won a tight three-setter over Akgul Amanmuradova 6-2/6-7/6-4, and Anna Chakvetadze emerged from the WTA woodwork to get a win over 's-Hertogenbosch finalist Andrea Petkovic 3-6/6-4/6-4. Due to her penchant to complain and blame, I can go either way when it comes to Kuznetsova, but it WOULD be nice to see Chakvetadze get back on track after drifting away after that home invasion incident in Moscow a couple of years ago.

Aravane Rezai survived a close one with Magdalena Rybarikova, winning 7-5 in the 3rd.

Caroline Wozniacki isn't Russian, but she had a nice day nonetheless. She easily took out Tathiana Garbin 6-1/6-1 in forty-six minutes. Her friend and partner in playing-while-injured crime, Victoria Azarenka, recovered well from the pain of that Eastbourne final, taking out Mirjana Lucic 6-3/6-3. With Stosur out, maybe C-Woz and Azarena WILL battle it out in the Round of 16, after all.

After falling behind Vania King 7-6/4-1, Daniela Hantuchova battled back to get things into a tie-break. She won it 7-4 to knot the match, and play was suspended due to darkness.

...with Day 2 seeing Romanian players like Alexandra Dulgheru (def. Date-Krumm), Ioana-Raluca Olaru (Cornet), Monica Niculescu (Cornet) and Edina Gallovits (Bascinszky) winning to advance to the 2nd Round, the Swarmettes pick up the "Revelation Ladies" award with four women in the final sixty-four. Only Russia, Italy and the U.S. have more.

The "Upset Queens" are still to be determiend, but the Japanese (Morita d. Tanasugarn, Nara d. Duque-Marino), Russians (Dushevina d. Schiavone, Chakvetadze d. Petkovic) and Croats (Martic d. Baltacha, Sprem d. Mattek-Sands) are early possibilities. The Romanians, too, could still sweep the "RL" and "UQ" honors.

...and, finally, I'm wondering if all the ESPN2 producers and directors are off in South Africa helping to determine coverage for the latest nil-nil "thriller" on the soccer pitch. After all, deciding which long shot of an open grass field to use is SO tricky to pull off. Because, sorry to be blunt, but the network's WImbledon show was pretty piss-poor on Day 2 until coverage of the late-in-the-day matches finally showed just how fun it can be (shocker!) to switch back-and-forth between two or three close matches. It's bad enough that anyone watching had to endure the ESPN2/ESPNU game of tag as everything was switched back and forth between the two networks because of World Cup coverage, but the lack of imagination in what was being shown in the early hours was stunning.

Adhering to the by-now-ages-old (and shockingly short-sighted) belief that the only people watching grand slam tennis on television are people who know very little about grand slam tennis, ESPN2 pretty much decided for most of the day that the only matches worth covering either involved an American (you're showing a Robert Kendrick match? Really? No, seriously... really? What, Michael Russell wasn't hopelessly attempting to try to top his clever This-Ain't-Really-a-Bag-Check commercial?) or was taking place on Centre Court. And it doesn't matter how many other venues and/or vehicles there are that are showing matches, either. Not everyone can hop online for ESPN3.com, and considering how much everyone on air likes to pat the network on the back for its "all-encompassing" coverage there, I feel the need to ask whether ESPN is an actual television sports network or simply a damn website. It shouldn't have to be said as often as it is, but ESPN2 itself is STILL supposedly covering a grand slam TOURNAMENT, not a single match, nor a single court or only providing dinner table discussion for the relatives of whatever no-chance-in-hell-to-win-a-match American male player might happen to be playing when the network comes on air. Why is it that HBO perfected this skill twenty years ago, but ESPN2 hasn't been able to consistently get it right over the last ten? Stosur didn't make an appearance until she was down 6-4/5-3 to Kanepi, and she was the first player to make it on air who didn't fit the American/Centre court criteria... and that came more than three hours into Day 2's coverage. Victoria Azarenka? Well, she didn't show up until she served out match point... on tape.

Plus, with Chris Fowler wasting his time in South Africa, it's been and will continue to be a game of musical studio hosts for this Wimbledon. Fowler covers tennis for ESPN2 because he really has fun doing it, and it shows when he's on camera. Patrick McEnroe will do in a pinch, and I even like the enthusiastic Chris McKendry (but, I admit, that might be because I'm familiar with her from her years as a local D.C.-area sportscaster before she joined ESPN) and her endearing attempts to play catch when it comes to her historical knowledge of the sport. But today we got Hannah Storm in the command chair, and there are few less-warm and too workwoman-like hosts than her. She's competent and professional, for sure, but, personally, after she left the sports television business a few years ago to be a "legit" news person on morning network TV, it was obvious that she felt that work in sports was "beneath" her, so I have little use for her in this arena. She's back now, though, "slumming it" on SportsCenter and subbing at Wimbledon. Please. ESPN2 can do better, even with one World Cup-tied hand behind its collective back.

And I choose to not even talk about the whole middle-finger-to-the-viewer notion of refusing to give updates on match scores throughout the coverage. Oh, but everyone DID get a constant barrage on the ticker concerning all the World Cup knock-out round permutations should one team manage to score a goal here, or avoid a draw there. My "favorite" WC update: listed under "highlight," it was noted that someone dribbled into the box and shot wide. A somewhat liberal definition of "highlight," I'd say.

Are we sure ESPN2 didn't have anything to do with the finale of "The Sopranos" a few years ago.

Ahh, you know, I forgot how much fun it was to rip a new hole for American tennis coverage after NBC avoided the hammer by cutting back its Roland Garros coverage and being lucky enough to have major matches fall in the lap of live coverage blocks a few weeks ago.

I've enjoyed lambasting Pam Shriver over the years, too. But I won't be doing that today. Nope. I'm actually going to DEFEND her. Yeah, DEFEND her. And that's NOT my latest typo, either. I really do come not to bury Shriver, but to praise her.

For once, it wasn't Shriver who was mouthing off and being unprofessional toward a player, it was a player mouthing off and being unprofessional toward her. During coverage of the James Blake match (again, why?), she was speaking into a microphone on air from a ledge above the court, only to have Blake approach her from below and snottily say, "it's amazing that you ever played tennis, because I can still hear you (on the court)." Needless to say, he was losing badly at the time... and was doing so long before Shriver showed up. He even went back at Shriver later for more as he continued to lose.

For my part, I say Shriver should have talked louder, and maybe thrown in how she's a Hall of Famer while Blake is the most underachieving American tennis talent of the past twenty years. A choke artist par excellance (a couple of comeback wins last year don't erase that fact), Blake somehow doesn't find a problem with his J-Block group of supporting being rowdy and creating a ruckus at the U.S. Open (you know, doing everything they can to distract whoever Blake's opponent happens to be that day), but found it all right to jump on a single voice of someone doing their job from the perch provided to them by the All-England Club from which to comment on the match below.

Seriously, in this head-to-head match-up, I really think Shriver's got it over Blake a few hundred times over when it comes to their playing careers.

If he hasn't already, Blake will eventually realize how foolish he made himself look. If not now, then when his playing career is over and he's likely the one behind the microphone. And judging from his recent career trajectory, I'd say the over/under on that date's official arrival is about twelve months.

2006 Serbia
2007 France
2008 Russia
2009 Italy (veterans)
2010 Romania

2008 Elena Baltacha & Anne Keothavong (2nd Rd.)
2009 Elena Baltacha (2nd Rd.)
2010 Heather Watson (last to lose in 1st Rd.)

2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS (2nd Rd. - #3 seed, lost to #154 Kudryavtseva, the 22nd-ranked Russian)
2009 Maria Sharapova, RUS (2nd Rd. - lost to Dulko)
2010 Francesca Schiavone, ITA & Samantha Stosur, AUS (RG finalists, both lost 1st Rd.)

Greta Arn, HUN
Andrea Hlavackova, CZE
Kaia Kanepi, EST
Kurumi Nara, JPN
Monica Niculescu, ROU
Romina Oprandi, ITA
Shenay Perry, USA
NOTE: no Wild Cards or Lucky Losers advanced

5...United States
4...Czech Republic
1...Slovak Republic
ALSO: King/USA vs. Hantuchova/SVK winner

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
CRASH & BURN: Francesca Schiavone/ITA & Samantha Stosur/AUS (RG finalists, both lost in 1st Rd.)
LAST BRIT STANDING: Heather Watson/GBR (last of six to lose in 1st Rd.)

All for Day 2. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

When I first saw the draw, I remember saying "Stosur has a terrible first round." Kanepi has a long way to go to get the ranking she used to have, and she has plenty of head issues of her own. But I was thinking about that big serve, and about matches I'd seen her play on grass in the past. Talk about dangerous floater.

Something happens to Stosur that causes her to be--not flat--but passive. I'll let the loss to Makarova pass because Makarova was on such roll, I don't know if anyone could have beaten her (and that was a thrilling event, seeing her win the championship). But this isn't the first time that Stosur has let someone else grab, and keep, control of a match (kind of like JJ did when she lost to Stosur at the French Open).

I wonder if she counts too much on her serve. It isn't always turned up high--she isn't Serena--and maybe she needs more compensatory material on which she can fall back. She was out-classed by Schiavonem out-played by Makarova, and out-served by Kanepi.

Maybe it's just really bad luck occurring at a really bad time. At any rate, I hope she doesn't fade away.

Tue Jun 22, 08:23:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved Blake's comment.

Wed Jun 23, 02:28:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Oh, that's another thing--thanks for pointing out Blake's hypocrisy. His passive-aggressive stance on the J-Block's disruptive behavior told me all I needed to know about him. He really is the last person who should be complaining about distraction.

Wed Jun 23, 09:49:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

i think Li has lost to the eventual champion for the last three GSs...

clijsters - usopen
serena - aus open
schiavone - french

I can't remember who she lost to in last year's wimbledon...

Wed Jun 23, 11:44:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

She lost to Radwanska. But that's an interesting stat, Eric.

Wed Jun 23, 01:49:00 PM EDT  
Blogger David said...

"Seriously, in this head-to-head match-up, I really think Shriver's got it over Blake a few hundred times over when it comes to their playing careers."

What exactly does this have to do with Shriver talking too loud? Red herring much?

Wed Jun 23, 05:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Ha. David, I'll give you that one. One doesn't really have much to do with the other. I just wanted to say it. :)

But, then again, he was the one who brought up that she used to play. In the "court of law of tennis," he introduced the topic. So I guess I considered it "fair game."

Wed Jun 23, 05:54:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Oh... plus a well-placed red herring can be mighty tasty, you know.

Wed Jun 23, 05:54:00 PM EDT  
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Thu Jul 07, 01:23:00 AM EDT  

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